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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 5, 2000. All rights reserved.

From the Ashes, a Debut Novel

Katarina Heinrich — a beautiful Nazi spy stationed

in America during World War II — will slit a throat as readily

as hop a train. At the beginning of "A Gathering of Spies,"

she knifes another woman to assume her identity and take a job in

Princeton to housekeep for — and soon marry — a nuclear scientist.

John Altman, the Princeton-raised author and Harvard graduate signs

copies of his debut thriller at Micawber Books on Sunday, July 9,

at 3 p.m. Hailed by Stephen Coontz as "a sizzling zinger of a

classic spy story," author Jack Higgins has already dubbed the

30-year-old author "a major new talent on the scene."

Altman describes "A Gathering of Spies" (G.P. Putnam’s Sons,

$24.95) as an old-fashioned "classic" spy thriller. When his

chameleon character, Katarina, stumbles onto the secret of Los Alamos,

she finds herself presented with a nearly impossible task: to return

her intelligence to Berlin despite the combined force of American

and British security agencies. Fortunately for the Nazis, she has

been superbly trained as part of an elite cadre of talented, ruthless

spies sanctioned by Himmler himself. She can kill with any weapon,

improvise her way out of any situation, and manipulate any man to

do her bidding.

The man who holds the key to Katarina’s fate is Professor Harris Winterbotham,

a double agent whose wife is a prisoner in Dachau. The Nazis say they

are willing to trade her in return for his betrayal of England. But

which is truly more important to him — winning the war or saving

his wife? By the book’s end, a half-dozen intertwined stories have

collided in unexpected ways, resulting in a classic adventure.

Born in White Plains, New York, Altman spent the first 10 years of

his life moving between New York, Colorado, Lawrenceville, before

the family settled in Princeton, where his parents still live. In

1988, he went to Harvard College, where he designed his own major,

"Development and Construction of the Novel," a major that

required him to write one novel per year for his three final years.

After graduation, Altman returned briefly to his parents’ house in

Princeton. A week after arriving, he accidentally started a fire with

a cigarette. The house burned almost to the ground. Nobody was hurt,

though the graduate lost his three novels.

Rather than quit smoking, he embarked on an extended road trip. After

six months, he returned to New Jersey and taught creative writing

to inner-city kids at an educational camp, while continuing to apologize

to his parents, who — it turns out — were "remarkably

forgiving." (So forgiving that he could be found this summer house-sitting

for those same parents.)

Altman next moved to New York City, where his first job was a three-year

stint writing about CD-ROMs for an industry newsletter, "Indelible

News." He then embarked on a freelance career, writing about computer

games for magazines such as Time Out New York and Computer Games magazine.

During these years, he also played bass for the rock/funk band Furiously

Stiff, which, from 1993 to 1998, performed frequently around the city

in such dives as CBGB and Pyramid. Since 1998, he has played occasional

guitar, bass, and keyboards for bands including Cathouse and Your

Mother And I Have Grown Apart.

Altman is not the only member of his family who writes.

Cousins on his mother’s side include Karen Bender, whose first novel,

"Like Normal People," is just out from Houghton Mifflin; her

husband, Robert Anthony Siegel, whose first novel, "All the Money

in the World," came out from Random House in 1997; and Karen’s

sister, Aimee Bender, whose collection of short stories, "The

Girl in the Flammable Skirt," came out from Doubleday in 1998,

and whose first novel is forthcoming. John’s uncle is Jeff Rotman,

a renowned underwater photographer and author of six books, whose

work has been featured in Life, Newsweek, Time, The New York Times

Magazine, National Geographic, and many others.

Altman still lives in Manhattan with his girlfriend, Anicee Gaddis,

a freelance writer who covers music for the New York Times website,

HX magazine, and others. Altman is already at work on the sequel to

"A Gathering of Spies." Yet with accolades raining down and

rumors of a movie sale in the offing, he could find he’s his own hardest

act to follow.

John Altman, Micawber Books, 114 Nassau Street,

609-921-8454. The author signs copies of "A Gathering of Spies."

Free. Sunday, July 9, 3 p.m.

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