By Nate Kenyon
Bestselling thriller author Steve Alten has his own remarkable personal journey to tell. Signed to a first-contract mega-deal for his novel MEG, which was promptly sold to Disney as a blockbuster movie in the making, Alten seemed to be living the dream of all aspiring authors. Indeed, MEG hit the bestseller lists all over the world, and spawned a number of sequels. But the movie became caught up in Hollywood “development hell,” and Alten’s relationship with his first publisher soured after it was bought by another company.
Still, he persevered, continuing to build his fan base with his trademark blend of well-researched, high-octane thrillers and founding his well-known Adopt an Author Program to encourage teen literacy–until four years ago, when a tragedy of another kind struck: a doctor diagnosed him with Parkinson’s disease.
Rather than allowing this news to destroy his confidence, Alten described the diagnosis as one of life’s “speed bumps,” and began writing his newest thriller, GRIM REAPER: END OF DAYS, which he describes as his best novel, and into which he poured much of his own struggles and triumphs.
“I have learned that the greatest times of darkness yield opportunities to realize the greatest light,” he says. “In writing GRIM REAPER, it became clearer why life throws us these speed bumps. Incorporated within the pages of GRIM is a powerful message – a light to guide each of us through the darkest times.”
I recently chatted with Steve about his most recent book and his remarkable career.
You’ve described your new novel as your most ambitious and best work. Tell us why.
It took me two years of incredibly hard work; two years of soul-searching and research and challenges that included my wife held at gunpoint in an armed robbery (yes, that played a role, as it affected my life and my writing — the story deals with good and evil and the supernal/spiritual justice system that affects us all.) The characters…the writing, the cover art, the interior art, the packaging – everything works. The story takes place in the winter of 2012 when a man-made version of the Black Plague is unleashed in Manhattan. The hero, an injured war vet returning from his fourth deployment in Iraq, must journey through nine circles of suffering in order to bring the only vaccine to his estranged wife and child. Like “Inferno,” the tale is an allegory of the soul’s journey; at the same time I reveal closely guarded secrets about 9/11, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan (and Iran?) and the real source of the 2001 anthrax attacks — an illegal Black Ops program with tentacles in Ft. Detrick, Maryland and “weaponized” by a private CIA-run lab in Ohio. These labs are presently creating bio-terror weapons which could wipeout humanity (paid for by our tax dollars!).
GRIM REAPER draws historical parallels to 2012 that are frightening. It will be exactly 666 years from the prophesied 2012 date that the Black Plague struck Europe and Asia, wiping out half the world’s population. The “Great Mortality” broke out following a period of greed and war, famine and corruption, with false prophets exhorting Christians to slaughter tens of thousands of Jews and Muslims. It was this near End of Days event that gave rise to a new figure depicted in 14th century art – the Grim Reaper.
The protagonist in GRIM REAPER, Patrick “Shep” Shepherd, is a very unusual man. How did you shape his character? Is there a real life Shep?
Shep is a man who had it all — a rookie sensation as a pitcher for the Red Sox who tossed his life aside to go to war after 9/11. The story is about transformation.
You’ve written a number of novels that have spawned a series. Do you have plans for more in the GRIM story cycle?
Like Dante’s Inferno, I planned 3 GRIM REAPER books.
You’re known for your extensive research that you use for your novels. What inspired GRIM REAPER, and how far did you go to get it right?
It was inspired by Dante’s Inferno, but the research included extensive study of Kabbalah, a 4,000 year old spiritual wisdom handed down from God to Abraham and encoded in the Old Testament. Kabbalah describes existence before the Big Bang. Mind blowing stuff.
What’s your favorite scene?
A scene in Central Park with the spirit of John Lennon. It always brings tears.
Your novels are all wild thrill rides, and have a large adolescent fan base. It seems they have encouraged reading in a group that tends to be distracted by many other things. Is this what inspired you to found the Adopt an Author Program? What is that program doing to help inspire more teens to read?
Yes, reading about 70-foot prehistoric great white sharks and 2012 doomsday prophecies is a lot more fun than reading The Scarlet Letter or Romeo and Juliet (which, to me, is like watching paint dry). The key to Adopt-An-Author’s success is making reading fun again. My books are fun to escape to, though some, like Grim Reaper, stay with you.
The success of MEG is the dream of every aspiring author–the first novel you ever wrote lands you a mega-deal, movie option, and the bestseller lists. If you had it to do all over again, is there anything you would change about that experience?
Lots. MEG was caught up in the Bertlesman-buying-BDD deal, and resulted in the second book in my deal being canceled two weeks before I was to be paid. Bantam was nasty about it. The first MEG movie deal was canceled after the president of Hollywood Pictures was fired. It was a harsh rollercoaster ride, but it forced me to become a better writer and taught me many valuable lessons.
You’ve written several comedy screenplays, in addition to your thrillers. How does the writing of a screenplay differ from a novel? Any updates on getting those screenplays produced?
Screenplays are entirely different animal and it’s been a long learning process to get it right. Formatting is everything. Still, I have had some success. Two of my comedies were finalists in national screen writing contests, as was a thriller. I have a very high concept comedy two weeks from the marketplace that already has producers attached and a funder ready to write a check.
The connection you have with fans is legendary. What’s one of your favorite or most memorable interactions?
Two come to mind. After MEG came out, I was at a booksigning event at the Venice Beach Shark Tooth Festival when a teenage girl saw the book and went into hysterics, crying. MEG was the first book she ever finished and it helped her get through school. I gave her a hug and told her to come around every ten minutes and do it again — it was good for sales.
A few years later I drove four hours to do a grand opening at a Waldenbooks. No publicity, no traffic — zero. After three hours a woman and her teen venture over. She asks me if there are any bad words in the book as they are born-again Christians and it’s not allowed. I said, “a few, but tell you what — seeing as how I’m not busy what if I cross them all out for you.” She agrees. It takes me ten minutes and I sign the book. I watch her in line and the daughter is reading voraciously. The lady comes back, asking me to do the same thing with The Trench. Well, The Trench has LOTS of curse words from one particular character, and it takes me 45 minutes to edit the novel. She returns from shopping and asks me to sign it. So I wrote, BEST F**KING WISHES, Steve Alten. (nah, but I thought about it.)
Tell us what’s next for you.
PHOBOS, part 3 of my DOMAIN 2012 series is done now and should come out in fall 2011, except in Spain and Mexico where they are rushing it into production.
Thanks, Steve! We’re all looking forward to many more great stories from you.