Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“When Maddy emerged from the train at Southampton…”

leave a comment »

(Note: This post is the eighteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 17. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of my favorite works on creativity of any kind is a short essay titled “Fantasy and Faculty X,” by the British author Colin Wilson, which I first encountered in the excellent collection How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction, edited by J.N. Williamson. Wilson believes that because the left and right hemispheres of the brain operate at different speeds, it’s necessary for both readers and writers to bring the two halves into sync, usually by slowing the left brain down, in order to fully immerse themselves in a fictional world. With respect to the writing process, this partially explains why writers often get their best ideas in the bus, bath, or bed, when a state of relaxation naturally allows both hemispheres to move at the same pace. And for readers, it sheds light on why a long, slow, descriptive section of a novel can plunge us into its world far better than nonstop action ever can—as long as we’re willing to follow the story wherever it’s trying to go.

This is why authors like Proust or Thomas Mann can immerse us in the details of a party or other social gathering, sometimes for a hundred pages, and leave us feeling as if we’d attended it ourselves. And it also applies to more mainstream works of art. For readers and audiences to really believe in the world they’re about to enter, it’s often useful to slow things down, which is why the languorous shots of spacecraft in movies like 2001 and the early Star Trek movies are so crucial in setting the tone for the story. (As much as I liked the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek, I felt it was missing some of this fundamental sense of awe, which it might have achieved if it had eased up on the action for a moment or two.) And this is part of the reason why both Thomas Harris and Jonathan Demme spend so much time on those long walks down the hallway to Hannibal Lecter’s cell. It builds suspense, but it also puts us squarely into a particular state of mind before introducing us to the monster at the end of the corridor.

In a thriller, such a change of pace can be tricky to manage, which is why it’s often best to save it for times when the reader knows that something big is coming. This is why Chapter 17 of The Icon Thief, in which Maddy finally attends the party at the Hamptons that has been built up for much of Part I, is structured entirely as one long scene of arrival. If I were operating entirely by the principle of starting each scene as late as possible, I could have begun the chapter at the gate of the mansion, or even halfway through the party itself. In this case, however, it seemed better to take my time: I’ve spent several chapters leading up to this moment, establishing that this is where the various threads of the plot will finally converge, and if I’ve done my work properly, the reader will see this chapter as not just another transitional scene, but the overture to arguably the most important set piece in the entire novel. And having invested so much time and energy in preparing the reader for what follows, it doesn’t make sense to hurry past it.

This is why the chapter begins, not at the mansion itself, but with Maddy’s arrival at the train station in Southampton, and why I devote several pages to her preparations for the party, all of which I might have covered elsewhere in a paragraph or two. It helps that the details here are a lot of fun: the contrast between the sketchy share house, in which Maddy has arranged to sleep in a walk-in closet, and the opulence of the party itself, and between her own insecurity and the guests she encounters. In fact, this is one of the rare sections in the novel in which both my agent and editor actively encouraged me to add more detail, both visual and sociological, until the reader fully saw it in his or her mind’s eye. (In an earlier draft, Maddy overhears a guest say, enunciating carefully, “Fuck the endangered piping plover“—which my editor rightly flagged as being a little too on the nose.) As a result, when Maddy finally passes through the ranks of guests and comes face to face with the man she has come to find, the oligarch Anzor Archvadze, the moment has the impact it deserves. And I hope the reader also senses that there are some big things around the corner…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: