Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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

with 4 comments

(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.

Written by nevalalee

April 30, 2012 at 10:41 am

4 Responses

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  1. I’m loving the idea of an author’s track. The little details that the reader may not even pick up on, but were so painstakingly researched by the author, are fascinating. I also love the fact that I get to peek into another author’s mind and see how their creation process unfolded. Maybe I can learn something new, and try a new technique. Wonderful stuff!


    April 30, 2012 at 11:25 am

  2. I’m glad to hear it! I was afraid that the whole idea was mostly just self-indulgent—which, frankly, it is—but as long as you and other readers are getting something out of it, I’ll feel justified in going further. (And please don’t hesitate to weigh in with questions in the comments.)


    April 30, 2012 at 11:28 am

  3. I really enjoyed reading your post. I’m working on my first novel and working through all the story details in the first draft. Your description of the story growing like a plant is great, but sometimes I feel like it is mould in my brain – I just have to get up in the middle of the night and get the ideas down.


    May 1, 2012 at 4:44 am

  4. That’s the best part of the process—when the ideas just seem to come to you of their own accord. Sometimes I think that all the otherwise tedious work that goes into a novel is worth it just for three or four of those moments.


    May 1, 2012 at 9:00 am

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