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An Interview with Steve Alten

Owen Hollifield

I think it is safe to say that Steve Alten has become a success. From a man who had lost his job and had to find a way of supporting a family of five to a man who realized his dream and earned a seven-figure two-book deal with Bantam Doubleday. Steve Alten took time from his busy schedule to talk to me.

Hollifield: Tell us a little about what life was like for you before you decided to take the plunge and to become a full time writer.
Alten: Despite having earned a doctoral degree in Sports Administration, I found myself the owner and only employee of a floundering water treatment company. I decided that becoming an author would be my salvation.
Hollifield: Had you always been in to writing and if you were, where were the places that you first started to get your work published?
Alten: With the exception of a few sports articles and a paper on treating infrapatellar tendonitis, I had never published anything prior to my first novel, Meg. Never even took a creative writing class.
Hollifield: How long did it take you to write your first published novel? How many rewrites did you do? And then, how long until it was actually published?
Alten: Original manuscript took five months. Edits took another seven months. The novel was published ten months after it sold.
Hollifield: A lot of people say that they have always dreamt of writing a book, alas they never do. What made you determined to become a writer and is it any thing like you thought and hoped it would be?
Alten: When I set a goal, I don't just make a wish list, I figure out what the necessary steps in achieving the goal are. Luck is a residue of hard work.
Hollifield: What do you think is the most important part of a good story and what have you found is the bits that your fans seem to like the most?
Alten: Personally, I have always enjoyed stories with plenty of action and drama. As an author, I learn the nuances of creating character conflict.
Hollifield: When you begin a novel do you have the entire story and all the characters already mapped out or do you surprise your self by inventing new angles and characters as you go along?
Alten: A little bit of both. I try to map out the basics of the story and characters, and then let the writing and research lead me down different paths.
Hollifield: Where do you get your ideas and how much research do you then carry out?
Alten: I get ideas from reading and television, as well as my own imagination. I keep a paper and pen near the bed in case I dream something really bizarre. As to research, I do a lot of it, not only before writing, but also during the process.
Hollifield: Your website (www.SteveAlten.com) is very popular, and, as I have found out, you answer all of your mail personally. Do you think keeping yourself accessible to fans helps make you more successful?
Alten: I know it has, if for nothing else, just establishing relationships with certain experts in their field who have helped me as editors. Word of mouth is still the best form of advertising, and hopefully my personal responses have given my readers another reason to enjoy my work.
Hollifield: Characters in your stories are often named after your fans, and you also use some of your fans as editors and proofreaders of your work. Where did you get this idea to involve your fans so much?
Alten: Started in my book, The Trench. First I needed names of victims, so I used the names of critics of Meg. Once I started receiving email from fans, I asked them to send me descriptions. Much easier for me, plus it gives the readers a sense of participation.
Hollifield: You must be a very busy person. What is a typical day's writing like for you, and how did you come by this routine? Was it just trial and error?
Alten: First two hours spent answering email. Writing till lunch. Thirty-minute break, then check email again and write until fatigued, usually around Five.
Hollifield: How do you want to advance as a writer? Are you someone who wants success in terms of book sales or are you happier with being able to have the freedom to write what you want with out worrying if it will be a commercial success?
Alten: I am ambitious and competitive. I want to be the best I can be. I want to see my books at the top, and enjoy the rewards that come with that while always giving back. My Adopt-An-Author program is one way I give back (see www.AdoptAnAuthor.com).
Hollifield: You have set up a unique organization which encourages kids in school to read more and to enjoy what they are reading. Where did you get the idea for this? And also tell us a little bit about the organization.
Alten: While a far cry from Romeo & Juliet, monster shark and doomsday and submarine thrillers are very popular among students. Each day I receive dozens of heartfelt emails from teens in junior high and high school who go out of their way to thank me. I always write back within a day. Most of these students hated reading until they opened the first chapter of Meg, and suddenly found themselves hooked. As a result, many teachers now use my novels as required reading -- to their students' delight.

To assist teachers and student, I created the ADOPT-AN-AUTHOR program. The goal of the program is to offer a unique avenue for teenagers to:

  1. Enjoy reading, something many students avoid like the plague.
  2. Have direct access to an established, best-selling author, in order to encourage their own career choices.
  3. Offer creative new avenues and opportunities for students to become more involved
  4. Have a pen-pal as an author, sort of a big-brother who will encourage them academically.
  5. To provide teachers with a pool of curriculum ideas, quizzes, and projects to make their lives easier. These materials can be downloaded on the interactive website at www.SteveAlten.com by clicking on the "teacher/student" icon.

The program works.

(See testimonials at www.AdoptAnAuthor.com)

Hollifield: Tell us a little about your latest book?
Alten: Goliath has been one-lined as "2000 Leagues Under The Sea meets 2001: A Space Odyssey." The novel promises to generate strong attention in light of the ongoing war on terror, crystallizing an unanswered question about our national security: How far should we go? The U.S. Navy designed Goliath, a futuristic nuclear stealth submarine the length of a football field in the shape of a giant stingray. But the plans were stolen. The Chinese built the sub covertly, only to have it hijacked by its creator, Simon Covah, a victim of Serbian terrorism who aims to use the sub and its nuclear weapons to dictate policy to the world regarding the removal of oppressive regimes and nuclear weapons. Unlike the U.S., Covah wants and needs no coalition to support his objectives, many of which read like a CIA wish list. As the U.S. allows him to wield his big-stick, the question arises of how far we should go with national defense, advancing our own interests by encroaching on the sovereignty of other powers. One Wild Card: Sorceress, the sub's bio-chemical computer, is programmed with capacity to learn, and is becoming self-aware.
Hollifield: What was the best piece of advice about writing that you have ever heard?
Alten: Create character conflict.
Hollifield: As someone who has found success what five pieces of advice would you give to a person who is starting out on the long, hard road to becoming an author?
Alten: My suggestions would be:
  1. Learn how to set goals.
  2. Work hard. Be persistent.
  3. Do not accept excuses from yourself.
  4. Setbacks are part of success. Deal with them and bounce back higher.
  5. The more you write, the better you get.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Steve Alten is the author of Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror (Bantam Books, 1998),
Trench (Kensington Publishing Corp., 1999), Domain (Forge, 2001), and Goliath (Forge, 2002).

About the Author (click here) © 2002 Owen Hollifield, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

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