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

What’s Your Hobby?

By Mark Alpert

Writers can’t spend ALL their time writing. You have to take a break every now and then.

This weekend I’m emceeing the 2018 Video Art and Experimental Film Festival. Hundreds of video artists from around the world submit short films for this festival, and a team of hard-working curators selects a few dozen pieces to screen at the Tribeca Film Center and the Downtown Community Television Center in Manhattan. My role is to introduce the films and moderate the panel discussions. (For more information about the festival, go here.)

It’s a lot of fun. I love interviewing the video artists. Some of their films are truly amazing. Volunteering at the festival is a wonderful escape for me, but it’s also a great source of new ideas. One of the films we screened last night featured an Alexa-like virtual assistant who encourages an unhappy housewife to take revenge on her ungrateful husband. That sounds like a neat idea for a techno-thriller, doesn’t it?

So what’s YOUR hobby? Do you have another outlet for your artistic energy?

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Fiction and Politics

By Mark Alpert

True story: one evening in 1968, when I was six years old, my dad made an unusual request at bedtime. He told me that a man named King had just died and gone to heaven. He was a good man, Dad said. He asked me to pray for King before I went to sleep that night.

My dad was no liberal. He was a Nixon supporter then, and he’s a Trump supporter now. He’s going to turn 82 soon and spends a large part of his day watching Fox News. But his bedtime request from 1968 is the beginning of this story. It’s a true story, but it’s a bit fictional too, because memory is selective, especially when you’re trying to remember things from so long ago. This incident stands out.

What made Dad’s request seem so unusual at the time was the prayer thing. We were a very secular family. Technically, we were Jewish, but we never went to synagogue or followed any of the Jewish laws. And because we lived in New York City — the Sodom-and-Gomorrah of the 1960s — there weren’t many religious people in our neighborhood either. The idea of a “bedtime prayer” was completely foreign to me, something I’d seen kids do in storybooks but never in real life.

But the strangeness and seriousness of Dad’s request seemed to give it extra weight. So before I got into bed that night, I knelt on the carpet and pictured the man named King, newly arrived in heaven. I had no idea who he was. They didn’t teach current events in my kindergarten, so I knew nothing about Martin Luther King Jr. or the civil rights movement. All I had to go on was his name, so I assumed — with a six-year-old’s unassailable logic — that he was an actual king. I pictured him wearing a gold crown and an ermine robe, standing amid the clouds and waiting for his interview with God.

Now let’s move ahead four years. It’s the spring of 1972 and President Nixon is running for re-election. I’m with my mom in our dining room while she’s opening the mail. She opens an envelope and pulls out a campaign flyer for George Wallace, the Alabama governor and segregationist. He’s running in the Democratic presidential primaries and getting a surprising number of votes. Mom stares at the Wallace flyer for several seconds. Then she tears it to pieces. I’m shocked to see that she’s crying.

Fast-forward another thirteen years. It’s 1985 and I’m looking for a job as a newspaper reporter. In those pre-Internet days, the Bible of the newspaper business was a book called Editor & Publisher, a thick tome you could usually find in the reference section of any decent public library. E&P contained information on every newspaper in the country, including the names and addresses of all the managing editors, so it was very useful for journalistic jobseekers. (Are those E&P reference books still published and updated every year? Or is all that information online now?) I opened the bulky book and started copying the addresses of the newspapers, which were listed by state, alphabetically — Alabama to Wyoming. At first I tackled the task with great fervor, writing down the names of all the managing editors in each state, but after a while my energy began to flag. By the time I reached the letter M, I was copying only the addresses of the very largest newspapers, which of course were the ones least likely to hire a neophyte like me. So that’s probably why I got a job offer from a newspaper in Alabama. I applied to more papers in that state than in any other, simply because it was at the front of the alphabet.

Or maybe that’s not the whole story. Maybe I was fated to go there.

Either way, within a few weeks I was a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser in the state capital. I attended press conferences and other events at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor from 1954 to 1960. I reported on the funeral of E.D. Nixon, who was president of the NAACP’s Montgomery chapter in the 1950s, when Rosa Parks served as the organization’s secretary; it was E.D. Nixon who bailed Parks out of jail after she refused to move to the back of the Montgomery city bus on December 1st, 1955. (He also selected King to lead the bus boycott that followed.) I interviewed Parks at the cemetery; she was in her seventies at the time and no longer living in Alabama, but she came back to Montgomery for the funeral.

Last but not least, I met George Wallace. To my astonishment, he was still governor of Alabama. Back in the 1972 presidential campaign, just a few weeks after my mother tore up his flyer, Wallace was shot by an unemployed busboy at a rally in Maryland; the governor survived the assassination attempt but was paralyzed from the waist down. Although his presidential hopes were dashed, he was re-elected governor in 1974 and won yet another term in 1982. By then Wallace had apologized for his segregationist past, and by the time I started going to his press conferences he was a pretty pathetic creature, wincing and squirming in his wheelchair, barely coherent (because he was taking so many painkillers). When he did emerge from his narcotic haze, he talked obsessively about history and his place in it, clearly frustrated that he would be remembered for all the horrible things he said and did in the 1960s. And though I was still just as irreligious as I was in my childhood, I couldn’t help but think that divine justice was at work.

That was the point in my life when I started writing fiction. I’d found a story I wanted to tell, one with complex characters and deep, unsettling questions. My first novel was about a governor like Wallace, and though it was never published (mostly because it had all the typical faults of a first novel), it paved the way for all the books that followed. (If you’re curious, I’ve posted the first chapters of The Emperor of Alabama here, here, here, and here.) My latest novel, The Coming Storm, is about politics too, and I make no apologies for choosing this subject. I write fiction about politics because it’s interesting.

Yes, politics can get divisive. And it can get pretty tiring as well, especially in the middle of a campaign season like the one we’re in right now. When we’re bombarded by so much bitter rhetoric, it’s natural to feel the urge to get away from it all, and fiction does a good job of providing an escape. But fiction writers can also explore and confront the bitterness. We need those kinds of novels too.

I’ll end this story by mentioning another. My favorite part of the film of To Kill a Mockingbird (which also takes place in Alabama) is the scene where Gregory Peck (playing Atticus Finch) delivers his stirring summation in the trial of the falsely accused Tom Robinson. “In the name of God,” he tells the jury, “do your duty!” Whatever your politics, make sure you vote on November 6th. Our national story is being written, and each of us has a duty to contribute to it.

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Science Fiction and Reality

By Mark Alpert

Ever since I wrote the Kill Zone post about science fiction two weeks ago, I can’t seem to let go of the topic. I started rereading some of my favorite sci-fi stories by Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison. I wrote an article for Scientific American about the genre’s “golden age” (the late 1930s to the late 1940s). And I remembered meeting Arthur C. Clarke at the Chelsea Hotel in 2001.

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure when the meeting occurred. Was it actually in 1999? Or 2002? I have a vivid memory of the great science-fiction writer, but I’m a little fuzzy on the date. But for the purposes of this story, let’s say it happened in 2001. That would give some symmetry to the tale. It was in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel that Clarke and Stanley Kubrick wrote the screenplay for “2001: A Space Odyssey” (which was based on two of Clarke’s short stories, “The Sentinel” and “Encounter in the Dawn”).

I was in my office at Scientific American that afternoon when the editor-in-chief rushed over. He said Clarke had called the magazine, completely out of the blue, and invited all the editors to his hotel suite for a chat. He was in town to give a speech at the United Nations, I think, or maybe for some kind of medical treatment. (Clarke was in his eighties then; he made Sri Lanka his home for the latter half of his life.) He didn’t tell the editor-in-chief why he wanted to meet, but it didn’t really matter. Within minutes, four Scientific American editors were in a taxi, heading for 23rd Street.

The Chelsea Hotel was rundown and bohemian, famously so. It had a reputation for catering to writers, artists, and musicians, some of whom came to very bad ends in the hotel’s shabby rooms. (Dylan Thomas spent his last drunken nights there before slipping into a coma. Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend to death in Room 100.) These days the hotel has a new owner who’s renovating the place, but back then it looked nothing like a Hilton. The rooms were dark and decorated in the tenement style. But when we stepped inside, there was Arthur C. Clarke in the room’s sitting area, dressed in a bathrobe and holding court on a recliner, with a pink, swollen foot propped on an ottoman.

He was suffering from gout, maybe? Or he’d just had surgery? I don’t remember the nature of his malady, but it certainly didn’t depress his spirits. He cheerfully welcomed us in and told his Sri Lankan assistant/valet to bring us some refreshments. Then, before we could find out why he’d summoned us, he started asking friendly questions. He seemed genuinely interested in each of us, genuinely curious about why we’d become editors at Scientific American and what kinds of stories we were working on. I tried to answer as best as I could, but it was hard to say anything intelligible. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was making small talk with the author of Childhood’s End and “The Nine Billion Names of God.”

Eventually, though, Clarke got around to his agenda: he wanted to know if Scientific American planned to run any further stories about cold fusion.

Okay, I need to take a step back and play science teacher for a moment. Fusion is the merger of atomic nuclei, a reaction that produces heavier elements and enormous amounts of energy. It’s the process at the heart of every star, the source of life-giving sunshine. But because all nuclei are positively charged and thus repel one another, fusion can’t happen unless the nuclei bang into each other at really high speeds, and that doesn’t happen unless the temperature of the material gets really hot — at least 13 million degrees Celsius. Outside the core of our sun, where the tremendous pressure of all that hydrogen produces ultra-high temperatures, the only place in our solar system where significant amounts of fusion have ever occurred is inside hydrogen bombs. (Those warheads detonate a nuclear-fission bomb first, which raises the temperature high enough to initiate nuclear fusion in the warhead’s hydrogen fuel a fraction of a second later.)

In 1989, though, a couple of electrochemists announced that they’d triggered nuclear fusion in their laboratory at room temperature. This claim of “cold fusion” got everyone’s attention, but when other scientists repeated the experiment in their own labs they didn’t see the same effect. Within a few months researchers pretty much discredited the claim, but for years afterward a group of cold-fusion zealots continued to insist that the phenomenon was real and should be investigated further. Arthur C. Clarke, we discovered, was one of those true believers. In his cheerful but persistent way, he urged us to review the research and run a story about the cold-fusion debate.

Our editor-in-chief was a very diplomatic guy, and he assured Clarke that we’d look into the matter. But in truth, there was no significant new research to report, and we never ran the story. After we left the Chelsea Hotel, we talked for a while about Clarke’s fixation on cold fusion, which seemed uncharacteristic for someone who was so scientifically knowledgeable. For a scientist, evidence is everything, and if the evidence says cold fusion didn’t happen in the lab, then no amount of wishful thinking can change that verdict.

But as I look back on that meeting now, I realize that Clarke was speaking as a science-fiction writer, not a scientist, and science fiction is all about wishful thinking. Imagine the consequences if cold fusion were really possible: we’d be able to generate unlimited amounts of clean energy from seawater. We could put a stop to global warming right this minute and save the billions of lives that will surely be lost over the next century as climbing temperatures disrupt agriculture and rising seas ravage our coastlines (see my new novel, The Coming Storm). And cold fusion could be used to power spaceflight as well, bringing us closer to Clarke’s visions of the future.

So his “fixation” seems rather poignant to me now. Yes, it would be wonderful if we lived in a universe where cold fusion was possible. But we don’t.

Clarke died in 2008 at the age of 90.

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First-Page Critique: The Key to Writing Science Fiction

By Mark Alpert

What a fantastic fall evening! I just came back from a Friday-night college football game at Baker Field in Upper Manhattan, where the Princeton Tigers thrashed the Columbia Lions 45-10. And now, for your critiquing pleasure, here is the latest first-page submission from one of our courageous TKZ contributors:

Title:  Stars

Leon hated Vahrian airships, but since unloading them put beers on his table, he faked a smile as he picked up the last crate.

“Have a good evening, Captain,” he said.

Hope you fall in the sea and drown, Leon thought.

The Captain kept reading his book and reclined further in his chair. Scowling, Leon carried the crate out of the cabin. He stumbled along the jetty. Wooden planks groaned underfoot, and a wave crashed against the rocks, spraying him with water. He fumbled with the slippery crate, but kept hold, staggered off the jetty, and dumped the box beside the others he’d unloaded.

His back twanged and he winced. Back in his Academy days, he could’ve hauled cargo through a swamp for hours, but now he was past forty and those days were behind him.

The Captain strode along the jetty and walked past Leon, whistling. Buttons gleamed on the Vahrian’s jacket, and he swayed like a dancer as he strolled to the harbor office.

Prick, thought Leon.

He watched until the Captain disappeared amongst the harbour’s bustling sailors. It wasn’t enough that Vahria had bombed the hell out of Paya’s Discs in the War, or that the airship’s crates weighed more than an asteroid. No. The worst part was people like him. Young men in starched jackets, who refused to look Payans in the eyes.

Someone tapped Leon’s shoulder. “Leon de Velasco?”

He turned. A young woman stood behind him, wrapped in a bulky, dirt-stained cloak. A cowl cast her face into shadow. She couldn’t be over twenty, and looked odd amongst the rancid-smelling fishers and the greasy-haired merchants who sniffed unattended crates.

Best of all, the girl was a Payan like him — not a Vahrian — which meant Leon didn’t need to hide how pissed off he was.

“What?” he asked.

“My name’s Elena. I need your help.”

Leon raised an eyebrow. With disheveled, shoulder-length hair, a tangled beard, and ratty clothes that reeked of beer, he didn’t get many requests for help, especially by young women.

“Got a ship you need unloaded?” he asked.

“I–”

Two Vahrian soldiers swaggered past and bumped Elena.

“–we’ll catch them by tomorrow, chaps,” one soldier said.

Elena glared at the Vahrians as they strutted away. Leon frowned. Most Payans looked down when soldiers passed, but Elena’s eyes only grew harder.

“You were saying?” he said.

———-

What’s the key to writing science fiction? I think it’s striking the right balance between the ordinary and the extraordinary. We read sci-fi to give our minds a chance to roam free, to cruise across the Milky Way at warp speed, to delve into the microscopic innards of a DNA molecule, to shatter the invisible barrier between our universe and its neighbors. At the same time, though, we want to see recognizable characters having realistic and believable reactions to all the amazing things they’re experiencing. As sci-fi writer Margaret Atwood put it, “If I was to create an imaginary garden I wanted the toads in it to be real.”

Think of the first book in the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. The opening chapters are set on Trantor, the capital of the Galactic Empire, a planet that’s entirely covered by a single global building. When I read the book for the first time at the age of thirteen, I was totally fascinated by this idea. It sounded so insane, and yet it also made sense: if people kept constructing new houses and malls and office buildings, then eventually they’d pave over every last parcel of the planet’s surface. It was the ultimate vision of overdevelopment, the real-estate agent’s dream and the environmentalist’s nightmare. But who were the residents of Asimov’s imagined megastructure? They were mostly bureaucrat types, the plodding functionaries who kept the Galactic Empire humming. They were very pleased with themselves and very proud to be living at the center of their civilization, and they had no inkling that their empire was about to collapse. Sounds familiar, right?

Or think of the Dune books by Frank Herbert. Most of the action takes place on Arrakis, a desert planet where gigantic worms burrow underneath the sand and where water is so precious that the fluids in every human corpse are recycled. It’s also the battleground for two powerful dynastic families, House Atreides and House Harkonnen, whose members spy and betray and assassinate each other just like the Borgias and Medicis of Renaissance Italy. The weapons on Arrakis are futuristic, but the motives of the murderers are very familiar.

In today’s submission, titled Stars, I’m not getting a strong enough sense of the extraordinary. I want to be intrigued right away by the planet where the Vahrians have apparently subjugated the Payans, but in this draft I don’t see anything that’s particularly fascinating. One possible source of intrigue is the Vahrian airship, which is mentioned in the very first sentence of the piece but not described in any detail. Is it huge? Is it a space-going ship? Is it hovering beside the jetty or floating in the water? The opening sentences would be so much better if they included some flabbergasting detail such as, “It was one of the smallest Vahrian airships, only a thousand meters long.” Or maybe “Like a sea creature, the Vahrian airship took sustenance from the ocean, its gills extracting oxygen from the water and storing the fuel in the ship’s propulsion fins.” The opening scene needs to grab the readers right away and make them want to learn more about this crazy civilization.

I also wondered if there were any physical differences between the Vahrians and the Payans. It sounds like they’re both humanoid species or races, but are Vahrians generally taller or darker or hairier than Payans? Or maybe every Vahrian has an extra finger on his or her left hand? And what kind of weapons were the Vahrian soldiers carrying? The author should take every opportunity to start creating a whole new world, complete with marvels and mysteries.

Last, I wanted the encounter between Leon and Elena to be more dramatic. After the Vahrian soldiers bumped Elena, she should do more than simply glare at them. Maybe she should make a surreptitious obscene gesture that only Leon notices, an ancient Payan hand motion that means “Screw you” or something similar. It would be the kind of gesture that would get Elena arrested and maybe even executed if the Vahrians had seen it, and so this act of defiance impresses Leon greatly. It makes him think, “Okay, this woman is serious.”

What do you think, TKZ-ers?

———

Speaking of science fiction, check out my website to see the latest news about my next novel, THE COMING STORM.

“Mark Alpert’s latest nail-biter THE COMING STORM starts with a terrifyingly plausible look at what lies just beyond our political horizon and ends on a note even more disturbing and frightening. This novel isn’t just ripped from the headlines, it’s an alarm bell ringing from the near-future, a prescient warning of where we’re headed next. Read this now—before it’s literally too late.”
— James Rollins, author of New York Times bestseller THE DEMON CROWN

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Another Deadline

By Mark Alpert

Me to Editor: I’m writing the book’s epilogue right now. As we speak.

Editor: Really?

Me: Yes! I’m, like, three paragraphs from the end. And I’m pushing aside everything else to get it done. No phone calls, no emails, no social media, no blog posts. I’m not even reading the newspaper.

Editor: So you didn’t hear what happened with Paul Manafort?

Me: Okay, I read that story. I mean, I had to. But nothing else, I swear.

Editor: All right, all right. Just send me the manuscript as soon as you can.

Click.

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New Favorites

By Mark Alpert

When I think about my favorite authors, I usually divide them into two groups, the Old Favorites and the New Favorites. The Old Favorites are the writers I’ve loved for decades: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Pynchon, etc. The New Favorites are the authors I’ve embraced in just the past few years: Colson Whitehead, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Olen Steinhauer, and so on.

Who are your New Favorites?

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Hometown Mysteries

By Mark Alpert

This summer my 16-year-old daughter volunteered to deliver meals to homebound senior citizens in our neighborhood (the Upper West Side of Manhattan). She usually does the route with her best friend — it’s a two-person job, because there are so many meals to deliver — but her friend was on vacation this week, so a few days ago my daughter asked me if I wanted to come along with her. I said yes, of course.

And the experience was an eye-opener. Although I’ve lived on the Upper West Side for most of my life — 32 of my 57 years — it turns out that I don’t know the neighborhood very well. Because the apartment prices and rents are so high here, I’d always assumed that the great majority of the residents range from comfortably well-off to appallingly wealthy. There aren’t any big housing projects on the West Side between 66th and 96th Streets, and most of the buildings are either glitzy high-rises or stately brownstones. What I failed to realize was that you can’t judge a building by its facade. You have to go inside and walk the hallways and ride the elevators to get a truer picture of the neighborhood’s diversity.

The church where the meals are prepared and packaged is on the corner of 86th Street and West End Avenue. The volunteers delivering the meals are assigned to routes that are identified by the names of popular musicians — the Springsteen route, the Madonna route, the Marley route, etc. (I’m not sure why.) On the day that I accompanied my daughter, she was assigned to the Joplin route. Because she studied piano for several years, she’d assumed that the musician being referenced was Scott Joplin, but I argued it was more likely to be Janis Joplin. She didn’t know who Janis Joplin was, so I proceeded to fill this woeful gap in her musical knowledge by belting out snatches of “Piece of My Heart” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” It was very embarrassing for her.

The Joplin route took us to several West Side buildings between 86th and 90th Streets. I pushed a shopping cart loaded with two big insulated bags, a blue bag filled with cold meals and a red bag filled with hot ones. My daughter carried the list of senior citizens and their addresses. Luckily, some of the apartment buildings we visited had more than one meal recipient, and that reduced the amount of walking we had to do. The concentration of seniors in certain buildings was no accident; landlords in New York City can get various government subsidies by reserving a certain percentage of their apartments for senior citizens and/or low-income residents, who generally pay much lower rents than the market-rate tenants.

This strategy helps to keep New York affordable for seniors on fixed incomes, but I discovered that it also triggers occasional flare-ups of class conflict. While delivering meals in one of the mixed-income buildings, my daughter and I had to squeeze into a slow, crowded elevator car filled with exasperated yuppies. A young upwardly mobile woman, obviously one of the building’s market-rate tenants (whom I will call Grace, for no real reason), stood in the corner of the car with her laptop open, trying to get a few extra seconds of work done on her way to the office. (Or maybe she was doing something else on the computer, I really don’t know.) Grace’s boyfriend or husband stood in the opposite corner, looking equally annoyed. I was very polite as I maneuvered the shopping cart into the elevator, but I don’t think anyone appreciated my courtesy. The elevator stopped again on the way down to the lobby, and an elderly woman stepped into the car. Grace let out an irritated sigh; I ignored it, but my daughter stared at her, amazed by Grace’s rudeness. Grace stared back at her and said, very loudly, like a challenge, “What?”

I was oblivious to the exchange, staring straight ahead, still trying to be polite. (For a writer, I’m an incredibly unobservant person.) I heard the rude “What?” but I thought Grace was addressing her boyfriend/husband, directing her irritation at him. Once we were out of the building, though, my daughter explained what had happened. As we continued delivering meals, we tried to figure out why Grace had focused her anger at us. Was it because we were helping the low-income seniors in her building? And perhaps Grace resented the fact that she paid the market rent (probably about $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment) and yet she had to rub shoulders with much poorer people who paid a small fraction of that rent for the same amount of space?

I didn’t fully understand it, but it was interesting. It’s one of the mysteries of my hometown, where millions of people are crammed onto a small island and spend most of their days ignoring, resenting, helping, and amusing one another.

Maybe I’ll work it into a novel.

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The Walking Cure

By Mark Alpert

If you’re a writer of fiction, you’ve probably faced this dilemma.

You’re staring at the blank screen of your computer. You want to start a new chapter of your novel, but you can’t think of the first sentence. You go to the kitchen and open the refrigerator. No answers there. Nothing occurs to you while you’re eating your sandwich or drinking your coffee. So you decide to take a shower. You stand under the hot water for the next thirty minutes, trying to focus on plot and character and setting. Still nothing.

Then you give up and take a nap. I know, I’ve been there. Many times.

But if I’m being smart and strategic, I’ll go for a walk. Ideas come to me like magic when I’m walking. The conditions have to be right, though.

First of all, it can’t be raining. And if it’s cold outside, I have to be dressed warmly. I don’t want to be distracted by physical discomfort.

Also, I don’t want to be distracted by traffic. In my neighborhood (the Upper West Side of Manhattan), every time you come to an intersection you have to focus at least part of your brain on the traffic lights, careening taxis, deliverymen on bicycles, etc. And when I’m thinking about my book, I need to devote my whole brain to the task. I want every last neuron working on the problem. So my solution is to choose pedestrian-only routes that aren’t very crowded. There’s a nice oval path that surrounds the Great Lawn in Central Park, and in the winter it’s pretty empty.

Even closer to my apartment building is the superblock that contains the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium. They call it a superblock because it stretches without interruption from 77th Street to 81st Street, a distance of about 320 yards. East to west, it’s shorter — 270 yards (the distance between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West). So the total length of a circumnavigation of the superblock is 1,180 yards, or about two-thirds of a mile. (But my actual route cuts through the small park outside the planetarium, so the total distance is a bit less.)

I don’t go to the superblock when the museum is open, because there’s usually a crowd at the Central Park West entrance, and I don’t want to expend any mental energy on dodging the tourists. But at night it’s perfect. Last night I walked three times around the museum block and figured out exactly what’s going to happen in the last six chapters of the Young Adult novel I’m writing. Although there are a lot of interesting things to see on this particular route — the museum’s medieval turrets, the statue of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, the giant models of the planets behind the planetarium’s glass front — I’ve seen all of them a million times already, so I don’t have to think about them. I can focus on the book.

Don’t get me wrong: The focus isn’t always laser sharp. Last night I crossed paths with a large roach scuttling down the sidewalk, his carapace shining under the streetlights. I wished him well. (The insect could’ve been female, though. I didn’t get close enough to check.) I also saw a whole family of rats scurry out of a garbage can. I yelled at them, pretty loud, “Hey! I’m walking here!” They didn’t get the movie reference. (It’s Dustin Hoffman’s famously unscripted line in Midnight Cowboy, as pictured above.)

But that’s summer in the big city. I enjoy communing with the local wildlife while I think about my characters. At 10 p.m. I returned to my apartment, turned on the air conditioner, and wrote a paragraph-long summary for each of the final six chapters. Now I just have to write them.

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Great Beginnings

By Mark Alpert

Here is my favorite first sentence of any novel, the English translation of the opening lines of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

I like this sentence so much, I’ve memorized it. I recite it at parties after I have a drink or two.

What’s your favorite first sentence?

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Sequel Fatigue

By Mark Alpert

Summer is the time for movie sequels, so I went with my wife and daughter this week to see Incredibles 2, the long-awaited follow-up to the blockbuster 2004 animated film about a superhero family. And I was disappointed.

It isn’t a bad movie. Parts of it are funny. And the animation is beautiful. But it just didn’t live up to the original Incredibles. There’s no way it could’ve.

When the original came out, my kids were five and three. We got the DVD, of course, and over the next few years we watched it at least a dozen times. I became convinced that this was a perfect movie. Better than Shrek or Toy Story. Even better than Finding Nemo. (As you can tell, I was watching a lot of animated films back then.)

So the bar for the Incredibles sequel was set very high, almost impossible to reach. And many book sequels face an equally tough challenge. Dune, the first novel in the sci-fi series by Frank Herbert, was far better than any of the books that came after it. The same thing can be said for The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Magicians, and Ender’s Game. But it’s not true of all series, of course. The Harry Potter books, in particular, seemed to get better as the series went on. I felt the same way about Stephen King’s Dark Tower books. (It’s hard to make a similar judgment about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels because he hasn’t finished the series yet. My favorite book so far, though, is the third one, A Storm of Swords.)

I guess you could say I’m suffering from sequel fatigue. I recently wrote a trilogy of Young Adult novels published by Sourcebooks — The Six (2015), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017) — and in retrospect it seems that the first book was definitely the best. So now I’m back to writing standalone novels. The Coming Storm, a thriller about our very dysfunctional government, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in January. And right now I’m working on a Young Adult novel about God and faith. It’s kind of a crazy stunt — publishers hate books about religion because they’re bound to offend someone — but I can’t stop myself. At least it won’t have a sequel.

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