Some 30 years ago, Alma Katsu began her writing career as a freelance writer for the Assabet Valley (Mass.) Beacon, covering town government meetings and development board meetings. After a career in the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, where her professional writing outside her responsibilities to these agencies was curtailed, she found a new life in writing, as a novelist. Her novel, “The Taker,” is published by Simon & Schuster and Random House.
Some 30 years ago, Alma Katsu began her writing career as a freelance writer for the Assabet Valley (Mass.) Beacon, covering town government meetings and development board meetings in Stow and Acton, and the Maynard Chamber of Commerce.
After a career in the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, where her professional writing outside her responsibilities to these agencies was curtailed, she found a new life in writing, as a novelist.
Her novel, “The Taker,” is published by Simon & Schuster and Random House. She will participate in the Concord Festival of Authors; here, she talks about her novel and the challenges facing those in the writing profession.
Please tell me about how your writing career started.
It started with the Beacon. I was in high school when I was asked by the Maynard Chamber of Commerce to cover their meetings and write them up for the Beacon.
That led to working as a stringer for the Beacon, covering local town government meetings. Once I had a taste of what it was like to be a journalist, I interned at the Boston Phoenix, then went on to write about the Boston music scene -- which was booming at the time -- for newspapers and magazines both in Boston and nationally.
Once I went to work for the National Security Agency, I had to stop writing “on the outside,” even though the subject matter -- interviewing bands and critiquing albums -- had nothing to do with my work in intelligence.
I returned to writing in 2000, when an event in my life made me reevaluate my personal goals.
I’d always wanted to write a novel, and decided if I didn’t do it now, I never would. After 10 years and a graduate degree in writing, I finished “The Taker.”
It sold quickly to two publishing houses -- Simon & Schuster is the U.S. publisher, and Random House bought the rights to distribute the English language version worldwide -- and both houses have bought the next two books in the series as well.
You also worked for the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency for a long time. Did those experiences in any way influence your writings?
I didn’t think so, but an editor at Simon & Schuster pointed out that the characters in The Taker are fairly manipulative, and I can see where this might’ve come from my time at CIA.
To an extent, intelligence work relies on the art of deception—using deception to keep your enemy from finding out how much you actually know, or to try to steer an outcome in your favor.
After a while, the use of manipulation becomes part of your toolkit, a reflexive way in which you interact with others.
In “The Taker,” most of the characters are at the mercy of the villain, a ruthless man, and so they frequently must try to manipulate others, as well as the situation they find themselves in, to keep from suffering his wrath.
Before I finished “The Taker,” I was advised by literary agents to try my hand at writing a spy novel, and so I did. I wrote three spy novels, and they were horrible. I couldn’t make them splashy enough; it was too incongruous in comparison to the job as I knew it. Too much guilty knowledge.
Your novel “The Taker” has been compared to modern Gothic works such as Anne Rice's “Interview with The Vampire,” “The Historian” and the “Twilight” series. Given there are so many books (and television series) with similar themes, what specific features do you believe distinguishes your work?
“The Taker” is the story of a young woman, Lanore, growing up in the northern, wilderness frontier of Maine in the early 1800s, who falls in love with a man she cannot have. She follows her heart and becomes pregnant, to her family’s dismay.
She’s sent to Boston, but runs away from her punishment and falls in with a mysterious man who claims to have otherworldly powers. With his help, she is able to bind the man she loves to her forever -- but then she learns that this comes at a terrible price, and she must figure out how to free her lover and herself from a horrible fate.
What “The Taker” shares with some of the books mentioned above is its feel -- it is a big, sweeping story that incorporates multiple time periods, has rich characters, and a dark sensibility.
In some ways, the comparisons to these books have been a problem because “The Taker” is not a vampire book.
It shares the theme of immortality but has its own unique myth -- nothing is borrowed from standard supernatural tropes, or mythology. It also has many characteristics of the Gothic -- unanswered mystery, unrequited love, tragic outcomes.
The question at the heart of “The Taker” is: what is love? At the beginning of the story, Lanore is desperate to grow up and to be loved, before she really understands what love means.
It’s only through struggling with her love for Jonathan -- who loves her in return but not in the same way -- that she comes to understand that if you truly love someone you’ll sacrifice your own wants for theirs. And, that she must take responsibility for the selfish things she’s done in order to be worth someone’s love.
The book publishing world is facing new frontiers and some argue, challenges posed by so-called e-readers and other technology trends; many bookstores are struggling and even a major chain like Borders is closing. How has this trend affected you as a novelist?
The publishing industry, like all media, is undergoing a huge shake-up thanks to digitalization and the attendant changes in content production and distribution.
No one knows what the future holds, and my sympathy is with traditional publishers and bookstore owners as they try to figure out what changes are coming six months, a year, five years down the road.
Novelists can’t help but be affected by these changes, but I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer, because a lot seems to depend on where you are in your career and who your audience is.
The biggest problem facing novelists continues to be how to make readers aware of your book. Even if you gave you book away for nothing on Amazon, that doesn’t solve that problem.
There are hundreds of thousands of books produced every year (some say millions), the vast majority of them self-published.
At the same time, the channels that let readers know about new books become increasingly fewer, and increasingly fractured.
I always ask readers: how do you find out about new books? How do you find the next book you’re going to buy? It’s not through reviews in the newspapers or ads in subways. Those days are long over.
Yet at the same time, most readers don’t seem to take advantage of book blogs or online book review services. So they tend to read only the authors they know, or to pick up only the books that get the lion’s share of the publisher’s advertising budget. It is very hard for a debut novelist to be ‘discovered.’
Who are some of your favorite authors, and why?
There are so many authors whose work I admire that it will be hard to narrow it down to just a few, but here are the ones that come to mind immediately:
David Mitchell, author most recently of “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” because in most of his books, he plays with narrative form in clever and exciting ways;
Sandor Marai, a Hungarian author who writes neat puzzle-boxes of stories, putting a straightforward question at the heart of his novels and then peeling back the onion, layer by layer, to get at the deep, complicated answer;
And Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, Margaret Atwood, Erica Jong and Virginia Woolf for wrapping their feminist ideals in delightful, enjoyable stories.
Contact Margaret Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.