Sources of Inspiration

By Mark Alpert

I had a great week. First, I received the D&A check for my next novel, which will be published by St. Martin’s Press in January of next year. (In the lingo of publishing contracts, D&A stands for Delivery and Acceptance. A D&A check is the portion of the advance you get after you deliver your manuscript and revise it to your editor’s satisfaction.) This will be my ninth published novel, but the thrill of depositing checks from publishers never gets old. I still can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.

More important, I made good progress on the book I’m writing right now. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about this novel. I’ve written only 6,000 words so far, and I don’t like to talk about the manuscript at this stage. I’m afraid that if I talk about it too much, I won’t write it. I’m superstitious, I guess.

But I can tell you what inspired me: reading Tim O’Brien’s classic short-story collection about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried. The book came out in 1990 and I read it for the first time shortly afterwards. A few months ago, my wife and I watched the Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War, and one of the episodes featured O’Brien — a Vietnam veteran — talking about his experiences and reading from The Things They Carried. This prompted me to reread the book, and once again I was blown away by how good it is. Part of its appeal is the sheer quality of the writing, but I also love the philosophy of the book, its focus on narrative honesty. Here’s an excerpt from one of the stories in the collection, “How to Tell a True War Story”:

You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.

For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true?

The answer matters.

You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen – and maybe it did, anything’s possible – even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.

That’s a true story that never happened.

When I’m inspired by a book, I like to read the best parts over and over. I also like to transcribe those wonderful paragraphs, typing them out word-for-word on my laptop, like I just did with the above excerpt. It’s a useful exercise, analogous to the ancient practice of Native American warriors who ate the hearts of their bravest enemies. By typing those paragraphs, I hope to put O’Brien’s finesse into my own fingers. Another superstition.

I had a second source of inspiration this week: I started listening again to “Guitar and Pen,” a song from The Who’s 1978 album Who Are You. What a great song for writers! Just consider this verse:

When you take up a pencil and sharpen it up
When you’re kicking the fence and still nothing will budge
When the words are immobile until you sit down
Never feel they’re worth keeping, they’re not easily found
Then you know in some strange, unexplainable way
You must really have something
Jumping, thumping, fighting, hiding away
Important to say.

The full lyrics are here and you can listen to the song here. Keith Moon lives!

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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), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website:

6 thoughts on “Sources of Inspiration

  1. Congratulations on your check and your new book.

    My brother was an air rescue medic in Viet Nam.

    The show I’m doing now for Orlando Fringe Festival is based on letters from veterans.

    Will add this book to my already lengthy TBR list.

  2. Thank you for this post. You’ve inspired me to re-read Tim O’Brien. You’ve also reminded me of how useful it can be to copy writers we admire. Painters and musicians do it to get better at seeing and hearing. Why not writers? Elisabeth Strout has said she hand-copied paragraphs of books she liked in order to understand how to move in and out of flashback and how to change points of view. The few times I’ve tried it, it’s been a revelation. Then, for some reason, I forgot about it. So thanks.

  3. I have mixed feelings about this post. On the one hand, it is good that you found inspiration in such a celebrated book. On the other, the Vietnam War was/is extremely controversial. I find portraying it with truth and fiction about major events mixed up together isn’t helpful to understanding what happened and America’s role in it. I’m not saying this is a bad book, but I found Matterhorn and The Short Timers to be closer to the truth.

    I’ve read the “truth can be fiction and fiction can be the truth” idea before. I find that argument to be too clever by half. In conflates actual happening with the emotion felt. In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the ending with the soldiers singing the theme from the Mickey Mouse Club as they walked to the Pearl River a true portrayal of the emotion even though it didn’t actually happen. But it wasn’t a major event in the story.

    I found Mr. O’Brien’s style to be pretentious like so much of literary fiction. There are other books, Field of Fire comes to mind, that is a more honest rendition of that sad war.

    By the way, I don’t need to read about Vietnam to be inspired, I draw on my own experiences in country in 1966.

  4. I’m reading my first Mosley (And Sometimes I Wonder About You). It’s inspiring me to try to add a bit more vividness to my writing. He uses concrete objects and metaphors to bring his characters and settings to life. I’m finding the wide range of Leonid’s personal interactions–people he knows well and interacts with, ranging from family to street characters–adds an element that I realize I miss in Harry Bosch stories, where there’s certainly complexity in his inner life and his relations with a few people. But Harry’s a loner and that limits the palette. Right now I’m enjoying and inspired by the richer palette.

  5. Congratulations on your ninth book! And thanks for explaining what a D&A check is. Thanks also for the tip about transcribing good parts of a book in order to study the author’s technique. Seems like a downright brilliant thing to do, actually.

  6. When I was a kid I started to copy “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” to a spiral notebook, just so I’d have my own copy. There’s some sweet irony there if you’ve ever read the book. I think in a way I related to Francie so deeply, I must’ve figured if it worked for her it might work for me. Absorbing the words was akin to absorbing the truth–the truth in writing, the truth in technique, the truth in storytelling.

    Eventually I brushed this off as childish behavior and stopped copying text by hand. I never lost my need to drink in the magic in the words I read and make them my own.

    I’m not sure I understand O’Brien’s writing on truth in fiction, though. There is always, to me at least, some element of truth in fiction–even in the most fantastical of stories. There needs to be. It’s what separates the good from the bad, the rib-sticking soul-changers from the sugary fluff. The honesty from the ego-strokes.

    I’ll have to try copying a few passages from my favorite works again. See if maybe Francie was on to something all along.

    Btw–I did end up with my own copy of “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn”. I’ve had several copies over the decades. Eventually I inherited my grandmother’s copy–ragged pages, the faded cover held to the spine with crispy, yellowed scotch tape. Her name written under a name that had been crossed-out–who I can only assume was the book’s owner before my grandmother bought it at a garage sale.

    It’s still the most important book in my library.

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