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Author Talk: June 22, 2012

THE RECKONING, the second book in Alma Katsu’s The Taker Trilogy, takes readers deeper into her expertly crafted, supernatural universe. Lanore tries to put the past behind her to make way for her future with her new love, Luke Findley. However, a shocking realization hits Lanore --- Adair has escaped from his prison and will come looking for her. In addition to unraveling the complex motives and personalities of her characters, Katsu talks about her writing process, the inspiration for the widely varied settings, and her feelings on true love.

Question: How did the process of writing THE RECKONING differ from writing your first novel, THE TAKER?

Alma Katsu: It was completely different. Okay, aside from a laptop computer being involved and getting to work with the same editor, Tricia Boczkowski, it was completely different. It took ten years to write The Taker on my own, wandering in the wilderness, as it were, whereas with THE RECKONING, I had about twenty months and a very clear idea of the story, and the process still didn’t go as I expected. Add the usual angst associated with a sophomore book --- you’ve pulled a rabbit out of a hat once, but can you do it again? --- and all these voices that you now have in your head, the less-than-stellar reviews and criticisms (which every writer gets) of the first book to deal with. Luckily, I have several friends who were also working on second books and we’d get together for lunch and have a good cry. It helps to know other people find it as maddening as you.

Q: InTHE RECKONING, your second book in the trilogy, you delve deeper into the sources and extent of Adair’s alchemical power. How does alchemy’s real history compare to Adair’s life experience?

AK: The practice of alchemy can be seen as the transition between the time when man solely used philosophy/theology to make sense of the world and the beginnings of modern science. It’s chemistry and physics, but intertwined with religion and spirituality, or --- another way to think of it—looking to the natural world for evidence of the divine. Alchemy was practiced for a long time and by many cultures, so --- to address the question directly --- I think its “real history” covers a wide range of experience. In other words, I don’t think there is only one valid “experience” of alchemy. In classical Greek times, practitioners were more apt to look for evidence of the divine in their experiments than, say, a later Westerner practitioner like Sir Isaac Newton. Unlike Sir Isaac Newton, however, Adair studied alchemy over centuries. He started in the flat-earth days, when some worried that attempts to understand the physical world would be an affront of God, and became more inclined over time to see his experiments as purely scientific.

Q: Is alchemy truly magic, or just mastery of natural resources and processes? Would you consider modern-day medicines and procedures comparable to ancient alchemy?

AK: Alchemy is an attempt to understand the world through both the natural/physical and the philosophical. The two are fused; you can’t say alchemy is one or the other, and it’s a reflection of our times (or perhaps Western thought) to think that alchemy can be defined in these terms. The best way to think of it might be as a sliding scale, with pure spirituality on one end (think Paul Coelho’s novel THE ALCHEMIST) and pure science (Sir Isaac Newton) on the other. Even the “holy grails” of alchemy, the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life, have metaphysical properties that can’t be derived solely from the physical world.

Which is why people don’t practice alchemy these days: because we in the West tend to separate modern science and spirituality into two different realms. The scientific and the spiritual have each been banished to its own corner, and we look to science alone to explain the unknowns of the physical world. We know through chemistry that you can’t turn lead into gold, case closed. Or is it? Look at quantum physics: latest research only goes to show that our understanding of the universe is incomplete, and new properties are being uncovered that, at this early stage, look an awful lot like magic.

What the reader should notice in THE RECKONING is that while Adair professes to be a man of science, the feats he performs are more in the realm of magic, even if he doesn’t acknowledge this. There’s a reason, and it will be explained --- all will be explained --- in the next book, THE DESCENT.

Q: InTHE RECKONING, Lanny donates belongings acquired over several lifetimes. What was your inspiration when you described these items, including the fan signed by Lord Byron?

AK: Part of my inspiration comes from a childhood experience. When I was young, we lived next door to an elderly woman, once socially prominent but long a widow, childless, pretty much living in seclusion. Her house was one of the fanciest in town but inside was dark and formal, and seemed very exotic to me, having only lived in military housing up to that point. It was filled with nice but odd things from earlier eras. One thing that stands out in my memory --- to give you an example --- was a pair of ornate wall hangings made with dead birds, stuffed and posed under glass, very Victorian, fancy and creepy at the same time. I suppose some people grew up surrounded by grandma’s “things” but to me, it was like visiting another planet. My mother sent me over to clean her house occasionally, so I got a good look at stuff as I’d dusted and vacuumed. I guess it made more of an impression on me than I realized.

The exhibit in the first chapter of THE RECKONING was inspired by a show held at the Smithsonian in the 1980s, Treasure Houses of Britain: 500 Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting. It was an exhibition of art objects from 200 country homes in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, meant to illustrate the scope of British private collections from the 15th century to the present. It was jaw-dropping to think that these beautiful things normally graced someone’s actual house (granted, the “house” was a grand manor home), that there were people who lived surrounded by priceless masterworks every day.

Q: You write beautifully about several very different eras and geographic locations inTHE RECKONING. What era and location most intrigued you? What kind of research did you do before writing these scenes?

AK: Like most writers, I tend to draw on places and periods in time with which I’m already familiar. This is where being a former intelligence analyst pays off, because you amass a huge amount of random knowledge, especially of geography and history. For instance, when I was with the Defense Department, I spent a lot of time working on Afghanistan --- no surprise there --- and came to learn a lot about the country and the people. That, combined with a fondness for Kipling, led to the idea of Lanny and Savva running guns in the Hindu Kush. For the character of Savva, the perpetual expat on the run from his inner demons, I drew on the lives of two famous Brits who also fell in love with the desert: Paul Bowles, author of THE SHELTERING SKY, and T.E. Lawrence, more widely known as Lawrence of Arabia.

Q: In some ways, flashy technical devices seem magical, but Adair is not impressed; he dismisses them as distractions. Do you identify with Adair’s critique of modern technology --- and society’s addiction to technological devices?

AK: Not at all: having grown up in the age before computers, I have a strong appreciation for technology. I meant for Adair’s disdain of modern technology to show, not so much that he didn’t value technological change as that he was tired of having to keep up with the times. That even an immortal being will act like a crotchety old man sometimes. It’s fairly universal as we age, I think, to be frustrated not so much by technology but by constant change. And these days, nothing exemplifies change like technology. It was interesting to put myself in Adair’s position and think about how much life had changed between the 19th and 21st centuries, and to imagine how someone would leapfrog from the Industrial Revolution to the present day.

Q: How do you approach writing female characters, like Tilde, Lanny, and Trish?

AK: I don’t think I approach female characters any differently than male characters. I try to give all my characters depth, even minor characters. Not to harp on my past life, but analyzing behavior and evaluating people is a big part of intelligence work. You need to figure out what makes a person tick, if they’re being truthful with you, what their motives are, that sort of thing. I try to utilize this experience and understanding of human nature when developing characters. Readers may not see themselves behaving the same way as one of the characters but hopefully, because they understand what drives the characters, their actions will seem natural --- inevitable, even. And that’s why we read novels, isn’t it, to step into someone else’s head for the duration of a few pages?

Q: Do you believe that anyone is capable of the kind of forgiveness Adair is asking of Lanny?

AK: Sure --- you see it every day. You see wives go back to philandering or abusive husbands, children nurse elderly parents who once belittled and tormented them, friends stand by each other despite the hurts they’ve inflicted on each other. Sometimes it’s done consciously, but sometimes it’s done because the person has been so shaped by his experiences that he’s unable to function in a “normal” environment. Maybe he won’t leave out of guilt or obligation, or because he fears if he leaves this person, no one else will love him. Lanny is trying to learn from past mistakes, to reach beyond her fears and insecurities --- just as we all do --- but only time will tell if she’ll be successful.

Yes, Adair is a monster. He is as unfeeling as stone, and has done terrible things to innocent people. In THE RECKONING, however, his stony heart begins to soften. He vows to change and believes he can give Lanny the kind of devotion she has always wanted, if only she’ll give him a chance. He’s not unlike a felon who has committed a terrible crime, but has gone to prison and done his time. He says he’s reformed and only wants a chance to live a normal life. It’s up to Lanny to decide whether it’s in her heart to forgive him and if she wants to be with him. There’s one more waltz before the dance is over, and we see what Lanny decides in the third book, THE DESCENT.

Q: Do you think your characters are capable of experiencing true love?

AK: Absolutely. You might ask, however, what I mean by true love.

To me, true love is the ideal state of love. True love is not conditional. It’s not necessarily a two-way street. It may not be equitable, but you have decided that you can live with the terms. It’s when you love someone so much that you’ll do what’s best for them, even if it’s not going to get you what you want, even when it gets you nothing. It’s not romance. It’s not about what the other person can or will do for you but about what he or she brings to your world, how he makes you want to be a better person. True love works best if the person you love loves you in the same way. Really selfish people cannot know true love. Lots of people experience true love, but can’t sustain it. (There are a lot of broken people out there. They don’t only exist within the pages of my books.)

Q: Redemption is a continuing theme in The Taker Trilogy and the driving force behind Lanny, Adair, and Jonathan’s actions. Is it a theme you identify with in other great works of literature?

AK: I think I identify more with the lack of redemption in literature. It seems a recent trend --- and by recent, I mean the past thirty years or so --- that any character who has fallen from grace must learn his lesson and change his ways by the end of the book. Look at MADAME BOVARY or WUTHERING HEIGHTS, look at Thomas Hardy. To require happy endings is understandable in a children’s book, but in adult literature it seems disingenuous, because in life, most people don’t redeem themselves. They continue through life nursing their shortcomings, the low-grade alcoholism, the occasional extra-marital fling. Of course, most people aren’t as flawed as Lanny and Jonathan, let alone Adair. But that’s the reason for immortality in the story: when you’re this bad, you need a very long time to straighten yourself out.