By Mark Alpert
Now that I’m writing Young Adult novels – the third one, The Silence (pictured above), is coming out this July – I’ve started getting a lot of emails from high-school and middle-school students. My favorite messages are the ones from kids asking me for help with their book reports.
Some of the kids ask for biographical information, which is easy enough to provide. The kids want to know where I grew up, where I live now, how I occupy myself in my spare time, and whether I have any pets. Other kids want to know about influences: what were my favorite books when I was young, how do I come up with the ideas for my novels, and so on.
And some particularly clever kids cut right to the chase and ask the question that their English teachers undoubtedly urged them to explore: what is the theme of your books? Do they have an argument or a moral? In all likelihood, the teachers expected their students to analyze this question on their own, but it’s such a nebulous question that you can’t really blame the kids for going directly to the source.
I admire this kind of resourcefulness, so when kids ask me if my novels have any message or meaning, I try to give them a straight answer. I wrote the books, so I know their themes better than anyone else does. My wife sometimes chides me – “You’re doing their homework for them!” – but I don’t care. Those kids were smart and brave enough to approach an author, so they deserve a little reward.
When I was a kid, my favorite author was Isaac Asimov. I loved I, Robot and the Foundation series. I wish I’d had the courage back then to send him a note and ask a few questions. I almost got the chance when I was an adult; in 1990, when I was a reporter for Fortune Magazine, I set up an interview with Asimov for a special anniversary issue we were doing, “Great Visionaries of the Twentieth Century” or something like that. But Asimov was in poor health by then, and he had to cancel the interview. He died two years later.
But I did interview another idol of my childhood: Olivia Newton-John, the British-Australian singer famous for “Please Mr. Please” and “Have You Never Been Mellow.” This was in 1989, a few years after Newton-John’s star power had begun to wane. She was seeking publicity for a chain of women’s clothing stores she’d started. I didn’t meet her in person; I did the interview over the phone, but it was still a thrill to hear that sweet voice of my adolescent daydreams. Unfortunately, the publicity didn’t help her much — a few years later, her chain of clothing stores went bankrupt. Oh well.
That same year, I also interviewed two men who went on to become President. I talked on the phone with George W. Bush right after his dad’s buddies set him up in business, financing his purchase of the Texas Rangers. Strangely enough, I don’t remember anything he said – the guy made no impression on me at all. But I do remember talking to Trump. Fortune was doing a story about his financial troubles at the time, and I called him up to get some solid evidence that he was worth as much as he claimed. (He insisted, then and now, that he was a billionaire.) Trump promised to fax me a statement from his accountant, but when the statement arrived I saw that it was a year old, and it put his worth at only $640 million. I called Trump’s office to get him to discuss the discrepancy, and I left a message for him. I’m still waiting for him to call back.
What’s the moral of this story? Kids, I just don’t know.