When Philly-born Steve Alten, author of the book-turned-movie The Meg, heard the Inquirer and Daily News was calling, he thought about answering the phone with "Fly Eagles Fly," then thought better of it. He's more a writer than a singer.
He's still reveling in the Eagles' Super Bowl win, and in his other dream come true – Hollywood has at long last adapted his first novel into a movie, capping a tumultuous 20-year odyssey of stops and starts, mostly stops.
"I think the moment I accepted it was truly for real is when they cast Jason Statham. That's when I did my happy dance," Alten said.
Long and winding roads are nothing new to Alten, who didn't start out to be a writer. He loved basketball, and played it while growing up in the Northeast, then for Penn State Ogontz (now Abington). By the time he hit the main campus, his playing career was over.
>> READ MORE: 'The Meg': Jason Statham vs. the giant prehistoric shark
"I took it as far as a slow white Jewish guy could take it," he said.
But he still wanted to coach, and after getting a degree in physical education at Penn State, he got his master's in sports medicine from the University of Delaware, and a doctorate in education at Temple, where he was allowed to observe the practices of legendary coach John Chaney. The two developed a friendship.
All of that preparation led to exactly one year of coaching at Jenkintown High School, but the pressure of providing for a family led Alten to leave that behind and start a company in Wilmington, which led to a business opportunity in Florida.
All that time he'd been writing, a calling he'd developed taking fiction classes at PSU. It was more than dabbling, but less than a career — he's submitted manuscripts to publishers, one based on his idea (inspired by a Time magazine article about strange creatures that live in the Mariana Trench) about a paleontologist who discovers a Megalodon giant shark 36,000 feet below the surface of the ocean.
In 1995, he lost the Florida job, a personal low that didn't last long — a few days later, the phone rang, and he had a deal from Bantam/Doubleday to publish his shark tale, The Meg.
Hollywood liked the story immediately, but the rights went through a series of interested parties — lots of interest, no firm commitments.
"I took a lot of body blows," said Alten, who had his hopes dashed several times.
Recent Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro was interested for a while, and scripter Shane Salerno (Alien Versus Predator: Requiem) was hired to write a version that never got made, which is fine by Alten, who found the rewrite "too Moby Dick." Director Jan de Bont (Twister) also optioned the project, and Alten feels he may have dodged another bullet there.
"He had this model made up, and I really didn't like it. It looked like a bonefish," he said.
Horror director Eli Roth was attached for a time, but the real break came a few years ago, when producer Belle Avery took charge and attracted the interest of Chinese investors (they ponied up $150 million to get it made).
With the money lined up, Statham came on board. Alten was ecstatic, even though compromises were made — his paleontologist was now a rescue specialist, the shark has gone from white to black, and the action has moved from Japan to China.
On the plus side, his daughter Kelsey has a part as an extra in a scene of the giant shark cruising by bathers on a beach.
Alten has attended the Meg premiere, and hopes the movie will mean good things for his other projects — he's written a TV pilot about Temple coach Chaney and hopes to sell it soon.
He's still writing books — there have been several Meg sequels, including The Meg: Hell's Aquarium, which deserves to be read for the title alone. All this despite on ongoing battle with Parkinson's disease.
"It doesn't affect my imagination or my desire to write, but my fingers don't work as well as I'd like," he said.
Alten also enjoys his work with www.AdoptAnAuthor.com, a nonprofit he started to encourage young readers — a big part of his audience for the Meg series.
"I started getting all these emails, inundated with them, from teens saying they usually hated reading but they loved reading my book. I also heard from English and science teachers telling me how much kids loved the books. And because my background is in education, I thought, 'I think there's a chance to do something here.' "
And so he did, forming AdoptAnAuthor, a joint venture with the Library Association of America to provide teachers with free Meg materials, and offering personal contact with students and classes, often via Skype.