Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 2012

Ken Adam on sketching

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As we’ve discussed, I had a good grounding in architecture, design and composition. Drawing with a hard pencil and a T-square certainly appealed to my pedantic sense, and these beautiful drawings, these early drawings, were a kind of self-defense, really. I was playing safe. I was inhibited. I was afraid to let go and express myself…So with the help of felt pens—which had recently been invented—I changed my drawing technique completely. My designs became much bolder and more expressive. I increasingly used a felt pen with a wedge-shaped tip instead of a pencil, conté or pen and ink. A Flowmaster, rather than a hard pencil. I used broader strokes and eliminated unnecessary details…And I now begin with a sketch, rather than a technical drawing—which was important in helping me to visualize the eventual effect in three dimensions—however rough the sketch. It has something to do with the way my mind works.

Ken Adam, production designer of Dr. Strangelove and the James Bond films

Written by nevalalee

September 30, 2012 at 9:50 am

George Gershwin on inspiration

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Out of my entire annual output of songs, perhaps two—or at the most, three—come as a result of inspiration. We can never rely on inspiration. When we most want it, it does not come. Therefore the composer does not sit around and wait for inspiration to walk up and introduce itself. What he substitutes for it is nothing more than talent plus his knowledge. If his endowment is great enough, the song is made to sound as if it were truly inspired.

Making music is actually little else than a matter of invention aided and abetted by emotion.

George Gershwin

Written by nevalalee

September 29, 2012 at 9:50 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Theater

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“A few moments earlier, on the other side of the estate…”

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(Note: This post is the nineteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 18. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Heist stories are fun for many reasons, but a lot of their appeal comes from the sense that they’re veiled allegories for the act of storytelling itself. We see this clearly in a movie like Inception, in which the various players can be interpreted as corresponding to analogous roles behind the camera—Cobb is the director, Saito the producer, Ariadne the set designer, Eames the primary actor, and Arthur is, I don’t know, the line producer, while Fischer, the mark, is a surrogate for the audience itself. (For what it’s worth, Christopher Nolan has stated that any such allegory was an unconscious one, although he seems to have embraced it after the fact.) Even in a novel, which is produced by a crew of one, there’s something in the structure of a heist that evokes a writer’s tools of the trade. It involves disguise, misdirection, perfect timing, and a ticking clock. If all goes well, it’s a well-oiled machine, and the target doesn’t even know that he’s been taken, at least not until later, when he goes back and puts together the pieces. And it’s no surprise that the heists contrived by writers, who spend most of their time constructing implausible machines, tend to be much more elaborate than their counterparts in the real world.

When I realized that I wanted to put a heist at the center of The Icon Thief, I was tickled by the opportunity, as well as somewhat daunted by the challenge. On the bright side, I had a lot of models to follow, so cobbling together a reasonable heist, in itself, was a fairly straightforward proposition. The trouble, of course, is that nearly everything in the heist genre has been done before. Every year seems to bring another movie centered on an impregnable safe or mansion, with a resourceful team of thieves—or screenwriters—determined to get inside. Audiences have seen it all. And I knew from early on that I wanted to make this heist a realistic one, without any laser grids or pressure-sensitive floors. I wanted the specifics to be clever, but not outside the means of a smart thief operating with limited resources. (A movie like Ocean’s 11, as entertaining as it may be, raises the question of why a group of criminals with access to such funding and technology would bother to steal for a living.) As I result, when I began to plot out the heist that begins to unfold in Chapter 18, I had a clear set of goals, but I wasn’t quite sure what form it would take.

The obvious place to begin was with the target itself. Consequently, I spent a memorable afternoon with a friend in the Hamptons, walking along Gin Lane, peeking over hedges, and generally acting as suspiciously as possible. The house that I describe here is a real mansion with more or less the physical setting that appears in the novel, with a mammoth hedge blocking it from the road, but a relatively accessible way in from the ocean side, where the property goes all the way down to the beach. I quickly decided that I wanted my thief to escape out the back way, onto the sand, where his getaway car would be waiting. On the way in, however, I wanted him to drive right through the gate. The crews in pickup trucks that I saw doing maintenance at many of these houses suggested one potential solution. And while I can’t quite remember how I came up with the final idea—a mid-engine pickup with an empty space under the hood large enough to allow two men to hide inside, undiscovered by security—I knew at once, when it occurred to me, that I’d found my way in.

The rest amounted to simple narrative mechanics. Following the anthropic principle of fiction that I mentioned earlier this week, I knew that I had to introduce the pickup early on, at least in the background, to make its ultimate use seem like less of a stretch—hence Sharkovsky’s enthusiasm for trophy trucks, which pops up at several points earlier in the novel. This chapter also includes one of the rare scenes told from the point of view from someone other than one of the central characters, since I wanted to put the reader in a shoes of a security guard who checks the truck thoroughly before letting it through the front gate, but neglects to look under the hood. The result is one of the novel’s more gimmicky moments, but I think it works. (Whether the arrangement that I describe in the book would actually function in real life is another matter, but at least it’s not entirely implausible, which by the standards of the genre is more than enough.) Sometimes I wonder if it’s too gimmicky, but that’s one of the pleasures of suspense: I can honor the heist genre with a quick nod in its direction, then move on as realistically as I can. And this heist is far from over…

Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2012 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2012 at 7:30 am

Learning from the masters: the Pet Shop Boys

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Last week, I finally picked up a copy of Elysium, the eleventh studio album by the Pet Shop Boys. At this point in the duo’s career, it’s hard to start any discussion of their work without marveling at their longevity: “West End Girls” came out more than a quarter of a century ago, and although they’ve never had as great a hit in the United States since, they’ve remained an integral part of synthpop and dance culture on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as providing much of the background music for my own inner life. Elysium isn’t their best album—its tone is deliberately muted and melancholy, within a narrower range than usual—but it’s still lovely, catchy, and superbly crafted, even if there’s nothing quite on the level of the stunning “The Way It Used to Be” on Yes. (I’d agree with Andrew Sullivan that the strongest track is probably “Breathing Space.”) And although I’ve spoken at length about the Pet Shop Boys before, I thought I’d take a moment today to focus specifically on what they’ve taught me about storytelling, and in particular about genre, reticence, and irony.

It’s fair to say that it took a long time for the Pet Shop Boys to get the critical respect they deserved, largely because they were working in a critically unfashionable genre, and even now, some of that condescension still persists. The synthpop of the early ’80s sounded like it had been made by machines; it was emphatically crafted in the studio; and its tools were relatively inaccessible, at least at first, so it had none of the working-class appeal of other forms of popular music. In their early days, the Pet Shop Boys were often mistaken for arch Thatcherites, despite or because of the irony of songs like “Shopping,” and there are countless musical artists who attained greater critical success without a fraction of their talent and originality, simply because they happened to look more like our idea of what a singer-songwriter should be. Yet the genius of such albums as Actually and Introspective derives from their realization that synthpop can, in fact, be the vehicle for songs of great emotional complexity, although only after its conventions have been absorbed and transcended. And if it look a while for the rest of the world to catch on, the Pet Shop Boys seemed glad to keep the secret to themselves.

This has something to do with their own reticence as pop stars, which has greatly influenced my own feelings about artistic detachment and understatement. From the beginning, the Pet Shop Boys have engaged in an ongoing debate with rock music, which all too often conceals its own calculation and commercialism—and even less desirable traits, like homophobia—behind a front of feigned emotion and openness. Typically, the Pet Shop Boys reacted by going in the opposite direction, concealing themselves behind layers of increasingly elaborate production, playing characters that made them seem like the effete consumers that their critics assumed that they were, and treating emotion as a slightly chilly joke. But this detachment created the conditions, if you were listening, for some astonishingly moving music. Proust writes somewhere of a man who craves human company so desperately that he becomes a hermit, in order not to admit how much he needs other people, and that’s the impression I get from the Pet Shop Boys’ best albums. And the result wouldn’t be nearly as affecting if it hadn’t been filtered first through so many layers of pointed irony and impersonality.

In some ways, this has encouraged me to disappear into my own work. There’s a lot of me in my own writing, but you have to look carefully to see it: I’ve avoided autobiography and the first person, happily immersing myself in the mechanisms of plot, but don’t be fooled—these novels and stories are my primary way of dealing with the world. What the Pet Shop Boys taught me is that craft and artistic invisibility can be as valuable as confession, in their own way, when it comes to expressing the personality behind it, especially in genres where detachment is encouraged. This may be why I find myself most comfortable in suspense, which has a mechanical, slightly inhuman aspect that can feel like the fictional equivalent of synthpop. If anything, I could use a little more of their wit and, especially, their irony, which they turn, paradoxically, into a means for enabling their underlying earnestness. (When their earnestness comes undiluted, as in the new track “Hold On,” it can be a little hard to take.) Elysium shows that they still have a lot to teach us, if we have the ears to hear it.

Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2012 at 9:42 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2012 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Theater

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The anthropic principle of fiction

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The next time someone tells you that one of your stories is implausible, you might want to remind them of how implausible they are. Setting aside the point that life in this galaxy, despite what our rational minds may tell us, seems to be extraordinarily rare, the fact that our universe can sustain life at all is almost beyond belief. If the value of even one of a handful of fundamental constants were even slightly different, there couldn’t be any complex structures, like stars; and if the age of the universe didn’t happen to fall, for the moment, into a certain narrow range, there wouldn’t be any planets. This is the anthropic principle, which states, very broadly, that the current habitable state of the universe is predicated on a series of massive coincidences—but if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be here to observe it. Since we wouldn’t exist otherwise, it’s hard to appreciate how unlikely this really is. The universe’s strangeness is an inseparable precondition of the fact that we’re here to tell stories about it. As a result, we tend to take it for granted.

This also turns out to be a remarkably useful principle for writing fiction. If the reader is going to suspend disbelief, it helps if the plot takes place in a setting—which can be as large as the universe or as small as a single person’s mind—that has been invisibly tuned, from the very first line, to make the story possible. My own story “Ernesto,” which appeared in the March 2012 issue of Analog, provides a convenient illustration. I wanted to write a story—and there are some spoilers ahead—in which people suffering from cancer were cured by going to a holy shrine that exposed them to erysipelas bacteria, with the resulting infection driving the cancer away. Needless to say, this is a fairly farfetched premise that poses a number of storytelling problems: an erysipelas infection would be obvious to any doctor in a modern hospital, and I wanted to save this revelation for the end to preserve the mystery. The solution, I concluded, was to set the story in the past, perhaps during wartime, when doctors were stretched thin. When I decided that the most suitable shrine for my purposes was that of St. John of the Cross, who died of erysipelas and is buried in Segovia in Spain, it seemed clear that the best setting for the story was the Spanish Civil War. And if I was going to do all that, well, obviously my hero had to be Hemingway.

And the funny thing about “Ernesto” is that if I’ve done my job correctly, this line of reasoning shouldn’t be obvious: it should look like I set out to write about Hemingway himself, when in fact the largest elements of the story—character, setting, theme—were actually a consequence, derived retroactively, of what seem like minor details. Ideally, then, when I arrive at my solution, it seems inevitable, an organic result of the story I’ve written, when in fact it was anything but. A similar process is visible in my novelette “Kawataro,” in which I ended up writing a story set in a fishing community of the deaf in modern Japan by reasoning backward from a tiny scientific detail. Like “Ernesto,” “Kawataro” could have been set anywhere (it was originally inspired by an article about deaf Bedouins), but when it comes to preparing the reader for the final twist, some settings are better than others. This leads me to what I see as a very powerful rule for writing this kind of fiction: the largest elements of the story should be determined by its least plausible details. If I’d started with a setting I liked, and then tried to shoehorn in the twist, the reader would object at once. But in this case, by the time the twist arrives, it seems relatively logical, but only because the story has been structured around it.

This is the anthropic principle of fiction. Readers will happily accept almost any premise when it’s introduced in the first few pages, but as the story continues, they’ll grow increasingly skeptical of any plot element that doesn’t seem to follow from that initial set of rules—so you’d better make sure that the world in which the story takes place has been fine-tuned to allow whatever implausibilities you later decide to include. I recently went through this process yet again, while writing a novelette that I hope to submit to Analog soon. It’s set during the Vietnam War, in the days leading up to the Tet Offensive, but only because this seemed like the best setting for the story I wanted to tell, which revolves around a stranded whale. I could have put the whale in California or Greenland—both of which I seriously considered—but because of its whale cult, as well as a few other reasons I won’t mention yet, Vietnam seemed best. The result is a story that is emphatically about Vietnam, with all the thematic weight that implies, but I never would have arrived there if I hadn’t reasoned backward to find the time and place best suited for the surprises I had in mind. Whether or not a story works is another matter. But it’s always best to start it with a bit of intelligent design.

Written by nevalalee

September 26, 2012 at 8:57 am

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