Steve Alten is waiting for some big news. In Alten’s case, “big” involves a seventy-six-foot-long man-eater that lives in the world’s deepest oceans and has been trying, for twelve years, to rise out of the depths and into cineplexes.
Alten is the author of Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, arguably one of the best summer potboilers in the last decade and a half. In the book, a team of deep-sea explorers accidentally bring to the surface a Carcharodon megalodon—a species of giant prehistoric shark thought to have died out about 50,000 years ago.
“I have been enthralled with this entire species,” Alten said in a phone interview from his South Florida home.
In Alten’s world, as the prehistoric seas cooled, the giant sharks gradually retreated to the deepest parts of the ocean, where geothermal vents kept the water much warmer than the water at the surface. A layer of near-freezing deep-sea water just above the geothermal zone kept the sharks from surfacing.
When in came out in 1997, Meg rocketed onto the New York Times bestseller list. The Los Angles Times called it “Jurassic Shark!” A Time magazine cover story touted it as a “cool summer read.” Disney’s Hollywood Pictures optioned the movie rights. Three sequels hit bookshelves in the twelve years since, including the most recent, Meg: Hell’s Aquarium, this past summer.
But moviegoers are still waiting for their first Meg sighting.
“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster ride,” Alten admitted. “There have been strange extenuating circumstances.”
Disney’s option expired when the head of the studio was fired. New Line optioned Meg in 2005, with director Jan Le Bont (Speed) attached to the project. “Every department at New Line was excited about the project,” says Alten. “Unfortunately, the new script went off course from the novel, and the two CEOs never were committed to making a giant shark movie.”
As soon as the rights reverted back to Alten, he wrote his own script with producer Belle Avery. “It rocks,” Alten says. “I can’t wait to see this hit the big screen.”
Alten and his many Meg fans may get their wish. Private funding may soon be in place as part of a $150 million budget, with producers deciding on which A-list director will helm the first in what Alten describes as “a potential blockbuster series.”
While Alten waits for news, his fans still have Hell’s Aquarium to sink their teeth into. “I wasn’t sure I was going to write a fourth Meg book,” Alten said. “I realized there was more going on, more story to tell. I think it turned out to be the best of the series.” A fifth book in the series, Meg: Night Stalkers, is already in the works, although Alten said it will probably be the last.
“I have a lot of other stories I want to write,” Alten said.
Aside from the release of Hell’s Aquarium, the paperback edition of his thriller The Shell Game was just released on September 8. Originally published in early 2008, the book suggests a neoconservative plot to detonate a nuclear bomb in an American city and blame the disaster on Iran. For the paperback release, Alten made significant revisions. “I changed it to reflect an Obama administration in power when the next ‘false flag’ event is unleashed and blamed on the so-called war on terror,” Alten said “It’s actually a scarier book.”
Alten enjoys the challenge of blending fact and fiction in his work as a way to make the books as thought-provoking as possible. “I research as much as I can. I pull together pages and pages of text, which I have to understand myself—I have to teach myself,” Alten said. In particular, he pours through newspapers and internet sites, always looking for the latest science news.
“The internet is the most important tool for me,” he explained. “When I find something, I can redirect the story toward that new information so that it becomes an important plot point. It becomes integral to the story and changes the dynamics of the story.”
His challenge, he said, is to make the factual material as “palatable” as possible. “I have to make it part of the story, not something that interferes with the story,” he said. “My hope is that the reader comes away more educated.”
He also wants them to be entertained. “We all go through stress. We’re all worried about the economy, about insurance, about whatever,” he said. “When they pick up one of my books, I want them to have fun. It’s pure escapism, pure entertainment.”
Alten prides himself on his close relationship with his fans, many of whom appear as characters in his books. “I can’t think up small bios for a hundred people,” he explained. “So, I use real people.”
Alten responds to e-mails from fans by offering encouragement and advice or sometimes just a thank you. “If someone has invested their time and money into one of my books, they deserve that,” Alten said. “It’s one of the most important things to me.”
His fans, in fact, encouraged him to write his 2005 hit The Loch. Originally, the thought of writing about the Loch Ness monster had little appeal to Alten. “That’s hokey,” he said. “I don’t believe it. It’s a tourist trap. It’s impossible for a population of air-breathing reptiles to reproduce there for sixty-five million years.”
But a readers poll convinced him to reexamine the idea: overwhelming response from his fans showed they wanted a Loch Ness Monster book. “I approached it as a skeptic in the story,” Alten said, “because readers will approach it as skeptics.”
So, he dove into the research and found some contemporary theories that suggested something beyond a stereotypical Nessie. “I attacked the mythology—attacked it with science,” Alten said. “This was not Disney; this was something nastier. I like ‘nastier.’”
But the nasty giant sharks of Meg will always hold a special place in his heart.
“As a teenager, I was fascinated by stories about shark attacks,” Alten said. He also credits as inspiration an old photo “of six nerdy scientists” posing inside the jaws of a megalodon.
Megs grew in excess of fifty feet long, and they weighed upwards of 100,00 pounds, making them the largest carnivorous fish to ever swim the oceans. Their jaws hyper-extended open some ten feet—providing plenty of room for nerdy scientists—and were filled with rows and rows of serrated teeth, each about seven inches long.
“I wondered why nothing commercial had ever been written about [megalodons],” Alten said.
The public definitely had a taste for them, as evidenced by the success of Alten’s first book. “Meg got me out of my little apartment and into a house,” Alten said.
He sounds a cautious note, though, because his career has seen so many ups and downs. He and his family had to sell their home years ago when the Disney deal went sour. He’s had to switch publishers several times when his first publisher, Doubleday, dropped his second book deal when the house was being taken over by Bertlesman; his second publisher, Kensington, only wanted more shark stories. In 2007, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a situation he blames on the stress associated with writing The Shell Game.
But good news came recently, too. The rights to his Mayan Doomsday series, Domain, were optioned by movie star Manolo Cordova and 11 11 films. Domain, translated in Spanish as El Testamento Maya, was a runaway best seller in Spain and Mexico.
“I’ve learned never to get too high or too low,” Alten said. “There are variables I can control and more I can’t. Parkinsons was a bad break, but many other people have situations strike that are far worse. I try to keep things in the right perspective. As for the movie deals, I can’t control those things. My job is to write the best books and scripts I can, and God will take care of the rest.”
And so Alten continues to write and wait, hopeful that the “big news” will come soon—and that his giant shark will be unleashed on moviegoers at last.