Archive for the ‘Books’ Category
Writers are generally advised to avoid ambiguity. Clarity, as E.B. White observes, may not be a substitute for merit in writing, but it’s as close as we can get, so it’s good form for authors to state things as clearly as they can. It’s certainly the best rule to follow if there’s any doubt. Yet this does nothing to explain the fact that many of the works of art that affect us so deeply—from Hamlet to Vertigo to, yes, Mad Men—are founded on ambiguity. As in the case of most masterpieces, these can be dangerous examples for a writer to follow, but they’re also very tempting. Great fiction survives in the imagination because of the constellation of questions it raises in the reader’s mind, and the problem of balancing such uncertainties with a narrative that remains clear from moment to moment is one of the most difficult issues for a writer to face. And it soon becomes obvious, after writing or reading a few examples, that ambiguous language is not the best way to create a larger superimposition of interpretations.
As usual, we can get some useful insights by looking at poetry, the leading edge of language, whose lessons and innovations tend to filter down centuries later into prose. Poetry is often seen as ambiguous or obscure, but when you examine the greatest poems line by line, you find that this is an effect generated by the resonance of highly specific images—nouns, verbs, and concrete adjectives, all intelligible in themselves but mysterious as a whole. Take, for instance, the poem that I.A. Richards has called “the most mysterious poem in English,” Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Each stanza stands with crystal clarity, and often something more, but the result has been interpreted as everything from a Catholic allegory to a veiled reference to the relationship between Sir John Salusbury and Queen Elizabeth, and as it stands, it’s a puzzle without an answer. A prefatory note spelling it out would have avoided much of this confusion, but in the process, it would have destroyed the magic.
Which leads us to a very important point, which is that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. It’s often been observed, for instance, that much of the mystery of Shakespeare’s plays emerges from the fact that he omits part of his original source material while leaving other elements intact. In the original Amleth story, there’s no confusion about the reasons for the lead character’s madness: he believes that his uncle is plotting against his life, so in order to protect himself and mislead his enemies, he pretends to be an idiot. Hamlet takes away this detail—Claudius doesn’t seem particularly interested in killing Hamlet at all until after he starts to act like a lunatic—and creates a tantalizing ambiguity in the process. The same is true of King Lear, in which the original source more clearly explains the king’s reasons for putting his three daughters to the test. The resulting plays are filled with concrete language and action, but the mystery remains.
And this is true of many works of art. We never know the origins of Montresor’s murderous vendetta in “The Cask of Amontillado,” but the story itself is so detailed that it practically serves as a manual on how to wall a man up alive, even as Poe denies us the one piece of information that most writers would have included first. (If Poe were alive today, I suspect that his editor would have begged him to flesh out the backstory.) Vertigo is the most mysterious movie ever made, but on watching it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics—the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Ambiguity, in other words, is only effective when the story itself is concrete enough to convincingly support multiple interpretations, which, in practice, usually means an even greater attention to clarity and convincing detail than if the line of the narrative were perfectly clear. A map that contains a single path can afford to leave the rest of the territory blank, but if we’re going to find our way down more than one road, we’ll need a better sense of the landscape, even, or especially, if the landmarks lead us astray.
I’m grateful for a lot of things in life, but if there’s one blessing I could stand to appreciate more, it’s that owning a home full of books is still a socially acceptable form of hoarding. If I were addicted to buying kitten statues or cartons of discount detergent, I’d look a little crazy, but keeping more books around the house than I could ever possibly need just makes me look cultured and smart—or so I’d like to believe. I’ve bought maybe five to ten books a month since I was old enough to spend my own money, and the number has often been much higher: back in New York, when I lived only a short train ride from the Strand and its amazing dollar bin, I probably bought twice that amount, and occasionally even more. And I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that I love buying books for their own sake, and not necessarily because I intend to read most of them cover to cover. (It’s an urge that can only be satisfied with physical books, the older and dustier the better: after more than a year and a half, I don’t think I’ve bought more than ten books for my Kindle.)
Looking around my office now, I’d say I own about a thousand books. This a rough estimate, based on the assumption that I have fifty shelves with twenty books each, which almost certainly undercounts the true number. It also doesn’t include my wife’s two hundred books or so, which live in a separate room: even after close to four years of marriage, we still haven’t integrated our libraries, and we probably never will, given my own obsessive tendencies. The number used to be much larger, too. Before my move to Chicago, I forced myself to reduce my library to what I could fit in six large boxes, meaning that I donated or gave away something like five hundred books. How those six boxes multiplied to fill fifty shelves in less than four years is a mystery I haven’t been able to solve, although the fact that I’ve bought a hundred books a year in the meantime might be a clue. And while my acquisitive tendencies have been slightly reduced by the birth of our daughter—I just don’t have as much time to go to bookstores—it isn’t hard to foresee a future in which the house has been totally taken over by books, a prospect that fills me with delight, although my wife seems a little less enthusiastic.
As for how many books I’ve read—well, that’s another question entirely. Even under the most generous assumptions, it’s unlikely that I’ve read more than a couple of thousand books in my adult life, and I obviously acquire books at a greater pace than I could ever hope to finish them. I’m reading all the time, but my browsing tendencies are evident here as well: at any given moment, I usually have one big literary novel I’m trying to finish, a paperback thriller, and four or five nonfiction books in various stages of completion. (These days, for instance, I’m halfway through Infinite Jest, The Fist of God, Inventors at Work, and the letters of Maxwell Perkins, and I’m still technically reading Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns and Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation.) Most of the books on my shelves have been read at least in part, and I take comfort in the fact that they’re always there to be browsed through again. I’ll often pull a random volume from the shelf and leaf through it for a few minutes to relax, and I try to make some quality time now and then for my eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The bottom line is that I’m clearly more of a browser than a reader, and I’m comfortable with this. You see it in every aspect of my life, from the small to the large: it’s possible that I became a novelist mostly as a way to rationalize my browsing. As a result, I’ve become very protective of it. Browsing is an art form, like loafing, that has been compromised by modern technology: it’s properly done in a comfortable chair, with a cup of coffee or something similar, with a book—or a stack of them—that has already passed through the hands of many other readers. Ideally, the book should be a little tattered or yellowed, which makes it seem happy for the attention, even if it’s never going to be read straight through. It requires a fine appreciation of opening a book to a middle and seeing where it takes you, or flirting a bit with a few tempting prospects before committing yourself to an after-dinner read. Above all, it demands a love of the arcane, the obscure, the obsolete, and the useless. And while it’s satisfying enough when done for only a minute or two, it expands to last a lifetime.
Last year, a librarian named Carolyn DeCoursey at the Maze Branch of the Oak Park Public Library read and enjoyed one of the many books in her stack of new arrivals, a debut conspiracy novel set in the New York art world. She liked it so much, in fact, that she started recommending it to her patrons, and one day, one of them said: “I know the author. He’s my neighbor—and he lives only three blocks away!” The novel, of course, was The Icon Thief, and although my author biography clearly states that I live in Oak Park, that part of the cover was evidently covered up by a sticker with the library bar code.
Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Carolyn at other library events, and that serendipitous connection was the essential first step that led to my reading tonight at 7 pm at the Maze Branch. It’s going to be a good event—I hope that some of you in the Chicago area will be able to attend—and it has a lot of sentimental importance to me, since the Maze Branch is where I intend to take my daughter Beatrix as soon as she’s old enough. (She’s already been there once, but she slept through most of the visit.) And the moral of the story, obviously, is that whether you’re a writer, a reader, or just a good neighbor, it pays to be friends with your local librarian.
There are some readers who would never dream of marking up a book’s pristine pages, but I’m an inveterate underliner. In some ways, I don’t think I’ve really read a book until I’ve had a chance to go through it with a pen. Back in high school and college, I tended to underline books in their entirety, and when I look back at my old copies of Dante or The Anatomy of Melancholy, it can be hard to find an unmarked sentence. This might seem to defeat the practical purpose of highlighting selected passages, but I wasn’t thinking in terms of later reference: it was my way of blazing a trail, of reminding myself how far I’d gone into Dante’s dark forest. Underlining a phrase leaves a distinct, permanent signpost for my future self long after the details of the book have faded. These days, my memory for what I’ve read is spotty at best, but when I open a book and see a passage I’ve marked, I know for sure that I’ve been there.
But I’m a little more selective about what I underline now than I was a decade ago. With nonfiction, I tend to focus on striking facts or insights, especially if I think they might be helpful later, either because I might put them in a story or because they offer useful perspectives or advice. (Many of the Quotes of the Day on this blog were originally found this way.) When I’m doing research for a novel, underlining serves a clear purpose: I’ll usually read through the book once, marking whatever catches my eye, then go back over it again to transfer the major points onto notecards. I’ve found that it saves time to indicate important passages with a thin pen or pencil line in the margin, much as readers of an earlier era scored the page with their thumbnails, which allows me to quickly flip through the book to find what I’ve marked. And a passage that seemed only mildly interesting at the time can later turn out to have enormous resonance. When I’m trying to figure out the plot of a novel, I always go through my old notecards to see if there’s anything I can salvage, and something I wrote down in passing will often have an important role to play years later.
With fiction, the process is a little harder to pin down. The real test is whether I think an underlined passage will give me pleasure when I come back to it in the future, and I’ll often hesitate for a second before committing myself. It might seem like I’m overthinking it, but I’ve found that looking back through a book I’ve selectively underlined is one of my great joys as a reader. When I revisit my marked copies of Proust or Thoreau, with my eye skipping from one passage to the next, I hit all the high points at once, and whenever I’m reading this way, I never want to do anything else. Just opening The Magic Mountain at random, for instance, I find this:
On the whole, however, it seemed to him that although honor had its advantages, so, too, did disgrace, and that indeed the advantages of the latter were almost boundless.
Even more interesting is when I come across a passage that I don’t remember, and which at first glance doesn’t seem to hold much of interest. If I look more closely, however, I’ll often find that it struck me for reasons that have since lost their urgency, leaving a fossil or snapshot of my emotional life at the time. The result is the closest thing I have to an intellectual autobiography. When I underline a book, it becomes a part of me.
As a result, most of the books I’ve bought in the last ten years are full of highlighted passages, as well as notes on the endpapers, where I’ll often jot ideas or observations if I don’t have a notebook handy. (Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve even been known to lightly underline library books, although only in pencil, and I always go back to erase my work once I’m done.) And it isn’t nearly the same in a Kindle, although it can be interesting to see what other readers have marked. Underlining a physical book brings the hand and the mind into a sort of temporary harmony, and I often feel, rightly or not, that I’m reading more deeply or attentively when I’m holding a pen. Just as I think it’s important to use pen and paper whenever possible while writing, I take pains to keep reading a tactile experience: marking it by hand turns a book from one of thousands of identical objects into something that belongs to me alone, and in the end, it comes to feel like a living being, or a friend.
As Blaise Pascal notes, a man is a thinking reed, the most fragile creature in all of nature, and an author is something even stranger: a reed that spends much of its time writing about the actions of other, imaginary reeds. We tend to think of writers as intellectual beings, but an author’s eyes and brain are inextricably tethered to the body, which often has a surprising degree of influence on the work itself. Writing is an intensely physical activity, like playing chess, and I burn a lot of calories in the process: my weight often drops during a first draft, then goes up again in the rewrite, which is when the manuscript itself tends to slim down. (Stephen King says that you should cut ten percent from any first draft, and I sometimes wonder if the missing material just ends up assimilated into the writer’s gut.) These days, the physical effects are even more striking. With a baby in the house, I’ve been getting up earlier than usual, and my writing process is more intermittent but very intense—when Beatrix goes down for a nap, I don’t know if I’ll have twenty minutes or two hours, so I tend to write with one eye constantly on the clock. As a result, I haven’t been this thin since college.
It’s been known for a long time, of course, that brain work is a very real thing. The brain consumes about twenty percent of the body’s energy at any given time, and that’s independent of any actual thinking: it’s more or less the same whether you’re writing War and Peace, killing time on Reddit, or, as is the case for most writers, alternating between the two. But writing isn’t just about the brain alone. Most of the sympathetic nervous system gets into the action as well, since you’re either sweating over a plot problem, caught up in your character’s struggles, or beating yourself up over an intractable page. (This doesn’t even account for the larger stresses of a writer’s uncertain existence, the endless worries over sales, reviews, and editorial notes that serve as a kind of perpetual drumbeat to the melody of the writing life.) It’s something like sitting down for a game of chess that lasts for forty years, and it takes a toll on the body as much as the mind. As the writer May Sarton has memorably observed: “Writing a novel is like taking an examination on which your whole future depends.” And we all know how exhausting an exam can be.
There are more immediate physical issues as well. I’ve spoken at length about my own back problems, which arose soon after I wrote eight hundred pages of an epic manuscript while seated on a couch in my old apartment. They’ve never gone away entirely, but these days, they’ve settled into a chronic but manageable undertone, and I’d imagine that there are few authors who don’t suffer to some extent from back trouble. Keeping the body in line is one of the unstated but crucial aspects of the writer’s routine: it’s why alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine abuse is so endemic among novelists, and why a good diet is so important. Weight gain, interestingly, doesn’t seem to be quite as serious an issue, at least among authors of prose fiction. Based on no scientific evidence whatsoever, I’d guess that novelists tend to lose weight while television writers tend to gain it, which only reflects the difference between a career for which the term “starving artist” was more or less coined and one in which you at least get a free lunch every day. And our heaviest writers, like George R.R. Martin, are often ones who started in one world and crossed over into the other.
In short, when writers describe themselves as athletes, it isn’t entirely a fantasy. In his unforgettable essay “The Last Draft of The Deer Park,” Norman Mailer writes:
When it was a matter of strength I had as much as the next man. In those days I would spend time reminding myself that I had been a bit of an athlete (house football at Harvard, years of skiing), that I had not quit in combat, and once when a gang broke up a party in my loft, I had taken two cracks in the head with a hammer and had still been able to fight…
Yet Mailer, too, suffered from fatigue, and he found himself depending equally on marijuana and Benzedrine for one bad period. (Benzedrine seems to have fallen out of fashion, but it was the drug of choice for writers from Jack Kerouac to Ayn Rand.) Having the kind of career in which you can publish a novel a year for four decades is as much an endurance test of the body as of the spirit, and drugs and alcohol have the same debilitating effect over the long term as they would for any profession in which physical strength is required. The solution, boringly enough, is to treat the body as you would any other tool, and to keep it fueled with diet and exercise as much as you nourish your brain with books and ideas. Because while imagination alone can make a novelist, it’s the body and mind, working in tandem, that make novels.
Suspense novels, as we all know, have a lot of hardware. As regular readers are probably aware, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the role of hardware in my own books, which contain detailed information on guns, weaponry, and tradecraft to an extent that might seem surprising in the work of a confessed moderate liberal. When I wrote The Icon Thief, I don’t think I spent much time worrying about this: to my mind, it was a convention of the genre I was happy to embrace, since it fit in nicely with my love of research and real-world information. Later on, I began to see it as a way of enhancing verisimilitude: if the writer can describe small technical details accurately—or at least convincingly—the reader is more likely to accept the story’s larger leaps of logic. I still believe this, but I’m also uncomfortably aware that it can be taken too far, as in the corporate jet with its “dual Pratt & Whitney engines” that intrudes into one scene in The Lost Symbol. And it’s only recently that I’ve begun to figure out why certain forms of hardware are distracting while others immerse you more fully into a novel’s world.
My initial clue, oddly enough, came from Ian Fleming, who might not be the first novelist you’d consult for advice on the unobtrusive use of detail. Fleming once wrote an excellent essay called “How to Write a Thriller,” which while amusingly dated in some respects—he says that his books “are written for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, aeroplanes and beds”—is surprisingly insightful on the subject of hardware. Fleming writes:
My plots are fantastic, while being often based upon truth. They go wildly beyond the probable but not, I think, beyond the possible. Even so, they would stick in the gullet of the reader and make him throw the book angrily aside—for a reader particularly hates feeling he’s been hoaxed—but for two technical devices: first, the aforesaid speed of the narrative, which hustles the reader quickly beyond each danger point of mockery and, secondly, the constant use of familiar household names and objects which reassure him that he and the writer have still got their feet on the ground. A Ronson lighter, a 4.5 litre Bentley with an Amherst-Villiers supercharger (please note the solid exactitude), the Ritz Hotel in London, the 21 Club in New York, the exact names of flora and fauna, even Bond’s Sea Island cotton shirts with short sleeves. All these details are points of reference to comfort and reassure the reader on his journey into fantastic adventure.
At first glance, the 4.5 litre Bentley with its Amherst-Villiers supercharger may not seem that far removed from Brown’s dual Pratt & Whitney engines, but there’s a crucial difference. Brown doesn’t give us any indication that the character in this particular scene would take any interest in the engines flying his plane, but Ian Fleming is talking about James Bond, who might well be expected to care a great deal about the specifications of his Bentley. In short, the details here tell us something about the protagonist, his point of view, and the things he finds important, from his martinis to his weapons to his custom-made Morland cigarettes with the three gold bands on the filter. Fleming, as it happens, smoked the same brand of cigarettes himself, and he gave Bond many of his own personal habits, such as his love of scrambled eggs, which only helps with the identification between the author, the character, and most of all the reader. The brand names and hardware in these books are an expression of Bond himself—as if he’s willing the world around him into existence—which is a point often lost on Fleming’s many imitators.
In other words, hardware in a thriller works because it’s an expression of the personality that occupies the center of the narrative, whether it’s a cop, a spy, or a hit man. The novelist Steve Rasnic Tem has a wonderful essay called “One View: Creating Character in Fantasy and Horror Fiction,” available in this collection, in which he compares this approach to the way dreams are created:
An analogy I’ve always found useful for the relationship between characters and their settings is the relationship those same elements have in dreams. A particular theory of gestalt dream interpretation suggests that every object in a dream is a piece of the dreamer. A chair, a table, a car, another human being—each would represent some aspect of the dreamer…But whether you agree with its validity as a method of dream interpretation or not, I think it suggests a useful approach for fiction making…[And] the approach to characterization I’m suggesting here puts increased weight on the individual details that make up a story.
Tem is speaking mostly of fantasy and horror, but this approach also has fascinating implications for the thriller. If every aspect of the story and setting is expressive of the protagonist, the details will naturally tend to center on what he notices and cares about the most, which in suspense is likely to revolve around hardware. When it’s done poorly, it’s less an issue of excessive research than a failure in point of view: those Pratt & Whitney engines reveal less about the character than about the writer. When done well, as in The Day of the Jackal, it functions as a sort of metonymy: the Jackal is his rifle, just as Bond is his martini, and we learn a great deal about both men in the process. Ultimately, hardware is all very well and good, but character is the software that makes it run.
A few months ago, my editor asked if I had any thoughts on the cover art for Eternal Empire, the third and final novel in the series begun by The Icon Thief. I responded, as always, with a detailed memo on possible images and symbols, complete with attached reference photos for convenience. (For The Icon Thief, I even briefly weighed the possibility of putting together a mockup in Photoshop, before rightly discarding the idea as obnoxious even by the standards of overprotective authors.) Several weeks later, I was sent the proposed cover, and when I opened the file, I saw that the design team had essentially ignored all my suggestions—and I couldn’t have been happier. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the publishing process, it’s that the players at every stage are much more qualified to do their own jobs than I would ever be, and it’s best to leave them alone. The result is probably the handsomest cover for any novel in the series, although I’d put City of Exiles at a close second, and I’m pleased to finally have the chance to unveil it here and on its official page.
This isn’t quite the final version, however. When the time came for us to go out to other authors for blurbs, one of the first writers who came to mind was Katherine Neville, the author of the classic bestseller The Eight. I owe Neville a great deal: I first read The Eight many years ago, and in terms of pure entertainment, I think it’s probably still the best of all historical conspiracy thrillers, assuming that we put Foucault’s Pendulum in a peculiar category of its own. It’s one of those books that influenced me in ways that I’ve only belatedly begun to realize: the appearance of David’s Death of Marat in the epilogue of The Icon Thief, for instance, was prompted by a discussion of the painting in James Elkins’s Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?, but it was also subconsciously inspired by the role of Marat and Charlotte Corday in Neville’s novel, and my decision to set a crucial section of City of Exiles at a chess tournament in London was an undeniable homage to the single most memorable sequence in The Eight.
For this reason, among others, Neville had long been on my dream list of potential blurbers, and we’d actually gone out to her for City of Exiles, although a miscommunication prevented her from reading the novel in time. She expressed an interest in seeing the next book in the series, however, so as soon as Eternal Empire was ready, we sent her a copy in manuscript form—and to my delight, she responded with an incredibly generous blurb that you can read on the novel’s Amazon page, and which will appear on the final version of the cover. As I’ve noted here before, going out for blurbs is a funny business, and the result depends as much on luck as on the book’s quality. But on a personal level, I find it fundamentally satisfying that Neville’s name will appear on the last book in the series. If it hadn’t been for The Eight, it’s possible that these books wouldn’t exist at all, at least not in their current form, and it makes me feel as if a circle—or an infinite loop—has closed.
And it also feels like the end of a journey. Eternal Empire won’t be released for another four months, and there’s still plenty of work to be done in the meantime—I just finished going over the copy edit, which was staggeringly thorough, with page proofs and advance copies still to come. At this point, however, the text is pretty much locked, and it marks the conclusion of a process that began more than five years ago, when I started doing research for The Icon Thief. The resulting novels have their strengths and weaknesses, and there are probably things I’d do differently if I had the chance to write them over again. Still, as they stand, these books are inseparable from my own story as a writer, as I’ve continued to figure out, sometimes in public, the best way of turning the ideas and influences I love into something individual and personal. At the moment, the next step remains excitingly unclear, although I hope to have an update here soon. And I’m grateful for the chance to have come this far.
I’ve never owned a dictionary. Well, that isn’t precisely true. Looking around my bookshelves now, I can see all kinds of specialized dictionaries without leaving my chair, from Hobson-Jobson: The Anglo-Indian Dictionary to Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. About a year ago, moreover, I was lucky enough to acquire not just a dictionary, but the dictionary. As much as I love my Compact Oxford English Dictionary, however, it isn’t exactly made for everyday use: the volumes are bulky, the print is too small to read without a magnifying glass, and it’s easy to get lost in it for hours when you’re just trying to look up one word. And as far as a conventional desk dictionary is concerned, I haven’t used one in a long time. My vocabulary is more than adequate for the kind of fiction I’m writing, and whenever I have to check a definition just to be on the safe side, there are plenty of online resources that I can consult with ease. So although I have plenty of other reference books, I just never saw the need for Webster’s.
But I was wrong. Or at least I’m strongly reconsidering my position after reading the latest in John McPhee’s wonderful series of essays on the writing life in The New Yorker. The most recent installment covers a lot of ground—it contains invaluable advice on how to write a rough draft, which McPhee says you should approach as if it were a letter to your mother, and includes a fascinating digression on the history of the magazine’s copy editors—but the real meat of the piece lies here:
With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus.
The emphasis is mine, but McPhee’s case speaks for itself. He explains, for instance, that he wrote the sentence “The reflection of the sun races through the trees and shoots forth light from the water” after seeing “to shoot forth light” in the dictionary definition of “sparkle.” And after struggling to find a way to describe canoeing, he looked up the definition of the word “sport” and found: “A diversion in the field.” Hence:
A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a diversion in the field, an act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself.
As far as thesauruses go, McPhee calls them “useful things” in their proper place: “The value of a thesaurus is in the assistance it can give you in finding the best possible word for the mission that the word is supposed to fulfill.” In my own case, I tend to use a thesaurus most often in the rewrite, when I’m drilling down more deeply into the meaning of each sentence, and when issues of variety and rhythm start to take greater precedence. I rely mostly on the thesaurus function in Word and on an occasional trip to the excellent free thesauruses available online, where the hyperlinks allow me to skip more easily from one possible synonym to another. And although I recently found myself tempted by a copy of Roget’s at my local thrift store, I expect that I’ll stick to my current routine. (Incidentally, I’ve found that I tend to read thesauruses most obsessively when I’m trying to figure out the title for a novel, which is an exhausting process that needs all the help it can get—I vividly remember going to Thesaurus.com repeatedly on my phone while trying to find a title for what eventually became City of Exiles.)
But McPhee has sold me on the dictionary. After briefly weighing the possibility of picking up McPhee’s own Webster’s Collegiate, I ended up buying a used copy of the American Heritage Dictionary, since I remember it fondly from my own childhood and because it’s the dictionary most warmly recommended by the Whole Earth Catalog, which has never steered me wrong. It’s coming on Tuesday, and after it arrives, I wouldn’t be surprised if it took up a permanent place on my desk, next to my reference copies of my own novels and A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes. Whether or not it will change my style remains to be seen, but it’s still something I wish I’d done years earlier. Dictionaries, as all writers know, are books of magic, and we should consult them as diligently as we would any religious text, an act, like canoeing, performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself. As Jean Cocteau says: “The greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order.”
Andrey era quasi al confine quando si imbatté nei ladri. Erano ormai tre giorni che viaggiava. Di norma era era molto cauto al volante, ma a un certo punto nell’ultima ora la sua mente si era messa a vagare e, scendendo da un breve pendio, era quasi andato a sbattere contro due auto parcheggiate lì davanti.
Although I haven’t seen a surge in fan mail from Italy just yet, I’m still excited to see my novel in the language of Dante and Umberto Eco, and I’m looking forward to receiving my author’s copies. In the meantime, as I’ve noted before, you can check out the first three chapters on the book’s official site, and if you happen to read Italian, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.
If you’re in the Chicago area, I also have a pair of upcoming author events that I hope some of you reading this will be able to attend. On Wednesday May 8, I’ll be at the Maze Branch of the Oak Park Public Library at 7pm to discuss City of Exiles and the upcoming Eternal Empire, an opportunity that I owe entirely to the generosity and support of librarian Carolyn DeCoursey, who read The Icon Thief, liked it, and was surprised to discover that the author lived only a few blocks away. I’ve also confirmed that I’ll be appearing at the upcoming Printers Row Lit Fest on June 8 and 9, which is always a highlight of any year. My panel discussion last summer with David Heinzmann, Jan Wallentin, Manuel Muñoz, and Sean Cherover was one of the most memorable author events I’ve ever had, and I’m hopeful that this year will be even more special. (If nothing else, I expect that my newest, biggest fan will be in attendance, and I hope she’ll ask some good questions.) Stay tuned for more details.
Certain authors, speaking of their works, say, “My book,” “My commentary,” “My history,” etc. They resemble middle-class people who have a house of their own, and always have “My house” on their tongue. They would do better to say, “Our book,” “Our commentary,” “Our history,” etc., because there is in them usually more of other people’s than their own.
Yesterday, none other than David Mamet, an author whose influence haunts this blog in more ways than one, announced that he would be self-publishing his next novel. It’s a little tricky to draw a line between other authors and Mamet, who isn’t exactly uploading his book to the Kindle store: ICM, his agency, is making an ambitious push into publishing its clients’ books, and it has resources for packaging and marketing that many literary houses would envy. Yet although this isn’t an example that most writers can follow, it still feels like a turning point. It’s possible that we’re entering a new phase of how books are distributed and promoted, with self-publishing being the smartest option both for literary stars—who get a much larger cut of each sale—and for emerging writers, while authors on the midlist stick with business as usual. But I wouldn’t write off traditional publishers just yet. Even if you’re an author with an established audience, and especially if you’re just starting out, the boring, conventional route of working with an agent and going out to publishers is still often the best option, and not for the reasons you might expect.
In my case, I’m grateful I did it the traditional way, just because otherwise my books wouldn’t be nearly as good. On the first and most obvious level, the traditional publishing process serves as a kind of check on work that isn’t ready for print, which is a courtesy both to readers and to the authors themselves. If you’re having trouble finding an agent or publisher, it’s possible that your timing is just wrong, but it’s equally likely that your work isn’t quite where it needs to be—and if that’s the case, you’ll probably be glad one day that you held back from releasing it. As I’ve mentioned before, I spent close to a year working on my first novel with an agent, only to part ways without going out to publishers. At the time, it was a frustrating experience, but looking back, I’m grateful that it turned out that way. The book I was able to write at the time simply wasn’t good enough; it was a promising first draft, but little more. I’d be mortified now if that version of the story had seen print. And as daunting as that endless succession of gatekeepers can be, it certainly forces writers to work harder.
Even after you’ve sold a book, though, the structures that a good publishing house has in place can prevent you from making costly mistakes. I’m currently working my way through the copy edit of Eternal Empire, for instance, and I’m already relieved that another pair of eyes has reviewed the manuscript so thoroughly. Even apart from issues of grammar, my copy editor has pinpointed continuity problems, typos, and implausibilities that I never would have seen on my own, and I get physically ill at the thought that any of them might have seen the light of day. (Among other things, I don’t seem to know how to spell “Ceaușescu.”) On a higher level, I put more care into the books I write knowing that they’re eventually going to be read by an editor whose stakes in the process are more pragmatic than emotional, and who has no reason to tolerate anything less than my best work. It’s fine for authors to want more power, but there are times when the only way to grow as a writer is to give up some measure of control, and to devote yourself to earning it back.
Of course, many of these conditions can be recreated by a writer working alone, but only at a price. The author Michael J. Sullivan, for instance, recently used a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to self-publish his next novel, and estimated that the costs of editing and cover design would come to $3,000, although he ultimately raised much more. That’s a fair amount of money, and it cuts considerably into an author’s larger share of the proceeds from self-published sales, to say nothing of the costs of marketing and promotion. Whether an individual writer can do this more efficiently than a conventional publisher is an open question, and my mind isn’t made up on the subject. I still strongly believe, though, that it’s an avenue that a writer should explore only after pursuing the traditional route as diligently as possible, as much for its artistic and spiritual challenges as for its practical incentives. The publishing system is a flawed one, but it tends to leave authors better than they were when they entered it. And in the end, that’s the consideration that matters the most.
It’s fair to say that I’ve spent more time discussing discussing Hannibal Lecter here than any other character in literature. This is a blog about writing, after all, and Lecter’s example is as good as case studies get, since it serves as both a model and a cautionary tale. The man we meet in The Silence of the Lambs, and to a lesser extent Red Dragon, is arguably the most compelling character to come out of the popular fiction of the last thirty years. Barely a decade elapsed before his most memorable cinematic appearance topped the list of AFI’s heroes and villains, which is astonishing for a role with less than twenty minutes of screen time. At his best, Thomas Harris is a suspense novelist of stunning intelligence and resourcefulness, and he’s written three novels that absolutely deserve to be ranked among the finest in the genre, as well as a flawed fourth book full of remarkable moments—although the fifth is best left unmentioned. But to a large extent, his reputation rests entirely on the creation of one character, and it’s defined his career to a degree that I don’t think he ever expected.
Of course, Harris himself was finally unable to keep Lecter under control, and if his prolonged silence is any indication, it seems that he’s gathering his energies for something else. This is all speculation, of course; Harris is notoriously private, and he’s never been anything but a slow, painstaking writer. But he’s also a man who wrote Hannibal Rising largely to avoid seeing his character fall into other hands, and I believe he’s intelligent enough to sense that the result is by far his weakest book. Hence the surprise of Hannibal, the NBC series that invents entirely new backstories for many of Harris’s most famous characters, all without the author’s involvement. I can’t say for sure what inspired Harris to relinquish control, and for all I know, there could be complicated rights issues involved. But I’d like to believe that Harris recognizes that he’s already sucked this particular vein dry, and is ready, at last, to move on. I’ve said before that an entirely new suspense novel from Harris would be the literary event of the year, possibly the decade, and I still hold out hope that we’ll see it.
As for Hannibal itself, I’m not sure how I feel. I watched the premiere last week, and plan to tune in again tonight, if only to catch a welcome glimpse of Gillian Anderson. It’s a well-crafted show, and there’s a lot of talent on both sides of the camera, but it also sets problems for itself that it may not be able to solve. Back when Red Dragon was first published, the figure of Will Graham, a profiler who willed himself into crime scenes to the point where he saw them play out through the killer’s eyes, may have been novel, but by now, we’ve seen variations on this character so many times that we’re already tuning out, no matter how hard the show works to make his the result visually exciting. Even more problematic is the casting of Mads Mikkelsen as Lecter. Mikkelsen is a fine actor, but his cold eyes and angular face make it hard for him to convey the character’s supposed charm, much less pass himself off as one of the leading lights of Baltimore society. He all but advertises that he’s the bad guy, which will only make his relationship with Graham increasingly implausible as the series continues.
But it’s really the premise itself that risks making the show unsustainable. Lecter needs to be in his cell, because he’s much less compelling for what he is than for what he was. His qualities as an epicure, a man of culture, and a social darling are all important facts to establish, but they only gain meaning from their absence: Lecter fascinates us once all these things have been taken away, leaving only a cold, flawless brain behind a pane of bulletproof glass, and what both Hannibal and the novel of the same name demonstrate is that it isn’t especially interesting to watch the old Lecter go about his business. (If Harris’s novel is any indication, he spends most of his time shopping.) If the show runs for long enough, it will eventually end up back where it needs to be, but it doesn’t do itself any favors by starting so far back in the timeline. As Lecter himself might say, a television series ought to start from first principles. And as it stands, it’s going to be a very long time before we see Hannibal back where he belongs.
On April 25, Newton Compton Editori will release Il ladro di reliquie, the Italian translation of The Icon Thief. It’s been a long wait, but things are starting to move very quickly: although we received the initial offer over a year ago, the publication date remained up in the air for a long time, and the final cover art was sent for my approval only last week. The result, as you can see, is really gorgeous, and you can also read the first three translated chapters on the official site. (For those who are curious about how this process works, Penguin owns world English rights to the novel, but there’s also a dedicated foreign rights agent at my literary agency who systematically shops the book to international publishers, usually with the help of affiliates who know the local markets. Italy happens to have been the first country where we made a sale, but I’m hopeful that one day there will be others.)
Seeing a translation of a novel you’ve written is very different from going through the process for the first time: I’ve been only tangentially involved, and I don’t have much of a say over packaging or marketing, so I’m as curious about the result as anyone else. Once my author’s copies arrive, I’m hoping to diligently work my way through as much of the text as possible, which strikes me as a good way to brush up on my Italian. (I tried something similar years ago with the original text of Foucault’s Pendulum, much of which I know by heart, but gave up after realizing that Eco’s vocabulary was, shall we say, rather specialized.) Reading over the translated pages I’ve seen so far is a slightly surreal experience. At this point, I’ve read The Icon Thief so many times that I have trouble even seeing the words, so trying to parse the Italian allows me to see these scenes with fresh eyes for the first time in years. And for that, I’m already grateful.