Up Close: Alma Katsu

Going into the Deep

By Adam Meyer

Alma Katsu has a secret. Before she started writing THE DEEP—a supernatural suspense novel set against the backdrop of the world’s most iconic shipwreck—she never had much interest in the Titanic.

“Maybe because when I was a kid my brother was fascinated by the Titanic,” she says. “You know that phase that boys go through when they’re seven or eight, and they become crazy fascinated. For him, it was like apes, dinosaurs, Titanic. So I think in my little girl mind it was like, ‘Well he likes it, it’s not for me.’”

In the years that followed, Katsu never gave the Titanic a second thought. But then, after writing her supernatural thriller The Hunger, a fictional take on the Donner Party expedition, she began to see her brother’s childhood obsession in a new light.

“My husband was watching a documentary, and I walked into the room and I said, ‘What’s this?’ and he was like, ‘Oh they’re diving to the Brittanic, it’s the sister ship of the Titanic,’” Katsu says. “I didn’t know the Titanic had a sister ship. So I’m watching this and then as they’re talking, they said there was a woman who had survived both sinkings, and it was, boom, I knew there’s got to be a story in that.”

Inspired by the real-life account of Violet Jessup, a survivor of both tragedies, Katsu invented her own heroine—Annie Hebley, a young woman from a small town in Northern Ireland.  “She ends up running away from home and gets a job as a stewardess on the Titanic,” Katsu says. “While she’s on the Titanic, she meets one of the passengers, a man who she feels a strong connection with.”

That man is Englishman Mark Fletcher, who’s traveling with his beautiful American wife and infant daughter. Although he seems to be living a perfect life, there are tensions in the Fletchers’ marriage, and the attraction between him and Annie is palpable.

Alma Katsu

As their story unfolds, Katsu also introduces us to several other passengers. These include such real-life characters as Benjamin Guggenheim, an American businessman, and John and Madeleine Astor, a power couple returning from an extended honeymoon. But as they sail across the Atlantic on the ill-fated luxury liner, they soon find themselves on a collision course with a very dangerous force—and it’s no spoiler to say that it’s more than just an iceberg.

That supernatural element is Katsu’s creation, but just as in her fictional account of the Donner Party, much of the story is real. To get the details right, Katsu had to immerse herself in Titanic lore. “For the Donner Party, it didn’t bother me at all, even though it was sizeable, there was a lot of research,” she says. “But I did pause a little bit before thinking, do I want to write a book about the Titanic? There’s so much material, it’s exponentially bigger, and there’s this huge fandom who are gonna get upset if I get things wrong, but I went ahead anyway.”

Katsu felt confident in her ability to pull it off. She had already spent more than three decades as an intelligence analyst for the CIA and the National Security Agency, a job she says is “basically research.”  When it came to learning about the Titanic, “one of the first things I did was buy blueprints.” Then she had to learn more about the real-life people who might populate her story, reading thousands of short bios.

Researching a novel can be a great way to procrastinate writing one, so Katsu set herself a strict timetable. “Generally I give myself two weeks to do the bulk of the research,” she says. “I narrow it down to two primary sources and go through the books meticulously, pull out all the notes I need.”  Then she digs deeper, trying to find “historical tidbits” and constructing a timeline of events before laying out the plot. “Then I do a lot of spot research along the way.”

Katsu signs copies of her debut, The Hunger

Adding to the complexity of THE DEEP is the way the story unfolds, cutting back and forth between Annie’s time on the Titanic and another journey four years later. “She’s released from an asylum in England, no memory of what’s happened to her,” Katsu says. “Violet Jessup, the actual woman who survived both sinkings, writes to her and says, we really need nurses.”

With a sense of deja vu, Annie signs up as a nurse on the Brittanic, the Titanic’s sister ship, where she’s reunited with Mark Fletcher. “She thought he had died on the sinking Titanic, and yet there he is,” Katsu says. “The strange happenings start up again, and it forces her to confront her past, and also her role in the tragedy.”

Although Katsu loves history, what interests her most are the places where past and present collide. “The biggest issues of the day were class disparity and women’s rights,” she says, which helps give the book a modern feel. “You see not only the class interaction—some of the richest people in the world were on the Titanic—and also the crew, the servants, the third class passengers. It’s a lot of that dynamic but also about women, because most of the main characters are women, so it looks at the constraints they have to live under—with a little spookiness thrown in.”

In some ways, balancing that “spookiness” with realism is the hardest part. “In a genre like fantasy or horror, the magical element is acknowledged upfront,” she says. “That’s part of the world, and you just accept it.”  In her books, however, she tries to walk a fine line. “It’s the same world we all live in now, and I’ve got to convince people to suspend disbelief and believe that something weird is going on. It’s always tough.”

As for where her next journey into the past will take her, Katsu isn’t sure. “Where do you go after the Titanic?” she says. “People throw disasters at me all the time.”

For now, Katsu has set her sights on something a little more grounded: a modern-day spy novel.

 

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