Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Writing What You Don’t Know: Former Spy Writes Supernatural Thriller

 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


  1. Looking forward to reading it, and I have to say I love that book cover! Wishing you well with all your books!

  2. After all those years of teachers telling us to write what we know...

  3. How interesting, Alma -- I can see how "supernatural" would be more fun to write than "spy." Can you tell us a bit more about the new book?

  4. Welcome! Tell us more about the...oh. What Hallie said.

    Where did the idea come from?

    And that cover is GORGEOUS.

  5. Hi Alma,
    It was fun hanging with you at RT last April. Wasn't there a story about that cool cover..had it been changed ..or the British cover was changed? It IS gorgeous and so is the writing inside - thanks for signing my copy!

  6. Welcome, Alma! I loved The Taker, so I'm looking forward to your new book. Great cover!

    My friend, Rob Kresge, also had a career as an analyst with the CIA for many years. Now retired, he writes historical mysteries set in the Old West. He says he'd have had to run spy novels past the agency if he'd written in that genre, so he chose not to.

  7. Hi Alma, it's your friendly neighborhood stalker, hawker :) here to spread the word more. So reds these are two incredible novels and the only thing that's on my wish list is the third, ok well I do want Hank's book too, (Hi Hank, waving). And what really bites is that I found it accidentally by reviewing it for LibraryJournal so now I'm spreading the word to alert whoever will listen to me.
    They're dark, beautifully written and fantastic and what's even better there's that light at the end of the tunnel in book two. Fabulous


  8. Hi Alma! I missed The Taker--must have had my nose buried in a ms.... but these are the kind of books I LOVE, so am going to read both. And love the cover!

  9. I have so many books to read in the next two months and The Reckoning is high on the list after a few obligations. I am so glad that the reviews are even better than the first book, though I'm sure you would have wanted them both to be great.

    I think you are fantastic and can't wait to see what you have in store after The Taker series

  10. Alma, count me in as another fan. The Taker was unsettling--in a good way. Your covers are gorgeous. Did you have any input on them?

  11. Alma, I thought you might know Rob from the writers group at the CIA. I met him earlier this year when I moderated a panel he was on at Malice Domestic.

    Have ordered The Reckoning and am so looking forward to reading it. Hope you're having fun today at JRW!

  12. Have I missed something? Where's Reine? Is she OK?
    Mary Moody

  13. Mary, Reine is okay, but she has family in hospital, seriously ill after surgery and facing more surgery. So she's not hitting her usual online haunts. You can get more info from her post about it on Facebook. She's been updating in the comments to the post.


  14. Oh Alma,
    I know exactly where you are coming from. I resisted writing a story based in the newspaper business while I was an investigative reporter because who wanted to report all day and then go write about reporting? It wasn't an escape.

    Your logic makes perfect sense to me! Congrats on doing it your way!

  15. Debbie, we should all have stalkers like you! what a great compliment to Alma that you're spreading the word so vigorously!

    Alma can you tell us a little more about the CIA publications review board? what kinds of things wouldn't they allow?

    so glad to have you here today!

  16. Hi, Alma - Great to see you here. I was encouraged to hear how long you worked on your first novel, considering how well it turned out. Your story gives me hope.

    Debbie, you're a great stalker/hawker/one-woman-street-team. Way to go!

  17. I'm sniffing a plot in that explanation....:)

    so glad to hear the book is doing well!