Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Why I am a novelist

with 3 comments

I’ve only ever wanted two jobs. My first dream job, which occupied my imagination roughly from the ages of six to ten, was, of course, paleontologist. (Even today, I can still remember the approximate dates of the Mesozoic Era, a fact that came in handy at a recent trivia contest.) When I was ten, though, it suddenly occurred to me that it might be even more fun to be a novelist. I could still write about dinosaurs—although a certain novel released that same year beat me to the punch—and just about everything else. At the time, like most kids, I was curious about a lot of things, and the immediate appeal of being a writer was that it would give me an excuse to learn about whatever I wanted.

Twenty years later, that’s still a big part of why I want to write for a living. What didn’t come until more recently was a love for the writing process itself. Early on, writing was pretty much just a pretext for following my interests wherever they led me, and it’s only in the past ten years that I’ve begun to find the actual mechanics of writing deeply interesting. At some point, the writer’s tool kit of plot, language, character, and theme became as absorbing a subject as those external topics—Marcel Duchamp, Russia, the art world, the Rosicrucians, to name only those involved in The Icon Thief—that I used fiction as an opportunity to explore. And the realization that I also love writing for its own sake is one of the most significant discoveries of my life.

Writing fiction, as I see it, is the greatest game in the world. Other authors may approach it differently, but for me, it’s a chance to construct something beautiful and elegant that didn’t exist before. It’s the same impulse, I imagine, that leads people to build ships in bottles or construct crossword puzzles (something that I’ve also tried, with less success), but extended over a much longer period of time. Writing a novel still strikes me as just about the most challenging thing that an artist can do on his or her own. It requires both massive sustained organization and the ability to recognize fleeting moments of inspiration. It draws on all parts of the brain. And it has tested me in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I began writing for a living.

This love of structure and artifice is the main reason why I’ve thrown my lot in with the novel, rather than nonfiction. Narrative nonfiction or journalism is, in some ways, a superior excuse to explore the world, but with it comes a certain responsibility to the facts that doesn’t quite fit with my conception of writing as a great game. I try to make my novels as accurate as possible, but there are times when I prefer a convincing impossibility, as long as it’s elegant and surprising and not too far removed from the truth. At some point, I may try my hand at nonfiction, but for now, I’m sticking with the novel. As any writer will tell you, being a novelist is quite hard enough.

Written by nevalalee

March 24, 2011 at 8:59 am

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. What a beautiful expression of the elegance of structure. Thanks for sharing.


    March 24, 2011 at 9:46 am

  2. Thanks so much! (Nice blog, by the way.)


    March 24, 2011 at 2:04 pm

  3. Thank you! You have a lovely blog, too!


    March 28, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: