Wednesday, 13 April 2011


When a person has a love of books so much so that they become a "Page" in a library you can be pretty sure that its only a matter of time before they try their hand at writing.

Here, with her Debut title, The Taker out tomorrow, Alma Katsu chatted to us about her writing, her love of fairy tales and how writing a villain can be so refreshing from the day job...

Falcata Times: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?

Alma Katsu: My husband is a musician and we've had many talks about whether being a creative type is a blessing or curse. I may have felt as though writing was something that was in my blood at some point -- I've had two long periods as a writer with a 12-year hiatus in the middle -- but now I feel it's more like a craft that I wish to pursue. Like most craft, it requires dedication and a willingness to constantly strive to do better.

FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

AK: Probably since I was 10 years old. I can't recall a time when I didn't love stories. I think I was in high school when I had my first audience, a group of friends who would wait to read installments of whatever terrible thing I was working on at the time.

FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?

AK: I don't know that I agree with this. There are challenges with both forms. While a satisfying short story is a marvel in itself, novels require some skills that you don't get to exercise in short stories. Managing complexity of plot (and sub-plots) and characters over time. Readers might expect more of a payoff in the beginning and end. There have been short story writers who haven't been able to pull off a good novel -- you certainly hear about them more than you hear about novelists being unable to write a short story.

FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?

AK: I would find out first what kind of fiction they like to read. While I think The Taker has a broad appeal, no one book will make every reader happy. Some people prefer plot-driven stories, others like character-driven ones. I think The Taker is a bit more on the side of being character-driven but it has a compelling story, too.

FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?

AK: Unforgettable characters in a dark, haunting story. The kind of story you wish would go on forever.

FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?

AK: Adam Haslett, Thomas Pynchon, Audrey Niffenegger, Tana French, David Mitchell. Really, I am fond of too many books and authors, I can't remember them all. I read a lot of debut authors, too, looking for new books to love.

FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?

AK: I usually have an idea where the book is going but I've found that I don't understand why the characters do a particular thing or why the story jogs left instead of right until I get into writing it and that makes all the difference in the telling. Also, I've come to trust my instincts and will alter my habit if I feel it will be more productive -- revising material, for instance, if the creative spark doesn't seem to be there.

FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?

AK: With pub dates approaching I don't seem to relax much. I try to read a little everyday. I just finished "The Little Stranger" by Sarah Waters and kicked myself for not reading it earlier.

FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?

AK: Sorry, I'm not going to admit to anything in public.

FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)

AK: I am an animal lover. Currently, my husband and I have two whippets. We had greyhounds in the past, and I was a horsewoman. Whippets are lovely, slightly crazy dogs, very affectionate. I don't think I've transposed any of my animals' personalities into characters, but I'll have to think about that.

FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?

AK: Adair, the villain, because he is so complex. He's not a one-dimensional villain. In my day job, I've had to follow very bad people in a very close fashion: war criminals, men who wipe out entire villages, that sort of thing. I've thought a lot about what makes a person able to do terrible things and live with himself.

FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?

AK: I came to see, as I wrote the book, there are parts of me in Lanny.

FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?

AK: I've stopped having hobbies, at least for now. I work full-time in addition to writing, so there's barely time to go grocery shopping, I'm afraid. Housekeeping went out the window years ago.

FT: Where do you get your idea's from?

AK: I think what makes its way into stories are the things writers struggle with in their lives, the underlying problems or issues that we don't fully understand and so we can't resolve them. That's why you find a writer basically writing the same book over and over.

FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?

AK: I'm sure I will at some point but knock on wood, not yet. I try to rely less on inspiration than on good work habits: write (or revise) every day, work on craft, analyze what works in other books.

FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?

AK: As I mentioned, my husband is a musician and so I have most evenings to myself. I'd prefer to work in the early morning as I think we're more creative first thing in the morning, but evenings are what I have so I make the most of them.

FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?

AK: I usually write in silence but once in a while I will listen to music before I start writing if I need an emotional lift. When I was doing the final revisions to The Taker before it was submitted to publishing houses, I listened to "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls so often and so loudly that it was tattooed onto my brain in an endless loop for days.

FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?

AK: No matter how well you think you know it from the outside, it is completely different once you're actually going through it: finding the right agent and developing that business relationship, selling your book, working with editors, the staff at the publishing house. You learn at least some of the secrets about the business that are not revealed to the outside world, the book buying public. It is a secret society in some respects.

FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?

AK: I can only speak for myself, but I feel that writing is a craft and I'm trying to become a master craftsman. I want to be the best writer I can be, so that what I write might have the power to touch another person -- that is, to become art. I write to be read but the act of writing is very personal.

FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?

AK: It's the sequel to The Taker. I try to pull out all the stops in the next two books of the series. I want to take readers on an amazing journey, and I think by the end of the third book they will be completely surprised at where/how the story ends. Both Century/Random House UK and Gallery Books/Simon and Schuster US have signed on for the next two books.

FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?

AK: Completely boring ones, I think. Twitter, Facebook, that sort of thing. And looking into travel to Corsica, where I need to do research for book three. I doubt I'll actually make it there, though.

FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.

AK: Oh yes! Both my degrees are in writing. I was an undergraduate at Brandeis University, not known for its writing program, which was just starting when I was at college. I did get the opportunity to study with John Irving, however. I went on to get my MA -- not MFA -- from Johns Hopkins University Writing Program. It is a fabulous program. I also attended Squaw Valley Conference of Writers one summer. I'm going to be an alumni reader at this year's conference.

FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?

AK: Criticism and rejection are what make your writing better -- but you have to learn what advice to take on board and what to ignore. That's probably the hardest part, because especially in writing programs, the other students will have no shortage of things to say about your work. Then when you're submitting to agents, you're tempted to make excuses for every rejection but the bottom line is, when you have a salable book, there will be agent interest. If there's no interest, it means there's something you could be doing better, whether that's in the writing (voice not fresh enough, characters flat, story uninteresting) or in the pitch.

FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?

AK: Well, I don't write for a living yet. Like most writers, I depend on a day job. I imagine that if I'm ever in a position to quit my day job, the worst aspect will be uncertainty over whether I'll be able to live off an income from writing into my old age. As I mentioned, my husband is a musician and I get to see that it's no fairy tale trying to make a living in the arts. It's work and has important workmanlike aspects to it, like any job.

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