In the Linus’s Blanket version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose which questions and how many questions they want to answer. Alma Katsu, author of the highly anticipated novel The Taker, played along and answered twelve questions. Here is what Alma had to say about reading, writing and Hannibal Lecter.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
My name is Alma Katsu, author of The Taker. Like many writers, I was one of those kids who always had her nose in a book and lived at the public library. From there it was a short hop to writing stories for myself, then writing things that my friends wanted to read. Now, I’m happy to be able to write the kind of books I like to read: a little dark, a little sexy and with complicated but (hopefully) unforgettable characters.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
The way I think about the process of writing a book-length work is probably a little differently than some writers and that’s because I’ve worked 30 years as an analyst. Because of that, the writing process is probably a little less mystical to me. I analyze everything: what worked, what didn’t work, how to fix it. Also, after decades of figuring out problems, I’ve learned to trust my instincts. I write new material when I feel like write new material, I edit when I feel I’m not being creative enough – or have to get revisions in. Also, I’m pretty disciplined in all things, a trait I also learned from work.
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
I think that usually, the story is actually about a key issue in the writer’s life, but an issue the writer hasn’t figured out. So, in writing the story, the writer struggles to understand the character’s arc, the source of the character’s problem and what the character must do to resolve it. I struggled for ten years to understand what was driving Lanny, the main character, to do the things she does, to understand why she can’t let go of Jonathan. I think one reason people find The Taker a satisfying read is that what the protagonist wants is not on the surface. It’s not easy to identify. It isn’t that she wants Jonathan; the question is why does she want Jonathan? The answer goes to the core of her being, and it’s a fear that’s common to many people; I might even say to almost everyone. While not everyone will go to the lengths she goes to, at some level Lanny’s fear will resonate with most people.
What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors? Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?
I’m reading A Visit from the Goon Squad and I recently finished Susan Henderson’s Up From the Blue which is an achingly beautiful read. I’m an eclectic reader. Of contemporary writers, I love David Mitchell, Tana French, John Banville, John Irving, Denise Mina, Sandor Marai—this doesn’t even scratch the surface and I’m surely forgetting a lot of favorites.
To become a writer you have to train yourself to analyze books as you read, which has destroyed a bit of the pleasure of reading.
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working on a novel?
I try to write every day, so I almost always read while I’m writing or else I’d never read. I read more for escape than for inspiration, something to settle me down before I fall asleep, and of course I try to keep up with the new releases everyone’s talking about.
What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book but ultimately decided not to include?
I know more about Colonial American life than most people would ever want to know.
In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people. What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?
For a long time, my day job involved doing crisis response for the government, which means long, draining days, so I became rather ruthless about efficiency in my daily life to cram everything in. I have embraced routine like a Benedictine monk. I usually get up before 6 am, go to the gym for an hour, work a full day, come home, walk dogs, answer writing business emails and such, make dinner, send husband off to a gig (he’s a working musician) and write for 3-4 hours. Sleep, get up and do it again.
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?
This book was impossible to name. I failed, my classmates at Hopkins failed, everyone failed for ten years. I even offered a reward, for a time, to the person who could come up with a title. I ended up slapping a rather generic title on it when I sent it to the agent, but shortly after to sold another book with the same title became very successful and we had to find a new title. My agent came up with The Taker.
Are there other books you love or writers you admire that are from your local area?
DC has so many writers, it’s hard to single anyone out but I have to mention Keith Donohue, who wrote The Stolen Child and Angels of Destruction. He writes beautifully. I’m so looking forward to his new book, Centuries of June coming out in June.
Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?
Adair, because he just steals every scene. He’s like Hannibal Lecter; he takes over.
Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?
I tend to research as I go.
I am lucky enough to have sold the next two books in the trilogy. The manuscript for the second book is with the editor now, and while I’m waiting on revision notes I’ve started the third book.
About Alma: Alma Katsu is a writer living in the Washington, DC area with her husband, musician Bruce Katsu. She graduated from Brandeis University, where she studied writing with novelist John Irving and children’s book author Margaret Rey, and received her MA in Fiction from the Johns Hopkins University. The Taker is her first novel and is published by Gallery Books/Simon and Schuster.