Alma Katsu's high anticipated debut novel, The Taker, has been compared to Anne Rice's classic Interview with the Vampire and doesn't dissapoint. This novel was ten years in the making, and well worth the wait! Here's more from Alma:
Jennifer Haupt: Tell me about how you found the story for this suspenseful and romantic debut novel?
Alma Katsu: I suppose there are two ways to answer this question. The easy way would be to talk about the setting, post-Colonial New England, which is a little unusual, and that has to do with my childhood, which was spent near Concord, Massachusetts, surrounded by artifacts of Colonial America. The stuff of childhood was really imprinted in my DNA; the Old North Bridge, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Old Manse were practically right down the street, and I think it might have been an actual law at the time that school children had to watch the movie Johnny Tremain every year. I got the idea for the remote, somewhat cursed town of St. Andrew from a family road trip through an empty stretch of Maine. We got lost and ended up on a dirt logging road, and were almost run over by an eighteen-wheeler hauling timber. You can see how the prospect of dying in the wilderness might make a lasting impression on a young mind.
The more difficult answer to your question has to do with the substance of the book, which-no doubt about it-came from my subconscious. I think all writers know that our stories come from here, but I was in denial at the outset. I thought I was in control, that I was just making up an amusing tale. But the characters kept doing bad, really messed up things that felt completely right for them, and I had to take a hard look at myself in order to figure out what was going on. (The first moment after having this realization is not fun, by the way. You want to say thank you for the psychoanalysis, put away the manuscript and stop writing. Who wants to put their neurosis on display? But if everyone let fear stop them, there would be no novels or presidential candidates.)
JH: I love the central question of your book: What price are we willing to pay to completely possess another? Do you think it's human nature to want to become obsessed with someone or something we can't have?
AK: Absolutely. And I think this urge is strongest when we're young and every experience is new to us, e.g. how strongly we feel the first time we fall in love. Another form of obsession-maybe one that's more readily understood-is collecting, which is a recurring theme in the book. I think many people go through a phase when they become mad for something, whether it's shoes or antique toys or automobiles. On one hand, collecting can be one of life's simple pleasures. On the other hand, carried to extremes, it can be a way to try to fill a need in your life, whether in the hope of finding a replacement for the thing we want but can't have (as is the case of Lanny, the heroine in The Taker) or, when we feel powerless, to be able exercise control in one area of our lives. For instance, I knew a woman who, on a clerk's salary, collected designer purses that cost thousands of dollars. Her friends might've questioned the wisdom of going into debt for a somewhat transitory pleasure, but it filled a need for her. Learning when a personal choice goes from being harmless to harmful is part of the maturing process, which is why some of us-but not all-find it easier to resist temptation as we get older. And that's Lanny's journey in The Taker.
JH: The Taker is a unique story -- part historical romance, part suspense thriller. What books and which authors have been your inspiration?
AK:Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire might be the most predictable inspiration, but I think that's because it's a seminal book that influenced the way a lot of writers think about the human experience, inside and outside of the horror genre. The biggest influence-and a book I reread several times in the course of writing The Taker-was Casanova in Bolzano by Hungarian novelist Sandor Marai. That novel is an exploration of the complexities of love, the transcendent and the profane. I wanted Lanny's experience of love to run from the rather black-and-white way we think of it when we're young, to our understanding of love when we're older and we've learned that our actions have consequences. Marai's novel explores the meaning of love to its fullest, in the most entertaining and clever way.
The other great influence on The Taker is the folk tale Pinocchio. At the beginning of The Taker, Lanny is a young girl who is in a hurry to grow up and to have a mature relationship with Jonathan, the love of her life, even though she doesn't fully understand what this means. She's tempted by a wily and dangerous man to get what she wants through magic, not through her own merits (nor does she accept that she might not get what she so desperately wants.) There are a couple homages to Pinocchio in the book-a scene where Lanny is enticed to come over to the dark side by my version of Mr. Fox and Mr. Cat, and there's a room that's likened to the inside of a whale, where Lanny makes a pivotal decision to risk everything to save the man she loves. The stakes are higher in The Taker than in Pinocchio, however, and the characters' guilt or innocence is not easy to determine. Nor is there a Blue Fairy hovering in the wings, ready to set everything right. It is up to Lanore to make amends for her past.
JH: How long did it take you to write this novel, and how much faith did it involve to keep writing? How did you sustain your belief in this story?
AK: The Taker took over ten years to write, but is in some ways my first real novel, so for a good deal of that time I was learning how to write. I'd written fiction when I was younger but didn't know what I was doing and tended to write intuitively. I didn't get serious about writing until I returned to it later in life. By then, I'd worked a long time as an analyst and had discovered that I enjoyed the process of learning and of mastering a new skill. That became my goal as a writer, to master the craft and to produce something that I thought was good-the whole, "fail, fail better" experience. I really didn't think I'd ever be published because it's almost impossible. The odds against getting a contract with a commercial publishing house are so high.
The other reason The Taker took ten years to write is that it's not a straight-forward novel. It has some tricky structural elements that, as a beginning writer, I couldn't pull off. I kept putting it away in a drawer to work on something else, and would go back to it in six months, a year, tinkering with it. Fail, fail better. I returned to it because I couldn't stop thinking about the two main characters, Lanny and Jonathan, and their complicated relationship. Luckily, from the feedback I've received, it seems readers can't stop thinking about them, either.
JH: Why do you think people are so intrigued with the romantic notion of immortality?
AK: Immortality certainly is popular in all kind of media right now, whether it's vampires or Greek gods or returning from the dead as a self-aware zombie. It's not hard to understand the appeal of eternal life, especially if you get to stop aging stay healthy forever. The biggest mystery of life is death, and it would be nice to ponder the hereafter if you know that it's not really going to concern you for a while.
But another reason immortality resonates with so many people is because, to some extent, that's what it feels like to be alive. You know death is coming but you've never experienced anything except life, so it's hard to envision another type of existence. In many respects, death isn't real to us. We attempt to understand it through what we see of it, but being in the presence of a lifeless body doesn't tell you what you really want to know, and that's what happens to our consciousness when we've died. I think many people believe we are immortal and that we'll live on in some form, whether conscious or not of our earlier lives.
JH: What's the one true thing you learned from writing The Taker?
AK: I learned some truths about myself that are important to know, but difficult to accept, and can't be unlearned. I think I look at the notion of love more clearly now, and that's made it less enchanting. I'm also learning that getting what you've always wanted is not going to turn out as you expected, but that's okay. I'd rather live in reality than in fantasy.
Alma Katsu is a writer living in the Washington, DC area with her husband, musician Bruce Katsu. She was born in Fairbanks, Alaska but spent most of her childhood in Massachusetts, in the middle of the area where colonial history was made. She started writing as a stringer for local newspapers while still in high school and continued as a freelance writer through her college years at Brandeis University, where she studied writing with novelist John Irving. She moved to Washington, DC to take a job with the federal government and stopped writing fiction for about twelve years to concentrate on her career. She returned to writing fiction at age forty and was accepted into the writing program at Johns Hopkins.