Friday, December 21, 2012

In conversation with Alma Katsu #guest

I recently had a chance to read The Taker by Alma Katsu and fell in love with the writing immediately and irrevocably. Katsu hit the mark with lush, evocative prose and dark tragedy. Supernatural elements that were present did not overshadow the narrative... So I'm naturally pleased as punch to have the lady in question visiting here today. Welcome, Alma!

The first thing that went through my mind when I read The Taker were a couple of novels I've enjoyed in the past. Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights... 

What evoked the spirit of The Taker for you? 

I’d say those two stories match up pretty well with what I had in mind. I wanted to write a big, sweeping, tragic Gothic love story. It’s the kind of story I love to read, but it seems (to me anyway) that there aren’t enough of them out there. If anyone’s seen the movie Orlando, directed by Sally Potter—it came out quite a few years ago now—it’s like that movie but with more naughty parts in it. The Taker a dark, star-crossed love story that spans time, where something fantastical and unexplained happens, and as amazing as the fantastical thing is, it still can’t saved this doomed love. And it has a great villain (if I say so myself) so is so drop-dead sexy but dangerous that he’ll make your toes curl.

This is a very telling quote: 
Nearly every person who came to know Jonathan tried to possess him. This was his curse, and the curse of every person who loved him. But it was like being in love with the sun: brilliant and intoxicating to be near, but impossible to keep to oneself. It was hopeless to love him and yet it was hopeless not to.

Lanny puts Jonathan up on a pedestal, and I'd be tempted to say he's not deserving of her affections. Tell us a little more about the dynamics between Lanore and Jonathan. It would almost seem as though he's incapable of truly giving of himself to anyone. Lanny's love is more a dark obsession which cripples her.

I got the idea for Jonathan for my experience as a music critic watching women throw themselves at rock stars, many of whom were married. The attention was relentless. The wives were at home with the children, knowing that their husbands were sleeping with groupies on the road. It was a trade-off for the wives: if they wanted to be married to these men, it was something they had to accept. Or get divorced, or abandoned.

That’s Lanny’s dilemma. Jonathan is a rock star of his time and place. He’s the handsomest and richest eligible bachelor in his small hometown. Most women of that time (early 1820s) would understand that marriage to Jonathan would mean accepting that he would have mistresses, but Lanny can’t accept this. Her problem is that she wants Jonathan, but she also wants their relationship to be perfect. She wants to be Jonathan’s complete world, for him to love no one but her, and that’s not going to happen. Before she accepts this, she’s going to try everything in her power to make him hers—and goes all the way into the supernatural.

Alma Katsu
Stories within stories... I gain the impression that The Taker went through quite a lot of development before you were satisfied with the final product. Did you learn any surprising truths about the characters while you worked? Any plot twists? 

The story changed a lot over in the ten years it took to write the first book. It changed in some ways to which I’ll never admit! The biggest change, though, happened with Adair. Because of his strong force of will, I saw that there was more to the story. Adair is the one capable of loving Lanny with this fierce passion that she wants—but he’s a monster. He’d have to change for her to be able to love him and for him to be worthy of her love. That’s what we see over The Reckoning and The Descent. Plus we learn what his story really is, where his power really comes from. Hint: he doesn’t even really know himself.

Immortality, as you envision it, is more a curse than a blessing. What are some of the greatest challenges faced by your creations?

Perhaps because I was raised a Catholic, I see immortality as a punishment, where you’re forever chained to your sins, reminded of them yet helpless to change the things you’ve already done. There are several references throughout the books to Marley’s ghost, from A Christmas Carol and that the characters in my books feel like ghosts drifting through the lives of normal people, unable to make them change their destructive ways. They’re unable to inspire others to change their ways because they haven’t been able to, yet. Only Jonathan, at the end of book one, has repented for his sins. He’s become a doctor and tends to the ill in remote places. Because he’s atoned, Lanny can’t refuse him when he comes to her to be released from this life. Of course she’d like him to stay with her forever, but because he’s not the shallow boy she knew and he’s made all these sacrifices, she can’t bring herself to deny him peace.

None of your characters are wholly likable (which in my mind makes me love this story even more). How do you balance out their negative qualities? 

First, I think all the characters are people we recognize from real life—even Adair. Jonathan is the boy who is phobic about commitment—maddening when he’s the one you want. Lanny is the girl who wants to be loved, perhaps a little too much. Adair is the bad boy who is caught unawares when he’s loved for the first time.

Too, it helps me to remember that there’s negative and positive in everyone. Nobody is perfect. We all go through phases when we might be more selfish or self-centered than usual. We all have done things that we wish we could take back. What I tried to do was catch the characters in moments of weakness and to dangle temptation in front of their noses, then sit back and see if they make the moral choice. As in real life, in most cases, they don’t and they rationalize why they don’t have to. But it comes back to haunt each of them until they learn their lesson or get their comeuppance.

And now, for the lighter side of the questions: 
Which three books do you constantly find yourself recommending others to read? 

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas used to be one but with the movie just out, I don’t think he really needs any more publicity so let me say: Into the Darkest Corner, a debut psychological thriller by Elizabeth Hayes. It’s very well-written but comes with a warning: it’s pretty disturbing. I’m also a fan of Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. I know it wasn’t as beloved as The Time Traveler’s Wife but I thought it was a really interesting, an inventive take on ghost stories. The third would be my perennial favorite, Sandor Marai’s Casanova in Bolzano, probably the ultimate look at love.

Soundtrack or not? Do you find yourself drawn to music when you write? 

I listen to music to pump me up for a big, emotional scene or to drown out the background in noisy places. Other than that, I prefer total silence while writing. As for songs, let me say that I turned to Iris by GooGoo Dolls a million times to put me in Lanny’s frame of mind.

Destinations... Are there locations that crop up in your writing that you yourself would love to visit? 

That’s the case with almost all the locations in The Taker books, because I haven’t traveled nearly as much as I’d like. St. Petersburg is probably top of the list of places I’d like to do. I’ve been to Hungary but would love to go back. I’ve never been to Morocco even though it’s come up several times in The Taker books. Mongolia—which got cut from The Reckoning—is another place I’d love to travel to. Anywhere on the Silk Road, really.

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