Let’s welcome Alma Katsu to the What Scares You blog! Her latest book, The Deep, is about the Titanic and hauntings, and it was released right smack in the middle of the current pandemic, so you should buy it to support her and read it to scare yourself silly.
Alma writes really terrifying books that freak out a lot of people, but she’s an absolute delight of a person. I had the pleasure of chatting with her at an event in D.C. late last year and immediately fell in love with her. So of course I wanted to find out what really scares her. You will not be disappointed!
What is your earliest childhood memory of fear? Or the scariest thing you remember from childhood?
I grew up in a very spooky little town in Massachusetts. It seemed there was some horrific legend associated with many of the buildings and such. There were a ton of old cemeteries, and two funeral parlors each a block in different directions from my house. We lived in an old, rundown Victorian that was also creepy as hell, and growing up Roman Catholic gives you this weird, superstitious outlook on life. The total of all these experiences is that I grew up believing in the supernatural.
I don’t believe in any of that stuff now. It’s a little sad that all that kind of mystery has been taken out of my life. But I’d had a strange career in defense and the intelligence business and been exposed to really horrible things that people do (genocides! Mass atrocities!) and so stories like that kind of pale in comparison. For a long time, I didn’t scare, really, and now that I’m retired it’s only coming back to me slowly.
And I write horror stories! Oh, the irony.
Do you believe in ghosts? Why or why not?
I don’t not believe in ghosts but it’s getting harder to sustain this possibility every day. My husband likes those ghost hunting reality shows and so we watch a fair amount of them (I keep him company), and I haven’t seen anything that seems conclusive, not to me. And yet we keep watching them.
What was your worst nightmare ever?
When I was very young, I dreamed once that the earth ran out of water and some people were committing suicide by setting fire to themselves, because no one would waste the water needed to put them out. And my father decided this was what we’d do, so he had us sit in the living room and set the house on fire. I could see the flames devouring the house, but my family were all sitting on the couch, not budging, and finally I ran away from them because I didn’t want to burn, but I felt awful about not dying with them. Then I woke up, but the dream has stayed with me for decades.
Yeah, my home life wasn’t fucked up at all.
“I dreamed once that the earth ran out of water and some people were committing suicide by setting fire to themselves, because no one would waste the water needed to put them out.”
Is there anything you are terrified of eating? Why?
By saying “terrified of eating” you imply that I’d actually consider eating it. I stopped eating things I don’t want to eat a long time ago. You have to understand, I’m half Japanese and grew up watching my mother eat things that any normal person would not consider edible, like dried fish heads. Saturday mornings usually began with my mother pickling tiny octopuses in a jar. So, no, I cannot be shamed or cajoled into eating weird things.
The question of eating weird things came up, naturally, with my book The Hunger, which is about the Donner Party. You cannot write about the Donner Party without studying up on cannibalism or asking yourself if you would consider resorting to cannibalism if the circumstances were right. (The answer to that is no.) I found out, on book tour, that most people don’t want you to bring up cannibalism at all but some people, a very small minority, really really want to talk about it. And oddly know a lot about it.
What is your greatest fear as a writer?
Probably the normal writer fear that I won’t be able to get the current novel to work. Just because you wrote one book, or a dozen, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to write the next one.
As for being able to write things that scare people, my hang-up is not writing something that completely freaks people out. Because of my time being around genocidaires and torturers (see above) kind of burned out my front-end filter, and things that didn’t seem like a big deal to me kind of freaked normal people out (read my first book, The Taker, if you want to see what I mean).
One of the things I learned from that experience and from writing horror novels is that everybody thinks that what they like is “normal”. I get bad reviews from people who think my books shouldn’t be considered horror at all, and from people who think they’re terrifying. And each one of them thinks their level is set perfectly. It’s a challenge for all writers, how far to take “it”, whatever the “it” is in your story. As artists, we’re supposed to challenge people. The problem is too many people these days don’t want to be challenged.
What’s worse: being haunted by a demon or having a stalker?
I don’t mean to take the stalker thing lightly, but people underestimate how hard it is to be prosecuted for murder. I mean, if there was no known association between you and this stalker you could probably kill him, and they’d never connect you to the body or his disappearance. Problem eliminated.
Alma Katsu is the award-winning author of five novels that combine history with the supernatural. THE HUNGER (2018) was named one of NPR’s Favorite 100 Horror Stories and was nominated for a Stoker and Locus Magazine award for best horror novel. Her debut novel, THE TAKER, was one of Booklist’s Top Ten Debut Novels of 2011. THE DEEP (2020), her most recent novel, is a reimagining of the sinking of the Titanic with a horror twist. Her first spy novel, RED WIDOW, will be published spring of 2021.