Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“You know what a night porter is?”

with 7 comments

(Note: This post is the fifth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 4. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When it comes to writing about Ilya Severin, the cerebral thief and assassin who stands at the center of The Icon Thief and its sequels, my approach has always been that less is more. I’ve spoken at length about my dislike of backstory, and my feeling that characters like Hannibal Lecter have been destroyed by the spotlight retroactively thrown on their origins, and in Ilya, I saw a chance to test out this theory in real time. As a result, I’ve been careful, almost to a fault, to withhold nearly all information about Ilya’s past except what is crucial for the plot, content to let him express himself primarily through his actions in the present. This was partially calculated to grant me flexibility in subsequent installments, and also due to a sort of authorial indifference: unlike a lot of writers, I’m not particularly interested in what someone was doing before the story began, as long as he or she has a compelling presence on the page. Consequently, there are major elements in the lives of Maddy, Powell, Ilya, and other important characters in The Icon Thief that remain a mystery even to me.

The result, I hope, is a character who holds our attention, even as the reader is left wanting to know more about his past. Does it work? I’m the last person in the world to judge this properly, but as far as I can tell, Ilya becomes more interesting the less we see of him, and certainly more interesting than if we’d been given his full backstory. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t tried to make him a complex character; indeed, I was all but forced to deal with the complexities that arose from his original conception. Ilya began as little more than a neat idea for an antihero—a Russian Jew, steeped in the cabala, who is also an expert thief and killer—but the more I thought about him, the more problematic he became. Why would so intelligent a man be working as an assassin, especially given the mob’s historical antisemitism? And as I started to work through these issues, I began to see that the organic complexities that arose from his character were far more interesting when his past was kept in shadow, perhaps because I sensed that no backstory could do justice to his contradictions. (This is one reason why I responded so positively to Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive.)

When I look back at Chapter 4, in which Ilya is fully seen for the first time after his brief appearance in the prologue, one of the first things that comes to mind is how much I cut from it. The first draft of this chapter was something like 3,300 words long; the published version is 1,800 words. So what got cut? A lot of it was excess verbiage describing Ilya’s arrival at the airport and his subsequent trip to Brighton Beach, the sort of thing that any responsible revision would have pared away. But the biggest cut of all was a long, introspective passage in which Ilya reflects on his failure in Budapest, his subsequent actions, the reappearance of the painting he was assigned to retrieve, and his intention to recover it. The first draft of this material covered about five hundred words. In the final version? It’s a single sentence, or not even half a sentence: “Ever since Budapest, he had been dealt another hand entirely.” That’s it. Everything else—his humiliation at his failure, his loss of status, his determination to restore his reputation—is contained between the lines in the scene that follows. And the result is much better than before.

That said, this chapter gave me a lot of problems, and I don’t think I really fixed it until the final draft. The first conversation between Ilya and Sharkovsky, the Brighton Beach gangster he meets here for the first time, has to accomplish a lot: it needs to suggest the tension between these two characters and the differences between Ilya and the men with whom he has been assigned to work, while also telling us something about Sharkovsky himself and setting up the next phase of the plot. This is a lot to ground to cover in just over a thousand words, and it took me a lot of tinkering to get it right. The key moment, oddly enough, is a minor one: Sharkovsky’s speech about the night porter and the problem of loss of inventory. It’s a good speech on its own, but it also hints at Sharkovsky’s underlying shrewdness and his attitude toward Ilya, who serves as a night porter for the mob—left alone as long as he does his job well, but held responsible when something goes wrong. And when Ilya, in response, takes out the photo of the man from the auction, we get a sense, for the first time, of the job he has been sent here to do…

Written by nevalalee

May 24, 2012 at 10:30 am

7 Responses

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  1. I really enjoy your commentaries. They add so much–I wish others would follow your model more often.


    May 24, 2012 at 11:22 am

  2. Thanks! They’re fun—and relatively easy—for me to write, too, so everybody wins…


    May 24, 2012 at 11:27 am

  3. I had been meaning to ask you if the Bourdain reference was conscious. I just read Kitchen Confidential this year (I got it for Christmas) so the reference struck me immediately, but I thought it might just be a coincidence. Did you read that book as research for this one?


    May 24, 2012 at 7:32 pm

  4. Um, yeah.


    May 24, 2012 at 7:33 pm

  5. This is a terrific series, and the sharing of your writing experience is much appreciated!

    Catherine McCallum

    May 24, 2012 at 11:18 pm

  6. Hope I could get my book signed by you! ;)

    Gian Carlo ♥

    May 25, 2012 at 2:26 am

  7. @Catherine: Thanks so much!

    @Gian Carlo: My rule is that if you buy it, I’ll always sign it. :)


    May 25, 2012 at 11:03 am

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