On Episode #62 of The Thriller Zone, former Senior Intelligence Analyst for the CIA, NSA & RAND, ALMA KATSU joins the Top Secret Club known as "The TZ" to discuss secret stuff, higher education, writing advice & techniques.
On the show, Alma also discusses how she never originally set out to work for the CIA, but always wanted to write. So after 30+ years, she compresses all that thrilling espionage information in a page-turning thriller.
Oh, and wait until you hear the latest, greatest news: her books are going to TV! Man, talking about "Living the dream!"
Inside the show, Alma also shares the names of people who are thought leaders in the industry, all of whom have taken her under their wing to help advance her career....and what a career it has been, and continues to be.
Some of those professionals include her literary agents, Richard Pine & Eliza Rothstein of Inkwell Management, Angela Cheng Caplan, her Film Rights agent, her publicist Katie Grinch and her editor Sally Kim at Putnam.
To learn more about Alma and her work, visit: AlmaKatsuBooks.com and follow her on Twitter @almakatsu.
And as always, follow this and many other mega-talents on our website: TheThrillerZone.com and enjoy our show wherever you get your podcasts.
Mentioned in this episode:
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[00:00:00] David: Hello and welcome to the thriller zone. I'm your host David temple. Thank you so much for joining me on today's show, which I will tell you about our special guest in just a moment, but I want to start by saying thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for helping make us one of the fastest growing podcast in America.
[00:00:17] David: Also, just this past week, we crossed the 100 subscriber mark on our YouTube channel. So now officially it's youtube.com/. I know the little things they get me excited now on today's. All my katsu is the author of red widow. And this is a page turning thriller with espionage, Russian intrigue, CIA, and a whole lot more.
[00:00:44] David: Oh man, I really enjoyed this book and I enjoyed the interview even more. So how about I get ready to talk to Alma here on the thriller zone. She's waiting in the green room. Alma. Welcome to the thriller zone. Yeah. We are going to get this to this beautiful book, red widow by with Alma katsu in just a couple of minutes.
[00:01:08] David: And by the way, I got to take a quick moment. Anybody who follows this show knows I am a geek for covers and your covers are banging. I mean, they're beautiful.
[00:01:19] Alma: Oh, thank you so much. Yeah, Putnam does a really amazing job on the covers. I love the hardcover covered.
[00:01:25] David: Well, is that the one? I don't know that I've seen this, so I haven't seen a difference.
[00:01:30] David: Let me get
[00:01:30] Alma: it. Let me get it. My vape would think for a second. I think I've got one in the
[00:01:34] David: house. Please do. I'll just sit my toastie writer's block coffee.
[00:01:43] David: Oh, that's awesome.
[00:01:45] Alma: Yeah, really nice. Really nice in person too. So for both the paperback and the hardcover, they did a great job.
[00:01:52] David: Yep. Yeah, that is, I think I saw the hard cover in the form of a an animated almost like a trailer or something on your website if I'm not mistaken, right?
[00:02:04] Alma: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:02:05] Alma: Putnam does. Does the animations too really nice to.
[00:02:10] David: Yeah, big big applause to Putnam. Cause they always put out such quality work and, and while I'm at it, I I'm going to jump ahead. I'm going to be all over the place. It just roll with me. It'll be all fun. I promise it won't hurt, but old school, I love bookmarks.
[00:02:27] David: Okay. It's the easiest writers pay attention here. It's the easiest, cheapest way to do a little publicity. So here coming to paperback at 3, 1, 4. Flip it over. Here's her next book, which is coming out in April. We'll be talking about here in a minute, super easy, super inexpensive and PS, look what it does.
[00:02:46] David: It slides inside your book and holds your place. Isn't that amazing?
[00:02:52] Alma: It's amazing. It's amazing. Well, you know, I've been around a long time and. The swag was important with the pandemic and not being able to do so many live events, you know, it's kind of falling behind, but now we're starting to do live events, I'm doing conventions and stuff.
[00:03:07] Alma: And so yeah, I said, we got to get some bookmarks. You feel naked without it. Yeah.
[00:03:12] David: Yeah. It's such an easy little thing. And I, you know, I'm a big fan of swag and coffee mugs and, you know, blah, blah, blah, but a bookmark. Cheapest easiest and it's yeah, yeah, yeah. Anyway. Okay. Here's the other tangent I want to go to, I'm looking at your website because it's so beautiful and you have the fervor, which is next folks.
[00:03:32] David: Don't get confused. We're going to be coming back to of course, red widow, but the fervor, this is what I want to get to. I thought I loved the U S version, which is coming out 4 26, 22, but the UK version is so cool.
[00:03:49] Alma: Isn't it though. Yeah. Titan does really interesting because they do a lot of genre books and horror and fantasy and everything.
[00:03:57] Alma: I think they're kind of really in tune with that vibe and yeah, I've had a lot of horror. People say they really liked that cover.
[00:04:05] David: And I'm going to get ahead of myself. I realized that, but so red widow, easily thriller, CIA espionage, et cetera, Russia and blah, blah, blah, and fervor is horror. So, so that I don't get confused.
[00:04:19] David: So your multi-genre writing, which I totally did. Oh,
[00:04:23] Alma: well, thank you. Yeah. I started out actually with the trilogy and this was over 10 years ago. That's a bit more in like the fantasy supernatural realm. And then started writing the historical horrors there very, very much like historical fiction with just us, a little supernational element running through them.
[00:04:42] Alma: And then I got the opportunity from my publisher to try espionage. Just cause we thought it'd be fun and yeah, so I've been very lucky, but very different genres.
[00:04:52] David: Okay. Before, Hey, wouldn't it be fun to try some espionage now, wait a second. You worked CIA NSA, [00:05:00] R a N D Rand, which honest I have to look that up because I didn't know it was an American non-profit global policy thing.
[00:05:07] Alma: It's technically, it's called the FFR DC federally funded research and development center. And it's it is right. Non-governmental it's, it's one of, it's a formal type of research Institute that government agencies can Braun. Yeah. So I worked there for a few years, so that's why I know this
[00:05:27] David: well, but you spent 30 years in intelligence.
[00:05:31] Alma: Yes,
[00:05:31] David: I did. So here's, what's interesting. It sounds almost not counterintuitive, but you went in this direction, then you kind of came back in this direction.
[00:05:41] Alma: Yes. I mean, I was working in intelligence, but I wanted to be an envelope before I went into intelligence and I, we can go into all, you know, I kind of just did it for experienced, not expecting that I would have a whole career in it.
[00:05:55] Alma: It wasn't until I was about halfway through the career. I decided to go back to writing fiction and I wrote the kind of book I wanted to write. Necessarily a spine novel. Although I did try writing those, I just didn't write a great one. The taker ended up, you know, being bought and we published it and all that.
[00:06:12] Alma: And it was towards sort of towards the end of my career in intelligence. I didn't sell it until I was 50 years old. So that's where it gets a little messy. And I didn't think I should write. Try to publish a spine novel until I retired. So I, we sold red widow about the time I was retiring from the federal service, because it gets a little tricky if you're still working for them.
[00:06:35] Alma: Right. It's by novel, there's just extra obligations. They put on you that make it hard to publish, do publicity and things like.
[00:06:43] David: What a fast story. Hey, I wanted to, as I made a note here with over 30 years in intelligence, your work drips with authenticity. So I'm sitting here thinking, oh, I want it to drip with authenticity authenticity.
[00:06:55] David: So I think I'll go work for the, you know, the CIA and stuff for like, I don't know, 30 years. And then I'll, then I'll write that's easy.
[00:07:04] Alma: Any energy left? Yes, you can write.
[00:07:07] David: Cause here's my bigger point. Hey, I want to write up David. I want to write about a detective, so I'll go hang out with the detective.
[00:07:13] David: I want to write about a police captain. Hey, I'll go hang out at a police station. No, you get into the business and build up all this fabulous history and then you write it.
[00:07:24] Alma: It's weird. I mean, I never really intended to write a spine novel when I was in a graduate program for writing and I was working then, and you know, you meet agents and editors and they would say, well, what's your background.
[00:07:37] Alma: You really should write a spine novel. So they kind of put the idea in my head, but it's, you know, a lot of stuff that is written about espionage. It's not true. And as I'm finding out now we're doing a TV series and I'm dealing with writers and what they want to put in them. I see why the stuff ends up in TVs and movies, the way they do, because they all they have to draw on or what they've already seen in TV and movies.
[00:08:03] Alma: And so you perpetuate these myths that this is how intelligence works and it's not. Very different.
[00:08:09] David: That is so funny. Jan said the same thing. He was on the show back in December of last year, the gentlemen who introduced us for my listeners who don't know that Jen Newman. And he said the same thing.
[00:08:20] David: He said, what you see on television is like hardly even close to reality. And we, the viewer go always that, how that happens and we just assume it is so. '
[00:08:32] Alma: cause you know, viewers and readers want action and excitement. They want to be taken out of their lives. But the reality of intelligence is it's a lot more about tweaking and nudging things behind the scene.
[00:08:45] Alma: So if you ended up getting to the point where you're running down the street, waving a gun and chasing a bad guy. Your intelligence operation has failed. It's supposed to be operating in the shadows. And if you're lucky, your adversary never knows what you did.
[00:09:06] David: You know, that kind of blows the lid off of it. For, for me, Alma, I got her toe. I'm not saying your popped my balloon. You've just blown the lid off of it.
[00:09:15] Alma: So that's the difference between books like John Le Carre? You know, what's his name? Jack, Ryan or Richard, right? That's the difference between them?
[00:09:25] Alma: So I'm a little bit more in the look race camp.
[00:09:29] David: Well this is a good time to insert this. And I love, you know, besides the cover, I love the blurb. This is wicked great essay Cosby. Blurbed your book by calling it equal parts, tinker tailor, soldier, spy, and killing Eve. He's wonderful. Both of which are my favorite genres.
[00:09:49] David: And I mean, bam, I love both of those movies. How did that make you feel almost when you got that kind of a blurb come across your
[00:09:57] Alma: desk? I was amazed that he said that I couldn't [00:10:00] kiss him next time I see him. I probably will. Because it captures a lot of what I was trying to do. I, when Sally, my editor at Putnam said, you know, why don't you think about writing a spine novel?
[00:10:10] Alma: I knew the kind of story I wanted to tell, which probably isn't your average fine novel one is I really wanted to focus on what does it take to, what does it mean to the individual to do this line of work? It's you know, not to cry, we're all happy to have a job. And we want the upper, you know, grateful for the opportunity to serve our country.
[00:10:30] Alma: But it does demand a lot of you that people really aren't aware of. You have to give up like all your privacy. You have to be completely candid. With, you know, whatever agency you're working for, CIA, whatever, that's just what having a security clearance calls for. And then secondly, I really wanted to show what it's like for the women who work in intelligence today, because we're not that well-represented in pop culture, whether it's movies or TV or.
[00:10:57] Alma: And while there are a lot of popular books about women and intelligence, they're all historical fiction. They're from world war two. And, and that's, they're great stories. I worked with a couple of those trailblazers, you know, when I first started, they were leading the industry. So I understand the great stories, but it kind of gives the lopsided impression that, you know, that was the time for women.
[00:11:21] Alma: And it's very, and also they're often presented sort of as like talking dogs, right. Like she could be a spy, but only she, other women need not apply. And, you know, and then the things they haven't do are sometimes kind of dubious. I really wanted to show what was more like for women. So it's interesting.
[00:11:39] Alma: Breadwinner was interesting in that the main character is a woman, the adversary as a woman, there's a lot of strong women in this
[00:11:46] David: book. That is one of the things I have to admit is I loved about this because you use the best word was misrepresented Lindsay Duncan. She's likable for so many reasons and she's, she's scared and she's broken at the same time, but really super strong.
[00:12:03] David: And I just loved her character.
[00:12:06] Alma: A lot of us like that we're broken, but we're super strong. So yeah, it's very true to life. I have to say,
[00:12:13] David: well, maybe it's like the Axiom about drama. I mean, if you don't have conflict, then is the story that interesting.
[00:12:21] Alma: You absolutely have to have conflict. And that's the interesting thing about a career in intelligence is there's always conflict.
[00:12:27] Alma: There's conflict on so many levels, you know, there's the personal conflict and there's always the bigger geopolitical conflict that you're interested in. And you know, how. The pressures of one might affect your personal life and vice versa. So, yeah, it's dripping with conflict.
[00:12:43] David: You know, this makes me think of something.
[00:12:45] David: David McCloskey, author of a Damascus station was on a couple of months back and he said something that you, that you just triggered it. Similarly. He says, you know, everybody thinks that working at the CIA is so super cool and it's all action and intrigue. Oh. And he goes it's so little of that, that you wouldn't even believe it.
[00:13:06] David: Right.
[00:13:07] Alma: It's very, you know, for good reasons, you don't really want them. Turmoil in something, a mission that's so complex and important, a lot rides on it. You want it to be more predictable. So, you know, there's a lot of procedures and such in place to keep the drama down. Actually, there's always going to be a certain amount of drama, but you want to try to minimize that, you know, As a, as a general rule.
[00:13:35] David: Sure. All right. I'm going to go for, I'm going to go back to Lindsey in a second, but I want to take two steps back. And that is, I mean, I'm honored to say that we have yet another master's degree holder on their show. Johns Hopkins university,
[00:13:47] Alma: right? Yeah. My writing degree in the Hopkins program,
[00:13:51] David: I mean a year now, my, I don't know how many that makes maybe 30.
[00:13:57] David: In the last couple of months, and this is a question Alma, and I'd love your opinion on this. You know, there are a lot of people who say, you know, if you're going to be a serious writer, you've gone to get a master's degree while other people, maybe they don't say it with that kind of an accident, but while other people.
[00:14:15] David: Other people say, you know, it's not really essential. And, but the people that I've read whom I've read that have that hold the master's degree. It's such a, geez. I don't want to say it's such a clear delineation because that would be minimizing the talents of my non masters holders. I just want to say that there is a, a technique or a flavor to, or I don't know exactly what it is.
[00:14:44] David: Boy, can you tell.
[00:14:45] Alma: Really, I mean, I'm not surprised. I would say that a couple of things, one is I got my master's degree a long time ago, you know, 20 years ago. And I think master's programs have probably changed a bit since then. So when I was [00:15:00] in it, they definitely, the focus was literary fiction. You were learning, learning to write literary fiction, which is character-driven fiction.
[00:15:06] Alma: They really didn't like John rhe fiction. What was weird was for my submission, I gave them a sample of. Piece, but you know, it was very high concept genre and they still accepted me. But so I think things have changed. And so for most people, if their goal is to write commercial fiction, the kinds of things that you see in the front of Barnes and noble, you know, when you walk through the door, there's probably master's degree, but I would say you don't need it either way.
[00:15:33] Alma: I think what makes the difference is that you have a dedication to correct. And that you constantly try to better yourself. And there's a ton of resources out there. There's videos, there's online programs, just going and listening to writers, present at events. Reading is super important. And by that, I mean like reading a range of stuff, not just the stuff you would naturally.
[00:15:57] Alma: Drawn to, but reading the books that, you know, get mentioned in the newspaper and other people are talking about just to, you know, give you other examples to draw from, because you really learn your craft by examining and analyzing what other writers have done to handle a particular situation.
[00:16:16] David: That's a soundbite right there.
[00:16:18] David: Girlfriend. I'm telling you that right now. All right. So let's go back to Lindsay Dunkin because she's, I, I love her and I I'm hoping, hint, hint. I'm hoping we see more of her.
[00:16:30] Alma: Yes. I just handed in the second book in the series a little while ago. And it's that the editors taking look at it, it's called red London and it's super topical because it has to do with the oligarchs and the UK, which are figuring quite a bit into you know, the Ukraine crisis.
[00:16:50] Alma: It's funny. But when I propose writing about it, I got. Feedback like, oh, the oligarchs that's so two thousands, you know, no one cares about that anymore. So now everyone's interested in it. So
[00:17:02] David: pretty good. Yeah. I'd call it. So twenty, twenty two, if you will. Yeah. Now here's a classic question. So forgive my not being thoroughly original at every turn, but how much of Lindsay is in you or vice versa?
[00:17:19] Alma: Probably not a lot of me and Lindsey actually, probably more me and Teresa loved writing Theresa because Lindsey's a little younger. I did get one of my years at CIA, I was a recruiter, which meant I spent a whole year just recruiting analysts, the next cadre of analysts. So I was on the road a lot, you know, and I really got to see what.
[00:17:42] Alma: People who want to join CIA today, what they're like, and they're different from my generation. So I really drew on a lot of the younger folks that I worked with and whom I met during recruiting to form Lindsey, you know, they have different reasons why they came in. They have different reasons why they stay different skill sets, all that kind of stuff.
[00:18:02] Alma: Whereas Theresa is slightly older. And has a few years in and has had some experiences that ended up making her mad at the agency. And anyone who's been there for a while is going to be mad at the agency. So yeah, I could really relate to her.
[00:18:17] David: I got a little sense. Just subconscious level that, oh, this is clearly coming from experience because there's one thing to describe a scene.
[00:18:27] David: And then there's another thing to describe a feeling and that feeling isn't just your average. Oh, oh, she was mad. No, when you layer in some of those things and you go, oh, that that's when you're really writing what, you know.
[00:18:42] Alma: Well, thank you. I mean, so I, I get kind of pointed out a lot for really providing a lot of psychological insights into characters, really having rich round characters.
[00:18:54] Alma: And a lot of that does come from working in intelligence because you're really trained to understand human psychology. Right? Understand motivations. Why is somebody doing what they're doing, especially when we're talking about assets, people. We're paying right to spy for us. That's a very dangerous thing.
[00:19:11] Alma: It's usually going against your own self-interest so you really have to understand that person. So you can predict how they're, you know, that they're not going to expose you. They're not going to, you know, in a fit of remorse, run to their government and say, I'm spying for CIA. You really have to understand what makes that person tick.
[00:19:28] Alma: And so that in years of watching case officers who are really weird in their own, right and Turkey in their own. I think it's really kind of helped me develop, you know, characters. So, yeah. Thank
[00:19:39] David: you. Yeah. That's one of my favorite things that you accomplished was I call it kinda taking me inside the system, which there are authors.
[00:19:48] David: There's no good or bad about this, but they'll, they'll describe the big picture. But with you, I felt like I was an insider again, the thing I just referenced because there was a particular [00:20:00] scene early on where Lindsey. Skeptical about be befriending Teresa, and then there's this one character that comes in this big guy comes in and sh and he wants to remind her of, oh yeah.
[00:20:16] David: You just wait until this case is over. We're still going to deal with you. That may be go, oh, there's so much of this little, I'm not tit for tat, but you're under my thumb. So don't, don't you forget that? Yeah, that's
[00:20:30] Alma: part of work life. There is it's control, right? The agency has to be able to control you.
[00:20:37] Alma: They have to have a lot of different levers and you know, this going in, you sign up for it, but still it's funny. It becomes normal to you, and it's not until you leave that you realize most people don't live like that. You know, your boss may have. Leverage over you, but you're not telling him every absolute secret of your life, everything that embarrassed you or that could come back and bite you in the ass, you know, he doesn't get you don't have to fill out a form declaring all your financial assets every year to him, you know, like it's incredibly invasive and, and yet that's part of the job.
[00:21:12] David: Yeah. The thing about having to reveal all your secrets and you'll see this line and television and film sometimes. Okay. Now, David. If there's anything about you, I should know. And I'm going to go easy on if you tell me now, because we're going to dig deep and we're going to find out.
[00:21:28] Alma: Right. And some people will they'll crack.
[00:21:30] Alma: They'll still tell you, but generally you don't and this was something I really learned to recruiting. Believe it or not, because you'd be spending time with these applicants and they'd be telling you all these things and they filled out a lot of forms and you know, you're looking over all this. But then they go through the security process where they sit down with the security people.
[00:21:49] Alma: It's usually, especially the first time they get on the polygraph, even though the polygraph is a very flawed machine for doing this kind of thing, it's enough that that often makes some people crack. And then what they don't realize is that at all, we tell them. Is that we're going to go out and we're going to talk to your friends and we're going to talk to other people, not just the people you tell us to talk to, and we're going to find things out about you.
[00:22:10] Alma: So don't lie to us. Candor is very important. If we don't trust you, we can't hire you. And they swear up and down, they're telling the truth. And then you find out all these things that they thought they could hide from the CIA. It's interesting. That's just the world I live in. So if I feel like someone's not telling me the truth, I'll find out what the truth is.
[00:22:31] David: You know, it's so funny. My wife has this my wife is analytical, so she I'm right. Brain creative. She's left brain analytical. I love, Ooh. Let's just daydream about what this could be. And she's like, no, no, no. Show me the spreadsheets. Black and white, right? Yeah. But, and she has this innate ability to just kind of dig into things and find things I'm like, how'd you find that out?
[00:22:54] David: She goes, well, that's my analytical brain at work. You know? Do you
[00:22:59] Alma: let her do research for you for your books and things?
[00:23:02] David: No. It's a combination of things. She is so incredibly busy with I call it 10 plates in the air, spinning plates at all time. There's no way I would ever do that. Plus, you know, it's my thing.
[00:23:15] David: And it's not her thing. She loves to read it. She is w she's one of my first go-to like I pass it to her before my books go anywhere else. And so how'd you like it? And if I get, yeah, this is good. Or, you know, like everything, except this, I take it into consideration, work on it and then go, yeah. One thing I wanted to say, and I was reading I was on a plane when I was reading the scene.
[00:23:38] David: Oh, I know. Yeah, here you go. I'm on the plane when I'm reading the opening scene on one of my trips and it is one of the. Biggest nightmares. My wife has a similar nightmare in that she, she has kind of claustrophobic. I won't go into that, but mine is what this scene is. And I'm not going to say the scene because I don't want to, I want people to pick up this book and just read the opening scene.
[00:24:03] David: And if you don't find yourself going, okay, hold on a second. I got honey, but the kids take care of. I'm on this book, right? So I'm so excited about it. So I'm reading that and I don't want to give too much away. So can you give me a nice little synopsis of the story so that I don't give it away, but know that they've got an opening scene is just.
[00:24:21] Alma: Well, thank you. Yeah, it's a little hard to give us an opposite. So the book, but basically you have Lindsay Dunkin, the main character who is an up and coming agent officer at CIA who ends up getting recalled, which is a very heart-stopping experience. Business. Cause it means you've done something wrong.
[00:24:38] Alma: She gets yanked back to Washington, but it's actually sort of a cover her boss. Who's the chief of Russia division suspects. There's a mole and CIA, and they're not sure if it's coming out of CIA or coming out of Moscow station, which is the CIA office over in Russia, but she's worked at both. So she's a.
[00:24:56] Alma: Person to, to be the one to try to track down the mall. [00:25:00] Cause she knows how both offices operate and while she's doing that and trying to figure out what's going on. And, you know, as, as you pointed out a kind of still under the wary eye of security, because she did this bad thing that got a recalled from, from where she was Beirut.
[00:25:16] Alma: She'd be friends, Theresa Warner, who is a former sort of it girl in the Russian division. Slightly older than, and still working. They're slightly older than Lindsey, but her husband was killed in an operation of Moscow a few years earlier and that's ended up sort of putting her under a cloud for various reasons.
[00:25:38] Alma: And so she befriends Theresa who's a little on the outs with everybody right now and, and ends up leading to this big secret that Lindsay was never meant to uncover that could really. Take down some big people, so I I'll leave it at that.
[00:25:56] David: And that's the thing. And that's the thing that keeps you riveted and it's like, it puts a hook in your neck and it just pull it.
[00:26:04] David: You're not getting away from it because you plant that seed early on. Somebody else did this recently and I loved it. It was Scott Blackburn and I was making this comment and this is. Comment to make. When you can find that little hook that maybe either you haven't seen before, or you haven't seen it done this way and it pulls you in first, but it doesn't reveal it.
[00:26:25] David: And it just does this slow pole like you did. And and you keep subconsciously, you're not even aware of you, like, well, well, what did she do? What's why was she recalled? What's that thing? What's that thing. And, and you, you can't
[00:26:39] Alma: stop. Well, thank you. It was a really interesting, fun story to write. First of all.
[00:26:44] Alma: Modeled on gone girl, which was such a big hit for a lot of reasons. One is because it had such big reveals, very twisty use multiple points of view. So I wanted to use that basic framework. So if you read the book, you'll see the second point of view, which is Teresa's comes in. I can't remember. I think it's about the halfway point or so, and everything changes once she's in there, everything he think, you know, is sort of thrown up in the air and then there's another big twist at the end.
[00:27:15] Alma: And I was lucky enough to my editor at Putnam is Sally Kim. And she did work on gone girl with Gillian Flynn. And so she knew what the objective was in the book. So it's a, in some ways. Deceptive, but it's a very writerly book. There's like a lot of writerly technique, you know, that's integral to how the story gets told.
[00:27:34] David: This would be a great primer on how to write a thriller like this, because like, well, like you said, that it's the writerly stuff that pulls you in. You go, wow. That technique. And matter of fact, we're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we're going to talk about a technique that Alma taught me.
[00:27:52] David: She doesn't even realize she did it in writing. And it's going to, I find it fascinating. So don't go anywhere. We'll be right back on the thriller zone, man. Do I like coffee? And as much as I don't want to sound like a beam snob, I am there. I said it. I mean, once you've tried fresh roasted. Why would you settle for anything else?
[00:28:12] David: Right. That's why I'm happy to announce a new sponsor to the thriller zone. Writer's block coffee. Why writer's block coffee? Here's why super easy. The coffee is naturally processed, which means the way the coffee cherries are harvested uses much less. Then the big brands that benefits the environment and the economic and political stability, the places, coffee scrum, such as Ethiopia, which is where they make their flagship writer's block coffee.
[00:28:41] David: Also, their coffee is specialty grade, which scores in the eighties on a scale of one to a hundred. That means the beans are in the top 5% of the world in terms of. Ooh, I love this. They donate a percentage of their profits to an organization called first book. It's a nonprofit that supports literacy with kids.
[00:29:02] David: It's a great cost that helps build the next generation of readers. And perhaps my favorite, their coffee is roasted to order. That means the beans do not sit on a shelf, but are roasted and shipped only after. Might take a little bit longer, but I'll tell you something. You're going to smell the difference.
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[00:29:37] Alma: Hi, this is Alma Cotsen. I'm the author of red widow, and I'm here today with David temple on the thriller zone.
[00:29:47] David: And welcome back to the thriller zone. I'm your host David temple. We are with Alma katsu and all. Please don't take offense to this. I'm from the south originally. And your name when I go to write it, I always want to say [00:30:00] kudzu. Yeah, I know, but it's a great way for me to remember it and the way I see it as any way I can remember your name is brilliant.
[00:30:09] David: Very
[00:30:09] Alma: very
[00:30:09] David: much so. Yes. Anyway, welcome back to the show. And as I said before, the break, I've learned a technique from you Alma, and it's something I love about this podcast is I get to talk to so many awesome people. Authors, writers want to BS established, et cetera that have to do with books and movies and film.
[00:30:28] David: And I'm just. Blown away by the vast amount of talent that is out there creating work today is evidenced with you, but I'm always learning something. And it's the way you release information. This is going to sound really super simplistic to some people, but it's the way you release information inside a conversation on either side of the actual dialogue, meaning you don't have the characters necessary.
[00:30:55] David: And necessarily say a lot of the background and supporting information, but you you'll say enough that establishes the character. Then you pepper the conversation with backstory in short bursts, which means the story is constantly moving. So applauds for that technique.
[00:31:12] Alma: Oh, well, thank you. I mean, when you might John rhe you're really, and by genre, I mean more like science fiction, fantasy, the stuff that I, I sort of started out and it's a real.
[00:31:23] Alma: Problem. And that, you know, a lot of times you have to do a lot of where we're world building. So a lot of backstory, and when you start out, the temptation is to put these big chunks of it, right? These big expositional chunks, which people tolerate a little bit more in science fiction, but not so much in other stories.
[00:31:42] Alma: And so you really have to teach yourself to get away from them and to just narrow it down. Yeah. Pieces that are important for readers to know, not nice to have otherwise you bore them and just figure out the most artful ways to sort of weave that in. So thank you everyone. Appreciate.
[00:31:59] David: Absolutely on a minute with all my heart.
[00:32:01] David: And I'm going to say it again. This would, this is a, not only just a fun rip-roaring read and technically proficient, but it's a great primer in how to do it. Right. So there, yeah. Now I do want to go back to your earlier years. I meant to ask you early on. Well, you referenced that you'd want to always want her to write.
[00:32:23] David: Did you always want to write, and it's clear with your track record that you always wanted to serve in one of the agencies. It has to be, but, but was being a published author, always kind of like at the forefront and how far back.
[00:32:36] Alma: So this will probably surprise you. I didn't always want to be working intelligence.
[00:32:41] Alma: I actually didn't think I, it didn't even cross my mind when I was growing up. So, you know, like a lot of writers, I was one of those kids that was always reading, right. Kind of a loner introvert. I was always in the library in the stacks reading books. As a matter of fact, my first job was as a page in the library.
[00:32:57] Alma: Cause I just spent so much time there. The librarians took pity on me and offered me. But You know, I grew up in a different time pre-internet and came from a small town, not a very worldly family. So I had no idea how you become a writer. And the only thing I could see where you could make a living from it was to be a newspaper reporter.
[00:33:14] Alma: So that's kind of what I thought I'd do when I was a Springer. When I was in that. So jump ahead, I'm getting ready to graduate from college and everybody's telling you, you know, if you want to be a novelist, you need to have some life experiences you're too young or too inexperienced. So I heard about applying to NSA national security agency, and back then nobody knew anything about NSA, even less than a million.
[00:33:39] Alma: But there was a lot of wacky stories about it. So I thought, well, I'll apply. And just applying was weird enough and that was an experience, but they did offer me a job. And so I thought, well, I'll go just for the building, the life experience thing. I'll stay a few years and then I'll leave. Well, I stayed for over 30 years.
[00:33:57] Alma: It was a amazing career back then. Not quite, especially for NSA, which has very peculiar needs. There weren't always degree programs to train people for the kinds of things they needed. So they hired for aptitude and someone like me would not be hired by them today when you have too many really talented people coming out of the college pipeline and elsewhere.
[00:34:20] Alma: But yeah, so this story wouldn't happen today, but you know, it was a happy coincidence. When you start there, especially back then, they really didn't like you doing things on the outside, even if it had nothing to do with intelligence. So I stopped writing entirely. I was a music journalist at the time and I dropped my columns and I didn't write again for 15 years until I turned 40 and decided that I wanted to give it a try again, but more as a, like for personal fulfillment than thinking I was going to have accomplishing.
[00:34:52] David: Two things I love about that story. One is you're referencing, starting at 40 quote unquote, and then having a real hit by the fifties. [00:35:00] And, you know, people are always going, oh, I'm getting too old to start here, but I always referenced stories like. I want to say, I think Don Winslow wasn't even a big hit until he was like the fifties and you know yeah.
[00:35:11] David: Jeffrey boom. Why is he blanking on me on the side? No, no, but he talking about prolific anyway. It's funny how we sometimes get caught up in the yeah, I'm too old for that. And I say bomb bug. Oh look at Rick who came out with the opinion and scorpion this barbershop detective story. I mean he's 77.
[00:35:38] David: That's his first book. Yeah, right.
[00:35:42] Alma: Well, luckily ages is sort of, you know, good for writing it. It just gives you more experiences and you know, to choose from, and it gives you, you have more context and perspective. I'm not saying young people can't write. There's certainly been a lot of young writers.
[00:35:58] Alma: Who've written very good books. I'm just saying it's not. The obstacle to writing, right. It's
[00:36:03] David: like seasonal cooking. Right. And the other phrase I really love is happy coincidence. Sometimes people will see that happy coincidence and they'll go, oh, it's just a coincidence. I see them as blessings in life that go that push you forward that like, oh, well that popped up in my path.
[00:36:19] David: And maybe I should go that way. And sometimes that's the exact way you should go. Right.
[00:36:23] Alma: Right. Absolutely. Early on, I just sort of. Decided that, you know, I, I just didn't want to have the kind of life where I'm sorry, I didn't pursue different opportunities. So I just really try to be open to, to trying new things.
[00:36:39] Alma: Not so much now I'm not going to go bungee jumping or something off giant flares, but, you know, I like to try things and you know, it certainly helps keep your brain younger to, you know, find new things every few years.
[00:36:52] David: Yeah. You don't, you don't have to rip your hips out of sockets just to learn something.
[00:36:57] Alma: Right. Absolutely not to. You don't have to do it to know that it's kind of crazy.
[00:37:02] David: I will say this though. I had a lot of friends back in the day who were pair, you know, they love to jump out of planes and I thought that's so insane. And then one day I'm like, yeah, I got to do that. And I did it. And I wouldn't trade it for the world.
[00:37:16] David: Those first couple of seconds, though, what's rushing through your mind bef besides the fact that all that wind is hitting you and you can barely catch your breath is that I just jumped out of a perfectly good plane to soar into the white unknown. And I hope this ends well, but exhilarating
[00:37:37] Alma: usually doesn't well, so.
[00:37:41] Alma: Yeah, not me. I dunno. I mean, I know that if I had to, I would. Yeah, but why do it just for fun it's
[00:37:48] David: yeah, sure. Before we get to a rapid fire questions and kinda things that wrap things up. I want to ask you this. Oh, I want to, I want to make sure I get this first is Lindsay Dunkin sequels coming out.
[00:38:00] David: Next year, right? What month? Probably around
[00:38:02] Alma: March 20, 23.
[00:38:04] David: Okay. And the fervor, which is your historical horror is coming out actually this like in just days,
[00:38:12] Alma: like in a week? Yeah, April 26.
[00:38:15] David: Okay. So wait a minute. If, if red widow came out in March and the fervor is coming out in April, does that mean we can look for something every month for the rest of the year?
[00:38:27] Alma: I don't even know if I can keep this schedule up with one new book a year. It's tough, especially now I'm trying to fold TV into all this too. It's a
[00:38:38] David: All right. Stop the presses. I completely, I heard that I jumped on it in my mind, but I didn't stay with it because I'm a huge fan of turning projects into TV and film.
[00:38:48] David: So tell me, is it red widow? That's going into.
[00:38:52] Alma: Yes, we were very lucky in that Fox acquired the film rights. They picked up the option before the, before the book was commerce, I think so. Cause they'd had it for almost two years now and they were very committed to it. So we've been chugging right along.
[00:39:09] Alma: And right now this week, as a matter of fact, I'm waiting to hear whether or not they're going to green. That we can start filming the pilot. We had a change in executive leadership at Fox a little while ago, and they wanted a rewrite of the pilot. So it's dragged out a little bit longer, but, but we're hoping we're going to proceed.
[00:39:29] Alma: And then this week we're pitching the hunger for a TV series.
[00:39:35] David: You are living my ultimate dream. You realize that
[00:39:39] Alma: I'm super lucky. I know. And super, super lucky. And I have a great team of people around me who really work to get things done.
[00:39:47] David: This is where you would insert shout outs to your. If you'd like to go right ahead.
[00:39:53] Alma: Well, my agent is Richard pine, who is the president of inkwell management. He's a super, super [00:40:00] agent, has a lot of I'm the lowest rung on his ladder of clients. So I'm very, very lucky to have him and Eliza on scene, who is one of the other agents at the agency. And she's super good. And Angela Chang Caplin is my film rights agent.
[00:40:20] Alma: So lucky, really unbelievably lucky. It's hard, you know, it's hard to sustain a career in publishing.
[00:40:27] David: It is not easy. And I, and I, you know, I, I want to make sure that I don't belittle this, but I do. I've been in and around Hollywood, a better part of my entire life, both radio, TV, and film. And so I do know that you can get picked up you know, you can buy the option and people can sit on it before.
[00:40:46] David: Oh years, maybe decades even. And sometimes it never gets done. Sometimes they pick it up in order for you not to have it picked up by somebody else
[00:40:55] Alma: that does it,
[00:40:57] David: but you're so close. I have a feeling and FA double fingers crossed that. You're a, yeah, there you go. That you're going to get it into a play and that's going to come up in rapid fire questions.
[00:41:09] David: But before we do that, I do have this one question. I ask a similar question. Of all my guests. So with six novels under your belt and a master's, what is the single best piece of advice you would give writers? Now this could be up and coming. This could be published. This could be people who are just toying with the idea, but if you had to boil it down to like one or two ideas, Well,
[00:41:34] Alma: that's really tough because two audiences, very different published authors and people that were up and coming.
[00:41:40] Alma: I mean, it certainly applies to everybody, but I would hope if you're a published author, you already understand this is to read what we talked about earlier. Read a lot and read diversely. Don't just read in your genre because that's, what's going to make you a better writer and that's gonna kind of make your, you know, your books better.
[00:41:57] Alma: For people who are already like you sold their first book or just starting out, it's really easy to underestimate how important networking is. You really have to build your community, your tribe in the writers community, usually within your genre. Because these people are not your competition.
[00:42:17] Alma: These people you're going to help each other get along. You're going to blurb each other. You're going to be on panels together at conferences. You're going to recommend a, you know, somebody who's going to lose their agent and somebody else is going to help them find a new one. Or you're going to compare notes on an editor who wants to acquire your book.
[00:42:35] Alma: So. Really make the effort to become part of the community. Don't think that they're going to come to you, you know, attend writers' conferences, go to writers, readings, follow them on social media. I mean, don't stock them. I've had people follow me and immediately asked me to blurb the book they're working on.
[00:42:53] Alma: Don't do that, but you know, follow them and kind of see how they handle themselves and, and get to know them. And if you like their work, then genuinely, you know, instigate a friendship there. Yeah.
[00:43:05] David: That is such solid advice. Yeah. Stalking and following are two different things.
[00:43:12] Alma: You want to help folks, but you can't help everybody.
[00:43:15] Alma: And so, you know, sometimes, and I did it too. You're trying to sell your book or trying to get out there. Before the book is ready. And so, you know, you might get a little pushback and if you get that pushback, you might ask yourself, you know, maybe I'm not as ready as I think I am. Yeah.
[00:43:33] David: Excellent folks. I hope you're listening.
[00:43:34] David: Okay. Now it is time for rapid fire questions. Do not let your Palm sweat. This is not hard. Alright, Alma. You're given the job to work alongside Lindsay Duncan and an on a new case. What is the one thing you think you'd bring to the dangerous situation that would help E help keep the case moving smoothly?
[00:43:58] David: In other words, what's your best instincts on the.
[00:44:02] Alma: Well, I'm a really good analysts. And being an analyst means, understanding right, the 360 of something. And I've been a manager. I mean, I've managed some huge projects. I'm a bit of a control freak, so I'll probably be sort of shepherding her alone. I don't know that.
[00:44:20] Alma: She'd appreciate it though. Huh? Fair enough.
[00:44:22] David: Alright. Fair enough. All right. Here's the two-part question. I'm kind of famous for it. You've just landed a new book contract and have found yourself in a long train ride on the next case. What is the album or genre of music you'll be listening to on this long train ride that we don't have to worry about where it is and so forth.
[00:44:39] David: And will you be crafting an outline or will you pants the book?
[00:44:45] Alma: Well, let me do it in reverse order. I always outlined, like if you're writing a thriller, especially, it would be really hard to parents. And although I know writers who, who do I mean, I use spreadsheets to keep track of everything that's going on.
[00:44:59] Alma: And [00:45:00] that's mostly for the revision process, because then it's easier for me to find the precise place where things happen or you know, where a cascading event starts and all that kind of stuff. They're super complicated. I call them the most complicated Jengo puzzles in the world. As far as the music is concerned, I actually don't listen to music when I write and I haven't for a long time.
[00:45:21] Alma: Probably just because I'm afraid of words getting stuck on my head if I really need to concentrate. And it's been a while and I'm having a hard time getting into something. I use oral brainwave tapes all times, and that's just, it almost sounds like white noise, but the oral patterns are sort of embedded in the noise and it just really, for some reason it helps me focus and I'll only need to do that like for a day.
[00:45:45] Alma: And then usually I can jump right there.
[00:45:47] David: Have you heard of binaural beats?
[00:45:51] Alma: The name of the one that I use?
[00:45:52] David: Well, there's the technique. It piggybacks on what you're just saying. There's a binaural beat that you can embed inside of music and it will bounce from spheres of your brain electronically and subtly.
[00:46:06] David: And what it does is it somehow creates this ability to just focus on what your.
[00:46:11] Alma: Huh? That must be what it is. It's super good.
[00:46:17] David: All right. You're celebrating the fact that Hollywood has just bought red widow to put on the big spring. Oh, we just found that out who knew them before even,
[00:46:28] David: and you get to act as executive producer in this particular role, which means you get to choose the lead. Who's going to play Lindsey dog.
[00:46:38] Alma: That's a really tough one. We started having that conversation. Believe it or not. What makes it tough is I don't watch as much TV and movies as I should. So I'm not as good with like the current.
[00:46:50] Alma: Batch of actors and actresses. So I actually don't have an opinion on this. I have more of an opinion on Theresa.
[00:46:58] David: Let's do this and make it that way. I
[00:47:01] Alma: pictured a Kate Blanchet the whole time that I was writing that, that, that character. And I still do of course that's never going to happen, but she would be the perfect teacher.
[00:47:11] Alma: Wait, wait,
[00:47:12] David: wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. This is dreamscape time. You can dream as big as you want. Who know you do not know young lady. Kate might read this book on her own train ride and go. I've got to play Teresa. It's
[00:47:26] Alma: a great role. I would encourage you to think about it.
[00:47:31] David: Let's get a region on the phone, right?
[00:47:35] David: All right. Part of that same question. Now, Hollywood has asked you to make a cameo scene in one of the roles. It can be as smaller, as big as you want. It doesn't matter. Who would that be and why? And of course, for folks reading red widow, you'd have to know the characters, but for the sake of this fun game, she gets to.
[00:47:52] David: Don't they usually
[00:47:53] Alma: only make, let authors do like really tiny cameo rules, you know, like being the cashier in the, in the cafeteria or something like
[00:48:02] David: that. Here's what you don't understand about your new friend, David temple. I'm a big, big dreamer. I dream as big as I possibly can. I don't like to play by the rules and that's a whole other story about being a PK growing up.
[00:48:15] David: But anyway, we're not rule followers. I don't, you know, rules are made to be broken. In my world, you dream as big as you Canada doesn't matter. So you can be anybody you want young lady,
[00:48:26] Alma: I don't know. Maybe I'd be one of the officers down at the national security council. Yeah, I never did do that, but that would be interesting.
[00:48:36] Alma: I went down there a lot, but that's probably like such a wonkish thing that most people won't understand what a wonky job that is, but
[00:48:44] David: wonkish thing, I'm going to add that to my vocabulary wonkish. I do know wonky, so I guess it's a derivative of wonky, right?
[00:48:52] Alma: Walks policy walks down in, in DC. They're the, you know, people that sit in these really boring.
[00:48:59] Alma: Jobs and are super obsessed with the details of whatever. Thing they work, whether it's Europe or Russia or, you know, that sort of thing.
[00:49:07] David: That sounds like people who would really love spreadsheets and Xcells and all that stuff. Well,
[00:49:12] Alma: the spreadsheets, that's the way I write all my outlines and stuff are in Excel.
[00:49:17] Alma: And. Well, why isn't it going to list? We spend a lot of time, a spreadsheet
[00:49:21] David: I'm breaking out in a hive. Just thinking about a young rhyme. All right. Big finale. Last question. You and your husband are invited to join my wife and I for a nice celebratory dinner here in San Diego. It's our treat before you launch your book tour, which by the way is going to start at Warwick's down in LA Jolla, insert plug alert here.
[00:49:41] David: You can invite to. To join us for that dinner. We'd love to just enlarge the conversation they can be living or past. It can be as big. This is back to dream factory, be as big as you want. Who would those two folks be and why?
[00:49:56] Alma: You're really good at. [00:50:00] Wishing things I'm not good at wishing things. I mean, I'd love, unfortunately he's passed, but John Le Carre I'd love to talk to him.
[00:50:09] Alma: I'm sure he would be fascinating to spend an evening with who else? Wow. One person. It's like more than I could hope for. I don't know
[00:50:17] David: what, see, that's the thing. If you don't dream big, can you live as big? I don't think so.
[00:50:23] Alma: Right, right. I'm sure. You're right. I don't know. So seriously, I love Denise min.
[00:50:32] Alma: I've never had a chance to meet her. She's a Scottish writer, crime writer. She had a relatively big book of very recently called conviction, but she's been writing a long time and she's brilliant. And now she's doing television, I think in Scotland. Her name again, Denise Mina, M I N a
[00:50:52] David: Denise Mina and John Le Carre.
[00:50:54] David: That sounds like, I mean, that's a P that's a quadriplegic. Wait, it would be fun. Yeah. That is fun. Okay. Well, Superbad answers and I hope you walk away Alma. After leaving the thriller zone thinking I'm going to dream even.
[00:51:12] Alma: I hope so you're an inspiration. Oh,
[00:51:15] David: thank you. Thank you. Hey folks, if you'd like to learn more about Alma, visit Alma katsu books.com.
[00:51:21] David: It's a gorgeous website. And when you get to, let me take a second here. If you go to books and you pull up the books page, just look at the saturated colors and the gorgeous, deeply engaging covers. You don't get that everywhere. Young lady, I'm going to tell you that right now,
[00:51:41] Alma: Ilsa brink. That's the website designer.
[00:51:44] Alma: Fabulous man.
[00:51:45] David: Okay. And also besides the website, you can follow her as I do on Twitter at Alma katsu, Alma. This has been truly magnificent. What a fun time.
[00:51:56] Alma: Oh, thank you so much. Yes. I've had a great time. It's I love listening to your voice. You've been an amazing.
[00:52:01] David: Thank you. And if you haven't learned, I haven't listened to the podcast.
[00:52:07] David: We have oodles and oodles. We've been at this since June. We're coming up on our first year anniversary. Matter of fact, I think you're going to be episode like number, I don't know, 62. So yeah, there's plenty to listen to. And so many talented people on this show. I'm just a lucky, lucky guy.
[00:52:27] Alma: Well, thank you so much.
[00:52:28] Alma: Thank you for doing this. Cause you know, authors, we need all the help we can get. Right? This is very generous of you,
[00:52:33] David: Alma. You're a sweetheart. I'll get out of your hair cause you got stuff to do, but thank you again. You do
[00:52:37] Alma: too well. I'm going to have to struggle snow. It's snowing here. Thank you so much.
[00:52:41] Alma: This was a lot. I know a lot of fun.
[00:52:45] David: Bye-bye man. Thanks again, Alma. You are delightful. And this book is a heck of a read, read widow. Now how about this coming Thursday coming up on the 28th a book I've been waiting to get my hands on. I have not ready yet, but I will by then Peter Ferris, the devil himself, check it out.
[00:53:02] David: This is getting all kinds of buzz. Rolling stone, calls it Southern more set to an infernal tempo. That's the kind of book I want to get my hands on, plus I'm from the south. So I think there's going to be all kinds of things I can relate to. Thank you again to our new sponsors. Writer's block coffee. As you heard in the show very excited about having a new sponsor and of course always thanks to author bites.com for sponsoring the show.
[00:53:28] David: You know, it takes a lot to put this thing together. By the time we record it and edit it, both audio and video, that would be audio on all your podcast, channels and video on. Tube.com/the thriller zone. Finally, so thank you so much and thanks for the nice comments and the five star reviews on apple podcast.
[00:53:48] David: You can always go there and leave us a review. We won't be hating on that. Folks may get a great week and I will see you next time. Right here with another thrilling episode of the thriller zone.