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Interview With an Author: Alma Katsu

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Alma Katsu and her latest novels, The Fervor
Author Alma Katsu and her latest novel, The Fervor. Photo of author by Steve Parke Photography

Alma Katsu is the award-winning author of six novels, most recently Red Widow, The Deep, and The Hunger. She is a graduate of the master's writing program at Johns Hopkins University and received her bachelor's degree from Brandeis University. Prior to the publication of her first novel, Katsu had a long career as a senior intelligence analyst for several U.S. agencies. She lives in West Virginia with her husband. Her new novel is The Fervor and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Fervor?

Even though it’s set in the waning days of WWII, The Fervor is meant to reflect what’s going on in America right now. It’s something I’ve learned writing novels based on actual history: the bad parts will keep repeating themselves if we refuse to learn from them. You hear about the epidemic of violence being perpetrated against Asians in America today, instigated by the crass politicization of the origins of COVID, and you realize that as incredible as it seems, the evils of 80 years ago are still with us.

I’m of Japanese descent. I’ve also been an intelligence analyst for most of my life. I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. I know what it means to be an American. You can’t help but see what the Japanese were subjected to under EO9066 violated American principles. It was un-American.

Generally, the realization that we’re reliving the past comes to me in the research stage as I find little-known historical tidbits that seem, eerily, that they could’ve happened yesterday. For The Fervor, it was seeing all the anti-Asian rhetoric openly displayed in handbills, posters, and in community newsletters of the time. I have a white supremacist group in the book that’s based on a group from that period—a group that’s still in existence today. Hopefully they’ve publicly denounced their past behavior.

Are Meiko, Aiko, Fran, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Most of the characters in my other historical novels are based on real people, but The Fervor moves away from that, mostly because it’s meant to be more of an allegory, to impart a lesson, and for that I needed the freedom to create characters to fill specific roles. Out of respect, I used the true names for the victims of the fu-go explosion on Gearhart Mountain, which opens the novel. Archie Mitchell, one of the main characters in the book, is also based on a real person.

To an extent, Meiko, the protagonist, is based on my mother. She came to America after WWII and I watched her difficulty navigating life here: feeling that she was being held accountable by her white neighbors for what happened in the war, behaving according to other people’s expectations of how an Asian woman should act. I wish she’d had the opportunity to break free of those expectations in the same way that Meiko does in the book.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

The story changed quite a bit because the point of the book was the show the similarities between 1944 and 2021, and a lot of relevant things happened in 2021: COVID evolved, white supremacists stepped into the public spotlight with the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and we learned of collusion between individuals in law enforcement and the military and racist groups. As for characters, the book originally had one more POC character, Jamie Briggs, Meiko’s pilot husband who is downed over the Philippines. It was an opportunity to show the dangers of aerial combat in the Pacific theater and give more WWII flavor, but it had to be cut in order to maintain the book’s crisp pacing.

How familiar were you with World War II, the Japanese Internment Camps, and/or the Fu-Go “fire balloons” before you started writing The Fervor? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write The Fervor?

Research is always a big part of these historical horror novels. For instance, The Deep, which was about the Titanic, was a huge undertaking. Already knowing a lot about the camps, and having grown up with Japanese culture, gave me a huge leg up with The Fervor.

I knew a lot about the internment because my husband’s family had been interned at Topaz. We heard stories from family members but had also watched documentaries and read books. I already knew that the internment wasn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Racism played a big role. As for the fire balloons, weirdly I had heard about them as a child, maybe because WWII wasn’t so far in the past then.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

It was a bit gutting to learn how many white supremacist groups there were on the West Coast, and how many decades before WWII they’d been in existence.

The Fervor, along with your earlier novels The Hunger and The Deep, reimagine historical events through a Horror lens. What do you think it is about Horror that draws you, as an author, and/or readers to these types of stories?

For readers, I think the appeal is going deep into a historical event. These novels expose readers to detail they didn’t get in history class, the kind of stuff you need to include to write a convincing, immersive story. A lot of readers say after they’ve finished one of my books, they read all the non-fiction they can because they want to figure out which parts I made up and which are real.

For me, the appeal is playing around with the ‘what if’. What if what happened—in this case, what everyone was told about the internment—was slightly different from what we were led to believe? Given the past few years, it’s easier to believe there might be a big government cover-up lurking behind every corner.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I just finished one by Gabino Iglesias, The Devil Takes You Home, which is coming out later this year. It knocked my socks off. It’s violent, though it’s completely in keeping with the story, and the author has come up with something rare: a unique horror element. Another great book coming out in July, The Pallbearer’s Club by Paul Tremblay, is a little hard to describe, to be honest, but is an amazing read that straddles the line between truth and fiction, real and imagined. Although both books will be shelved in the horror section, both would (and should) be enjoyed by a wide range of readers.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

That’s a tough one. There are a ton of authors I admire, and I’ll be kicking myself later for leaving some out. Among those currently writing, I enjoy the consistently high level of work from Stephen Graham Jones, Caroline Kepnes, S.A. Cosby, Catriona Ward, Josh Malerman, Laura Lippman, and Megan Abbott.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I was a weird reader as a kid. I loved Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, Conan Doyle, the A.J. Raffles stories, and Shirley Jackson.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

I was into witchcraft as a kid, not so uncommon for young women now but was probably a matter of concern for the nuns at the Catholic school I attended. I had a little paperback of spells that I remember hiding from my parents.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Twilight. My first book, The Taker, could be considered part of that oeuvre and I’ve been asked what I thought about those books. I haven’t read them, but I let some friends talk me into seeing the movie.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Probably at least a quarter of the books in my house were bought for the cover!

Is there a book that changed your life?

Interview with the Vampire. I’ve gone on record as saying that without Interview, there would’ve been no Taker. The Taker is not a vampire book but it has the same sweeping romances and larger-than-life characters. That novel was really eye-opening for me as a young writer in terms of how much emotion you could pack into a story.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Well, no one book is perfect for everyone. There are books I love that would have more select ideal audiences, shall we say. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or The Little Friend are both great pieces of storytelling. Laura Lippman’s Sunburn is great noir, and everyone likes noir, right My favorite ghost story is Sarah WatersThe Little Stranger.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

I’ve saved a handful of books for years in the hope that I’ll get the time to read them again and since so much time has passed, undoubtedly they’ll read completely new to me. Jess WaltersThe Zero, James Meek’s The Peoples Act of Love, and Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon are all on that shelf.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

The movie The Only Lovers Left Alive makes me want to write a vampire story with a similar vibe. Like all horror writers, I really want to believe that vampire stories are about to make a comeback.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

With COVID, my husband and I moved out to a very remote area which has made travel hard. I find myself thinking a lot about a trip to Europe, maybe to England just for scones and clotted cream, or to Amsterdam because I’ve never been. Nothing too elaborate, just the opportunity to experience someone else’s way of life.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

The Hunger was about the Donner Party, and I read up on cannibalism to be prepared for questions while on tour. The question is, what are the first pieces of the human body to be consumed? The answer is the liver and brains.

What are you working on now?

I just handed in the second book in my espionage series, Red London. This is very close to my heart, having recently retired from a career in intelligence and wanting very much to show what the job is like for women. Red London has to do with Russian oligarchs living in London, which has become very topical again with the invasion of Ukraine. I have a couple of stories due for anthologies which I have yet to write and must also come up with an idea for the next historical horror story. My plate is full.

Book cover for The Fervor: A Novel
The Fervor: A Novel
Katsu, Alma