The Moral of the Story

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.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website:

7 thoughts on “The Moral of the Story

  1. I have a moral: perhaps it’s not a good idea to discuss personal politics (and what else could the brief comments about President Bush and President Trump be, particularly as it’s clear you wish merely to embarrass them?) in a post to a blog that’s about novel writing?

  2. Stephen King talked a lot about this, getting the homework crowdsourcing emails and being asked about his themes and how exasperating it is.

    I’m sure he also got scolded when he didn’t produce the answer they wanted. Because, heaven forbid, you deviate from someone’s expectations and standards of behavior.

    I would be very interested though in what you’d say your fundamental theme is and if it permeates other works as well. I didn’t even realize it as I laid out my current series that the underlying theme is loyalty – the benefits, the ramifications, and when it becomes (in the words of “Rome,”) a vice. I see that same theme arcing out into other works I’ve got in the hopper as well.

    Not just Mark, other KZers? Does your work have a unifying theme?

    • Here’s what I tell the kids: the theme of my books is that science and technology can give us so many amazing things, but it can also produce some pretty horrible things (global warming, antibiotic-resistant microbes, fracking earthquakes, etc.), so we have to be careful. I know, it doesn’t sound very deep, but it lends itself to a wide variety of plots.

      • That’s awesome. It goes to the saying, “Science shows you how to clone dinosaurs. Philosophy shows you that maybe that’s not such a good idea.” It’s that constant tension of knowledge and wisdom that drives good stories.

  3. Fascinating anecdotes Mark! One thing about writing a daily noncommercial blog is that eventually we do get to know a lot about each other here, including our regular commenters. Everyone brings different experiences, backgrounds, and qualities to the blog. As a group We generally try to avoid topics or statements that may be irksome or off putting to readers, but we don’t always succeed. I hope that over time readers will take away the things they can use or like, and overlook the times we miss the mark.

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