Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 2012

“Andrey was nearly at the border when he ran into the thieves…”

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(Note: This post is the first installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering the novel’s prologue. You can read the prologue and the first few chapters here.)

The opening of any novel is a sort of triangulation, or compromise, between several sometimes contradictory factors. You want to begin with an arresting scene that will engage the reader’s attention, hopefully from the very first page. You need to set up themes and images that will pay off later in the book. You’re trying to will yourself, the author, into the story for the first time, which often requires writing a lot of introductory material that will later be discarded. And you’re doing all this at a point in the process when the rest of the book is just a vague shape in the distance—although you’ll usually go back to revise what you’ve written once you’ve got a better sense of where you’re headed. In my own case, whenever I start a novel, I’m always thinking about my own favorite openings in fiction, such as that of The Postman Always Rings Twice, which Tom Wolfe famously extolled as a model of narrative momentum. Not every novel needs to come out of the corner so quickly, but in general, especially when you’re working in suspense, there’s something to be said for getting right down to business.

Here’s how the prologue to The Icon Thief came about. When I first realized that my book was going to center on the world of Russian organized crime, I began by reading everything I could on the subject. One of the most useful books I found was Comrade Criminal by Stephen Handelman, a well-documented look at the rise of the Russian mafiya in the early nineties. In particular, Handelman devotes several pages to the trade in smuggled art and icons, including a brief account of an encounter between a solitary art smuggler and a pair of bandits on a deserted road—a rather common occurrence in that line of work. As I read the description, something clicked, and I made a note of it, thinking that a similar incident might make a good opening scene for my own novel. At the time, I didn’t know who my smuggler was, or what he was smuggling, but something about that lonely image stuck in my mind. And a surprising amount of the subsequent plot—including the fact that much of the story revolves around a smuggled work of art—arose from my attempt to figure out how we arrived at that one moment.

In my experience, that’s how writing a novel works: you’re start with a single image or idea, which leads to others, until a huge plant has grown from that one mustard seed. Once I had the figure of the smuggler, for instance, I had to figure out who he was and where he was going, and I spent an ungodly amount of time coming up with a plausible background for the man I ended up calling Andrey. In the original draft of the prologue, I go into great detail about his past—he’s married with one child and hopes to start a coffee shop in Moscow—nearly all of which ended up being cut in the final version. In fact, the first draft contains something like a thousand words of material, much of it painstakingly researched, that was cut for reasons of space or clarity. (For example, the “border” mentioned in the book’s opening sentence is the border between Russia and Ukraine, just outside Shebekino, although I don’t name any of these places in the final draft.) These excisions were necessary, and I don’t miss any of the extra material. But it made Andrey more real to me, which was crucial, since he’s the first person in the novel we meet, even if his real function is to introduce us to a much more important character who appears in the prologue’s final pages.

When I look back at the prologue now, I’m especially pleased by the details that are essentially inside jokes: the fact that Andrey ends up in a hotel on Rákóczi Road in Budapest, for instance, is a nod to Foucault’s Pendulum, in which a mysterious figure with a similar name plays a small but crucial role. I also like the fact that Andrey is playing a Deep Purple mix tape while he’s driving. This, too, was a fairly random decision—I somehow came up with the idea that the bandits, while accepting other forms of tribute, would take his mix tape as well—but it led to some unexpected discoveries. The music playing here had to be something that a Russian might plausibly have in his tape deck, while also, ideally, having some larger thematic resonance, and I arrived at Deep Purple, or Dip Pepl, because I knew they were big in Russia. (Medvedev, apparently, is a devoted fan.) But the song itself provides a clue of what is to come. “Smoke on the Water” is about a fire on the shore of Lake Geneva, the occasional home of both Lenin and Nabokov, who will later cast their shadows across the story. It also, interestingly, appears in the background of a certain work of art to which the reader will soon be introduced. And then we’re off to the races.

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April 30, 2012 at 10:41 am

Quote of the Day

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April 30, 2012 at 7:50 am

A square peg in a round hole

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It is a very wise rule in the conduct of the understanding, to acquire early a correct notion of your own peculiar constitution of mind, and to become well acquainted, as a physician would say, with your idiosyncrasy. Are you an acute man, and see sharply for small distances? or are you a comprehensive man, and able to take in, wide and extensive views into your mind? Does your mind turn its ideas into wit? or are you apt to take a common-sense view of the objects presented to you? Have you an exuberant imagination, or a correct judgment? Are you quick, or slow? accurate, or hasty? a great reader, or a great thinker? It is a prodigious point gained if any man can find out where his powers lie, and what are his deficiencies,—if he can contrive to ascertain what Nature intended him for: and such are the changes and chances of the world, and so difficult is it to ascertain our own understandings, or those of others, that most things are done by persons who could have done something else better. If you choose to represent the various parts in life by holes upon a table, of different shapes,—some circular, some triangular, some square, some oblong,—and the persons acting these parts by bits of wood of similar shapes, we shall generally find that the triangular person has got into the square hole, the oblong into the triangular, and a square person has squeezed himself into the round hole. The officer and the office, the doer and the thing done, seldom fit so exactly, that we can say they were almost made for each other.

Sydney Smith

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April 29, 2012 at 9:50 am

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Peter L. Berger on “recipe knowledge”

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An individual is generally ready to admit that he is ignorant of periods in the past or places on the other side of the globe. But he is much less likely to admit ignorance of his own period and his own place, especially if he is an intellectual. Everyone, of course, knows about his own society. Most of what he knows, however, is what Alfred Schütz has aptly called “recipe knowledge”—just enough to get him through his essential transactions in social life. Intellectuals have a particular variety of “recipe knowledge”; they know just enough to be able to get through their dealings with other intellectuals. There is a “recipe knowledge” for dealing with modernity in intellectual circles; the individual must be able to reproduce a small number of stock phrases and interpretive schemes, to apply them in “analysis” or “criticism” of new things that come up in discussion, and thereby to authenticate his participation in what has been collectively been defined as reality in these circles. Statistically speaking, the scientific validity of this intellectuals’ “recipe knowledge” is roughly random.

Peter L. Berger, The Homeless Mind

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April 28, 2012 at 9:50 am

A writer’s commentary track

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As I’ve said before, I like commentary tracks. While some audio commentaries can be a waste of time, or worse, I’ve learned so much from the best of them, and derived such pleasure along the way, that a few have even supplanted the underlying movie itself in my affections. I still love The Usual Suspects, for instance, but at this point, I’d rather listen to Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s wonderful commentary, probably my personal favorite, than watch the movie again. Commentaries by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Nicholas Meyer, David Mamet, and Steven Soderbergh (especially his famously prickly exchange with Lem Dobbs on The Limey) only get better with time. And in particular, the stunning commentary tracks for The Simpsons have been playing continuously in the background of my life for the better part of a decade now.

I’ve often wished that something similar existed for novels. There are, of course, annotated editions of classics ranging from Alice to Sherlock Holmes—the latter of which is my favorite book of all time—and several authors, notably Nabokov, have cooperated to some extent with annotated versions of their works. Other novelists have written in detail about the creation of particular books. The most comprehensive example I’ve seen is The Writing of One Novel by Irving Wallace, which I recommend with the caveat that Wallace was a pretty lousy writer—although quite readable on the subjects of research, revision, and publication. Similar accounts have evidently been written by Thomas Mann and Thomas Wolfe, although I haven’t read them, and I don’t think they’re quite what I have in mind when I envision a true author’s commentary: something that runs in parallel with the text, but chatty, digressive, and not particularly organized, like Paul Thomas Anderson talking about Boogie Nights.

This is all my roundabout way of announcing that starting on Monday, I’ll be writing an occasional author’s commentary, for lack of a better word, on The Icon Thief. I’m not precisely sure how this will work, since I haven’t done it before, but at the moment, I’m hoping to post one installment per week, taking one chapter at a time, and writing about whatever strikes my fancy. There won’t be a fixed format: I’ll just be talking about what I can remember of how each chapter written, explaining some of the references, throwaway details, and inside jokes, and giving whatever insight I can about the choices I made along the way. Behind every page lies a story, some more interesting than others, but since this is essentially a blog about writing, I figure that at this point I can afford to indulge myself. And my goal will be to write the kind of author commentary I’d like to read—light, heavy on the gossip, cheerfully candid about plot holes and mistakes, and generally as honest as possible.

Obviously, these posts will mean a lot more to those who have read the novel, so if you haven’t had a chance to pick it up yet, you might want to swing by your local library, steal a copy from a friend, or even buy one. (You can also read the first three chapters, and bits and pieces of the rest, on Google Books.) While I can’t entirely avoid spoilers, I’ll do my best to tread carefully around certain plot points. And as much as I’m aware that it can be risky to pull back the curtain like this, I can’t resist showing you a few of my tricks. Every work of art has its own secret history, and the same part of me that is intrigued by commentary tracks, artists’ sketches, and storyboards is also fascinated by the process by which every novel is made—a story often as compelling, and surprising, as the plot itself. Ideally, the result will be of interest even to those who haven’t read the book, and won’t affect the enjoyment of those who have. So I hope you enjoy being part of my book club, because if you’re reading this, you’re already in it—and the discussion starts now.

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April 27, 2012 at 9:42 am

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Quote of the Day

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April 27, 2012 at 7:50 am

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What makes a great action scene?

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For most of this week, anyone passing by my house would have seen a bright rectangular glow in the living room window, as the new Blu-ray of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol played in a nonstop loop. While it doesn’t have the same visceral power as it did in IMAX, this is still a fun, expertly assembled action movie, the perfect sort of thing to have playing in the background while I’m working on other projects. Even after seeing it three or four times, however, I still have to drop everything and watch whenever the big scene in the Burj Khalifa comes up. I may not get as dizzy as I did when I first saw it, but even on the small screen, it’s still wonderfully exciting—and all the more terrifying when you know how it was actually filmed. (Incidentally, as much as I hate this sort of corporate extortion, it’s worth shelling out the extra money for the Best Buy exclusive edition, which contains some great bonus features that aren’t included in the version available on Amazon.)

In fact, I’d say that the Burj Khalifa climb in Ghost Protocol is my favorite action sequence of the past five years, on a short list that includes the Guggenheim shootout in The International and the opening chase scene in Drive. At first glance, these three scenes might not seem to have much in common—one is a death-defying ballet staged one hundred and thirty stories above the ground; one is lunatic, extended gunplay; and the last is the car chase as chess game—but they’re all executed with something of the same spirit, and it’s worth drilling down to figure out why they affect us so deeply. There’s something hugely pleasurable about these scenes that goes beyond their immediate impact, and which sets them apart, in my mind, even from such landmark sequences as the hallway fight in Inception, which I love, but find somewhat less interesting from a writer’s point of view. Because what the three scenes I’ve mentioned have in common is that they were all written first.

Here’s what I mean. Many action scenes, particularly car chases, come off as assemblages of second unit footage that have been pieced together in the editing room, and as a result, there’s something monotonous about the relentless similarity of action—just see any Michael Bay movie for an example. The action sequences in these three films, by contrast, were conceived on the printed page. They have a clear beginning, middle, and end. They make memorable use of their locations. They have small setups, payoffs, and surprises along the way, as when Ethan Hunt throws away his malfunctioning glove and finds it adhering to the side of the building a few stories later. Each is centered on the personality of the characters involved—indeed, each scene unfolds as a sequence of logical choices, which is something you’ll never hear said of Transformers. And these are all things that can only be planned at the screenplay stage.

And while this may seem obvious, it’s worth remembering in light of a movie like The Hunger Games, which has its good points, but to my eyes, despite the strength of its material, doesn’t know how to plan and carry out action. Instead, it relies on editing and camerawork to create the illusion of momentum, when all of this should have been laid out in the script. (Note that none of the three films I’ve mentioned ever use anything resembling a shakycam.) Full credit, then, to writers Eric Singer, Hossein Amini, and the platoon that worked on Ghost Protocol for giving us action scenes we’ll remember, which is something that ought to be celebrated. Because it appeals so shamelessly to our reptile brain, the ability to write a great action scene may never get the respect it deserves, but like any other narrative skill, it benefits from intelligence, ingenuity, and clarity of thought—and all of the editing tricks in the world won’t make up for their absence.

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April 26, 2012 at 10:16 am

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