By Mark Alpert
Ever since the publication of my first Young Adult novel five years ago, I’ve been invited to middle schools and high schools across the country to talk to aspiring teenage writers. When the Covid-19 pandemic started, those talks became Zoom calls — I plan to offer a free Zoom writing class to New York City students this summer — but my primary message to the kids remains the same: if you want to be a good writer, first you have to be an avid reader.
This advice is useful for writers at all stages in their careers, and I follow it myself. I believe you should read novels you know you’ll love, focusing in particular on books in the genre you’re writing in. But I also believe you should make your reading list as varied and colorful as possible, because you never know where your next good idea might come from. And I think it’s wise to sometimes challenge yourself by reading a book that’s way outside your comfort zone, because it might expose you to a whole new vista of writing styles and possibilities.
In that spirit, I highly recommend George Saunders. I encountered this writer for the first time when I read his short story “Victory Lap,” which appeared in the New Yorker in 2009. Go ahead and read the story right now; it’s not that long. I think “Victory Lap” is an especially useful read for thriller writers, who must learn how to quickly introduce characters so interesting and likable that readers will care deeply about what happens to them.
Okay, have you read the story yet? In just a few pages, “Victory Lap” introduces us to Alison and Kyle, two fourteen-year-olds who live next door to each other but have experienced radically different upbringings. Alison is dreamy, imaginative, privileged, and a bit spoiled. Her most interesting characteristic, to me at least, is her distaste for the boys in her neighborhood:
The local boys possessed a certain je ne sais quoi, which, tell the truth, she was not très crazy about, such as: actually named their own nuts. She had overheard that! And aspired to work for County Power because the work shirts were awesome and you got them free.
Kyle is more likable because he labors under a set of absurdly draconian rules that his parents have imposed, allegedly for his benefit. Worse, Kyle has internalized his parents’ stern voices, and even when he’s alone he constantly hears them scolding him for minor infractions such as walking barefoot in their house.
What makes this a thriller story is the appearance of a character of pure Evil, a knife-wielding man disguised as a meter reader (but never named in the story), who without any qualms whatsoever plans to kidnap, rape, and murder Alison. Kyle, who observes the kidnapping in progress, must decide whether to try to stop the crime, even though it would put himself in danger and violate all his parents’ protective rules. And then Alison must decide, in turn, whether to save Kyle from a disastrous moral choice that would ruin his life.
The story’s philosophical implications are fascinating: Is morality a matter of following rules or empathy? Kyle abandons his parents’ rules to save Alison, but his rejection of all restrictions (“I’m the boss of me,” he thinks) almost leads him to do something unspeakably wrong. I think the story comes down on the side of empathy — we make the correct moral choices when we decide to help others in need — but it’s certainly open to different interpretations.
The story’s greatest strength, though, is the quality of the writing. It’s funny, crazily inventive, and easy to read. And when the plot turns serious, you get amazing passages like this one:
Then he saw that the kid was going to bring the rock down. He closed his eyes and waited and was not at peace at all but instead felt the beginnings of a terrible dread welling up inside him, and if that dread kept growing at the current rate, he realized in a flash of insight, there was a name for the place he would be then, and it was Hell.
I read “Victory Lap” again this week after finishing Saunders’s 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo. That book is also madly inventive, deeply philosophical, and a pleasure to read, but it’s too wild and woolly to describe in a brief blog post. You should give it a try, though, especially if you enjoy historical novels.