Inteview with Jack Alcott

by Phil Reisman of WVOX radio


Jack Alcott, author of “Grim Legion”, was interviewed Jan. 4, 2007, on WVOX, Westchester, N.Y., by radio personality and newspaper columnist Phil Reisman.

PHIL: Our guest today, here on “High Noon,” 1460 A.M., WVOX, is Jack Alcott, the one and only, whom we know very well because he is the special projects editor at The Journal News and the author of a novel. The name of the book is Grim Legion and it just came out. It’s about Edgar Allan Poe and his six-month stint as a cadet at West Point and is a fictionalized account. How much of this is fiction, and how much of it is real?

JACK: A lot of it is fiction; it is a novel after all. I mean, not too much is known about Poe’s time there — there are very scant records.

PHIL: Very interesting. A lot of people who think of Edgar Allan Poe, they think of, you know, “The Raven,” they think of “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Murder in the Rue Morgue,” all this great writing. But he went to West Point and a lot of people don’t realize that... and this intrigued you. Why Edgar Allan Poe as a subject for a novel? What inspired you?

JACK: Well, okay, you know, for one thing I was the crime editor at The Journal News, so I have an interest in crime, murderers and malfeasance of all kinds. Poe is one of the primary practitioners of those kinds of stories. He basically invented the mystery and horror story, and some consider him the father of science fiction.

PHIL: But the West Point angle is something a lot of people just don’t know about. What happened? He was there for six months?

JACK: He had a military career at West Point. He was kicked out of the University of Virginia at age 17 for gambling and drinking — basically, having too much fun. He kind of hung around home for awhile and finally his stepfather said to get the hell out — get a job. So he joined the army, under the name (I believe) of Edgar Perry, and he did quite well. He actually rose in rank over two years to become a sergeant; the highest rank a non-com can reach is that role. He was well respected and there were a lot of un-Poe-like things that he did. He was quite a good fist fighter; he was very athletic.

PHIL: We think of him as a sort of this gaunt, spindly, shriveled character, but he was...

JACK: Well, you know, in later years, the drinking caught up with him and there was laudanum, but when he was a young guy he was known to — what is it: the James River in Richmond? — he was known to swim across it and back faster than about anyone else.

PHIL: We’ll get to the plot of the novel in a second, but you have a — you mentioned how he swam from West Point to Garrison across the Hudson — is that true that he actually did that?

JACK: No, no, of course not — I don’t know if he could do it...

PHIL: I think he probably could — conceivably he could have done it...

JACK: I like the image, so, you know, I was working with a part of his character that people really don’t know. And I read enough about him to know that he had a lot of other attributes that were really interesting. Like I said, he was a very athletic guy, and kind of a rake with the women. And really the novel centers around his relationship with his older brother by two years. People are very surprised to find out he had a brother who was also a writer...

PHIL: Henry...

JACK: Yeah...

PHIL: See, you’re quizzing me — you think I didn’t read it. By the way, we should say the name on the book is not JOHN Alcott, it’s JACK Alcott, and you have a reason for that — why don’t you tell us about that. It’s not exactly a fake name...

JACK: Well, no it’s not; well actually I’ve always liked the name Jack. What I didn’t tell you was there are various Jacks from Kerouac on... and Higgins... whose writings I enjoy, but, ah... my name as a kid was Jack, and in fact, I applied for the job here at The Journal News as “Jack Alcott...”

But the main reasoning is pure marketing, because if you Google “John Alcott” you’ll get a million hits on Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant British cinematographer. A Clockwork Orange; 2001: A Space Odyssey, he did them all... he’s hugely famous. If you pop “Jack Alcott” into Google, I’m the first two hits. Not that anybody would have a reason to do that, I guess, but...

PHIL: No, but that’s smart, it’s smart... and plus, you can also read it online, too, the book...

JACK: It was published online in February 2006, on BewilderingStories.com. Actually, I’d rather people know about BewilderingPress.com, where they can buy the book, as well as on Amazon.com.

PHIL: And what’s it selling for? Twelve something? That’s pretty reasonable...

JACK: $12.98 — You can get it cheaper — look around... It’s also available at Barnes & Noble.

PHIL: Now give us a sort of synopsis of the plot of Edgar Allan Poe at West Point...

JACK: Sure, I’ll talk a little about it... I don’t want to give it all away, but... I mean it’s a little convoluted, as you probably found out...

PHIL: Well, there’s a lot of death. When it’s Edgar Allan Poe, there’s gonna be people dying, so...

JACK: If you read Poe’s stories, you know that they’re really pretty grisly and hideous, and it’s amazing, actually, that he got away with this stuff in the 1830s and ’40s. I mean, he had bodies stuffed up chimneys, you know, decapitations... It’s pretty amazing that somebody at that time, somebody was so enthralled with that and writing about it — and it changed fiction in our country and in the world. And it created the whole mystery-writing industry, in fact, and the murder genre.

PHIL: They said he was the creator of the modern detective story...

JACK: His stuff is still shocking. Actually, if you get past the somewhat antiquated language, the imagery is pretty sick, but there’s a strain of American writing that zeroes in on that all the time. And all you have to do is look at the best-seller list to know that we have a love of those kinds of stories.

PHIL: We’re introduced to him in the very first chapter... there he is, the cadet Edgar Allan Poe...

JACK: Yeah, the opening scene. It, uh, by the way, is alleged to have happened... There’s a head thrown at these guys, and they think an actual decapitated human head has landed in their laps while they’re playing cards by candlelight. And these guys are like ‘what the !@#$$ ??? What the hell’, you know?

In any case, Poe may actually have pulled that stunt himself. He had this plucked goose — painted it up, put a little mustache on it, little eyes — and waited until there was like only one candle burning in the room... Then he comes in with this thing, in this dimly lit room, and throws it at these guys.

And they thought he had murdered, you know, his girlfriend’s father, or something.... There are reminiscences by (Poe’s) roommates and barracks mates who have said he actually did that, and he had other pranks he was known for at the time, too.

PHIL: Give us a thirty-second synopsis. We’re going to take a break in a second...

JACK: There are a couple of murders in and around the Point. Initially, none actually at West Point, but at Buttermilk Falls, which is now Highland Falls, involving prostitutes and a tavern owner. Poe, because of his erratic, unstable behavior becomes a suspect very quickly, and there’s a particular captain at West Point who thinks he’s the killer.

Meanwhile, Poe’s brother, Henry, who was actually crazier than he was, a heavy drinker (he died at the age of 24 of alcohol and tuberculosis). In my book, Henry comes north to hide out at West Point because he’s being chased by these gamblers. Poe suspects his brother is the murderer and around and round we go, and the murders continue, and basically there’s a military component to all this...

PHIL: Yeah, we don’t want to give it away... We’re talking to Jack Alcott, author of Grim Legion, but we know him as John, because he’s an editor at our newspaper, The Journal News (at lohud.com, gotta throw that in...).

commercial break

PHIL: Okay, we’re back. Phil Reisman, host of “High Noon” at 1460 right here in New Rochelle on WVOX. Anybody want to call to talk to me, Buddy and our guest John Alcott, who is the author of Grim Legion, a fictionalized mystery story involving Edgar Allan Poe’s stay at West Point in the 1830s.

John, this is your first published novel, and how difficult was it to break into this, uh, I mean you’ve been a writer all your professional career as a newspaperman... this is a lot different, right? What were the difficulties or challenges in doing this?

JACK: Well, it’s tough, I have written two other (things), or half-written anyway, never quite finished... this one I was able to get through. The toughest part was just, uh, disciplining myself to get up at five in the morning, sit in front of a computer and start going at it five to eight, Monday through Friday. And the kids would be up — I have children — and they’d be swirling around the kitchen (I always set up in the kitchen)... asking “Where’s the breakfast cereal?” “Over there” — okay, then I’d get back to work...

But it’s amazing how many words you can crank out if you just stay with it three hours a day, five days a week, for six months, which is what it took me to write this initially. The rewrites took several more years, alas...

PHIL: What would your advice be to any of our listeners out there who may aspire to do this? There are a lot of people out there who fantasize about writing a novel, you know.

JACK: Uh, Jesus, it’s very disruptive, I’ll tell you that. You’re going to hear complaints from your wife or your spouse and your kids, during that time, but if you want to do it, you just have to stick to it. The most important thing is to discipline yourself. As another writer in an interview recently said, “it’s mind over ass” — so you’ve got to apply the seat of your pants to your chair. If you want to do it, you really have to have the burning in your guts for it. It’s going to cause you some pain; it’s going to cause other people pain...

PHIL: John and we’ve known each other for years; we talk about writing, we talk about other stuff, and what you just said that about how tough it is... you know the old Red Smith story about sitting down at a typewriter and just waiting until the blood formed on his forehead, just sitting there staring at the blank page... It’s an old (story), probably got that wrong, but it’s the basic torture of writing... It’s not easy; some days it comes easier than others...

JACK: I’ll tell ya, once you stay with it and you get into a rhythm — it took me a couple of weeks — yeah! Then you really enjoy doing it, getting up in the morning, you’re still in that semi-sleep state, and I found it was much easier to fantasize... I mean, after a day of working in the newsroom and dealing with dull realities (or not so dull realities), you know, you feel pretty shot. But in the morning, you’re waking up, coming alive, and it got to be much easier as time went on. I was doing three or four pages a day... 20 a week.

PHIL: Did you know where you were going with this? Did you have your plot outlined? Sometimes writers (say) it just comes. The characters take over, you know...

JACK: Not in this case, no... at least at first, it was pretty schematic. In fact the back story to this is that I had actually written a screenplay on this topic with a little different kind of mindset. You know, with novels you can do a lot of interior narrative... when you’re writing a screenplay it’s all about ‘what did he say, what’s happening in the scene?’ ” A lot of dialogue — which is pretty helpful because you have to really strip it down.

I had written a screenplay, and Matt Davies, our (The Journal News) political cartoonist, had hooked me up with a buddy of his, an indie filmmaker by the name of Doug Tirola who liked it enough to pass it around a little bit. And it made some meetings, he said, that kind of thing, and then it got stalled, and you know, I didn’t hear anything...

PHIL: “Let’s do lunch...” (laughter)

JACK: Yeah, I don’t even think we got that far, to be honest with you. But the thing was written so I did have an overall plan. The novel did change quite a bit, though, from the screenplay.

PHIL: We were talking before about the challenge of writing and it reminded me of my father. My dad was a screenwriter, and he would go to cocktail parties and stuff and he told me a story about a doctor who came up to him and said, “what do you do for a living?” and my father said, “write for television.” (The doctor) said, “You know? I always wanted to write... and I always wanted to write a screenplay.” And my father looked at him and said, “You know, I always wanted to take out a spleen.”

It’s like everybody thinks they can do it and it’s not that easy... You’re a very well-read guy but you delved into the life of Edgar Allan Poe, as well, didn’t you? And how much is there out there about him?

JACK: Actually, it’s a major industry. I think if you pump Edgar Allan Poe into Google you get many, many hits; he’s probably one of the top five writers that people are interested in. There are lots of books, in fact (I don’t want to plug anyone else’s book, but there’s a new one out there The Beautiful Cigar Girl, a non-fiction book about the Mary Rogers, or Marie Roget murder.

PHIL: Where did you grow up?

JACK: Brooklyn, Kingston, Brewster area.

PHIL: So you gravitated to the history, the rich history of West Point.

JACK: Yeah.

PHIL: Did you use their library?

JACK: Yes; library, museums, some archival work. I read a lot of books on West Point, just to get the flavor of what it was like in the teens and twenties (1800s).

PHIL: It was kind of a grim place, wasn’t it? Especially back then...

JACK: Yes it was; it was a desolate, beautiful place because it was up on the knoll that overlooks the Hudson with those gothic crags, beautiful river, one of the most beautiful rivers anywhere. What a great setting.

Early on West Point was having a lot of problems. You know Sylvanus Thayer, the superintendent who came in, I think in 1817, straightened the place out. It took him, really, a good decade to do that, though. The cadets were the sons of the American aristocracy, for the most part, and a lot of them were pretty spoiled. Many were rich kids and not always easy to get under control. A lot of them were politically connected, too.

In fact, Thayer was threatened by Andrew Jackson at one point because he had kicked one of Jackson’s relatives out of the Point. Not a smart move, while Jackson was a sitting president. But Thayer said the kid just couldn’t cut it as a cadet. Poe, on the other hand, was number four in his class in French and seventeenth in mathematics, so he was quite a good student.

PHIL: So why was he thrown out?

JACK: That’s what my book is about. Really, no one knows. There’s a letter or two that indicates that his stepfather, John Allan from Richmond, just wasn’t sending him enough money. And his stepfather was always pretty parsimonious. He never really gave Poe the money he needed once he was out of the house.

I mean, Poe was not his son, his biological son, and there were bad feelings between them. There were fights when he was a teenager, you know, that kind of thing. Anyway, it appears Poe just didn’t have enough money and he was with students from well-to-do families and he wound up in debt again and again from gambling.

PHIL: He was already a full-fledged alcoholic by then...

JACK: Yeah, but he was a very bright student and doing well.

PHIL: You mentioned E.L. Doctorow when we were driving up today to the studio and it occurred to me just now that Doctorow... was asked who he thought was the most overrated writer in American literature and he said Edgar Allan Poe, even though he’s named after Edgar Allan Poe: Edgar Doctorow.

JACK: He called Poe a “genius hack” and he’s right. I mean, I don’t think of Poe as a fantastic writer; his style is hard to read now and it was probably difficult to read then for a lot of people. But he is a great storyteller in terms of where he took his imagination. Nobody had done that before to the extent that he was doing it. I mean, he created these gothic tales that nobody in the U.S. had attempted, frankly, in fiction.

PHIL: Now, when you were in college, did you take American literature?

JACK: I did; I didn’t study Poe, though.

PHIL: Because, I can tell you, I took some American lit course, early American literature, and it was universally awful. I mean, James Fennimore Cooper is like, was, I don’t know, who would you compare him to today?

JACK: He was a hack.

PHIL: He was awful; just terrible. And so, you know, Poe stands out; not until Mark Twain came around did we really start to get some good writing.

JACK: Well, the other thing that Poe did for writers is that he codified the short story form in his “Philosophy of Composition” essay; he’s the guy who kind of came up with the idea that hey, it’s got to have a beginning, a middle and an end. The denouement, you know.

PHIL: Oh, now Hawthorne was great (how’s that for a trite comment?), and Melville... he died penniless.

JACK: But Poe’s in there too; I mean, some of his writing... the passages are wonderful too. But overall, it’s difficult, especially for modern readers, because he’s using words that have gone out of fashion and multi-clause sentences.

PHIL: Now, I have to say, uh... you’re not the only one who has done a fictional novel on Poe’s life. In fact there have been several.

JACK: Several — actually the first one goes back probably thirty-forty years, at least... I didn’t realize it till I’d already done it, you know ... Because when you have an idea, you don’t really want to spoil it... It wasn’t until I was deep into my own novel that I found other people had fictionalized his life, and by then it was too late to stop...

PHIL: Did this present a problem for you in selling the book?

JACK: Ah, no... The non-fiction book The Beautiful Cigar Girl is doing quite well, but uh, I think there is still room.

The other thing is that Grim Legion was published online in February. The other novels were published I think in May and June. So I was first... there you go! This year, anyway. There’s a guy who lives locally, however, who wrote a book about Poe and Davy Crockett a few years back...

PHIL: And Elvis... Edgar Allan Poe meets the Star Trek crew and they go back in time...

JACK: Yeah, the conceit can get tiresome. But in this book, Grim Legion, I tried to just capture what it must have been like on that lonely windswept rock, West Point, in 1830; what it was like to be a young poet at that time. Another interesting thing about my book, I think, is that it charts the landfall of the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. I mean, the local history involves Cold Spring and the foundry, which is a fascinating place.

PHIL: There’s a museum there...

JACK: Yeah, yeah... a case can be made that West Point, the Cold Spring foundry in Putnam County, and the Beech Street assembly plant in New York City, were the Silicon Valley of the Industrial Revolution. Because that’s where our technology really began in the United States.

And the reason is that the War of 1812 was a disaster for the U.S. Mainly because we didn’t make our own artillery; we didn’t have engineers to build roads, etc. So they had to beef up the military academy, bring in French professors (some of them former officers with Napoleon) with the expertise to teach these things.

And they built the foundry in Cold Spring, built another in Richmond, and one in Philadelphia to start producing cannons and artillery. They started what amounted to an engineering program at West Point, the first in the U.S. The first steam engines in America were cast there.

The first train, the DeWitt Clinton, was cast in Putnam County. As was the Best Friend of Charleston, the first train in America to run a regular route. The Best Friend was actually assembled in New York City. They cast the parts... ran ’em down... they must have floated them down the river... Anyway, it’s really kind of interesting. Until that point, we had been primarily an agricultural country. West Point and that foundry really began a new era in the U.S.

“Bruce” from White Plains calls into the station to ask if Jack will read a passage from Grim Legion.

JACK: Sure... (He opens the book and starts to read)...

Edgar, too, watched with perverse fascination until Henry jogged him. “There he is,” he said, indicating the other end of the bar where a group of men were clustered, some drinking from crockery mugs, others from a ladle they dunked into a slop bucket and handed round. A gray-bearded, older man was singing or reciting lines for the tipplers; Edgar couldn’t quite tell which because of the hubbub in the place. As soon as he finished his performance, the others cheered.

“Here, here!” another old coot in an ancient powdered wig exclaimed. “You’ve earned yer swill, mate,” he said, handing him the ladle. The man slurped up the poison, tipping the ladle until the slop ran into his beard. Then he dipped in the bucket for more, but a muscular young thug with a broken nose shoved him away. “Enough,” he ordered. “Give us another show.”

“You fellows familiar with the Bard?” the man asked, evidently not expecting an answer. “Here’s a little something you’ll appreciate from the great “Tragedy of Macbeth.” I played Malcolm once, you know, in Boston. A great role.”

“Shut up with the history lesson and just do the part,” the bully said, twisting his arm.

“All right then,” the actor said, grimacing with pain and then puffing himself up as though he was important, even regal. “It’s like this: ‘I grant him bloody, luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful, sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin that has a name... I...’ He stopped in mid-sentence, suddenly befuddled.

“Spit it out,” someone yelled.

“I can’t remember the rest.”

“Mud for brains,” the bully said, and gave him a shot to the head with an open hand. The blow dashed him against the bar, crumpling him to his knees. The young tough moved in to beat him some more, but Henry was on him like a maelstrom. He chopped him in the throat with his fist, and then smashed his head on the edge of the bar as he went down. The big man slumped inertly to the floor, bleeding into the sawdust from his pulverized nose. Henry kicked him several times in the ribcage for good measure.

When one of the tough’s comrades made a move for Henry, Edgar drew his pistol. “No you don’t,” he said, stopping him cold.

Meanwhile, the senile actor cowered against the back wall, beneath a crude portrait of Andrew Jackson swinging a sword at the Battle of New Orleans. “No need to hurt me, young sir,” he cried at Henry, his hands up in supplication. “I don’t want any trouble. I don’t even know that fellow.”

Henry’s eyes brimmed with scorn as he advanced on him. “Here’s some Malcolm you might remember,” he said, halting just inches from the terrified man. “’Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it. He died as one that had been studied in his death, to throw away the dearest thing he ow’d, as ‘twere a careless trifle’.”

He let the lines sink into the rummy’s feeble brain and when he spoke again, his words were acid. “Remember that, you old wastrel? Boston, eighteen ought-nine. The critics shellacked you, and deservedly so. They always said your wife outshined you, and they were right.”

David Poe fell back, his eyes beseeching. Henry had his knife in his hand now, its blade gleaming in the dark.

“Her life was worth so much more than yours. And yet she died at twenty-four while you, you filthy piece of excrement, are still in this world.”

“Don’t, Henry; he’s our father!” Edgar cried out and snagged his brother’s arm. David Poe’s eyes went wide and he opened his emaciated arms to embrace them. “My sons,” he whined through blackened, broken teeth. “My sons!”

For Edgar, it was a scene of indescribable revulsion. Everything about his father disgusted him: his bad teeth, the leprous sores on his face, his tattered clothes and tobacco-brown fingertips — his smell of the premature grave. Yet there was no denying that under the crust of degradations he had acquired in twenty years of debauchery, he resembled them; he was a Poe.

(Reading ends, there’s applause).

PHIL: Listening to that raised a question in my mind: how difficult was it, or was it difficult, to recreate the kinds of speech patterns and dialogue of that time... I mean, they wrote differently back in 1830, for sure, but did you research slang from that period, as well?

JACK: I did, I did. One way to write a novel like this, and a lot of novels are written that way, is to recreate the style that too many of these nineteenth century novels are written in — but I don’t think that style ever existed in speech, you know? Especially in the 1830s and ’40s.

Americans in general weren’t that well educated. There were very few universities, and very few people were going to them. But I tried to use little tastes of what the language might have been like, rather than trying to recreate it whole... like a lot of writers do.

In fact, I find those other books kind of stuffy and they generally lose me. I tried to avoid that so Grim would read faster, as well. But yeah, it required a lot of research and knowledge in terms of having to read newspaper archives and a lot of books from the time.

PHIL: Now John, tell our listeners again where they can get Grim Legion.

JACK: BewilderingPress.com, Amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble. They should also check out the BewilderingStories.com website, which is where this all started.

PHIL: Okay, now, are you going to write a sequel to this? ’Cause it ends with Poe still alive; he’s still with us...

JACK: If somebody wants to pay me, of course! This one (Grim Legion) I did for love... But, yeah, I did have a sequel in mind. Here’s the pitch: Poe dies in the streets of Baltimore in 1849 — or does he? The Gold Rush is on in California and he’s faked his death to escape debtors and heads to San Francisco to get rich, only to become a Wild West sheriff under another name. Murder and horror ensue on The Barbary Coast... Hee haw!

LAUGHTER as music signals the interview is at an end.

PHIL: That’s outstanding. We could talk about that, but the music tells us, once again, that the men in white coats with butterfly nets are about to take us away, so we have to go back to wherever we came from.


Copyright © 2007 by Jack Alcott and
WVOX radio

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