Archive for the ‘Publishing’ Category
One of the great satisfactions of my life over the last few years has been the chance to write and publish more short fiction. I began submitting stories to Analog mostly because I thought seeing my work there would be inherently cool, and I never thought it would attract much attention. (It certainly wasn’t for the money. As I’ve mentioned before, from a financial point of view, writing short stories is a losing proposition, and Stephen King breaks down the numbers even more amusingly in the introduction to his classic collection Skeleton Crew.) Over time, though, as I began to rack up a few more sales, I noticed something funny: people began to remember who I was. In fact, I’d say that if a casual reader recognizes my name now, it’s more likely because of my short fiction than my novels, at least judging from the reaction that I’ve seen online.
This is just a roundabout way of saying that I was incredibly pleased to see my name on the cover of the September issue of Analog, which includes my novelette “The Whale God” as its lead story. You can even read an excerpt here, along with what may be the kindest thing anyone has yet said in public about my work in any medium:
Alec Nevala-Lee provides our lead story for September, and it’s just the sort of thing he’s proving to be a master of: a tale set in an atypical location, with science fiction that arrives from an unexpected direction.
That more or less sums up the kind of story I’ve always wanted to write, ever since I first started watching The X-Files. And I don’t take it for granted. Every sale still feels like a gift, and if anything, it only makes me try harder. Right now, I’m working on a new story, and the pressure is on to make it as good as I possibly can—because what I’ve discovered, much to my surprise, is that somebody might actually read it.
“The Whale God” is available now in the September 2013 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, for sale online and at bookstores and newsstands everywhere. I’ll also be writing more about the origins of the story sometime in the next few weeks.
Will you please have Mr. Darrow send me a statement of whatever money is due me? [After reading the reviews for Look Homeward, Angel] I shall not write any more books, and since I must begin to make other plans for the future, I should like to know how much money I will have.
If there’s one piece of advice that young writers receive more than any other, it’s that it can be dangerous to look for easy answers. Everyone dreams of an overnight success, and there are times when the need to get published and establish a name for yourself feels like a matter of life and death. Not surprisingly, many writers, especially younger ones, want to get the whole mess over with as soon as they possibly can. When I read posts by aspiring writers online, I’m often struck by the sense of urgency: they want to get published right now, and they’re hoping to discover a magic solution that will allow them to crack the problem of selling a book. The wise response, usually given by other writers who have been tackling the same challenge for years, is that it’s dangerous to seek a quick fix for something so amorphous as the writing life. If it takes ten thousand hours of practice or a million words to attain any degree of mastery, it isn’t a process you want to rush, and you need to be willing to settle in for an extended apprenticeship and long periods of doubt and frustration.
This is absolutely the right answer to give, and I’ve given it a few times myself. When I look back at my own life, however, I find that I’ve spent much of it in search of easy answers or overnight fame. I wrote my first novel at age thirteen, and when I was cranking it out on WordStar, I wasn’t thinking of it as an early stage in a long apprenticeship: I really wanted to write the best science-fiction novel of all time. Later, in high school, I got four hundred pages into an even more ambitious project, both because I wanted to get published as soon as possible and because I thought it might give me an edge in my college applications, which in retrospect seems like a rather misguided choice of extracurricular activities. And of all the projects I’ve attempted since then, finished or unfinished, published or unpublished, most of them were undertaken amid dreams of sudden glory, with what seemed like an urgent artistic deadline, usually in the form of an upcoming birthday. I knew intellectually that the writing life would be an extended process with as many defeats as triumphs. But each time I started a novel, I told myself that this one was going to be different.
And I don’t necessarily think that this is the wrong approach to take. I’ve mentioned before that there’s a place for irrational optimism in the writing life: it’s such an uncertain, risky proposition that few writers would stick with it for long if they weren’t all convinced that they were the exception to the rule. As the venture capitalist Paul Graham has said: “One reason the young sometimes succeed where the old fail is that they don’t realize how incompetent they are.” And it’s important for young writers to overrate their own talents—or the odds of success for any particular project—because otherwise few debut novels would get written at all. Writing a novel is such a long, sometimes thankless process that you need to be convinced from the start that this is the project that will change your life. It rarely is, of course, and when that change finally happens, it never comes in quite the form you’ve been expecting. But as much as you may know this in your mind, you feel something else entirely in your gut. And that’s fine.
In the meantime, it’s that search for a quick fix that keeps you going, and when you look back, you often discover that you’ve learned a huge amount about craft almost by accident. Artistic maturity comes into being in the same way that Proust notes we get wisdom in other ways—as a result of countless small mistakes, and by surviving all the “fatuous and unwholesome incarnations” that we pass through along the line:
We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.
In short, as much as I tell young writers to avoid the search for quick fixes, I know they aren’t going to listen—and they shouldn’t. Because artistic maturity is really just the result of a lifetime looking in vain for ways to avoid it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Icon Thief, my first novel, arrived in stores exactly a year ago today, and like most debut novelists, I had a vague idea that being published would change my life, even if I wasn’t entirely sure how. I was pretty sure that it would feel like a form of validation, a way of proving to myself, if not to others, that the time I’d spent learning to write—with all the opportunity costs it represented—hadn’t been wasted. I was fairly confident that it would allow me to describe myself more comfortably as an author at cocktail parties. I hoped it would give me a chance to connect with other writers and readers—which, as it happened, is true. Above all, I secretly hoped that having a published novel would allow me to relax. The last six years of my life, not to mention most of the previous two decades, had been spent in a state of restless ambition, and I was looking forward to a chance to pause and take satisfaction in what I’d accomplished.
A year later, my life has changed surprisingly little, at least on the professional side. (On a personal level, it has changed in fundamental ways that have little to do with writing.) I still write at least five days a week. My routine has remained largely intact, aside from the inevitable adjustments that a newborn baby requires. This blog still takes up a lot of my time. I’m even working on the same novel I was a year ago—I turned in the latest draft of Eternal Empire to my editor at Penguin only last week. And my inner life is what it always was. I’m still competitive, conscious of my flaws as a writer, and hopeful that the next book will be the one where I finally get everything right. The validation I was hoping to achieve is certainly there, but I should have known better than to think that one novel would be enough. Part of this is simply the natural human tendency to take whatever we have for granted, but there are still times when I look around and marvel at how much is basically the same.
But the real reason not much has changed has more to do with a choice I made more than six years ago. When I decided to quit my job to write, it was partially because I suspected I’d never finish a novel otherwise, but also because this was the version of my life I wanted to pursue. My physical needs have always been fairly modest, aside from a place to write and a steady supply of new reading material, but what I wanted, more than anything else, was time—time to read, to write, to think at length about what interested me, and to spend as many of my waking hours doing so as possible. Writing, really, is a means to an end, a way for me to structure each day in the way I prefer. Doing so, in the beginning, required a lot of sacrifices and a drastic change of lifestyle; it meant walking a way from a job I liked and accepting a greater degree of uncertainty. If there was a turning point in my life as a writer, it took place long before I ever had a chance at making a living at it.
And if it still feels much the same now, it’s because it’s basically of a piece with the life I decided to make for myself. In the years since, I’ve gotten married, moved to new city, and became a father, but throughout it all, there’s been a strange sense of continuity: the shift in my inner life that began when I decided, once and for all, to really be a writer—rather than spend all my time dreaming about it—has persisted with every change in my outward circumstances. It isn’t a perfect life by any means, but it’s one that I’ve chosen for myself. This isn’t something that being published can validate or determine; it’s the result of the countless small choices and compromises that I’ve had to make to sit at this desk every day. Without it, my novels wouldn’t exist, but they’re less the goal than a part of the fabric. My life hasn’t changed much by being published, but then, it was already more or less where I wanted it to be.
I hate getting notes. I’m well aware that they’re an important part of the writing process, and I’ve learned from hard experience that you ignore them at your peril, but still, the moment before I open a letter full of editorial comments is always an uneasy one. The great editor Walter Murch, talking about movie preview screenings, describes feeling “skinless” beforehand, and that’s as good a characterization as I can imagine. You’ve spent weeks or months living with a story, and by now, you’ve been so thoroughly exposed to every word that you take it all for granted—but that feeling goes away as soon as an outsider presumes to give you feedback. At this point, I have a trusted circle of readers whose opinions I seek out for every novel I write, but even now, whenever I’m about to look at what they’ve actually said, I’m already telling myself that these are only suggestions, and maybe even preparing myself to pick and choose which notes to really take seriously.
The short answer, at least when it comes to notes from someone with a direct stake in the novel, like an editor or an agent, is that you should listen to every goddamned one. And I say this as much from an artistic as a pragmatic perspective. You may feel that their comments miss the point, that they’ve overlooked important subtleties in the story, that the changes they’re suggesting would irrevocably alter the fine web of narrative you’ve constructed. But I’ve invariably found that there are always ways to address an intelligent reader’s specific concerns while maintaining the heart of what you want to express. To admit anything less would be to confess to a failure of craft or nerve. Sometimes you’ll need to split the difference, or give certain comments more weight than others. But I rarely feel satisfied until I can look back at an editorial letter and confirm that I’ve crossed every last point off the list. (And as an aside, I should note that if an agent tells you that a novel needs to be cut, he’s almost certainly right.)
When it comes to other readers, you can exercise greater discretion. Of my usual circle, a few have been recruited primarily to check the text for obvious factual or continuity errors, or to give me their overall impressions rather than a detailed response. When one of them comes back with a question about how a certain line is worded, I often ignore it: at this point in my life, I’m reasonably secure in my basic writing skills, and if I think a sentence works, I’m likely to keep it. But not always. If the fix is an easy one, and I don’t feel strongly one way or the other, I’ll sometimes make the change. After all, I can always go back and restore it. In practice, however, I tend to forget, and in the end, the change is absorbed imperceptibly into the larger text. It helps, of course, that I’ve chosen my readers carefully, that I’ve worked with them in the past, and that I’m reasonably confident that they’ll heed T.S. Eliot’s sage advice: “An editor should tell the author his writing is better than it is. Not a lot better, a little better.”
Which is the most important point of all. You need to choose your readers wisely, not just for the quality of the feedback they provide, but for the trust they inspire. And not every potential reader will qualify. It won’t be true of everyone in your writer’s group, or in your short fiction class, or on the board of your college literary magazine. Part of being a writer is knowing which readers merit your unqualified respect, and giving it to them once they’ve earned it. When you look back at the famously combative correspondence between Raymond Carver and his editor Gordon Lish, you can sense the initial positive emotions begin to shake, then sour, then boil over:
Now, I’m afraid, mortally afraid, I feel it, that if the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story…I think I had best pull out, Gordon, before it goes any further. I realize I stand every chance of losing your love and friendship over this. But I strongly feel I stand every chance of losing my soul and my mental health over it, if I don’t take that risk.
Yet Carver stuck it out, and we’re all the better for it. But not every reader is worthy of such trust, as much as they should all strive to deserve it. Tomorrow, I’m going to delve into an even more difficult topic: what to do when someone asks for your thoughts on a story.
I don’t know why [I write], but it’s a compulsion. I feel that after working a long time, I’ve really learned how to do what I do. I enjoy it. I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying than turning out a good stanza or a good piece of prose. And when you’re satisfied enough, you want to show it to other people. That’s called publication.
The short answer is yes. The long answer is that while we’re living in a time in which writers have a dizzying range of options for releasing their work outside the traditional system, from independent presses to self-publishing to online, there are still strong reasons to try to get an agent first. None of the major houses, to my knowledge, will even consider unagented manuscripts these days, and although they’re far from the only game in town, they have undeniable advantages in promoting and placing the work of unproven writers—so it makes sense to try to land your book at one of the big six if you think you possibly can. Even if you decide that a small or independent press is better suited to your needs, the process of looking for an agent anyway will tell you a great deal about the quality of your work and the realities of your chosen profession. It can be long and frustrating, and every writer has experienced setbacks and rejection. But even if you feel that a writer’s life has frustration enough already, there’s nothing like systematically seeking representation from objective, overworked, but usually intelligent strangers to clarify certain important truths about how ready you really are.
My own career is a good example. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, after writing my first novel, I landed an excellent agent in what seemed like record time, only to spend the next year on a series of frustrating rewrites, which finally ended with our parting ways without ever showing the book to publishers. It isn’t an experience I’d want to go through again. But the uncomfortable fact, now that I can look back on the episode with something like a cool head, is that my agent, damn it, was right. The book wasn’t ready. I recently had the chance to read it over again for the first time in years—and in fact I’m revising it as we speak—and it’s clear now that it just wasn’t good enough, at least not for publishers we wanted. There’s a lot of potential there, and at the moment, I’m hopeful that it will eventually find an audience. But at the time, I wasn’t experienced enough to tell the difference between a precocious first draft and a novel that people would actually want to buy and read. My agent was. More to the point, he was willing to tell me this repeatedly, and to walk away after it became clear that it wasn’t going to get there.
Obviously, I wish it had gone some other way, but on balance, I’m grateful. If I hadn’t been so determined to find an agent and place the book with a major publisher, I might well have decided to release it myself, which would have been a huge mistake: I’d be embarrassed today if that novel, in its earlier form, had been the first book I presented to the world. A good agent has the kind of objectivity that an author, and even friends and early readers, aren’t always capable of providing. All he wants is a book he can sell, or at least one that he can show to editors without violating their trust in the quality of his submissions, which, in the long run, is the only thing that matters. And although it might seem as if agents would encourage writers to compromise or make their work more commercial, in my experience, this isn’t the case: they’re only concerned that the book realize its potential, whether as a thriller, a literary novel, or a collection of short stories. (It’s also worth pointing out that most major publishers have essentially outsourced the editing process to agents: with editors themselves more concerned with packaging and marketing, your agent may be the only real editor you’ll ever have.)
The question of how to find an agent is another topic entirely, and one I don’t have room to fully discuss here, although there are plenty of other resources available online. Every author has a different story about how he or she sought representation, which, for most of us, largely comes down to research, carefully reading the acknowledgments sections of authors we admire, and living as much as possible among other writers. (I got my current agent through a friend from college, whom I never would have met if we hadn’t both been involved with my undergraduate literary magazine.) Above all, it requires persistence and luck. I got my first agent in five days, while finding my second agent—the one who actually sold The Icon Thief, City of Exiles, and their successors to Penguin—took years. But the experience itself is worth it, if only for the other rewards it brings. It’s possible that I would have grown into a better writer in any case, but in looking for an agent, I was forced to grow, and get better, and teach myself how to survive in a game where the odds are never in your favor. Most good writers eventually find an agent. But it was often the search that made them good in the first place.
“When I was a critic,” writes François Truffaut, “I thought that a successful film had simultaneously to express an idea of the world and an idea of cinema.” I’d argue that this holds true of all works of art, no matter what form they take. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from trying to survive as a working writer, it’s that every book is secretly about the process of its own creation, and the ideas that it tries to express about the world are inextricable from the author’s own experience in writing it. This was certainly the case with City of Exiles. As I’ve said many times before, this is a book about interpretation—about how we read meaning into the world around us and into our own lives—dramatized in the form of two authentic unsolved mysteries: Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot and the incident in the Dyatlov Pass. I combined these two plot threads almost at fancy, drawn intuitively by their thematic and narrative resonance, and did the best I could to embed my solutions in an exciting story about men and women who are also in search of answers, or at least willing to impose them on others. Exile, in this novel, is sometimes literal, but it’s more often a state of existence that my characters carry within themselves, and it’s only now, when I can look back at the book with some detachment, that I understand that this was a story I had to write at that point in my career.
In some ways, I wrote City of Exiles largely to prove to myself that I could. The Icon Thief, like all first novels, was something of a fluke, however diligently pursued: I was writing on my own, without a lot of outside expectations beyond the ones I’d created for myself, and although I’d been writing fiction for most of my life, I was still figuring out basic problems of craft as I went along. My second novel, inevitably, was conceived and written under radically different circumstances. I was being paid to write a book under contract; I had a number of interested parties deeply invested in the outcome; and I was operating under considerable time constraints. It took more than two years to bring my first novel to completion, while the second had just over nine months from synopsis to delivery, which left me with little room for error. As as result, I had to plan it carefully and hope that the final product wasn’t too different from what I’d promised to write. It was a difficult, often taxing experience, but in the end, the novel was startlingly close to the story I’d set out to tell, although there were a number of big surprises along the way. And for the first time, I got a sense of what it really meant to be a working novelist. (It’s no accident that my work on the book coincided with the birth of this blog.)
This struck me, and still does, as the most meaningful discovery I made. When you’re writing your first novel, you’re secretly convinced, and not without reason, that everything will stand or fall on this one book. A second novel, by contrast, implies the future existence of a third, and possibly more, which leads to a very different state of mind. It’s less about any one book than about the idea of working on something or other for the rest of your life, and City of Exiles was the novel where this vision of what my career might be finally fell into place. When I agreed to write it, I didn’t know what the novel would be about, and I had never anticipated writing a series: I just knew that, by the end of the year, it had to exist. The result was a curious mixture of freedom and constraint. The book could be about anything, really, as long as it resembled a sequel to The Icon Thief and brought back certain crucial characters from the first novel. (In fact, Ilya’s return was essentially written into the contract, probably as a formality to ensure that the book I delivered wasn’t completely unlike its predecessor.) Although the finished work hopefully feels like all of a piece, it was initially assembled from various components I simply felt like writing about, trusting that they would come together in the right way. It was a test of all I’d learned since writing my first book, and there were times, in the early days, when I felt that I was willing this novel into existence.
But every novel is the result of some combination of willpower and serendipity, and as I continued to write, I found myself learning a great deal about the story along the way. (As I hope to explain further in an eventual author’s commentary, there’s one shocking development that I didn’t anticipate at all when I began writing, and which deeply influenced the plot of the third installment.) And in many ways, I’m prouder of it than of anything else I’ve published. While The Icon Thief reads, accurately, like a highly compressed version of a novel that was originally much longer, City of Exiles feels to me like the work of a novelist who is finally hitting his stride. In the passage quoted above, Truffaut continues: “Today, I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between; I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse.” To my eyes, this book pulses with the effort of a writer earnestly committed to figuring out his own craft and what his life as a novelist will be, as much as to solving the problems, sometimes devastating, faced by his characters themselves. It helped me understand, for the first time, what John Gardner means when he describes writing as a way of life in the world. And in the end, the life whose meaning I was discovering, line by line, was my own.
City of Exiles is available now at bookstores everywhere.
It would be nice if writing a series of novels came down to publishing a bunch of books with vaguely similar covers, but unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. Series fiction, especially in suspense, is inherently problematic because it violates an important aspect of what we know about the world. It’s true that life doesn’t lend itself to being confined easily within four hundred pages, and any story can be extended indefinitely in either direction—life rarely affords us the luxury of tidy endings. (As Sydney Pollack points out in Eyes Wide Shut: “Life goes on. It always does. Until it doesn’t.”) But series fiction pushes this sense of continuity in artificial directions, by assuming that not only does life go on, but it rhymes. In most mystery series, the protagonist doesn’t change appreciably from book to book, is confronted with the same kind of case in each installment, and usually ends up more or less where he started. Events in one book rarely have any impact on the next. And while this sort of structure is acceptable on television—although it took me a while to accept the lack of narrative memory on shows like The X-Files—it often rings false in fiction, and can even become enervating for the author himself. Conan Doyle famously killed off his own creation, and one occasionally senses a touch of exhaustion in such otherwise excellent writers like Daniel Silva, whose publishers have gently nudged him back toward his trademark character when he might have preferred to move on.
When it came time to write the sequel to The Icon Thief, I wanted to avoid this trap as best as I could. I was determined, for instance, that City of Exiles change the stakes of the series in tangible ways, and when I realized, early in the planning process, that I was simply repeating the same pattern as before—of Ilya staying just barely ahead of his pursuers—I decided to move forcefully in the opposite direction, with consequences that readers of the novel will discover for themselves. In some ways, I was aided by the fact that I’d never intended my debut novel to be the first installment in a series. In an excellent essay published in the classic mystery companion Murder Ink, the novelist Peter Dickinson draws a useful distinction between novels that were conceived with a series character in mind and those that stumbled into it by accident. A deliberate series hero, he observes, often starts out with a list of quirky character markers designed mostly to set him apart from similar protagonists (“Let’s say he has a club-foot and rides an enormous bike…”), while the accidental hero evolves in a more organic way, based on the needs of the first novel in which he appears:
These are the detectives who come into existence because the author wants to write a particular book. The book itself demands a detective, and he grows into being, quite slowly, finding his shape and nature from the needs of the book and the author’s own needs.
This is essentially what happened with Ilya, as well as with my beloved Rachel Wolfe. I didn’t intend to bring them back, and when I did, I found that I was stuck with the attributes I’d invented for them in the first novel—which ended up being a source of fruitful ideas and constraints. The single greatest trick I’ve learned from writing a series involves finding where the real essence of a novel, or a character, lies, and not confusing this with more superficial qualities. Ilya was conceived as a resourceful thief and assassin, but in the second novel, he doesn’t steal much of anything and kills only out of necessity. As a result, I was forced to dig deeper, and by following some hints from the first novel—his bookishness, his fascination with Jewish mysticism, and his discovery that everything he believed about his sense of honor was a lie—I was able to see him more clearly than before, as a man trying to come to terms with the division between the two halves of his personality. Similarly, if my only goal had been to write a novel with a story resembling that of the first, I would have centered it on another enigmatic work of art, which was the last thing I wanted to do. Instead, I looked at the novel slantwise, and saw that it was really about the problem of interpretation, and the stories we tell about ourselves and the world around us. This led me to concentrate on historical mysteries instead, and ultimately led me into the Dyatlov Pass.
Series fiction also turned out to be a testing ground for my ideas about backstory. Usually, I deal with my aversion to backstory by refusing to create it in the first place, to the point where important details of my characters’ backgrounds are left deliberately vague, even to me. For my second book, not only did this backstory already exist, but there was an entire novel’s worth of it, so I had to decide early on how much of this previous material to include. My solution, which probably won’t come as a surprise to regular readers, was to refer to the earlier book as little as possible, which ended up being both a philosophical and a pragmatic decision. The second book in a series occupies a peculiar position: it needs to reward those who have read the first novel, but also be accessible and interesting to those encountering these characters for the first time. Finding the right balance between telling a completely self-contained story and honoring the complicated history of the first novel was a real challenge, and it taught me a lot about what information is essential and what can be safely dropped—a lesson that I’ve put into practice for the third and final novel in the series, Eternal Empire, and hope to draw upon for any books I write in the future. The result, I’d like to think, is a pair of novels that read perfectly well on their own, but gain additional richness and resonance when taken as part of a larger whole. Tomorrow, on the day City of Exiles finally comes out, I’ll try to pull all of this together, and explain what I learned from writing my second novel.
With only four days remaining until the release of City of Exiles, my vast promotional machine is kicking into something resembling high gear. If you’re in the Chicago area today, I’ll be appearing at a local authors event at the Oak Park Public Library at 2pm, where advance copies of the new novel will be on sale. And if you can’t make it, you can at least enjoy this promotional video, which I recorded last summer and is finally available online. Looking at it now, I’m more amused by it than anything else, both by the fact that they cut half an hour of material down to just over a minute—probably wisely—and by the enormous microphone clipped to my shirt. But if you’ve been dying to see me in action, here’s your chance.
When I began figuring out the plot of City of Exiles, the most surprising decision, and one I never could have anticipated when I first sent The Icon Thief to publishers, involved the identity of the central protagonist. At first glance, I had an obvious candidate for the lead of my second novel: Ilya Severin, the Russian thief and former assassin who stands at the heart of the entire series. Yet I had good reasons for wanting to avoid telling most of the novel from Ilya’s point of view. As I’ve explained before, Ilya is one of those characters, like Hannibal Lecter, who becomes more interesting, at least to my eyes, the more he’s kept offstage. Over the course of three novels, I’ve guarded him very carefully, and there are still aspects of his interior life and backstory that I don’t know myself, which is precisely how it should be. Ilya is far from an idealized figure, and has his share of vulnerabilities and flaws, but I also wanted him to retain an aura of mystery. Explain too much, or write too many chapters from his point of view, and the mystery falls away. And although he’s still a crucial character in these books, less than a third—and maybe closer to a quarter—of the series is narrated from his perspective.
I also didn’t want to write the second novel from the perspective of Maddy Blume, the art analyst who drives most of the action of The Icon Thief. My reasons for moving beyond Maddy are slightly more complicated. On a practical level, it didn’t seem plausible that she’d be involved in another convoluted thriller plot so soon after the first one ended: unlike Ilya, she isn’t naturally part of that world, and although she makes certain choices at the end of the previous book that will end up haunting her later, I thought she deserved a break. I was also a little exhausted from writing about her the first time around. Maddy is by far the most difficult character I’ve ever had to create, and although I’m pleased by the result, I made a lot of wrong turns along the way. At the time, I didn’t see how to return to her story without repeating much of the material from before, and I wanted the second novel to feel fresh, as well as accessible to readers encountering the series for the first time. (Of course, nothing is set in stone: Maddy returns as a lead character in my third novel, Eternal Empire. But I don’t think I could have hit on that new story, which follows inexorably from the events of the first novel, without taking a step back in the meanwhile.)
As a result, when I looked over the first book to decide who my protagonist would be, I ended up being drawn to the last person I could have expected. Elsewhere, I’ve noted that Rachel Wolfe, my intrepid FBI agent, essentially began as a convenience to the plot: in the first draft of The Icon Thief, she more or less exists to give Powell someone to talk to, and early on, she had little to do except play Watson to his Holmes. Making her a woman was something that occurred fairly late in the outline process, mostly because I saw that the novel, as it stood, had a dearth of female characters. Yet gradually, almost without my being aware of it, she caught fire. The slightly random decision to make her a Mormon, in particular, provided me with an incredibly rich vein of material: as an outsider, I’ve long admired many aspects of Mormon culture—its emphasis on frugality, preparedness, industry, and general clean living—and what I wanted, above all else, was to create an admirable, intelligent, heroic character who was also a Mormon without apology or irony. If I’ve since had Wolfe begin to doubt aspects of her own faith, that’s more a reflection of my own personality than anything else, and she’s still the straitlaced, slightly square woman with whom I fell in love.
In the end, then, Wolfe became not only the lead of City of Exiles, but probably the character I like the most in the entire series, and the one who has been the greatest pleasure to write. And this is only a measure of how unpredictable this process can be. I plan and outline my novels very carefully, to an extent that has caused occasional amusement or consternation among other writers, but this doesn’t exclude the possibility of surprises—rather, it creates a matrix in which such surprises naturally occur. The decision to follow Wolfe wherever she took me was made intuitively, almost on impulse, and there was no guarantee at the time that I’d made the right call. Now, however, it seems inevitable. If Maddy was my attempt to write a character who reflected, in some ways, who I was at the time, Wolfe is more like the person I’d like to be. She’s stronger, smarter, and more principled than her creator, but she’s also trying to answer some of the same questions about the world, and I count myself lucky to have lived for a time in her head. And it’s something that never would have happened if I hadn’t been asked to turn my first book into a series. On Monday, I’ll be talking more about the challenges of series fiction, and what the experience has taught me about writing in general.
From the very beginning, I knew that City of Exiles would be set in London, but I’m not entirely sure how I decided this. The obvious explanation is that this is where the last few pages of The Icon Thief unfold, with a quiet act of revenge at a town house in Fulham, and it was easiest to pick up the story more or less where it left off. But that’s only part of the reason. Once I realized that I was writing a series of at least two books, and probably three, it seemed inevitable that the action would gradually move east, starting in New York, crossing the ocean, and continuing across Europe until it finally ended, in the concluding installment, in Russia. London was the logical next step. And because it’s a city with a rich history as a setting for the kind of suspense and mystery novels I love, from Conan Doyle to John le Carré, I knew that I had to do it justice, as I hoped I’d done with the New York and Philadelphia locations of The Icon Thief.
The trouble was that although I’d been to London several times, I’d never regarded it with the sort of greedy, scavenging eye of an author looking for material, which meant that if this novel was going to work at all, I had to do research on location. In the end, I flew out for a week in February of last year for what must be one of the strangest trips on record. I had six full days to visit a range of places that could have easily taken twice as long to cover properly. My only guide was a very tentative outline of the plot. I’d assigned various parts of the city to different chapters as best as I could, based on geographical or narrative considerations, but in many cases, I wasn’t sure what would happen in the scene until I got there. (For example, the chapter in which Lasse Karvonen, my Finnish assassin, pays a visit to Finsbury Park was basically plotted in real time, as I walked up and down a block of houses below the railway tracks, looking for the best way to kill a man.)
And the result was a very unusual working vacation, the highlight of which was probably my side trip to Belgium, in which I spent $300 on a train ticket to Brussels only to turn around and come back within a couple of hours, all for the sake of describing a similar trip that a character takes in a single chapter. (I did have a chance to visit the Royal Museums, where I paid homage to The Death of Marat, the painting that makes a brief appearance in the epilogue of The Icon Thief.) When I left, my phone didn’t have any of the usual snapshots of tourist attractions or historic sites. Instead, it was picture after picture of garages, weedy lots, council estates, apartment complexes, and pub toilets. My only real tourist stop appears in the novel as well: like my protagonist, Rachel Wolfe, I made a pilgrimage to Baker Street, only to find a block of dry cleaning shops and fast food restaurants. I wore out a pair of shoes and developed a bad case of blisters, and every night, I wrote in my tiny hotel room for hours.
But none of this, I should make clear, was for the sake of mere accuracy, although I was trying to be as correct in my descriptions as possible: it was about gathering imaginative material. Knowing that one of your characters will die in a garage in Stoke Newington isn’t as helpful as knowing that he’ll die in this garage, on this particular block, with a Turkish restaurant on the corner and peeling wheatpaste flyers on the fence across the street. Later, after realizing that a large part of the novel would essentially consist of a detailed crime procedural, I supplemented my location work by reading a shelf’s worth of books on police work and forensics, many of which I picked up in the true crime sections of used bookstores in London. But without that short but intense visit, I don’t think the resulting novel would have worked at all. I doubt I’ll ever be able capture the city in all its complexity, but I can at least write about it from the point of view of a visitor—or an exile. Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit more about some of the exiles themselves, and how I found my novel’s unlikely heroine.
Technically, you aren’t supposed to study the work of the chariot until the age of forty, but I first encountered it as a teenager, in the pages of The White Goddess by Robert Graves. At the time, I thought that this was one of the greatest books ever written, and although it’s still among my favorites, I’ve since come to regard it with a degree of ambivalence. In fact, it’s an incredibly evolved version of the sort of obsessive overinterpretation that we see among the characters in Foucault’s Pendulum, or even the novels of Dan Brown, only executed at a immeasurably higher level of sophistication. If anything, this makes me love the book all the more: it’s unsustainable as a religious or historical argument, but as an example of an unparalleled intuitive intellect exercising his talents on the whole range of poetic and mystical literature, it’s a delight, and there’s never been anything quite like it. I still think it’s a book that everyone should read, but with full awareness that it’s more like an ingenious magic trick, infinitely repeated, than a tenable work of religious history.
Not surprisingly, the parts of the book that have stuck with me most strongly are the ones that seem, at first, like sidelines to the main argument. Graves tells us, in an aside, how to untie the Gordian knot, and gives us practical solutions to the “unanswerable” questions from Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial: what song the sirens sang, and what name Achilles assumed when he hid among the women. And he also deals, unforgettably, with the vision in the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, in a handful of pages that have haunted me for most of my life. Ezekiel is in exile, standing by the river Chebar, when the heavens open and he has visions of God. From out of a whirlwind, he sees four winged cherubim emerge, each with the head of a man, a lion, an eagle, and an ox, as well as the feet of a calf, and the wheels of a vast chariot—each “a wheel within a wheel”—that turn of their own accord. Above the chariot is the figure of a man, made of fire from the waist down. Ezekiel falls into a swoon, and out of the sky, a voice begins to speak.
The first point that needs to be made about this vision is that it was literally dangerous to its readers: the rabbinical tradition tells of students who studied the vision before they were adequately prepared, and were struck by lightning or consumed by heavenly fire. It was forbidden to be read aloud in the synagogue. Yet the very act of setting up warning signs around a text like this amounts to an invitation for certain readers to study it more closely, resulting in a vast tradition of merkabah, or chariot, mysticism designed to allow the initiate to experience a similar vision, even at the risk of madness or death. Graves, for his part, believed that the vision amounted to a religious revolution, initiated by Ezekiel, in which the cult of the mother goddess and her two consorts was replaced by that of a masculine creator set against the goddess and the devil. At least, that’s what I seem to remember—the argument here is even more convoluted than usual, although frequently spellbinding on the page.
And the story continues to fascinate me. Part of it, I suppose, is the idea of a text that can cause the death or madness of an unprepared reader, which might be taken as an extreme example of the power of secrets and the risks of incautious interpretation. As I result, I spent years trying to get it into a novel, starting with an unfinished manuscript I began in high school, and intermittently in the years since. When it came time to write City of Exiles, which also centered on questions of interpretation—and the dangers that come with its misuse—I finally had an excuse to delve into it more deeply, in the person of my character Ilya Severin, who I knew would take an interest in such things. And it wasn’t until recently, when I discovered the extraordinary book The Faces of the Chariot by David J. Halperin, that I began to glimpse a solution that made literary and dramatic sense. Halperin’s book is very hard to find, and I wound up devouring it in one sitting, taking copious notes, in the reading room of the British Library. Tomorrow, I’ll explain how I ended up there, and why I decided to set my second novel in London.
In February of 1959, a group of Russian hikers, led by a man named Igor Dyatlov, embarked on an expedition in the Ural Mountains. Most of the group consisted of students or graduates of Ural Polytechnic Institute, and all were experienced mountaineers. The route they had planned was a challenging one, taking them along the eastern shoulder of a peak known in the Mansi language as Kholat Syakhl, or Mountain of Death. After arriving in the area by train, they took a truck north to the last inhabited settlement and began to walk along the valley. On the second day, one of the hikers became ill and had to turn back, leaving nine members in the group. That night, with visibility worsening, they strayed off course, and ultimately decided to camp on the side of the mountain to wait out a severe storm. Days later, when they failed to check in at their destination as scheduled, a rescue operation was set in motion, and finally discovered the remains of the camp three weeks after the group’s disappearance.
The first thing the rescue team discovered was the group’s abandoned tent, which had been badly damaged, and seemed to have been torn open from the inside. Following a line of footprints to the woods, the rescuers found the bodies of two men, both shoeless and dressed only in their underwear, although the temperature on the night of their death had been twenty degrees below freezing. Three more bodies were found across a distance of several hundred yards, as if they had tried and failed to return to camp. All had succumbed to hypothermia, and one had a fractured skull. The remaining bodies were unearthed two months later, under a deep covering of snow in a ravine in the woods. One victim had died of hypothermia. The rest had suffered severe injuries, including chest fractures and skull damage, although no external wounds were visible, and one of the hikers, a woman, was missing her tongue.
Ever since, the Dyaltov Pass incident, which an official investigation concluded was the result of “a compelling unknown force,” has been the object of intense speculation. Possible explanations, none of them completely satisfying, have included a weapons test, an attack by local tribesmen, or even an alien abduction. (Orange lights were allegedly seen in the direction of the pass on the night of the hikers’ deaths, although the fact that a snowstorm was raging at the time has called these reports into question.) But the more I reflect on the incident—and I’ve been thinking about it a lot for the past year—the more I feel that strangest thing about it is how little known it is, at least outside of Russia. I’ve always been a sucker for unexplained events, but I’d never heard of this incident until I began to look systematically at Russian history for an episode that could provide a starting point for my second novel. The fact that it took place at the height of the Cold War, and wasn’t fully reported until years later, may account for its relative unfamiliarity. But I’m still amazed that it isn’t more famous than it is.
In any case, when I initially encountered the story of the Dyatlov Pass, I had much the same reaction that I did when I first saw Étant Donnés, the work of art that stands at the heart of The Icon Thief: I knew that there was an extraordinary novel here, and that if I didn’t write it now, someone else almost certainly would—I’d just been lucky enough to get there first. My greatest challenge, I realized, lay in simply doing it justice, by conveying something of its strangeness and terror while also providing a solution that was original and hopefully convincing. Whether or not I’ve succeeded is something that my readers will need to decide for themselves, although I feel that the answer set forth in City of Exiles is at least worthy of consideration, and one that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been proposed before. Taken on its own, however, it wasn’t quite enough to sustain an entire novel. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how I combined it with one of my earliest obsessions, and how, after many false starts, I finally managed to write a book about one of the most enigmatic mysteries in the Western tradition: the work of the chariot.
“The conditions of writing change absolutely between the first novel and the second,” Graham Greene observes. “The first is an adventure, the second a duty.” Or at least it’s an adventure of a markedly different kind. A first novel is essentially a series of incursions into uncharted territory: the writing process is full of wrong turns, experiments in tone and structure that later need to be abandoned, and thematic elements introduced on the fly that turn out to be crucial to the entire conception, while others are discarded or transformed into something unrecognizable. Yet the strangest thing of all is that once the manuscript is complete, what used to be a creature shaped by chance and improvisation is now something else entirely—a template. A story that was originally constructed in response to specific, unpredictable narrative problems is now, weirdly enough, the model for its successor, at least when the second novel is designed to follow narratively and thematically from the one that came before it. And the situation is especially peculiar for an author who suddenly finds himself in the position of writing a sequel to a novel that was intended to stand on its own.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I first wrote The Icon Thief, I had no intention of writing a sequel to a book I’d conceived as a self-contained story, but when I finally sold the manuscript to Penguin, a second novel was part of the deal. When it came time to plot out the next installment, I found myself doing what Frederick Forsyth claims he did while figuring out his own second novel: he went back to his first book and reverse-engineered it, reading it again to see what he’d done intuitively and breaking it down to its basic components. In my own case, there were a number of elements in the first book that I knew I wanted to keep. I liked the underlying structure, which followed three distinct narrative threads that would overlap at various points and finally come together in the climax, and I’d learned few tricks in the meantime that would help me organize this material without a lot of the mistakes that I’d made in earlier drafts. One of these threads, as before, would be a straightforward crime procedural that would provide a useful narrative line for the reader to follow through the thickets of the plot. And I wanted to include some combination of the historical, financial, and religious elements that I’d enjoyed incorporating into the first book.
Most of all, I had to ask myself what the first novel had really been about. The answer, not surprisingly, was one that I’ve mentioned many times before: The Icon Thief turned out to be a book about how we impose meaning on the world and the events of our own lives, even in the absence of real information, or in the face of information overload. In my first book, these themes had arisen from an enigmatic work of art, but I didn’t want to go back to that well again. (Frankly, after two years spent reading about Duchamp, I was feeling a little burned out on art history.) Better, I thought, to focus on the competing interpretations of an enigmatic event, an approach that would ground the novel in a mystery from the real world—which I thought was one of the most appealing aspects of the first novel—and give the characters a chance to indulge in the kind of historical detective work that I relish writing. And it seemed fairly clear that this mystery, whatever it was, would come from the history of Russia. As I’ve explained before, I stumbled into Russia as a subject almost by accident, but now that the rules of the game had been laid down, I knew that I had to start exploring this material in a more systematic way.
Throughout the initial stages of the process, I kept asking myself a simple question: what expectations would my first novel have raised in the mind of a reasonable reader? Looking back over the story I had so far, I saw that it hinted at a larger picture involving the workings of Russian intelligence, but only in very general terms. For the sequel to build logically from the first book, I needed to drill more deeply into this shadow world, and give a clearer sense of its rules and operations. Consequently, I began by reading everything I could about Russia and its intelligence services, always keeping an eye out for the kind of enigmatic incident that could provide the germ of a story. And that’s how I stumbled across the Dyatlov Pass. Tomorrow, I’ll go into more detail about what it means and what I found there, but for now, I’ll only say that as soon as I saw it, I knew that I’d found the narrative heart of what would eventually become City of Exiles. I don’t recall the exact words I said at that moment. But I believe they were something like this: “That’s it.”