Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 2011

A poet’s routine: A.E. Housman

with one comment

Having drunk a pint of beer at luncheon—beer is a sedative to the brain, and my afternoons are the least intellectual portion of my life—I would go out for a walk of two or three hours. As I went along, thinking of nothing in particular, only looking at things around me and following the progress of the seasons, there would flow into my mind, with sudden and unaccountable emotion, sometimes a line or two of verse, sometimes a whole stanza at once, accompanied, not preceded, by a vague notion of the poem which they were destined to form part of. Then there would usually be a lull of an hour or so, then perhaps the spring would bubble up again. I say bubble up, because, so far as I could make out, the source of the suggestions thus proffered to the brain was an abyss which I have already had occasion to mention, the pit of the stomach. When I got home I wrote them down, leaving gaps, and hoping that further inspiration might be forthcoming another day. Sometimes it was, if I took my walks in a receptive and expectant frame of mind, but sometimes the poem had to be taken in hand and completed by the brain, which was apt to be a matter of trouble and anxiety, involving trial and disappointment, and sometimes ending in failure. I happen to remember distinctly the genesis of the piece which stands last in my first volume. Two of the stanzas, I do not say which, came into my head, just as they are printed, while I was crossing the corner of Hampstead Heath between the Spaniard’s Inn and the footpath to Temple Fortune. A third stanza came with a little coaxing after tea. One more was needed, but it did not come: I had to turn to and compose it myself, and that was a laborious business. I wrote it thirteen times, and it was more than a twelvemonth before I got it right.

A.E. Housman, “The Name and Nature of Poetry”

Written by nevalalee

April 30, 2011 at 7:34 am

Progress report

leave a comment »

Aside from my author photos and a certain royal wedding—which, yes, I got up at five this morning to watch with my wife, who wore a pink tiara to celebrate—it’s been an eventful week. On Wednesday, my editor finally sent me the copy-edited manuscript of The Icon Thief, which I’m supposed to review and return by May 11. At first glance, the changes all seem fairly straightforward—devoted mostly to changing “further” to “farther” and correcting my inconsistent use of the word “towards”—but I haven’t had a chance to really go through it yet. Still, it’s fun looking at the style sheet for the novel, with its long list of random proper names and foreign phrases (“Roger Casement,” tzaddikim, Dip Pepl). And I hope to write more about the copy-editing process in weeks to come.

More importantly, I’ve been informed that the publication of The Icon Thief has been pushed back two months to April 2012, from its original release date of February. Evidently it’s not uncommon for publication dates to be reshuffled like this, and my editor seems to think that this will be the last such change. The book is still in a good slot—it’s Signet’s lead title for the month—and the revised timeline gives us an extra couple of months to properly market the novel. All the same, it’s a little nerve-wracking. But looking at the calendar of summer movie releases, I’m oddly tickled to see that the novel will be coming out a week or two before Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Feeling nervous, Joss?

Written by nevalalee

April 29, 2011 at 8:33 am

Posted in Publishing, Writing

Tagged with ,

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

When one writes a novel about grown people, he knows exactly where to stop—that is, with a marriage; but when he writes of juveniles, he must stop where he best can.

—Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Written by nevalalee

April 29, 2011 at 7:13 am

Yes, that’s really me

with 6 comments

Two weeks ago, in what felt like an important milestone, I finally had an author photograph taken for The Icon Thief. The photographer, Brian Kinyon, is a very smart and talented guy from Oak Park who took the pictures for my own wedding, and whom I knew could be counted upon to make me look fairly presentable. Before the photo shoot, I half-seriously sent him a link to the website of Marion Ettlinger, generally considered to be the Rembrandt of author headshots. Brian said that he loved Ettinger, but cautioned me that I shouldn’t expect to look quite like her picture of Truman Capote. I agreed. After all, that’s a face you need to earn.

We began with some informal shots around the house, which my wife insisted we get. In my favorite photo, I’m holding my Pantone mug, which I bought at the Art Institute here in Chicago. (The color of the mug is Columbia blue, or Pantone 292, which should ring a bell to fans of the Magnetic Fields.) This mug, which has contained something like two thousand cups of green tea over the past couple of years, has been my constant companion, and I’m glad it’s in this shot. And among the books visible on the shelf behind me is Illuminatus! by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, to which I owe a great deal. The Phantom Tollbooth is also there. So while I don’t think this picture is going to be my official photo, I’m glad to have it.

With that, I changed into my official suspense novelist’s uniform, mandated by law, which consists of a blazer, dress shirt, and dark jeans. (A turtleneck, I’m relieved to say, is optional. But have you ever seen a thriller writer wear anything else?) It was a nice day, so Brian and I went out to explore my beautiful neighborhood of North Center, heading up toward Lincoln Square. We took shots at the Sulzer Regional public library, at Cafeneo coffee shop, where Brian used to hang out when he lived in this area, and under the El tracks, which is the picture I’ve ultimately chosen. (“The steel girders make you look like a tough thriller writer!” my wife said.)

All in all, we took more than nine hundred shots, of which Brian ultimately sent me close to two hundred. And although I reserve the right to change my mind, I’m pleased by the one I’ve chosen. This is pretty much how I look, at least on a good day, and I’m grateful to Brian for doing such an inspired and professional job. The result, greatly reduced, will probably end up on the inside back cover of my novel, my publisher’s website, and various other places. And hopefully I’ll still look more or less the same when the novel comes out in April 2012, recently pushed back two months from its original date of February. (But that’s a story for another day.)

Quote of the Day

with 2 comments

Written by nevalalee

April 28, 2011 at 8:07 am

The Phantom Tollbooth and the Terrible Trivium

with 9 comments

Michael Chabon’s wonderful appreciation of The Phantom Tollbooth in the New York Review of Books puts me gratefully in mind of one of my own favorite novels, a book that I read and loved as a child but didn’t fully appreciate until picking it up again a few years ago. As a kid, you respond most immediately to the surface pleasures of Norton Juster’s great book: the puns, the absurd characters and situations, the seemingly effortless skill in storytelling, and, not least of all, Jules Feiffer’s remarkable illustrations. It’s only much later that you realize that this book of amiable nonsense is actually an instruction manual on how to be alive, and in particular on how to be a real grownup.

Most works of art are gloriously useless, but The Phantom Tollbooth is one of those rare novels, like In Search of Lost Time, that is both a masterpiece and full of incredibly useful advice. Juster doesn’t simply put Milo in the Doldrums, for instance, but gets him out as well. How? By thinking. He demonstrates how easy it is to jump to Conclusions, and that you can only get back with a long swim in the Sea of Knowledge, from which you emerge perfectly dry. He tells you how to deal with the Senses Takers of the world, whose forms and questions can drain you of your sense of purpose, duty, and proportion—but not if you keep your sense of humor. Through my namesake, Alec Bings, he reminds you to always look at the world from different points of view. And it’s a miniature symposium, of course, on the joys of words, numbers, colors, and music.

But the greatest episode in the novel, and one that you can only truly understand after you’ve tried to be a grownup for a while, is the story of the Terrible Trivium. Reading this scene again a few years back, after I’d quit my old job and was trying to make a life for myself as a writer, was a jawdropping experience. In the Mountains of Ignorance, Milo and his friends encounter an elegantly dressed gentleman without a face, who charmingly asks them to complete a few simple tasks—moving an enormous pile of sand with a pair of tweezers, emptying a well with an eyedropper, digging a hole through a cliff with a needle. They get contentedly to work, and it’s only after hours have passed, and Milo calculates that they won’t be done for another eight hundred years, that the awful truth about the stranger emerges:

“Quite correct!” he shrieked triumphantly. “I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.”

And then he explains, whispering softly:

“Now do come and stay with me. We’ll have so much fun together. There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why, if you stay here, you’ll never have to think again—and with a little practice you can become a monster of habit, too.”

Needless to say, Milo and his friends escape—but it took me years to make my escape as well, and as we all know, the Terrible Trivium is always lurking nearby, ready to snatch us up. It’s for that reason that I try to reread The Phantom Tollbooth every couple of years, if only as a reminder that the world is full of books and ideas and art and music, that I have all the tools I need to be a real human being, and that as much as I’d like to live in Juster’s world—which is the greatest children’s book of the twentieth century—there’s just so much to do right here.

As a bonus, here’s the map I drew for my wedding day, inspired by Jules Feiffer’s beautiful endpapers:

Quote of the Day

with one comment

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2011 at 8:06 am

%d bloggers like this: