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 Coronavirus Diaries

By Mark Alpert

My 18-year-old daughter, who’s home from college now just like everyone else in her generation, says she’s writing a diary. Years now from now, she says, she’ll want to remember what it was like to ride out the Covid-19 pandemic in New York City, which has become the American epicenter of the new coronavirus. She’s an excellent writer, much better than me, so she’ll probably do a good job.

I haven’t written much about the pandemic since my last blog post, which described some of the mistakes that led to this fiasco (you can read it here). Instead I’ve focused on the novel I’m working on (15,000 words so far). I’ve pretty much confined myself to our apartment in Manhattan, going out only for long walks in our neighborhood (usually at night, when it’s easiest to stay six feet away from any passersby) and for 3 a.m. trips to the local supermarket (which is open 24 hours, fortunately). So I don’t have a lot to say about the effects of the pandemic on New York City aside from the basic facts that everyone else is reporting: the streets are mostly empty, the stores are mostly closed, and most people seem to be following the rules of social distancing.

(There are, however, some glaring exceptions. Until yesterday, construction crews continued to work at half-built skyscrapers across the city, crowding into elevators and other tight spaces. There’s nothing essential about their work; New York certainly doesn’t need any more luxury buildings right now. But the real-estate developers were worried about their profits, and the workers were worried about their paychecks. After an outcry from public-health experts, New York officials finally put a stop to non-essential construction on Friday.)

Because I’m a science journalist and an author of science thrillers, my musings on the new coronavirus have a somewhat technical flavor. One of the scariest things about Covid-19 is its variability — many infected people exhibit mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, whereas many others (including a significant number of robust people under the age of 50) become deathly ill. At first I assumed the variations were the result of the normal genetic diversity of the human species, the same diversity that makes some people susceptible to cancer and others vulnerable to Alzheimer’s or autism. But why are the symptoms of Covid-19 so much more variable than those of influenza? If you catch the flu, it’s almost never mild, and usually not deadly unless you’re quite old. The course of the disease is fairly predictable: about a week of discomfort, miserable but not life-threatening.

Then I started to think about the most significant difference between influenza and Covid-19. The flu has been infecting people for hundreds of years, maybe thousands. During flu season, most people acquire some degree of immunity to the influenza virus, either because they were vaccinated or because they caught the flu and recovered. But the virus evolves very quickly, its genome mutating randomly during the billions of reproductions that occur every time the microbe infects someone. That’s why you need a new flu vaccine every year: a few of those mutations will produce new virus strains that can evade the antibodies produced by the human body to defeat last year’s strains.

Notice, though, that natural selection is at work, and the evolution of the influenza virus has a clear direction. The flu virus will mutate in many different random ways, at many different places along its relatively short genome (about 15,000 base pairs), but the only mutations that’ll give the microbe a clear survival advantage will be the ones that’ll help it evade the antibodies. So over time we’re more likely to see carefully tailored adaptive changes to the flu virus rather than wholesale revisions of its DNA.

The new coronavirus, in contrast, has been infecting humans only since December. It’s invading a population that has no immunity to it, so it has free rein to develop into a wide variety of strains. It’s similar to a flock of birds that get blown to a remote island in the Pacific where there are no birds but lots of different food sources: seeds, nectar, insects, whatever. Because the newly arrived birds will face no competitors that are already occupying the various ecological niches, they will eventually evolve into many different species, each tailored to a particular food source. Birds with longer beaks will be more successful at drinking nectar from flowers; birds with more powerful beaks will be better at cracking nuts, etc. Natural selection will accentuate these traits over the generations, and in a relatively short amount of time (maybe only a few million years) the island will host all kinds of bird species that descended from the original flock but look very different from their ancestors.

Charles Darwin was the first to postulate this process, after he visited the Galapagos and observed the great variety of finches there. Evolutionary biologists call it adaptive radiation. My hypothesis is that the new coronavirus is also undergoing adaptive radiation as its spreads across humanity. Unlike the familiar strains of influenza, the new microbe isn’t optimally adapted to its human hosts yet, so a multitude of mutations will proliferate, and some strains of the coronavirus will be much deadlier than others. My hypothesis has the advantage of being easy to prove or disprove; researchers just have to measure the amount of genetic diversity in all the new coronavirus samples being collected right now and compare it with the genetic diversity of influenza (or, better yet, compare it with the more established coronaviruses such as the ones that cause the common cold).

And here’s another idea that might appeal to science-minded thriller writers. Cooped-up conspiracy theorists have been speculating that the new coronavirus originated in a Chinese germ-warfare laboratory. This conjecture is mostly based on the fact that there is a bioresearch lab in Wuhan — the Institute of Virology — where researchers have studied coronaviruses, and this lab is less than ten miles from the Wuhan seafood market where Chinese officials have said the disease originated. Other bioresearch labs in China have had safety problems in the past, so is it unreasonable to think that some lapse at the Wuhan lab could’ve allowed a dangerous virus to escape?

But more detailed studies of the new coronavirus have thrown cold water on this theory, or at least on the hypothesis that the microbe is a product of genetic engineering. One piece of evidence involves the molecular structure of the new coronavirus’s spike proteins, which give the germ its distinctive crown-like appearance. This spike protein enables the virus to invade human cells because it binds with a receptor on the cells’ membranes. The arrangement of six crucial amino acids in the spike protein determines how easily the virus can bind with a human cell, and although the arrangement in the new coronavirus is fairly effective for binding, it isn’t the optimal configuration. If this coronavirus was designed for germ warfare, why didn’t the researchers create the best possible version?

Furthermore, if the new coronavirus was genetically engineered, the bioweapon researchers would’ve probably started the process by making tweaks to existing coronaviruses that infect humans and/or other mammals. But when scientists compare the genome of the new virus with the DNA of similar germs, they see differences sprinkled randomly along the genetic sequence, which is the kind of change you’d expect to see in a virus that arose from pre-existing microbes by the process of natural selection. In a genetically engineered germ, the changes would be concentrated in selected areas of the genome. (Unless the bioweapon engineers were being particularly tricky and trying to hide their tracks.)

But enough about the science. Thriller writers should always focus on emotions, especially the extreme emotions triggered by extraordinary events. As I go on my nightly walks across Manhattan, I’m struck most by the emptiness of the streets. In the city that formerly never slept, the only people outside are the dog walkers and the homeless. I expected the stores to be closed, but the great majority of the windows in the apartment buildings are also dark. All the New Yorkers who own second homes upstate or in the Hamptons have escaped to their summer places. The city is eerily quiet and newly unfamiliar.

There are terrible things happening in the hospitals nearby, dozens of people dying of Covid-19 every night, but I can’t see them. (I can hear the ambulance sirens, though, screaming down Broadway.) So I’m not the best person to write about this new plague. Someone else will have to do it, someone closer to the real struggle. Or maybe someone who can better imagine what it feels like.

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The Coronavirus and the Crisis Novel

By Mark Alpert

The New York Times ran an interesting story this week about the experience of re-watching the 2011 film Contagion while the new coronavirus rages all around us. That movie was weirdly prescient in its description of society’s response to a deadly microbe that emerges in China and quickly spreads to the rest of the world. Some of the film’s characters scoffed at the danger, some tried to sound a warning, and many, many of them succumbed to infection.

I saw Contagion when the movie came out, but I don’t remember it so well. In my opinion, the best fictional treatment of a pandemic — by far — is in the opening chapters of Stephen King’s The Stand. With incredible speed and vividness, King describes how a super-virulent government-engineered strain of influenza escapes from a secret lab out West and rampages across the country. Snippets of those chapters came back to me full force this week as I read the news about Covid-19 sweeping through nursing homes in Washington State and synagogues near New York City.  Here are a few samples:

“By dawn they were running east across Nevada and Charlie was coughing steadily.”

 “The man from the Chevy died twenty miles from the hospital. He drew one final bubbling gasp, let it out, hitched in a smaller one, and just quit.”

 “Joe Bob felt fine; dying was the last thing on his mind. Nevertheless, he was already a sick man. He had gotten more than gas at Bill Hapscomb’s Texaco.”

 “He had a slight cold, an allergy cold, maybe, and he kept sneezing and having to spit. In the course of the meal he infected Babe, the dishwasher, two truckers in a corner booth, the man who came in to deliver bread, and the man who came in to change the records on the juke. He left the sweet thang that waited his table a dollar tip that was crawling with death.”

It’s not really fair to compare Captain Trips (the nickname of the pandemic disease in The Stand) with Covid-19; the former had a death rate of over 99 percent of those infected, while the latter’s death rate has been estimated at 1 to 3 percent. (And those estimates may be wildly inaccurate because we just don’t know how many people have been infected by the new coronavirus so far.) Still, the emotional impact of the current real-life crisis feels similar to what I read in The Stand. Like Stephen King’s characters in the novel’s early chapters, we’re experiencing confusion, disbelief, fear, and helplessness.

The Stand is what I would call a Crisis Novel. I’ll define this category as the subset of thrillers that involve a threat so terrible it could take down the human race, or at least a substantial portion of it. Stephen King has written a few other Crisis Novels: The Cell (a mysterious signal transmitted by cellphones drives people mad), Under the Dome (an impenetrable transparent dome descends on a Maine town), and Tommyknockers (residents of another Maine town unearth a buried spaceship that transforms them into alien creatures). Other notable Crisis Novels include Tom Clancy’s Sum of All Fears (a nuclear bomb at the Super Bowl), Max Brooks’s World War Z (zombies), Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (Ice-9), and Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (the moon shatters into billions of pieces that rain down on the Earth).

I think it would be useful to take a closer look at the fundamental narratives of the Crisis Novels and compare them with the sequence of events that have occurred so far in the Covid-19 crisis. By analyzing the real-life events as if they were fictional, we might gain some insights on how to combat the threat more effectively. With that in mind, I’ll propose three important attributes of a global crisis, readily apparent in real life and often reproduced in fiction:

1) In a crisis, the fear is unevenly distributed. This is something that many novelists get wrong. Sometimes their characters all react the same way to the looming catastrophe, with everyone in denial when the threat seems distant, then suddenly shifting to mass panic when the shit hits the fan. But the Covid-19 crisis shows once again that people are quite variable in how they respond to threats. When scientists first identified the new coronavirus late last year, a few doctors in China tried to raise the alarm, but most of the government officials downplayed the danger. For those officials, the greater peril was losing their jobs, and their automatic reaction to the newly emerged microbe was to insist that nothing terrible was happening on their watch.

In the U.S., the initial reaction wasn’t urgent either, or at least not urgent enough to effectively slow the spread of the virus. We still tend to dismiss disasters that occur on the other side of the world, even though globalization has made this attitude dangerously obsolete. And even within our country, many of our fears are segregated; one segment of the population often ignores or dismisses dangers that disproportionately impact a different segment. For example, many well-off urban and suburban Americans were unaware of the opioid crisis while it was gaining steam over the past twenty years, mostly because they were unfamiliar with the poor, isolated communities in Appalachia and New England where opioids were killing so many people. There’s been a similar reaction to the crisis of gun violence, which has a disproportionate impact on people of color (52 percent of gun homicide victims are black men, even though they make up less than 7 percent of the total population). And it should be noted that the annual death tolls from opioids and gun violence are a thousand times higher than the number of Americans who have succumbed to Covid-19 so far.

Although the new coronavirus doesn’t seem to discriminate by either geography or socioeconomic status — it’s already spread to most parts of the U.S., and it infects both the rich and the poor — Covid-19 is much more of a threat to the old than to the young. The current statistics on this disease are iffy at best, but it seems that the death rate for people under the age of 50 is well under 1 percent, while the rate for people over 80 is more than ten times higher. (Elderly people are more likely to have the chronic health problems that make Covid-19 deadlier. Also, their immune systems are weaker.) Thus we have the odd situation right now in Florida, where young people are swarming to the beaches as they do every year for spring break, while their elders are frantically canceling sports events and parades and any other large gatherings that are conducive to viral transmission.

2) In a crisis, the villain is inertia. I want to single out a glaring example of how bureaucratic inertia stymied the efforts to contain Covid-19 after it arrived on our shores. The very first detection of the illness in the U.S. occurred in mid-January when a Washington State man who’d recently traveled to China tested positive for the new coronavirus. State health officials also tested fifty of the man’s contacts and none tested positive, but there was still a chance that he could’ve passed the virus to someone else. Luckily, local researchers had already launched the Seattle Flu Study, which was collecting nose swabs from thousands of people in the area in an effort to study how influenza spreads. (The flu is caused by a different kind of virus that’s been infecting people for centuries, maybe even millennia. Every year it kills tens of thousands of Americans, most of them elderly and/or chronically ill.)

When the flu researchers in Seattle learned about the new coronavirus, they realized they could search for this microbe in their thousands of collected samples to see if the new bug was spreading across the region and warn anyone who’d contracted it. But state and federal officials wouldn’t let them do it. They raised two objections: the Seattle Flu Study’s lab had the wrong kind of certification for this task (it was a research lab, not a clinical lab) and the subjects of the study (that is, the people whose noses had been swabbed) hadn’t given their consent for the new kind of testing. Although both objections had some legitimacy — it is indeed important to regulate labs and obtain consent for medical research — those concerns should’ve been overridden by the urgent need to protect the public health. The Seattle researchers frantically tried to appeal to the common sense of the federal officials  (at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), but the bureaucrats wouldn’t budge.

Frustrated and desperate, the researchers finally decided in late February to test their samples without permission. And sure enough, they detected the new coronavirus in a teenager who’d had a flu swab just a few days before. What’s more, a genetic analysis of the microbe found in the teenager showed that his virus was very closely related to the one that had been detected in the first Covid-19 patient more than a month before. The virus had been circulating in the Seattle area for weeks, undetected. An earlier detection by the Seattle Flu Study could’ve slowed and maybe even halted the coronavirus’s spread in Washington State, but thanks to inertia, the microbe went on to kill dozens in the region, more than half of whom were either residents or employees of just one nursing home.

It’s obvious now that someone should’ve intervened and cut the red tape, but nobody in the federal government had the authority, expertise, and situational awareness to step in and overrule the bureaucrats. The problem wasn’t really bad leadership — it was a lack of leadership.

It’s hard to present this kind of real-life situation in a novel. Action is more dramatic than inaction, and blinkered bureaucrats don’t make satisfying villains. That’s probably why the Contagion movie introduced an ancillary villain, a blogger (played by Jude Law) who spreads misinformation about the film’s dreaded disease. It’s more compelling to watch an evil person commit foul deeds (and perhaps be punished for them) than to observe a microscopic virus follow its evolutionary imperative to thrive and reproduce. Similarly, the villain in Stephen King’s The Stand isn’t Captain Trips; it’s Randall Flag, the satanic wanderer who seems to have triggered the novel’s pandemic somehow.

3) In a crisis, the hero is sacrifice. In the past few days, government leaders have acknowledged their failure to contain the new coronavirus and have aggressively pursued a new strategy: using “social distancing” to slow the virus’s spread. In New York, the governor has banned all large gatherings. The theaters on Broadway have gone dark, and no one will parade down Fifth Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day. March Madness has been canceled, NBA games suspended. Colleges across the country have barred their students from returning to campus after spring break, and their professors will have to deliver their lectures online for the rest of the semester. One of my kids came home from college yesterday, and I’m expecting the other to return to New York today.

And there will surely be more sacrifices to come. Everyone recognizes that widespread infection by the new coronavirus is inevitable, but the goal now is to “flatten the curve,” to spread out the infections over time so that the hospitalizations of the most severe cases don’t occur all at once and overwhelm our health care system. If that should happen, we wouldn’t have enough doctors and nurses to care for the desperately ill, nor enough mechanical ventilators to keep them breathing. So the goal is a good one. The sacrifices are worthwhile.

If we’re lucky, the new coronavirus will turn out to have a seasonal pattern of transmission like influenza’s, and the number of infections will subside once the weather warms up. But that’s not a sure thing. Covid-19 is closely related to MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), which is caused by another coronavirus that is deadlier than the new one but much less infectious. (It persists at a very low prevalence in the Arabian Peninsula.) And cases of MERS actually peak in the summer.

Either way, we need to accelerate the development and testing of a vaccine. That should be our top priority right now, higher than saving the Tokyo Olympics or the NBA or Wall Street. If I were writing a Crisis Novel about it, I would focus on the residents of a locked-down nursing home whose staff is heroically trying to keep their patients alive. Maybe one of the residents is a retired public-heath official or former pharmaceutical executive who comes up with a brilliant idea that could enable a safe vaccine to be developed in record time, perhaps just six months. But no one takes her seriously, because she’s so old, and her worried children won’t even allow her to step foot outside the nursing home, much less set up a crash program for vaccine development with her former colleagues at Merck or the CDC. She’s clever, though. She figures out how to overcome the obstacles.

And God willing, something similar will happen in real life too.

8+

The Best Day Ever

By Mark Alpert

Fiction writers, like everyone else, need to set goals for themselves. As a beginning writer, your first goal might be learning how to write a compelling sentence, something that’ll really grab a reader’s attention. Your next goal: describing a fascinating character or constructing a suspenseful scene. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can set your sights on completing a short story or novel. Then another, and another.

One of my goals is to get kids excited about fiction. That’s why I started writing Young Adult novels a few years ago. And that’s why I traveled yesterday morning to Thonotosassa, Florida. Isn’t that a great name for a town? It comes from the Seminole-Creek language, and basically it means “a good place to find flint.” Located just outside Tampa, it’s also a good place to find students who love fiction.

In January a teacher at Terrace Community Middle School (TCMS) in Thonotosassa informed me that the school had selected one of my YA novels, THE SIX, to be the focus of their annual literary symposium. All the students in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades — more than 600 in all — were assigned to read THE SIX last fall. This novel is about six terminally ill teenagers whose lives are “saved” when their minds are transferred to combat-ready U.S. Army robots. Because the book’s plot touches on a wide variety of STEM subjects — robotics, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and so on — the teachers at TCMS created some wonderfully innovative lessons related to the novel. In the school’s computer lab, for example, the students explored the algorithms of machine learning.

When the middle-school teachers contacted me by email, they asked if I could create a video they could show the students at the symposium. I replied, “You know what? I’m coming down there! I wouldn’t miss this for the world!”

The event turned out to be even more marvelous than I’d anticipated. I met the students in all three grades — they gathered in the school’s gym (see photo above) — and I answered their questions about THE SIX. I got a chance to see their artworks inspired by the book; the kids had decorated almost every door in the school building with posters portraying scenes from the novel and inspirational quotes from the manuscript and the students’ imagined impressions of what the main characters might look like. And in the exercise yard they played a variation of flag football based on the antics of the football-playing robots in the book.

The novel’s hero is named Adam Armstrong. In the opening chapters, he’s a 17-year-old confined to a wheelchair because he has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic illness that causes progressive deterioration of the body’s muscles. Reading THE SIX motivated the students at TCMS to learn more about muscular dystrophy, and even better, to contribute to the ongoing research efforts that might finally lead to a cure. So the kids raised nearly $1,500, and at the symposium they presented a check to a representative of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Seeing this act of generosity was very moving for me. It proved once again that fiction can be redemptive. It can change the world for the better.

In short, it was the best day of my life as a writer. And one of the happiest days in my whole life. I’ve included a few photos, above and below, in an attempt to share the joy.

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In Praise of Book Parties

By Mark Alpert

Here’s the ironic thing: We write books to communicate with others, to share our stories, dreams, jokes, and philosophies, but in order to write those books we have to spend most of our time alone.

I spent twenty years writing novels in my spare time, while I worked as a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and television shows, and then as an editor at Scientific American. And then in 2008 I finally sold my first novel and made enough money that I was able to quit my day job. Which is every fiction writer’s dream, right? So I’m not complaining.

Well, maybe I am, just a little.

It wasn’t long before I started to miss my friends at Sci Am. When I worked there, I never spent more than a couple of hours at a time in my office. Even when I was on deadline, I’d step away from my desk several times over the course of an afternoon, often to chat with my fellow editors, sometimes to go to the break room and see if anyone had left a plate of cookies there (yes, it happened sometimes), and occasionally to take the elevator downstairs and just walk around the block. There were editorial meetings too, where we decided which articles were going to run in the magazine, and although the meetings always ran way too long, there were usually a few good jokes that unexpectedly popped out of the proceedings.

But writing novels full-time is a lonelier business. I arrange lunches with friends, mostly other freelancers who work in their Manhattan apartments. I attend get-togethers of journalists, sometimes at bars, sometimes at public lectures. And I’m in a writing group that meets once a month. Nevertheless, I’ve become something of a hermit. It’s usually a great relief when my wife gets home from work. And now that our kids have gone off to college, I can’t even pester them anymore.

So that’s why I look forward to book parties. I went to a great party in Soho earlier this month to see Paul Davies, a scientist I’ve known for many years, and to get a copy of his new nonfiction book, THE DEMON IN THE MACHINE. In January I went to a party in Astoria where my good friend Nancy Bilyeau read from DREAMLAND, her new novel. And just last week I threw a party to celebrate the publication of my latest thriller, SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK. We packed into Books of Wonder, a remarkable bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and shared some beer and wine and fruit-and-cheese platters (a time-honored totem of the New York literary scene). After a while the partygoers sat down in folding chairs, and my wife introduced me to the crowd. (That’s my favorite part, because she always says so many nice things about me.) Then I read my novel’s first chapter and answered lots of good questions.

Since then I’ve gone back to work, writing another novel, spending hours bent over my laptop, alone. But at least I have a few photographs from the party (see above and below).

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The Inspiration of Boredom

By Mark Alpert

“Life, friends, is boring.” — John Berryman

I encourage all of you to read “Dream Song 14,” the poem from which this quote is taken. Berryman had the courage to recognize that there are times when life seems deadly dull.

But boredom can also be an inspiration. When you lose interest in all the books on your shelves, when the daily news is nothing but repetitive disaster, when your kids grow up and no longer want to play games with you, when the whole world is gray and cold and cheerless…well, when all that happens, what’s a writer’s first instinct?

It’s to create something new, something interesting. A page, a scene, a chapter, a novel. That’s how I feel right now. The only thing that interests me is the book I’m starting to write.

What about you? Have you ever felt this way?

 

2+

How To Go Viral

By Mark Alpert

Mass-market success is a bewildering thing. There’s no doubt that a well-financed marketing effort can boost the popularity of a movie, book, or television show. Why else would Hollywood spend hundreds of millions of dollars to promote its latest offerings? And yet there are many examples of plucky films and books that unexpectedly gathered wide followings without the aid of any big marketing campaign.

I first analyzed this topic in the late 1980s when I wrote a story about fashion-industry marketing for Fortune magazine. Remember all those goofy 1980s fashion trends? The shoulder-pad craze, for instance? Marketing experts told me it was hard to identify the origins of that particular sartorial mania. Did people instinctively go wild for the linebacker look in a kind of mass hysteria, or were they pushed in that direction by canny advertisers trying to profit from excessively padded blouses? Or, to phrase the question more generally, how much leverage can corporations exert over consumer choice? One of the ways to study this question is to focus on fashions that are adopted more freely — that is, in situations where no one has a financial interest in influencing the public’s tastes.

A good example of this kind of fashion choice is the selection of baby names. No corporation is going to spend its ad dollars trying to convince you to name your kid John or Nancy or Preston. In this situation, the influences are personal and cultural, rather than economically driven. And as we all know, there have been huge changes in the popularity of certain baby names over the past several decades. Does anyone name their kids Seymour or Ida these days? So the marketing experts wanted to study the trends in baby-name popularity to get a better understanding of how consumer choices are made. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the results of those studies, and I can’t even locate the story I wrote on this topic. All this happened before the Internet.

And of course the Internet ushered in a whole new arena of consumer influence. I’m not an expert on viral marketing, but many of my friends are freelance journalists, and as a group they’ve become pretty obsessed with tracking the popularity of the Web articles they write. Some of them have a financial incentive to maximize the readership of their stories, because they’ll get paid more if their articles attract a greater number of clicks. I haven’t done a whole lot of journalism since I sold my first novel, but every once in a while I write stories about science or politics for various websites, and I’ve noticed a few characteristics that seem to enhance the readership of those articles. Those same characteristics, I believe, can also boost the popularity of novels, giving them a better shot at making the bestseller lists.

So what are the keys to viral success? Let me tell you a couple of stories about what’s worked for me.

Back in 2014 I heard something strange about NASA. The space agency was funding research on what was described as a warp-drive technology. Yes, warp-drive, like the engines on the Starship Enterprise. Just in case you’re a little rusty on your Star Trek trivia, I’ll provide a brief explanation of how the Enterprise and all those Klingon and Romulan starships are able to flit across the galaxy so easily. They’re not actually going faster than the speed of light, at least not locally; instead, their warp drives are compressing the spacetime in front of the starships. These drives bend spacetime into an asymmetric bubble around the spacecraft, distorting the fabric of the universe so violently that a trillion miles of interstellar vacuum (as seen from an outsider’s perspective) can shrink to a few inches (as seen from the bridge of the Enterprise). Within this distorted bubble, the spacecraft never exceeds the speed of light, but once it crosses the compressed spacetime and emerges from the bubble it could be hundreds of light-years from its starting point. Take us to Warp Nine, Mr. Sulu.

This technology works great on the television show, but in reality it’s a little more complicated. Bending the spacetime around a real starship would require enormous amounts of an exotic form of energy that may or may not exist in our universe. Nevertheless, a NASA researcher named Harold White thought he could test the principle behind the warp-drive technology in a tabletop experiment, and the space agency agreed to spend $50,000 on the project. (Which is a relatively small investment given the agency’s twenty-billion-dollar annual budget.) That was the gist of the story I wrote for Scientific American’s website, that NASA was willing to take a small gamble on an unlikely hypothesis that most scientists scoffed at. But this little news squib quickly attracted tens of thousands of readers, the great majority of whom were reeled in by the Star Trek references and the accompanying illustration of the Starship Enterprise in flight.

I know that the inherent quality of the story didn’t give it the big boost in readership, because I wrote a very similar article for the same website two years later, a story about a more reasonable, feasible plan for interstellar travel (it’s called the Breakthrough Starshot project), and this second story didn’t attract an extraordinary number of readers. The big difference in popularity was obviously due to the widespread appeal of Star Trek, which continues to be a powerful cultural force 50 years after the original television series went off the air. So the lesson here for fiction writers is that it’s commercially useful to write a novel that piggybacks on an enduringly popular theme, person, place, or period of history. For example, a novel set during the Civil War will likely attract more readers than a novel set during the War of 1812, even if the two books are identical in quality. It’s just a fact of life: there are a lot of Civil War buffs out there. (I happen to be one of them.)

My latest brush with viral fame occurred just a few weeks ago during the holiday break. My new novel SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK has a nonfiction introduction entitled “Physics and the Search for Meaning,” and I thought it would be cool to put an excerpt from this essay on the Scientific American website. I gave the excerpt a somewhat provocative title — “Can Science Rule Out God?” — and it ran on the website a couple of days before Christmas. I promptly forgot about it because I had to drive the family up to Maine for the holiday, but when I got back to New York and looked at my emails I saw one of those ominous messages from Twitter: “You have 152 notifications” or something like that. My essay had definitely struck a chord. I’d put forth a middle-of-the-road position, arguing that we need to better understand the laws of physics before we could say anything useful about their origins, and I got dozens of impassioned responses from both believers and nonbelievers. Lots of people have strong opinions on the question of God’s existence, and they’re eager to share. These readers want to be part of the conversation. They want to be heard.

The typical experience of reading a novel is more of a one-way communication: the writer tells a story, and the reader listens. But some novels almost demand a response. This kind of book touches on something that the reader cares deeply about, something universal, and the reader wants to prolong that impassioned immersion in the story even after finishing the novel. So a common reaction is to encourage other people to read the book too. Or go online and discuss the plot and characters. These readers get feverish and excitable, and with every breath they spread the ideas that the novel has planted within them.

Just like a virus.

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Speaking of God, I recently wrote another essay related to my new novel SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK. The heroine of this book is a modern-day version of Joan of Arc, so I did a lot of reading about the original Joan and developed some fervent opinions about her legacy. My essay was published this week in America magazine; you can read it here.

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Lesson of the Decade

By Mark Alpert

I remember watching the last “Laugh-In” show of 1969. I was only eight years old at the time, and many of the jokes on that TV show sailed way over my head, but I got the gist of it: the world is a crazy psychedelic place, it’s fun to say “Sock it to me,” you can fend off a creepy old man by smacking him with a purse, and many things can be described as “very interesting, but stupid.”

The last “Laugh-In” of 1969 featured a sketch in which the show’s cast (Dan Rowan, Dick Martin, Goldie Hawn, Judy Carne, Arte Johnson, etc.) bade a humorous farewell to the Swinging Sixties. I don’t recall anything specific about the sketch — did they tell jokes? Sing a satirical song? — but I do remember getting the sense that the comedians were marking an important milestone, the end of a momentous decade, and I felt weirdly connected to this event because it had also been the first decade of my life. I was already nostalgic for something I’d barely experienced.

Now it’s fifty years later and “Laugh-In” is long gone, but we’re still making jokes as we say goodbye to another ten-year stretch of history. The 2010s weren’t as swinging as the Sixties, but the decade was full of clowns, pratfalls and gruesome punch lines. And is there a lesson we can draw from the tumult, a pithy moral like “Be careful what you wish for”? It’s too early to say.

So let’s focus instead on lessons for fiction writers, or more precisely, on what I think is the most important lesson that budding novelists should embrace, based on my experience of writing for this blog since 2012 and reading the comments from readers. Aspiring authors come here for advice on how to revise their novels, but once you’ve completed all the revisions and done everything you can to perfect the manuscript, it’s equally important to put the book aside and write another.

In this crazy business, as in so many others, you learn by doing. Unless you’re a literary genius, your first novel is likely to be an apprentice effort, perhaps very promising but inherently and irremediably flawed. That was true of the first novel I wrote, back in the late 1980s. It was also true of the second, third, and fourth novels I wrote in the 1990s. I labored over those books for years, rewriting scenes and reworking plots, and I think those exertions improved the novels, at least marginally. But despite my best efforts, the books weren’t good enough to be published. I was still learning.

I amassed a huge pile of rejection letters from editors and literary agents. Those letters disappointed me, of course, especially the ones that leavened the rejection with some apparently sincere praise. You know, sentences like this: “Alpert writes like a dream, but unfortunately this novel isn’t a good fit for us.” This kind of response, although well-meaning, can actually be harder on an author than a thumping rejection. The disappointment is keener when you miss by inches instead of miles.

In hindsight, though, I realize that those editors and agents were actually doing me a favor. In effect, they were saying, “This book is good, but you’re not quite there yet. Write another novel. Sooner or later, you’ll make it.” And that’s what finally happened to me in 2008, when Simon & Schuster released my first published novel (see image above). It took twenty years, but it was worth it.

The past decade has been a blessing for me. I started the 2010s with one published novel, and now I have ten (including my latest, SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK). My kids survived high school and now they’re in college. I’m still healthy, still writing. And I wish the same to all of you as we enter the 2020s and confront whatever fresh madness the new decade has in store for us.

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Saint Joan of New York, Part Three: Make the Story Your Own

By Mark Alpert

We can identify authors by their obsessions. Ernest Hemingway? Manliness, war, grace under fire. F. Scott Fitzgerald? Money, class, mercurial women. Flannery O’Connor? Salvation, senseless violence, Southern mulishness. I could go on and on.

We’re born with certain obsessions and we develop others as we mature. I’ve always been obsessed with death. (I suspect that many other thriller writers are, too.) Related obsessions fixate on whether there’s an afterlife, whether God exists, and what’s the point of existence in general if the whole universe is racing toward inevitable annihilation and everything, EVERYTHING, will be lost?

As I got older, I fell in love with science fiction (the Foundation series, the Dune series, etc.) and my obsessions grew more elaborate. I was fascinated by interstellar travel, pandemics, nuclear weapons, and quantum theory. I studied astrophysics in college and eventually became an editor at Scientific American. And nobody was too surprised that the subjects of my first published novels were Albert Einstein, quantum computers, cyborg insects, and alien AI programs.

Our obsessions creep into everything we write. So when I became interested in Joan of Arc and decided to write a modern-day retelling of her story (as I described in parts one and two of this series of blog posts), my passions and preoccupations shaped the narrative. The heroine of my novel, SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK, is a 17-year-old math prodigy who’s determined to discover the holy grail of physics, the Theory of Everything, which would unify the laws of nature and explain all the particles and forces. But as my fictional Joan tackles the complex equations, she falls prey to disturbing visions of a divine being who wants to help her unveil the universe’s mathematical design.

Needless to say, it was a lot easier for me to tell the story from the point of view of a contemporary New York City high-school senior than to try to put myself inside the head of a 15th-century French shepherdess. And while I was writing the book, I was living with my 17-year-old daughter, who isn’t a math prodigy but certainly gave me a lot of material to work with. (She’s gone off to college now, and oh how I miss her.) My fictional Joan takes the subway to school and truly despises some of her teachers and slams her bedroom door when she wants to make her dissatisfaction clear to everyone in her apartment building. She’s brilliant in some ways and very foolish in others. But when she sets her mind on a goal, nothing on Earth can stop her, which is of course the characteristic that defined the original Joan of Arc.

There are also some important differences between the original Joan and my 21st-century version. The possibility of supernatural visitation — in the form of angels, saints, heavenly voices — was much more believable during the Middle Ages than it is today. When my Joan starts seeing God, she assumes she’s going crazy. She just wants the visions to go away. But they don’t. Instead, they get more demanding.

I have to admit, I felt very fatherly toward this fictional Joan. The transference process was enhanced by the fact that Joan’s fictional father is a bit like me, a disheveled freelance journalist. I tried hard to inject myself into the Joan of Arc story, imagining how I would feel and act under outrageously strange conditions. I think that’s a good strategy for any fiction writer: get involved in the story. Make it your own.

SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK was published a few days ago, and so far the novel is doing very well. For most of the past week it’s been the top-selling new release in Amazon’s Psychology and Religion category. (It’s funny that they lump those two things together, right? In my novel, Joan has an appointment with a psychologist named Cauchon, which is a familiar name to anyone who knows Joan of Arc’s story.) I’ve also gotten some nice feedback from scientists who enjoy all the discussion of physics. It’s a good book for people with a philosophical bent. (And finding holiday presents for those types is never easy!)

If you read the book (the buy links are here), I’d love to know what you think of it. It’s a thriller — a retelling of Joan of Arc’s story wouldn’t be complete without battles — but it also raises some provocative questions about faith. What’s more, I scattered a few obscure allusions to Joan of Arc in the text (much more obscure than the name of my heroine’s psychologist), and I’m hoping that at least a few readers will catch the hidden references.

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Saint Joan of New York, Part Two: How to Tell a New Tale

By Mark Alpert

There are no new stories to tell, it’s been said. Every novel is a retelling, conscious or not, of an older book. Even three thousand years ago, when Homer was composing his epics about gods and war and human frailty, he was probably snatching bits and pieces of older poems he’d heard and reiterating their plots and characters and themes.

And yet readers crave freshness. How do we give it to them?

This problem is particularly acute when the writer deliberately bases his or her story on an older one. For example, imagine the general consternation that must’ve ensued when Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents decided to create a Broadway musical based on “Romeo and Juliet,” featuring street gangs in New York City instead of feuding families in Verona. The potential for disaster was enormous. And yet the brilliant trio avoided nearly every pitfall, and with the help of Jerome Robbins and Hal Prince they produced “West Side Story,” one of the finest musicals ever.

I faced a similar challenge when I decided to retell the story of Joan of Arc. It’s a familiar tale (see my recent post for a recap), but it holds many mysteries that remain unsolved even 600 years after Joan’s martyrdom. For me, the primary mystery is Joan herself: what was going on inside her head? Was God really issuing instructions to her in the voices of Saints Catherine and Margaret? Or did she herself come up with the idea of driving the English out of France and then convince herself that the command had come from the Almighty? Was she perhaps a remarkably high-functioning schizophrenic?

The first step in this process, I reasoned, was to see how other authors had handled the challenge of telling Joan’s story. So I read Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, the 1896 novel by Mark Twain, who was quite obsessed with the teenage Maid of Orléans. Twain spent twelve years doing research for this novel and another two years writing it, and he claimed it was his best and most important book. But it’s not. Twain chose to narrate the story from the point of view of a fictional character named Sieur Louis de Conte, a childhood friend of Joan who goes on to become her scribe and later (in a very unrealistic twist) a clerk at her trial. De Conte is Twain’s stand-in — he speaks worshipfully of Joan and dutifully records the major events of her life, but he never gets inside her head. Her character in this novel is flat and opaque. She’s not nearly as lively or interesting as Huck Finn, the hero of what is actually Twain’s best and most important book.

As it so happens, at the time when I started thinking about writing a Joan of Arc novel I had the opportunity to see one of the best plays about her life: “Saint Joan” by George Bernard Shaw. The play premiered in 1923, just three years after Joan’s canonization, and the 2018 Broadway revival starred the marvelous actress Condola Rashad. The play’s last scenes focus on Joan’s trial and execution, and I loved the many intellectual exchanges among the characters who are trying to understand Joan and decide how to deal with her — the Englishmen determined to exact their revenge, the traitorous French churchmen trying to prove that she’s a witch, etc. And Rashad did an excellent job of portraying Joan’s no-nonsense conviction in the rightness of her cause. But even in this masterpiece of drama, Joan remains an enigma. I still couldn’t see what made her tick.

Needless to say, Twain and Shaw were geniuses, and their worst works are still a thousand times better than anything I’ve ever written. So I began to despair that I could add anything useful to the canon of Joan of Arc literature. That’s when I realized that I couldn’t write a historical novel about her. If I wanted to make Joan come alive, I had to reimagine her as a modern-day teenager with contemporary beliefs. What’s more, I had to connect Joan’s story with my own passions and obsessions.

I’ll explain exactly how I did that in my next blog post. In the meantime, you can read the first chapter of my forthcoming novel, Saint Joan of New York, by going here.

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New Thrills

By Mark Alpert

Right now my wife and I are in Australia. It’s our first visit to the continent Down Under. We’re visiting our son as he spends a semester abroad at the University of Western Australia in Perth.

But I’m also looking for new ideas for thrillers. As my wife and I started planning our trip to Australia, we knew we wanted to see other parts of the country besides our son’s college, and the Great Barrier Reef was high on our list of must-see destinations. And once we decided to visit the reef, we knew we wanted to scuba dive there.

So we did our pool lessons in New York City before we went on vacation, and we did our open-water dives on Heron Island, a Great Barrier Reef island that lies astride the Tropic of Capricorn. Now I’m a certified diver, and I feel sure that this new experience will help me write all kinds of suspense stories.

What about you? Do you ever try new hobbies or adventures with the hope of writing about them?

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