Kath here. We’re excited that WU community member Alma Katsu agreed to guest post with us today. Alma’s last post with us on difficult structural elements of a novel was so well-received, we asked her for another post, and she happily complied! Alma’s debut novel, The Taker (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster) is releasing on September 6 and we couldn’t be more thrilled for her. Publisher’s Weekly describes The taker as “vividly imagined…full of surprises and a powerful evocation of the dark side of romantic love.”
Take it away, Alma!
When we begin to take up writing fiction, we’re often advised to write about what we already know. That advice seems intuitive: in writing fiction, you’re trying to create a world that feels authentic to the reader. If that world feels unconvincing, the reader will find it hard to get into the story and the “vivid and continuous dream” of your work will be disrupted.
Creating such a world is a daunting task. Confidence plays a big role: it takes a certain amount of confidence to write good fiction. Some writers feel more confident when they write on a subject they already know well because it makes it that much easier to manage the research. You already have a head start: you don’t have to begin at the ground floor and work your way up levels of detail, but can zoom in on specific areas where you know you need to do some extra work.
Some people don’t take this approach. Me, for instance. If I did, my first novel would’ve been a spy thriller. You see, until recently, I was an intelligence analyst at CIA. When I started meeting literary agents a few years ago, I often was encouraged to write a spy novel. I tried, but the results were disappointing. I might’ve been the only writer in American who could make a spy novel boring. Or, as one literary agent said to me, “Nobody wants to read about somebody who is just doing their job.” The problem was guilty knowledge: I knew what the job really entailed and felt uncomfortable making it into something that conformed to Hollywood’s idea of the intelligence business. Plus, working through plausible plots—terrorism, international organized crime, black market arms—was too much like going back to work after I’d already put in my eight hours.
Like most people, I write fiction to exercise my imagination. I don’t write to dramatize my daily life. For me, it’s best when my writing takes me someplace I’ve never been before, when I get to learn new things or imagine what it would be like to be another person. For The TAKER, I got to create and live in several new worlds: a village in 1800s backwoods Maine, a castle keep in 1300s Eastern Europe. I got to be a young woman living at a time when the most important decision in her life would be which man she would marry, and I got to be a Roma gypsy boy sold into indentured servitude. I think it was because I had to build these worlds brick by brick in my head that they are so vivid in The TAKER, and certainly more vivid than the characters and plots I rather dutifully made for the failed spy novels.
For a thorough and thoughtful exploration of this topic, I recommend Harvard writing professor Bret Anthony Johnson’s piece in the Atlantic. In it, he makes the case that the point of fiction is to make us—both the writer and the reader—experience life more broadly. And ultimately, that is the difference between fiction and nonfiction; facts are the beginning in fiction, from which we explore the possible and the unexpected, and discover the connections that help us make sense of the world.