Bestselling author AJ Jacobs’s short story at age 10 “The Gerbil Caper”

 AJ Jacobs picture from LinkedIn

AJ Jacobs is a New York Times bestselling author and editor at large for Esquire Magazine, but perhaps a more accurate job description would be that he does whatever the heck he wants and writes about it for millions of readers. Most known for his “stunt journalism,” his most notable experiences have included:

His next book slated for 2016 publication is called It’s All Relative about his attempt to construct the world’s largest family tree. Using an online tool called WikiTree, over the last several years he’s proven familial connections to more than 7.1 million people. (Including me — AJ and I are 29 degrees of separation apart, through a common ancestor born 1605 in Norway named Anneke Jans. Seriously.)

AJ has graciously agreed to provide the first-ever contribution to A Step In The Write Direction, with a short story he wrote at age 10 titled The Gerbil Caper.  The tale centers on an engineer assigned to design a super fast engine for the world famous auto racer AJ Destroyer. Despite the project’s three billion dollar budget, the engineer Charles Goodham comes up with a better idea: using his daughter’s pet gerbils to run fast inside the car’s wheels. But will it work?

Here is what AJ wrote about his story from back then:

When I found this story in my mom’s attic a year ago, it was a surprise. I had no memory of writing it. I had no memory of the plot, in which race car driver puts super-strong gerbils inside his car tires, and the gerbils run so fast he wins the big race.

Reading it made me wish I could go back and give the 10-year-old A.J. some feedback. For instance: Your story sucks ass.

I’d probably be a little more nuanced with my younger self. Let’s start with the good news.

  • The penmanship is awesome. I wish I could write that neatly now.
  • The story has a lot of dialogue, which keeps it moving at a nice pace.
  • The bulleted list in the middle is a nice touch. Always good to break up the format, I think. (As you can see, I still enjoy the bulleted list.)
  • There’s some good dramatic tension as we wait to see if the gerbil car will be ready in time for the race.

The not-as-good news:

  • The first line is about the weather “It was a gloomy day,” which is never a good strategy, as the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest shows us every year. You lost me right there.
  • The prose gets quite purple. “The alarm clock ticket in its usual menacing way.” (And even then, did alarm clocks still tick? I think I had a digital alarm clock.)
  • The main character Mr. Goodham is kind of a dick. He yells at his daughter, he repeatedly calls his partner “stupid.” He shows a stubborn lack of emotional growth. He learns no lessons. He’s a dick start to finish. The race car driver is also a jerk – he wins by intentionally causing his opponents to crash into each other.
  • The character names are a little on the nose. A.J. Destroyer. Dave Rubbish.
  • There is no discussion of the profound consequences of discovering super-strong gerbils. This is a massive breakthrough. Why doesn’t it occur to Goodham to bring it to the attention of scientists and the NIH? Maybe develop drugs to stop muscular deterioration and slow down aging. Instead, just wants to win his little car race.

But again, nice work with the handwriting. You should have kept that up.

Below is a PDF scanned version of AJ’s original handwritten story from 1978, which you can read by clicking on the title below, or below that you can read the text:


The Gerbil Caper

A.J. Jacobs

Oct. 30, 1978

            It was a gloomy day, Charles Goodham was walking home after failing to invent a superfast motor. The world-famous auto racer, A.J. Destroyer, has asked the Brile Motor company to make him a race car. In exchange he agreed to give the company 3 billion dollars. Charles Goodham has been assigned to design a motor within a week of the race; Tomorrow it would be 8 days till the race.

He reached his house and entered, he was soon in bed, tired. But he couldn’t get to sleep. The alarm clock ticked in its usual menacing way. Time went by quickly. Still Mr. Goodham couldn’t get to sleep. His thoughts were on the motor when a crash sounded in Jenny’s (his daughter’s) room. Mr. Goodham jerked up as Jenny half flew, half ran to her father.

“Th- th- the ger-ge- I- I- I-, th- they–”

“I can’t understand a word you are saying!” said Mr. Goodham impatiently, for it was 3:00 A.M.

Jenny paused for a minute, “Y- you know th- the gerbils I got today at- at that tiny little shop owned by that crazy little man?”

“Yes, go on,” said Mr. Goodham in a dull tone.

“Well, they just broke through the wall of the cage, and then they picked up my bookshelf and threw it across the room. They are weird! My gerbils are superstrong!”

The next morning Mr. Goodham was arguing with his boss, “But I tell you boss, my daughter has superstrong gerbils!”

“So, what of it,” yelled his boss.

“Well, maybe we could think of something to use them for. They are kind of an important discovery,” said Mr. Goodham timidly.

“Do you want your million dollar raise,” asked his boss in a menacing tone.

“Yes,” was the small reply.

“Then get to work! And invent a superfast motor for Mr. Destroyer!!” he actually screamed. “You’re already late and after that you can fool around with hamsters.”

“No, gerbils,” said Mr. Goodham.

Shut up!!” Mr. Goodham’s boss was obviously very nervous about the race and about the fact that the motor wasn’t built yet.

The days went by quickly. Mr. Goodham had not made the motor yet and his boss was threatening to fire him.

“You’ve got yourself in big trouble, Goodham,” it was Mr. Goodham’s partner, Dave Rubbish. Mr. Goodham called him ‘Stupid.’

“Be quiet,” said Mr. Goodham. He glanced into the corner of the room. A mouse scurried into the hole. “Oh, God! I forgot all about the gerbils. Lucky that mouse reminded me… Now, what can I do with gerbils that are superstrong? Hmmmm.” Mr. Goodham was dissolved in thought.

Dave Rubbish broke in, “The only thing that gerbils do is eat, and run in a little exercise wheel and make it go around. Anyway, why are we talking about ger–”

“That’s it! That’s it! Run, wheel, make it go, wow! You’re a genius, Rubbish! Stupid Rubbish is a real genius!”

“Huh, wha–”

“Listen, Stupid. You said that gerbils run in wheels and make them go. So we put gerbils in the wheels of a car and make the car go!”

“But, Mr. Goodham, gerbils aren’t big enough to make a car go!” ‘Stupid’ seemed almost proud of his observation.

“Look, I’ve got that all figured out. My daughter’s got superstrong gerbils, so they can run in the wheel and make the race car move at 120 m.p.h.!”

“Wow, neato, cool!”

“Shut up, and go tell Steve the manufacturer to make a car like this.” Mr. Goodham made a list:


  1. Light frame
  2. Hollow wheels so my daughter’s superstrong gerbils can run inside
  3. Button which gives food to the gerbils so Mr. Destroyer doesn’t have to make pit stops to feed them.
  4. Steering wheel
  5. Brakes
  6. No engine. Not needed because the gerbils make the car go. ‘Stupid’ ran out forgetting the list.


He was back in 30 seconds. “Where’s the list! Where’s the list!” Mr. Goodham handed him the list and ‘Stupid’ was off again.

When he was back Mr. Goodham questioned him, “How long did Steve say it would take him to make the car?”

“Soon,” answered ‘Stupid.’

“How soon?”

“Very soon.”

“What day?!” Mr. Goodham yelled.

“I think he said something about Sunday, at noon,” answered ‘Stupid.’

“Oh, no! The race starts at 11:45!” cried Mr. Goodham as he dialed Steve’s phone number. “Hello, Steve. This is Mr. Goodham. I just wanted to make sure you couldn’t get the car in by 11:45 on Sunday.”

“I get it in as soon as I can,” replied Steve and hung up. Never was a talkative guy, thought Mr. Goodham.

It was soon Sunday morning. Everyone was excited. Banners were up everywhere.

Mr. Destoryer and a man in a suit were walking towards Mr. Goodham and his boss.

“Hello,” said Mr. Destoryer, “this is Mr. Willow, my lawyer.”

“Now, Mr. Destroyer,” explained Mr. Goodham. “The car is a real winner!”

“How does it run?” asked Destroyer.

“Superstrong gerbils run inside the wheel. No pit stops needed. Just press a button and that gives them food!” exclaimed Mr. Goodham.

“Mr. Willow,” asked Mr. Destroyer, “give them the details.”

The lawyer started up, “Well, first of all if Mr. Destroyer gets the car after the race has started and he has that your car company will be sued 10 million dollars. Also if–”

“Now, now,” interrupted Mr. Goodham’s boss. “I know that if Goodham says this car is good, it’s good. Right, Goodham,” he said allowing Mr. Goodham.

“And now,” the announcer started and everyone fell silent, “before the race begins, I’d like to introduce to you the contestants…. Al Munster who drives a red Porsche. Fred Schirk who drives the lavender Pontiac. Mortimer Lazi, who drives the…”

“Get me my car and I’ll be happy!” yelled A.J. Destroyer.

“It’s gonna come,” assured Mr. Goodham.

“And to begin the race we have Robert Pumpkin singing our national anthem.” Robert Pumpkin was on the fourth line when there was a flash and some smoke rose from one of the cars. “It seems we have had some difficulty with Mortimer Lazi’s motor and he will not be able to race,” said the announcer.

“Hey, I wasn’t finished!” yelled Robert Pumpkin and he continued.

“And 10 seconds till the race. 9… 8… 7… 6… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… and they’re off!” yelled the announcer. The cars zoomed by.

“Where’s my car!” yelled A.J. Destroyer.

“Where’s his car?” repeated his lawyer.

“It’s coming!” yelled Mr. Goodham’s boss. The cars zoomed around again. 5 minutes passed by when finally a short car pulled up alongside them.

“Is this it?” asked A.J. Destroyer.

“Yip,” answered Mr. Goodham. “Remember, no pit stops needed. Just press this button every 50 laps.”

A.J. started up. He was way behind every other car. The car in first place was trying to lap him. Luckily A.J. was a good driver. He wouldn’t let him by. This made the first place driver very tense. The first place driver put on a burst of speed and crashed against A.J.’s rear. This didn’t bother A.J. for he didn’t have a motor to blow up.

On about the 50th lap the first car still hadn’t lapped him. Then the second place driver started to gain on the first place driver who was still trying to lap A.J. A.J. made a short stop. The second place car skidded and crashed into the first place car. They both got out and shook their fists at A.J. A.J. pushed the button that fed the gerbils and took off. All of the cars were running low on gas and made a pit stop. This was when A.J. took the lead.

It was the final stretch. A.J. was in the lead. He had no worries because he had an easy win. A fan jumped out on the track. A.J. screeched out of the way and skidded over the finish line. The gerbils had won for A.J. and Mr. Goodham would get a million dollar raise!

AJ and his wife Julie have three sons, 11-year-old Jasper and twin 9-year-olds Lucas and Zane. You can find more AJ at his official website, on Facebook with over 165 thousand followers at AJJacobs, and on Twitter at @AJJacobs.