Thirty-one years ago I enrolled in the MFA creative writing program at Columbia University. I don’t have anything useful to say about whether such writing programs are worth the money. I was writing poetry at the time, so the MFA degree didn’t help me launch my career as a novelist (which didn’t start until a quarter-century later). But at least I got one tangible thing in exchange for those two years of tuition fees: a lifelong writing buddy.
I met Neil Davison at the first poetry workshop that September. The professor asked each of us to read one of our poems to the rest of the class. It was excruciating. No one offered any criticism during that first workshop, but the air in the room was thick with intellectual condescension. The only poem I remember from that morning was Neil’s. It was a surrealistic piece about a moose that had the face of Neil's grandmother. You see, it’s kind of memorable, right?
We went to lunch together after the workshop, and we’ve been friends ever since. We laughed our way through grad school, coining nicknames for all our odd classmates (The Captain of the Thunderbirds, The Second-Story Man, The Spanish-Jewish Girl Who Is Neither Spanish Nor Jewish). After we got our master’s degrees, I became a newspaper reporter while Neil went on to get a Ph.D. and become an English prof at Oregon State University. And over the decades we’ve continued to read and enjoy each other’s writing. Neil’s an expert on James Joyce, and in 2004 he was invited to deliver a paper at a conference in Dublin that commemorated the hundredth anniversary of Bloomsday, the pivotal day of Joyce’s Ulysses. He convinced me to come along, saying the conference was just an excuse for an epic pub-crawl. He was right.
This weekend I’m taking my family to Oregon to attend Neil’s daughter’s bat mitzvah. My kids asked me recently, “If you had to pick just one of your friends to be your companion in a post-apocalyptic zombie world, who would you choose?” (As you can see, the Alperts are mentally preparing themselves for the much-anticipated debut of Walking Dead season four.) The truth is, Neil wouldn’t be the best choice for a zombie-killing wingman. He’s too nice. But he’d feel right at home in a dystopia where the survivors dissect books instead of decapitating the undead.
Writing can be a lonely occupation. So it’s a true gift to have a literary pal, someone who’s eager to share his or her strong opinions about Philip Roth or Susan Sontag. I’m looking forward to seeing Neil again. Perhaps he’ll have another weird poem to show me.
Posted on Saturday, October 5, 2013
I just received a box of advance reading copies of my next novel, The Furies. This is a fun moment in the publication process. For the first time, the book actually looks like a book and not an unruly stack of manuscript pages. It’s also a fraught moment for me, because this is the point at which I will allow my wife to read the novel. She’s heard me complain about the book several thousand times, but until now she hasn’t read a word of it.
Why haven’t I let her read it until now? Because she’s a tough critic. And she’s pathologically honest. If she doesn’t like something, I can always see the disapproval on her face. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in constructive criticism. Just about every writer could use some help pointing out the flaws that he or she has failed to fix, either because of laziness or obliviousness or sheer pigheadedness. I eagerly solicit suggestions and advice from my agent, my editor and the members of my writing group. In other words, I can take criticism from anyone but my wife. That’s just the way it is.
I’m especially worried about her reaction to this new book, because it’s a little different from all my previous novels. It’s a science thriller, but it’s also about witches. I became fascinated with the subject after my son wrote a term paper about the Salem witch trials. He learned that the witch hunt in the Massachusetts Bay colony was just one episode in a horrible series of massacres. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, witch-hunters in Europe killed thousands of people. France, Germany and Switzerland were the worst. In the area surrounding the German city of Trier, 368 accused witches were burned alive between 1587 and 1593. The great majority of victims were women. Two villages in the area were left with only one woman each.
It’s incomprehensible. Scholars still argue over why the massacres happened. And because it’s so strange and horrible, it seemed like an interesting subject for a novel. I imagined a family that came to America in the 17th century after being nearly annihilated by the witch hunts in Europe. They settled in what was then the wilderness and lived in secrecy until…well, until the novel starts.
The book will be published in April, so you’ll have to wait till then to hear the rest of the story. Except for my wife, of course. She’ll have to endure several days of me saying, “What part are you reading? Why aren’t you reading it faster?” And all the while I’ll be studying her face, trying to figure out what she really thinks. It never gets any easier.
Posted on Saturday, September 21, 2013
Monday’s the first day of school in New York, and both my kids are nervous. My son is starting high school and my daughter’s going into seventh grade. They’re worried about all the usual things -- making new friends, dealing with new teachers, resuming the nightly struggle with homework. (Frankly, I’m worried about that too. I hate cracking the homework whip.)
I try to empathize with my kids by telling them how nervous I got on my first day of college. I remember it so clearly, the sick feeling in my stomach as I drove with my parents down Route 1 in New Jersey and saw the Gothic spires of Princeton on the other side of Lake Carnegie. But that feeling vanished as soon as I met the other kids in my dorm. By dinnertime I was laughing my ass off. (And I hadn’t even drunk my first beer yet.) College turned out to be the best four years of my life. Well, at least the most amusing four years.
And those old college ties can be very useful for a novelist. Over the decades since graduation I’ve stayed in touch with my thesis adviser, Professor Richard Gott of Princeton’s astrophysics department. Dr. Gott is one of the world’s leading authorities on time travel. In his book, Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe, Gott describes how a spaceship could travel back in time by maneuvering around a pair of rapidly moving cosmic strings (infinitely long strands of high-density material left over from the Big Bang). He’s a brilliant, fascinating man, so when I was writing my first novel -- a science thriller titled Final Theory -- I decided to add a fictional version of Dr. Gott to the cast of characters. And when I finished the first draft I asked my old prof to look over the manuscript and tell me what he thought of it.
His first reaction: “Well, I recognized me.” He also recognized some of the other characters who were based on real scientists. Better yet, he fact-checked the manuscript, pointing out a multitude of scientific errors. If not for his help, I would’ve come off like a real dunce.
I also reached out to Princeton’s alumni magazine, which gave the novel a nice review. The book got some additional exposure when I wrote a cover story for the magazine about the latest advances in cosmology. And whenever I have a new book coming out, I make sure to send an advance copy to the magazine’s editor.
In a world of limited attention spans, this kind of resource is invaluable. Making the connections sometimes requires a bit of work, but it’s worth it. Although I attended Columbia for grad school, until recently I hadn’t made much of an effort to maintain ties with the place. But now I’ve signed up to participate in an alumni book fair that’ll be held at the Columbia campus on Saturday, October 12th, from 11 am to 5 pm. So if you happen to be in New York that weekend, drop by the alma mater and say hello!
Posted on Saturday, September 7, 2013
I’m going to a wedding in Vermont this weekend. I know the state fairly well; my first job (almost thirty years ago!) was at a newspaper whose coverage area straddled the border between New Hampshire and Vermont. I went back and forth between Claremont, New Hampshire, and Springfield, Vermont, almost every day, and at night I often ventured to a bar called Bentley’s in Woodstock and a place in Proctorsville whose name I can’t remember. (The Station? Maybe that was it. I do remember that last call was at 12:30 am, which seemed ridiculously early.) I’ve skied at Killington, Okemo, Mount Snow and Stratton, and I went to the state fair in Rutland and the inaugural ball of former governor Madeline Kunin. But the wedding this weekend will take place in the fabulously picturesque northeastern corner of Vermont, which is so different from the rest of the state that it’s called the Northeast Kingdom. I’ve never been there, so this is going to be a real treat.
And I’ll be checking out the place as a possible setting for future novels. I’m always doing that. I don’t feel comfortable writing about a place unless I’ve been there.
In my upcoming novel The Furies (to be published in April, right after the paperback of Extinction comes out) I decided to set a gunfight in Bushwick, a neighborhood in Brooklyn I’m not so familiar with. I wanted to put the scene in a neighborhood that was gentrifying but still kind of dicey, and that’s what everyone says about Bushwick. But I was feeling a little uneasy about the choice, so I decided to take a stroll down Bushwick Avenue the other day. I started at the gentrifying western edge of the neighborhood, and I did indeed see many hipsters and artist types hanging out at newly renovated cafes carved from the ground floors of former warehouses. And as I walked a couple of miles east, the hipster percentage gradually decreased and I started to see abandoned buildings and lots of graffiti, and I definitely got the sense, “Yeah, this is dicey.” On the plus side, I felt a lot better about the choice of neighborhood for my book, but on the minus side I began to worry about wandering into a real gunfight. So I cut the expedition short and found a great little deli and bought a bottle of Jarritos fruit-punch soda. It’s delicious stuff, incredibly sweet. Then I climbed up the stairs to the elevated track of the J subway line and headed back to Manhattan.
Posted on Saturday, August 24, 2013
I'm on vacation in northern Michigan and using my father-in-law's computer to write this post (so please excuse any weird formatting problems). Needless to say, it's great up here. So great that I haven't thought about writing for two weeks. I did a couple of book signings for my latest novel, Extinction, at my two favorite bookstores in the area, McLean & Eakin in Petoskey and Between the Covers in Harbor Springs. But I haven't written a word. I've been very bad. But I've been reading a great new science-fiction book, Wool, by Hugh Howey. My son recommended it to me. It's fantastic. And I did something heroic: I saved the life of an American icon. I was with my wife and kids at the trout pond at the Oden fish hatchery when I heard a loud thrashing in the trees nearby. Much too loud to be a squirrel. I walked closer and saw huge brown wings flapping ineffectually among the branches. Then the large bird fell to the ground and I saw it was a bald eagle in distress. Maybe it had broken a wing, I couldn't tell. Anyway, my wife called the rangers at the fish hatchery's visitor center and within a few minutes they drove up with a couple of nets. By this point the eagle had tumbled into the pond and I was worried it would drown. But the bird had amazing stamina and it managed to keep its head above the water until the rangers fished it out with a net. We checked on the eagle's status the next day: it was doing well at a local bird sanctuary. So now I'm expecting a congratulatory call from the White House. Mr. Alpert, the President is on the line. Unfortunately, we head back to New York City tomorrow. Dirty, crowded New York City, which always seems twice as unlivable in the days after we return from Michigan. On the plus side, though, I'll probably get more writing done there.
Posted on Saturday, August 10, 2013