Q&A With Alma Katsu

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Q&A With Alma Katsu 

Starting off the first month of the New Year is this Q&A with author Alma Katsu. Alma Katsu’s books have been featured in The New York Times & Washington Post and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist & Library Journal. Some of her many novels are The Fervor, The Hunger, Red Widow, & her recent release and sequel to Red Widow, Red London. Alma’s books combine historical fiction, with supernatural and horror elements. Alma has also written short stories in anthologies. 


Q: Alma, would you like to talk about your books with the readers of the blog and I, and where you got the ideas for your books and how they’re all unique from each other? 

A: I’ve written a few different kinds of books over my career, each for different reasons. I started with what would now be considered romantasy with The Taker trilogy. Then I got the opportunity to work on historical fiction with a supernatural element starting with The Hunger and went on to write two more in that vein. While working on those, I retired from my day job in intelligence and got the opportunity to write a spy novel, Red Widow, and then a second, Red London.  

The Taker (2011) was my debut. Like all debuts, it was the book that I’d carried in my head for a long time and felt closest to emotionally. It’s a very dark series, though, and as publishers became less keen on paranormal romance, the opportunity came along to work on something completely different, The Hunger.  I had been a researcher IRL for decades, so doing the research for these fact-heavy books was easy peasy.

However, I’d always wanted to write a spy novel with a female protagonist. Like most folks who worked in intelligence, I had issues with the way the profession is portrayed, particularly in movies and TV. People say they want “the real thing” and that’s what I give them in the “Red” series. I’m very proud of these books even though they haven’t gotten a lot of attention. Red Widow was nominated for best hardcover by International Thriller Writers and was a NYT Editors’ Choice, and Red London has been optioned for a TV series. Hollywood “gets” my spy stories more than traditional fans of spy novels, who tend to be male: it’s a different kind of spy novel, not mired in tropes, and very grounded, very real.  They are designed to appeal to female readers of suspense, but it’s been hard getting the word out to those readers when they already think they won’t be interested in a “spy thriller”.


Q: Are you currently writing another sequel in The Red Widow series? Or are you writing something completely different? 

A: I’m taking a pause on the Red series. My next novel is going to be horror, as the historical horror novels have done well, but it’s going to be contemporary this time. Stay tuned for more news!

I’ve also been writing for Amazon Original Stories. The first one was The Wehrwolf, a historical horror set in the waning days of WWII. It did well and won the Bram Stoker award for best long fiction. The second one, Black Vault, is a spy story that has to do with the government’s investigation of UFOs/UAPs. I’ve described it as Slow Horses meets The X-Files: a CIA officer nearing retirement gets the opportunity to investigate a UFO sighting from 15 years earlier that ruined his career. It’s been chosen for TV as well.


Q: You had a thirty plus career in Intelligence which inspired your book Red Widow. Did you always know that you wanted to be an author, or was it during your career in intelligence that you realized that writing was what you wanted to do?

A: I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I was a reader first. By my early twenties, I was writing short stories, not getting anywhere. I was working as a stringer for a couple newspapers when I decided to accept a job in intelligence.

I went to the National Security Agency out of curiosity and didn’t expect to stay more than a few years. I ended up staying (at NSA & CIA) for a whole career because it was fascinating and challenging. You could work on things that were totally out of your wheelhouse, things you never thought would interest you. It ended up giving me a life I never dreamed I’d have.

I did a year as a recruiter for the CIA towards the end of my career and can tell you that now people who want to work for one of the agencies work hard to make themselves great candidates: they learn foreign languages, develop an intense interest in international affairs, and get specialized training. We old-timers joke that we’d never get hired today.


Q: What’s it like having your work featured in The New York Times & Washington Post? 

A: Unbelievable. Partly because I started my career with The Taker, and paranormal romances were looked down upon by the book “establishment”. I thought I’d never be taken seriously as a writer.


Q: I know you wrote books that spin horror, supernatural & historical fiction as well as your recent spy novels Red Widow & Red London. Are there other genres you would like to explore writing in, in the future? 

A: For me, writing comes before genre. For instance, when The Hunger was first conceived and picked up by a publisher, no one considered it “horror”. That came later, after the horror community embraced it (luckily for me). As an aside, I must say that horror is a fluid genre, especially these days. There are lots of books that don’t get put on the horror shelf in bookstores that are indistinguishable from “horror” novels. 

I get ideas for stories that cross genre lines, but they’re hard to sell to publishers. Cross-genre is very hard to market. For instance, I have been working on a bunch of linked stories about the place where I live, which is extremely rural and remote, that have elements of speculative and science fiction and horror, as well as thriller and plain old literary fiction. I write them and tuck them away because they’ll probably never get published.


Q: Your books have also appeared on the Best Book lists which include NPR, the Observer, Barnes & Nobles, Apple Books, Goodreads, & Amazon. What’s it like knowing that your books have appeared on all those lists? 

A: Pretty amazing and extremely validating. It’s important to me to be good at what I do. No one book or author is going to appeal to everybody, that’s a given. But it’s wonderful when your work is recognized for being well done.


Q: Whether Hollywood had the rights to your work or not, who would be your dream cast to play the characters you created?

A: This is a hard question because I think we get mentally trapped in time as we age. I remember the actors from my youth, but don’t know current actors very well, and of course you want the hottest actors to star in your work. For instance, when people ask who should play Lyndsey Duncan, my mind goes to Jessica Chastain but then I remember she’s probably a little too old to play Lyndsey. I wrote Theresa Warner with Cate Blanchett in mind, and it blew my mind when her name came up (really, really briefly) for casting.


Q: What is your process of plotting, writing and editing your work?

A: It’s changed over the years. Nowadays I tend to write early in the day, from when I wake up until about noon, because it just seems to be the time of day when my writing is best. I will try to write every day if at all possible. 

Then in the afternoon I’ll take care of business or work on plotting or editing. If I have interviews or events, they tend to be in the evening. (Speaking of which, I love to talk to book clubs via Zoom.)


Q: What advice would you give to anyone wanting to start writing a book but let’s self-doubt and unsupportive people stop them? What advice would you give to new and aspiring authors on how to deal with criticism whether it’s from negative reviews, online trolls and unsupportive family and friends?


A: You need a will of iron. Publishing is a tough, tough business. But writing is something you can do for yourself. Write first without thinking about publishing. Write a story that makes you happy. Then decide if you want to continue. 

A couple things: first, finish your story/novel. Starting is comparatively easy but to become a writer, you have to finish, and finishing is hard. (As an agent friend once said to me, “Alma, I can’t sell it if you don’t finish it.” Consider that as motivation if you must.) That’s when everything must make sense and come together logically. 

Second, publishing (as opposed to writing) is about selling, so you’re going to get feedback from other people like your agent and your editor. It’s only fair: publishing a book is a business proposition, not proof of your artistic worth! If you can’t handle other people asking you to consider incorporating their ideas into your story, this is not the business for you. (Tough love, folks.) Don’t think of it as criticism; think of it as feedback. 

Lastly, the hardest thing to learn is which advice to take from other people. This is particularly hard when you’re starting out and most of the people who read your stories don’t know what they’re talking about, particularly other beginning writers. Critique classes are legendary for derailing a writer’s career before it’s even begun! It sucks but it’s part of the job. You have to develop a thick skin and get a sense for when advice feels right.