Alma Katsu has had a fascinating career. She began as an intelligence analyst before deciding to shift her career and become a writer. “I grew up wanting to be a novelist, but I got the opportunity to work in the intelligence community after college,” Katsu said. “But when I was forty, I reassessed what I wanted to do with my life, and I wanted to really learn how to really write a novel. So, I went back to graduate school and literally wrote every day.”
Katsu’s debut novel, The Taker, was released in 2011. And since then, she has written in a wide range of genres ranging from dark fantasy to historical horror. “I write very character-driven books and they tend to have a theme in them,” she said. “I try not to be too preachy about it, but that's the intelligence analyst in me. That's what we're trained to do, assess, and educate. I lean towards being a more literary writer and I do think there’s a potential for more depth in stories.”
We were thrilled to sit down with Katsu and talk about her career and her many books as well as discover why The Fervor is her most personal book yet.
Lanore McIlvrae is brought into the rural ER in St. Andrew, Maine in the middle of the night. Even though she’s suspected of murder, Dr. Luke Findley is inexplicably drawn to her. “The inspiration was Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, but it’s not a vampire book,” Katsu said. “It’s a sweeping, dark, epic historical love story.”
Lanny tells Luke a story of love and betrayal. When she was a young girl at the turn of the nineteenth century, she was in love with the founder’s son. But the price she pays for that love is steep. Love may be immortal, but that bond chained Lanny to a terrible fate that she’s desperate to escape.
“I started writing The Taker in 2000. It’s actually based on a short story that I wrote when I was in my twenties that I couldn’t stop thinking about,” Katsu said. “I rewrote that book thirteen times because it’s a complex book. It jumps in and out of time, it has POV and time shifts, but I finished it and it sold to Simon and Schuster, where it got named one of the top ten debuts of the year.”
Lanore McIlvrae will do anything for love. The boy she grew up with at the turn of the nineteenth century, gave her eternal life. But he didn’t tell her that his gift came with a steep price. “The villain is insanely gripping,” Katsu said. “There are actually two characters who could be the villain, but Adair is extremely popular. It’s scary how many people fall for him right away, but he is incredibly charming and seductive.”
After years of living with a monster in the flesh, Lanore doesn’t have a choice when she seals Adair behind a wall of bricks. Now, two hundred years later, Adair has escaped. Lanore knows he’s going to come looking for her. And she has no idea how she’s going to escape.
When Lanore McIlvrae entombed Adair two hundred years ago, she did it to save Jonathan, the man she thought was the love of her life. After Adair escaped, she was convinced he was going to hunt her down and seek revenge. But that’s not what happened. Katsu told us, “As the books progress, they get more magical and less in the realm of realism. It actually has a lot of themes and elements from The Tempest, so by the time you get to The Descent, it’s quite fairy tale-esque.”
Lanore ends up tracking Adair to the mystical island he’s living in self-imposed exile on. She needs him to send her to the Queen of the Underworld and beg her to release Jonathan. Adair agrees but makes her promise to return when he’s freed. But Lanore has gone to extreme lengths in the name of love. And might be willing to do anything to be reunited with him—no matter the cost. “By the final book in the trilogy, you realize it has its own mythology that isn’t revealed until the very end, which was very hard to sustain,” Katsu said. “In the beginning, because it’s dark with these particular characters, a lot of people assumed it was a vampire book. But it isn’t and by the end you see that.”
When the wagon train known as the Donner Party set off, they knew it would be a difficult journey. But when a series of misfortunes plague them, there’s only one possible explanation: Tamsen Donner has cursed them. “When I was writing The Hunger, I went on a research trip to Donner Park and Alder Creek,” Katsu said. ”Both locations were so eerie but staring at that lake and seeing how black it was—even when the sun hit it—was creepy. I wrote specific scenes because of that trip.”
After they decide to take an experimental route, their bad luck continues. By the time the 90 men, women, and children make it to the Sierras, winter has caught them. The group struggles to survive. But as members of their party disappear without a trace, they start to suspect something followed them into the mountains. And it’s hungry.
“One of the first questions everybody asks is, why should we care about the Donner Party,” Katsu explained. “Part of the reason the Donner Party failed was that the wagon party was divided along class lines. And we still see that schism between the haves and have-nots. The things plaguing America then are still plaguing America now.”
The Titanic is haunted. That’s the only way to explain the bad luck following the liner during the first four days of the ship’s maiden voyage. After mysterious disappearances and sudden deaths, a group of passengers—including millionaires Madelaine Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, maid Annie Hebbley, and Mark Fletcher—suspect something evil is happening. But then disaster strikes. “My husband was watching a documentary on the first dive team to look at the Britannic,” Katsu said. “As we were watching, they mentioned it was the Titanic’s sister ship, and that there was a woman who survived both. I knew right away there was a story there.”
Now, the world is at war. Annie survived that fateful night on the Titanic and is now a nurse. She’s on the sixth voyage of the Britannic, the Titanic’s sister ship operating as a hospital ship when she comes across a soldier she recognizes. It’s Mark. But she knows he didn’t survive the Titanic. He couldn’t have.
Katsu expanded on her process, saying, “As I researched, I learned a lot about the Titanic, which was pretty fascinating. I was always interested in occultism, and I love Gothic stories. I’ve written Gothic before, and so it really was a joy to bring all of those elements into it.”
After Lyndsey Duncan crosses a line with another agent, she’s sent back to DC on administrative leave. When she’s recruited for an internal investigation, she jumps at the chance to redeem herself and save her career. Once known as the human lie-detector, Lyndsey now has to track down a mole in the CIA. “I had a long career as an intelligence analyst, and I’ve always felt like women who work in intelligence aren’t well represented,” Katsu said. “So, I wanted to write a very twisty book aimed at women who like suspense.”
Her fellow agent, Theresa Warner, can’t escape notice. She’s known as the “Red Widow” because her late husband was killed in mysterious circumstances. She and Lyndsey begin an odd friendship, and her knowledge provides valuable insight that Lyndsey needs. But when Lyndsey finds a shocking connection to Theresa, she discovers layers of secrets that could dismantle the entire department. If she’s brave enough to unravel the threads.
Katsu continued, “I got several emails from ex-CIA people telling me Red Widow is the most realistic portrayal of what the job is like. It was nominated for Best Thriller by the International Thriller Writer’s Award and it’s in development with Fox for a TV series. I’m very proud of it.”
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After Mieko Briggs’ husband enlists as an air force pilot, Mieko and her daughter, Aiko, were taken from their Seattle home and sent to an internment camp in remote Idaho. Never mind that Aiko is American-born. All the American government saw was their Japanese heritage. “I wanted to bring the history to the forefront of the story because there were decades of racist propaganda against the Chinese and the Japanese,” Katsu explained. “People assume that the people in the camps dressed in kimonos, had Japanese names, and only ate Japanese foods. But no, they were American in every way. It showed me how much education still needs to be done.”
Meiko and Aiko try to maintain elements of their old life when a disease starts to spread. It starts as a cold, quickly escalates to violent aggression, and then death. Mother and daughter team up with a reporter and a widow to investigate. But it quickly becomes clear that something evil is in the camp. And it wants to be let into the world.
“The Fervor is a very personal book. I’m half-Japanese, my mom is Japanese and she came to the United States after the war,” Katsu said. “But she had been maltreated after coming here, and it changed her as a person. My husband’s entire family had been interned at Topaz in Utah.
She continued: “I heard stories from the family, but less than you’d think. My husband’s family owned a florist business in Berkeley, California. That was a huge financial setback for them. In 1983, they totaled that the cost to the people who lost their homes and equipment was $2.7 billion. I hope how people were affected and how they felt and how important this still is, comes through in the book.”