John Altman - Pic 1.png

About the author

I’m an author of spy novels, and I love my job.

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. (Picture 1)

By middle school, I was imitating ‘Choose Your 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 die had been cast.

Arriving at Harvard in 1988, I was disappointed to learn that the school offered no Creative Writing major. They did, however, offer something called a Special Concentration, which let students design their own major. I came up with a fancy title – “Development and Construction of the Novel” – and the proposal was accepted. In exchange for a reduced course load, I would deliver an original book each year. Actually getting paid for writing, however, was still a ways in the future.

(  Picture 1  )  Me and my sister Jennifer in New Jersey, circa 1973, with our dog Ginger.

(Picture 1) Me and my sister Jennifer in New Jersey, circa 1973, with our dog Ginger.

Some pyrotechnics

After finishing college, I went back to my hometown of Princeton to ponder my next move. And there, two weeks after arriving, I accidentally started a fire with a cigarette. My parents’ house burned to the ground. (People ask me if I quit smoking then. The sad answer is, No – that took another ten years. In fact, my father bummed a cigarette from me as we stood watching the house burn.)

I was devastated. Not only had I deprived my parents of their home, but I’d lost everything I owned except my car and the clothes on my back. Nobody was hurt, and Mom and Dad were extraordinarily forgiving. Only now that I’m a parent myself do I appreciate how forgiving.

(  Picture 2  )  Performing at CBGBs with my friend Kevin, before the illustrious punk club turned into a John Varvatos boutique.

(Picture 2) Performing at CBGBs with my friend Kevin, before the illustrious punk club turned into a John Varvatos boutique.

On the Road

Nevertheless, I reacted by running away – jumping in my car and spending the next few months driving around the country, visiting friends, drifting from New Orleans to California to Montana and back again. (Read more about the fire and my cross-country travels in MY PRESENTATION TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPY MUSEUM)

Eventually, I ended up in New York City. Living on the cheap with three roommates, I kept plugging away at my writing while sidelining in a band with highschool friends. Our crowning achievement was playing two gigs at the celebrated CBGBs. (Picture 2)

As I kept writing and looking for a publisher, I worked different jobs. Eventually, I settled into a groove covering the video game industry as a freelancer. Since I’d been a little kid, I had dreamed of playing video games for profit. But the reality turned out to be less fun than anticipated. In order to earn a living, I had to finish so many games, so quickly, that it felt uncomfortably like real work. Still, the gig had its bright sides – a constant flood of free games, working from home in my bathrobe, and meeting B-list celebrities who would junket through town to hawk their CD-ROMs.

Success at Last

At age twenty-nine, I sold my first book. By then I had written thirteen unpublished novels. But when I read Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle (see BEHIND THE BOOK - A GATHERING OF SPIES), something finally clicked. As it happened, the book was bought by the legendary Neil Nyren of G.P. Putnam’s, the very same editor who had bought Needle more than twenty years before. (Picture 3)

With my foot in the door, I kept publishing – four novels in my first five years. I quickly followed up with another World War Two spy thriller (A GAME OF SPIES). My third book was a contemporary novel of international intrigue (DECEPTION), in the vein of Eric Ambler or Alfred Hitchcock.

By then, I lived in Greenwich Village, not too far from 9/11’s Ground Zero. Fires burned underground for months after the attack. Each time the wind shifted, I could smell burning Formica and asbestos and polystyrene foam … and human remains. My fourth published novel (THE WATCHMEN), written in the months after September 11th, was considerably darker than the first three.

I took a break to start a family, decamping from New York to New Jersey to raise my kids, just as my parents had once done. Since then, I’ve explored a fictional assassination attempt on President Eisenhower (THE ART OF THE DEVIL), the repercussions of a CIA-sponsored killing in Russia (DISPOSABLE ASSET), the blood-letting extremism of contemporary Israeli politics (FALSE FLAG), and America’s ongoing nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea (THE KOREAN WOMAN). (Picture 4)

( Picture 4 )   At the Book Expo in New York City, 2017.

(Picture 4) At the Book Expo in New York City, 2017.

What's Next

These days, I work on my next book as I take care of our two kids (and one cat) back in Princeton. Each day, I get to do what I’ve already dreamed of doing. Please join me on this journey – by reading the books, exploring this website, dropping me a line, signing up for the newsletter, following me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or finding me at a live event and saying hi!

(  Picture 3  )  My first author pic. The photographer told me to look relaxed. A swing and a miss!

(Picture 3) My first author pic. The photographer told me to look relaxed. A swing and a miss!