10 Questions with Mark Alpert
1. Mr. Alpert, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your new thriller, THE FURIES, came out on April 22. Tell us a bit more about this book.
The novel is about an ancient, secretive clan that has been steering the course of history for centuries. The Furies dwelled peacefully in the villages of France and Germany until the 1500s, when they were denounced as witches and massacred. The survivors fled first to England and then to America, settling in the woods of northern Michigan, which at the time was a mostly unexplored wilderness. They established Haven, their refuge, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and for the next four hundred years they lived in seclusion and guarded their secrets. Their biggest secret is what caused the witch hunts that nearly destroyed the clan. The Furies share a rare genetic mutation, a chromosomal anomaly so terrifying it must be hidden at all costs.
Now, though, the family’s survival is threatened. A chance encounter with a beautiful woman named Ariel has led John Rogers into the middle of a civil war among the Furies. John is an unemployed social worker from the slums of Philadelphia, an ex-thug whose life has been shattered by gang violence. He can’t believe his good luck when he meets Ariel at a bar and she invites him to her hotel room. But their tryst is interrupted by a team of rifle-toting killers determined to assassinate Ariel and her new paramour. As John flees across the country with the mysterious woman, he becomes trapped in the battle between a rebellious faction of the Furies and the clan’s elders. The grand prize in this war is a chance to remake the human race.
THE FURIES weaves cutting-edge science into a high-stakes thriller, showing how a simple genetic twist could have inspired tales of witchcraft and sorcery.
2. Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
I got the idea when my son was writing 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 long history of religious and civil persecution during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The witch-hunt fever was fiercest in France and Germany, where thousands of people – mostly women – were accused of being witches and burned at the stake. The causes of the mass hysteria are still under debate. Some historians believe the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation triggered the social chaos. But I wondered if perhaps there really was a clan of witches living in Europe at that time – maybe not witches in the Harry Potter sense of the word, but a clan whose members were genetically different from their neighbors, different enough to inspire fear and murder. That was the inspiration for The Furies.
3. How has your long career in journalism helped you in writing thrillers?
For one thing, journalism teaches you how to write for a commercial audience. You learn how to write clearly and not waste any words. And when you’re reporting and writing stories on a daily basis you’re bound to come across some great ideas for novels. About ten years ago I was editing a story about Albert Einstein for Scientific American. I became fascinated by Einstein’s long search for a unified field theory, a set of equations that would explain all the forces of Nature, and I realized I could turn this subject into an exciting thriller. The result was Final Theory, my first published novel.
4. Why do you write? Why thrillers?
I enjoy reading thrillers, especially science thrillers. I loved Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man. And after many years of reading thrillers, I decided to try my hand at it. It’s a lot of fun when the writing’s going well. I get particularly enthusiastic when I’m about to start a dramatic or challenging or innovative chapter.
5. What are your writing habits? Outline or not?
Yes, I do some outlining before I begin to write a novel. I need to know where the book starts and where I want it to end. I need to have at least a rough idea of the main characters. And I’ll usually make a list of all the cool ideas and places I want to include in the story. But I don’t do a chapter-by-chapter outline. I want to have some freedom to proceed in unexpected directions as the book progresses.
6. What is the single most important thing you have learned during the writing process of crafting a novel?
The most important thing is just to keep writing. I always tell myself, “The hardest sentence to write is the next one.”
7. A word of advice for new writers?
When I was a summer intern at The Scranton Times in 1983, the newspaper’s managing editor assigned me to write a story about Scranton’s West Side Senior Center. I dutifully went to the newspaper’s files and read all the stories that had previously been written about the senior center. And there were a lot of them, maybe a dozen. So I went back to the managing editor and said, “Are you sure you want me to do this story? You’ve already run a lot of articles on this subject.” And he said, “Yes, but you haven’t written any yet.”
Moral of the story: Don’t be intimidated. No matter who you are, you have something unique to contribute.
8. What are your thoughts on the latest publishing industry developments, mainly the rise of the self-publishing? Did you ever consider it or might you consider it in the future?
I’ve been lucky enough to have great publishers for my novels, Simon & Schuster for the first two (Final Theory and The Omega Theory) and St. Martin’s Press for the next two (Extinction and The Furies). Self-publishing would require more work on my part – I’d have to get more involved in creating the cover art, the packaging, etc. – but it might be worthwhile if I wanted more flexibility in selling my novels (for example, offering them at a lower price, which might boost sales). So it’s definitely something I’d consider in the future.
9. What are your favorite pastimes?
I like skiing, cycling, kayaking, hiking. But my favorite activity is hanging out with my wife and kids.
10. What is your next book going to be about?
That’s a secret. But it’s sure to have some interesting science in it.