The Social Life of a Writer

By Mark Alpert

Thomas Pynchon is to blame for my unrealistic expectations. The author of Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 has a lot to answer for.

Forty years ago I read Pynchon’s first novel, V., which was published in 1963. It’s a rollicking tale about nose jobs and genocide and the hunt for albino alligators in the sewers of New York City, but what made the deepest impression on me were Pynchon’s descriptions of wild New York parties. Several of the novel’s characters belong to a gang called the Whole Sick Crew, a motley group of artists who gather at bohemian bacchanals in cramped Manhattan apartments. Here’s a sample:

“The party itself, tonight, was divided in three parts. Fergus, and his date, and another couple had long retreated into the bedroom with a gallon of wine; locked the door; and let the Crew do what they could in the way of chaos to the rest of the place. The sink on which Stencil now sat would become Melvin’s perch: he would play his guitar and there would be horahs and African fertility dances in the kitchen before midnight. The lights in the living room would go out one by one, Schoenberg’s quartets (complete) would go on the record player/changer, and repeat, and repeat, while cigarette coals dotted the room like watchfires and the promiscuous Debby Sensay (e.g.) would be on the floor, caressed by Raoul, say, or Slab, while she ran her hand up the leg of another, sitting on the couch with her roommate — and on, in a kind of love feast or daisy chain; wine would spill, furniture would be broken; Fergus would awake briefly next morning, view the destruction and residual guests sprawled about the apartment; cuss them all out and go back to sleep.”

I was still in college when I read this passage for the first time, so of course it sounded totally awesome. I headed to New York for graduate school and found an itsy-bitsy studio apartment on West 101st Street, and pretty soon I was living the Pynchonian dream, writing poetry during the day to get my MFA degree and carousing in various Manhattan neighborhoods at night. And after grad school I chose a career — journalism — that mixed writing with revelry. Even in smallish towns, newspaper reporters throw some pretty good parties. Because the salaries for reporters are so low, most of the people who take those jobs are singles in their twenties, which is the prime demographic for partying.

When I worked for the Claremont Eagle Times in New Hampshire, we used to go to the Lucky Dragon, a Chinese restaurant that turned into a nightclub on the weekends. Across the river in Proctorsville, Vermont, was a place called Section Eight; I think the bar’s name was a reference to a state law regarding mental health. (Or maybe it was a reference to the federal law for housing subsidies? That possibility seems less likely, but who knows?) The place had a big brass bell hanging over the bar, and the bartenders would ring it whenever a customer gave a tip. The bands that played there were terrible, and the bar had to close by 1 a.m. because of another state law, but it didn’t matter. We always had a great time.

When I worked for the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama, all the reporters went to Kat-n-Harry’s, a place that also served as a watering hole for the state legislators. Many of those politicians came from towns that were really remote — Dothan, Demopolis, Monroeville, and so on — and when they came to the state capital for the legislative session, they were itching to cut loose in the evenings and maybe act a little more foolish than they would in their podunk hometowns. So for a newspaper reporter, going to Kat-n-Harry’s was a good way to hear some gossip and maybe get a scoop or two.

Sorry, I have to tell this story: one time I was sitting at a table at Kat-n-Harry’s with a whole bunch of legislators and lobbyists (from Southern Bell, Alabama Power, the Farm Bureau, the teachers union) when the woman sitting next to me said, “I have a scoop for you.” At the same time, she surreptitiously slipped a crumpled napkin into my hand. I played it cool, didn’t say anything, kept laughing at the politicians’ jokes. A few minutes later I went to the men’s room and unwrapped the napkin, which had the woman’s telephone number written on it in lipstick. I called her the next day and we went out for dinner; it turned out to be a terrible date, and that was the end of it, but I have to give her credit for that great opening move.

Inevitably, my social life slowed down as I got older. I moved back to New York when I got a job at Fortune Magazine, but the city didn’t seem as fun-loving as it had been when I was in grad school. Fortune was a pretty staid magazine, and there were many highly ambitious ass-kissers on the staff. I met some fun people outside of work (including the woman who would become my wife) and we partied at some of the clubs that I could’ve never afforded when I was a younger, but I didn’t have the same stamina. I discovered that I could no longer drink four beers at night and expect no consequences the next day. So I started drinking less and writing more. I gave up the hedonistic Pynchonian lifestyle and emulated the author instead of his fictional creations. I wrote four novels by the time I was forty.

Then my wife and I had kids, and everything changed. We became friends with the parents of our children’s friends. We spent our weekends shepherding the kids to soccer practices and Little League games and dance classes and play rehearsals. My novels started to get published, and I made enough money to quit my magazine job and write fiction full-time. In short, my social life was completely transformed. Instead of seeing my journalism colleagues every day, I had to arrange occasional lunches and get-togethers. I spent most of my time with my family and my characters.

Now, though, one of our kids is in college, and the other will be matriculating in the fall. My wife and I are thinking about traveling and catching up with old friends. And I’m trying to attend as many literary events as I can. This week I went to a reading at a wonderful bookstore in Brooklyn called Unnameable Books. The event was organized by the editors of Conjunctions, a biannual literary journal published by Bard College. Four contributors to the journal’s current issue participated in the reading, and one of them was my good friend Dave King, author of the 2005 novel The Ha-Ha.

It was a fun evening. I had two glasses of wine. That’s about as crazy as I get these days. But it’s enough.


The Toronto Star, Canada’s biggest newspaper, recently ran a nice review of my latest novel, THE COMING STORM. You can read it here.

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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: www.markalpert.com

7 thoughts on “The Social Life of a Writer

  1. As a recovering journalist, I can relate. I can’t, however, party like it’s 1999 anymore. (Or in my case 1979). Memories of old watering holes and dive bars die hard. My favorite was Kim’s Alley in Fort Lauderdale. It sounds as bad as it was, but it was great for material. Decades later, when I was writing a stand alone thriller She’s Not There, which opens in Fort Lauderdale, I went back to Kim’s just for fun. It was as dingy as I remembered and filled with ghosts. I used the location for my “man in the mirror” moment in the book. What’s more chilling than being middle-aged, lost, and literally looking at your reflection in the mirror of a bar? (not me, my protag).

    Everything is fodder for novelists. 🙂

  2. Your social life sounds pretty good.
    I know a Dave King, too. He taught me how to write a novel.

  3. Our son was on vacation with friends in a seaside resort town in La Casamance. Each night they bar-hopped around the village, closing one establishment, then moving on to the next until that one closed, too, and so on through the night into the morning.

    He said they noticed each night that the front-end server help moved with them, from place to place in the village. Labor shortage, perhaps, with the dedication of good service for the town’s foreign visitor group looking for a good time. Everybody happy.

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