By Mark Alpert
This is a momentous week for the Alpert household. On Monday my wife and I will help our daughter move into her dorm room as she starts her first year of college. She’s the younger of our two children — her brother is in Australia now, enjoying a junior-semester abroad — so I guess this marks the beginning of our empty-nest years.
How does raising children affect a writer’s life? Twenty-five years ago I assumed it would be a distraction. I thought I needed to focus on writing fiction and get a book published before I could commit to parenthood. But my attitude shifted one afternoon when I went jogging in Central Park and saw someone in a T-shirt that said, “Don’t Postpone Joy.” It sounds ridiculous, but that corny slogan changed everything.
Instead of hindering my effort to become a novelist, my kids helped it along. My son became the role model for the protagonist’s son in my first novel, Final Theory, which was published in 2008 by Simon & Schuster and translated into more than twenty languages. I realized that a fictional character who’s also a good parent can be very appealing to readers. In To Kill a Mockingbird, we admire Atticus Finch for being an honorable, upright lawyer, but we fall in love with him because he treats his kids so tenderly. The same is true of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter books.
Some of my kids’ passions and mannerisms became character traits of the young people in my novels. When my son was seven, he loved Super Soakers, so the seven-year-old Jonah Swift in Final Theory loves Super Soakers too. In one of the first scenes in that novel, Jonah’s dad explains the physics of a Super Soaker; their dialogue is a rough facsimile of an actual conversation I had with my son. In my third novel, Extinction, the protagonist’s daughter Layla is a grown-up version of my daughter, smart and brave and rebellious.
When my children became teenagers, I was inspired to write a trilogy of Young Adult novels. I wanted to write a series of books that my kids would enjoy. The first novel in the trilogy, The Six (published in 2015 by Sourcebooks Fire), is about a group of terminally ill teens whose lives are “saved” by a revolutionary technology that scans their brains with such precision that researchers can record all the connections among their billions of neurons, and the strengths of those connections as well. The three-dimensional maps of neural linkages are then downloaded into so-called neuromorphic circuits that are designed to imitate human brain cells. (This is a real type of electronics currently being developed by IBM and other companies.) Loaded with millions of gigabytes of memories, skills, and emotions, the neuromorphic circuits resurrect the personalities of the dying teens, enabling them to live on as robots after their bodies fail.
But there’s a catch, of course. The U.S. Army pays for the resurrection of the teenagers because it’s battling an out-of-control artificial intelligence that has taken over a nuclear-missile base, and the military needs human-machine hybrids to combat the genocidal AI. The battle continues in the second book in the trilogy, The Siege, and it reaches a whole new level of ferocity in the concluding novel, The Silence. Needless to say, my kids loved the books, and so did their friends. One of them even mentioned The Six in her college-application essay!
Just as my kids had a big influence on my writing, in return my profession has colored their lives. They’ve both become excellent writers. My son took an American literature course at his college last spring, and one of his assignments was to write a pair of short stories describing the same scene, one story written in the style of Mark Twain and the other written in Ernest Hemingway’s voice. He let me read the stories, and I thought they were fantastic. And last winter, when I was revising my latest manuscript, I asked my daughter to read it and give me feedback. The main character is an extraordinary 17-year-old girl, a modern-day Joan of Arc, so I knew my daughter could offer some useful suggestions. (I’ll provide more details about this forthcoming novel, Saint Joan of New York, over the next few weeks.)
But first our family will perform the bittersweet rites of separation. My wife and I will help our daughter lug her suitcases to her dorm room. We’ll probably annoy the hell out of her by asking if she has enough toothpaste and laundry detergent. We’ll say our goodbyes and try to gracefully leave the campus.
And then I’ll wonder: Okay, what am I going to write about now?