Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 25th, 2012

“As Ethan spoke, Maddy studied him…”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-third installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 22. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Character is a mystery. In case it isn’t abundantly clear by now, I’m a left-brained, systematic, architectural novelist who loves his outlines and plans, but even I’m frequently surprised by the ways in which my characters evolve—although it’s important to qualify this. When E.M. Forster said that the characters in his novels often behaved in unexpected ways, Nabokov scoffed, saying that his characters were galley slaves. Of the two, I’m probably closer to Nabokov than Forster, and indeed, on a line by line basis, my characters’ actions are laid out meticulously, moving from one clear objective to another. When I stand back, however, I’m often amazed by the patterns that have appeared on a larger scale, almost as an emergent property of the text. As I discussed in yesterday’s post, themes tend to inevitably appear over the course of several novels without the author being aware of it, and character, too, is something that can’t be entirely planned. And as much as I try to keep the individual building blocks of the plot under control, there’s often something inexplicable slouching to be born in the background.

While writing The Icon Thief and its sequels, I’ve been repeatedly taken off guard by how my characters have grown, often by finding a small hint dropped in one book and expanding it in the next. The most obvious example, and one that won’t be fully clear until City of Exiles comes out in December, is that of Rachel Wolfe. Wolfe began essentially as a character of convenience, simply because Alan Powell, one of my three major protagonists, needed someone to talk to. Given the nature of the plot I had in mind, I knew this character would be an FBI agent, and the idea of making her a woman came fairly late in the game. Even after I wrote the first draft, Wolfe remained a fairly colorless character, and I vividly remember trying to figure out ways to make her more distinctive. For a while, I toyed with the prospect of making her Indian, which would later manifest itself in an important character in the second book. When it occurred to me that, instead, she could be a Mormon, the idea was immediately appealing, and at first, I saw it as a convenient way to flesh out her role with a few small character details. What I never could have anticipated is that this version of Wolfe would seize my imagination to the point where, incredibly, she became the lead character in City of Exiles, a book in which her Mormonism is central to the story. It seems inevitable now. But that certainly wasn’t the case at the time.

Characters, in short, tend to emerge from a combination of factors: they’re shaped by the demands of the plot, by inspirations from real life and fiction, by my own inner life, and by what I can only call moments of serendipity. Nowhere is this more clear than in the characters of Maddy and Ethan. They’d been knocking around in my brain for a long time, ever since my freshman year in college, when I wrote a fragment of a screenplay that began as a character study of two of my close friends, then evolved into a ridiculously ambitious script that would engage the two greatest American movies ever shot in Technicolor: Vertigo and The Searchers. Very little of this project has survived in the present book, although the characters still retain the names of their inspirations—the roles played by Kim Novak and John Wayne in their respective films. Later, I thought about reusing these characters in a very different storyline, inspired by a tragic pair of suicides that took place in the New York art world around the time I was conceiving the novel. This was a much stronger influence on the first draft, and it was later minimized in the revision in ways I’ll explain at the proper point. But the central idea—of two smart, attractive people joined in a kind of folie à deux—remains central to The Icon Thief.

Little if any of this is obvious to the casual reader, but these tangled origins invisibly influenced the final versions of these characters, and contributed, at least in my eyes, to the richness of the resulting story. Chapter 22 is when Maddy and Ethan really interact for the first time, after crossing paths more briefly as rival analysts at the art fund, and at first glance, it’s a simple chapter, consisting entirely of them talking at the party and exchanging dueling interpretations of Duchamp’s life and work. But there’s a lot going on under the surface—their mutual attraction, their recognition of the qualities they share, and the sense that until now they’ve misjudged each other—and it’s a direct result of the path that these characters have followed in my head over the last decade. Reading the chapter now, I can see how they’ve evolved by a process of accretion, like a coral reef, with aspects of their personalities that I conceived ten years ago overlapping with elements that I added much later, inspired by relationships I’ve witnessed, authors I’ve read, and the changes that take place in any writer’s life over a long period of time. I care about them more than the clockwork plot around them may suggest, and I’ve been especially glad to revisit them in the novel I’m writing now. I wouldn’t go so far as to say, as Flaubert did of Madame Bovary, that Maddy Blume is me. But although I didn’t plan it this way, it can’t be an accident that their initials are the same…

Written by nevalalee

October 25, 2012 at 10:13 am

Quote of the Day

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When I asked him after the gig, “Miles, what am I supposed to be doing up there?” he said, “When they play fast, you play slow. When they play slow, you play fast.”

Buster Williams, on Miles Davis

Written by nevalalee

October 25, 2012 at 7:30 am

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