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Alma Katsu

Alma Katsu's debut, The Taker, has been compared to the early work of Anne Rice, Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander for combining the historical, supernatural and fantasy in one story. The novel was named a Top Ten Debut Novel of 2011 by the American Library Association and rights have sold been in 16 languages. The Reckoning, the second book in the trilogy, was published in June 2012, and the third and final book, The Descent, came out in January 2014. The Taker Trilogy is published by Gallery Books/Simon and Schuster and Arrow/Random House UK.

Ms. Katsu lives outside of Washington, DC with her husband, musician Bruce Katsu. In addition to her novels, Ms. Katsu has been a signature reviewer for Publishers Weekly and an occasional contributor to The Huffington Post. She is a graduate of the Master's writing program at the Johns Hopkins University and received her bachelor's degree from Brandeis University, where she studied with John Irving. She also attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Prior to publication of her first novel, Ms. Katsu had a long career as a senior intelligence analyst for several US agencies and is currently a senior analyst for a think tank. Additional information on Ms. Katsu can be found in the FAQ below, on Wikipedia, and in this interview:

SiriusXM interview:

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MetroWest Daily News


Welcome to my FAQ. It's a work-in-progress, so feel free to send questions you'd like to see answered here. Also, some Q&A were taken from an Ask Me Anything (AMA) I did on Reddit, so please forgive me if there's a mysterious reference here or there; it was probably mentioned in a question that didn't make it over here.


How do you have such fantastic (crazy) ideas ready in your head?

I think we all have issues that drive us, the big problem that makes us act the way we do, want the things we want, commit the same mistake over and over. Deep down, each writer struggles with that big problem, which is his or her own demon. One of my demons is the notion of love: I think that when we're young we go looking for love before we understand what it really means. Truly loving another human being, whether it's a spouse or soul mate or child, is probably the most fulfilling thing you can do with your life, but it doesn't come easy.

Anyway, for my stories, I try to take the things that we're all going to face at some point in our lives—falling in love, being hurt or betrayed, facing the death of a loved one—and, in the words of Spinal Tap, turning it up to eleven. I want to give you an experience that you won't get elsewhere.

When you started writing the trilogy, did you already know how it was going to end, or did it change as the characters developed?

The answer is a little of both. You may be surprised to learn that The Taker started life as a standalone novel. I got the idea from a short story I'd written a long time ago. It took ten years for me to write the novel (that may come up again later in the FAQ, btw) and that whole time I didn't see the story going any further. After the book sold to a publisher, I got the idea for the rest of the story and luckily, my US and UK publishers wanted to go along for the ride and bought the next two books.

For The Reckoning and The Descent, I had a general idea of where the story was going and where it needed to end up, but getting to the end of each book has been a lot more fluid. That's the way I like to write: if I know every little thing that's going to happen, it takes the fun out of it for me. I like to be surprised along the way.

What was your inspiration for The Taker novels? (Reddit AMA)

The Taker was inspired by all kinds of things, I think. At a basic level, I'd say it was inspired by Interview With The Vampire which, in my view, was a pretty groundbreaking work. I didn't consciously set out thinking I was going to write a book like it, but the upshot is that it has some similar characteristics—the present day frame over a long historical backstory, the main character's fatal attraction to the dark, etc.

The other inspiration, however, was that I wanted to write a sort-of anti-romance. There is a dark side to love. It can bring out the worst in people. Let's face it, most of us have probably done one stupid, mean thing over love (usually in our youth). If we're smart, we learn from it and quietly decide never to make that mistake again. The Taker is the story of a young woman who gets punished for loving unwisely—but that punishment, and her lesson, is on a much grander scale. In the end, she comes to understand the grand thing that love truly is, is tested and prevails, and is rewarded with a love the likes of which few people will ever have. If you like love stories, I think you will find this really different and (hopefully) really rewarding, and if you don't, well...

Writing that first book was really a challenge I set for myself. I wanted to see if I could create great characters. Yup, that was it. Characters that you couldn't forget, and a story that would haunt you after you finished reading it. I love big fat daring fiction. I didn't think I'd do it, certainly not the first time out of the box. And I absolutely didn't think it would ever be publishable. But I just wanted to try. That's why it ended up being such an unconventional book, I think.

Was this "mix" of genres something you always wanted to do, or did you explore other things before realizing this is what you wanted to do? (Reddit AMA)

I was kind of naive with The Taker. First of all, as I've mentioned, I wrote it because it was what I wanted to write, and I didn't think it would ever sell. I didn't think of it as cross-genre as I was writing it. I thought of it as literary fiction. It's definitely character-driven, as opposed to plot driven. But because of the genre elements, and the fact that it's pretty dark, there has been a reluctance for it to be seen as literary fiction.

29 years in Intelligence? Wow. Does that play into your novels at all? (From Reddit AMA)

You know, I didn't think so, seeing as I write about magic and all, but an editor at my publisher's pointed out that my characters are all so devious and manipulative, and she wondered if that had something to do with my intel career. What an astute woman! I hadn't realized it but she was absolutely correct. I've worked at a couple intel agencies and they each have their own culture but one—which shall go unnamed—has a culture of complete manipulation. You go around breathing this for eight, ten hours a day, five days a week, year after year... it seeps under your skin and you start to think this is human nature, that this is how people act. Kind of sad but the upside is that you learn to write kick-ass villains.

Would you be interested in making your books into a movie or TV series?

Absolutely! I've been told that the books are cinematic: you can see it unfolding in your head. We had some nibbles when The Taker came out and we haven't given up hope yet. However, I know that the chances of this happening are very slim (remember, it took 15 years for George RR Martin's A Game of Thrones books to be made into the HBO series), and I hope readers won't be disappointed if this doesn't happen any time soon. Or ever.


How do you go about the creative process, as in, what steps do you take to take an idea, and make a novel out of it. And how long does it usually take for you? (Reddit AMA)

That's a great question. One of the hardest things for me to figure out, still being kind of new to thinking about writing as a business, is which ideas are worth investing a year or two to write and which don't have the emotional or intellectual heft to be viable. Add to that the fact that projects change once they get beyond a certain stage: your editor and/or agent will make suggestions (it's like a renovation project; you start to remodel the kitchen and suddenly you think, let's move this weight-bearing wall! It'll open the whole space up! and before you know it, it's twice as expensive and difficult as you originally envisioned.)

My first book, The Taker, took ten years to write. I was seized with the idea and the characters, and despite putting it aside many times to work on other projects, I couldn't stop thinking about it and hence, couldn't stop working on it. In some ways, that kind of crazy commitment makes it easy. What I'm finding is after you sign the contracts, it becomes less about relying on emotional energy to carry out a project than it does determination and treating it like a job. There will always be emotional ups and downs but if you rely on that to get a book written, you're toast (I think).

Regarding time, it takes me much longer than I'd like it to, and that's because I am still learning how to tell a story. It seems to get both harder and easier with every book. (I love a paradox!) Harder, because my expectations have risen. Easier, because if I'm lucky I learned something from the last one. I was on a book-a-year schedule, for the most part, for the contract, which in practical terms means you must complete a full manuscript in six months, and I think that's a bit rushed for me.

Could you please describe your outlining process? (Reddit AMA)

When I started out, I fancied myself a literary author. I was enrolled in a great writing program and they definitely encouraged more 'organic' writing, not so much emphasis on knowing where the story was going but letting it grow as natural consequences to the characters' actions.

Then I got it into my head to try to write more plot-driven fiction. This was before The Taker was anywhere near done and agents were interested in whether I could write a spy novel. I thought I'd give it a try. You cannot write that stuff without outlining, not unless you like wasting your time and running into dead ends. So I tried outlining, but I can't say I'm very good at it (for fiction. If I say so myself, I'm good at structure for non-fiction, probably because I've written a bajillion intel reports.)

Now I'm more of a hybrid between the two. I like to let the story lead me and surprise me, but I try to have a rough idea of where the story is going. Between you and me, I'm probably still a bit undisciplined when it comes to fiction. Which makes me kind of nervous.

How long did you write before you got published? Like, how many years and how many projects did you go through? (Reddit AMA)

I had a checked writing past. I was a journalist & wrote short stories but quit writing for a long stretch because being in intel, they didn't like you writing in "the outside world", getting your name around. I came back to writing fiction in 2000 and worked on The Taker, along with other projects, for ten years before The Taker sold.

Like everyone, I submitted my books to agents before they were ready. With The Taker, there were nibbles but I couldn't get it to work—I couldn't fix the problems, because it's such a complex, unconventional book—until I had more experience as a writer. It took every day of those ten years to make it the book it is.

Do you intend to write in any other genres? (Reddit AMA)

I would like to write a straight historical novel but we'll see... I also want to write a spy novel someday.


What is your favorite book/author? (Reddit AMA)

Hmm, I love a lot of books and authors, so it is hard to pick a favorite. No one can keep me turning the pages like Hungarian author Sandor Marai. He just knows how to unpack these complex, emotional dramas. A master at understanding human emotions. Also love David Mitchell, would read a grocery list if he wrote it.

Who were your first favorite authors, and which books do you remember falling in love with first?

I was a funny reader as a kid. I read adult books—Edgar Allen Poe, Shirley Jackson, Alexander Dumas. And fairy tales. One of my older sisters had a huge book of fairy tales. It had amazing full-page illustrations. There were some unusual fairy tales, too, not the usual ones. Both my sisters and I read that book so much that by the time we were adults, it was falling apart. We all loved the book, but the older sister kept it for herself. I didn't think I'd ever see it again until I found it in my in-laws' basement. My husband—who wasn't my husband yet—had never shown much interest in it when he was a boy, so it was in mint condition. I figured it was an omen that we were meant to be together. I joked that I married him to get my hands on that book.


Have you received any good advice that has really helped you as an author?

Best advice? Put it all on the page, and turn it up to the 11s (even if you're writing subtle, nuanced prose.) It has to be stunning, not timid. People turn to books for a vivid and yet intimate experience. Know that it's going to seem like a rollercoaster even though nothing has changed fundamentally from day to day except your attitude.

What advice do you have for someone wanting to find an agent? (Reddit AMA)

Look for an agent who represents writers who do exactly the kind of stuff you write. Not the generic 'fantasy' or 'women's fiction' but exactly like yours—as dark, light, quirky, straightforward—because that agent knows which editors are likely to buy your kind of book. Editors' taste are very precise and can change over time, and agents tend to know a set number of editors very well, and sell to them over and over. Come up with a short list of comparable writers, find out who represents them, and go after them. Meeting in person at a conference or such usually gives you a leg up, too. Good luck!

Now that have a few books published, is there anything that has sort of surprised you wasn't expecting about being an author? (Good/Bad) (Reddit AMA)

The publishing experience has been one big surprise, to be honest. I thought I knew what I'd be getting into, but the reality has been something else. The big thing is: it's a business. It's not so much about great writing (and what is that, anyway? completely subjective) but about finding an audience for your work. And that is really, really hard. I have great respect for any author who has been able to build an audience. It is hard work, and about more than just writing the book.

What do you think of self-publishing?

All media is going through a hugely disruptive time right now. Probably in another ten, fifteen years it will smooth out, but until then, it's anybody's guess where all this is going. Maybe self-publishing will be the standard of the day. Maybe almost nobody will be reading books as we think of them today, maybe it will all be shorter, serialized, incorporate bits of video and music—who knows? All of us—traditionally and self published—better hang on tight because we're in for a bumpy ride. I'd by lying if I said I wasn't disappointed sometimes, because I'm of the generation before the digital age and grew up with a particular idea of what it meant to be a writer. But I know those days are gone and there's no sense in trying to make the world stand still (another theme in my work).

Will you read my/my child's short story/book?

Sorry, no. I appreciate that you took the time to read one of my books, I really do. However, I get a good number of requests like this and I have to turn them down or I'd never get a chance to get any writing done. Occasionally I will donate a critique or manuscript review for a charity and if you're interested, I suggest that you follow my Facebook page as it's where I would announce this kind of thing. Also, there are a lot of online writing communities where you can find other writers to critique your work. Goodreads, Scribd and Wattpad are good places to start. Good luck with your writing.

What's your position on Taker fan fiction?

I am absolutely thrilled to see that some folks are so immersed in world of The Taker that they want to continue the story. I remember a professor at Hopkins telling me that fiction writing is often mimetic in the beginning: most of us get started writing fiction by trying to replicate a story that we loved. We want to reproduce the thing that gave us so much pleasure. If The Taker inspired you to write, I see that as a great compliment. However, I'm not authorizing any fan fiction at this time; that is, you cannot publish fiction based on characters from The Taker books for financial gain. This seems to be in line with the prevailing position of commercial publishing houses. Also, as much as I applaud your creativity and hope you find great personal satisfaction in your writing, please do not ask me to read your fan fiction as this could cause legal problems should an issue over a story line arise. I hope my readers will respect my position on this.