About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

The Inspiration of Boredom

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

What about you? Have you ever felt this way?

 

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How To Go Viral

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like a virus.

———

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

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Lesson of the Decade

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Thrills

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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?
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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.

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Writing and Nesting

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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