Thrill Master
Philly-born novelist Steve Alten keeps finding new ways to excite readers
by Bill Donahue

New York Times best-selling author and northeast Philadelphia native Steve Alten has made a career out of writing science-fiction thrillers with teeth. “Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror,” his 1997 book about a giant prehistoric shark prowling coastal waters, became an instant success and once again gave beachgoers second thoughts about entering the surf. 

Alten’s body of work has since grown to include nine more novels, including three “Meg” sequels, in which he tackles myriad topics such as the dark side of U.S. politics, the Loch Ness Monster and the ominous Mayan prophecies of 2012. He likens his latest book, “Grim Reaper: End of Days,” which hit bookstores in October, to a modern retelling of Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno.”   

As if penning best-sellers weren’t enough, the Penn State, Temple and University of Delaware alumnus also crafts award-winning screenplays, including comedies. He devotes any remaining spare time to running Adopt-An-Author (, a nationwide nonprofit organization he founded to get “reluctant readers” in secondary schools more interested in reading and writing—and, in turn, spawn future generations of fans. 

Although already well-known among loyal readers of all ages, Alten could soon gain greater notoriety through his budding Hollywood ties; three of his novels—“Meg,” “Domain” and “The Loch”—have been optioned for films. Suburban Life caught up with Alten on the eve of a book-signing tour in support of his newest work.

Q:Your publishing career started with a book about giant prehistoric sharks, “Meg,” which has grown into a best-selling franchise. Where did this fascination with megalodons come from? It came from growing up in the era of [Peter Benchley’s] “Jaws.” I read “Jaws” in 10th grade, and it ignited a fascination with great white sharks. I would read stories about shark attacks, and there would always be an attached picture of a group of nerdy men in white coats standing inside this huge set of shark teeth, with a blurb about Carcharodon megalodon. In the summer of 1995, I was reading a magazine story about the Mariana Trench—all about these thermal vents and other mysteries of the deep sea—and I always remembered that huge set of jaws. I just tied the two together.

You say your latest book, “Grim Reaper: End of Days,” is your best. Why do you think so? A lot of reasons. The story is amazing, and the writing is my best, with passages inspired by I don’t know what. I call it “the light,” like the zone athletes get into—the same thing that keeps you working from midnight to 4 a.m. and you wake up the next morning and wonder, Where did this come from?

The inspiration was to write a modern-day [version of] Dante’s “Inferno.” In doing my research, I learned that he wrote “Inferno” at a time when Europe was undergoing the same types of things we’re undergoing now in our own country: corruption in politics and in the church, widespread greed, false prophets preaching hatred. … Dante’s “Inferno” was meant to be a journey of the soul towards God. Dante winds up in hell and has to find his way through. I thought, Wow, is that describing our society and what’s going on right now. 

It took a while to get all the pieces to create the jigsaw puzzle. What was missing was the light. I don’t sell Kabbalah in the story, but the wisdom I was able to acquire through it filtered down through the story, and it changed the story and gave it the golden light it needed. This is a book about good and evil and why people do the things they do—why things happen. 

The book’s release coincided with some rather eerie news out of Colorado. That’s another bizarre coincidence. The day [the book] started filtering out into bookstores was the same day they discovered black plague in prairie dogs not far from Denver. They learned that the vector (meaning the organism that carries a pathogen from one organism to another) is fleas. It was the same way in my book, which takes place in Manhattan; there are 2 million rats in Manhattan, and the fleas on the rats were the vector in my story, too. 

This book takes place in 2012, just like “Domain,” which touched on humanity’s destruction as predicted by the Mayans. Coincidence? “Grim Reaper” doesn’t go into the Mayan stuff too much, but the Mayan calendar does suggest that on December 21, 2012 something’s going to happen that affects humanity. … If something does happen then I think it will happen in one of two ways: from natural causes or from something manmade. It could be something biological, like the black plague. The plague outbreak [from the 1300s] was an end-of-days event, and it nearly wiped out every human on the planet; we came close. Could it happen again? Well, the black plague’s in Denver right now.

It seems to be an interesting commentary considering what our country has gone through the past few years, economically speaking. Did the recession inspire your writing? “The Shell Game” (another Alten novel, published in 2008) gets into that a bit. Without sounding like a conspiracy theorist, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered, and there are a lot of people in charge who don’t want those questions answered. These two wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] made a lot of money for a lot of people. There are huge truckloads of money disappearing, and it’s not all being spent on schools in Iraq. I think everything is leading toward a crossroads, but whether it’s 2010 or 2012 or some other date, we don’t yet know. 

You’re from northeast Philadelphia but have since relocated to South Florida. How do the two compare? I’ve been down there for about 20 years now. Obviously it’s a different temperate zone, and it’s nice to be warm. I thought I’d be closer to the beach, or at least have more time at the beach, but it seems the one time I get to see the beach is when I go up to Delaware. My book-signing tours always start in Atlantic City [N.J.], so when I’m there I get to go to White House Subs, and then I go to Philly. I always get back to Philly.

Writing best-selling thrillers has certainly kept you busy, but you’ve got your hands in a lot of different ventures, it seems. I also have a nonprofit called Adopt-An-Author. When I first published “Meg,” I was inundated with e-mails and letters from teens saying they loved reading “Meg.” I found out that some teachers were using “Meg” in the classroom for reluctant readers. So I figured it was time to put all my degrees to good use. … We provide free materials and a reading curriculum [to teachers], and there’s contact between students and the authors through e-mail. It’s all free, other than the books themselves, but it’s all designed to get kids excited about reading.

It always struck me as bizarre that the same books they were using when I was going to school at George Washington High School make up the same curriculum they’re using to teach today. It’s a lot more fun to read about a 70-foot great white shark than it is to read “Wuthering Heights” or “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s a different time period, and students can’t relate. 

Is there anything else exciting you’re working on these days? I’m hoping that the third book in the “Domain” series—“Phobos,” which means fear in Greek—will come out next year. I’m also working on a comedy script now. I like to make people laugh; I think it comes from watching “The Three Stooges” on Wee Willie Webber’s show growing up in Philadelphia.