A life filled with spooky work and stories
Columbia resident Alma Katsu cannot be constrained to one occupation. She’s a former analyst for the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency. She’s a consultant for emerging technologies in the government and private industry.
But she’s also an award-winning author who can’t even be contained within one literary genre, with novels in romance, historical fiction and horror.
“I’m having a better career for having it later in life than if I had found early success,” Katsu said.
Katsu, now 60, published her first novel, The Taker, at the age of 50 in 2011. The Taker, a paranormal romance that eventually became a trilogy, was honored as a top ten debut novel by Booklist and has since been translated into more than 10 languages.
The Hunger, a work of historical fiction about a group of pioneers migrating through the West in the mid-1800s, was named one of NPR’s 100 best horror stories when it was published in 2018, and earned the praise of horror writer icon Stephen King.
As she heads into relative retirement, soon leaving Maryland for West Virginia with her husband, Bruce, Katsu is finally living the life she had imagined as a little girl.
A creepy childhood
Katsu was born the third of four children in Fairbanks, Alaska. When she was 7 years old, she and her family moved to Concord, Massachusetts, which she described as “a creepy little town in New England” filled with old cemeteries and funeral homes.
Inspired by her surroundings, Katsu became obsessed with gothic literature and dreamed of becoming an author. “When you’re a big reader, at some point it crosses your mind that you would like to try to write a novel,” Katsu said.
After graduating high school, Katsu attended Brandeis University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in literature and writing in 1981. Although she wanted to be a journalist, she struggled to find a steady income, working as a freelancer for several news outlets for several years.
Katsu’s older sister, Linda, suggested she apply for a job at the National Security Agency. On a whim, Katsu took the application test and, after scoring well, accepted a job offer. “I went for the weird life experience, and I ended up staying in intelligence for 30 years,” Katsu said.
The agency, however, wanted Katsu to quit writing for news organizations. “The intelligence community doesn’t really like their people in the public eye,” she said. So, in 1982, she decided to give this new career a chance and moved near the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.
Balancing two careers
In 2000, however, Katsu developed a neurological problem that forced her to limit her time on computer screens. Even though she still managed to do her work at the NSA, her brain needed a break from anything too stimulating while at home.
As a form of escape, she took to pen and paper, crafting a new universe of paranormal romance that would eventually become The Taker Trilogy. Katsu then told herself, “’If I get better, I’m going to try to learn to really write a novel.’”
After recovering, in 2001 Katsu decided to attend graduate school part time at Johns Hopkins University. She took classes on evenings and weekends, and began to write every day, flexing her creative muscles.
She moved from the NSA to the CIA in 2003, earning a master’s degree in fiction a year later. “By this point, I had a fairly successful career in intelligence,” she said. “I knew how hard you have to work to be successful.”
For 10 years, she continued her intelligence work with the CIA, writing at night and on the weekends. Then in 2010, The Taker was picked up by a publisher.
She left the CIA the next year, attempting to be a full-time author, but she didn’t like the financial insecurity she felt.
So, in 2012 she joined the Rand Corporation, a think tank focusing on global policy for the U.S. military. Eventually, she returned to the NSA.
Two years ago, Katsu officially retired from the intelligence community, but she still maintains a hectic schedule, between her writing and her private sector consulting work, as mentioned above.
Hitting her stride as a writer
Despite juggling the two careers, Katsu has dedicated herself to a number of writing projects.
She has written five books, contributed to a serialized graphic novel with illustrator Victor Santos in the magazine Porsche Panorama, and created a podcast called “Damned History” to explain the historical background of The Hunger and of her most recent book, The Deep.
Published in March, The Deep is a suspenseful, supernatural tale based on the fact that one woman who survived the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 once again faced eerie occurrences on its sister ship, the HMHS Britannic, in 1916.
Katsu is also working on her first spy novel, Red Widow, set to release next March, and another historical horror novel about World War II.
“A lot of people feel like they have at least one novel in them,” Katsu said. After already publishing five novels, Katsu is only getting started.
The Deep is available in hardcover on Amazon for $18.39. To learn more about Alma Katsu and her novels, visit almakatsubooks.com.
Ed. note: The piece previously stated that Katsu began her career as an author at the age of 51. It was at the age of 50.