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: www.markalpert.com

Big Brother

By Mark Alpert

Back in 1984, when I was a newspaper reporter in Claremont, New Hampshire, I interviewed a crusty old New Englander nicknamed Red (because of his hair, I think, even though it had gone gray long before I met him). Red worked as a youth counselor for the town, offering sensible advice and support to the many troubled kids in the area. When the interview was over, Red looked me in the eye and said, “What about you? What are you doing to help our community?”

I didn’t know what to say. I was 23 years old, and I’d come to Claremont only a few months before, after finishing grad school (a master’s in creative writing, of all things). I was working long hours at the newspaper, but I wasn’t married, and I didn’t have a steady girlfriend. In other words, I had some free time on my hands, and I was learning that many small-town New Englanders feel a strong civic duty to put idle hands to work. The local Lions Club was already recruiting me, and some of the local churches too (even though I’m Jewish). And now Red sensed an opening: “Listen, you would make a great Big Brother, you know that? And I have the perfect kid for you. Eleven years old, smart and funny. He’s getting into some trouble at school, but he’s a good kid at heart. I can introduce you to him tomorrow. How about four o’clock?”

That’s how I met my Little Brother. For the next year or so, we got together on the weekends and many weekday afternoons as well. (My hours at the newspaper were irregular.) We did a lot of the stereotypical Big Brother/Little Brother things. We went to a video arcade and played 1980s-era video games (Donkey Kong, anyone?) until I ran out of quarters. We fished the Sugar River, which unfortunately wasn’t so sugary because of all the effluent spewed from Dorr Woolen Mills and the Coy Paper Mill. And because I was unduly influenced by all the advertisements I’d seen in Marvel comic books when I was a teenager, I bought a Daisy air rifle so we could go hunting.

I’m a New York City native, born in the homely borough of Queens, so what the hell did I know about hunting? Nothing, basically. But it was one of the classic activities I imagined Big Brothers and Little Brothers did in the woods of New Hampshire. I assumed it would offer us an opportunity for brotherly bonding and give me the chance to provide Valuable Life Lessons such as “Be patient and good things will happen” and “Working together toward a goal can be more fun and rewarding than fighting everybody at your school.”

Suffice it to say, those lessons didn’t stick, and most of the blame is on me. I was too young and stupid to be an upstanding role model. Plus, I left New Hampshire after a year-and-a-half to move on to a bigger newspaper in Alabama. That’s a typical career path for journalists, and although I tried to stay in touch with my Little Brother over the following years, I was busy with my own life. I could’ve done more for him, and that’s a big regret. But I don’t regret our crazy forays into the woods. They were fun.

And eventually I wrote about our hunting adventures. In my first novel, The Emperor of Alabama, the character of Philip is based on my Little Brother. I set the hunting scene in Alabama rather than New Hampshire, and the book’s narrator is an actual older brother to the hell-raising Philip, but everything else is pretty close to the truth. You can read it below and let me know what you think. (The earlier chapters of the novel are here, here, here, here, and here.)


The weather was good. After stopping at Wal-Mart to buy the pants and the BB’s for Philip’s rifle, we took the county road out to the Mountain. The hills in Butler County are not too impressive, but the tallest one has a pond near the top and a somewhat interesting trail leading up to it and so we called this one the Mountain. Philip and I went hunting there every month or so.

I parked my Civic at the trailhead and extracted my own weapon from the glove compartment, a black BB pistol that didn’t fire straight but sure looked menacing. Philip took command once we started up the trail. I let him walk ahead with the air rifle while I carried the other gear and my ineffective pistol.

“Quiet!” Philip gave me a fierce look over his shoulder. “You’re gonna scare away the squirrels!”

He stopped walking every hundred feet or so and stood perfectly still, listening to the wind blow through the pines. A mockingbird or a blue jay occasionally soared overhead and Philip would sight it with his air rifle but wouldn’t fire. Birds were too easy. He was getting too old to be shooting at birds. But I knew that if he didn’t see a squirrel pretty soon he’d start shooting at anything. He hated being bored and for that reason he’d never make a good hunter.

I wasn’t a good hunter either. I got distracted too easily. After a few minutes we passed a patch of swampy ground and I bent over to inspect the pink-and-white pitcher plants lolling in the mire. I pulled one up and turned it upside down to see what it had been eating lately. Two brown husks that used to be Japanese beetles fell out of the plant’s mouth. The beetles drown in the sticky fluid at the bottom of the pitcher, and then the same fluid dissolves and digests them. It’s a clever system.

Philip turned around and hissed at me for lagging behind. I dropped the plant and caught up with him.

I didn’t go hunting with Philip because I felt sorry for him, or because I wanted to help my mother by taking the kid off her hands for a few hours. After Philip was born, Ma’s behavior went back to normal, more or less. She took care of the baby while I went to classes at the community college and started working part-time at the Advertiser. A few years later, she bought a used car and found some housecleaning jobs, and I watched Philip for her whenever she was working. After he started school, though, she said she didn’t need my help anymore, and she stopped accepting the weekly “loans” I’d been giving her. Although she still had trouble paying her bills, she got incensed whenever I offered to tide her over. As I walked through the woods, I could already predict what Ma would do when Philip and I came home and she saw the new pants I’d bought for him: She’d swear at me and stuff a twenty-dollar bill into my pocket, even if that was all the money she made from cleaning that day.

No, I didn’t do it to help Ma or to please her. I went hunting with Philip because I enjoyed it. I enjoyed gazing through a break in the trees at the vivid green carpet to the south, broken only by the twisting Catfish River, which looked silver in the distance but was actually as brown as prune juice. I enjoyed hearing the barely audible cackling from the chicken farm on the other side of the Mountain, a place I’d never seen and never wanted to see, because seeing it would spoil the mystery. I enjoyed wondering which timber company owned the Mountain and whether they would ever consider selling any of the land and how much they would charge for it if they did. It would be a nice place to build a house. But most of all, I enjoyed being with my brother. I enjoyed having a purpose, which was to watch Philip hunt and be quiet when he told me to be quiet and make sure he didn’t do anything too stupid.

Presently, the distinctive shriek of an American gray squirrel sounded from a stand of pines up ahead. Philip froze just long enough to locate the noise. Then he fired a shot into the upper branches.

He missed. The squirrel scrambled down the tree trunk.

“You little fucker!” Philip loaded another BB into the barrel of his air rifle and furiously pumped the stock.

The squirrel raced across a bed of pine needles toward another tree trunk. I fired my BB pistol, and the arcing shot actually came close enough to scare him. He made a 90-degree turn and was leaping over a rock when Philip’s second shot caught him in the hind leg.

It was a hell of a shot. The squirrel’s rear end jerked sideways in midair. He crashed into the pine needles and slid half a yard before he regained his footing and dove out of sight beneath a pile of rocks.

We rushed over there, Philip panting and flushed and nearly hysterical with excitement, and me scanning the ground just as carefully, my pistol already reloaded.

Philip pointed at the rock pile. “He’s in there! Start picking up those rocks!”

I picked up the lighter rocks and threw them to the side. Then I dug my fingers into the clay around the heavier rocks and pried them loose. Philip stood there with his rifle, ready to fire if the squirrel made a run for it. I lifted a flat rock that had a long smear of blood on it, and as I was pointing this out to Philip the squirrel erupted from the rock pile and bolted hell-for-leather toward the nearest pine tree.

Philip hit him again as he clambered up the trunk, another good shot. The squirrel stumbled but managed to hang on to the bark and climb to the lowest limb. I expected him to run down the limb and jump into the branches of the neighboring tree, but instead of running he just sat there in the crotch between the trunk and tree limb. With the wounds he had, he was as good as dead anyway.

Philip had a clear shot. The BB plunged into the squirrel like a pin into a pincushion. The animal didn’t even blink. Philip shot him one more time and the squirrel lost his grip on the branch and fell to the ground.

Philip was in a splendid mood for the rest of the day. He decided that he wanted to show off the squirrel to his friends before skinning and eating it, so he put the body in a plastic sandwich bag and we hiked back to the car. On the drive back to my mother’s house, Philip kept turning the bag over, studying the carcass with immense pride. But I avoided looking at the thing. It bothered me that the squirrel hadn’t run at the end. As if he’d sensed the basic unfairness of it all.

Philip’s face was still red with pleasure. “Did you see how he jumped when I got him the first time? He was running like a son-of-a-bitch. And then, BAM!”

“It was a good shot,” I allowed.

“And I ain’t even in practice. Ma hasn’t let me done any target practice for almost a month.”

“Why not?”

“Aw, it was stupid. I was down by the old cemetery, aiming at some blue jays, and I shot out someone’s porch light. It was an accident.”

I shook my head. This wasn’t the first time Philip had been careless. “I’ve told you before, you can’t go shooting near houses.”

“It ain’t my fault! That trailer’s at the end of the road, in the middle of the woods. I didn’t even know I was near it.”

“Come on…”

“I’m telling the truth! There’s nothing else up there.”

“So how did Ma find out about it?”

Philip frowned. “Just my luck, there was a sheriff’s car parked outside the trailer. One of the deputies saw me and told me to get in the car. Then he drove me home.”

Great, I thought. Philip was already getting in trouble with the law, and he wasn’t even a teenager yet. “So what happened then?”

“Well, Ma wasn’t home but Brad was there. And you know how he is.” Brad was my mother’s current boyfriend, a relatively decent guy who took shit from no one. “He started yelling at the deputy, telling him to get the hell off the property. Then the deputy said he was gonna issue a citation because of the junk cars in our yard. And then Ma finally came home and told the deputy to fuck off.”

“Oh, Jesus.”

“It was pretty funny, actually. Ma said, ‘Listen, you dumb fuck, I know the sheriff, and he’d have a heart attack if he knew you were fucking with me.’ And the deputy was so dumb, he believed her.” Philip turned his attention back to the sandwich bag and pinched the carcass inside. “This squirrel’s got a tough hide. Look at the color of his guts. I bet he just finished eating something.”

I took my eyes off the road for a moment and looked at Philip. I felt a brotherly obligation to try to talk some sense into him. “Ma says you’ve been getting into trouble in school too.”

“I don’t cause no trouble. The other kids started it. I don’t mess with nobody unless they mess with me first.”

“It doesn’t matter who…”

“I’ll tell you what happened. One of the kids in my class started razzing me about Ma and Brad. So I said, ‘Well, at least my mother ain’t a fucking skank, which is more than I can say for yours.’ Then he pushed me, so I said, ‘Now you’ve done it, now you’ve made me mad,’ and before he could do anything else, I dropped him. Then I said to his friends, ‘If any of you want the same thing he got, just step right up, ’cause I’m in a fighting mood.’ And they all ran away like scared little pussies.”

I didn’t believe a word of it. “You know, they’re gonna throw you out of school if you keep fighting like that.”

“No, they ain’t. They’re gonna put me in Special Ed next year.”

“What?”

“Yeah, the teacher said I have a learning disability. So now I’m gonna have to sit in a classroom full of nimrods.”

“Shit.” I recognized what was going on, because the same thing happened to every kid in Butler County who proved too difficult for the schools to handle. The teachers shunted the problem kids to Special Education, where they learned absolutely nothing and eventually quit out of boredom. It was a necessary evil in a county that couldn’t even afford to heat its schools in the winter, much less pay for teacher aides or school psychologists. But it infuriated me that Philip had been designated as one of the castoffs. “This is bullshit. You don’t have a learning disability.”

“That’s what Ma told ’em. But they said we didn’t have a choice. It was either Special Ed or nothing.”

“Goddamn it! They can’t do this.”

“I don’t care. I’m sick of school anyway. If they try to put me with the nimrods, I’ll just bust out of there. I’ll go to your place and live with you.”

“You can’t live with me, Philip. What would you do in my apartment all day?”

“Lots of things. I could help you write your newspaper stories. I’d give you the ideas and you’d give me part of your salary. You could write a story about my school and how fucked up the teachers are.”

“Look, you need to…”

“I could help you right now. I read the newspapers that Ma gets. It doesn’t look that hard.”

“Listen to me. You’re never gonna get anywhere in life if you quit school.”

“I bet I could write better stories than you. You write about boring stuff.”

I sighed. “Well, I’m sorry, but a lot of things in life are boring. When you have a job, you have to do what they tell you to do. They tell me to write about the governor, so I write about the governor.”

“Brad says the governor used to own that trailer I shot at. He says the governor used to go there to fuck his girlfriend.”

Philip stated this very matter-of-factly, as if this was something that everyone knew. I slowed the car and stared at him. “What?”

“He doesn’t go there anymore. The sheriff owns the trailer now. Brad told me that’s why the deputy was there.”

“How would Brad know something like that?”

“Brad knows a lot of things. He used to be an informer for the state troopers.”

This was strictly impossible. Brad hated cops. “Well, it’s the first I’ve heard of it.”

“You see, I’m helping you already. You owe me part of your salary. Watch out, you’re gonna miss the turnoff.”

I hit the brakes and the Civic skidded a few yards. Then I drove down the dirt road to my mother’s house.

Philip jumped out of the car as soon as we stopped. My mother stood in the doorway next to the junk piles, looking pissed. She wore denim shorts and a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, which was her usual outfit when she was cleaning houses. She pointed at the sandwich bag in Philip’s hand. “You ain’t bringing that mess into the house.”

“I’m just gonna put it in the freezer,” Philip said.

“The shit you are! You’re either gonna bury that thing or throw it in the drum.”

“It ain’t gonna hurt nothing in the freezer!”

My mother turned to me. “Jack, how the hell could you let him bring that mess home?”

Wearily, I stepped out of the car. “It’s good to see you too, Ma.”

“Look, it don’t smell at all,” Philip said, waving the sandwich bag in my mother’s face. “Here, smell it. It don’t smell at all.”

“Get that fucking thing outta here!” my mother screamed, whacking the bag out of Philip’s hand. The squirrel carcass flew out of the bag and landed in a mud puddle a few feet away.

“Now look what you did!” Philip shouted.

“Get the shovel and bury that thing, Philip!” My mother got prettier when she was angry. Her face took on color and some of the lines disappeared and her sad yellow eyes seemed to jump out at you, like the eyes of the girls still hanging out at the Jubilee at three in the morning. You would’ve never guessed that she was pushing 50. She looked 35, 40 at the most.

“Fuck it! You can bury it yourself!” Philip walked right past my mother and into the house, slamming the door behind him.

My mother winced as the door slammed. Then her face relaxed to its normal condition, a pale tired look. “I don’t believe this. I got a dead squirrel in the middle of my yard.”

“Don’t worry, Ma,” I said. “One of the dogs will eat it.”

She stared at the rusted metal drum. The trash inside it was still smoldering. “I don’t know what to do with that boy. I really don’t. He gets worse every day.”

She was looking for sympathy. She wanted me to agree that Philip was incorrigible, that no power on earth could control him, that it wasn’t her fault. And I did sympathize with her, in a limited way. She wasn’t really equipped for motherhood. She got overwhelmed too easily. “Philip told me what happened in school. How they want to put him in Special Ed.”

My mother dug into the back pocket of her shorts and pulled out a crumpled pack of Camels. “It’s not like I didn’t warn him. I told that boy a hundred times, stop messing around in school.” She stuck a cigarette between her lips and started searching her other pockets for a matchbook. “But he didn’t listen. He never listens.”

“You gotta do something about this, Ma. Talk to someone on the school board.”

“Don’t you think I tried? I went to the chairman’s house and gave him hell. Told him exactly what I thought about his goddamn school district.” She finally found the matches and lit her cigarette. “Didn’t do a bit of good.”

I raised my hand to my forehead. The hangover ache was returning. “What about that private school I told you about last month? Did you call ’em?”

“Greenville Academy? Yeah, I called ’em. They don’t give financial aid unless your daddy’s a veteran. Fucking cheap bastards.”

“Well, how much is the tuition?”

“Five thousand dollars a year. Can you believe it? The pencils over there must be made of solid gold.” She blew a stream of smoke out of the corner of her mouth. “No, we’re just gonna have to make the best of it. Maybe if Philip learns to behave himself, they’ll put him back in the regular classes.”

I shook my head. This was wrong, seriously wrong. I saw nothing but disaster for Philip if we let this happen to him. It was all too easy to imagine him in the county jail a few years from now. We had to do something. “Go ahead and enroll him at Greenville Academy. I’ll figure out how to get the money.”

My mother looked askance. “You? You’re gonna pay for it?”

That was the moment when I made my decision. For the whole day I’d avoided thinking about Fowler’s job offer, but now I knew what I had to do. I wasn’t going to let them toss Philip into the fire. “Don’t worry, I can afford it.”

“What the hell are you talking about? You can barely make your car payments. You gonna rob a bank or something?”

I felt a grim satisfaction. For once I was going to make my mother eat her words. “I got a chance to start a new job. A good job, pays fifty thousand a year. That’ll be more than enough to cover Philip’s tuition.”

My mother took the cigarette out of her mouth and squinted at me. “Who are you gonna be working for?”

“Governor Fowler wants me to be his assistant press secretary. For his reelection campaign.”

She didn’t say anything at first. She just stared at me as if I were crazy. It got so quiet that I could hear the cars on the county road a quarter-mile away.

“You ain’t gonna work for him,” she finally said, calmly and firmly.

“Why not?”

“You can work anywhere else you want, but you ain’t gonna work for that man.”

“What is it? You don’t like his politics?”

“No, I don’t like his politics. I don’t like it at all.”

I understood her reaction. In fact, I’d felt the same way myself. But for Philip’s sake, I needed to quash those feelings now. “That’s ridiculous,” I said. “You ain’t even registered to vote.”

My mother threw her cigarette to the ground and pointed her finger at me. “You can make fun of me all you want, Jack. I may not have gone to college and I may not be as smart as your friends at the newspaper. But I know about that man. And I know what your daddy thought about him too. If your daddy were alive right now, he’d kick you right in the ass. He’d kick your ass so hard, you wouldn’t be able to sit for a week.”

“I don’t think so, Ma.”

“You don’t think so? Well, I know so. I know what that man did to your daddy.”

“Come on, this is…”

“That man put hatred in your daddy’s heart. And that’s what killed him. It ate him up inside and then it killed him.”

“For Christ’s sake, it was cancer. The governor had nothing to do with it.”

“I was there, Jack! I saw what happened! That man is nothing but a murderer! And if you work for him, you’ll be a murderer too!”

I hadn’t seen my mother get this worked up in a long time. Her face had turned bright pink and her chest was heaving. There was a wildness in her blood that rose to the surface at times like these, a primeval fury that tightened the muscles in her neck and made her veins pulse like live wires. It was something old, something that had been in our family’s blood since God knows when. And there was some of it in me, too. I could feel it seeping through my skin like a poisonous tide. “Are you through yet?”

She took a deep breath but kept her eyes fixed on me. “Yeah, I’m through.”

“You said if daddy were alive right now, he’d kick my ass. But that’s wrong. He wouldn’t have the time, because he’d be too busy kicking the hell out of you.” I pointed at the wreck of a house behind her. “He’d kick your ass for keeping your house the way you keep it and for raising Philip the way you raise him and for living out here like trash and not even caring anymore. You think that’s what daddy would’ve wanted? For Philip to drop out of school and live like trash his whole life?”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I’d gone too far. I thought for sure that Ma would spring on me like a panther. But she just stared at me again as if I were crazy. “Get out of here, Jack,” she said quietly. “Just get the hell out of here.”

I headed to my car and opened the door, but before I ducked inside I turned back to my mother. “I’m sending the money to Greenville Academy whether you like it or not. All you have to do is enroll him.”

Then I got in the car and slammed the door and peeled down the dirt driveway.

5+

Deep Background

By Mark Alpert

To write a novel, you have to do more than simply tell a story. You have to stop yourself from telling the story all at once.

One of the trickiest skills in fiction is to flesh out the history of your point-of-view character. In some cases, this can be done in just a few sentences. But in other novels, the character’s past is crucial to understanding how he or she acts in the present, and a few sentences of background aren’t enough.

The great pitfall is presenting too much background information too quickly. The reader needs to be fully immersed and engaged in the present-day story before the writer has the luxury of delving into the backstory. We have to care about a character’s current predicament before we’ll have the patience to learn what brought the character to this impasse.

I had some trouble with this skill when I started writing fiction. (I wrote four never-published books before writing my debut novel, FINAL THEORY, which was published by Simon & Schuster in 2008.) In my first attempt I created a character named Jack Blanchard, a 29-year-old newspaper reporter in Montgomery, Alabama, who’s covering the reelection campaign of a longtime governor with a vicious segregationist past. (Like many first novels, this one was somewhat autobiographical; in 1986 I was a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser and wrote stories about George Wallace, who was still Alabama’s governor at the time.) Jack has a younger brother named Philip who’s only twelve years old; I mention this fact in the novel’s first chapter, but I don’t provide any explanation for the big age difference between the two. But about fifty pages into the book, after the governor offers Jack a job as his assistant press secretary, and after Jack gets drunk and wrestles with the question of whether he’s actually going to take the job, I include a chapter with Jack and Philip that includes some of their backstory.

I think we learn more from our failures than our successes, so the first part of that chapter is presented below. (If you’re interested in reading the earlier chapters, they’re here, here, here, and here.) Let me know what you think!

——-

That night, I dreamed of the long-tailed parrots of South America.

I dreamed that ten thousand long-tailed parrots ascended from their damp nests in the Amazon jungle and swarmed north toward the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. They flew all night over moonlit whitecaps and made landfall at dawn on the Alabama Gulf Coast. They continued inland over broad fields of wiregrass until they reached the off-white dome that crowns the Statehouse. Then the parrots smashed through the skylight on top of the dome and spilled into the rotunda like a waterfall, with green, yellow and orange torrents pouring down the marble corridors.

I thought for sure that the legislators and lobbyists would be stunned by the bright wings flapping over their heads, but none of them showed the least bit of surprise as the birds settled, one by one, on their shoulders. The parrots selected their perches by seniority: The birds with the shortest tails sat on the shoulders of the first-term legislators, the newly elected representatives who had no power or influence yet, while the parrots with longer tails alighted on the committee chairmen and floor leaders, the men who controlled the House and Senate.

The parrot with the longest tail of all perched on Governor Fowler’s shoulder. It was a raggedy-looking, ill-kempt bird. Its tremendous tail dragged along the floor behind Fowler’s wheelchair, leaving a trail of dusty pinfeathers. The other parrots yelled their obeisances to Fowler’s bird, and their squawks reverberated across the Statehouse, echoing off the marble columns and walls and the dark portraits of nineteenth-century governors. The noise grew so loud I had to shake myself awake.

I answered the telephone that was ringing beside my bed.

“What the hell happened to you?” my mother asked over the phone. “It’s nine-thirty. You were supposed to be here at…”

The groan of a tractor-trailer drowned her out. My mother always called me from the Junction, a truck stop and convenience store about half a mile from her house in Butler County. She didn’t have a telephone at home. She’d had some trouble paying her bills on time, so BellSouth had disconnected her.

“What?” I yelled. “I can barely hear you.”

“Jack, you said you were coming to see Philip today, but now you ain’t here, and I gotta get to work.”

“Ma, it’s Saturday. Why—”

“I know what goddamn day it is! I thought you’d be here by now, so I said yes to a woman in Greenville who wanted her house cleaned for a party tonight. When’s the soonest you can get here? You know I don’t like to leave Philip by himself.”

My head was throbbing. Tequila hangovers are the worst. “I’ll try to be there in half an hour. Ten-thirty at the latest.”

“Well, you might as well not come at all if you’re gonna be that late. I’ll just take Philip with me. I don’t want him getting into any more trouble.”

“Ma, he’s twelve years old. You can leave him alone in the house for half an hour.”

“Believe me, that boy doesn’t need half an hour to get into trouble. Five minutes is all he needs.”

“Look, I’m coming over, all right? Just tell Philip to sit still until I get there.” I hung up before she could argue any more.

I drove as fast as I could and reached the Butler County line by ten o’clock. I turned off Route 50 and put my Civic into first gear so it could climb the steep dirt path to my mother’s house. The house stood at the center of a clearing in the scrub pines. A junk Chevy on cinderblocks guarded the front door and the carcass of a Ford pickup lay farther back, nearly hidden in the weeds. Thick smoke rose from a rusted metal drum in the middle of the yard. My mother burned her garbage in the drum because that was easier than dragging the stuff all the way to the landfill.

The house itself looked like it had been built in stages and never really finished. The front was the only part that resembled a conventional residence — the siding was nearly horizontal and painted a dull battleship-gray. But as you moved toward the rear, the siding became a crazy quilt of tilted pine-boards and the gray paint ran out altogether. The back of the house was nothing but an open-air shed underneath which the dogs napped and the cats yowled and the long woodpile settled.

Philip was taking a leak on the firewood as I drove into the yard. He quickly zipped up his fly and leaped onto the hood of my car. Wonder and Useless, the two yellow dogs that also urinated on the woodpile, ran behind him as far as their chains would allow.

“Jack!” The boy’s voice was gleeful. He pressed his face against the windshield. “What the hell took you so long?”

“Get off the hood.” I turned off the engine and stepped out of the car. “Come on, get off. You’re gonna mess up the paint job.”

“No, I’m not. I’m wearing sneakers. Look.” He rubbed the sole of his sneaker on the hood. “It doesn’t even leave a mark.”

“Well, you’re gonna bend the metal or something. Just get off of it.”

Philip slid down the side of the car. It looked like he’d grown an inch or two since the last time I saw him, but he was still just as skinny as always. My mother didn’t feed him right. “How come you’re wearing glasses?” he asked.

“I lost one of my contacts.”

“You dope. How’d you lose it?”

“It fell out.”

“How’d that happen?”

“I don’t know. It just fell out.”

“I bet you got drunk. That’s why you slept so late this morning, right?” Philip cocked his head and grinned. He was a prolific liar himself, so he knew the ways of lying. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell Ma. Hey, do you like my new shirt?” He wore a white T-shirt that listed Fourteen Reasons Why A Pickup Truck Is Better Than A Woman. “I like reason number ten,” he said, peering down at the words. “It don’t get jealous if you drive another one. Pretty funny, huh?”

“Yeah, real funny. Where’d you get it?”

“Ma bought it for me at Wal-Mart. Hey, can we stop by there on the way to the mountain? I need a new pair of pants. I’ve been wearing these jeans all week. My teacher said I couldn’t wear them to school anymore cause they have too many holes.”

Philip didn’t seem bothered by this, but I was mortified. “Why didn’t Ma buy you new pants when she got you the T-shirt?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe the shirt was cheaper. Hey, can I ask you a question?”

“What?”

“Why are you such a dildo? I’m just asking cause I’m curious.”

He danced away from me, ready to bolt if I made a move toward him. But I was too hung over to play this game. “Come on, let’s get moving. Go in the house and get your stuff.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Just get in the house. Did you feed the dogs yet?” After some perfunctory barking, Wonder and Useless had crept back into the shade.

“We ran out of dog food yesterday. Ma said she’d pick up a bag on her way home.”

I followed Philip into the house. The door to the kitchen was situated toward the back, near the woodpile. Broken auto parts and assorted pieces of junk were heaped next to the doorstep. A third dog, Wonder’s and Useless’s mother, slept between the scrap piles. Two cats sprang out of nowhere and slipped into the house as Philip opened the door.

“I also need some more BB’s for my rifle.” Philip ran toward his bedroom. “We can get them at Wal-Mart when we buy the pants.”

I waited for Philip in the kitchen. The two cats headed straight for an aluminum pot on top of the stove. After sniffing around a bit, the cats stuck their heads into the pot and started eating the crusty mac-and-cheese left over from last night’s supper. A stack of unwashed dishes filled the sink. I thought I’d clean some of them while I waited for Philip, but no water came out of the faucet when I turned the handle.

“What wrong with the sink?” I yelled. “There’s no water coming out.”

Philip answered from his bedroom.    “They turned off the water last week.”

“Well, how do you clean the dishes?”

“Ma fills up a bucket at the Junction. Why do you wanna clean the dishes? I’m gonna be ready in two minutes.”

My mother had a microwave oven and a VCR, but no telephone and no running water. Philip had one of the most extensive collections of video games in Butler County, but there were basketball-sized holes in the walls of his bedroom. The stench of the house was unmentionable — suffice it to say that it always surprised me no matter how much I prepared myself for it. Flies casually sampled the contents of the litter box, although the cats more frequently relieved themselves in the bathtub. And believe it or not, this was the home of a professional housecleaner. Ma spent six days a week cleaning other people’s houses, but she hadn’t washed the floor of her own kitchen since last summer.

But here and there amidst the general clutter were signs that at one time my mother had tried to make the place look decent. Her coffee mugs hung neatly on a wooden rack above the stove, and a pretty plastic butterfly with a magnetic belly pinned “The Rules of the House” to the refrigerator door:

THE RULES OF THE HOUSE (written by my mother on a sheet of notebook paper when some cousins came for an extended visit):

  • Eat at mealtimes only. DO NOT leave the refrijerator door open and stand there all day long. DO NOT drink all the coke.
  • DO NOT touch the tv or vcr unless an adult is there. These things can brake and you will have to pay for it.
  • DO NOT make unnesessary noise. If someone is sleeping, walk slowly without tramping your feet.
  • If you are alone and a stranger comes by the house, sit down and be quite until he leaves. Stay away from the windows.

My mother had moved to Butler County in 1974, not long after what she called her “accident.” Before that, we’d lived in an apartment on Clinton Street, which was the worst neighborhood in Montgomery, or at least the worst neighborhood where white people lived. My father hadn’t left us much in the way of savings or insurance, so after he died we sank below the poverty line. We got evicted at least once a year during the late Sixties and early Seventies, always moving from one crappy apartment to another. Ma wore torn shirts and tattered sneakers, and she never carried more than ten dollars in her pocket, and when we stood in the checkout line at the supermarket and she saw how much the total bill was, she always had to pull a few cans and cereal boxes out of our shopping cart. The teenage girl at the cash register usually scowled at Ma when that happened, and seeing that look on the girl’s face — annoyed, impatient, disgusted — well, that was the essence of poverty for me.

I blamed most of it on Ma’s boyfriends. She had a lot of boyfriends back then. They came to our apartment as regularly as the seasons, each staying for a few months and borrowing money from my mother and then disappearing, usually in the dead of night. It bothered me a lot when I was younger, but by the time I reached high school I was never home anyway, so I didn’t care what Ma did. I was too busy getting stoned and cruising around town with the other burn-outs from Jeff Davis High School. For almost four years I didn’t say much more than hello and goodbye to my mother.

And then, in the fall of my senior year, I came home one evening and found the front door of our apartment kicked in and most of the furniture smashed and my mother lying unconscious on the sofa. Her face was mottled with purple bruises, and blood seeped from the corner of her mouth. I grabbed her by the shoulders and screamed, “MA! WAKE UP!” but she just rolled her head and let out a moan. She was naked except for the bruises and dried blood.

When Ma finally woke up at Baptist Medical Center, she had no memory of the attack. I suspected it was one of her old boyfriends, but the cops didn’t pursue the case too aggressively. In a neighborhood like Clinton Street, there were just too many potential suspects. Ma came home a week later with a bandage across her face and a set of store-bought teeth. But after a few days she said she was too scared to stay in the neighborhood, so we moved to the old lean-to in Butler County that her father had built in the Fifties as a hunting shack. We didn’t have a car, so Ma lost all her cleaning jobs and we had to go on welfare.

That was a turning point for me. For the first time ever, Ma got desperate and begged me help her. So I stopped getting stoned and started taking life more seriously. I fixed up the shack to make it livable and did odd jobs for the neighbors to bring in some money. I enrolled at Butler High School and actually went to most of my classes and earned enough credits to graduate. Most important, I took care of Ma during her recovery, doing the laundry and the grocery shopping and the cooking for her. For months after her “accident” she refused to step outside the house, and on her worst days she wouldn’t even leave her bed. She’d curl up in her blankets and shiver uncontrollably, even when it was hot as Hades in her room.

And every day I noticed, with something akin to horror, that her belly had swollen a little bit more. She never said a word about it. The one time I tried to bring it up, she turned scarlet and told me to mind my own business. If she struggled with the question of whether to terminate the pregnancy — abortion had become legal in Alabama the year before — she never gave a sign. Philip was born that summer, nine months after the attack.

After fussing around in his bedroom for ten minutes, Philip finally came back to the kitchen carrying a BB rifle, a rusty skinning knife, and a can of lighter fluid.

“Why are you bringing the lighter fluid?” I asked.

“To start a fire, dumb-ass. I’m gonna shoot a squirrel and cook it in the woods.”

“You don’t need lighter fluid to start a fire.”

“Yessir, you do. I ain’t gonna wait forever while you fool around with leaves and sticks like you did last time.”

“All right, all right, bring it. I don’t care.”

We stepped outside. Philip locked the door and hid the key under one of the junk piles.

3+

Using Podcasts to Promote Your Novels

By Mark Alpert

I was a late convert to podcasts. I’m a visual guy. When it comes to taking in information and stories, I’ve always been more comfortable using my eyes rather than my ears.

But when I was a kid I loved listening to mystery stories on the radio. My favorite show was CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which was broadcast on Friday nights during the 1970s. I remember one episode in particular that featured a scary god/monster who had the ominous name “Chin-dee.” I also loved the Bob and Ray Show. (“We’ve found that you listeners enjoy hearing these pathetic people tell their tragic stories.”) And Doctor Demento. (“They’re coming to take me away, ha-ha!”)

As I grew older, I sometimes listened to short stories on the radio, especially the Selected Shorts program broadcast from Symphony Space, right here on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But I’ve never listened to an entire novel on audio. I’d rather hold the book in my hands, so I can flip back to chapters that I didn’t read carefully enough the first time around.

When podcasts started proliferating a decade ago, my wife took to them immediately. She’s more of an auditory person, a meticulous listener. She encouraged me to listen to podcasts with her, but I often got antsy, distracted. Recently, though, I’ve become quite interested in Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcasts, particularly the episodes about Curtis LeMay, the World War II general who planned the fire-bombing campaign against Japanese cities. What hooked me? This line: “If you make a list of the people responsible for the most civilian deaths in the twentieth century, at the top are Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and Hitler, the familiar names. And not too far behind, uncomfortably close behind, is Curtis Emerson LeMay.”

A good podcast, in my opinion, has explanatory power. It can elucidate a complicated subject and reveal hidden truths and nuances. That makes podcasts a particularly good format for science journalism. And my former employer, Scientific American — where I was an editor for ten years — produces some excellent podcasts.

When my first novel, Final Theory, was published in 2008, I did a podcast interview for Scientific American. That novel was about Albert Einstein and the urgent quest to discover a Theory of Everything that would explain all the forces of Nature. In the podcast, I talked about the real science behind my fiction, going on and on about neutrinos and quantum theory and extra dimensions. It was great fun for me — I can talk all day about this stuff — and I think it also persuaded a few potential readers to buy my book. More than anything, I tried to convey my excitement about the subject, in the hope that some of my listeners would get excited too.

Since then I’ve done podcast interviews to promote several of my newer novels (Extinction, The Furies, The Orion Plan). I’ve talked at length about the real technologies described in those books: brain-computer interfaces, cyborg insects, genetic engineering, nanomaterials. Nearly every novel, no matter how wildly speculative, has some connection with the real world, and explaining those connections can make an interesting interview. The key is to find the right podcast for your books, so I think it’s worthwhile to explore the wide variety of audio programs being produced right now.

My latest podcast interview came out just a couple of days ago on the Scientific American website. The topic of that podcast is The Coming Storm, my novel about the Trump administration and its unwise disdain for science and scientists. Although I did the interview before the Covid-19 pandemic, I talked about the dire consequences of ignoring scientific warnings, and the events of the past few months have certainly underlined that message. You can listen to the interview here.

6+

Historical Fiction in the Adirondacks

By Mark Alpert

Question: Which U.S. president was the most prolific writer?

Answer: Teddy Roosevelt.

Surprised? According to Author in Chief by Craig Fehrman, TR wrote 37 works of biography, history, and public policy, the most notable of which was his first book, The Naval War of 1812, which was published when Roosevelt was only 24. In the popular imagination, TR is remembered as a great adventurer, but he was also an inexhaustible writer.

My wife and I have a soft spot for Teddy. About 15 years ago we joined the Theodore Roosevelt Association. We visited his childhood home, a townhouse on East 20th Street in Manhattan. (The building is actually a reconstruction of the original home, which was demolished in 1916, but it’s decorated with many of the original furnishings.) We also toured Sagamore Hill, the beautiful Long Island mansion that was Roosevelt’s home for most of his adult life and served as the Summer White House when he was president. And we trekked across the North Dakota Badlands to see the site of the cattle ranch on the Little Missouri where Teddy sought solace after the deaths of his wife and mother on the same day in 1884.

We love TR because he was an ardent conservationist, and because he was such a big-hearted optimist. His best book, in our opinion, is Letters to Kermit, a collection of the letters Teddy wrote to his second-oldest son, who was away at boarding school when his father was president. While TR struggled with the greatest issues of his day, busting trusts and building navies and negotiating peace treaties, he still found time to write chatty letters to Kermit, sometimes adorning them with charming drawings of elk and horses.

Of course, love is complicated, and as we learned more about TR — by attending conferences with historians such as Douglas Brinkley and Candice Millard — we discovered that parts of his political philosophy weren’t so appealing. He was a bit too fond of war and conquest, and he had some noxious notions about “race suicide” and America’s destiny to dominate Asia and the Pacific. For this reason, I support the recent decision to take down the statue of TR in front of the American Museum of Natural History. Because this statue shows Teddy on horseback next to an African and a Native American walking alongside his horse, it highlights his imperialist and racist attitudes. All in all, though, he was a remarkable president who certainly deserves his hallowed place on Mount Rushmore.

What’s more, the story of TR’s life is fertile ground for historical fiction. Last week, my wife and I drove up to the Adirondacks for a weeklong vacation, and while we were there we paid a special visit to the starting point of Teddy’s Midnight Ride to the Presidency.

So let’s go back to September 1901. Let’s picture President William McKinley shaking hands with the public at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. A man with his right hand wrapped in a handkerchief approaches; he’s an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, and his handkerchief hides a .32-caliber revolver. He shoots McKinley twice in the belly before being tackled by police detectives and onlookers.

McKinley is rushed to the hospital, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt hurries to Buffalo. But the operation to repair the gunshot wounds appears to be successful, and in the following days McKinley seems to get better. This is a great relief to many bigwigs in the Republican Party, who had encouraged Roosevelt to run as McKinley’s Vice President the year before partly because they’d wanted to stow him in a position where he would have no practical power. (TR greatly upset some of those bigwigs during his earlier stint as New York’s governor.)

Once it looked like McKinley would recover, Teddy — who could never sit still for very long — decided to go hiking in the Adirondacks. He went to a tiny village called Tahawus, which is also the Native American name for nearby Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in New York. (The name means “cloud-splitter.”) Roosevelt set off to climb Mt. Marcy with a few companions, while his second wife Edith and their children remained at the McNaughton Cottage in the village.

Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, McKinley took a turn for the worse. Gangrene festered inside him. The president’s advisers sent a telegram to Tahawus, urging TR to return to Buffalo as quickly as possible, but the vice president was off the grid, camping somewhere in the High Peaks. A band of wilderness guides dashed into the woods to find him, firing their guns as they neared Mt. Marcy. Teddy heard the gunfire and guessed that someone was looking for him. After rendezvousing with the guides, he swiftly hiked down the mountain and reached the village of Tahawus long after nightfall. He couldn’t spend the night with his family at the McNaughton Cottage; instead, he embarked on a desperate 35-mile ride, traveling on muddy roads in horse-drawn buckboard wagons to the town of North Creek, the closest train station. He arrived there at 4:46 a.m. and learned that McKinley was dead. At some point during that midnight ride, TR had become president of the United States.

Today, Tahawus is an Adirondack ghost town. Nothing remains except a few abandoned blast furnaces (the area had been an iron-mining site in the mid-19th century) and the boarded-up McNaughton Cottage, which has been purchased by a preservation group that’s in the process of restoring it. After some poking around, my wife and I found the cottage (see photo above). We also hiked the same wilderness trail that TR used, passing the place where the Hudson River pours down from Henderson Lake (see photo below).

It was inspiring and gratifying to visit yet another place that was important to Teddy Roosevelt. Someday, maybe, I’ll write a piece of fiction that reimagines one of his adventures. But not yet. Even after all these years of studying his life, I feel like I’m still getting to know the man.

1+

Fiction is for Kids

By Mark Alpert

My wife is a can-do person. Although Covid-19 is again spreading unchecked across the nation, and America is suffering from its worst economic debacle since the Great Depression, the crisis hasn’t dented her spirit. In just the past two months she’s launched a new nonprofit that’s educating and entertaining New York City kids who have been isolated by the resurgent pandemic.

The organization is called Summer in the City, and two weeks ago it began to offer dozens of free online classes in art, music, theater, dance, and writing to public-school students in NYC. And because I always try to be helpful to my wife (well, not always, but pretty often), I agreed to teach one of the classes aimed at teenagers: Writing Science Fiction. My description of the class in the online course catalog (which you can peruse here) includes the tagline, “You probably feel like you’re already living in a science-fiction dystopia right now, so why not write about it?”

I’ve talked about fiction writing with students many times over the past decade, in Skype chats with school book clubs and in person at school auditoriums, but until now I’ve never taught a class with scheduled meetings (every Tuesday and Thursday at 2 pm) and weekly assignments. The experience has made me wonder which particular pieces of writing instruction are most helpful to beginning writers. It’s also given me some insight into the difficulties that many teachers are confronting while trying to teach on Zoom and the other online platforms.

The best thing about Zoom is that I don’t have to commute anywhere. I teach the class from the comfort of my living-room couch, with a mug of coffee within easy reach on the coffee table. I also benefit from the fact that these NYC students used Zoom for all their regular public-school classes from March to June, so they’re all very familiar with how the online platform works. For instance, they swiftly mute their microphones when they aren’t speaking to the rest of the class, which greatly reduces the problems with background noise. Furthermore, back in March the city’s Department of Education provided free iPads and wireless Internet access to all students who lacked their own computers and Wi-fi connections, so low-income students can enroll in my class just as easily as wealthy students can.

I have another advantage that many teachers would love to have: I’ve limited the enrollment for my class, and only six to nine students attend each session. This makes it much easier to give every student a chance to contribute. At the start of each session I ask the kids, one by one, to read aloud the three or four paragraphs of fiction that I previously assigned them to compose. I listen carefully to each passage, then deliver my comments, my off-the-cuff reactions to what they’d written. Then I ask if any other students would like to comment on the passage, and usually one or two kids will offer some praise or suggestions for improvement.

This process usually takes about 30 minutes, or half the hour-long session. I then spend the next 30 minutes giving the lesson for the day. During the first class, for instance, I discussed how to write a great opening paragraph. I told the students that the first paragraph is by far the most important part of any short story or novel, because readers won’t continue to the rest of the story if the opening sentences don’t grab their attention. I gave them tips for making the first paragraph more compelling: start at a moment of great drama, start with a really engaging narrative voice, start with a hint of mystery that makes the reader ask questions and want to know more. And I gave them examples of great openings written by masterful authors such as Neil Gaiman, Frank Herbert, Douglas Adams, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

At the end of the class, I assigned the students to write an opening paragraph — a minimum of one sentence, a maximum of five — and be prepared to read it out loud during the next session. And I was very pleased with the results. Here’s an opener that one of the students read aloud: “These are the two most important days in your life: the day you’re born, and the day you find out why you were born.” It’s fantastic, right? I told my 20-year-old son Tommy (via text message) about this student’s opening sentence, and he responded with a single-word text: “Damn.” I replied, “Right? Either I’m a great teacher, or this kid is a naturally great writer.” To which my son replied, “Probably the latter.”

Another assignment was to introduce a really interesting villain in just a few paragraphs. I urged the students to avoid the standard stereotype of an irredeemable evildoer who delights in talking at length about his or her dastardly plans (which is also called monologuing or mustache-twirling). In reality, the great majority of villains don’t do evil for evil’s sake; on the contrary, they usually think what they’re doing is right. Maybe the villain has been terribly hurt somehow and feels that he or she fully deserves to exact a brutal revenge. Or maybe the villain is convinced that everyone else is hopelessly corrupt or incompetent, and therefore he or she is justified in seizing control and pursuing his or her goals by any means necessary. In other words, even the worst villains often see themselves as heroes.

The students excelled at this assignment too. One of them read a passage that featured a father who comes home to his apartment carrying a mysterious box from a medical-supply company. The father hears the sound of sobs coming from his son’s bedroom, and he rushes inside to see his six-year-old staring at the floor. The boy is focused on a half-dead bug that’s making a futile attempt to limp its way to safety. He explains to his father that he accidentally stepped on the bug and doesn’t know what to do now. The father kneels beside his son and asks, “What do you think we should do?” The boy says, “Take it to the vet?” The father shakes his head sadly and says veterinarians only treat pets, and the bug isn’t a pet. What’s more, the bug is so badly hurt that no vet could save it. But if they do nothing, the father adds, the bug will spend hours in horrible pain before dying, so they need to put it out of its misery right now. Then the father nudges his son forward and says, “Do the right thing. Finish what you started.”

So the boy squashes the bug. But wait, it gets worse! The father opens the mysterious box that he brought home and takes out a syringe. The son asks, “What’s that?” and the father replies, “I have to do the right thing too. I have to finish what I started.” The son says, “You’re going to kill a bug?” and the father says, “No, not exactly.”

Super creepy! I loved it.

During last Thursday’s lesson, I talked about different kinds of narrative point-of-view: first-person POV, third-person limited, third-person omniscient, etc. Then I assigned the students to write a two-character scene in two different ways, first from one character’s point of view and then from the other’s. (They’re free to choose either first-person POV or third-person limited.) I stipulated that the characters are time travelers, and the scene must start as soon as they step out of their time machine, but the students are free to choose any period of history, past or future, in which to set the scene. So the characters can travel back to Lincoln’s assassination or the Roman Empire or even the Age of the Dinosaurs, or they can travel forward to some distant future epoch.

What’s more, I specified the types of characters for this scene. I told the students that one of the characters should be a scientist, a levelheaded cautious type who’s careful with his words, a curious researcher who values evidence and precision. The other character should be more hotheaded and freewheeling, an impulsive non-scientist who sometimes goes off without too much thinking. I considered offering the examples of Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk, but I wasn’t sure if today’s teens would be as intimately familiar with Star Trek as I am. So instead I called the assignment, “Adventures in Time Travel with Dr. Fauci and President Trump.”

I’m looking forward to seeing what the students come up with.

4+

Freedom and its Limits

By Mark Alpert

Happy Fourth of July! Although many beaches are closed this year and many fireworks shows have been canceled because of the pandemic, we can still read and write. In the spirit of the holiday, let’s talk about what freedom means to writers.

When I was in elementary school, my fifth-grade teacher introduced me to a useful rule that summarized American freedom and its limits: “My freedom ends where your nose begins.” He understood that the raucous students in his class often felt a strong desire to punch one another in the nose, and he wanted to make it clear that the U.S. constitution doesn’t condone this kind of behavior. The general rule is applicable to adults as well, although I guess in the age of the coronavirus we should probably update it to “My freedom ends where your nasal airways begin.”

American writers are blessed with the freedom to write about anything. The First Amendment protects us against government censorship, and the courts have steadfastly ruled against virtually all attempts to block the publication of books and newspaper articles. Such attempts at prior restraint are anathema in our democracy; a century-long series of Supreme Court rulings have reaffirmed that the government can’t preclude the publication of anything unless it would surely cause “grave and irreparable” harm to the American public.

But what about defamation? Although government officials may not be able to stop you from publishing your book, can the targets of your criticism hit you with a libel lawsuit afterwards? Fortunately for writers, defamation suits are rarely successful. The 1964 Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan established the current rule: if the plaintiff in a defamation suit is a public figure (usually defined as anyone involved in public affairs, including politicians, business leaders, and celebrities), he or she must prove that a false defamatory statement was made with “actual malice” — that is, the author or publisher either knew the statement was false or recklessly disregarded the possibility that it was false. It’s very difficult to prove reckless disregard (as opposed to proving mere negligence), so this court precedent shields authors as long as they’re trying to be truthful.

Personal aside: when I was a reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser in the 1980s, the newspaper’s libel lawyer was Rod Nachman, who had represented Sullivan in that landmark Supreme Court case. (L.B. Sullivan was a Montgomery police commissioner who’d sued the Times over inaccurate statements in an advertisement that ran in the newspaper in 1960.) Although Nachman had been on the losing side of the legal battle, I was awed to be in the same room with the man. Who could give us better legal advice about libel than the lawyer who’d worked on the case that had defined modern libel law?

For fiction writers, though, there’s another side to the story. Although novelists may have the freedom to write about anything, their readers have the freedom to ignore it. Your manuscript can be as wildly experimental and outrageous as you please, but no literary agent or editor will read past the first few paragraphs if the prose is baffling and the plot is nonsensical. Like all other Americans, fiction writers must respect the limits to their freedom, and those limits are defined by the tolerance of their readers.

It’s difficult to present hard-and-fast rules for novelists seeking to get published, because for every rule there are many exceptions, writers who managed through sheer brilliance to create dazzling books from unpromising premises. But I think most of the advice for beginning writers can be boiled down to two basic restrictions that authors should try not to violate if they want a sizable audience:

1) Don’t confuse your readers.

2) Don’t bore your readers.

At first glance, you might assume that following these two rules would be a cinch, but in practice it’s not so easy. In the writer’s mind, the characters of the novel may seem fascinating and the plot may seem crystal clear, and these convictions are often so powerful that the writer may not even recognize failure when he or she produces a manuscript that’s completely lacking in fascination and clarity. The best way to prevent these failures is to share your work-in-progress with honest, astute readers who are good at pinpointing problems. They can show you the passages in your book where the words on the page aren’t conveying what you intended. And over time you’ll learn to internalize that constructive criticism, so you can minimize the problems in your first drafts.

Once you get the hang of the rules, you’ll realize they’re not so limiting. The novel is perhaps the freest literary form, offering wider horizons than the short story and sidestepping all the theatrical considerations that constrain screenplays and other dramatic works. But even in poetry, which was governed for centuries by conventions of rhyme and meter, the best writers were able to use the age-old rules to express an infinite variety of emotions.

So I’ll end this post with William Wordsworth’s famous sonnet about finding liberation within a rigid rhyme scheme:

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;

And hermits are contented with their cells;

And students with their pensive citadels;

Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,

Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,

High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,

Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:

In truth the prison, into which we doom

Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,

In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound

Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;

Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)

Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,

Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

3+

George Saunders

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.

7+

Writing and Racism

By Mark Alpert

This week I did a stint as a driving instructor. My 20-year-old son already has a New York State driver’s license, but he doesn’t have a lot of driving experience, mostly because we don’t own a car. So I found an inexpensive rental car — a Kia Soul, to be precise — and gave my son a few pointers from the passenger seat as he drove across the George Washington Bridge and navigated the New Jersey Turnpike (which was famously referred to as “Murder Incorporated” in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint).

After three days of lessons, my son’s driving skills were much improved. He gained enough confidence to carry on long conversations with me while he changed lanes on the highway and contended with the turnpike’s 18-wheelers. And given the timing of our drives together, in the wake of the horrific murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, it was perhaps inevitable that he would pose the question, “So, Dad, what are you doing to stop police brutality and racism?”

I didn’t join any of the protest marches that crisscrossed New York City this week. I was too afraid of catching Covid-19. And with two kids in college, I don’t have a lot of disposable income right now, so I haven’t made any large monetary contributions to organizations that advocate for police reform. (My son proudly pointed to a $30 contribution he’d made, but he later admitted that he’d used my credit card.) So I began to wonder: is it possible for a novelist to advance the cause of racial justice in his or her books?

My first thought was that writers have an obligation, like doctors, to do no harm. When describing any fictional character — white, black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, whatever — we must be careful to avoid racial stereotypes. Negative stereotypes in novels leave a lasting impression and can reinforce biases in many readers. Just look at the black characters in Gone With The Wind, for example, and consider how the demeaning stereotypes in that book may have influenced readers’ opinions and behaviors in the decades following the novel’s publication in 1936.

Some writers might try to sidestep the problem by simply declining to create characters who have backgrounds that are very different from the author’s. Rather than risk reiterating and reinforcing negative stereotypes, a white novelist might avoid featuring black or Latinx people as major characters. But this strategy seems wrongheaded to me. Do we really want to live a world where whites write only about whites, and blacks write only about blacks, and so on and so forth? Should women avoid writing about men, and men avoid writing about women? Fiction is supposed to be all about empathy and exploration. Shouldn’t we at least make an attempt to understand one another?

I ran into this dilemma when I started writing Young Adult novels. I’ve written four of them so far, The Six trilogy published by Sourcebooks and my latest novel, Saint Joan of New York, which was published by Springer last December. The latter book is a modern-day retelling of the Joan of Arc story. Its heroine is Joan Cooper, a 17-year-old lesbian high-school student who experiences supernatural visitations that are somewhat similar to those experienced by the 15th-century Joan, the famous French warrior and martyr. When I was still writing the novel, someone who’s very knowledgeable about the publishing market for Young Adult books warned me that I might get some irate reactions. After all, I’m a middle-aged, straight man, so how could I tell the story of a lesbian teenager? I would surely make a million embarrassing mistakes.

But I felt confident about telling Joan Cooper’s story because I have a lesbian daughter who was 17 when I was writing the book. I know my daughter well enough to guess what she might say and do and think under all kinds of circumstances, and it was fairly easy to put those thoughts into Joan Cooper’s head. What’s more, my daughter was the first person to read the manuscript, and she made lots of suggestions and corrections that I incorporated into the second draft. She was my “sensitivity reader,” assigned to tell me if anything in the novel was demeaning or careless or just plain dumb. And the extra effort paid off. The book has received some very nice reviews, and an audio version is forthcoming.

I wasn’t as careful with my earlier books. My first novel, Final Theory, featured a black character named Monique Reynolds, a theoretical physicist at Princeton University. Blacks are underrepresented in physics, and so are women, so I thought it would be interesting and refreshing to have a black woman explain the scientific theories in this science thriller. But Monique was stereotypical in other ways, and if I wrote her character now, I would do it very differently.

I think I did a better job in The Coming Storm, which was published by St. Martin’s Press last year. The heroine of that novel is Jenna Khan, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants who settled in Brooklyn, a geneticist who gets into a world of trouble when she refuses to participate in the unethical experiments at her government-run laboratory. Midway through the book, the White House orders a crackdown on New York City, and Jenna gets caught in the crossfire between federal troops and a furious crowd that’s rampaging across Manhattan:

In seconds she reached 88th Street and sprinted down the block, trying to put as much distance as possible between herself and the riot. But as she approached the next intersection she saw an even larger crowd streaming down York Avenue. Hundreds of people ran through the street and vandalized the parked cars, smashing their windshields with bricks and tire irons. Hundreds more thronged the sidewalks and shattered the windows of the stores and apartment buildings… There was an old stone church on the street corner, and Jenna ducked under one of its archways and hid within the shadows. She leaned against the locked door, panting, confused, and watched the rioters hurl things into the bonfire—garbage they’d dumped from cans, side mirrors they’d ripped off the parked cars, armfuls of clothing they’d just looted from the stores. The mob was angry but also ecstatic, ferocious and mesmerized. The rioters hardly knew what to do with themselves now that they’d invaded the Upper East Side, so they did everything at once. They raged and laughed, brawled and clowned, snarled and celebrated. It was anarchic, incomprehensible.

These sentences have come back to haunt me over the past few days. I’m not alone in anticipating that brutality would lead to outrage. Many other writers have foreseen the harsh consequences of the sins committed against our brothers and sisters. So what can we do now? Can we still mend our fractured society? Or is it too late?

3+

The Dual Narrative

By Mark Alpert

Like many other basketball fans, I heartily enjoyed “The Last Dance,” the ten-part TV documentary about Michael Jordan that recently aired on ESPN. Yes, it was definitely a sports hagiography, but it included a bit of controversy too. For instance, it raised the question of whether MJ was a “toxic worker” because he was so relentlessly harsh with some of his Chicago Bulls teammates. (The documentary really makes you feel sorry for Scott Burrell. Mike gave him so much shit!)

But “The Last Dance” also offers some valuable lessons for fiction writers. The documentary flips back and forth between two narratives: the story of the Bulls’ 1997-1998 season (which was called “The Last Dance” because Chicago’s management had made it clear that it was going to dismantle the team no matter how well they performed that year) and the story of how Michael Jordan and his teammates got to that point (covering all of MJ’s preceding seasons with the Bulls, from 1984 to 1997). The show would initially focus on several weeks of the 1997-1998 season, telling the story for example of how Dennis Rodman disappeared for a few days in the middle of the season to go partying in Las Vegas, then the documentary would go back in time to describe MJ’s childhood or his college career or his glorious stint on the Dream Team, and then the show would fast-forward to the next crucial stage of the 1997-1998 season. The documentary makers signaled these back-and-forth shifts in perspective by displaying a timeline graphic that told viewers exactly which year they were about to see next.

This narrative strategy should be familiar to fiction readers, because it’s been used to great effect in many excellent novels. I’m thinking in particular of Pat Conroy’s “The Prince of Tides,” which tells a pair of great stories in alternating chapters. One story occurs in the narrator’s adult life and focuses on his struggle to save his suicidal twin sister; the other story focuses on their traumatic childhood in the marshlands of South Carolina. If done well, this strategy gives readers two strong reasons to keep reading, and each of the stories will shed light on the other.

Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to pull off this kind of dual narrative. Have you ever tried it? Let TKZ know!

5+

The Coronavirus Diaries, Extended

By Mark Alpert

And now, eight weeks after our quarantine began, it’s time for some dark thoughts…

One thing that distinguishes thriller writers from the rest of the human species is our ability to conceive the horrible. Ordinary people don’t dwell on murders. They don’t spend months trying to imagine what compels a criminal to slaughter a friend or a boss or a lover. They don’t focus with perverse intensity on the awful details of the crime: the blood splatter, the exit wounds, the bite marks, the maggots. They prefer to push all of this dark reality out of their minds and think happier thoughts.

But thriller writers are gluttons for punishment. We have a knack for describing horrors that would make ordinary citizens flee the crime scene. And we have a different view of humanity, more sobering and realistic, because we’re reminded all the time of the terrible things that ordinary people are capable of doing.

So it’s natural for writers to have a darker outlook on the current pandemic. Our imaginations fixate on desperate scenes: Covid-19 victims fighting for breath as they wait for the ambulance, anguished family members separated from their loved ones at the hospital, doctors and nurses struggling to calm a thrashing patient. Realism and skepticism are in our bones, so we’re less likely to believe the official reassurances that the crisis is ebbing and everything will be just fine in a matter of days or weeks.

In my own case, the darkness is literal, because I’m spending more time walking the streets at night. As the weather warms in New York City, people are growing careless about social distancing, and the parks have become crowded with sunbathers, dog-walkers, antic teenagers and toddlers, and hundreds of joggers spewing streams of potentially contaminated spittle. So the safest time to get some exercise is after midnight.

In the wee hours, the Upper West Side of Manhattan is deserted. The only people on the street are the homeless, who have now been barred from the subway between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. (This week the transit authority started closing the subway stations every night for cleaning and disinfection.) Some of the homeless linger near the entrances to the closed stations, shivering on park benches and waiting for dawn, when they can return to the relative warmth of the trains and platforms. Others have set up camp in the doorways of the shuttered stores on Columbus Avenue, the sleepers wrapped in blankets and garbage bags, all their possessions stuffed in a nearby shopping cart. As I walk down the avenue I give each encampment a wide berth, out of safety and respect.

Traffic is so sparse late at night that most of the time I can safely stroll down the middle of the street. The only vehicles I usually see are police cars and garbage trucks. Last night was a garbage-collection night, and the sidewalks were crammed with pyramids of overloaded bags, some of them trembling from the exertions of the rats feeding within. I saw a lone bus cruising down Central Park West, with just one passenger inside. And on Columbus I saw a pack of mopeds going the wrong way on the one-way street. The kids on the mopeds wore black masks, and half of them were doing wheelies, and it was impossible not to think of the joyriding gangs in the Mad Max movies, getting away with things that would’ve been inconceivable in normal times.

But here’s the strangest, darkest part. As I crisscross the neighborhood, I recite poetry. I don’t want to wake anyone, so I say the words under my breath. The only audience I want is myself.

I studied poetry for two years in graduate school, so I’ve memorized quite a few poems. Last night I recited “London” by William Blake:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. 

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

 

In every cry of every Man,

In every Infants cry of fear,

In every voice: in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear 

 

How the Chimney-sweepers cry

Every blackning Church appalls, 

And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls 

 

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlots curse

Blasts the new-born Infants tear 

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse 

It’s an apt poem for long walks across a blighted city. I love Blake because he had such an idiosyncratic philosophy. He was very religious, but he rejected all conventional religions and essentially invented one of his own. In Blake’s view, the Creator is actually Satan, and the only thing that can save us is the power of human joy and unfettered imagination. Blake hated the militarism and industry of early 19th-century England, and he wasn’t a big fan of his time’s sexual mores either. Loveless monogamy, he believed, was a major cause of prostitution and venereal disease, as expressed in the last lines of the poem.

Here’s another Blake poem about VD, “The Sick Rose.” Although Blake knew nothing about microbiology — Louis Pasteur didn’t postulate the germ theory of disease until thirty years after Blake died — he seemed to have a metaphoric sense of how an illness can spread:

O Rose thou art sick. 

The invisible worm, 

That flies in the night 

In the howling storm: 

 

Has found out thy bed 

Of crimson joy: 

And his dark secret love 

Does thy life destroy.

I’d like to conclude this dark journey by mentioning another poet who was, in his own words, “acquainted with the night.” Robert Frost is best known as the author of “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” two poems widely studied by high-school students and almost universally misread as the homespun musings of a folksy New England geezer. In reality, though, Frost was a poet of existential terror. Like Blake, Frost suspected that God might actually be Satan. Consider one of his masterpieces, a poem titled “Design”:

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

As you can probably tell, I need to cheer up and chill out. I should go on a few more Zoom calls, watch another Netflix series, buy some more crap from Amazon. But it’s hard to get around the fact that the dark side seems closer during a pandemic. That’s yet another unfortunate legacy of this global fiasco.

5+