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

Freedom and its Limits

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Don’t confuse your readers.

2) Don’t bore your readers.

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

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

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

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;

And hermits are contented with their cells;

And students with their pensive citadels;

Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,

Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,

High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,

Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:

In truth the prison, into which we doom

Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,

In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound

Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;

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

Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,

Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

3+

George Saunders

By Mark Alpert

Ever since the publication of my first Young Adult novel five years ago, I’ve been invited to middle schools and high schools across the country to talk to aspiring teenage writers. When the Covid-19 pandemic started, those talks became Zoom calls — I plan to offer a free Zoom writing class to New York City students this summer — but my primary message to the kids remains the same: if you want to be a good writer, first you have to be an avid reader.

This advice is useful for writers at all stages in their careers, and I follow it myself. I believe you should read novels you know you’ll love, focusing in particular on books in the genre you’re writing in. But I also believe you should make your reading list as varied and colorful as possible, because you never know where your next good idea might come from. And I think it’s wise to sometimes challenge yourself by reading a book that’s way outside your comfort zone, because it might expose you to a whole new vista of writing styles and possibilities.

In that spirit, I highly recommend George Saunders. I encountered this writer for the first time when I read his short story “Victory Lap,” which appeared in the New Yorker in 2009. Go ahead and read the story right now; it’s not that long. I think “Victory Lap” is an especially useful read for thriller writers, who must learn how to quickly introduce characters so interesting and likable that readers will care deeply about what happens to them.

Okay, have you read the story yet? In just a few pages, “Victory Lap” introduces us to Alison and Kyle, two fourteen-year-olds who live next door to each other but have experienced radically different upbringings. Alison is dreamy, imaginative, privileged, and a bit spoiled. Her most interesting characteristic, to me at least, is her distaste for the boys in her neighborhood:

The local boys possessed a certain je ne sais quoi, which, tell the truth, she was not très crazy about, such as: actually named their own nuts. She had overheard that! And aspired to work for County Power because the work shirts were awesome and you got them free.

Kyle is more likable because he labors under a set of absurdly draconian rules that his parents have imposed, allegedly for his benefit. Worse, Kyle has internalized his parents’ stern voices, and even when he’s alone he constantly hears them scolding him for minor infractions such as walking barefoot in their house.

What makes this a thriller story is the appearance of a character of pure Evil, a knife-wielding man disguised as a meter reader (but never named in the story), who without any qualms whatsoever plans to kidnap, rape, and murder Alison. Kyle, who observes the kidnapping in progress, must decide whether to try to stop the crime, even though it would put himself in danger and violate all his parents’ protective rules. And then Alison must decide, in turn, whether to save Kyle from a disastrous moral choice that would ruin his life.

The story’s philosophical implications are fascinating: Is morality a matter of following rules or empathy? Kyle abandons his parents’ rules to save Alison, but his rejection of all restrictions (“I’m the boss of me,” he thinks) almost leads him to do something unspeakably wrong. I think the story comes down on the side of empathy — we make the correct moral choices when we decide to help others in need — but it’s certainly open to different interpretations.

The story’s greatest strength, though, is the quality of the writing. It’s funny, crazily inventive, and easy to read. And when the plot turns serious, you get amazing passages like this one:

Then he saw that the kid was going to bring the rock down. He closed his eyes and waited and was not at peace at all but instead felt the beginnings of a terrible dread welling up inside him, and if that dread kept growing at the current rate, he realized in a flash of insight, there was a name for the place he would be then, and it was Hell.

I read “Victory Lap” again this week after finishing Saunders’s 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo. That book is also madly inventive, deeply philosophical, and a pleasure to read, but it’s too wild and woolly to describe in a brief blog post. You should give it a try, though, especially if you enjoy historical novels.

7+

Writing and Racism

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3+

The Dual Narrative

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

5+

The Coronavirus Diaries, Extended

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. 

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

 

In every cry of every Man,

In every Infants cry of fear,

In every voice: in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear 

 

How the Chimney-sweepers cry

Every blackning Church appalls, 

And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls 

 

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlots curse

Blasts the new-born Infants tear 

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse 

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

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

O Rose thou art sick. 

The invisible worm, 

That flies in the night 

In the howling storm: 

 

Has found out thy bed 

Of crimson joy: 

And his dark secret love 

Does thy life destroy.

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

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

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

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

5+

Turning A Crisis Into Fiction

By Mark Alpert

It all started with something my twenty-year-old son said a couple of weeks ago: “You know, this pandemic could’ve been a lot worse.”

The Covid-19 crisis has forced the members of the Alpert family into closer contact than we’re accustomed to, and although this has led to many irritating consequences — battles over TV time, anguished demands for quiet, and the occasional shouting match — there have also been some benefits. We’ve had some fantastic dinners. We’ve discovered a few amazing television shows (“Mrs. America” on Hulu, “Unorthodox” on Netflix). And my wife and I are enjoying a reinvigorated relationship with our college-age kids, who are showing an admirable resilience in dealing with their online classes and the sudden transformation of their social lives.

What’s more, we’ve had interesting family discussions about the pandemic and its effects on our hometown. In New York City, thank God, the number of new hospitalizations and Covid-related deaths has started to decline, but fear and dread for the future have risen. We can no longer sustain the illusion that this crisis will be over in a few months. There’s a chance that the approaching summer weather might slow the new coronavirus’s transmission rate, allowing some reopening of the economy in June or July, but that’s not clear yet. And even if Covid-19 subsides over the summer, it’ll probably come roaring back in the fall. Colleges across the country have already announced that they might have to keep their campuses closed through all of 2020. The only long-term solution is the development of a safe, effective vaccine, but that might take years.

And yet my son pointed out that in some respects we’re lucky. Thanks to the bravery of our doctors, nurses, and paramedics, New York City’s hospitals withstood the first surge of infections. So far, about 15,000 city residents have died from Covid-19, but many more have been saved. It’s easy to imagine an even deadlier pandemic that would’ve completely destroyed New York.

So I imagined it, of course. That’s what fiction writers do.

I started writing a short story titled “Essential Worker” and finished it a week later. Now I’m waiting to hear what my beta readers think of it. I write science thrillers (you can check them out here) and this new short story definitely has a science-fiction element, since it envisions a very creepy technological response to future pandemics. But it’s mostly a character study. I have no idea how people will respond to it.

Even if everyone hates the short story, though, I’m glad I wrote it. The story incorporates some of the emotions I’m feeling right now and some of the habits I’ve fallen into since the pandemic began. For example, nearly all the action takes place inside a Manhattan apartment. (But the fictional apartment is bigger and nicer than our actual apartment. A guy can dream, right?) The main character spends much of his time gazing fearfully out the window and listening to distant sirens.

Ever since I started writing fiction and poetry, when I was a teenager in the 1970s, my goal has been to record memories and emotions that I would’ve otherwise forgotten. I realized early on that it’s easy to forget even the most fascinating events and the most intense emotions. You can experience a passion or revelation that shakes the soul (and this happens pretty frequently to teenagers) but a year later you’ll wonder what the hell it was all about. This bothered me a lot back then. I said to myself, “What’s the point of experiencing all this life if you’re going to forget 90 percent of it?” So I started writing things down.

Right now it seems like the Covid-19 pandemic will go on forever, but eventually the human species will adjust to the new coronavirus that has spread across the globe. We’ll develop better treatments for the infection. Growing exposure to the virus and hopefully new vaccines will give most of us a degree of immunity that will reduce the microbe’s lethality. And years from now we might forget the terror and uncertainty, the whole rollercoaster of emotions that most of us are riding.

So let’s write about it. Let’s confront the monster.

3+

The Coronavirus Diaries, Continued

By Mark Alpert

It’s so quiet in Manhattan now, I can hear the birds singing.

Before the new coronavirus spread across the country, I heard birdsong only in the early morning, at five or six o’clock, when the sky was just starting to brighten. But now I hear it all day long. I had no idea there were so many birds in the city.

This week on Trevor Noah’s Daily Social Distancing Show, I heard him joke about how the world’s animals are going to look back on this period as a Golden Age for non-human creatures. “Remember the spring of 2020? When all the people hid indoors? Damn, that was a great time.”

It’s all a matter of perspective. The situation in my own perch — a seventh-floor apartment on the Upper West Side — isn’t so bad. My wife and I can work from home. Our kids are home from college and taking their classes online.

But this pandemic has highlighted, in a very ghastly way, the fundamental inequities of American society. A disproportionate number of the disadvantaged are employed in service industries that put them at a much higher risk of infection. That includes bus drivers, nursing-home aides, corrections officers, supermarket employees, and all the people who toil in Amazon’s warehouses. As a result, the poorest areas of New York City have been devastated the most by Covid-19. Particularly hard-hit are several neighborhoods in Queens where many new immigrants live in close quarters. (You can go to this site to see the death tolls.)

How should novelists respond to this crisis? Do we want to spend our entire writing careers seeking only to entertain and titillate our readers? Or should we make an attempt, at least once or twice in our lives, to do what fiction does best: make our readers see and feel the horrible unfairness by putting them in our suffering characters’ shoes?

Let me propose as a paragon one of the most successful novelists of all time, Charles Dickens. In all his books, Dickens was a superb entertainer. He was a master of suspense and sentiment. His nineteenth-century American readers were so enthralled by his plots that when a ship came to New York bearing copies of the final installment of The Old Curiosity Shop, people gathered at the docks to yell a crucial question at the arriving ship’s crew (who’d presumably read the book’s last chapter while they were at sea): “Is Little Nell dead?”

But Dickens was also a social-justice warrior. When he was twelve years old, his family spiraled downward into dire poverty; his father was forced into a debtor’s prison in 1824, and Charles had to leave school and go to work at a rat-infested warehouse where he spent ten hours a day pasting labels on pots of boot blacking. This experience colored nearly all of Dickens’s novels. It gave him the inspiration for a huge cast of fictional characters, from the street urchins in Oliver Twist to the sad debtors in Little Dorrit. And along with the plot twists and shocking revelations, Dickens always made his political views clear in his novels. With an undying passion, he excoriated child labor and debtor’s prisons and a host of other evils that oppressed England’s poor. And thanks in part to his efforts, English reformers succeeded in outlawing some of the worst capitalist practices.

I would also argue that Dickens’s political passions made his novels more memorable than books that strive only to entertain. I read Bleak House thirty years ago, and over the decades I pretty much forgot the novel’s Byzantine plot. But I’ll never forget the character named Jo, a young homeless boy who works as a London street sweeper and dies of pneumonia after enduring hundreds of pages of abuse. Dickens movingly describes Jo’s torturous death, and then the great author steps away from the narrative and addresses the reader directly:

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.

That last sentence certainly strikes a new chord during the present crisis. The poor are dying around us, every day, in much greater numbers than the rich, in ambulances and emergency rooms and intensive-care units all across this divided city.

But I want to get back to the songbirds. In addition to the hundreds of unseen birds whistling outside, there’s now a budgie cheeping in a cage in my daughter’s bedroom (see photo above). This bird was brought to our apartment by my daughter’s girlfriend, who’s living with us for the duration of the pandemic. The budgie’s name is Peeps, and at odd hours he lives up to his moniker by peeping nonstop. My wife calls it a Peep-a-thon.

We never had a pet before, and this one is only temporary. Nevertheless, I’ve grown fond of Peeps. His cheeping seems hopeful. It makes me think of the story in Genesis (Chapter 8, Verses 6 through 12) about Noah and his birds. Here’s the King James version:

And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made:

And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.

Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground;

But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark.

10 And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark;

11 And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.

12 And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which returned not again unto him any more.

Sitting in my apartment, waiting out the pandemic, I feel like Noah in his ark. The whole world is flooded with pain and sorrow. I can’t see the future yet, and it feels like the tide of death will keep rising forever. But the birdsong says something different: Be patient. Just wait. Sooner or later, the dove will return with a sign of redemption.

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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.

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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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