A Writer's Journal

Alan's haunting novel of the AIDS epidemic, As If Death Summoned, was released on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2020, and is a finalist for the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards. Watch the book trailer here. Read the reviews here.

A Writer's Journal

My publisher’s attorneys assure me that this is a work of fiction and that all the people in it are fictional characters. Including President Reagan. Still, works of fiction carry their own truth, truth that transcends “facts” and “dates” and “names” and can speak beyond a specific time or a particular people. And in this current moment, we are in need of all the truth we can get.

I find a peculiar symmetry that, just as I am bringing one defining epidemic of my life to a close with this book, another epidemic begins. There are similarities between them beyond both being caused by viruses—a retrovirus earlier, a coronavirus now. Once again, we have a president slow on the uptake, realizing too late that he has a national health crisis on his watch and displaying an almost callous lack of concern and leadership. In both epidemics, it has been doctors and public health officials who have had to provide that missing leadership, often requiring them to delicately skirt political obstacles, egos, and ignorance—though in the earlier epidemic they were aided (some would say, terrorized) by AIDS activists fighting for their lives. And once again there is no vaccine, no cure to help stop the spread of contagion. (Contrary to some uninformed sources, the CDC has not found hydroxychloroquine to be effective against the coronavirus. They also strongly advise against ingesting bleach.) It took thirteen years before protease inhibitors transformed AIDS from being a death sentence to a manageable chronic condition, thirty years before the approval of a pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) that can help reduce the risk of becoming infected. We expect the timeline to find a vaccine for Covid-19 will be much shorter.

But there are also significant differences between the two epidemics: This time it is not happening to Those People, but to all of us.This time our government swung into quick(er) action, its delay measured in months, not years.

Another big difference: This time people care. Resources and funding for research were readily made available. The media provides daily updates on numbers infected and numbers of those who died. Mayors, governors, the White House itself have given daily briefings. Also a major difference, this time we know what we are dealing with and began to marshal a nationwide response, however clumsy and uncoordinated, to combat it. For much of the first two years of the AIDS epidemic, it was a mystery why gay men were getting sick and dying.

Many of the emotions amid this current epidemic are familiar: anxiety, fear, grief at the loss of loved ones, “anticipatory grief” of yet more losses to come. But there is no shame, no stigma in getting Covid-19—unless you were among those who loudly decried it as a political hoax. That could be a bit embarrassing.

Today, once again it is the poor and communities of color who are disproportionately affected by this epidemic due to limited, little or no health coverage, and an ongoing legacy of racial inequality. As in earlier epidemics, there are always “those people” who are not us. Until they are.

There were benefits and lessons learned from the AIDS epidemic, gained at a terrible cost: medical advances, advances in public health policy and strategies for tracking and combating an epidemic. Also, societal advances in the decriminalizing and de-perverting of gay people in the public’s mind. What gay activists had been asking their queer brothers and sisters to do for decades—coming out to families and friends, to coworkers and fellow church members—was finally accomplished, often by a terrible necessity. (“Mom, Dad, I’m gay…I’m also dying.”) The AIDS epidemic became the occasion for young gay men in San Francisco, in Los Angeles and New York City, to “come out” to their families back in Iowa, in Vermont, in Louisiana and Wyoming. As a friend once said, “It’s a helluva way to come out ofthe closet.” People across the country began to discover that “those people” were their own sons, and brothers, and nephews and uncles, that They were us. They always had been.

What will we gain this time, I wonder. What benefits and lessons will we learn? It’s too early to yet grasp the full impact of this epidemic on our lives, but we already suspect it will be profound, wide-reaching, deep and lasting. Many of us realize we will never be returning to Normal. And maybe that’s okay. We can do better.

At the very most, we can hope that our global community will emerge from this viral crucible stronger, wiser, more compassionate, guided by the better angels of our humanity nature. History tells us that some will; and it tells us some won’t, not until a vaccine is finally developed and deployed against our common ignorance, our bigotry and prejudices. And even then, there will always be the anti-vaxxers.

At the very least, we may come out of this current pandemic with a better understanding of who we are as a people, and as individual persons, so that when we, too, are finally “summoned,” we may depart with more wisdom, greater self-awareness, and perhaps not so much strangers to ourselves.

Lewis River Valley
Washington State
June 2020


(The above Author's Note is the foreword to As If Death Summoned, my novel about the AIDS epidemic, released by Amble Press, an imprint of Bywater Books, on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2020.)


First posted: November 30, 2020



Using the Soul as Writing Prompt

Yesterday, frustrated and 
unable to focus on my writing,
I let my mind off its leash
to wander as it wished--
I tagging along with scratch pad in hand,
recording where it went,
what it saw, what drew its interest and curiosity,
and thereby noticing what I normally might miss, discovering what I'm usually too busy to see, too preoccupied to occupy.
And so I offer this suggestion to fellow
frustrated and preoccupied writers...
Practice pointless writing.

Get a scratch pad. The backside of used paper is good.
(avoid clean, crisp paper, which can be daunting) 
and scribble freely, scribble nonsense, 
scribble a limerick or a haiku or grocery list,
or write a haiku from your grocery list.

Write anything
to jump-start your creative engine,
to invite in your Muse,
to reconnect with your Center and Source.

Give yourself a half hour to write nothing much, 
to write something inconsequential, 
something not-uplifting, not-memorable, 
to write something not-good.

Write for the sheer fun of writing, 
prime the pump to see what comes
(Maybe nothing--Wonderful! You're still writing.)

Write without point or purpose and definitely without plot. 
Write for the simple pleasure of finding what emerges,
of discovering what's there within you seeking a voice.

Turn your stream of consciousness into a stream of playfulness,
and words into playthings.

Today use your soul as a writing prompt.
First posted: March 23, 2020


I don’t know why I write, exactly. Catharsis, the itch to make something shapely and permanent, the attempt to stare God in the eye, the attempt to connect deeply to other men and women, because I can’t help myself, because there is something elevating in art, because I feel myself at my best when I am writing well. Because because because…

                       Brian Doyle
                       Author of Mink River 
                       and Martin Marten







First Posted: March 6, 2020


“I realized that this entire time…my hope to tell a
long-lasting story, to create something that endured,
to be alive somehow as long as someone would read
my books, was what drove me on, story after story;
it was my lifeline, my passion, my way to understand who I was.” 

                           Susan Orlean

                           Author of
                           The Orchid Thief and The Library Book






First posted: February 14, 2020



Write every day with a pen that's shaped like a candy cane.
                                                                  David Sedaris





First posted: January 25, 2020




“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

             Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)






Seriously, Sam?

I mean, given the number who actually make money from their writing,

must be a lot of disappointed scribblers out there,

unfortunate blockheads having to settle merely for the joy

of playing with words and capturing their music on paper,

or leaving a record, however ephemeral, of an ephemeral life--

that one was once here, felt things, knew things, loved things--

reporting from the frontlines on their first-hand experiences of truth,

or wanting to make some small contribution to humanity’s forward movement,

or just tell a good story.

All those unfortunate blockheads dancing delirious with the muse

for a moment, or for an hour, or a lifetime,

alas, without any financial reward.

So sad.




[First posted: November 9, 2019]









I just write about what scares me. 


"I just write about what scares me.
When I was a kid, my mother used to say,
'Think of the worst thing that you can,
and if you say it out loud then it won't come true.'
And that's probably been the basis of my career."

                                          Stephen King 




[First posted: October 5, 2019]





August 5, 2019

Today Toni Morrison died.

Not sure what that means. Her books are still here on my shelf,
as they were yesterday, as they will be tomorrow.
So, what's been lost?
A person I never met and, chances are, would never have met.
A vessel, a conduit, a voice.
I salute the voice (Thank you)
but the words the voice spoke are still with us.

Nothing gold can stay, said another who I also honor,
but I respectfully disagree. The gold stays.
It is only the gold that stays.

Today Toni Morrison died.
What's important remains
here on my bookshelves.




[First posted: September 7, 2019]



As the lightning came closer thunder came with it--the sound seemed to roll over them like giant boulders. Mouse flinched, and Newt began to flinch too. Then, instead of running across the horizon like snakes' tongues, the lightning began to drive into the earth, with streaks thick as poles, and with terrible cracks.


Around midnight I was in bed, reading Lonesome Dove, and listening to the soft patter of rain through my open window. Just as I got to the part where the cattle drive is caught in a terrible storm with its thunder and lightning, it began to thunder and lightning over this valley.

I love it when that happens.




[First posted: August 10, 2019]

I am pleased to announce (ecstatic, really!) that my novel about the AIDS epidemic, 
As If Death Summoned, will be published next autumn by Amble Press, an imprint of Bywater Books.

The story is set in Portland and Australia during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and '90s. Much of it covers the early years, before there was a diagnosis, or a test or treatment, before it was even called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The story ends in 1995, when protease inhibitors turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable chronic condition. By that time, 300,000 people had already died in the US.

I sent the manuscript to Bold Strokes Books, who had published my dark psychological mystery, The Unforgiven, in 2012.

Sandy Lowe responded, saying she liked it but didn't think that BSB, who primarily publishes mysteries, thrillers and romance, had the right market for it. She encouraged me to send it to Salem West at Bywater Books and then told Salem about the book.

On April 1st (Yes, April Fool's Day) Salem wrote to me:

Hello, Alan.

It might be April Fool's Day, but this is no joke.
I had a meeting with the other two owners of Bywater Books this morning, and we were all in agreement that we want to offer you a contract for As If Death Summoned.
Personally, I loved your book and read it cover to cover in one afternoon—it perfectly fits our publishing focus: Smart. Richly textured. Beautifully written. Full of heart.
My sincere thanks to Sandy for taking enough interest in the manuscript to recommend it to Salem, and to Salem for believing in and championing it. The long-awaited novel (well, long-awaited by me, anyway) will be coming out next year, just in time for the 40th anniversary when what would come to be known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome first appeared on the nation's radar screen in 1981.  With expected pathos and unexpected humor, the novel testifies to the power of grief to erode a life, and—for those who can find a way through their grief—the power to rebuild and renew it.
Stay tuned...
[First posted: June 5, 2019]