Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“As Maddy entered the storeroom…”

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(Note: This post is the tenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 9. You can read the earlier installments here.)

A novel can’t build momentum all the time. It’s tempting to try and write a story that consists of nothing but action, but the net effect will only exhaust the reader: a properly structured novel needs occasional breaks, moments where the narrative slows down to consolidate what it’s done so far and look forward to what lies ahead. This is especially important when you’re on the verge of something big. At this point in the story, The Icon Thief is about to begin its headlong plunge into plot—the next fifteen chapters are the busiest in the entire novel—so it’s now, appropriately, that it pauses to take stock of where it stands. Chapter 9 is arguably the quietest chapter in the book, but it also provides a necessary contrast to the developments around the corner, which will hopefully seem all the more intense compared to this moment of relative calm. Or, as Henning Nelms says in Magic and Showmanship, which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite nonwriting books on writing: “A shift is stronger than an increase.”

Which is why it seems all the more strange to me, looking back, that this chapter wasn’t even a part of the first draft. As I’ve mentioned before, after I’d finished the novel, I had to go back and radically restructure it to put the emphasis on Maddy, my central character, whose story provides a necessary thread for the reader to follow. This involved cutting back some of Powell and Ilya’s material, and it also meant adding new scenes for Maddy herself. I knew from the structure of the story that I needed a scene with Maddy here—otherwise she’d be offstage for several chapters—but I didn’t know what it would be. I’d left her at a rough moment: she’s just been upstaged at a crucial meeting by Ethan, her rival at the art fund, and fears that she’s being left behind, or even at the wrong job altogether. In just a few chapters, she’s going to jump headlong into the novel’s obstacle race. What I needed, I realized, was a chapter that would tell us more about where Maddy is coming from, and to establish the motivation behind the choices she’s about to make.

Doing this involved filling out some of Maddy’s personal history, which is something I’d originally been reluctant to do. I’ve talked a lot about how I don’t like backstory, and how I feel that characters should be defined primarily by their actions in the present. In this case, however, it seemed necessary. Maddy is a very complex character, and she’s about to make some striking decisions. To keep her actions explicable, I decided to focus on one particular piece of her past: the fact that she’d opened an art gallery several years ago, saw it go bankrupt for reasons that were out of her control, and still hasn’t come to terms with the failure, which symbolizes, in her mind, the fact that there are aspects of the art world that she still doesn’t understand. This, along with her ambivalence towards her current situation, is what leads her to take the actions that will drive the rest of Part I. And I couldn’t think of a better way to dramatize this than to show her by herself, among the works of art that the fund has acquired and kept out of sight. (Among these works, incidentally, is a painting by Greuze, which I can’t help but wonder might be the same picture once owned by Professor Moriarty.)

Once I knew what the chapter was about, the rest was fairly easy. I’d written a scene for a previous draft in which Maddy and Reynard visited the fund’s art storage facility, but I cut it for reasons of pacing. Going back to this earlier version, I found that the basic material was still sound, and that it could easily be repurposed for this scene—another reason why it’s wise to never throw anything away. Finally, I can’t help pointing out that this scene contains perhaps my favorite inside joke, and clue, in the entire novel. (A big spoiler follows.) When Maddy goes back to the office, Ethan tells her that he’s been looking into the art tastes of Natalia Onegina, the girlfriend of the oligarch who bought Study for Étant Donnés. “From what I’ve been able to find,” Ethan says, “her taste runs more to the Wilson twins.” And who are the Wilson twins? Well, they’re a pair of British artists. They’re sisters. And they’re known for their hallucinatory videos, often featuring themselves, including one in which a murder takes place…

Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2012 at 10:26 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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