Alma Katsu: On Where to Put the Big Reveal in a Thriller

Novelist Alma Katsu discusses what it was like to write her latest thriller Red Widow and how she made the difficult decision of where to place the novel's big reveal.
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Alma Katsu is the author of five novels, most recently The Deep and The Hunger. Prior to the publication of her first novel, she had a 35-year career as a senior intelligence analyst for several U.S. agencies, including the CIA and NSA, as well as RAND. Katsu continues as an independent consultant and technology futurist, advising clients in government and private industry. Katsu is a graduate of the master's writing program at the Johns Hopkins University, received her bachelor's degree from Brandeis University, and has been a signature reviewer for Publishers Weekly and a contributor to The Huffington Post. Her books have received starred reviews, been featured in the New York Times and Washington Post, and have been on numerous Best Books lists. She lives outside of Washington, D.C., with her husband. Visit www.almakatsubooks.com.

Alma Katsu

Alma Katsu

In this post, Katsu discusses what it was like to write her latest thriller Red Widow, how she made the difficult decision of where to place the novel's big reveal, and more!

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Name: Alma Katsu
Literary agent: Richard Pine, Inkwell Management
Title: Red Widow
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Release date: March 23, 2021
Genre: Thriller
Elevator pitch for the book: Theresa Warner lost her husband when a CIA operation in Russia went horribly wrong. She has every reason to hate Russia—so why does Lyndsey Duncan suspect she’s the traitor handing CIA assets over to Moscow? Two women agents are caught in a deadly cat-and-mouse game in Red Widow.
Previous titlesby the author: The Deep, The Hunger (historical horror); The Taker, The Reckoning, The Descent (fantasy/paranormal trilogy)

Red Widow by Alma Katsu

Red Widow by Alma Katsu

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What prompted you to write this book?

I’ve worked most of my life in intelligence and have been dismayed that spy fiction is so heavily slanted to male readers. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a lot of it; I’m a huge fan of John LeCarre, for instance. But there’s a lot of it that doesn’t jibe with what I’ve experienced and that seemed a shame, because the job and the life you end up having is pretty amazing. There’s a lot less running in heels with guns than TV and movies lead you to believe, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less thrilling, challenging, or rewarding.

I kept thinking it would be great to write a spy book with a female protagonist, a book that would hopefully appeal to readers of both sexes but would be told from a female officer’s perspective. With the popularity of TV shows like The Americans and Homeland, which have huge female audiences, it seemed like the right time for a spy book with a strong female lead.

Up to this point, however, the novels I’d written have been in the horror/fantasy realm, all with a heavy historical element requiring tons of research, about as far as you can get from a contemporary espionage thriller. I liked writing these stories and wasn’t ready to leave it all behind. I probably wouldn’t have taken the plunge if my editor at Putnam, Sally Kim, hadn’t urged me to give it a try.

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How long did it take to go from idea to publication? 

The idea for the plot came to me right away, based on an incident that happened in real-life but has never been publicly associated with the CIA. (I completely changed all the facts to protect the secret, so trust me, you’ll never ever figure out the event that serves as the basis.) I took that idea and played the “what if” game, ratcheting up the stakes and making it twistier and twistier.

In general, the book was easier to write than my previous books, all of which—having a historical component—required a ton of research and constantly pinning plot points and story developments to historical events and actual people.

Compared to some writers, I’m fairly fast. A first draft will take me between three to six months to complete, including research. This speed comes from thirty years as an intelligence analyst, I think, which teaches you to efficiently marshal facts and work towards solutions. Red Widow was a comparatively easy book to write because the world of intelligence was still fresh: I’d only just retired from government when I started it. Nothing at all like writing a book set on the Titanic, with 2,300 potential characters to sort through!

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

Red Widow is my sixth novel. You might think that after five books, it would’ve settled into a routine—and you’d be wrong. For one thing, there’s COVID. I was on tour for The Deep when lockdown started in the U.S. and since then, we’ve seen the book business turned upside down for publishers, bookstores, authors, and readers. The good news is that we—booksellers, publishers, authors—have figured out a bunch of new ways to connect with readers. (For instance, I did a series of videos answering readers’ questions about what it’s really like to work in intelligence). COVID has forced us all to put on our thinking caps.

The second wrinkle is that I’m trying to break out in a new genre. There doesn’t seem to be a good roadmap for this. While there are pluses—my name is known to some readers and people in the industry—there are also minuses. Readers might not trust that an author can write well in a second genre, not aware that I’m writing from personal experience. Will my readers follow me? Will booksellers give the new genre a chance? I’m waiting to find out.

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Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book? 

The hardest thing about writing this book was figuring out where to bring in the second POV character. The second POV character introduces a huge reveal. The introduction of the bombshell forces an abrupt change of direction in the book, disrupting the forward momentum, but this character’s voice is so engaging and her story so compelling that it seemed a shame to withhold it for too long. I moved the introduction of the second POV forward and back in the manuscript, trying to find the sweet spot. Every move required a million tiny changes throughout the manuscript. It was an incredible amount of work, but Sally was unfailingly patient and supportive, and the painstaking tinkering paid off in the end.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I hope it will give readers a sense of the patriotism that motivates the people who work in intelligence. It’s a kind of patriotism that’s not schmaltzy or (as we’ve seen too much of these days) toxic selfishness: it’s a quiet, personal resolve to protect Americans and honor the vow they took the first day on the job.

At the same time, I wanted to show that there are aspects to working at the Agency—at all federal intelligence agencies, really—that are kind of dark. Working an intense mission under high pressure can sometimes bring out the worst in people, especially the highly competitive. When one of these people has you in his sights, it’s like having a shark bearing down on you. They’ve been trained to be ruthless and uncompromising, and to compartmentalize their emotions, so they no longer see you as a coworker or friend, only as chum in the water. Suddenly, you’re in danger and management is not really protecting you, and you realize loyalty is not always a two-way street.

Alma Katsu: On Where to Put the Big Reveal in a Thriller

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

I became a published author later in life than most, selling my first book at fifty. Every time I start to stress—why is it not getting easier to write a book, what if sales don’t meet expectations, how do I compare with my peers—I try to remind myself that all of life is a journey, and that writing is only part of it. In my intelligence career, I often volunteered for assignments that pulled me out of my wheelhouse and each of them made me a better, more knowledgeable intelligence officer and contributed to the person I am today. Try not to worry about holding onto things that you already have in your hand and think instead of what to reach for next. 

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