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

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?


Saint Joan of New York, Part One

By Mark Alpert

One of the most popular thriller plotlines runs like this: A character with hidden talents or untapped potential confronts an extraordinary challenge and rises to the occasion. The epic struggle transforms the character and perhaps changes the world as well.

That’s the story of Moses, Jesus, and many other biblical figures. It’s also the story of ancient Greek heroes such as Perseus, Theseus, and Orpheus. In modern literature, it’s the story of Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Tom Joad, and Harry Potter.

In my nine previous novels, I created several characters that fit the same mold: David Swift, Monique Reynolds, Jim Pierce, Sarah Pooley. But when I was looking for ideas for my tenth novel, I decided to focus on the historical figure who best exemplifies this story of trial and triumph. Her name was Jeanne, and she came from the French village of Domrémy, but in English she’s known as Joan of Arc.

She was born in 1412, at a time when France was engaged in a long series of conflicts with England, collectively known as the Hundred Years’ War. Basically, it was a battle over succession. The English royals, descended from the Normans who’d crossed the Channel and conquered most of the island in 1066, had many connections by marriage and blood with the French royals, and in 1340 the English king claimed that he was the rightful heir to the French throne as well. Generations of bloodshed ensued, culminating with the remarkable victory of the English at Agincourt in 1415, which was wonderfully reenacted in Shakespeare’s play “Henry V.” This was a catastrophe for the French, who descended into civil war when the Duke of Burgundy sided with the English. The French royal court and their uncrowned Dauphin, Charles VII, retreated to the central part of the country while the English occupied most of the north (including Paris) and laid siege to Orléans, the last French stronghold on the Loire River.

Meanwhile, the teenage Jeanne was starting to have her holy visions. Her region of eastern France had been devastated by warfare and banditry. She claimed that while she was tending her family’s sheep, three key figures of medieval Christianity appeared to her — Saint Margaret, Saint Catherine, and the archangel Michael. Over the course of several visitations, she said, they gave her the mission of driving the English out of France and crowning Charles VII at the cathedral city of Reims (which was then under Anglo-Burgundian control).

Jeanne was an illiterate peasant, with no military training whatsoever, but she eagerly accepted her divine mission. At the age of 16, she convinced a relative to take her to the nearby town of Vaucouleurs, where there was a French garrison. She met with Robert de Baudricourt, the garrison commander, and asked him to help her travel to the French royal court in the central town of Chinon. De Baudricourt immediately dismissed her and sent her back to Domrémy, but she returned to Vaucouleurs the next year, and this time she somehow managed to convince the commander to provide her with an armed escort to Chinon. It was the first of Jeanne’s many triumphs, which remain mysterious and awe-inspiring to this day.

The mystery drew me to her story. It perfectly dramatizes the old conflict between faith and doubt. During the Middle Ages, there was a broader acceptance of supernatural visions; the bigger question back then was whether Jeanne’s instructions had come from God or the devil. Nowadays, we’re more inclined to see Jeanne as delusional, but if neither God nor Satan inspired her, what did? Where did this uneducated seventeen-year-old find the military talents and charisma to take command of the French army? And after she was finally captured by her enemies, where did she find the strength to endure her trial and execution?

I’ve tried to tackle these questions by writing a modern-day retelling of Jeanne’s story. The result is SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK, which will be published by Springer in January. I’ll reveal more about the novel over the next few weeks, but if you’re interested in reading the first chapter, you can find it here.


The Final Cuts

By Mark Alpert

I’d like to share a foolproof writing tip. It can be applied to any genre of fiction, and it works for nonfiction as well. It’s a tip for perfecting your latest manuscript. More precisely, it’ll make your manuscript even better than perfect.

At first glance, this kind of advice might seem a little ridiculous. In fact, it reminds me of comedian Steve Martin’s famous advice about how to make a million dollars tax-free.

Do you remember the joke? Here’s the step-by-step advice:

  1. Make a million dollars.
  2. When it comes time to pay your taxes, just don’t do it.
  3. When the IRS asks why you didn’t pay your taxes, just say, “I forgot.”
  4. When the IRS asks how you could forget such a thing, just say, “Well, excuuuuuse me!”

Okay, now here’s my strategy for making a manuscript even better than perfect:

  1. Make your manuscript perfect. (That is, do everything you can to improve it. Get feedback from anyone willing to read the thing. Revise and revise and revise.)
  2. Make the final cuts. Get rid of at least ten percent of the words.
  3. You’ll probably think, “Wait, I already made the manuscript perfect! It can’t get any better!”
  4. Make the cuts anyway. Just pretend that an editor has said to you, “I’ll publish this book, but only if you can cut ten percent of the words.” Pore over the manuscript and get rid of ANYTHING that isn’t absolutely necessary.
  5. If you can’t trim at least ten percent of the word count, read the manuscript again. Are you sure you need all those adjectives? Do you really have to mention the color of the walls?
  6. Pay particular attention to the dialogue. In real-life conversations, people usually don’t go on and on. Keep it snappy.
  7. Once you’ve hit the ten-percent mark, try to keep cutting. You may get diminishing returns with each successive review of the manuscript, but it’s still worth doing.
  8. Now read the manuscript one more time after you’ve made the final cuts. It’s better, right?

Radio Is A Sound Salvation

By Mark Alpert

You know that moment when you hear one of your favorite songs on the radio? Or maybe a song you haven’t heard in ages and you suddenly realize just how great it is? I had a religion professor at Princeton (Malcolm Diamond, to be specific) who compared this experience to a moment of grace. It wouldn’t be as exhilarating if you chose to play the song on your iPhone or stereo. What makes it sound so glorious is that the song came to you as an unexpected gift.

That’s one of the reasons why I love radio. Another is the Bob and Ray show, which I listened to fervently when I was a kid. I was also a fan of CBS Radio Mystery Theater and the Dr. Demento show.

And now I love radio even more, because it’s helping me sell books.

I’ve done several radio interviews in the past to promote my novels, but the interview I did last week was the first one that really boosted my sales. I appeared on the Coast to Coast AM show, which is carried by hundreds of radio stations across the country. (The interview is archived here if you’re interested.) I talked with the host, Ian Punnett, about genetic engineering and climate change, the two main themes of my latest thriller, THE COMING STORM. And here’s a funny coincidence: Ian revealed that he was related to Reginald Punnett, the British geneticist who invented the famous Punnett Square. (You may remember the Punnett Square from a high-school biology class; it’s the diagram that predicts the genotypes of crossbreeding experiments.)

My publicist at St. Martin’s Press set up the interview for me. It was great fun. I answered some questions from the show’s listeners, and that was fun too. It reminded me of how much I enjoyed listening to late-night radio way back in the 1970s.

I’m in Nevada right now, coming back from a trip to Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon. I’m pretty exhausted from all the hiking I just did, so I’m probably not making a lot of sense right now, but I plan to write about my most recent adventures as soon as I get back to NYC.


Writing and Nesting

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Thriller: Save the Amazon!

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Beach Reading

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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


A Novel Exercise

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

I passed eight cyclists. Two faster cyclists passed me.

I sweated. A lot.

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

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

Does anyone else out there look for inspiration while exercising?


Every Writer’s Dream

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we walked down an ominous passageway:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Writing Outdoors

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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