Alma Katsu: A Look Back on 2020
Alma Katsu is a rock star. Not a literal rock musician, but a rock star in the horror industry, a representation of a woman with an impressive resume. She is best known for her historical horror fiction, huge bestselling titles like, The Hunger and The Deep. Before that, she spent a long, twenty plus years working for the U.S. Federal Government. Her strong suit is technology as it relates to foreign policy and intelligence. Additionally, Alma Katsu is a history buff, having studied it in school and having a natural affinity for historical accuracy in writing.
I wanted to check in with Mrs. Katsu to learn about her unique 2020 experiences and see what we could glean from her professional perspective.
Alma, your historical fiction novel, The Deep, released very early in March of 2020. Can you describe for us what it was like to be one of the first book releases impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? What were some of the conversations with your publicity team like? What was the game plan/strategy for dealing with this unique situation?
Looking back, I’m surprised that there wasn’t more of a plan—my team at Putnam is pretty crack—but at that point, there wasn’t much awareness in America of how serious the pandemic was going to be. I remember we had our usual last call before I was to leave on tour and at the very end, I asked whether I should be heading out given the chatter about a possible pandemic. Everyone got really quiet. Then, three days later, while I’m on the road, I get a call telling me corporate has made a decision to pull all authors back.
I’m going to digress for a moment. In my other life, I’m a social media researcher and my team (also crack) routinely looks at phenomena breaking on social media for signs of manipulation and disinformation, so we’d already gathered the early data (December through March) on discussions surrounding the then-mystery flu. So I know at that time in the US, there wasn’t widespread awareness about the virus. It wouldn’t break until shortly after my book came out.
It was like a switch was flipped: suddenly, no one wanted to talk about books. Press that had already been arranged didn’t materialize. There was no media interest: the only thing anyone wanted to talk about was the virus. And rightly so: people’s lives were being upended, businesses were panicking, people were being laid off in addition to people getting sick, no one knowing where to turn.
By April, everyone in the business—publishers, bookstores, authors, readers—were trying new ways to connect, though I’d say independent bookstores really led the way. They (and authors) turned to online events. And because people were desperate to connect with others during such a scary time, the turnouts were huge! I just about did an event a day throughout April 2020. It was tremendous, and it was a comfort to connect with so many people during the uncertainty.
A favorite question I like to ask authors is about their highs and lows. Can you do that for us now? Like maybe five highs for 2020 and five lows?
This is going to be hard because like most people, I willfully suppressed most of 2020 while it was happening, a form of mental protection, I think. I’m sure to leave something out, but here goes:
—I was asked to contribute to a couple anthologies. I haven’t written short stories since grad school and it’s been a reawakening, a reminder that you can tell very different kinds of stories in the short form.
—The support of the horror community. Horror fans (writers and readers alike) are the most loyal, unfailingly big-hearted people.
—Some TV success! Streaming TV means a higher demand for content, and has created additional opportunities for novelists. I am thrilled to have finally broken through. I can’t share the details yet but hopefully soon!
—I made the acquaintance of a prominent TV producer (I won’t embarrass him by naming him) who has given me insight into the unfathomable industry that is Hollywood. I love learning new things.
—After 39 years in the DC area, moving to a mountaintop in West Virginia.
—Watching a family member with dementia deteriorate rapidly thanks to lockdown.
—After working incredibly hard on the book and having high hopes for its success, watching The Deep sink under the waves shortly after publication, all because of really terrible timing.
—Moving to an isolated mountaintop during a pandemic. What were we thinking?
Looking back over everything last year, are there any new revelations or lessons you’ve taken away from your experience? How about personally and professionally?
Mostly, I’m holding my breath since we’re still in the midst of change. The pandemic has forced a lot of changes on the book industry, from how we promote books and reach readers, to the role of bookstores both in their communities and as part of the book industry ecosystem. It will be interesting to see how many stick, where we revert to our old ways, and what further changes are yet to come.
If someone new to the horror genre came up to you and said, “I want to get a very well rounded idea of what horror fiction has to offer, please recommend three movies I should watch and three books I should read from 2020 only—which movies and books which you choose?
I’m not going to be much help with film, because my husband isn’t a big fan of horror movies, so I end up missing a lot. I enjoyed The Lodge (maybe because we’d recently moved to a house in the West Virginia hills and could relate) and Midsommar (they’re both 2019 films but I saw them in 2020, can they count?).
As for books, The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones is outstanding, a new classic, and everyone on the planet should read it. Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song is probably the best pandemic book. And, to cheat a little, there have been some outstanding anthologies of late, which give readers a tasting course of the kinds of horror that exist today. Miscreations, edited by Doug Murano and Michael Bailey, is really outstanding in that regard: the whole panoply of modern horror in one volume.
I’m just curious, you had a long career working for the U.S. federal government in intelligence and foreign policy. Can you give us any unique insight from your perspective on January 6th, 2020, the day of the insurrection/attack on the Capitol building?
What I’m going to say next has nothing to do with where I fall on the domestic political spectrum. It’s based on my experience watching other countries self-destruct (civil wars, insurgencies) such as the Balkans, Zaire, Sierra Leone, coupled with years analyzing how social media is used for propaganda.
The U.S. has fallen into a classic scenario of manipulation of the public by an authoritarian figure. Creating a scapegoat to blame for one’s woes and then demonizing that scapegoat. Attacking the press and calling its integrity into question so that you open a window of plausibility for yourself. What’s new is the fostering of a huge alternative media, a range of outlets that exist solely to push an alternative narrative. This alternate media is responsible for the brainwashing of a good portion of America. There’s now a huge domestic presence behind the propaganda, but it was started (and continues to be supported) by foreign actors. Research has proven this.
Still, despite having watched the growth of Qanon and creation of so many far-right groups, I would not have predicted what happened at the Capitol on the 6th. I’m afraid that the fact that there was such a weak police presence is an indication that there was coordination going on behind the scenes—and reporting seems to be proving this.
The most promising way forward for countries that have experienced genocides and mass atrocities is often a Truth and Reconciliation commission, a national commitment to air the truth. Otherwise, the issue that caused the turmoil continues to fester. There is no healing, no moving forward. Those who were injured feel that justice wasn’t served, and those who committed the atrocities may feel emboldened to try again. In the case of our country, we have a huge portion of the population that believes in lies that they will persist in believing unless they are publicly refuted in painstaking detail. To shame those who can still be shamed into giving up these harmful delusions.
What are you most proud of in the last year?
Not losing my mind, given all the setbacks (some self-inflicted) that occurred in 2020. The fact that my editor and agent will still take my calls. That somehow, my husband and I did not get divorced.
If given the opportunity, is there anything you would do differently?
I wish there was a way for authors to be more empowered in terms of reaching their readers and building new audiences. Mostly we’re reliant on social media but we have little to no control over this: changes to algorithms and the platforms’ drive to monetize can undo months of hard work overnight. Like many authors, I spent a lot of energy building my Facebook following a few years ago, but Facebook is now useless unless you want to pay to promote each post, and the efficacy of that approach is far from clear.
Looking into the blank slate of 2021, what gets you out of bed in the mornings—what projects are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to launching some new things, though I should point out it’s in support of building the audience for my books. I’m getting involved in some TV projects (the details are embargoed for now, I’m afraid) and hoping to get novellas and short stories on various platforms to reach new readers. When it comes to maintaining my writing career, I try to take a strategic view.
You have a new book coming out almost exactly one year later after The Deep called Red Widow. Did you ever imagine we would still be dealing with the pandemic? How does your campaign for this book differ from the campaign a year ago. What have you learned? What new strategies will you be using?
It's frightening, to be honest. For one thing, we’re all fatigued. Our attention spans are flagging again. I think it’s harder than even to get eyeballs on your creative endeavor. Then there’s the added challenge of moving to a different genre where I’m not known, one that’s dominated by male narratives (male wish fulfillment in many cases, to be honest) that don’t appeal to many women readers. Will women who don’t think they like spy novels pick one up by a woman, with a woman protagonist? I think Red Widow will appeal to the legions of fans of suspense, but how do we get them to give it a try?
I’m not sure we’ve solved those problems. My publisher has changed their approach based on what has worked in our new normal, but I’ve come to realize that promotion generally needs some initial success to build on. Will we get that initial success? How do you get booksellers, librarians, reviewers, and readers to give you a chance?
Lastly, there are so many up and coming indie authors out there with big aspirations and a hungry outlook on 2021. Do you have any advice for them to help them succeed in their writing goals?
Indie writers have got so much figured out. They’re great networkers and they understand how to build a social media presence, in addition to having the guts to write daring and innovative stories. Honestly, I don’t know that there’s anything I could tell them!
The tough thing for all authors is knowing what you want. You see what your peers are doing, and it makes you a bit anxious, so maybe you try to do it all. You can’t build something if you’re always being reactive. The problem is—and it’s the same for everyone—is that there’s only so much you can actually affect. Success is less about the intrinsic “goodness” of a story than it is about luck, timing, and circumstance. You can’t control it, but that’s a really hard lesson to internalize.
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