THE HUNGER

The latest Written Backwards interview is with Alma Katsu, award-winning author of The Hunger, a reimagining of the Donner Party, which Stephen King called “Deeply, deeply disturbing, hard to put down, not recommended reading after dark.” She is also the author of a trilogy of books including The Taker, The Reckoning, and The Descent, and her forthcoming novel The Deep is now available for pre-order.

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So, the interview [ by Michael Bailey ]:

Last November, my extended family and I decided to spend Thanksgiving in Truckee, California. We all needed a getaway to somewhere remote, somewhere in the mountains. We needed fresh air, and trees, and less noise. So, we thought, why not spend the holiday at Donner Pass, site of the ill-fated Donner Party? For Thanksgiving! Why not check out Donner Memorial State Park while we’re there?

As California natives, we had all been to Truckee before, many times, mostly traveling through to get to other places, or visiting the lake, but none of us had ever been to the museum or monument (it’s kind of strange knowing that so long ago the mountains were impenetrable in the winters, and now the pass is a freeway thoroughfare). And so we rented a house close by and stayed for a long weekend.

We toured the museum, and craned our necks looking up at the 22-foot-tall pedestal, upon which stands the pioneer monument (the 22 feet representing the level of snowfall in the winter of 1846-47). And we read the inscription: VIRILE TO RISK AND FIND; KINDLY WITHAL AND A READY HELP. FACING THE BRUNT OF FATE; INDOMITABLE—UNAFRAID. Our kids were into it as well (although they were constantly wondering why we’d take them to such a place for Thanksgiving, of all things); they had learned of the Donner Party in school. “They ate each other, right?” Public education in California … that’s what you get.

When you say “Donner Party,” people usually grimace and talk people-food, about cannibalism. But what we soon discovered during our visit was that not much is known of the actual “eating each other” part of their story (although that’s all I was ever taught in school, and all they apparently still teach in school, according to the kids). The only mention of cannibalism at the museum, in fact, is a single placard on one of the displays (you really have to look for it), which mentions that there’s not much evidence of the Donner Party resorting to cannibalism. To be honest, it was kind of a letdown.

While there, we purchased a game in the gift shop called Donner Dinner Party. The point of the game: to either secretly turn to cannibalism (as if by disease) and turn others, or to survive being eaten (which is much more difficult, as it turns out, and not as fun as the desire to turn other players). As it turns out, it snowed while we were there. Some of the smaller streams were frozen over, but we were lucky enough not to resort to eating one another, other than in-game.

Soon after this little getaway, I discovered (by way of the Horror Writers Association) a recommended book called The Hunger by Alma Katsu, a western of sorts, a historical novel. And that was that. Out of all the books I read that year, The Hunger quickly became a favorite.

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Michel Bailey: As part of your research, you visited Donner State Memorial Park. What can you tell us about that visit, and what were some of the highlights?

Alma Katsu: I definitely recommend it if you’re ever out that way. Knowing, intimately, what happened on the sites certainly made it very meaningful to me—it felt like some sanctified space. It’s odd to think that it’s a recreational park, and that you can camp, swim, and hike close to the actual place where so many people suffered and died. The lake was very dark when I was there, the surface like black glass, and inspired the scene where they’re slaughtering the remaining cattle at the water’s edge, right before all hell breaks loose.

Folks also shouldn’t miss Alder Creek, where the Donner families were trapped away from the rest of the wagon party. It’s is a few miles down the road, quieter and less visited. The tree which the families camped beneath was hit by lightning and all that remains of it is a charred stump. It’s beautiful in an eerie, lonely way.

MB: Besides Donner Pass, where else did you find your information on the expedition?

AK: So much research went into this book. I refer to it as a complex historical research project because (1) it was a well-known event tied to a specific timeline, (2) it followed a specific physical path, and (3) had a large cast of characters, over 100. In other words, it was grounded in time and space, and is a fairly famous event so you can’t take too many liberties with it. I’m a researcher by profession, so I streamlined the work as much as possible (so as not to get pulled into a spiral of never-ending research) and relied on a lot of spot research to fill in the gaps. I got so many questions about the research process while I was touring that I developed a workshop for writers on efficient historical research.

The interesting thing about this particular event is that while there is a fair amount of professional documentation, there’s nearly as much from amateur genealogists and family histories. While it was great getting these special insights, there were problems, too: discrepancies between accounts, slight variations in the facts, and no way to settle these types of differences. In the end, you just have to decide what you want to use: is it fiction, after all.

MB: In terms of the Donner Party, most of what is known / taught are their struggles in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which is a very small part of the overall story. What I admire most about the novel is that you focus on (for the better part of half its length or longer) the many struggles they experience much earlier in their tale, from Springfield, Illinois onward. What made you want to focus on that part of their story?

AK: We all think we know the story of the Donner Party, but what most of us know is the end: the mountain pass, the terrible snowfall, starvation, the choice they’re left with. But there’s so, so much more to the story, and you get a sense of that once you start learning the history. The journey started 1,400 miles and many months earlier, when a group of strangers happened to descend on the jumping off point—Independence, in what was then the territory of Missouri—setting the stage for the gruesome story that was to come. And it was gruesome and strange from the outset. People died, people disappeared. It was like they were cursed from the very beginning.

It’s an interesting point in American history, too: the country was half wilderness. What made people want to walk away from everyone they knew and everything that was familiar to head into the complete unknown? What were they looking for and why did they think they’d find it on the other side of the continent? We can barely imagine today, with modern communications and cars and other creature comforts, how difficult the journey to California and Oregon was. It was more than an adventure: it was literally life-and-death.

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MB: In John Langan’s review of The Hunger for Locus, he states, “It’s a testament to Katsu’s skill as a writer that she creates characters so compelling that we can’t help hoping they will escape the fate we knew was hurtling toward them the moment we opened the book.” I must admit: I never once worried about already knowing the fate of the Donners and their other party members, as I’d heard prior to reading that the book was a bit supernatural. Why did you decide to go the supernatural route?

AK: The story of the Donner Party, as incredible as it is, seemed to be a story that begged for a supernatural twist. It was gruesome and strange from the outset. They got off to a late start, but then seemed to ignore the danger of lagging behind even though they knew the danger. People died, people disappeared.

I’ve always loved the presence of the supernatural in a story. Fiction is about making us realize the truth about life, our lives. To break through the veil of the everyday that, in some ways, dulls us and lulls us into complacency. By introducing an element of the supernatural, we get the reader’s attention: something extraordinary is going on! Listen up! Plus, we all want to believe that there’s more to life than what we know, that there’s something important and wondrous waiting for us just beyond what our eyes and fingertips tell us, if we’re patient enough.

MB: The characters in the book are a blend of fiction and nonfiction. Did you have any trepidation (or challenges) writing fiction about real historical individuals?

AK: Absolutely! I had to change some aspects of the characters—for one thing, how can you really know what a person is like if you’ve never met them. Especially individuals who were not especially famous. Diaries and newspaper accounts and all the usual source material can be biased. But more importantly, I was writing fiction, not a biography. I needed characters who were going to fill certain roles in the story, so they weren’t necessarily going to be the exact same people who’d lived through the ordeal.

Also, I was a little worried that a descendant of the Donner Party would object, but then I found out that it’s almost impossible to be sued for libeling a deceased person. That made me a little less worried. There’s the ethical concern, but as I said I knew I wasn’t writing a biography. In the end, blending the real and the fictional in the characters’ lives has been fun for me, and for readers (I think). I get lots of emails from readers who say The Hunger inspired them to learn more about the real life wagon party.

MB: What can you tell us about the characters you created?

AK: The Hunger has about a half-dozen POV characters, and a good many more minor characters out of a wagon party of about 100. After just a little research, the contenders for the POV roles were pretty obvious because they had distinguished themselves during the journey—heroically for the most part, but not all of them. You have Tamsen Donner, wife of George Donner, the ostensible leader of the wagon party. Tamsen was a woman of intelligence and aspirations. Yet she died on the mountaintop, staying behind with George at the end even though she was healthy and could’ve made it down with one of the rescue parties. Why did she sacrifice herself rather than leave with her daughters? There’s Charles Stanton, one of the bachelors on the trek, who rode ahead to get food the first time the party ran low, and returned to such dire circumstances even though there was no reason besides decency. And James Reed, the man who actually led the wagon party for a good length of time, inexplicably killed one of the drovers in a fit of rage and was expelled from the wagon party with nothing, a sure death sentence. You read about these people and it makes you wonder, how did they end up here? What secrets might they be hiding? What choices or mistakes in their lives brought them to this desperate place?

The same is true of the villains. Lewis Keseberg, the member of the Donner Party most associated with cannibalism—incredibly disagreeable by all accounts—you have to wonder what was it about him that made it possible to surrender to cannibalism so readily? And then two men who were indirectly responsible: Lansford Hastings, a charlatan who sent the Donners down the untried trail, and Jim Bridger, who had fallen on hard times and was trying to make Hasting’s new trail to California a success.

But those are just some of them. The Hunger is a character-driven book, and there are many more to choose from. It was a pleasure getting to build and bring each one to life.

MB: The Hunger is a historical western, it’s horror, it’s thriller, and many other things. In fact, it won the 2019 Western Heritage Award for Best Novel, and was nominated for both the Locus Award for Best Horror Novel of 2018, and the Bram Stoker Award (from the Horror Writers Association) for Superior Achievement in a Novel. That said: What are your thoughts on cross-genre fiction?

AK: I love cross-genre fiction and I think readers do, too. It seems like the big blockbusters that take the industry by storm every couple of years tend to be cross-genre. Maybe the unexpectedness of the story helps with the word-of-mouth. The downside is that cross-genre is hard to market. It’s hard for audiences to find it because the mechanisms for discovery—newsletters from publishers and book stores, recommendation engines online—tend to be siloed. I’ve been very lucky in that horror people who loved the book overlooked the historical aspect, and vice versa.

MB: I had the pleasure of briefly meeting you at StokerCon, and during one of the panels you mentioned a future project involving the Titanic. Will this also be a mix of different genres? What can you tell us about this project without giving away too much?

The Deep

AK: The next book, The Deep, is a ghost story that’s mostly set on the Titanic and its sister ship, Britannic, which also sank. It’s historical and has horror elements—ghosts but also a little selkie lore—but it’s also a bit more romantic than The Hunger. I worry that it might have too many genres in it but it holds together. I think it works, but I guess we’ll see.

MB: For this book, where have you gone (or where are you planning to go) for research?

AK: I wasn’t as energetic with this book. I’d hoped to go to Belfast to visit the Titanic shipyard, or at the very least get to one of the Titanic museums stateside, but ran out of time. I did visit a stunning Smithsonian exhibition, but most of my research has been done by book and internet. Because so many people are completely gaga for the Titanic story, there are many great online resources. Finding source material was not a problem. I was spoiled for choice.

MB: One final question, since these interviews are designed to help creatives in general: In terms of research, what advice would you offer those new to historical fiction?

AK: The number one problem I’m asked about has to do with over-researching. Research paralysis. As I mentioned, I got so many questions while on tour about the research I did for The Hunger that I ended up putting together a workshop on being a more efficient researcher. It’s less about specific resources and more about borrowing techniques from the world of professional researchers. You can find the highlights in this article I did for Writer Unboxed.


Find more on Alma Katsu and her work at almakatsubooks.com

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