William Hauptman's ''Storm'' novel -- We talk to the author about his fascination with tornados and his new book

Playwright William Hauptman (Big River) grew up in Wichita Falls, Tex., in the heart of what meteorologists call ”tornado alley.” But unlike most Texans, who scurry to their storm cellars at the first sign of a funnel-shaped cloud, Hauptman was fascinated by them. And 15 years ago, he and his brother became tornado chasers, tracking massive storms across the Texas panhandle in hopes of spotting a tornado. ”Sometimes I tell people chasing tornadoes is a kind of environmental thrill sport,” Hauptman says. ”It’s an appreciation of nature but there’s also the thrill of the chase and a definite element of risk.” He took notes on his treks, eventually using them as the basis for a novel.

The Storm Season, just published by Bantam, describes a young man whose obsession with tornados becomes his ticket out of a dead-end town. Like his main character, Hauptman is a man hooked on twisters. Scattered on the floor of his Brooklyn apartment are dozens of photographs, testimony to his bizarre hobby. ”This is one of the best storms I ever saw, from just west of Archer City,” he says, plucking a snapshot from the pile. ”While I was taking the picture it was hailing like golf balls.” Another photo-taken through a rain-blurred windshield — shows a funnel forming no more than two or three hundred yards away. Hauptman acknowledges the danger but says that’s part of the appeal. ”It’s pretty amazing to be so close to that much power. My brother and I have an expression, ‘Begging for mercy.’ There’s always a time when you get yourself into a situation that you don’t really want to be in,” he explains, ”and that’s when you start begging for mercy.” Hauptman started going back to Texas every spring to look for storms. ”All the time I was doing this, I kept seeing how life in that part of Texas was changing for people in my hometown, and so that became a big part of the book, too,” he says. ”Those small towns are all dying. It’s awful out there, futile and desolate, and I think the weather mirrors that.”

Hauptman, already at work on his second novel, plans to make his usual trek to Texas come storm season, ”even though it’s not shaping up to be much of a year, because it’s an El Nino year, which makes it a lot drier,” he says. ”Maybe next year will be better. Who knows? Tornadoes seem to come in batches.”