Exclusive Interview: “The Man Who Saw Seconds” Author Alexander Boldizar


A lot of fictional characters can see the future. But in the case of Preble Jefferson, the main character of Alexander Boldizar’s sci-fi thriller The Man Who Saw Seconds (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), that future is only 5 seconds away.

In the following email interview, Boldizar talks about how this novel was inspired and influenced by a lucid dream, Philip K. Dick, and a bear.

Alexander Boldizar The Man Who Saw Seconds

To begin, what is The Man Who Saw Seconds about, and when and where is it set?

Preble Jefferson can see five seconds into the future. He lives a fairly ordinary life in Brooklyn with his wife and son, earning enough money through careful gambling to live comfortably without raising red flags.

When a confrontation with a cop on a New York City subway goes wrong, those seconds give Preble the chance to dodge a bullet — but then chaos follows. In an era where everything’s on camera, government agencies become aware of Preble’s gift, and their ambitions shift from law enforcement to military R&D.

As the “powers that be” realize they can’t catch Preble directly, they go after his family for leverage — and the story becomes an open and constantly escalating question of how far Preble will go to protect the people he loves. And, hopefully, it makes the reader ask themselves how far they would go.

Where did you get the idea for The Man Who Saw Seconds? What inspired it?

I was living in Preble’s apartment when NYC passed the post-911 law allowing subway bag searches. I’m a recovering attorney, I’d been a member of the ACLU, and at the time I was working as the speechwriter for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigated complaints about police abuses. There were a lot of incidents that started with bag searches. So that was all in my head. And then, cliché as it sounds, I dreamt the first part of the subway scene — including the precognition. Though in the dream it was only a second or two. As a teen, I’d read everything that Philip K. Dick had ever written, and my dreaming brain somehow combined those elements.

I can lucid dream, so every night I’d try to start the dream where the one from the previous night ended. The whole first chapter came to me that way in slices over multiple nights. After that, it became a much more normal writing process investigating how far that initial clash could escalate, but the initial inspiration came via lucid dreaming.

That trigger and escalation became the body of the book. But to take off, for me good stories also need two wings: an emotional wing and an intellectual one. The emotional arc of Seconds is simply a man protecting his family, and especially a father protecting his son. My own son was abducted for just under a week when he was four. It all turned out well, and none of the specific details track to the story, but the emotional ignition energy came from that experience. It’s the great thing about being a writer. You can take something so stressful that it melts the enamel off 14 teeth and turn it into something positive.

Finally, the intellectual wing has several strands, but one underlying theme is how institutions become counterproductive, how anything that grows too big, complex or closed ends up working against the purpose for which it was created.

As you said, Preble can see 5 seconds in the future. Why 5 seconds as opposed to 15 or 35? Or, for that matter, 5 minutes or 5 hours?

It’s a truism that character drives plot, and the slimness of Preble’s superpower shapes the entire book. Starting with the subway scene, which never would have happened if he’d seen 15 seconds instead of 5. I wanted it to be just barely enough, maybe, to give him a fighting chance against all the institutional power of the United States. To me, Superman seems like a very difficult character to write. And without kryptonite, he’d be impossible.

Every other precog character I’ve read has a longer window, so the author has to limit them by making the glimpses sporadic. That gives everything a touch of deus ex machina, because then you as the author can select what the hero (or anti-hero) sees based on what’s convenient to the story. I wanted to give Preble a consistent set of rules — his window does shrink even further when he gets too emotional, but that’s built into the rules — because I wanted to create an honest clash between characters and ideas. For the same reason, I made the main antagonist, Theodore Bigman, as smart and relentless as I could. I’ve always disliked plot turns where a hero is saved by a bad guy’s mistake — the James Bond villain who talks too long, etc.

I wanted to set up the clash and let it play out, not interfere. And if Preble had been the man who saw minutes rather than seconds, then I as the author would have had to act as a governor to slow him down. And that feels like cheating.

It sounds like The Man Who Saw Seconds is a sci-fi thriller, but just a little sci-fi. Like how that Keanu Reeves / Sandra Bullock movie The Lake House, the one with the quantum entangled mailbox, was just a little sci-fi. How do you describe Seconds, genre-wise, and why that way?

As a reflection on what a good question this is, my (fantastic!) publisher and I disagree on the answer. They mostly see Seconds as a thriller and so do many bookstores. I see it as science fiction.

If it’s not too tacky to mention a quote, Locus Magazine, which has won 30 Hugo awards and knows sci-fi better than almost anyone, predicted this in their review: “I’ve no doubt there will be some parts of the ‘literary’ establishment who want to keep The Man Who Saw Seconds from being tagged as science fiction, largely because it’s set in the now. But I hope this can be genre-spanning, and that it gets the attention it deserves from every awards list, science fiction and not.”

I’m a big fan of science fiction for the space it gives ideas to play out and the appetite it has for scientific explanations and explorations. In Seconds, I go out of my way to make the neuroscience and physics behind Preble’s window as real as they can be while supporting something impossible. At least real enough to open up interesting questions.

I gave a reading at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena that was structured as a conversation with Dr. Galen Buckwalter, one of the world’s leading experts on the predictive brain. Science meets science fiction. He’s a professor at USC, scientific founder of eHarmony, and, I believe, the only recipient so far of a brain-computer interface (BCI) that includes a port into his prefrontal cortex. He brought a number of CalTech researchers to the reading. And we all got to nerd out about time, the brain, predictive processing, theoretical neurobiology, and so on.

I kept all of that under the surface in the book, with a brief exception in one short chapter when government scientists are trying to figure out what Preble’s limits are, but all that underlying research is the core of the book — not its heart, that’s probably the polar bear scene, but its brain. And protecting that chapter is part of why I went with a mid-sized press (Clash Books) that’s willing to take risks. So, I’m unabashedly on team sci-fi.

The Man Who Saw Seconds is your second novel after The Ugly. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Seconds but not on Ugly?

As I mentioned, I grew up reading science fiction, and my two favorites were Philip K. Dick and Frank Herbert, both of whom play with the idea of precognition. The Ugly was literary satire about a 300-pound boulder-throwing mountain man from Siberia who is sent on a quest to learn how to throw words at Harvard Law School. It was much more directly influenced by interbellum Central European writers like Franz Kafka and Robert Musil. I was born in what was then Czechoslovakia, now Slovakia, and I can never fully shake off the slight absurdist tinge in my writing, nor would I want to, but in Seconds the absurdism is hidden and wrapped inside character motivations — more Dr. Strangelove than Gregor Samsa.

The Ugly developed a cult following among philosophy professors but it’s a flawed book, mostly because I tried to do too much. I feel like in Seconds I finally figured out how to subsume ideas beneath the story, as undercurrents that pull it forward rather than active players on the surface. And I also just went with what was fun. Science fiction was always my guilty pleasure as a reader, and I really enjoyed embracing that as a writer. I think the fun I had writing comes across despite the potentially dark storyline.

What about non-literary influences; was The Man Who Saw Seconds influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Because it kind of reminds me of that Nicholas Cage / Jessica Biel movie, Next.

I was one draft in when I first saw the trailer for Next and thought “Oh, no!” But then, when I saw the movie, I was relieved. Next itself was based on “The Golden Man,” a short story by Philip K. Dick, though it moved away from the original quite a bit, and I think Seconds is significantly different from both. All three deal with precognition, but in Next, Nicholas Cage can see two minutes into the future and much more, up to a full day, for events revolving around Jessica Biel. And his vision is selective, not continuous. As I mentioned above, once you start digging into the possibilities, five continuous seconds is a night-and-day difference from two minutes that are selective — and thus selected by the author — let alone a full day.

More importantly, though, the thematic elements in the book are completely different. Next went with the standard Hollywood thriller formula of stopping terrorists. Cage ends up working with the government to stop a nuclear bomb. In Seconds, I was closer to “The Golden Man”‘s focus on the potential consequences of having such extraordinary abilities in a world that may view them with fear and hostility.

And unlike either, I wanted to make sure I didn’t give anyone in the story an easy off ramp. There’s no reconciling between Preble and Bigman, no working with the cops, and no formulas. I had a lot more space than a short story to play with these themes, as well as ideas of how we define good vs bad, the creation of monsters, probabilistic thinking, institutional counterproductivity, the nature of fear and love and time, and so on.

Now, The Man Who Saw Seconds seems like it’s a stand-alone story….

Answering this question would risk too many spoilers, so I’ll just say that it can go either way. Currently, it’s a stand-alone.

A moment ago I asked if The Man Who Saw Seconds had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Seconds could work as a movie series, a TV show, or a game? They never did make Next 2: Precognition Boogaloo

The book is deliberately cinematic. I think it would work as either a movie or a game, but if I had to pick one, I’d say a limited series. Maybe eight to ten episodes. I have a great film rights agent in L.A. Despite the difficulties in Hollywood right now, he’s confident that I’ll be able to offer a more specific answer to this question soon.

And if the specific answer he gives you is a positive one, who would you want them to cast as Preble and the other main characters?

Honestly, I’m not the right person to make that decision. I know books and stories, but I’m not an expert on Hollywood, so I’d leave that to those who are.

In terms of what I’d find fun, it’s anyone who could maintain the multiple levels within the book. It’s as fast paced as a Jason Bourne movie, but it also has those slight absurdist undertones and a self-awareness of how insane — but also inevitable — the decision cycles become.

I’d want to protect that and hope for a director who can work across multiple levels. As for actors, again, I’d hope for someone who can do the same. Action but more — maybe someone like Jake Gyllenhaal [Source Code] for Preble? [Reservoir Dogs‘] Harvey Keitel as Bigman? I’ve always liked Harvey Keitel. Stellan Skarsgård [the Dune movies] or Ben Kingsley [Sexy Beast] for Fish? But these are thoughts lightly tossed, not strong suggestions.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Man Who Saw Seconds?

The book inevitably touches on questions of society, government, institutions, individualism, freedom, etc., but I’m a strong believer that good thinking just reframes questions in interesting ways rather than trying to offer answers. I don’t want a novel to tell me what to think — not even when I agree with a prescription — but I do enjoy seeing questions in a new light. Hopefully, Seconds does that.

As part of that preference for open interpretations, I generally try to avoid biographical decoding of my own writing. But I’ll share one fun story. There’s a scene where Preble fights a polar bear to protect his son, Kasper. When I was 17, I actually wrestled a 750-pound brown bear named Sampson (with a -p, unlike my own son Samson). I’ve had a number of readers tell me it’s their favorite scene in the book. Having actually wrestled a bear, I feel like it’s the most unrealistic — but at least some of the sensory details are based in a true experience.

Alexander Boldizar The Man Who Saw Seconds

Finally, if someone enjoys The Man Who Saw Seconds, they’ll probably go get The Ugly. But once they’ve finished reading that, what novel of someone else’s would you suggest they check out next? Oh, and extra points if it shares anything with Seconds.

Maybe it’s because I’m writing this interview on Father’s Day, and at the risk of picking a book most of your readers have already read, I’d suggest The Road by Cormack McCarthy. In terms of sharing elements with Seconds, I already talked about Philip K. Dick and Frank Herbert for the precognition, but The Road is the closest book emotionally in terms of the father-son bond. It’s also the only book that forced me to leave a café as I was reading it, because I started leaking. If I did my own “A meets B” logline, I’d say The Man Who Saw Seconds is The Golden Man meets The Road.



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