Alma Katsu On Themes in Her Work
Alma Katsu is known for thoroughly-researched and elegantly-written historical fiction—which she then twists into the type of horror that sends you diving under the covers.
But for Katsu, there’s a good reason to write about monsters. She shared, “They’re the things we might become when we’re crushed by forces marshaled against us.”
Her 2018 book, The Hunger, followed a wagon train through the American West, one that became famous for its dangerous journey ending in cannibalism—the Donner Party. Katsu took this already horrific tale and layered on mystery, horror, and the supernatural to produce a novel lauded by Stephen King as, “Deeply, deeply disturbing.”
The Hunger was named one of the 100 Best Horror Stories by NPR, nominated for a Stoker award, and called one of the best novels of 2018 by Barnes & Noble.
Alma Katsu has a gift for taking what we know about history and spinning out a wonderfully terrible tale that stays with you well past bedtime.
The Deep (March 10, 2020)
For her next novel, The Deep (available in the US March 10, 2020), Katsu has seized the Titanic. Similar to the Donner Party, the Titanic is already a dark blight on our historical minds. Alone, this real event is enough to obsess over, but after Katsu adds her signature touch of suspense and horror, the story becomes wholly new.
The Deep Synopsis
From the moment the Titanic sets sail, it is plagued by mysterious disappearances and sudden deaths. An eerie blanket settles over everyone on board and maid Annie Hebbley is certain there’s more going on than meets the eye. Then, disaster strikes.
Annie is among the survivors but it’s not until years later when she’s a WWI nurse on another great ship, the Britannic, that she must confront what really happened on the Titanic and what else lies in store for her.
Alma Katsu’s other novels (like her 2011 debut novel The Taker, which Booklist named one of the ten best debut novels of the year) stir up the past with supernatural haunting. This is a specialty of hers, one she finds meaning in.
She shared, “If you refuse to believe in monsters, if you close your eyes to the possibilities they exist, you won’t recognize them when they show up on your doorstep.”
History—Katsu’s personal history that is—speaks to why her novels are so beautifully detailed and so devastatingly dark.
In addition to her gift of historical research and a vast imagination, Katsu is armed with lessons she learned from a long career in intelligence.
Katsu had to learn to analyze large quantities of information and sift out the necessary pieces that would put a stop to terrorist activities. She worked on cases that gave her intimate knowledge of mass genocides, criminal activities, and the real kind of horror that makes us check our locks before bedtime.
This first hand perspective in the terrible finds its way into Katsu’s writing. Her knack for haunting details and tension is elevated by her professional experience in intelligence.
However, just as the bad is there, so is there good.
Katsu also knows how to write about relationships and family life that you believe in and care for. Small pockets of beauty and sometimes even redemption are tucked within the pages of The Hunger.
And we can only hope that Alma Katsu, this queen of horror, will deign to do the same for her characters in The Deep.
Interview with Alma Katsu, horror writer
1. Ms. Katsu, what was it about the Titanic and the Britannic that compelled you to choose them as your settings in The Deep?
The catalyst was a documentary I saw, the first dive to the Britannic since it was first found by Jacques Cousteau. Until that show, I didn’t even know that the Titanic had a sister ship! When I heard there was a woman who had survived both sinkings, I knew there had to be a story in there somewhere!
The Deep, like The Hunger, required a lot of research. I’m not into ships at all and have never been on a big ocean liner, so the first step was shaking off the fear of learning all this stuff. I knew there are lots of people who are big into the Titanic, and that I’d have to get the details right, so I invested in deck plans as well as books on the ships. Luckily, there was no shortage of reference material on the period as well as the event. For people who are interested in doing research on their own, I highly recommend The Ship of Dreams by Gareth Russell. It came out after I’d finished writing The Deep, but I wish it had been available earlier. It has lots of details I couldn’t find anywhere else.
2. Your characters include a maid, a solider, and a couple of millionaires. How do you choose which viewpoints to follow in historical fiction?
The Deep is a story set in the Edwardian era and two of the big themes of the era was class and income disparity, and women’s rights. The rich were monstrously rich while a huge part of the population was poor and getting poorer. Women couldn’t vote and weren’t allowed to have much control over their lives. The story had to be told primarily by women, because they’re the ones most under pressure from those forces. The Deep has an ensemble cast, so you get both sides of the issues: poor vs. rich, women vs. men.
And there is no richer buffet from which to choose characters than the Titanic! One of the first things I did was read the bios of passengers and crew (over 2,000 people), and there were almost too many good stories to choose from. I don’t know if people just lived more fascinating lives then, but every single person had some odd note or backstory that I wanted to capture. It drove home to me how every person is a universe in him or herself.
3. Are there any rules or guidelines you follow when building supernatural elements into your stories?
The two keys to horror or supernatural fiction, I think, are making the horror element plausible and building suspense. Balance is essential to both. Too much suspense and the reader will think the protagonist or other characters are fraidy cats and will blow their credibility. Too little and you break the invisible thread that tugs the reader through the story.
As for getting readers to believe the horror element, that’s a magic trick right there. There’s a whole range of ways to do this, and whether it works or not depends on how the story is told. There are stories where the horror is fait accompli, like Josh Malerman’s Bird Box: you’re dropped into a world where the horror exists and is accepted. Then there is horror like Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger where the question of what is going on is suspended to practically the last word of the book.
4. How do you think reading horror is beneficial to real life?
I get a little sad when readers tell me they don’t read horror, as though it has no relevance to real life. I did the foreword for a great anthology of stories about monsters that just came out, Miscreations, and I don’t think I can put it any better than I did there. Monsters are man’s creations. They’re the projections of our fears. They’re heroes we wish would save us from the villains in our lives. They’re the things we might become when we’re crushed by forces marshaled against us. If you refuse to believe in monsters, if you close your eyes to the possibilities they exist, you won’t recognize them when they show up on your doorstep.
In the 1990s, part of my job was to analyze genocides and mass atrocities. To watch, up close and personal, how real people carried out monstrous acts. This kind of stuff is hard for the average decent person to fathom. Many people choose to look away, but that only helps the monsters. You have to train yourself to look. That’s the first step in fighting them.
5. How has your long career in intelligence informed your writing?
Well, it helped me learn to believe in monsters, haha.
Most of that time was spent as an analyst, which trains you to sift through a bunch of information and find themes, patterns, to pick out the important stuff and discard the chaff, all of which helps you put a story together. It makes you super thinky, in other words.
The interesting part you get in fiction that you generally don’t have in non-fiction is misdirection. In intelligence, we call it denial and deception. How do you fool the adversary into thinking something else is happening, giving you space to conduct your operation? The challenge for novelists is to create some kind of misdirection that is so seamless and believable that the reader doesn’t realize they’re suspending disbelief.
6. Is there anything else you’d like to mention or promote?
For folks who don’t usually read horror, I would encourage them to give it a try. There is a lot of great writing going on there. In addition to Josh Malerman, check out Paul Tremblay, who had a great short story collection out last year and has a new novel, Survivor Song, coming out in July. Danielle Trussoni, of Angelology fame, has The Ancestor coming out in April. It’s the perfect mix of history, horror, and science and will have you thinking about genealogy in a whole new way. All these stories help us make sense of the perplexing and often frightening world we live in.
For those who are more into history, please check out my podcast Damned History. I go into the real history behind my novels. The first four episodes go into aspects of the story of the Donner Party, and I’m in the process of recording episodes on the Titanic and Britannic for The Deep. You can access them from my website, AlmaKatsuBooks.com, but can also find them on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and Soundcloud.
For More on Alma Katsu
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If you liked this author interview, check out our interview with Corry L. Lee