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

The Calm Before The Storm

By Mark Alpert

Here’s my latest dilemma: I’m writing a scene that takes place in a bar, involving two characters huddled close together. And while I’m writing the scene, I’m thinking, “Hey, shouldn’t these characters be wearing masks? And standing more than six feet apart? Now that I think about it, should they even be inside this bar at all? I mean, these characters aren’t idiots. They should know that what they’re doing right now isn’t very smart.”

My fiction is realistic in the sense that I imagine it could actually happen in the real world. And thanks to Covid-19 (and our government’s very inept response to the pandemic), the real world has radically changed over the past several months. So does realistic fiction have to change too?

Of course, writers of pre-2020 historical fiction don’t have to worry about this. Nor do writers of science fiction or fantasy, unless they’re imagining alien planets or magical lands that are enduring pandemics similar to ours. But many (if not most) thrillers and mysteries are assumed to take place in the present day. And if the characters in those novels aren’t taking pandemic precautions, a reader might think, “Hey, the world in this novel doesn’t really look like the present-day world. Does this book take place in some alternate reality where Covid never happened?”

It was easier to dismiss this problem in the early days of the pandemic, when many of us thought the crisis would subside in a few months. But Covid-19 has been spreading across the globe for almost a year now, and most epidemiologists agree that the problem is going to get worse before it gets better. We’re in the beginning stages of the long-dreaded autumn surge, and the new coronavirus is spreading like wildfire in Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, and the Dakotas. Even here in New York City, where we managed to beat back the virus through widespread mask-wearing and social distancing, the number of infections is rebounding. Doctors have developed better treatments for Covid, but the disease is still killing nearly a thousand Americans every day, and the death toll is likely to reach unbearable heights this winter.

Our great hope is that drug companies will develop a safe and effective vaccine that’ll protect us from Covid and bring our lives back to normal in 2021. But even the best vaccines aren’t 100 percent effective. For example, the CDC says that annual influenza vaccination reduces your chance of getting the flu by only 40 to 60 percent. What’s more, the flu vaccine is least effective for older people, probably because it’s harder to activate their less-than-vigorous immune systems. For the coronavirus vaccines that are currently under development, the required threshold for efficacy is only 50 percent; that is, the FDA will approve a vaccine even if it fails to protect half the people who get it.

A vaccine that’s only 50 percent effective can nevertheless be a very useful tool for restraining the pandemic. Cutting the vulnerable population in half will definitely curtail the transmission of the virus. But the new coronavirus is now endemic in the U.S. — that is, it’s firmly entrenched across the nation — so it will be extraordinarily difficult to stamp it out. Even if, by some miracle, every American is vaccinated by the end of 2021, many of the unprotected people will still be dying of Covid. Because a significant percentage of vaccinated people will still be capable of contracting and transmitting the coronavirus, everyone will need to continue to wear masks and avoid crowded bars. The precautions can be safely abandoned only after the infection rates have dropped to a barely detectable level.

How long will that take? Obviously, the process will be much faster if the coronavirus vaccine is more effective than the flu vaccine. If it has the same efficacy as the routine childhood vaccines — which are about 85 to 95 percent effective — and if the new vaccine causes no serious side effects, then maybe life can get back to normal in 2022. But those are big if’s. My best guess is that we’re going to be living with this crisis — and adapting to it — for the next several years.

And novelists may need to adapt too. Now, I know that the problems of a few thousand fiction writers don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world. Personally, I’m much more worried about the health of my parents than the realistic accuracy of the novel I’m working on. But our profession does have its noble aspects, and one of them involves our ability (if we’re skilled enough) to hold up a mirror to our world. I believe John Steinbeck made America a better country by pointing out its inequities in The Grapes of Wrath. I believe Mark Twain helped clarify our nation’s ideals by dramatizing the evils of slavery in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In other words, the best fiction doesn’t ignore reality.

Right now we’re in the calm before the storm, bracing for the viral onslaught that’s likely to overwhelm hospitals in many areas. And we’ll still be immersed in this struggle a year from now, when the first wave of novels written during the pandemic will go on sale. (It usually takes traditional publishers about a year to prepare a novel for publication. That was the case with most of my ten previous books.) A contemporary thriller might manage to successfully avoid the topic of Covid if the author makes it clear that the action is taking place before 2020. But if that distinction isn’t clear, there’s a danger that the novel will seem outdated and out of touch to an audience of readers living in a remade world.

Some Covid-influenced short stories are already available for perusal. I really enjoyed Lorrie Moore’s story, “Face Time,” which appeared in the New Yorker last month. I also liked Roddy Doyle’s story, “Life Without Children,” which the New Yorker published just a couple of weeks ago. (Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of Doyle, author of The Commitments. Check out my review of his latest novel, Love, in the New York Journal of Books.) Even if you don’t want to mention Covid at all in your novels or short stories, it still makes sense to avoid certain scenarios that will probably seem jarring a year or two from now. To cite an extreme example, don’t write a scene featuring a bunch of 80-year-olds paying a visit to a disco. Pre-Covid, such a scene might’ve seemed cute and funny, but under the current circumstances it feels callously ignorant.

And then there’s the opposite problem: anticipating how your novel will be received five to ten years from now, after the pandemic finally subsides to a manageable level (God willing!) and no longer influences so many of our thoughts and behaviors. It’s interesting to note that there’s very little cultural record of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed at least 50 million people worldwide (including about 675,000 in the U.S.) and yet is barely mentioned in the novels, plays, and movies of that era. Ernest Hemingway and other novelists of the 1920s wrote brilliant books about the lingering effects of World War I, which killed far fewer Americans, but there’s no equivalent of A Farewell to Arms or The Sun Also Rises to record the societal impact of the Spanish flu. It’s a strange omission that I don’t really understand.

I suppose if there was a world war going on right now, we might be more alarmed about the conflict rather than Covid, and in future years the memories of that war might overshadow the pandemic, even if the latter proved to be much deadlier. And then there’s the fact that the influenza virus mutates so rapidly. After 1920 the Spanish flu subsided quickly, partly because so many people developed immunity after being exposed to it, and partly because the virus swiftly mutated to a less deadly flu strain that we still live with today (namely, the H1N1 strain). Viruses are subject to natural selection like all other living things, and a viral strain that quickly kills its host will be less successful at reproduction than a strain that makes its host moderately sick for a long time, coughing and sneezing and spreading viral particles all the while. Therefore, a virus that’s new to humans (having just made the jump from animal to human hosts) will tend to become less lethal over time, and the length of this period of adjustment will partly depend on how fast the virus mutates.

All the available scientific evidence indicates that the new coronavirus mutates more slowly than the influenza virus. That’s good news for the vaccine makers. Because the RNA of the coronavirus won’t change so much from year to year, a vaccine that’s effective in 2021 will probably continue to work almost as well in 2022. But will this sluggish mutation rate also slow the transition of the new coronavirus to less lethal strains? I have no idea.

So my advice is to stay on the safe side. In all likelihood, we’re going to be avoiding crowded bars and movie theaters for a long time, so try to avoid putting your fictional characters in the same situations (unless you inform the reader that the scene is taking place before 2020 or on another planet). And let’s hope like hell that at least one of the coronavirus vaccines under development turns out to be more than 80 percent effective. I don’t want to keep wearing masks for the rest of my life, and I’d rather not put them on the characters in all my future novels.


In Praise of Diverse Reading

By Mark Alpert

My reading habits usually align with my writing habits. I write thrillers and science fiction because those are my favorite genres. Reading novels by Stephen King, Lee Child, and Liu Cixin is more entertaining, in my opinion, than almost anything else.

But I recognize that I sometimes stick too close to my favorites. By focusing so much on familiar authors and styles, I’m surely neglecting a slew of amazing novels that are just as good and maybe better. So every now and then I try to diversify my reading list. Earlier this year, for instance, right after I finished reading a thriller by a long-time favorite author (The Night Manager by John le Carré) I started a somewhat experimental literary novel I’d heard raves about (Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders).

And sometimes I try to get the best of both worlds by exploring the innovative fringes of familiar genres. Science fiction is a particularly good field for this kind of exploration because many sci-fi authors aren’t afraid to strike out in new directions. This year I finally got around to reading the works of Ursula Le Guin, one of the pioneers of the so-called New Wave science fiction of the Sixties and Seventies, starting with her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness.

It’s a fantastic book, decades ahead of its time. Le Guin imagines a planet named Gethen whose inhabitants are very similar to humans except for one important difference: they’re neither male nor female. For the great majority of their lives, they’re asexual individuals with neutral, indeterminate genitalia, or maybe no genitals at all. (Le Guin doesn’t go into the anatomical details in The Left Hand of Darkness, but I thought of the crotches of my boyhood GI Joe dolls, which had nothing but blank skin between their legs.) Every month or so, the Gethenians go into a four-day-long state called “kemmer” during which they temporarily develop male or female genitals and feel a strong desire to have sex. What’s more, the transition to male or female isn’t a matter of choice, and it isn’t fixed for a lifetime; a Gethenian could become male during kemmer at the beginning of the year, then female the next month, and so on. You could be a mother to some of your children and a father to others. Cool idea, right?

Like many sci-fi ideas, this one makes you wonder: What would society be like if there were no permanent gender identities? Le Guin does a great job of envisioning this society, describing it from the point of view of an outsider, an emissary from Earth. I enjoyed the book so much, I decided to read Le Guin’s Earthsea books, the beloved fantasy series that’s a bit like The Lord of the Rings and just as well-written.

Le Guin’s literary successor, I believe, is Margaret Atwood, who also enlivens science fiction with provocative ideas and wonderful writing. She’s most famous for The Handmaid’s Tale because that novel was turned into a hit television series, although the book is actually much better than the TV adaptation. This past summer I read Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, which starts with the 2003 novel Oryx and Crake. It’s a dark, mordant story of a genetically engineered apocalypse that destroys a near-future society so corrupt and polluted that it probably wasn’t worth saving. But the second book in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood, is even better, because it tells the same story from the point of view of a whole new set of characters, members of a back-to-nature religious cult that seems to be involved in engineering the apocalypse.

I’ll mention two other inspiring writers who demonstrate how you can lift genre fiction to the level of literary greatness. The first is Brooke Bolander, who writes award-winning novelettes and short stories. My introduction to her work was the story, “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies,” which is such an arresting title that I had to read the story immediately. Luckily, the whole text is on the Web, and you can read it too, right here. It’s only a thousand words long, but I think it’s one of the most breathtaking thousand-word passages ever written in the English language. But don’t take my word for it. Read it right now.

The second remarkable sci-fi writer I’ve discovered in the past year is N.K. Jemisin, who recently won a MacArthur Fellows Program Genius Grant. The short story that grabbed my attention was “The City Born Great,” which is also available online. I’m not even going to try to describe this story. Just read it.

Next on my reading list is Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, which won the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. But last night I took some time to reread an old favorite, a very old favorite: Horton Hears A Who by Dr. Seuss. I found a copy in my daughter’s bedroom. (She’s off on her own now, like her brother, but I still linger in their old bedrooms and stare at the books I used to read to them.) And this particular book, my God, is so attuned to the present moment in American history, it’s positively eerie. So I’ll end this post with Horton’s desperate exhortation to the minuscule inhabitants of a dust speck as they struggle to make themselves heard:

“Don’t give up! I believe in you all!

A person’s a person, no matter how small!

And you very small persons will not have to die

If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now, and TRY!


Writing About A Blood Sport

By Mark Alpert

Relax: I’m not going to talk about the presidential election. All I’ll say is that the ferocity and ugliness of the current political season remind me of the years I spent in Alabama during the 1980s. Politics is a blood sport in that state, second only to football in the passions it arouses.

George Wallace was still governor of Alabama when I started working as a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser in 1985. In fact, it was a minor brouhaha in the Wallace administration that led to me going down there. Wallace’s assistant press secretary, Hezekiah Wagstaff (excellent name, very Dickensian), was fired after saying something controversial, and the governor’s office replaced him with Frank Mastin Jr., a Black reporter at the Advertiser. The newspaper needed someone to take Mastin’s spot, so they hired me after a phone interview. That’s how the journalism business works, or at least how it used to work: There are usually no jobs available, but when there’s a vacancy they need to fill it quick.

Over the next year I reported on the campaign to succeed Wallace, an epic political farce that included torrid affairs, electoral upsets, federal court cases, and finally the election of the first Republican governor in Alabama since Reconstruction. (That joker was forced out of office a few years later after some ethical lapses.) After it was all said and done, I felt confident enough to write a political novel based on the campaign, titled The Emperor of Alabama. It was never published — like most first novels, this one was an apprentice effort whose main purpose was to teach me how to write future books — but I’ve presented a few earlier chapters for your perusal. (See here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

I think a valuable skill for any writer is the ability to see the absurdity of a situation. Politics can be a deadly serious business, but it’s also ridiculous sometimes. As a journalist, I got a firsthand look at the clownishness of some of our leaders, and as a novelist I tried to create characters who illustrate the essential truth of what I saw. Did I miss things? Did I get a lot of things wrong? Definitely. But fiction is all about making the attempt.

In that spirit, here’s the fictional version of the 1986 Alabama governor’s race:

On Monday morning Jimmy Fowler announced to the press that he would seek another term as Alabama’s governor. He went to the Statehouse conference room and gave a speech explaining his reasons for running, repeating the arguments he’d confided to me in his private office three days before. He apologized for his infamous stand against racial integration and for all the hateful things he said and did twenty years ago. And he promised that from now on he’d do everything he could to improve the lives of the Black people of Alabama.

The reporters reacted with a mix of surprise and cynicism, elation and disbelief. They raced off to file their stories, but I didn’t go with them. Immediately after the announcement, I attended my first campaign staff meeting.

Fowler, Booth Taylor, General Hobbs and I sat around the dining room table in the governor’s mansion. Booth had asked Janey, the governor’s cook and day nurse, to fry up a few hamburgers for lunch, but she refused to do it unless we had a vegetable too, so after several minutes of debate we settled on butter beans. It was a good choice. Janey was a phenomenal cook. Her butter beans were flavored with bits of smoked ham, and her burgers dripped with grilled onions. General Hobbs ate three of them.

Alden Hobbs was a big man with backswept gray hair. He was wearing his Alabama National Guard uniform, which was bedecked with an impressive array of medals. I’d known the general for seven years, ever since the summer I’d lived with his daughter. He hadn’t been particularly friendly back when Cathy and I were dating, but he’d warmed up to me after Cathy married Bill Bledsoe, and even more so after Bledsoe turned against Fowler. I guess I started to look good in retrospect. When I saw him in the governor’s dining room he slapped me on the back and shouted, “Welcome aboard, Jack, welcome aboard!” Then he launched into a longish story about a strange character he’d seen the day before. Booth smiled and listened politely. Fowler, who sat in a special chair, a kind of highchair for older folks, focused all his attention on his hamburger. Janey had cut the meat into small pieces so it would be easier for him to eat.

“I saw the most unusual-looking boy at the Greyhound station yesterday,” General Hobbs narrated. “He wasn’t from around here, I can tell you that. His hair was pushed up into spikes, six spikes on top of his head, held up with airplane glue or something. Oddest thing I ever saw in my life. His head looked like a cow’s udder turned upside-down.”

Booth nodded, pretending to be interested. “Sounds like one of those radical types. Metalheads, counterculture, isn’t that what they call it? There’s quite a few of them in Atlanta, I hear.”

“Goddamn, whatever you call it, it was strange as hell. I figured he was headed for New Orleans or Memphis and he was waiting on his bus. Everyone in the station was staring at him. At first he pretended not to notice, but after a while I guess he got sick of all the staring and he hightailed it out of there.”

“You’d think he’d be used to the attention, wearing his hair like that,” Booth noted.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too,” the general said. “But then I thought, well, in the place where that boy comes from, New York City most likely, there’s probably a lot of folks with funny hair. And because there’s so many of them, the folks in New York don’t make a big deal out of it. They just say, ‘There goes another boy with spikes on his head.’ So even though these boys mess with their hair to get attention, they usually don’t get a whole lot of it, and it actually surprises them when they come down here and everyone is staring.”

“That’s a very interesting observation, general.” Booth’s deference bordered on the ridiculous. Although he’d worked for the governor for twenty years, General Hobbs had known Fowler for twice that long, ever since they were both law students on the GI Bill at the University of Alabama. Hobbs was the governor’s oldest friend, and Booth seemed a little intimidated by that fact.

“Anyway,” continued the general, “I saw that boy again after I left the bus station. He was sitting on the sidewalk in front of Woolworth’s, smoking a cigarette. And walking straight toward him is this fella from the Veterans Home, a wrinkled old pasty-faced guy with a cane and a beat-up hat. And this guy’s face just lights up when he sees the boy sitting on the sidewalk. I swear, I’d never seen anyone look so amused. The old coot shuffles over to the boy and says — you gotta imagine the look on his face, Booth — he says, ‘Hey, son, what’s wrong with your haid?’” The general laughed uproariously. “Ain’t that a hoot! ‘What’s wrong with your haid?’”

Booth managed a fake laugh. Fowler, who was busy pouring ketchup all over his bite-size pieces of hamburger, didn’t even look up from his plate.

“That’s a very funny story, general,” Booth said. “Now, if you don’t mind, I think it would be a good idea if we started the meeting. We have quite a few things to discuss this afternoon.”

“That’s fine with me,” Hobbs said as he bit into his third burger. “I can work and eat at the same time.”

“Is that all right with you, governor?” Booth asked.

Fowler looked up. “What’s that?” There were ketchup stains on the napkin tied around his neck.

“We’re gonna start the meeting now,” Booth yelled into the governor’s good ear.

“Well, what the hell are you waiting for?” Fowler barked. Then he went back to pouring his ketchup.

“All right, then.” Booth turned to me. “Jack, I want you to take careful notes. Be as detailed as possible and don’t leave anything out.” He gave me a stern look. Booth didn’t like the idea of having me as his assistant, but he was going to make the best of it. “As everyone knows, the polls so far show that we’ve got a tough fight ahead of us. Bledsoe has a strong lead in the northern half of the state and a moderate lead in the southern half. His allies in the Legislature have been drumming up support for him since last fall, so he’s got a big head start. I hate to say this, gentlemen, but if the election were held tomorrow, we’d lose badly.”

“Those polls don’t mean shit,” Fowler said, his jaw working furiously as he chewed his hamburger. “The questions were all wrong. They asked folks if they wanted to see me run again, and of course most of them said no, because they’re worried about me. They didn’t want to see me put myself through the misery of running again. But now that I’ve announced, they’ll get behind me like they always have. So don’t you worry about those polls, Booth. They don’t mean a thing.”

“Jimmy’s right,” the general said. “The polls said we were behind in ’66 and ’70 and ’78 too, but we always came out on top. I’ve always said, the only poll that’s worth a damn is the one they take on Election Day.”

“You’re right, general,” Booth said quickly. “I couldn’t agree with you more. But you have to realize that in this race we’re up against a very unscrupulous individual. Bledsoe has absolutely no respect for the truth. He’s already made an issue of the governor’s health, and we all know that’s complete nonsense, because the governor is as healthy as you or me, probably healthier.” He paused for a moment to softly rap his knuckles on the table. “But Bledsoe knows he can’t win on the issues, so he’s going to sling the mud. And we have to be prepared for that. I’ve talked to our media consultant in Washington and he thinks we should confront the health issue head-on with an aggressive counter-attack. He wants us to run a television ad that shows the governor doing something active. Like throwing a baseball, maybe. I’ve already retained an agency and they say they can film the ad this week.”

“I ain’t gonna throw no baseball on television.” Fowler shook his head. “That would just make me look foolish.”

“How about a punching bag?” General Hobbs suggested. “Remember that punching bag you used to keep in the basement, Jimmy? It’s probably still there. You can paint Bledsoe’s face on the thing and give it a good whacking!”

“That may be over-doing it a little,” Booth said delicately.

“I don’t need a punching bag either.” Fowler shook his head again, more firmly this time. “I already got something that’ll prove I’m healthy enough to be governor. I’m getting married on Sunday.”

After dropping this bombshell, the governor casually returned to his lunch. For several seconds the only sound in the room was the wet smack of Fowler’s masticating lips.

I felt Booth tap me, hard, on the shoulder. “Jack, stop writing,” he whispered. Then he leaned toward Fowler’s highchair. “Governor, are you feeling all right?”

Fowler looked mighty annoyed. “Of course I’m all right!” He opened his mouth wide and I got a glimpse of the chewed-up hamburger meat, which was a pretty disgusting sight.

“Well, maybe I misheard you then,” Booth said.

“You heard me right. I’m getting married on Sunday. And don’t try to talk me out of it. I want you to write up a wedding announcement and deliver it to the Advertiser.”

General Hobbs was so elated by the news, he walked over to Fowler’s chair and slapped him on the back. Luckily, the governor had already swallowed his hamburger. “Why, Jimmy, you sly dog! Who’s the lucky lady?”

“I’m not sure if you know her, Alden. Her name’s Mabel Whitehead. She used to be married to my commissioner of agriculture. She comes to my press conferences every now and then, so maybe you’ve seen her.”

“Sure, I know her! She’s a fine catch, Jimmy.”

I saw the logic behind it. Mabel was a good-looking woman. Most voters would assume that Fowler was capable of fucking her, and that he had, in fact, fucked her already, fucked her while his critics were saying he couldn’t even go to the bathroom by himself. I also had a pretty good idea what Mabel’s motives were.

Booth still looked confused, though. He was probably wondering how Fowler had pulled this off without his help. “Well, governor, where’s this wedding gonna take place?”

Fowler grimaced. “How the hell should I know? I told Mabel to make all the arrangements.”

“All right, I’ll just ask her then.”

“She’s coming by the mansion in a bit. My photographer is gonna take some pictures of her on the patio. Listen, Booth, is there anything else you want to talk about? I got some other business to take care of this afternoon.”

“We still haven’t decided what television ads we’re gonna do.”

“How about doing something at the Tuscaloosa Home?” Fowler raised his good hand and waved it in the general direction of Tuscaloosa. “You know, an ad that shows me with some of the poor handicapped children in the asylum up there.”

Booth cocked his head. He was quiet for a few seconds, clearly considering the idea. “That’s not bad,” he admitted.

“Hell, it’s terrific!” General Hobbs chimed in. “We did an ad like that for Jimmy’s campaign in ’74. It was one of the most touching ads I’ve ever seen.”

“All right,” Booth said, “let’s schedule the shoot for Friday morning. Make sure you write that down, Jack.”

I felt somewhat chagrined as I wrote “Ad shoot, Friday morning, Tuscaloosa Asylum” in my notebook. Political work was even more degrading than I’d imagined.

“We should also arrange the campaign schedule for the rest of the week, governor,” Booth said. “You’re meeting the Reverend E.B. Vaughn for lunch on Wednesday. If you recall, Reverend Vaughn is pastor of the Beulah Baptist Church right here in town. He’s also chairman of the Southern Black Caucus. I think this meeting would be an ideal opportunity to talk about the caucus’s plans for endorsements.”

Fowler narrowed his eyes. For the first time that afternoon, he seemed to be paying close attention. “Vaughn’s pushing the teacher-pay bill, right?”

“Yes, the reverend wants to add an amendment that would increase funding for the school districts in the poorest counties.”

The governor nodded. He was clearly filing that pertinent fact in his head.

“We have a cabinet meeting on Thursday,” Booth continued, “and a conference at the Farm Bureau on Saturday. Sunday will be taken up by the wedding, I presume. You weren’t planning on a long honeymoon, were you, governor?”

“Hell no.” Fowler grimaced again.

“That’s good, because you’re scheduled to make a speech at the retailers convention in Gulf Shores on Monday night. Since you’re gonna be driving through Covington County on the way to the Gulf, you might want to make a stop at the Rattlesnake Rodeo in Andalusia. It’s a pretty big event, so there should be a good crowd. All you need to do is make a five-minute speech and sit for a few photos. Then you can get back on the road.”

“Fine with me.” Fowler swung his head in my direction. “Why don’t you come down to Gulf Shores with me, Jack? The weather’s always nice there this time of year.”

“That’s not a good idea,” Booth cut in. “Mr. Blanchard has no experience in press relations yet. He wouldn’t know what to do if a crisis came up. I should be the one to accompany you to Gulf Shores, governor.”

“No, you got enough work to do right here.” Fowler pointed a stubby finger at me. “Besides, Jack has to learn the ropes sooner or later. Might as well do it now. What do you say, Jack?”

“Sure, I can handle it,” I said.

Booth glared at me. “I don’t know if you realize the importance of this assignment, Mr. Blanchard. It’s absolutely essential that the governor’s trip go smoothly. He should arrive in Andalusia by three o’clock and leave by three-thirty. I don’t want you crossing paths with Congressman Bledsoe. If Bledsoe shows up at the same time, he might start a shouting match with you, or he’ll try to arrange a handshake photo that’ll make the governor look ridiculous. So if you see him, get out of there as quickly as possible. Am I making myself clear?”

Before I could answer, there was a commotion in the hallway outside the dining room. I heard a loud thud and then a woman shouting, “Be careful with those things!”

I recognized the voice. A moment later, Mabel Whitehead stepped into the dining room, decked out in a pink dress that was almost as big as a hoopskirt. Yards of poufy fabric billowed around her legs, and the lace hem grazed the floor. Behind her was a state trooper carrying a stack of hatboxes.

“Jimmy darling, I’m here!” Mabel cried. She swished over to where Fowler sat and bent down to kiss his cheek. Except she didn’t actually kiss him, she kissed the air about two inches from his face while loudly humming, “Mmmmmwhaa!” Fowler shrank back from her, scowling.

“Congratulations, Mabel!” General Hobbs rose to his feet. “I heard the good news.”

“Why thank you, general,” Mabel drawled sweetly.

“Yes, congratulations, Mrs. Whitehead,” Booth added.

“Thank you, thank you all. I meant to tell y’all about this personally, but the last few days have just been so hectic. I realized yesterday that I didn’t have a single picture to use for the wedding announcement. So I said, ‘Jimmy, I just have to get a decent picture of myself,’ and he was sweet enough to let me use the mansion as a backdrop.”

“You sure look wonderful in that dress,” General Hobbs said.

Fowler seemed annoyed by the general’s comment. “Mabel, go on back to the patio. We’re finishing up a meeting here. Jack, you know where the patio is, we had a press conference there last month. Go with Mabel and show her the way.”

I stood up to go, but General Hobbs grabbed my sleeve. “Hey, Jack, you coming to my house for supper on Thursday? Cathy said she invited you.”

I hadn’t forgotten about Cathy’s invitation, but until that moment I wasn’t sure she still wanted me to come. She got pretty emotional the other night after we left the Jubilee. “Uh, yeah, sure, I remember.”

“My wife’s roasting a turkey,” the general said. “Be there at nineteen hundred hours.”

He let go of my sleeve and turned back to the governor. Then Mabel and I and the state trooper with the hatboxes headed for the patio behind the mansion.

Mabel’s dress rustled loudly as we walked down the hall. “You didn’t congratulate me, Jack,” Mabel chided. “Aren’t you gonna congratulate me?”

“Have you gone crazy?”

She lowered her voice. “Jackie dear, I simply don’t understand your reaction. What girl would turn down a chance at being First Lady?”

“Don’t you think he’s a little old for you?”

“Well, he’s not my idea of the perfect husband, if that’s what you mean. But he’s a darling creature and he could use a little tender loving care. Believe me, Jack, when he first mentioned the idea to me, I was just as shocked as you are. But once I realized that I wouldn’t have to actually do, you know, anything too intimate, then it began to sound like an attractive proposition. All I have to do is sit next to him when he makes his speeches and throw a lot of parties at the mansion. Now what’s so bad about that?”

“What about Commissioner Whitehead? Your ex-husband? Is he coming to the wedding?”

Mabel smiled. “I certainly hope that by the time the wedding comes round, Commissioner Whitehead will have the good sense to resign. If he doesn’t, there may be a very unpleasant scene. Look, there’s the photographer, he’s such a sweet thing.”

The governor’s official photographer stood in the middle of the patio, struggling to set up his tripod. Mabel blew him a kiss and then ordered the trooper to open the hatboxes. She spent the next ten minutes deciding which hat to wear. She finally picked a pink organza sun hat and sat down in a wicker chair facing the photographer.

It was a hot day. I leaned against one of the mansion’s neoclassical columns and watched the photographer take his pictures. In the strong sunlight Mabel looked quite fetching, if you could forget for a moment the ridiculousness of her outfit. I closed my eyes and for a while I heard nothing but the rapid clicking of the camera. Then I heard the distinctive squeak of the governor’s wheelchair behind me. You could hear it a mile away.

Janey pushed Fowler out to the patio. After parking his wheelchair next to me, she wandered over to the flowerbed and started berating the gardener. Mabel waved when she saw the governor, then turned back to the camera.

Fowler looked at her appraisingly. “What do you think, Jack? She’s a fine-looking woman, ain’t she?”

I nodded. “She sure is.”

“Yeah, a fine-looking woman. Reminds me of Eugenia in some ways. She doesn’t let any grass grow under her feet.” He stared at her for a few more seconds, lost in thought, his mouth hanging open. Then he looked up at me. “So how do you like the job so far?”

“It’s a little too early to tell,” I replied, smiling.

“You getting along all right with Booth?”

“Well, to be honest, I don’t think he likes me too much.”

Fowler shook his head. “Don’t you worry about that. Booth acts that way with everyone at first. Just give him some time and he’ll come around.”

“All right,” I said, although I didn’t really share the governor’s optimism. I had the feeling that Booth was going to make my life miserable, and there was nothing I could do but sit there and take it, because I had to pay Greenville Academy five thousand dollars before Philip could enroll there in September.

Mabel decided to switch hats, tossing the pink one aside and opting for a big, floppy straw hat. Fowler watched her for a while, amused. Then he stretched out his good arm and shifted in his chair, trying to get comfortable. “I’m curious about something, Jack. You grew up here in town, right?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said, somewhat anxiously, wondering what was on Fowler’s mind. “We lived on Clinton Street.”

“So you went to Jeff Davis High School?”

“Yeah, until halfway through my senior year. Then I took some classes at Tutwiler Community College and started working part-time at the Advertiser.”

“You still have family in town?”

I thought of my mother standing in front of her ramshackle house. “No, my mother lives in Butler County now.”

Fowler nodded. His mouth was closed but he moved his jaw muscles as if he were still chewing his hamburger. “My daddy was a sharecropper in Barbour County, you know. He died back in ’36. Wasn’t even forty years old.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, although I already knew about the governor’s father. When I’d prepared Fowler’s obituary for the Advertiser a few years back, I’d done a little research into his family history.

“My daddy never had two nickels to rub together, but he knew just about everyone in Barbour County. He was friendly with the sheriff’s deputies, the road crews, everybody. Friendliest man in the whole damn county. Negroes, too. He didn’t discriminate. Never had a bad word to say about anybody.”

I nodded but didn’t say anything. I recalled from my research that his father had died of typhus, probably exacerbated by malnutrition. The Thirties were a shitty time to be poor in Alabama.

“You know, there was a Negro family who lived down the road from us. My daddy once invited them over for supper. When the neighbors heard about it, they weren’t too pleased. They came to our shack that night and started throwing rocks at the windows. One of ’em even lit a torch and threatened to burn the place down.”

Now this was a surprise. Over the past four years I’d heard the governor tell all kinds of maudlin stories about his childhood, but I’d never heard about this incident before. “What happened then?”

He let out a hoarse chuckle. “Daddy got his shotgun and stood in the doorway. He didn’t have to say a thing. They all just faded away.” He waved his good hand to show how the neighbors had disappeared. “You know, a lot of folks think I grew up ignorant. They say, ‘Of course Jimmy Fowler’s a bigot, just look at where he came from.’ But my daddy was a good man. He wasn’t ignorant.”

I studied the governor’s face, trying to determine how much of this story was true. It seemed a little too pat, too perfect. And it didn’t jibe at all with the Fowler I’d seen twenty-three years before at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. I suspected that the governor had just invented the anecdote and now he was trying it out on me before he used it on the campaign trail. But because this was my first day on the job, I kept my suspicions to myself.

Fowler shook his head emphatically. “But here I go, talking about myself again. What year did you graduate from high school, Jack?”

I was a little startled by the sudden change of subject. “Uh, nineteen-seventy-four.”

“So did you know General Hobbs’s daughter when you were in school?”

My guard went up. I knew that Fowler had a way of working up to the subjects he wanted to talk about. But I also knew that he had a scattershot mind and this could turn out to be another stray piece of shot. “Yeah, I knew her.”

“Did you know her well?”

There was no point in denying it. General Hobbs must’ve told him. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

“Huh.” Fowler was silent for a few seconds. He was filing this fact with the millions of others in his head. “Well, that’s very interesting. We should talk about this again sometime. I like to get to know the people who work for me. That’s one of the great advantages of a political career, getting to know people. You know how I got started in politics, Jack?”

“You mean when you ran for the Legislature?”

“No, no, before that. Right after I got out of the Army, I started sending Christmas cards to everyone I knew in Barbour County. I did that for three years while I was going to law school. Spent everything I had on postage stamps. And when I ran for the Legislature in ’48 and I went around to all the farmhouses in the county, folks would say to me, ‘You’re that Fowler boy, ain’t you? The one who keeps sending us those Christmas cards?’ And I’d say, ‘That’s right, and I’d appreciate it if you remembered me on Election Day.’ You know how many people are on my Christmas list now, Jack?”

“How many?”

“Twelve thousand two hundred and forty-eight. I added your name to the list this morning.”

This seemed like a somewhat dubious honor, but I said “thank you” anyway.

“I got some famous people on the list, you know. Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter. I believe you can have a political disagreement with somebody and still send him Christmas cards afterwards. That’s the kind of thing that never gets written about in the newspapers. Everyone writes stories about my disagreements with Kennedy and Johnson, but no one ever mentions the fact that I was sending Christmas cards to both of them the whole time. Only a couple of folks did something so awful I had to cross them off the list.”

“Have you crossed Bill Bledsoe off the list yet?”

Fowler frowned. “I didn’t have to. He’s never been on my list.”

I could see that the governor didn’t want to talk about Bledsoe. Maybe the polls were bothering him more than he let on. He turned away from me and stared again at Mabel, who was posing now with a pink parasol, holding it coyly over her head.

“I want you to do me a favor, Jack,” he finally said. “In every election there’s always gonna be some dirty politics. Every four years I hear the same stories. People talking about my bank accounts, bringing up the old IRS investigations. It’s all just filth, but Bledsoe’s sure as hell gonna bring it up, so I don’t want you to be surprised if you hear all sorts of accusations.” He motioned me to come a little closer. I bent over, placing my hand on the armrest of his wheelchair. I could hear a deep rasp inside the governor’s chest every time he exhaled. “Back in ’82, there was a story going around. Folks were spreading the rumor that I had a child with a Black woman. We sent telegrams to every newspaper editor in the state, saying we’d sue each and every one of them for ten million dollars apiece if they put that story into print. And we’ll do the same thing this year if it comes up again.”

I thought of the anonymous letter that had been left on my desk at the Advertiser. Fowler was more right than he knew. But I kept my mouth shut.

He reached out and rested his good hand on my shoulder. “Here’s what I want you to do, Jack. If you ever hear a reporter talking about this, I want you to call up his editor and tell him that Governor Fowler has a whole team of libel lawyers just waiting for him to run a story like that. Then call me up and I’ll get one of the lawyers to speak to him personally. That’ll put the fear of God in ’em.”

His face was so close I could see the gray stubble pocking his cheeks. It was too close — I felt nauseous as he gripped my shoulder and looked me in the eye. This was part of his plan, I suppose. Even in his deteriorated state, he could still be intimidating. But behind the bluster, I sensed a trace of uneasiness. He was hiding something.

“I hate to expose you so soon to the dirty side of politics, Jack. But that’s the nature of the beast, and you might as well learn about it now instead of later. You understand, right?”

I understood perfectly. There was something in Fowler’s past that he didn’t want anyone to know about, something I’d never caught wind of in the four years I’d been writing about him. And even though I wasn’t a newspaper reporter anymore, I wanted very badly to know what that something was. So badly that I couldn’t stop myself from posing the question. “I’m sorry, governor, but I have to ask you this. Is there any truth to this particular rumor?”

I fully expected him to be outraged at the suggestion. But instead he gave me a lopsided grin. “I said it was libelous, right? And it can’t be libelous if it’s true, Jack. You’re a newspaper reporter, you should know that.” He tilted his head, clearly amused. Then he stretched his good arm again and let out a yawn. “Now I think I’ll go upstairs and lie down for a bit. Say goodbye to Mabel for me. Janey!”

Janey stopped harassing the gardener and returned to the patio. As she pushed Fowler back inside the mansion, I could’ve sworn I saw him wink at me.


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.”


“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.


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?”


“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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.