The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Alma Katsu

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Alma Katsu

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Summary: We loved Alma Katsu's novel The Taker and couldn't resist the opportunity to ask her how she produced something quite so stunning.
Date: 28 February 2011
Interviewer: Katie Pullen
Reviewed by Katie Pullen

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We loved Alma Katsu's novel The Taker and couldn't resist the opportunity to ask her how she produced something quite so stunning.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Alma Katsu: This may be very shortsighted of me, but I never imagined readers for this novel. I wrote it for myself (partly because honestly, if you actually think you're going to get published you'll end up mad or very disappointed, the odds against it are so great.) So now it is a huge surprise and thrill whenever someone tells me she/he enjoyed the book. It makes me think I've slipped into a parallel universe where I'm actually published.

  • BB: I loved The Taker and the rich, dark and unique story at its heart. What inspired you to write such a tale and how long did it take you to write it?

AK: The Taker took 10 years to write. I'd decided to take up writing fiction again after a long hiatus (12 yrs +/-). The story has many difficult structural elements -- jumping back and forth in time, the story-in-a-story, the POV and tense shifts -- and it took many revisions to get things to work. The original idea came from a short story I'd written decades ago that had a couple of the same characters in it, Jonathan and Lanny. After I finished the short story, I kept wondering what happened next to the characters.

  • BB: Were you inspired by any real people when creating your main characters, Lanny, Jonathan and Luke?

AK: I didn't think so but writing is a journey of self-discovery, as cliche as that might sound. Your characters behave a certain way and you, the author, struggle to understand why, and in the process of figuring it out you come to see it's a recurring problem in your own life, one you haven't solved. I came to see parts of myself in Lanny. In understanding Jonathan, I realized that he was drawn from maddeningly aloof and emotionally detached men I have known. I think all women have known a Jonathan or two in their lives!

  • BB: Why did you decide to make Lanny two hundred years old, rather than say one hundred?

AK: Poor planning on the author's part? It was one of those choices you make as the writer that becomes part of the story you've built in your head and you forget that you can go back and change or question things. It was influenced by my surroundings, too: I grew up in an area where early American history was made so I saw the people in my head, saw them in clothing of the period, went in and out of houses built in that era. Lastly, there's a sense of isolation in the book that's reinforced by the lack of technology. People can't communicate easily or visit each other. There's no telegraph, no railroad. When someone walked out of your life, it was near impossible to find them again.

  • BB: Lanny's story fills the majority of the book and I had no idea where it was going to take me. Before you started writing did you have a clear sense of where her story would go, or did it organically take shape?

AK: Not clear, no. I saw her as a woman who wanted something but didn't know how to get it and, in pursuing her desire, loses her way. It's not until she suffers and learns to be dependent on herself that she realizes she took the wrong path and needs to change her ways, take responsibility for her actions, and become a better person.

  • BB: Whilst writing The Taker did you ever find it overwhelming or get stuck on any particular chapters?

AK: Constantly! I find writing action easier than introspective scenes. And then some scenes are just plain awkward, such as the one in Adair's house where she has to confront Jonathan in the breakfast room on "the morning after." As I mentioned previously, it took a long time to write the novel. I would put it away for months and months at a time, write an entire other book, then come back to it when I felt I'd become a stronger writer.

  • BB: The Taker is hard to slot into any of the conventional literary genres. Where do you see it lying?

AK: I agree. It's sort of funny: you can think of books that it's somewhat like -- Interview with the Vampire is one that is mentioned a lot -- but there's no conventional horror in it. I see it as mainstream fiction that I hope will appeal to all kinds of readers.

  • BB: I've read that you are being compared to writers such as Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer. Who do you consider your literary influences?

AK: For The Taker, the influences that seem the strongest to me are Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter, obviously, but I was a fan of his plays); Fanny Hill by John Cleland; Anne Rice. There's some of Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist in Adair, the villain. And fairy tales -- there are hints of Pinocchio in the book. It is, to some extent, Lanny's story of learning to become a real woman.

  • BB: What are your top ten favourite books and what are you reading at the moment?

AK: I think my favorite books change around, depending on my mood but ones I seem to always come back to are "Life Among the Savages" by Shirley Jackson, "Orlando" by Virginia Woolf, "The World According to Garp" by John Irving, "The Floating Opera" by John Barth, "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov. I read everything by Jess Walter, Tana French, Scarlett Thomas, Keith Donohue and Robert Goolrick. I know I'm going to kick myself later for all the writers I'm forgetting. As for currently reading, I just finished Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger and looking forward to Alexi Zentner's Touch. There are stacks of books all over the house. As a reader, my eyes are always bigger than my stomach (so to speak.)

  • BB: What's next for Alma Katsu?

AK: At least two more books: both Simon and Schuster (US) and Random House (UK) have signed on for the next two books in the series. I've tried to pull out all the stops, to push things to the absolute limits (and them some) for the characters. I think readers will be really surprised by the conclusion of the third book. I want us to all go on an amazing journey.

  • BB: We're definitely looking forward to seeing the books, Alma.

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