Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Why I wrote The Icon Thief

with 6 comments

When I first began working on The Icon Thief, nearly four years ago, I had one goal in mind: I wanted to write a novel that I’d like to read myself. It would be a big intellectual thriller, packed with ideas and action, with characters I genuinely cared about, or at least found compelling enough to follow to the end. It could be read simply as entertainment—as an attempt to deliver as complete a modern novel of suspense as I possibly could—but would also reward readers who were ready to dig a bit deeper. It would be exciting enough on a surface level to keep the pages turning, but would also benefit from being read more closely a second time. It would be organized, inventive, and as clever as I could make it. From the start, if only because I love narrative complexity perhaps more than I should, I knew that it would have an expansive plot with multiple storylines that would converge as the novel progressed. Ideally, it would have a couple of big surprises, and an ending that would do justice to all that came before.

Whether or not I succeeded is something that the rest of the world will have to decide, now that the novel is finally in stores. For my own part, I’m more fascinated by how the novel evolved in ways that defied my own expectations. As I’ve explained over the past week, it took me down some unexpected byways, from the Rosicrucians to the art world, from Russia to Duchamp, and ended up focusing on an enigma that I’m still thrilled to have been the first novelist to explore. It’s a strange feeling: I know this novel almost line for line, but there are still parts that take me by surprise, or that I don’t seem to have invented myself as much as discovered by accident. Every writer, I suspect, can relate to this feeling, but this doesn’t make it any less striking when it happens to you. If The Icon Thief works, and I think it works well enough, it does so for reasons that I never could have predicted when I wrote out my first page of notes. And as with most novels, it wasn’t until I was finished that I understood what I was writing about in the first place.

If there’s a single thread that connects The Icon Thief to its two sequels, one of which I’ve already completed, the other of which I’m starting tomorrow, it’s the question of how we impose meaning on the world around us, even if there’s no larger meaning to be found. We’re constantly looking for structure in works of art, in history, and in the events of our own lives. Sometimes the patterns are really there; sometimes they’re the product of imagination, paranoia, or sheer intellectual will; and sometimes—as is ultimately the case in all three of these novels—they’re some combination of the above. As a writer, I’ve spent my life trying to find order in a disorderly world, and I’m pretty good at it, as are many of my characters. But reality always resists our best efforts to pin it down, and the readings of the world in which we’d most like to believe—whether because they’re reassuring, advantageous, or merely interesting—aren’t always true. And The Icon Thief and its successors are about coming to terms with this fact.

Of course, you should never trust what a writer says about himself, especially when he’s explaining why he wrote something. As literary critics know, a writer’s account of the reasons behind his work is often a kind of performance in itself—hence John Milton’s claim, for instance, that he wrote Paradise Lost “to justify the ways of God to man,” when we know that he actually considered a wide range of subjects before deciding on his final theme. Milton, it seems, just wanted to write a great poem. And one thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that every work of art is secretly about the process of its own creation. If The Icon Thief centers on the theme of information overload, then veers into a consideration of what it means to live a good life outside the systems that we impose on the world, it’s because I went through a similar journey myself while writing it. And if that journey is now drawing to a close, or at least entering a new phase, it’s certainly been a surprising one. What more can I say? The book is out now. And if you’ve come this far with me, I think you might like it.

Written by nevalalee

March 6, 2012 at 10:00 am

6 Responses

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  1. Congratulations!

  2. Thanks! It’s been quite a day…


    March 6, 2012 at 9:50 pm

  3. I am currently reading your novel right now, thanks to the Goodreads giveaway and I am loving it. I’ve been reading it on the train on my way to and from work and on my lunch and before I go to be for the past couple of days; and I get a bit upset when my train stop comes or my lunch time is over because I have to stop. Anyway Congratulations on your debut novel and I look forward to its sequel!


    March 7, 2012 at 3:34 pm

  4. Thanks so much! When I first became a writer, I wanted nothing more than to see people reading my work on the train, and I’m really glad that you’re enjoying the novel. When you finish, you’ll have to tell me what you think!


    March 7, 2012 at 5:08 pm

  5. I had to take a break from reading The Icon Thief — finals had to come first. Anyway when I picked it back up I read the last 150 or so pages in one sitting. I have to admit I haven’t had a book hold my attention like this way in a long time. Loved the set up of the Prologue — the tension was established and I knew that the story would be about this painting and the Russian mob, but I was curious as to why and their relationship. I have to admit I kind of felt a little sorry for Sharkovsky, but at the same time he was the comic relief for me. There were a couple of things that were a bit predictable (i.e. Ilya “saving” the damsel in distress and Reynard’s involvement) but it didn’t take away from the novel at all. What did throw me for a loop was ending of Lermontov and who was involved. Didn’t see that coming. Now that my classes are done I’m definitely going to have to reread it. I feel as though I’ve misses some things out of this multi-layered novel. I look forward to City of Exiles in December.


    March 21, 2012 at 9:12 am

  6. Aww—thanks! I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed it, and I’m especially happy to know that you liked the last 150 pages—that’s probably the section of the novel of which I’m most proud, and it was definitely designed to be read in one sitting. And I do hope that you’ll reread it: I was trying to write a novel that would reward more than one reading, and I’m curious to find out if it succeeds. You’ll have to let me know!


    March 21, 2012 at 11:08 am

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