Five of Alma Katsu’s novels combine history with horror or the supernatural, including THE HUNGER (international award winning, Stoker nominated, and one of the best horror novels of all time per NPR) and THE DEEP (Stoker nominated). But her latest book, RED WIDOW, is also her first spy novel, combining her love of storytelling with a 30+ year career in intelligence.
FROM SPY TO SPY WRITER
by Alma Katsu
Some people think it’s odd that, being an intelligence professional, my first five novels were all about magic, fantasy, ghoulies, and such. All that changed one day when, meeting my editor at Putnam, she asked if I’d ever thought about writing a spy novel.
I sent her the proposal for RED WIDOW a week later.
The truth was that I’d always wanted to write a spy novel—had always thought I should be able to write one. I’d been in the business a long time and had a varied and, honestly, extra interesting career. I’d split my service between CIA and NSA and even spent time at a think tank. I’d been in the West Wing and briefed Congress. Met with foreign liaison on lonely hilltops overseas.
Still, just because you know something doesn’t necessarily mean you can spin a good story around it. It’s doubly hard with the spy business. There’s a lot of mythology built up around it. People think they know espionage but what you see in movies and TV is not the real thing.
More importantly, though, modern readers have certain expectations. They want stories that jump off the page, big explosions and a loner hero running in at the last minute to save the day. In real life, however, we’d call that an intelligence failure. The job of intelligence is to keep from getting to that point. It’s about nudging and tweaking, making course corrections so there are no explosions in the market square, so someone doesn’t get assassinated.
But that doesn’t make for good drama and so, for years, I resisted writing a spy novel because it ran counter to what I knew as an intelligence professional.
By the time I had that talk with my editor, however, I could see the possibility of telling a story that would be true to the reality of working in intelligence but would also be compelling. That could balance action and drama with insight, reason, and a little bit of tradecraft. RED WIDOW is a book that satisfies both sides of me, the writer and the former spy.
The other thing I wanted to accomplish with a spy novel was to show what it’s really like for women. It should come as no surprise that in intelligence, a woman’s career is a little different than a man’s—in that respect, the intelligence profession is like most any other. You are sometimes judged for a trespass that wouldn’t get the same scrutiny if you were a man. Maintaining a security clearance already means you have to keep your nose clean, but as a woman you have to be above reproach in every respect. I remember a Defense Investigative Service officer—the guys who do the background checks—once telling me he was shocked that a coworker of mine had gone to a club with male exotic dancers for her bachelorette party. He was in a position to judge her behavior as unsuitable and to take away her clearance. I doubt he had similar reservations about guys who went to strip clubs.
CIA, in particular, is full of type As, both male and female, ultra-competitive types with high expectations. It can be challenging to make and keep friends in an environment like that, but I’m happy to report that CIA is not the kind of place that turns women against each other. I wanted to show that the old stereotype about women not being able to get along in the workplace was wrong, so that’s at the heart of RED WIDOW: it’s the story of two women who get pitted against each other but find a way to work together to save one of them after she makes a terrible mistake.
Spy fiction tends to be dominated by male writers and male protagonists, but I think female readers will find the intelligence world fascinating if they give it a chance. And now that female leaders in the IC like former Director of CIA Gina Haspel and former Director of National Intelligence Gordon have shown us what’s possible in real life, I definitely think it’s time for fiction to follow suit.