By: Pam Hersh
Princeton’s playgrounds are treasure troves for all sorts of adventures, according to hundreds of kids – and one particular Princeton grownup.
John Altman, the author of eight spy-genre thrillers that have been published all over the world, was assisted in his most recent spy novel, “The Korean Woman,” by experiences he had in his own neighborhood, specifically on the playgrounds of Princeton’s Community Park and Princeton Montessori schools.
Engaging in James Bond daredevil and romantic feats in Monaco’s playground environment may be sexier than standing around a Princeton pre-school and elementary school playground. But John was seeking intellectual rather than physical adventure – and that is exactly what he got on the local school playgrounds.
A longtime fan of his books, I caught up with John at a recent Princeton Adult School event, where he explained to me the playground connection in his creative process.
“A few years ago, the father of my son’s playmate and I were standing on the kindergarten playground and watching our kids climb the jungle gym. The other father had just told me that he was an astrophysicist working for Princeton University,” said John, who then was unable to stop himself from asking the following question.
“‘You don’t happen to know how to hijack a nuclear missile from the American arsenal, do you?’ To my gratified surprise, the astrophysicist dad thought for a few seconds and then answered, ‘I could probably come up with something.’ ”
At the time of the playground encounter, John had been working on “The Korean Woman” for three months and was hitting walls in terms of research. The subject of his book was the ongoing nuclear brinksmanship between the United States and North Korea (DPRK).
“Having tackled Israel in my last book, “False Flag,” I wanted a geopolitical conflict that would provide a comparable challenge for my returning heroine, Dalia Artzi. The story concerns an undercover North Korean intelligence agent, a ‘sleeper’ who had burrowed so deep into American society that she was loath to leave behind her new life when activated to fulfill her mission.
“And of course, the story involved nuclear weapons – I couldn’t catch the true flavor of what was going on between the US and the DPRK without including nuclear weapons…. But these were not easy subjects to research. I’d found breadcrumbs to get me started on the right trails … defectors and moles and analysts writing about North Korea, and experts in nuclear arsenals writing about security and lack thereof. But much of what I needed was too classified, too speculative, or too technical for me.
“Hence the shot-in-the-dark playground question. Little did I realize how fruitful this line would prove. One advantage of living in Princeton is that the parents of my children’s classmates have some pretty interesting jobs … and are often willing to share their expertise.”
The astrophysicist gave freely of his time and expertise. He introduced John to the idea of the quantum computer and then with a lot of patience walked John through its operation “again and again and again.”
The very same playground was the location for another rendezvous that provided credible intelligence for his novel. A different playground dad happened to be a lieutenant commander in the US Navy with a specialty in missile interception.
“Of course, he couldn’t tell me anything classified. But he knew which articles to recommend, how to analyze the technical details, and where to go for further research.”
Lucky for John, his life as a dad and author who works from home takes him to multiple playgrounds. At his daughter’s preschool playground (Princeton Montessori), he struck up a conversation with an Air Force vet who had spent time inside nuclear missile silos. He also gave generously of his time, knowledge, and experience.
“And so I always will associate playgrounds with “The Korean Woman.” (This is due) largely, no doubt, to an extraordinary run of good luck and coincidence that led to my conducting so much valuable research…. But also, the playground symbolizes the primary conflict of the story – the domestic life that my sleeper agent Song Sun Young has cultivated, which she must leave behind when activated.”
Growing up in Princeton and formerly enjoying playgrounds for recreational rather than professional reasons, John graduated from Princeton High School in 1987. Coincidently, John was attending the Princeton Adult School event to hear the featured speaker, another PHS class of 1987 graduate, Jenny Carchman, now is a renowned documentary filmmaker.
But many years before his high school graduation, John knew writing was his destiny.
“I wrote my first ‘book’ in third grade. It told the story of a car that could drive under snow banks while the driver – me – stayed snug and warm, with snacks and hot chocolate available at the push of a button. For two entire grade-school blue composition books, my snow car and I saved people during snowstorms.
“By middle school, I was imitating ‘Choose Your Own Adventure ’ books. By high school, I’d become good enough to publish short stories in the school literary magazine. All of a sudden, kids – and even a few teachers – were taking me aside in the halls to tell me they’d liked a story I had written.” The positive feedback sealed his fate.
Arriving at Harvard University in 1988, John was disappointed to learn that the school offered no Creative Writing major. Harvard, however, did offer something called a special concentration, which let students design their own major. Dubbed by John the “Development and Construction of the Novel,” John’s creative writing concentration proposal was accepted. It’s key requirement would be the delivery of an original book each year in exchange for a reduced course load.
I am no professional book reviewer, but I do read and write and even have some professional experience as an analyst for the National Security Agency. So I feel qualified to provide a very succinct review about John Altman’s latest-writing endeavor. Continuing the positive response that he first got from his Princeton High School colleagues, I am saying simply that I adored “The Korean Woman.” It is a great summer or winter read on the beach, in front of a fireplace – or perhaps next to a jungle gym on a Princeton playground.