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

Writing and Nesting

By Mark Alpert

This is a momentous week for the Alpert household. On Monday my wife and I will help our daughter move into her dorm room as she starts her first year of college. She’s the younger of our two children — her brother is in Australia now, enjoying a junior-semester abroad — so I guess this marks the beginning of our empty-nest years.

How does raising children affect a writer’s life? Twenty-five years ago I assumed it would be a distraction. I thought I needed to focus on writing fiction and get a book published before I could commit to parenthood. But my attitude shifted one afternoon when I went jogging in Central Park and saw someone in a T-shirt that said, “Don’t Postpone Joy.” It sounds ridiculous, but that corny slogan changed everything.

Instead of hindering my effort to become a novelist, my kids helped it along. My son became the role model for the protagonist’s son in my first novel, Final Theory, which was published in 2008 by Simon & Schuster and translated into more than twenty languages. I realized that a fictional character who’s also a good parent can be very appealing to readers. In To Kill a Mockingbird, we admire Atticus Finch for being an honorable, upright lawyer, but we fall in love with him because he treats his kids so tenderly. The same is true of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter books.

Some of my kids’ passions and mannerisms became character traits of the young people in my novels. When my son was seven, he loved Super Soakers, so the seven-year-old Jonah Swift in Final Theory loves Super Soakers too. In one of the first scenes in that novel, Jonah’s dad explains the physics of a Super Soaker; their dialogue is a rough facsimile of an actual conversation I had with my son. In my third novel, Extinction, the protagonist’s daughter Layla is a grown-up version of my daughter, smart and brave and rebellious.

When my children became teenagers, I was inspired to write a trilogy of Young Adult novels. I wanted to write a series of books that my kids would enjoy. The first novel in the trilogy, The Six (published in 2015 by Sourcebooks Fire), is about a group of terminally ill teens whose lives are “saved” by a revolutionary technology that scans their brains with such precision that researchers can record all the connections among their billions of neurons, and the strengths of those connections as well. The three-dimensional maps of neural linkages are then downloaded into so-called neuromorphic circuits that are designed to imitate human brain cells. (This is a real type of electronics currently being developed by IBM and other companies.) Loaded with millions of gigabytes of memories, skills, and emotions, the neuromorphic circuits resurrect the personalities of the dying teens, enabling them to live on as robots after their bodies fail.

But there’s a catch, of course. The U.S. Army pays for the resurrection of the teenagers because it’s battling an out-of-control artificial intelligence that has taken over a nuclear-missile base, and the military needs human-machine hybrids to combat the genocidal AI. The battle continues in the second book in the trilogy, The Siege, and it reaches a whole new level of ferocity in the concluding novel, The Silence. Needless to say, my kids loved the books, and so did their friends. One of them even mentioned The Six in her college-application essay!

Just as my kids had a big influence on my writing, in return my profession has colored their lives. They’ve both become excellent writers. My son took an American literature course at his college last spring, and one of his assignments was to write a pair of short stories describing the same scene, one story written in the style of Mark Twain and the other written in Ernest Hemingway’s voice. He let me read the stories, and I thought they were fantastic. And last winter, when I was revising my latest manuscript, I asked my daughter to read it and give me feedback. The main character is an extraordinary 17-year-old girl, a modern-day Joan of Arc, so I knew my daughter could offer some useful suggestions. (I’ll provide more details about this forthcoming novel, Saint Joan of New York, over the next few weeks.)

But first our family will perform the bittersweet rites of separation. My wife and I will help our daughter lug her suitcases to her dorm room. We’ll probably annoy the hell out of her by asking if she has enough toothpaste and laundry detergent. We’ll say our goodbyes and try to gracefully leave the campus.

And then I’ll wonder: Okay, what am I going to write about now?

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A Thriller: Save the Amazon!

By Mark Alpert

In the spring of 2012 I went with my wife and kids on a phenomenal trip to the Peruvian part of the Amazon rainforest. First we flew to Lima, then to Iquitos, a city in northeastern Peru, accessible only by river and air. (It’s the largest city in the world that can’t be reached by paved road.) Then we made our way to the town of Nauta on the northern bank of the Marañón, a major tributary of the Amazon River.

At Nauta we boarded the Delfin, a 120-foot riverboat. For the next ten days we cruised up and down the Marañón and Ucayali rivers, which merge in northeastern Peru to form the Amazon. Every day we left the Delfin and explored the flooded tropical forest in sleek skiffs, gliding between the trees that rose above the black floodwaters. We saw monkeys, caimans, anacondas, and an incredible variety of birds. We swam with a pod of Amazon river dolphins, pinkish mammals with bulging foreheads that contain special bio-sonar organs that allow the creatures to navigate the opaque river channels. It was one of the most amazing trips I’ve ever taken.

And it was the perfect trip for a thriller writer. As Teddy Roosevelt could attest (he went on an expedition to the rainforest a few years after his presidency and nearly died there), the Amazon is a great setting for action and adventure. During one of our treks through the jungle, our guide picked up a stick that held an unusually large ant. This insect, he explained, was commonly known as the bullet ant, because its sting is as painful as a bullet wound. (It’s also called the 24-hour ant, because the pain lasts for a whole day.) What’s more, some indigenous Amazon tribes use the bullets ants in their initiation rites. The tribespeople collect the ants, render them unconscious, and embed their bodies into pouches woven from leaves, with the ants’ stingers pointed inward. Boys undergoing the initiation rite have to stick a hand into the woven ant-studded pouch and endure the stings for at least five minutes. And not just once, mind you; to become a tribal warrior, you have to go through this torture twenty times.

This kind of information is fantastic raw material for thrillers. I put a bullet-ant scene in my novel The Furies, which was published by St. Martin’s in 2014. You can get the details here.

What impressed me the most about the Amazon was its vastness. The river and its tributaries drain a huge portion of the continent, and the rainforest’s environmental riches seem inexhaustible. So you can imagine my dismay when I read about the fires that have been raging across the Amazon region over the past few weeks. Many of the fires have been set by farmers clearing land for agriculture in Brazil, where a new president has gutted the rules that have protected the rainforest. According to the Brazilian government, the deforestation of the Amazon now stands at 19 percent of the region’s area, and that percentage might well be an underestimate.

Even worse, some experts predict that the rainforest may soon reach a tipping point when the deforestation will accelerate and become self-perpetuating. The loss of forest will decrease the amount of moisture in the air, drying the region and making fires even more likely. And because the vegetation in the Amazon contains about 100 billion tons of carbon, large-scale fires will release a devastating amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. (In comparison, all the coal-fired power plants across the world release a total of 15 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year.)

As thriller writers, I think we can all recognize an existential threat when we see one. If we were writing a novel about this catastrophe, it would have corporate or political villains (such as Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro) exacerbating the problem and simultaneously justifying their actions using moralistic or nationalistic reasoning. (Because most villains actually see themselves as heroes, right?) And we would create heroes and heroines (preferably spunky and/or badass) who are roused to action when they learn the horrifying extent of the problem (“The Call to Adventure”). The struggle to save the Amazon would be difficult because the opposing forces are so formidable (business interests, rabble-rousing politicians, poor farmers just trying to feed their families), but after many setbacks the protagonists would prevail, ideally after a climactic battle in the jungle (involving swarms of sentient bullet ants!)

We can all imagine writing the story. The problem doesn’t seem insurmountable. So why is it so much harder to solve in real life?

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Beach Reading

By Mark Alpert

I’m halfway through reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. What a strange novel! It starts with a completely inexplicable event — some unknown object crashes into the moon and causes it to break up into seven pieces, which then collide with one another and fracture into an untold number of shards. A substantial portion of this debris is then drawn toward Earth. The human race has only two years to prepare for the Hard Rain, a worsening storm of meteorite strikes that will make the planet’s surface uninhabitable. Governments around the world begin assembling heavy-lift rockets and lofting hundreds of spacecraft into orbit. The survivors of planetary destruction cling to life in the Cloud Ark, a swarm of orbital modules surrounding the International Space Station.

It’s a great premise for a thriller. The Cloud Ark is vulnerable to strikes from pieces of moon debris, which tear through the orbiting spacecraft. The “Arkies” have to figure out how to make their space colony sustainable for the long term, because the Earth’s surface will remain molten for thousands of years. And conflicts arise very quickly among the survivors as strong-willing contenders battle for control of the colony.

Coincidentally, this has been a great week for sky-watching. A waxing moon was flanked by Saturn to the left and Jupiter to the right. A few nights ago I took the telescope down to the lakeshore (we’re on vacation in northern Michigan) and we gazed upon Saturn’s rings and the Galilean satellites. We spotted a few Perseid meteors too, making it easier to imagine the Hard Rain.

Do you ever get so caught up in a story that you can practically see it happening all around you? That’s a sure sign that the novel is a good one!


My own apocalyptic novel, THE COMING STORM, is featured in the latest issue of the digital magazine NatureVolve. Check it out here.

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A Novel Exercise

By Mark Alpert

I got on the bike today, searching for inspiration. Hoping to stumble upon some exciting ideas that’ll accelerate the plot of the novel I’m outlining.

The temperature was in the low 80s, which isn’t bad for NYC at this time of year. I headed for the bike path in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, which runs along the eastern bank of the Hudson River.

I saw a few awesome sights: a big freighter lolling in the current; a hundred cairns crowding the shore like lost souls; the gray GWB outlined against the Palisades.

I passed eight cyclists. Two faster cyclists passed me.

I sweated. A lot.

But I found no inspiration. No ideas for new characters or scenes.

Was I disappointed? Not really. Sooner or later I’ll think of something good.

Does anyone else out there look for inspiration while exercising?

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Every Writer’s Dream

By Mark Alpert

Writing fiction is a great way to share secrets. When a writer learns something remarkable — about relationships or human psychology or the nature of society — his or her natural impulse is to write about it. And the impulse is even stronger when the story involves something hidden, a secret place or event or phenomenon that the writer is dying to broadcast to everyone.

Well, I have something to share, something that should particularly appeal to the writers and readers of military thrillers. Last week I visited an abandoned nuclear missile silo in upstate New York. I’m not ready to put this juicy secret into a novel or write about it at length, so for now I’ll tell the story in pictures. The photo above shows the entrance to the silo, which is located in the Adirondack mountains, just a few miles north of the town of Lewis.

I learned about this secret place through my friend Brian Andrews, an author of military and science thrillers. (You should check out his novel RESET, it’s amazing!) In RESET, Brian wrote about a decommissioned missile silo that a survivalist had transformed into a doomsday bunker. He received a letter from a reader saying, “You got most of the details right, but not everything. Want to see the silo that I own?” Brian said yes, of course, and he offered me a chance to tag along.

Before I go any further, I need to provide a little Cold War history. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, America’s nuclear strategists were obsessed with the so-called “missile gap.” They were terrified that the Soviet Union would build so many intercontinental ballistic missiles that they could destroy our own ICBM forces before we could launch them. America’s earliest ICBM was the Atlas missile, whose engines were powered by liquid fuel — RP-1 (a highly refined form of kerosene) and liquid oxygen (LOX). Because oxygen won’t stay liquid unless it’s kept very cold, it couldn’t be stored indefinitely in the Atlas missile’s fuel tanks; the LOX had to be loaded into the rocket just before launch, a process that could take an hour or more. But a Russian ICBM could fly to targets in the U.S. in only 30 minutes, raising the possibility that the Soviets could launch a devastating first strike that would destroy the American missiles before they could be fired in retaliation.

Our first response to this perceived crisis — as it later turned out, the missile gap was overexaggerated — was to throw more money into ICBM development and build a lot more nuclear missiles. But American strategists also reasoned that they could make our ICBM forces more survivable by placing the missiles in underground silos that were so robustly fortified that they could withstand the nearby explosion of a Soviet nuke. (The guidance systems on ICBMs were relatively primitive back then, so the missile might land more than a mile from its target.) So the most advanced versions of the Atlas ICBM — the Atlas-F — were deployed in silos more than a hundred feet deep, each lined with ten-foot-thick walls of steel-reinforced concrete. Each missile stood vertically on a steel cradle suspended from the silo’s walls; that way, the seismic shock from a nearby blast would rock the ICBM but not destroy it. If the missile survived the Soviet first strike, the massive clamshell doors at the top of the silo would open, and the Atlas-F would be raised to firing position.

By 1965 dozens of Atlas-F silos had been built across the country, including twelve in the Adirondacks, all located within a hundred-mile radius of Plattsburgh Air Force Base. But these installations became obsolete almost immediately. The Russians improved the accuracy of their ICBMs and increased the megatonnage of their nuclear warheads, making it much less likely that any of the Atlas-F silos would survive a first strike. More important, the U.S. had developed a better ICBM, the Minuteman, which used solid fuel (aluminum powder oxidized by ammonium perchlorate). Because this missile didn’t need to be loaded with cryogenic liquid oxygen, it could be launched within minutes (hence its name). By then, the U.S. also had a fleet of satellites that could detect Russian missile launches by their distinctive infrared flares, so the Minutemen could be fired well before the enemy missiles reached their silos. Best of all, the Minutemen were much easier and cheaper to build than the Atlas missiles. By the 1970s there were hundreds of Minuteman silos scattered across Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota.

So the Air Force removed the Atlas-F missiles from their fortified silos, which were left to rust and fill with water. And eventually the federal government sold the sites to private investors. An Atlas silo in Kansas, for example, has been transformed into Survival Condo, a giant bunker designed for a community of luxury-minded survivalists. The silo in the Adirondacks that Brian and I visited is in the process of being renovated; the owner has pumped all the groundwater out of the deep hole, but there’s still lots of rusty steel everywhere, making it a very cool and eerie place to explore.

The silo’s owner couldn’t meet us there, but the property manager gave us a great tour of the place. The temperature outside was in the 80s that afternoon, but as we stepped through the silo entrance and descended the first flight of stairs, we felt the temperature drop to the 50s. Then we came to the first set of blast doors:

Considering that the doors were designed to withstand a nuclear blast, they were surprisingly easy to open and close!

Then we came to the launch control center. All the electronic controls for launching the missile had been removed, of course, but there were some reminders of the silo’s original purpose:

Then we walked down an ominous passageway:

And we came to the silo itself, in all its apocalyptic glory:

Here are the silo’s clamshell doors, seen from below:

Here’s a glimpse down into the shaft, where the Atlas-F missile used to stand:

Then we put on hardhats and made our way down the shaft, navigating a spiral stairway and some very rusty ladders. Here’s a picture of the very bottom of the silo:

And here’s another shot of the clamshell doors, but taken from the silo’s bottom:

All in all, it was a thriller writer’s dream. Or nightmare, depending on how you look at it.

And it was a timely visit, given the current geopolitical situation. Thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Cold War is going strong again. Putin’s spies are murdering his enemies in the West with nerve toxins and radioactive isotopes. Five years ago he wrested Crimea from Ukraine and fomented a rebellion in that country, in the process shooting down a commercial airliner and killing 298 people, mostly from the Netherlands. And now he’s threatening to take over Belarus and the Baltic Republics. Is NATO really prepared to stop Putin if he sends his army into Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia? His forces in that region are so numerically superior that they could occupy the countries before NATO could muster enough troops for a counterattack. And then Putin would put on that sly hangman’s smile of his and say, “What are you going to do about it? Start a nuclear war?”

As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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Writing Outdoors

By Mark Alpert

Now that summer is here in full force, I’ve started taking my laptop to Central Park and writing outdoors.

This would be a frustrating endeavor in most parts of the park, which is usually packed with tourists on even the hottest days, but I live near the entrance to the Ramble, an area that’s been left in a more natural state than the Great Lawn or the Sheep Meadow. The Ramble is laced with a confusing tangle of crisscrossing pathways, so most of the tourists avoid the area. (They seem deathly afraid of getting lost.)

In particular, I head for the bird-feeders. They’re in a spot that’s especially hard to find, even for someone like me who’s been visiting the park for 50 years. As you can see from the above photo, the bird-feeders are empty of seed right now; I think the conservancy fills them only during the migration seasons, when the birds are famished. But a lot of species stop by anyway, maybe out of sheer undying hope.

Which, coincidentally, is also what you need to write fiction.

What about you? What are your favorite outdoor writing locations?

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How To Create A Good Leader

By Mark Alpert

Some thrillers don’t need leaders. The novel’s hero might be a lone mercenary, a rogue agent, or a private detective with a business too small or unsuccessful to have anyone on the payroll. But other thrillers feature protagonists who are police captains, military commanders, spy chiefs, or heads of state. If you’re writing that kind of novel and you want readers to admire and avidly follow your characters, you have to know how to create a good leader.

Let’s start with some examples of good leaders in genre fiction. Think of Painter Crowe, the super-competent and compassionate task-force commander in James Rollins’s Sigma Force thrillers. Think of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books, Gandalf and Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Duke Leto Atreides in Dune, Queen Serafina Pekkala in The Golden Compass, or Captain Jack Aubrey in Master & Commander. Or, going farther back, think of Beowulf and Shakespeare’s King Henry V. Why do we like these characters so much? What qualities do they have in common?

I’ll try to make a list, although it’ll be far from comprehensive:

A good leader has respect for the people who serve under him or her. I learned this important truth way back in 1984, during the first week of my job as a newspaper reporter for the Claremont Eagle Times in New Hampshire. It was my first real job and I didn’t know what I was doing yet. I completely ignored an important story, or at least it was something that seemed very important in the context of local news. I don’t remember the details, but maybe it was some new business opening or housing development that had been announced at a town meeting? Whatever the details, the story soon appeared in a rival newspaper, and the Eagle’s editor was furious that I hadn’t written about it. But he didn’t blow up and start yelling at me in the newsroom. Instead, he led me to an office upstairs and chewed me out in private. Even though I was just a 23-year-old screw-up, he had respect for me, enough to realize that it wouldn’t be right to embarrass me in public.

A bully, in contrast, has no respect for subordinates and doesn’t receive any in return. We’ve all seen bosses like that, right? They rail at their underlings and treat them like dirt, and then they wonder why nothing gets done right. And they never learn.

A good leader is smart and patient. Remember the TV cop show NYPD Blue? It ran from 1993 to 2005 and was considered pretty daring for its time, especially for its warts-and-all portrayal of Detective Andy Sipowicz, who in the early episodes was an openly racist alcoholic. To Sipowicz’s dismay, the boss of his precinct’s detective squad is a black lieutenant named Arthur Fancy. In one of my favorite scenes from the TV series, Lieutenant Fancy teaches Sipowicz to have some empathy for the black people he interrogates. He takes Andy to dinner at a rib joint that looks a lot like Sylvia’s, the famous soul-food restaurant in Harlem. Nowadays Harlem has become largely gentrified and Sylvia’s is full of tourists and white people, but I remember going there in the early 1990s (when the NYPD Blue episode aired) and being the only white person in the place. Sipowicz finds himself in the same situation, and he squirms uncomfortably in his seat as he eats dinner with his boss. Lieutenant Fancy asks Sipowicz why he seems so distressed: “You’re being served, aren’t you, Andy? They cooked those ribs for you. Maybe they wanted to spit in the plate, but they didn’t. They served your white ass just like they would anyone else who came in here. Even though some of them hate your guts. So why would you feel uncomfortable, Andy? You got your meal. What difference does it make what they’re thinking? That they don’t like you, that’s just an opinion. Why should that bother you?”

Then the lieutenant adds the clincher: “Now what if they had badges and guns?”

This struck me as a very smart leadership technique. Instead of yelling at Sipowicz or giving him a sterile lecture, Lieutenant Fancy takes the time to vividly show him the error of his ways.

A good leader doesn’t lie. This seems like such a no-brainer that I hesitated to include it in the list, and yet so many bad leaders ignore it. How can you trust a parent or boss or politician who has a cavalier disregard for the truth? A good leader doesn’t distort the facts to make himself or herself look good. No, a good leader is honest about setbacks and freely admits mistakes.

Let’s go back to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. He was honest with Frodo about the existential threat they faced (i.e., Sauron). He didn’t sugarcoat things. And he didn’t make insincere, pandering promises. He made it very clear that the odds were against them, and that there was a good chance that none of the hobbits would return to the Shire alive. And yet the Fellowship followed him.

A good leader isn’t petty or boorish. This one seems like a no-brainer too, but unfortunately our society is starting to encourage childish behavior among adults. When it comes to fiction, though, readers continue to be disgusted by spiteful leaders and their tantrums. Would we still admire King Henry V if he was a pompous braggart? Or a draft dodger? Of course not. In Shakespeare’s play, the king does a remarkable thing on the night before the Battle of Agincourt: he dresses as a common soldier and goes among his troops to gauge how they’re feeling. This prepares him for the stirring speech he gives to his army the next day. The king acknowledges that the English soldiers are vastly outnumbered by the French, but he proclaims that this is actually an advantage: “The fewer men, the greater share of honor.” I’ll quote the end of the speech just because it’s so good:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

A good leader appeals to our best instincts, not our worst. Abraham Lincoln was perhaps our nation’s greatest leader, and even his mistakes were noble-hearted. When he became president in 1861, he still hoped to persuade the seceding Confederate states to peacefully return to the Union, as evidenced by the closing lines of his first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” As we all know, Lincoln was unduly optimistic at that time. His peace overtures were rejected, leading to four years of devastating, fratricidal warfare. In his second inaugural address, though, Lincoln was still astoundingly benevolent: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

In real life, this kind of nobility is rare. Contemporary leaders are much more likely to sow division and target scapegoats and play the zero-sum game of “us versus them.” So I think it’s up to the novelists and poets to restore our ideals of leadership. In 1939 W.H. Auden wrote a poem to commemorate the death of the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and the final lines reflect his hope that great literature can repair and revive our society:

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

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Leadership, both good and bad, is at the heart of my latest novel, THE COMING STORM. You can learn more about the book here.

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Funniest Book Ever?

By Mark Alpert

My son is home from college for the summer, and my daughter is finishing up her senior year of high school, so it’s a special time for the Alpert household. We were all watching the Raptors-Warriors game tonight, along with three of my daughter’s friends, and in between the amazing displays of basketball virtuosity, we started telling jokes. And that got me thinking about how difficult it is to write a funny novel.

You know what they say: “Death is easy, comedy is hard.” That’s especially true for novels. Think how difficult it must be to keep a humorous voice or situation going for hundreds of pages. It’s like doing a standup routine that lasts for 16 hours. (If you read at a rate of twenty-five pages per hour, then a 400-page novel is equivalent to a 16-hour routine.)

Here’s a rough indicator of the difficulty: When was the last time you laughed out loud while reading a novel? It’s happened to me only a few dozen times over a whole LIFETIME of reading. But those occasions were memorable. I’ll try to recall them as best as I can. (I can’t check the exact wording of the funny books right now because most of our novels are in the living room, and several teenagers are sleeping in there.)

The funniest novel ever written (in my opinion): A Confederacy of Dunces. The book’s hero, Ignatius Reilly, is so absurdly grotesque and brilliant. One moment he’s yelling at his mother to leave his bedroom so he can masturbate, the next moment he’s musing about the Mississippi River and railing at his nemesis, “that dreary fraud, Mark Twain.” He gets a job selling footlong hot dogs from a cart in the French Quarter (while dressed in a pirate’s costume) but he eats the hot dogs instead of selling them, and when his employer docks his pay he tries to negotiate a better price for the wieners he’s eaten (“I am, after all, your best customer.”) I know plenty of people who hate this book because Ignatius is so cheerfully repulsive. But I love it.

Second funniest novel: Portnoy’s Complaint. This book has plenty of masturbation jokes too (and why are they so amusing? Has anyone ever studied this?) but in my opinion the best bits are the descriptions of the narrator’s father, the hard-working beaten-down insurance salesman who suffers from chronic constipation. He’s jealous of his teenage son because he’s spending so much time in the bathroom (the father wrongly assumes that the boy is moving his bowels). “If only I could do my business like that!” the old man cries. “I’d do it in Macy’s windows!” To which his wife responds, “Macy’s doesn’t need your business.”

On the opposite end of the humor spectrum, I also have a great fondness for P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels. And Kurt Vonnegut, especially Cat’s Cradle. (“Ah, God, what an ugly city Ilium is! ‘Ah, God,’ says Bokonon, ‘what an ugly city every city is!'”)

What about you? Have you ever dared to write a novel that’s laugh-out-loud funny?

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A Question From My Daughter

By Mark Alpert

Okay, I’m hanging out right now with my daughter, who will be graduating from high school next month and attending Northwestern University in the fall. She’s taking a creative writing course this spring, and she has a question for all you prolific fiction writers:

Do you usually start writing out of a flurry of emotion — that is, only after inspiration hits — or can you sit down at your desk and start telling a story without the need for an emotional trigger?

I thought that was a good question! When I first started writing poetry as a teenager, I usually wrote in a highly emotional state, inspired by some passionate incident (seeing a girl I loved) or traumatic insight (realizing that my parents were crazy). That doesn’t happen to me so frequently now that I’m a 58-year-old novelist, but every once in a while I get stirred up by some strange, beautiful thought that eventually turns into a story.

For example: well, it’s funny, I was going to tell you what inspired me to write my trilogy of Young Adult novels (THE SIX, THE SIEGE and THE SILENCE), but now I can’t remember why I started those books. The things that inspired me were like the scaffolding of the building I was constructing, but the scaffolding came down after the books were published, and now only the novels stand there.

What about you?

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Mixing It Up With Nonfiction

By Mark Alpert

My reading habits are completely out of whack. On average, I read at least twenty novels for every one nonfiction book. This extreme asymmetry isn’t strictly a result of my career choice; although I’m a novelist and I get a lot of inspiration from reading other authors’ fiction, that’s not the reason why I plow through so many novels. I just can’t help it. I read the stuff because I love it.

And here’s what makes the imbalance even more severe: I read so much fiction that it makes me intolerant of nonfiction that’s poorly done. A book about politics or sociology or science or art might have persuasive, important arguments, but I’ll quickly lose patience with it if the author doesn’t tell an interesting story, or if his or her voice isn’t lively and compelling.

I won’t waste your time complaining about nonfiction books I hated. Instead, I’ll talk about the ones that cleared my ridiculously high bar. One of my favorite history books, for example, is Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. This monster has nearly 3,000 pages in all (1.2 million words!) but it’s riveting. The opening of the book is brilliant: instead of torturing readers with a deadly dull recitation of all the causes of the war, it starts with the tale of how in 1835 a 27-year-old U.S. Army lieutenant named Jefferson Davis (the future president of the Confederacy) fell in love with the daughter of Zachary Taylor, his commanding officer (and future U.S. president). Davis asked for Taylor’s permission to marry his daughter Sarah, but Taylor refused, so Davis resigned his commission, eloped with Sarah, and fled with her to his family’s plantation in Mississippi, where a few months later she died of either malaria or yellow fever. Ten years later, Davis was elected to the U.S. Congress, but he rejoined the army when the Mexican-American War broke out. He held the rank of colonel now, and his commanding officer, once again, was Zachary Taylor.

Awkward, right? But Davis distinguished himself so well at the Battle of Buena Vista that Taylor actually apologized to him: “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.”

This opening chapter hooked me. After reading it, I was ready to go wherever Shelby Foote wanted to take me, sloshing through the blood and gore of Shiloh, Antietam, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg. Foote was a novelist too, so I guess it should’ve been no surprise that he could tell the story of the Civil War so well.

Another novelist who wrote excellent nonfiction was David Foster Wallace. As it turns out, the author of the literary bestseller Infinite Jest also wrote Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. Books about math are usually not known for their wit and verve, but Wallace somehow managed to stir my interest in Georg Cantor, the founder of set theory and the “infinity of infinities.” Until reading this book, I never really understood how one kind of infinity (say, the set of all real numbers) could be larger than another kind of infinity (say, the set of rational numbers). But Wallace presented the mathematical proof in a way that nearly anyone could understand.

Right now I’m reading a nonfiction book about another difficult subject, the current state of theoretical research in fundamental physics (string theory, supersymmetry, all that good stuff). Titled Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, it was written by a physicist named Sabine Hossenfelder who became well-known in the physics community because of her popular blog that questioned some of the conventional wisdom in the field. Unlike most people who write science books — usually naïve journalists who are way too wide-eyed about the latest theories, or pretentious Nobel Prize winners who love to pontificate — Hossenfelder has a wry, skeptical voice, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes pissed off. Here, for instance, is her summary of one of the book’s chapters: “In which I meet with Nima Arkani-Hamed and do my best to accept that nature isn’t natural, everything we learn is awesome, and that nobody gives a fuck what I think.”

Another thing I like about this book: it’s only 236 pages long. Hey, I love physics as much as the next guy, but I have a big stack of unread novels on my desk!


Here’s a novel about science that definitely won’t bore you: THE COMING STORM

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