LUCY BURDETTE: When I met Alma Katsu recently at the Connecticut Fiction Fest and heard about her career as a CIA analyst, I was wildly jealous. That's exactly the kind of background (says me) that translates into a bestseller kind of platform (me thinks.) But Alma is here today to tell us why it isn't as easy as it seems. Welcome Alma!
ALMA KATSU: When I was an analyst at CIA, many of my coworkers thought about sitting down one day and writing a spy novel. Obviously, few did. (Even I didn’t: my first novel, The Taker, is historical with a supernatural element and had nothing to do with my intelligence career.)
But one analyst had penned a spoof of The Hunt for Red October as if it had been written in the rigid style taught to analysts in the Directorate of Intelligence. I wish I could show it to you—I’ve been told that a copy is floating around the Internet, but I couldn’t find it—because it perfectly illustrates the difference between being a spy in real life and being one in a novel. Needless to say, it made real intelligence analysts laugh so hard they blew Coke through their noses when they read it.
I worked in intelligence for nearly thirty years, splitting my time between the National Security Agency (known to you civilians as “the super-secret National Security Agency”) and CIA. Thirty years is a long time to do anything, long enough to ingrain the many quirks and peculiarities of the intelligence business into my DNA. (For instance, I find I must correct the inaccurate statement I made above, though it is a common misconception: technically, intelligence professionals are not “spies.” The people they recruit to give up secrets are spies.)
I was midway through my career as an analyst when I decided to return to writing fiction, something I’d abandoned once I started at NSA, as being a published writer is pretty much incompatible with working in intelligence. When literary agents found out about my day job, they’d invariably encourage me to write a spy novel. “You could show what it’s really like,” they’d say, and I took them at their word.
So I wrote a spy novel. It was a lot of work. I wanted to pick the right international conflict, one that I found interesting and I thought Americans should know more about. I wanted it to be accurate: my professional reputation was on the line.
I showed it to agents. To say they were underwhelmed is putting it kindly. I remember one telling me pointedly, “No one wants to read about someone doing their job.”
Of course, many writers are perfectly able to write great thrillers based on their day job: bookshelves are crammed with novels written by doctors, lawyers, police officers, pathologists, detectives, military personnel, police, you name it. For me, the decision not to write spy thrillers came down to this: it wasn’t fun. To me, writing is a means to be somewhere I want to be, with characters I want to be around—an escape. Writing spy novels kept me tethered to my workaday world, and it wasn’t rejuvenating.
Writing The Taker was fun, in that peculiar way we have of deriving enjoyment from mastering a difficult task. It took ten years to get it right, but it is a book I am proud of (Booklist chose it as one of the top ten debuts of last year, so my pride feels a little justified). The Reckoning was less fun to write, if I’m honest, because of the pressure that comes with writing your second book. Oddly enough, the reviews are better than the ones for The Taker, so maybe all that neurotic polishing paid off.
Will I write a spy novel? Someday, maybe. For now, my editors have asked that I stick to writing more books like The Taker. But stay tuned: I haven’t ruled it out.
Alma Katsu’s novels have been compared to Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander: historicals with romantic and supernatural elements, but with a unique character all their own. For more information on Alma’s books, visit her website at http://www.almakatsu.com. She’s giving away a NOOK tablet ($199 value) to celebrate The Reckoning’s release; the contest is open until June 30 and you can find details at http://www.almakatsu.com/contest.php