Posts Tagged ‘The Icon Thief commentary’
(Note: This post is the forty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 47. You can read the earlier installments here. Massive spoilers follow—you’ve been warned.)
In many ways, this is the central chapter of The Icon Thief. It’s the scene that gets mentioned to me the most often when I’m asked about the book, and it clearly had the greatest impact on readers. It’s also one of the few sections that I go back and read when I’m trying to convince myself that I actually wrote a decent first novel. (Most days, I feel pretty good about the whole thing, but like all writers, I cycle through varying degrees of enthusiasm for my own work.) When I first started writing this author’s commentary, this was the chapter I looked forward to discussing the most. It certainly seems to have shocked a lot of people. And the strangest thing about this chapter, which now seems so crucial to the development both of The Icon Thief and of the novels that followed, is that it wasn’t part of the plot as originally conceived. If the surprise here works, it’s partially due to the fact that I didn’t know it was coming until very late in the game: as with the revelation of Karina’s true killer, I wrote most of the novel with one plan in mind, only to switch it at the last minute, which bakes an organic form of misdirection into the story itself.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Maddy and Ethan storyline was largely inspired by the real case of Teresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake, the New York art world couple whose lives ended in paranoia and a baffling double suicide. In most respects, Ethan isn’t much like Jeremy Blake, but I’d always been haunted by the accounts of Blake’s final walk into the sea, and in the first draft, Ethan dies in much the same way. He and Maddy have both grown increasingly paranoid, largely as a result of their unwitting exposure to a neurological agent at the party several days before, and in the end, they turn on each other as well. After Ethan accuses Lermontov, Maddy’s mentor and former employer, of being part of the plot, she leaves his apartment in a rage. The next day, Ethan takes a train to Far Rockaway, leaves his wallet and keys on the beach, removes most of his clothes, and walks into the water. But we don’t see it happen. Maddy receives a call from the police telling her that her friend is dead—her number was the last one dialed on Ethan’s phone. And that’s how his story ends, even as hers is still several steps away from its ultimate resolution.
This version of the story persisted throughout more than a year of rewrites. It’s possible that I clung to it for longer than I should have, if only because I liked the idea of Ethan’s senseless death and its connection to the novel’s original inspiration. At some point, however, my agent made the case that it wasn’t a very satisfying way of writing out such an important character. My first solution was to dramatize his suicide, rather than leaving it offstage, and the result was a fairly strong chapter. (At least, I think it was fairly strong—I haven’t read it in years.) My agent still pushed back, though, saying that the fact of his suicide itself had inherent narrative problems. At this stage, remember, we’d been revising this novel for a long time without going out to publishers, and the last thing I wanted was to change the plot in a drastic way. After mulling it over, however, I began to see a possible way out, and I wrote my agent the following:
After his final argument with Maddy, Ethan, brooding over the situation, decides that he can only convince her of his theory by proving that Lermontov is involved. He walks around the city for hours, trying to build up his resolve, then leaves a note at Maddy’s house and goes to Lermontov’s gallery. Ethan doesn’t really expect to find Lermontov there, but he does. He introduces himself, lays out what he’s found, and demands that Lermontov tell him the truth about the Rosicrucians.
And Lermontov kills him.
Needless to say, that’s what eventually happens, and I think the result is the best scene in the book. In my note to my agent, I pointed out that this change solves a number of problems at once: it offers us a more compelling death scene for Ethan, gives Maddy a more urgent reason to believe that her life is in in danger, tightens the screws on Ilya—who will potentially be framed for the murder—and transforms Lermontov into a more imposing villain. (Interestingly, it’s only after reading over the note again today that I remember that I briefly considered having Reynard, Maddy’s boss, kill Ethan instead, which would have been even more out of the blue, but probably unworkable.) And it shifted the terms of the rest of the novel in ways I only gradually began to realize. At first, the chapter stood more or less on its own, with the remainder of the story proceeding along the same track as before. Eventually, though, I realized that I had to fully confront the implications of this scene. In the original version, the novel ends with the arrest of Lermontov and Vasylenko in London, with Ilya working with Powell to take them down. Reading it over again, however, I saw that this ending no longer worked. Lermontov had to be forced to pay a greater price. And Maddy was the only one who could do it…
I’ve written before about how research for a novel is less about factual accuracy than about finding material for dreams. In particular, it’s a valuable source of specificity. When you first start writing a story, your ideas tend to be vivid in certain areas and amorphous in others, and research is one way of acquiring a useful stash of facts, images, and concrete details—the building blocks out of which all good fiction is assembled. Reading books is no substitute for firsthand observation, of course, but at its best, it can supplement and enrich what you can take in through your own experience. Painters know that you often can’t see what’s right in front of your eyes unless you know what you’re looking for, which is why the formal study of anatomy and perspective is so essential. And although it may sound backward in principle, in practice, it’s often not until you’ve done a bit of work in a library that you’re prepared to take in the specifics of the world around you.
When I started writing The Icon Thief, for instance, I knew that much of the novel would unfold in Brighton Beach, since the world of Russian immigrants and mafiosos was central to the story I had in mind. This inevitably meant that I’d need to incorporate the details of the neighborhood itself into the plot. Just as Hitchcock knew that a movie set in Holland would need to include tulips and windmills, I knew that I had to incorporate the amusement parks and furniture stores of Coney Island: anything less would be a waste of material. I never had the chance to write the amusement park chase of my dreams, but otherwise, I think I made good use of the locations that the setting afforded. This was partially the result of many days spent exploring the beach and the surrounding streets and buildings, including one memorable trip to a steam room in Sheepshead Bay, but I also owed a great deal to some serendipitous secondary sources.
I knew, for example, that I would have to go under the boardwalk. Early on, I came up with the image of a woman’s headless body preserved in the sand beneath the boards, and although I didn’t know who she was or how she tied in with the rest of the story, it was an image I wanted to keep, which required a lot of surreptitious legwork. I spent the better part of several days walking on the boardwalk, studying the area underneath and trying to figure out exactly how you’d deposit a body there. I probably could have figured most of the details out on my own, but I also lucked out by finding a piece by Michael Wilson of the New York Times that described the boardwalk’s recent history, and how the space under the boards—which used to be open, walkable, and a popular spot for the homeless—had been reclaimed by the sand after the Army Corps of Engineers extended the beach. Sand, I learned, had blown in and been caught by the newly installed fences at the rear, until finally it was all the way up to the boards themselves.
This piece of information was vital, since it gave me a timeline for the dumping of the body, which could only have been brought to where it was found at a time when that section of the boardwalk was clear. Even more crucially, it taught me how to see. Going back to the boardwalk, I noticed for the first time how certain kinds of fencing allowed the sand to blow through, leaving areas that were clear enough for a man to walk upright, while sections only a few yards away were impassable. This information might have been obvious to anyone with a good pair of eyes, but in my case, it was that initial bit of research that allowed me to see the sand for what it really was. This paid off again in Chapter 46, when Ilya and Sharkovsky make their escape from the raid at the club by utilizing another gap, an area under a drinking fountain that had been deliberately kept clear to allow maintenance crews to reach the plumbing. It was there all along, but it was only because my research had taught me to think about the sand that I saw it. And otherwise, I don’t know how Ilya would ever have gotten away…
As I’ve mentioned before, no work of art has had a greater influence on my own fiction, at least on a practical level, than the movie L.A. Confidential. The novel is extraordinary as well, of course, and there are moments and scenes, like the last stand of Buzz Meeks, that I’ve revisited countless times. Yet it’s the movie that sticks in my head, both for its surface pleasures of action and atmosphere and for its deeper structure. Something about its story of three rival cops whose lives intersect at crucial moments appealed to me at once: it’s the best illustration I know of how a multiple plot can become greater than the sum of its parts, until it seems to encompass an entire world. It opens up possibilities of contrast, juxtaposition, and shifting perspectives, and when the pieces come together at last, it’s with an almost musical satisfaction. As a result, this kind of tripartite plot has been central to each of the novels I’ve written, although I’ve since come to see the film’s example as rather misleading: most stories lend themselves best to a single point of view, and there’s a reason why a movie like this only comes around once a decade or so.
But when I look back, I find that I’ve also misremembered or deliberately distorted the film’s structure in my own imagination. I’ve always thought of it as a movie that starts with its three main characters far apart, only to bring them inexorably together, but this isn’t exactly true. In fact, two of its three major characters share just one scene. On the night of Bloody Christmas, Jack Vincennes sticks his head into Bud White’s office and says: “You better put a leash on your partner before he kills somebody.” Then he leaves without waiting for a response. As far as I can recall, that’s the only time Bud and Jack share the same frame, and Bud doesn’t even reply. Like the silences in Shakespeare, it’s a striking omission, and one that raises a lot of questions. This is a dense, crowded movie that finds time for countless fruitful pairings among its five or six most important players—Bud and Lynn, Ed and Dudley, Bud and Dudley, Ed and Jack, and finally Ed and Bud—and the fact that Bud and Jack aren’t among them is revealing in itself. And it’s quite possible that Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson, for all their ingenuity, just couldn’t figure out what these two men would have to say to each other.
There’s a similar hiatus in The Icon Thief, which is a novel that owes a great deal to L.A. Confidential in its construction, even if the movie’s influence is otherwise hard to see. My investigator, Alan Powell, spends most of the novel unraveling a complicated criminal conspiracy with the thief Ilya Severin at its center, but if you don’t count their brief chase at the New York County Courthouse, Powell and Ilya only appear together once. It’s in Chapter 45, in the basement of the Club Marat, as Ilya emerges from the restaurant office with Sharkovsky as a hostage. Powell is there already, of course, along with a squadron of law enforcement officers, and in the standoff that follows, the two men exchange a line or two. But it’s Powell’s supervisor who ends up doing most of the talking, and in any case, the scene quickly moves to the next stage, as Ilya works out the logistics of his escape. And that, incredibly, is it. By the time the next chapter begins, Ilya and Powell have been separated once more, and they don’t cross paths again. These are two of the book’s three most important characters, and their only real encounter lasts for less than a page.
This wasn’t originally how it was supposed to happen. In fact, in my first draft, Powell and Ilya reunite on the final page. The story of how the epilogue was revised at the last minute, with enormous consequences both for this book and for the ensuing series, is one I’ll tell at the proper time. As it stands, though, the fact that Ilya and Powell don’t otherwise interact deserves an explanation. The first reason is that Ilya is most interesting when he remains something of an enigma, and whenever he’s clearly seen by another character, it diminishes that mystery—a problem I’d be forced to confront more seriously in City of Exiles. The second reason is a technical one: this is a book about a chase, and by definition, the pursuer and the pursued don’t often end up in the same room. But the third reason is the most important. What I didn’t understand about multiple plots when I began this book, and started to figure out only after I’d written several drafts, is that they’re most convincing when a piece is removed. A plot like this works to the extent that it evokes something larger, a world in which the stories intersect beyond the margins of the page, and if each piece connects too neatly with every other, that illusion is broken. In the end, Powell and Ilya go their separate ways. But they’ll meet again in another book…
“Although there is no substitute for merit in writing,” E.B. White notes in The Elements of Style, “clarity comes closest to being one.” This is true of all aspects of fiction, from character to dialogue, and it’s especially true of action scenes. An action sequence in a novel is a kind of musical number in which all the basic notes of storytelling are hit with extraordinary focus and concentration, and there’s little room for error. It’s a war between the two central aspects of reading: the impulse to linger and the need to keep going. Most good fiction is written on the premise that the reader will occasionally pause to reflect on a complex sentence, read a paragraph over again, or even turn back a few pages for clarification or context. An action scene, by contrast, is one that begs to unfold in real time, with the act of reading coinciding as much as possible with the rhythm of the action itself. Writing a scene that satisfies these requirements while remaining stylistically consistent with the rest of the novel is a real challenge, and the key, as White points out, is clarity—although I doubt he was thinking of chase scenes or gunfights when he wrote those words.
A novel isn’t a movie, of course, and it can be dangerous to look to film for examples of how to stage action: movies have tools at their disposal, like montage and intercutting, that don’t come easily to fiction. But film still provides some useful illustrations. I’ve noted before that my favorite action scenes of recent years—the Guggenheim shootout in The International, the Burj Khalifa climb in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, and the opening chase in Drive—were all worked out on the page, rather than in the editing room. They unfold in real time and proceed from one logical beat to the next, and there’s rarely any doubt about what the characters are thinking, although the full meaning of the scene in Drive isn’t revealed until the very end of the sequence. They’re cleanly photographed and cut together in a way that isn’t afraid to hold on a shot, and each depends intimately on spatial relationships, both in the physical geography of the set and within the frame itself. All these decisions have their common origin in a concern for clarity. The audience is grounded at every moment, and we’re never confused, as we often are by Michael Bay, about what is happening on the screen.
In short, a good action scene, either in fiction or in film, serves as an intense microcosm of the virtues of good storytelling itself. Like the story as a whole, it’s best when it’s built on a sequence of clear problems, which the protagonist succeeds or fails at solving in some logical order. Clarity is always important, but never more so than when the action needs to move at a fast pace, and the use of clean, vivid prose is the literary equivalent of the composed shot and spatially coherent editing. Each sequence has a clear beginning, middle, and end: it’s no accident that the three scenes I’ve mentioned above could be taken out of their surrounding movies and enjoyed in their own right, as many of us tend to do when we’re watching them at home. And just as finding the right rhythm for an action scene in a movie can come down to the addition or removal of a few frames, the action in a novel needs to be written and revised with particular care, long after the author’s own excitement has begun to fade, until the logic is crystal clear in the moment to a reader encountering it for the first time.
When I wrote The Icon Thief, I was still figuring most of this out, and although it took me a long time to formulate these rules, I managed to follow them intuitively, at least most of the time. Chapter 44, for instance, is as close to a conventional action scene as you’ll find in the book, and it’s only in retrospect that I can see how the objectives follow logically one after the other, as determined by the geography of the setting at the Club Marat. Ilya emerges from the darkness under the boardwalk behind the club, takes out the busboy, slips through the back door, makes his way up the corridor to the downstairs office, incapacitates the restaurant manager, arms himself, and places a call to Sharkovsky for a meeting, knowing that he’ll come to the office first. The only bloodshed comes a few pages later, when Ilya shoots Misha, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s only a coda to the real source of interest, as we follow Ilya’s thoughts and decisions from one point of cover to the next. There’s no question that I was inspired by the movies I loved, especially the final confrontation in Michael Mann’s Thief, and the action here unfolds in the novelistic equivalent of one continuous shot. And it isn’t over yet. As Ilya and Sharkovsky are about to discover, they aren’t alone…
In some ways, the novel is an unwieldy, slightly unnatural form of storytelling. A poem, short story, or play arises directly from the oral tradition: it can be told aloud in a few minutes or an hour, and listeners can easily remember most of the important plot points. Even epic poetry, which goes on for much longer, usually boils down to episodes that can be condensed or expanded according to the needs of the audience, strung together like beads on a string. (We can still see this structure of our surviving text of the Iliad, which preserves the full version of certain episodes while reducing others to only a few lines.) The average novel, by contrast, presents a story that is too complex to be held in the mind all at once, even by the author. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a structure that evolved from the physical characteristics of printed books themselves, which allow readers to turn pages both ways, so that elements introduced in the first chapter can return to play an important role near the end—a form of setup and payoff that doesn’t exist in the oral tradition. And although the novel seems natural now, it’s really a recent development in the history of how we tell stories.
That’s why it’s important to acknowledge its limitations as well as its strengths. On the one hand, a novel rarely achieves the kind of crystalline perfection that we see in poetry or short fiction, and when it does, it may seem artificial or unreal, as John Gardner observes of Madame Bovary. A novel, as Henry James said of Tolstoy, often ends up being a loose, baggy monster, and in order for it to feel like an accurate representation of life—as well as a pleasurable experience for the reader—it can’t pitch every page at the same level of intensity. Instead, it’s a series of convergences and divergences, of rising and falling action, and it requires time and patience for its full impact to be felt. On the other hand, its size and relative complexity allow it to achieve effects that aren’t possible in shorter forms. It can methodically establish themes, motifs, and story elements that will pay dividends at a later time, and when it works, the effect can be almost symphonic, as threads that have been independently established come together at last.
This may seem like a roundabout way of getting to The Icon Thief, which even I’m willing to admit is a very modest example of the novel form. But like most first novels, it stands both as a story in itself and as a kind of laboratory in which a writer is figuring out his craft for the first time. When I wrote the first draft, I was in my late twenties, and although I’d written one unpublished novel already, I still had a lot to learn. As a result, the book sometimes feels like a sandbox in which I was testing out various approaches to telling this kind of extended story. Although the result is clearly a product of its genre, it also allowed me to think about narrative in a way that paid off when it came to my second and third books, as well as the ones I hope to write in the future. Suspense, in particular, seemed like a way to explore these tools in their purest state, as action foreshadowed, promised, and delivered. And one thing that fascinated me from the very beginning was how a novel can use its own intricacy of construction, which allows for more building blocks than other forms, so that the events of the plot are inextricable from the structure of the book itself.
As Chapter 43 begins, for instance, we’re entering a point in the novel where the structure of the story serves almost a character in itself. Three distinct groups of characters—Powell and his partners in law enforcement, Sharkovsky and his men, and Ilya himself—are converging on a common location, the club in Brighton Beach, that has already been established in detail, both within the narrative itself and in what amounted to a direct briefing to the reader. The next few chapters will narrate the ensuing developments from multiple perspectives, often moving back and forth slightly in time. This was both a technical solution to the problem of treating simultaneous action and a way of binding the scenes more closely together, and none of it would mean as much if the foundations hadn’t been laid much earlier. By now, if I’ve done my work properly, the reader knows something about Powell, Wolfe, Ilya, and all the others, and has some idea of how each character will react to the violent events that the structure itself implies. My one regret, which is also inherent to the novel form, is that the reader can tell that we aren’t quite at the real climax yet: we have well over one hundred pages to go. And there’s a lot still left to come…
In theory, a writer can get to know the characters in his fiction better than anyone in his own life, himself included. I’m often struck by how little information I really have about people—even close friends—I’ve known for years: I’ve generally only spent time with them in one particular context, and I have a hunch that I’d be startled to see what they’re like at the office, say, or with their own families. Go a little further back, to childhood or adolescence, and the picture is even less clear. In fiction, by contrast, we can learn everything about a person, at least in principle. A quick search online turns up countless forms and questionnaires designed to help authors brainstorm every detail of their characters’ appearance, habits, past, and inner life, from their eye color to their favorite hobbies to how they really feel about their parents. It’s more scrutiny than many of us even devote to ourselves, at least at any one time, and the question of how much of this material an author requires to invent fictional but convincing men and women is an issue that every writer needs to confront.
In my own case, I’ve been inclined leave many of these questions unanswered. Part of this is a practical consideration: as I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m not a fan of backstory, and although I spend a fair amount of time thinking about each character’s personal history before I start writing, I know that very little of this material will end up in the finished novel. Human beings, both in fiction and in real life, tend to be more vividly defined by their needs in the moment, and while what happened to them in the past can inform their present wants and decisions, we very rarely embody the full sum of our life stories: one quality tends to predominate over the next from one minute to another, and certain threads of our personality grow in importance while others wither away. As a result, I’ve never tried to create systematic backstories for my characters. Instead, I work out which elements bear most urgently on the present moment and leave the rest in shadow, which is why, for instance, I go into detail about Maddy’s failed attempt to start an art gallery, but still don’t know the names of her parents.
But there’s also a more intuitive aspect to this approach. Protagonists, as William Goldman observes in Which Lie Did I Tell?, must have mystery, and they’re often more interesting to the extent that the author withholds crucial information. Part of this has to do with the way we identify with characters in fiction: David Mamet has pointed out that it’s better to say “A hero on a white horse” than “A tall hero on a white horse,” because the more we add unnecessary detail, the harder it is for readers to imagine themselves in the protagonist’s place. (This is one reason why I’m especially resistant to detailed descriptions of a character’s appearance, to an extent that sometimes frustrates my circle of initial readers.) It’s possible, of course, for a writer to leave important elements to implication in the finished work, while privately knowing a great deal about the characters. But I’ve found that I’m happiest when certain aspects remain a mystery to me as well, even as I obsessively think about each character’s objectives from scene to scene.
In Chapter 42 of The Icon Thief, for instance, Ilya is standing near a playground in Brighton Beach, preparing to go after the men who betrayed him, when he sees a little boy and his mother:
“Daniel!” the boy’s mother shouted. At the sound of the name, Ilya’s head gave an involuntary jerk…Watching the boy rejoin his mother, Ilya thought of the many transformations that he had undergone since he had last referred to himself by that name.
This is the only indication in the entire novel, and in the two books that follow, that Ilya was once called something else, or that the name he goes by now is one that he chose for himself. There’s obviously a story here, and it’s possible that when I wrote this passage, I was laying in a hint for something I intended to develop later on. As it turns out, I never did. And if you were to ask me who Ilya was and what he was doing before he was thrown into Vladimir Prison, I’m not sure I could tell you, although there are clues scattered throughout the series. Keeping these details hidden, even to myself, turned out to be a kind of insurance policy: Ilya, I realized, grew more interesting the less he was shown, and by keeping his past deliberately undeveloped, there was no risk that I’d err in revealing too much. What really matters, far more than where he came from, is what he wants now. And at the moment, he wants revenge…
One of the few things I know about writing is that less is usually more, and that a story is generally effective in proportion to how much the author can leave out. As overstuffed as my novels tend to be, I’m always trying to pare back elements like backstory and personal description, to the point where my advance readers often beg me to put them back in. A lot of things, I’ve found, are best left to implication, although it takes a lot of revision and feedback to find the right level of clarity. Still, there are always places where it’s necessary to spell things out. When a story contains a lot of complicated action, for instance, it’s often useful to brief readers on what they’re about to see, which can be allowed to unfold more impressionistically when the crucial moment comes: it’s fine if your characters are confused or uncertain, but that’s rarely an emotion you want in the reader, unless you’re trying to achieve it on purpose. (The best example I know of this kind of advance grounding is the computer simulation of the sinking ship in Titanic, a movie whose shrewdness of construction has been frequently underestimated.)
And giving your reader a game plan for how the action is supposed to unfold can be particularly useful in suspense. A good thriller is all about anticipation, and there’s a peculiar satisfaction in being given just enough information on what’s about to take place to look forward to the action to come—and especially to see how it deviates from what the characters are expecting. In describing the scene in The Godfather where Michael shoots Sollozzo and McCloskey, David Thomson talks about “the sinister charm of action foreseen, spelled out, and finally delivered,” and when properly done, it’s one of the most useful tools in a writer’s arsenal. Hence the moment in any decent heist movie in which the logistics of entering the mansion, disabling the security system, and cracking the safe are lovingly described in advance, which stands as one of the few instances when exposition builds the suspense, rather than destroying it.
Suspense, as Thomson points out in his discussion of Inception, has a lot in common with comedy, which is also built on anticipation and surprise, and at its best, this approach embodies a classic piece of comedy advice: “Tell them what you’re going to do. Then do it. Then tell them what you did.” In a thriller, though, this last step might be better described as “Then tell them what really happened.” Because spelling out the coming action carries an additional charge of irony and tension. A sophisticated reader—which is to say anyone who has seen a movie or two—is well aware that nothing ever goes entirely as planned: a properly constructed caper film, for instance, will withhold the most essential information until the big score itself begins to unfold, as in Ocean’s 11, which means that any initial description of the plan is really just a list of things that can go wrong. And as always, it’s best to acknowledge this, and play off the reader’s knowledge of the genre, rather than trying to fight against it.
Chapter 41 of The Icon Thief, for example, is largely taken up by one of my favorite categories of this kind of exposition: the police briefing in advance of a raid. Louis Barlow, the FBI assistant special agent in charge, spends several pages describing what will take place when they finally raid Sharkovsky’s club in Brighton Beach, and because of the considerations I’ve mentioned above, I give more space to this speech than I might have done elsewhere in the novel. In fact, this is one of the few chapters that was significantly expanded in the rewrite, as it became clear to me that I needed to lay out the impending action as clearly as possible—and if I’ve done my work properly, the reader will appreciate it on several levels at once. It creates anticipation for the scene to come; it provides a kind of map for following the action itself, which will ultimately unfold across multiple points of view; and, best of all, it allows the reader to wonder what, exactly, is going to go wrong. Because as you can probably guess, this raid isn’t going to go exactly as planned…
It’s always a little dangerous to ask a writer where he gets his ideas. In the afterword to Lolita, for instance, Vladimir Nabokov writes:
As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.
I’ve always loved this story, which sticks in the mind because it initially seems so inexplicable, and later seems so right. There’s also the fact that the entire anecdote may have been a typically Nabokovian invention: no trace of the original article, or ape, has ever been found. My own suspicion is that the story is designed to deflect attention from the novel’s more sensational elements to the more impressive, and fiendishly difficult, task that the author had set for himself—the detailed, alluring, empathetic rendering of the sorry figure of Humbert. Yet part of me also wants to believe that the ape, or the story, was real, if only because it serves to illustrate how far a novel can depart from its earliest germ of inspiration.
The Icon Thief, for instance, is a complicated novel encompassing Marcel Duchamp, the Rosicrucians, and the Russian mafia, as well as much else, but its true beginnings lie in the story of a peculiar double suicide in the New York art world. Teresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake were young, intelligent, and attractive, and both had achieved great success in their fields: Duncan had parlayed an acclaimed computer game and animated short into a studio development deal, while Blake had collaborated with such artists as Beck and Paul Thomas Anderson, doing design work for Sea Change and Punch-Drunk Love. Both had been frustrated by their experiences in Hollywood, however, and after they returned to New York, their friends reported that they had grown increasingly paranoid, convinced that they were being targeted by a conspiracy of Scientologists. One evening, Blake came back home to find that Duncan had killed herself with an overdose of pills and alcohol; the following week, he took a train to Rockaway Beach and drowned himself in the ocean. (I’ve written out most of these details from memory, but you can find full accounts here and here.)
At first glance, this might not have much to do with novel I ended up writing, but when I first encountered the story, it crystallized a previously shapeless mass of ideas I’d been mulling over for a long time. I wanted to write about the art world, and also about paranoia, and the story of Duncan and Blake united both themes in a single tragedy. My own characters would be imaginary, of course: Maddy isn’t Teresa Duncan, although she’s based in part on similar people I knew in New York, and Ethan doesn’t have much in common with Jeremy Blake, aside from his intelligence and youth. Ultimately, though, I wanted to write a novel about a folie à deux, a kind of shared delusion, that would be imbedded in the story so deeply that the reader wouldn’t sense it was imaginary—if I’ve done my work properly—until the end of the book. My characters would see plots and conspiracies at work in their own lives, never realizing that the stories they were telling were a way of making sense of their personal disappointments. And although much of the story remained unclear, I knew how at least one thread would end: Ethan, I was convinced, would walk into the sea.
Needless to say, that isn’t how it turned out, and in particular, Ethan’s ultimate fate—which I’ll be discussing in a few weeks—ended up being very different from what I’d envisioned. All the same, you can see signs of the original conception throughout the book, particularly in Chapter 40, which gave me more trouble than any other scene in the entire novel. It’s here that Ethan lays out his paranoia in stark terms, connecting the Rosicrucians not only to the events of the story so far, but to everything from the Bolshevik Revolution to the Black Dahlia murder. This chapter was originally much longer, with a lot of additional detail, and even in its final form, it walks a fine line: Ethan has to be paranoid enough to make his final break with Maddy believable, but not so much that the reader concludes that it’s a complete fantasy. (Remember, my goal isn’t to make the reader believe that Ethan’s theory is objectively true, but true within the context of the story, which presents itself as a conspiracy novel, with all the conventions that the genre implies.) I’d like to think that it works, but it’s hard for me to get enough distance from it to be sure. In any case, it has the intended effect, and Maddy leaves Ethan’s apartment in a fury. She’s never going to see him again…
I don’t write mysteries; I write suspense. The two genres are often conflated, and I’ll sometimes see myself categorized as a mystery novelist, but there’s an important distinction between the two. Mysteries are ultimately about who committed a crime, with the revelation of the killer’s identity withheld until the end, while suspense novels are more about how and why the crime was committed, and how to stop or capture the criminal. There can be an element of mystery along the way, of course, and both of my published novels include a few big revelation scenes, but they’re ultimately more about the chase than the investigation. I love a good mystery, and expect that I’ll try my hand at one eventually—I have a particular weakness for the locked room variety, like The Three Coffins or Rim of the Pit—but they require an entirely distinct set of skills, with the emphasis less on action than on constructing an airtight puzzle. In the meantime, though, I’m writing suspense, which means that I’m occasionally forced to make choices that no honest mystery author would condone.
In my novels, for instance, people tend to confess rather easily. As we’ve all learned from David Simon, a good interrogation scene is an art form in itself, and the best, at least in fiction, do a masterful job of tacking toward and away from the truth, as the suspect’s evasions and inconsistencies weave themselves into a snug little noose. This sort of thing takes time, however, and in my own work, I’m often torn between the need to make a scene like this plausible without detracting from the overall momentum of the plot. As a result, I’m sometimes obliged to stage a confrontation, interrogation, and confession in the course of a single chapter, just so the story can advance without interruption to the next phase. I try my best to make the result read as smoothly as possible, but it’s an issue that more than one reader has raised, to the point where I sometimes feel that I’ve fallen into the trap of countless bad courtroom dramas, in which a confession on the witness stand occurs at the most convenient possible time.
All the same, I think it’s the right choice, especially when you take the big picture into account. A suspense novel, at least in the form that I’ve tried to tackle, is a lot like a shark: it needs to keep moving to stay alive. This results in a lot of narrative shortcuts, which, as William Goldman has pointed out, are really intended to save time. In my books, as in most television procedurals, forensic analysis takes place a little faster than it would in the real world, investigations have fewer dead ends, and a confession can sometimes be obtained in an hour—or fifteen minutes—when the demands of the plot require it. Writing a novel like The Icon Thief requires a kind of ongoing triangulation between plausibility and momentum, and having been through the process a few times on my own, I’m much more forgiving of other narratives that do the same thing. And when a book or movie is really good, like L.A. Confidential, it can stage an interrogation in a way that reveals character, advances the plot, and remains believable, all in the course of a few tense minutes.
There’s nothing in The Icon Thief as good as the interrogation scene in L.A. Confidential, but I did what I could to make my shortcuts as unobjectionable as possible. Chapter 39, for example, has to cover an unbelievable amount of ground in less than nine pages: Powell and Wolfe need to confront Natalia Onegina—a character we’ve only seen a couple of times before—and get her to confess to her sister’s accidental death, while also providing backstory and explaining how the murder ties into to the larger art world narrative. To my eyes, the result works fairly well, but it’s highly compressed, and in a true mystery novel, I probably would have spread this material over more than one chapter. Structurally, however, I didn’t have much of a choice, and although I did my best to pack the scene with as many beats of resistance, evasion, misdirection, and compulsion as possible, the fact that they unfold so quickly strains the fabric of the novel’s reality a little more than I would like. For what it is, though, it’s a tightly constructed scene, and it allows us to move quickly to what comes next. We’re going on a raid tonight…
I’ve written before about the reasons I’m drawn to conspiracy fiction, but one point I’d like to underline is that it turns the characters into surrogates for the author himself. To an even greater extent than that most clichéd of fictions, a novel about a novelist, a properly constructed conspiracy story allows the writer to dramatize the heart of the creative process. Writing, after all, is really just a search—or imposition—of patterns on the larger world. Confronted with the confusion of reality, our natural impulse is to tell stories about it. These stories can be attempts to give order to the events of our own lives, to history, and, perhaps most crucially, to the inward consciousness of others, and a novelist in the middle of a long project resembles a paranoiac in at least one way: in the end, everything seems connected. The best conspiracy novels take this process and literalize it, following a character as he or she searches for meaning, discovers patterns, and sees structure where none was there before. If every novel is ultimately about the process of its own creation, that goes double for conspiracy fiction, which captures something essential about the writing life that you don’t find in any other genre.
Of course, that isn’t true of all conspiracy novels. For the story to truly mirror the author’s journey, it needs to be approached with a touch of irony, rather than with earnest prefaces stating that most of what follows is true. The gold standard for this kind of novel remains Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which has influenced me, sometimes perniciously, ever since I first encountered it at age thirteen. The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea—as well as Wilson’s subsequent work—has been hugely important to me as well. But the acknowledged master of conspiracy fiction, at least of the kind we’re discussing here, is Thomas Pynchon, whose Gravity’s Rainbow is my favorite American novel, largely because it reimagines history into a paranoid shape that implicates the reader as well as the characters. Pynchon’s grand theme is information, and how our access to endless amounts of it makes the world paradoxically harder to understand. And Pynchon’s greatness as a novelist—aside from his staggering level of talent—is centered on the fact that his work confronts one of the inescapable problems of our time.
Perhaps inevitably, my own work includes a few thinly disguised nods to Pynchon. Near the end of Eternal Empire, assuming that it doesn’t get edited out at some point between now and September, I quote a brief lyric from a Joni Mitchell song, which suits the context, but which was also one of the original epigraphs in Gravity’s Rainbow, before being cut shortly before publication. (If that isn’t an inside reference, I don’t know what is.) I’ve mentioned before how in Chapter 1 of The Icon Thief, Study for Étant Donnés is auctioned off as lot fifty of that night’s sale, which implies that it comes right after lot forty-nine. There’s an even more obscure homage in Chapter 38, in which Maddy and Ethan prepare dinner at home, with Ethan making salad, layering the lasagna, and garlicking the bread, which evokes a similar meal made by Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas:
…then through the sunned gathering of her marjoram and sweet basil from the herb garden, reading of book reviews from the latest Scientific American, into the layering of a lasagna, garlicking of a bread, tearing up of romaine leaves…
This may seem like an arbitrary reference, and in some ways it is, but it’s also fitting that it appears here, at the moment when the novel’s conspiracy theory spills over definitively into the character’s lives. As they eat, Maddy and Ethan trade discoveries, with Maddy sharing the story of the occult center Monte Verità, including its connections to the Rosicrucians, the Ordo Templi Orientis, and the Dadaists, many of whom spent time at the resort. From there, we move on to the curious case of Georges Bataille and Acéphale, which is strange enough to fuel several novels of its own. But when Ethan makes the next connection—that an organization with the qualities they’ve been attributing to it would look a lot like global organized crime—the different threads of the novel come together at last. And a minute later, when Maddy realizes that some notes from her desk are missing, we’ve crossed a very Pynchonian line from abstract theorizing to the invasion of one’s own life. It’s a crossing that every novelist understands. And although Maddy is right to fear that someone has broken into her house, she doesn’t yet suspect the full truth…
I still remember where I was when I figured out the killer’s identity in The Icon Thief. Early in the writing process, I was casting about for a striking opening scene, and finally came up with the idea of a woman’s headless body found mummified in the sand under the boardwalk at Brighton Beach. The image was inspired by the setting, and by a few memories of my own—I’ll never forget seeing a dead dog preserved in the sand at a beach in Goa—but at first, the image was all I had. I didn’t know who this woman was, or who had killed her, or why. I just knew that it would give me a convenient hook for the procedural story I wanted to tell, which would bind together the novel’s various strands and parcel out information to the reader in as painless a way as possible. We know the beats of a murder investigation from countless other books and movies, and I hoped that grounding a third of the narrative in that familiar pattern would grant me greater freedom in other parts of the novel, where the shape, by design, isn’t immediately obvious. And that’s more or less how it worked out.
Of course, now that I had a victim, I also needed a murderer, as well as a way to tie the case back to the larger art world story I was trying to tell. The idea of the girl’s death serving as a form of blackmail, with my villain using it to persuade someone on the inside to serve as an accomplice to the heist that occupies much of Part I, came to me right away. At that point, the motive behind the murder wasn’t particularly important: it was just a convenient plot device. All that really mattered was that the killer be someone who could grant my thieves access to the mansion, so I created the part of Zakaria Kostova, the assistant to my wealthy oligarch, for this express purpose. Kostova only appears in a handful of scenes—among other things, he’s the buyer who outbids Maddy at the art auction in the opening chapter—so I didn’t put much thought into his character when plotting out the initial section of the book. In the end, I wrote the first half thinking that I could figure out why Kostova had killed the girl later. A jealous argument was all it would take.
But then something strange happened. While I was developing the character of Archvadze, my oligarch, it occurred to me that he needed a girlfriend. (I was probably inspired by the partners of certain other oligarchs who have made a splash in the art world.) Accordingly, I worked up the character of Natalia Onegina, whom Maddy encounters at the party in the Hamptons. Here, again, she was little more then a plot device: the party is supposed to promote the opening of Natalia’s upcoming gallery, which gave Maddy a reason to be there. I liked Natalia a lot, and thought she was a memorable presence, but didn’t expect her to play much of a role in the story after that. Which brings me to the epiphany I mentioned above. I was standing at my bathroom sink, splashing water on my face—I think I might have just finished shaving—when it suddenly hit me: What if Natalia and Karina Baranova, the dead girl, had been sisters? The idea appeared out of the blue, fully formed, as if it were a fact of nature just waiting to be discovered. And that’s when I knew that Natalia had killed Karina Baranova.
When I look back at Chapter 37, in which Powell makes this connection, it’s hard for me to imagine that the story could have gone any other way. Yet it’s worth emphasizing that I’d already written half the book with a different killer in mind, and in the end, I wound up changing surprisingly little. (A similar thing happened with a crucial plot point in City of Exiles, but for the details, you’ll need to wait for the commentary on that novel, if I ever get around to it.) And it’s a reminder that fiction can always surprise you, however carefully you may have planned it in advance. As regular readers know, I’m an obsessive outliner, and at first, it might seem as if that would reduce the degree of surprise a book can hold for its author. What I’ve found, instead, is that it actually increases these moments of serendipity. When I’m making an outline, I’ve got the plan for the book—or at least one large section of it—in my head at all times, and it serves as a magnet for gathering up ideas and moments of inspiration that might otherwise be lost. That idea was in the air all along, but it only fell into place once there was a matrix in which it could grow. And the rest of the novel would never be the same…
I’ve spoken a lot about the problem of novels with too much information, but it’s also possible to have too little. Too much, and readers start to feel the weight of the mass of undigested research; not enough, and they’re likely to become confused by names or ideas introduced without adequate explanation. Done in moderation, an obscure reference or two dropped into the text without comment can enhance the book’s atmosphere: we see this in Pynchon, not to mention Eco, and even in a suspense novelist like Thomas Harris, who often introduces forensic terms or obscure tradecraft in dialogue as a way of enriching the background. Done poorly, however, it can yank the reader out of the story, as he or she wonders what the hell the author is talking about. Finding the right amount of explanation involves striking a difficult balance between narrative flow, clarity, and reader engagement. The answers vary from one book—or scene—to another, and you can only figure out the correct proportions through revision, endless rereading, and intelligent feedback.
One of the hardest things about writing The Icon Thief was managing the information that the book contained, and I’m not sure I always succeeded. The book was always conceived as a story that was on the verge of flying apart from the density of the material it presented: it’s a book about paranoia and information overload, and I wanted to could convey some of the characters’ experience to the reader by making the network of intertextual references and ideas—some introduced for only a page or two—slightly more compressed than usual. In the first draft, this meant that the conspiracy thread took up a disproportionate amount of the story, and one of my first tasks in the rewrite was to pare it down as much as possible. In the process, I made some of the material even more compressed than before, but trusted, or hoped, that the reader would simply accept these names and dates as part of the story’s texture. And while I think it works for much of the novel, there are a few sections where I may have taken it a little too far.
In Chapter 36, for instance, in a long conversation between Maddy and Lermontov, I mention Gustave Courbet (and in particular his notorious painting The Origin of the World), René Magritte, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Jacques Lacan, Georges Bataille, and the Vehmgericht. I introduce them into the dialogue as smoothly as I can, with as much background material as necessary, and try to write it so that even a reader who isn’t familiar with the particular references can treat them as part of the chapter’s verbal music: even if they don’t know the words, I’d like them to hum along with the tune. But that isn’t always what happens. One comment that I invariably got from readers after the book came out was that it sent them constantly to Wikipedia, and while I think this was intended as a compliment—and it does seem to have introduced some people to a lot of interesting material—I’m a little unsettled by it. Ideally, I want readers to keep turning pages, and every time a reference requires them to set the book down and look it up online, I’ve broken the narrative momentum. And that’s a mistake.
Yet I’m not entirely sure how, or even if, it should be changed. Now that years have gone by since I first wrote the book, I can see its strengths and weaknesses more clearly, and there are certainly moments when I feel I should have paused the narrative to flesh out the factual background. (In particular, I really wish I could go back and insert another explanatory paragraph or two about Duchamp. Even if it seemed like an artificial intrusion at the time, it would have clarified the action that followed for a lot of readers.) Still, when I read over this chapter again, I think it works, within the conditions imposed by the novel itself. The Icon Thief was the novel I had to write at that stage in my career, to work out my own feelings about information in fiction, and if I deliberately took it to the edge in certain places, it’s only so I could start to pull back later. In the novels I’ve written since, I’ve taken pains to structure the plot so that the story isn’t overwhelmed by the historical background, to the point where, in Eternal Empire, it serves more as a thematic counterpoint, introduced only rarely, to the story taking place in the present. But I’m still not sure I have it quite right…
Motivation is a tricky thing. I’ve long believed that character is best expressed through action, and that a series of clear objectives, linked to a compelling plot, will tell you more about a protagonist than the most detailed account of his life before the story began. And these objectives don’t need to be major ones. To slightly mangle one of my favorite observations from Kurt Vonnegut, if a character just wants a drink of water, I’m automatically more interested in him than if I’m told that he had an unhappy childhood. My favorite example of misapplied backstory is the novel Contact, in which Carl Sagan, a man of uncanny brilliance, attempts to engage us with his characters in a way that is sadly miscalculated. We’re told that these characters are fascinating, usually through a long biographical digression, but they aren’t given anything interesting to do within the story itself—which is astonishing, given the narrative stakes involved. As no less than Gregory Benford noted in his review in the New York Times:
Characterization proceeds by the dossier method often used by C.P. Snow, with similar results—told much but shown little, we get career profiles, some odd habits, earnest details. The narrative comes to a stop while an expository lump cajols us into finding this person interesting.
These “expository lumps” are such a hallmark of bad fiction that I’ve basically excluded anything like them from my own work, sometimes to a fault. Readers of my early drafts often comment that they’d like more background on the characters, and they can’t all be wrong. As a result, I’ve gingerly experimented with introducing more backstory, usually in the form of a flashback at a point in the novel where it won’t break the narrative momentum. Backstory, I’ve found, isn’t the enemy: the problem is its tendency to draw the story off into tangents, when most novels really ought to proceed along an uninterrupted narrative line. But there are times when some additional motivation, rooted in a character’s past, can enrich the story and give actions in the present greater resonance. The test is whether what happened then enhances our understanding and appreciation of what is happening now. If the answer is no, it can safely be cut; if yes, it can be retained, but only in as unobtrusive a way as possible.
The most significant piece of backstory in The Icon Thief is the death of Ilya Severin’s parents. This was an element that I added fairly late in the process, after I’d already written the first draft, and to be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. I introduced this detail because Ilya’s desire for retribution, in the original draft, was vivid but somewhat abstract: he’d been betrayed by those he trusted, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that he’d value revenge over simple self-preservation. It was while reading another thriller—I think it was Trevanian’s uneven but often excellent Shibumi—that I reflected that a more personal violation might make his behavior more credible. The trouble with killing his parents is that it’s a somewhat familiar trope, which is why I tend to underplay it in the sequels, and once I’d introduced it, I was stuck with it for what turned out to be two more novels. It wasn’t the kind of thing that could just be ignored, and it occasionally caused problems for the stories I wanted to tell, in which Ilya had to appear to come to terms with the men he hated.
Still, I think it works fairly well when introduced here, in Chapters 33 and 35 of The Icon Thief. Among other things, it allows Sharkovsky, by revealing the secret, to briefly gain the upper hand over Ilya, who can sometimes seem preternaturally imperturbable. And by deepening Ilya’s motivation, it makes the rest of the novel more believable. At the end of the chapter, Ilya escapes from the courthouse, in an action scene that is probably my favorite in the entire book—it was a lot of fun to work out the various beats, from Ilya discovering that the meeting is under surveillance to eluding the security guards to fleeing through the construction site next door, only to end up across the street from police headquarters. (The moment when he checks to make sure that the bag at the exchange doesn’t have a tracking device is directly inspired by a similar device in No Country For Old Men.) But it was important for me to establish that Ilya, having escaped, couldn’t simply decide to leave town. The backstory I provide here allows me to keep Ilya around, and on that level, it’s a good thing. But it certainly made my life more complicated…
One reason I’m so fascinated by the challenges of episodic television is the fact that I recently found myself writing what amounted to a series of my own. The Icon Thief was conceived as a standalone novel, and the possibility of writing a sequel never crossed my mind until it was raised by my publisher, which put me in a position analogous to that of a showrunner tasked with shepherding a series through an extended run of seasons. Some television shows, like Mad Men, reveal a novelistic sense of storytelling that remains shapely for years; others, like Downton Abbey, flame out early on. Most common of all is a series that falls somewhere in the middle, with the writers and producers trying to keep the underlying material fresh while dealing with the vagaries of television production. As a novelist, I don’t need to worry about cast departures or network notes, and the fact that my own series is conceived as a trilogy allows me to avoid some of the pitfalls faced by a show with no clear ending. All the same, I’d like to think that it’s given me a renewed appreciation for the surprises that an extended narrative can encounter.
Take the issue of the breakout character. This is a character, originally conceived as a minor part, that unexpectedly expands into a role of much greater importance, to the point where he or she often takes over the entire series. You can’t plan this kind of thing, and shows that come to structure themselves around a supporting character’s popularity, like Happy Days, are generally transformed beyond recognition. It’s usually the audience who latches on to a character like this, but he or she can also be one who seizes the creator’s imagination. This is more often the case in novels, which don’t benefit—if that’s the right word—from the continuous ratings feedback that a television series receives. And while the increased focus given to a breakout character on television can feel like pandering, in fiction, it’s more often a case of the author’s organic excitement taking hold, which is always thrilling. Most writers try to make their lead characters as interesting as possible from page one, and occasionally the strain shows. By contrast, when a character slowly grows in interest and importance, the result usually takes even the author by surprise.
The breakout character in my own work is clearly Rachel Wolfe. As I’ve noted before, Wolfe originated as a plot convenience, to play the role of Watson to Powell’s Holmes, and in the original outline, she wasn’t even a woman. I didn’t know she was a Mormon until the rewrite—after briefly toying with the idea of making her South Asian—and even in the book as it currently exists, she’s clearly a secondary character. Yet she stuck in my mind, and it’s only now, as I’m making the final changes to the third book in which she appears, that I can begin to figure out why. In a series where I’ve done my best to create flawed, complicated characters, and in which the moral lines aren’t always clearly drawn, Wolfe represents virtue and courage. Needless to say, this wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if I’d conceived her from the start as my answer to Eliot Ness. She was simply a character who demanded to be treated as a hero in a series that was more interested in ambiguity. And a big part of why I enjoy writing her so much is that I’ve been forced to work within the constraints I chose for her almost at random, more than four years ago.
Chapter 34 of The Icon Thief provides some tantalizing hints of the qualities that I developed more fully in City of Exiles. At first glance, it’s a transitional chapter, with Powell and Wolfe conducting surveillance on the exchange inside the courthouse. As they wait for the principal parties to arrive, I take the opportunity to include some exposition that didn’t fit anywhere else—in fact, their discussion here is pieced together from several other conversations that originally took place in different chapters. When I read this chapter over again today, however, I’m more struck by what’s happening between the lines, as Wolfe signals to Powell to remove his earpiece so they can have a private conversation. Wolfe, it seems, has been busy: she’s looked into the background of Maddy’s art fund and obtained crucial information from a partner at a law firm, an occasional instructor at Quantico, who “loves to sound off to his former students, especially the girls.” Powell responds: “I’m sure he had no trouble remembering you.” And while I didn’t think much of that line when I wrote it, it’s only today, two novels later, that I really understand what he meant…
One of the great pleasures of planning a new writing project is the chance to do research on location. Writing is such a sedentary pursuit that any excuse to get out of the house is usually welcome, and one of the best ways a writer can spend his time is by exploring new or familiar places with an eye to their dramatic potential. And you don’t need to go far afield to make fascinating discoveries. One thing I’ve learned as a writer is that the observing faculty—the part of the brain that mines the world around you for material—can’t stay switched on all the time: it’s just too exhausting. Ideally, a writer, as Henry James said, should be one on whom nothing is lost, but aside from a few exceptional personalities like Proust or Updike, most of us learn to parcel out our energies, activating that ravenous inner eye only when necessary. In particular, it tends to be most alert when we’re regarding a location with a specific story in mind. And once we’ve made that inward adjustment, the most ordinary places are suddenly bursting with meaning.
In particular, when you’re writing a thriller, you’re often looking for a new way to stage a murder or a chase in a real location. Most suspense novelists ultimately become what Thomas Pynchon calls “aficionados of the chase scene, those who cannot look at the Taj Mahal, the Uffizi, the Statue of Liberty without thinking chase scene, chase scene, wow yeah Douglas Fairbanks scampering across that moon minaret there…” In my own work, I’ve mentally planned heists, killings, and chases in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, London, and elsewhere, a process that usually involves spending hours at a museum, neighborhood, or public building, taking surreptitious photographs and generally acting as suspiciously as possible. On a few occasions, I’ve received stern warnings from security. And although I’ve sometimes been forced to plan scenes from a distance, with the help of guidebooks, photo references, and Google Maps, there’s no substitute for being there on the ground yourself, pacing off the exact route that your hero or villain will follow.
And like most forms of research, location work isn’t primarily about factual accuracy, but about furnishing the material for dreams. It’s much more rewarding to write a scene that takes place on a real, particular street, with specific alleys and stairwells and other landmarks for the action, than to invent one for a street that exists only in your imagination. A real location, like a standing set, suggests props, story beats, and bits of business that would never occur to you on your own. Later, while you’re writing, you’re free to fudge the details if you must, but it’s better to work within the constraints that the actual location affords. James Joyce knew this when he asked his aunt to verify that an ordinary man could climb over the fence at No. 7 Eccles Street. And if you’re writing a chase scene, you’re more likely to come up with something ingenious or surprising when you notice, say, that none of the exits are conveniently located near the area where the main action takes place, and that your protagonist will need to get past several levels of security in order to make his escape.
This is basically the process that went into Chapter 33 of The Icon Thief, in which Ilya meets Sharkovsky for an exchange at the New York County Courthouse. I chose this landmark because I wanted my characters to meet in a secure location with metal detectors, so that neither one could be armed, and a courthouse seemed like an interesting backdrop. Once the decision was made, I spent the better part of an afternoon hanging out in Foley Square, checking out the surroundings and taking notes on secondary locations I might want to use—the playground, the comfort station, the construction site at the federal building next door—before entering the courthouse itself. Inside, I took notes on security, layout, and architecture, and paid special attention to the placement of the emergency exits. Above all else, I tried to see the building as it would look through Ilya’s eyes. And by the time I was done, I found that the logic of the building had determined the shape of the chapter itself, as well as the two that followed. Because I couldn’t see it, naturally, without thinking of a chase scene…
Writers are craftsmen. At least, that’s how we like to think of ourselves. “Poetry” originally comes from the root word meaning to do or to make—trust me, I spent years studying this stuff—and it’s not surprising that writers often talk about themselves as if they were blue-collar workers. Television writers talk about “laying pipe,” novelists spend almost as much time discussing structure as engineers do, and much of the language of revision sounds like it’s talking about wood carving: we cut, trim, and shape, even if we’re doing nothing more than moving digital representations of words around on a screen. As my trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary points out, a draft was originally any kind of drawing on paper, and more specifically a design, sketch, or blueprint for a more complete work of art, and only later assumed its current meaning as something that causes writers to tear their hair out. And this is part of the reason I often turn for instruction to such varied trades as architecture, animation, and the visual arts.
This also explains why writers tend to be so fascinated by the lore of other crafts and trades. Moby-Dick is a manual of whaling. James M. Cain teaches us a lot about murder, but also insurance investigation. Foucault’s Pendulum includes an entire chapter on the workings of a modern vanity press. These digressions are partly a way of filling out the world of a novel—if a writer gets these kinds of details right, we’re implicitly more likely to trust what he says about the subtleties of human behavior—but they’re also a reflection of how writers see themselves. This is a peculiar craft we’ve chosen, and it results in something so intangible that physical books themselves are no longer necessary, but the work it requires is tedious, solitary, and painstaking. As a result, we tend to be drawn to examples of skill and artistic dexterity wherever we find them, and take pleasure in translating these trades into the only medium we know how to use, as if we’re secretly talking about ourselves all the while.
When it comes to suspense and mystery fiction, this impulse can take authors to strange places. Thrillers have often been criticized for laying out the details of illegal activity in ways that seem to glamorize or encourage it: The Day of the Jackal is a miniature textbook on passport fraud, for instance, and plenty of technothrillers go on for pages about the intricacies of weaponry and improvised explosives. In The Icon Thief, we’ve already seen Ilya construct a handheld laser from a flashlight and optical drive—although this information is readily available online—and City of Exiles shows its villain constructing a workable cell phone detonator, although I kept certain details deliberately vague. Not surprisingly, some readers don’t care for this sort of thing: one very intelligent review on Goodreads says that the latter novel has “that kind of fetishism of hardware that thrillers seem to require.” But really, every novel fetishizes its subject to some extent: it’s just that suspense happens to concern itself with hardware that runs toward the lurid or criminal.
Chapter 31 of The Icon Thief is a nice example, to the point where it actually begins with Ilya paying for his purchases at the counter of a hardware store. In terms of plot, it’s a relatively quiet scene that lays the groundwork for a series of more kinetic chapters to come. But it also provides a quick rundown of Ilya’s preparations for a life on the run: he disguises himself with a few items from a drugstore, steals a driver’s license from a bicycle rental kiosk in the park, and takes apart a stolen painting to make it more portable. These are all details I could have skipped, but I liked writing about the process of undoing the canvas from its wooden frame—which is something I did a lot in painting classes in college—and rolling it up into a tube, “looking for signs of craquelure.” (Honestly, I suspect that I wrote this entire chapter just to use the word “craquelure.”) And it serves a useful purpose: Ilya can now carry the painting around for the rest of the book without making a point of it. Which just gives me more time to write about hardware…
When it comes to conveying information to the reader, extended dialogue scenes are both highly useful and a potential pitfall. On the one hand, you’ll sometimes find that there’s no other way to narrate certain material, especially for events that fall outside the scope of the novel itself, which is the case, for instance, with the account of the Dyatlov Pass incident in City of Exiles. When handled judiciously, it’s often the best option for filling in backstory, which can better be covered in a few paragraphs of conversation than in an extended flashback—although here, as always, you need to tread carefully. On the other hand, a conversation that occupies most of a chapter can seem artificial or contrived, as when Dan Brown’s characters spend page after page delivering undigested exposition on dubious historical events. Long dialogue scenes, by definition, constitute a break in the action, and they can quickly grow tedious, especially if several occur in succession. Worst of all, they can disrupt the fictional dream, once the characters cease to talk naturally and turn into mouthpieces for the author’s ideas.
The Icon Thief contains perhaps five or six chapters that consist mostly of dialogue. Part of this is due to the constraints of conspiracy fiction, in which characters are often called upon to narrate events that occurred years or centuries before, and not always reliably. I can also credit, or blame, the precedent set by Foucault’s Pendulum. As I’ve mentioned before, Umberto Eco’s novel—which still remains one of my favorite books—is something of a cul-de-sac for unsuspecting young writers: his characters don’t just talk at length about convoluted conspiracy theories, but do so for hundreds of pages. Eco gets away with it because he’s a genius, and because the underlying material is usually fascinating, although even I tend to skip most of the chapters on the history of the Jesuits. But skeptics from Tom Wolfe to Salman Rushdie have objected, and not without reason, at the lack in Eco’s work of anything resembling an ordinary human conversation, and although I hope I’ve since managed to exorcise most of his influence, it didn’t stop me from indulging in a few long, talky scenes that clearly owe a lot to his example.
When dealing with a series of long dialogue scenes, the author has a number of options. Above all, he needs to cut them down as much as possible, which I tried to do in The Icon Thief, although I imagine a lot of readers would argue that they still go on too long. He can parcel them out gradually, interspersing them with chapters of more conventional action, or he can replace them with expository prose or indirect dialogue, although this is often a case in which the cure is worse than the disease. And when all else fails, he can at least set the conversation against an interesting background, and vary the setting from one scene to another. You often see this in movies, which like to stage talky moments with the characters standing, say, on a rooftop for no particular reason. (In Miami Vice, the backdrop is so gorgeous that it’s hard to focus on the dialogue.) And you often see exposition delivered in the middle of an action scene, although this can backfire as well: crucial details of the plot of L.A. Confidential are explained while the characters are dangling the district attorney out a window, and although it’s a great scene, it takes a couple of viewings to fully process what they’re saying.
Chapter 31 of The Icon Thief was heavily revised with these points in mind. I knew that the material was strong—it’s the scene in which I lay out the argument, not altogether seriously, that Marcel Duchamp was working as an intelligence agent in New York—but the staging presented a problem: in the original version, Maddy and Ethan discuss this over lunch, which was a bit too similar to a later scene in which they do much the same over dinner. It would be best, I decided, to get them out of the office, and fortunately I hit on a reasonable excuse: Ethan could give Maddy a quick walking tour of Duchamp’s former residences in New York, all of which were suspiciously close to the homes of the art patrons John Quinn, Walter Arensberg, and Walter Pach. (I may have been inspired by the scene in JFK in which Jim Garrison takes his colleagues on a similar circuit of Oswald’s haunts in New Orleans.) Rewriting the scene posed a bit of a problem, since by then I’d moved from New York to Chicago, meaning that I had to fill in my notes with some help from Google Maps. Still, the result is a chapter that is substantially more interesting than the same information conveyed over lunch. And there’s much more of this sort of thing to come…
Everybody loves a good autopsy scene. There are few narrative tropes, in fact, where our experience of something in fiction bears such a slender relation to what our feelings about it would be in real life. We’re all fascinated by autopsies in novels or onscreen, when we might not last more than a minute or two in an actual morgue, and resent being confronted by images of real death or decay. It isn’t hard to pin down the roots of this fascination: an autopsy scene provides a safe zone, within the comforting confines of the crime procedural, for us to look squarely at issues of death, disease, and the human body that we otherwise might like to forget. Forensic pathology has its own lore and body of knowledge, like any technical trade, and in this case, it’s being applied to a machine with which we’re all intimately familiar. And although it’s ultimately a form of voyeurism, it strikes me as relatively harmless, as long as it’s kept to the confines of fiction. Speaking for myself, I can say that while I was eager to research most of my locations firsthand, this is one instance in which I was happy to rely on secondary sources for most of my information.
The trouble with autopsy scenes is that anyone who has read more than a few thrillers or watched a police procedural on television has probably seen dozens of them. We’re bored by the Y-shaped incision and the medical examiner’s detached commentary into the tape recorder, so any author who decides to write such a scene has to take the reader’s familiarity—and potential boredom—with the genre’s conventions into account. I’ve written two autopsy scenes in my published work, and in both cases, I did my best to make them at least somewhat distinctive. For City of Exiles, I decided to focus on the specifics of forensic procedure in the United Kingdom, which meant reading several books on the subject, many of which I plucked from the true crime shelves in bookstores in London. I also based certain details on coroner’s reports for similar crimes, in which the victim’s body was set on fire. (Incidentally, the best account of an autopsy I’ve read is in David Simon’s great Homicide, which I highly recommend to any authors who want to write such a scene for themselves, and my favorite fictional autopsy is probably the one in Richard Preston’s The Cobra Event.)
The autopsy scene in Chapter 30 of The Icon Thief was a late addition to the plot, and resulted from a number of narrative considerations. As I’ve mentioned before, in the first draft, the figure of Powell was only dimly realized, and much less interesting than either Maddy or Ilya. One of my objectives in the rewrite was to invigorate him as a protagonist, both by going into his inner life in more detail and by giving him interesting things to do. A previous chapter, in which he engages in a bit of illegal entry to obtain a piece of crucial evidence, was created from scratch with this in mind, and this scene was conceived for the same reason. In the initial draft, this was a much weaker chapter with Powell and Wolfe having a conversation at the office about the progress of the investigation, which was about as interesting as it sounds. Reading over the novel again, it occurred to me that conveying the same information at an autopsy would at least give me a colorful background, and would serve a secondary purpose by reintroducing the plot point of the three Armenians whom Sharkovsky kills in Brighton Beach, a scene that I’d written to insert a necessary action beat in the first act of the novel, but which, in earlier versions, was never mentioned again.
The result was a chapter that solved a number of story problems at once, and it was a pleasure to write, despite its gruesome content. To give the scene some additional interest, I decided to set it in a part of the morgue that novels don’t normally visit. In a previous chapter, I’d depicted the use of multislice computed tomography to examine a mummified body; here, I decided to show the decomp room, where bodies in an advanced state of decay are brought. This was partially due to the fact that at this point, the victims in question have been dead for quite some time, but also because I wanted to describe a location that was distinct from the autopsy rooms that we’ve all seen before. Writing a good autopsy scene, I discovered, was not so different from describing a murder: it’s the specifics that make a familiar scene memorable. I focused, then, on some necessarily gory details—such as the fact that the loose skin on the hands of a decomposing body has a way of slipping off altogether, like a glove—and the look of the room itself, with its gray acrylic floors, exhaust fan, and gently sloping tables. The result isn’t all that essential to the plot, but it’s a nice little set piece that serves its intended purpose. I certainly won’t forget it soon…
Most conspiracy theories are inherently ridiculous. When they aren’t based on outright fabrications, like the legend of the Priory of Sion, they’re generally founded on a very selective interpretation of the available evidence, with tenuous connections presented as gospel while inconvenient facts are elided or ignored. And as I’ve mentioned before, these days, it’s easier than ever to construct a conspiracy that seems plausible at first glance. With a world of information available to even the most casual paranoid, the wildest theories can be supported by a few cherry-picked facts, as long as we don’t try to put them in context. It’s the kind of sloppy thinking that often finds a home in politics and junk science. As we saw in last year’s election, no matter what you want to prove about tax cuts or the budget deficit, there’s always a study somewhere to back you up, and you only need to look at some of our less reputable recent works of popular science to see how easily you can draw any conclusion you want about the brain.
When it comes to writing a conspiracy novel, a writer has an even greater degree of freedom. He can indulge in as many outlandish assertions as he likes, as long as they’re presented with a veneer of credibility—unless, like certain authors I could name, he coyly hints that the secrets he’s describing are really true. But he needs to be careful. The crucial element, as always, is suspension of disbelief. Even if few readers take the story’s claims at face value, it’s still important that they believe that they’re true within the context of the plot, which generally means that you can’t open with anything really wild. Suspension of disbelief works exactly the same way in a conspiracy novel as in any other kind of speculative fiction: you’re more likely to draw readers into the story if your implausibilities present themselves gradually, even casually, and in a reasonable disguise. If the author pulls it off, the transition between the merely unlikely to the blatantly impossible will be so subtle that the reader won’t realize until after the fact that he’s been taken in.
In The Icon Thief, I had to build my central conspiracy in stages, moving from the assertion that Marcel Duchamp had been influenced by the Rosicrucians—an argument that has been made repeatedly by serious academics—to even more farfetched claims, culminating in a vast, shadowy conspiracy that extends into all corners of history. In theory, the pieces could have been presented in almost any order. As a practical matter, however, I knew that I had to start with points that even a skeptical reader might be willing to accept on faith, at least in the interest of advancing the story. The conspiracy theme of the novel really begins in Chapter 14, when Tanya lays out the case that Rosicrucian symbolism can be found in the work of Duchamp and his contemporaries. It’s an argument that sounds great only if you take it out of context, and choose to ignore most of the evidence of Duchamp’s career and personality. But it’s the kind of selective misinterpretation that has an honorable history in art criticism, and it serves to introduce the novel’s skewed vision of the world in easy stages.
But there’s an even more interesting connection between Duchamp and Rosicrucianism, and it has the benefit of being more or less real: Walter Arensberg, Duchamp’s leading patron and close friend, was obsessed with the Rosicrucians, and in particular with the idea that Francis Bacon was the true author of the works of Shakespeare. Any argument about Duchamp’s Rosicrucian influences really ought to begin here—it’s a legitimately fascinating sidelight on the history of art, even if Duchamp himself seemed justifiably skeptical of Arensberg’s claims. Yet I chose to save this detail for much later in the novel, to the point where it’s only mentioned here, in Chapter 29, more than halfway through the book. A conspiracy theory, like any form of creative writing, needs to start strong, but it can’t reveal all its cards at once. Like the plot of the book in which it appears, it needs to save a few big moments for later, in places where the story needs a jolt of energy. By introducing it here, I might not be able to convince a reader to take the argument seriously, but I can at least make the case that these characters might. And they’re going to start taking it very seriously indeed…
In his very useful book Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz points out that there are three basic narrative techniques used to generate suspense: the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event. The best thrillers, like The Day of the Jackal or The Silence of the Lambs, often use all three elements at once, and it’s rare to find a good suspense novel that doesn’t draw on each one at some point or another. Of the three, the chase may be the most straightforward, simply because it lends itself so organically to an exciting sequence of events. As Koontz writes:
Each step of the chase should build suspense by making the hero’s hopes for escape grow dimmer. Every time a new ploy fails to lose the chasers, the hero’s options should be narrowed until, at least, it seems that each thing he tries is his only hope, each momentary reprieve from death looking more like his last gasp than the reprieve before it.
I may as well note here again that I’ve never been a fan of the innocent man wrongfully accused. It lends itself too easily to victim stories and idiot plots, with their endless string of misunderstandings, and when I see this kind of story locking into place, I tend to get impatient. If you’re Hitchcock, you might be able to make it work; otherwise, I’d much rather see a movie, or read a book, about an otherwise innocent man rightfully accused.
That said, I love chase stories, and my second novel, City of Exiles, is largely one long chase, as Rachel Wolfe works to track down Lasse Karvonen before he can put his violent plan into action. (Note that the story also includes a race against time and an anticipation of a violent event, a structure that was entirely conscious on my part. Even more than the novels that came before or after it, City of Exiles was my attempt to build a thriller essentially on first principles, and it was planned as such from the ground up.) The Icon Thief is a more curious hybrid, with elements of a conspiracy thriller and police procedural that don’t fit neatly into the suspense category, but a chase occupies much of the second half of the novel, as my thief and assassin Ilya Severin tries to keep one step ahead of the police, while also taking out his revenge on the men who betrayed him. And the result is a structure that carries the reader neatly through the complicated developments of Part II, which otherwise might start to seem a little shapeless.
The chase story really begins here, in Chapter 28, as Ilya makes his way through a quiet neighborhood in the Hamptons and breaks into a deserted home to acquire the tools he needs. This sort of scene is the meat and potatoes of a novel like this, and I had a lot of fun imagining it, as well as the ensuing chapters in which Ilya obtains identification and begins to lay the groundwork for his next move. And it’s important to note that he isn’t a victim. He’s on the run, yes, and he doesn’t have a lot of resources, but he’s still the one driving the story: he knows that his survival, over the long term, depends on figuring out why he was betrayed, which means he needs to seek out the very antagonists he might otherwise want to elude. This kind of reversal, in which the hunted becomes the hunter, is crucial in this kind of plot, which otherwise tends to degenerate into a long series of close calls and narrow escapes. It’s because the structure of a chase is so intuitive that you need to be careful here: the temptation to deal your hero one setback after another is hard to resist, but it isn’t interesting unless he can also take matters into his own hands.
Another issue with chase stories is that after a certain point, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Koontz ticks off a handful of possible variations, all of which have been done to death: a spy chased by enemy agents, a killer pursued by a detective, or, if you must, an innocent man eluding the authorities. After you’ve written this kind of story once, it can be hard to find reasons to do it again. We see this in a movie like The Bourne Legacy, which fluently copies the chase structure of its predecessors to no real purpose: in the end, the chase serves only as an end in itself, with nothing of interest revealed along the way, which is why the air ultimately goes out of the movie like a deflated balloon. This is also why I decided, while writing City of Exiles, to abruptly switch gears halfway through. I’d already written about Ilya on the run for what seemed like hundreds of pages, and I didn’t feel like writing that novel again, so I finally upended the stakes in the only way I could. Those of you who have read that book will know what I mean. At this point in The Icon Thief, though, the story was still fresh, and I was having a good time. But things are going to get much harder for Ilya soon…