By Leslie Lindsay
We might all be familiar with the fated Donner Party, a group of pioneers struggling across the Great Plains as they journeyed west to California. But only some of it made it there alive.
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Vulture: 13 Best Horror Books Written by Women
Best Books of 2018 – The Observer
An NPR Best Horror Novel
Barnes & Noble Best Horror of 2018
Nominated for Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel of 2018
Winner – 2019 Western Heritage Award for Best Novel
And a glowing endorsement from Stephen King:
“Deeply, deeply disturbing,
hard to put down,
not recommended reading
THE HUNGER (available in paperback, March 5 2019 from Putman/PRH) is a tense, gripping reimagining of one of America’s most fascinating and tragic moments in history: The Donner Party. In 1846, a group of men, women, and children led by George Donner and James Reed journeyed west to California, following a new experimental route through the mountains known has Hastings’ Cutoff. Of the eighty-some souls who entered the mountains, only half made it out alive. Was it more than just rough terrain and severe weather that brought the party to its demise? Or was there someone or something watching and waiting in the mountains? Something disturbed and hungry?
I love this slightly sinister, supernatural, dark and foreboding re-telling of the events that might have happened. Read this one with the lights on. But first, join me in conversation with Alma Katsu.
Alma, this book is very different from your novels in the ‘Taker’ series. Was writing this novel more difficult than the others?
I’ve been telling fans that THE HUNGER is very different from my earlier novels. It’s an ensemble cast; it’s not a love story. All of my books have both history and the supernatural in them, but with THE HUNGER the proportions are flipped: The Taker books are heavy on fantasy, with history providing flavor, whereas in THE HUNGER the history is front and center, with the supernatural element running in the background.
Each had its challenges. The history in THE HUNGER is demanding: you have to honor the timeline as well as the map, and that means being creative within constraints. You can’t do anything you want when history is watching.
So, how closely does your story follow the events the settlers encountered on the trail?
The book follows the events that happened to the real Donner Party pretty closely. One blogger wrote that this is what makes THE HUNGER so creepy–because it’s so close to what really happened, the novel feels completely plausible. Readers are going to have a hard time telling which incidents really happened and which were created for the novel, and I’m proud of that.
“An inventive reimagining…Westward migration, murder, sensation: the story of the Donner Party has all this….Katsu creates a riveting drama of power struggles and shifting alliances….The tensions [she] creates are thrilling.”
Was it hard to write characters that are based on actual historical figures? Did you take any creative liberties with them?
While I kept as much of the backstory as possible, I had to take creative liberties with the characters in order to tell the story I wanted to tell, which is not strictly the story of the Donner Party but which uses their ordeal to tell a bigger tale. I love vivid characters but often with history, you don’t get a complete sense of a figure, particularly if the figure isn’t deemed historically significant. Sometimes they’re whitewashed, their bad parts left out; no one likes to speak ill of the dead. In other cases, they’re incomplete, just names and birthdates and maybe one tiny detail left to sum up an entire person. In order to make characters come alive on the page, you have to know everything about them, so you must imagine them as real living breathing people. It was fun to create new characters from pieces of the past, but tailoring them to service the needs of the story.
You must have had to really immerse yourself in the research. Can you tell us about that?
Literally, I did tons of [research]. I have spreadsheets and mountains of books and maps all over my office. I leaned particularly heavily on The Donner Party Chronicles by Frank Mullen, a day-by-day accounting of their journey. Add to that lots and lots of ‘spot’ researching, looking up nearly impossible-to-know things that crop up as you devise a scene. What were buttons made of in 1846? What companies manufactured the shovels and pickaxes prospectors would have used at the time? How many miles can a brace of oxen pull a loaded wagon in a day? What flowers would grow on a farm in Springfield, Illinois?
I also took a 700-mile road trip from Fort Bridger, Wyoming, to Donner Pass, driving as closely to the wagon party’s route as possible. It gave me a true sense of the land, which was immensely changeable. I tried to look at the land through the eyes of a member of the wagon party. I saw the lack of wood, water, and grass that every wagon train needed to find on the trail in order to survive. The elevation changes, the weather. The oppressive openness. The loneliness. The brutal indifference of nature to the needs of man.
How has your government work as an intelligence analyst shaped your fiction?
It’s given me superpowers as a researcher. Intelligence analysis requires a pretty high level of precision, as you can imagine. You’re used to combing through avalanches of data, quickly organizing information as it emerges and pulling out the narrative, and juggling a lot of details. Skills that lend themselves to historical fiction in particular, but also make you good at managing a big project like getting a book published.
I’ll never forget, however, when an editor told me that I was particularly good at creating manipulative characters (so devious that you never see it coming), and she wondered if this had something to do with having worked in intelligence. There’s a type of intelligence operative whose job it is to convince individuals to betray their country by spying for our side. They are ace manipulators and they never turn it off, and I spent most of my adult life working with them, so I have to say she’s probably right.
Can you tell us about your journey to become a writer? Was it something you always aspired to? What writers have inspired or influenced your work?
I was always reading as a kid, always in the library. I wanted to write stories for a living but had no idea how you’d do that, so I took a regular job—if working in intelligence can be considered a regular job. But I never lost the desire to write a novel and was very lucky to see my dream come true at 50 years of age.
There are many authors whose work I admire. Early on, it was a mix of post-modernists like John Barth and canonical horror and fantasy, Edgar Allan Poe and Shirley Jackson. A pretty weird mix, if you think about it. Mostly, I love masterful storytelling. Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine is a great example of that. She never disappoints; every one of her novels is a perfect gem. That’s how I’d like to be known: every book a gem.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of HUNGER, please see:
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alma Katsu is the author of The Taker, The Reckoning, and The Descent. She has been a signature reviewer for Publishers Weekly and a contributor to The Huffington Post. She is a graduate of the Master’s writing program at the Johns Hopkins University and received her bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University. Prior to the publication of her first novel, Katsu had a long career as a senior intelligence analyst for several US agencies and is currently a senior analyst for a think tank. She lives outside of Washington, DC, with her husband.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website. Photo credit: Patrick Milliken Interview in conjunction with Putnam/PRH and used with permission. Artistic cover image designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @LeslieLindsay1]