Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 2012

How I fell in love with a Mormon

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"Wolfe was young, cute, and Mormon..."

When I began figuring out the plot of City of Exiles, the most surprising decision, and one I never could have anticipated when I first sent The Icon Thief to publishers, involved the identity of the central protagonist. At first glance, I had an obvious candidate for the lead of my second novel: Ilya Severin, the Russian thief and former assassin who stands at the heart of the entire series. Yet I had good reasons for wanting to avoid telling most of the novel from Ilya’s point of view. As I’ve explained before, Ilya is one of those characters, like Hannibal Lecter, who becomes more interesting, at least to my eyes, the more he’s kept offstage. Over the course of three novels, I’ve guarded him very carefully, and there are still aspects of his interior life and backstory that I don’t know myself, which is precisely how it should be. Ilya is far from an idealized figure, and has his share of vulnerabilities and flaws, but I also wanted him to retain an aura of mystery. Explain too much, or write too many chapters from his point of view, and the mystery falls away. And although he’s still a crucial character in these books, less than a third—and maybe closer to a quarter—of the series is narrated from his perspective.

I also didn’t want to write the second novel from the perspective of Maddy Blume, the art analyst who drives most of the action of The Icon Thief. My reasons for moving beyond Maddy are slightly more complicated. On a practical level, it didn’t seem plausible that she’d be involved in another convoluted thriller plot so soon after the first one ended: unlike Ilya, she isn’t naturally part of that world, and although she makes certain choices at the end of the previous book that will end up haunting her later, I thought she deserved a break. I was also a little exhausted from writing about her the first time around. Maddy is by far the most difficult character I’ve ever had to create, and although I’m pleased by the result, I made a lot of wrong turns along the way. At the time, I didn’t see how to return to her story without repeating much of the material from before, and I wanted the second novel to feel fresh, as well as accessible to readers encountering the series for the first time. (Of course, nothing is set in stone: Maddy returns as a lead character in my third novel, Eternal Empire. But I don’t think I could have hit on that new story, which follows inexorably from the events of the first novel, without taking a step back in the meanwhile.)

"Wolfe began every day on her knees..."

As a result, when I looked over the first book to decide who my protagonist would be, I ended up being drawn to the last person I could have expected. Elsewhere, I’ve noted that Rachel Wolfe, my intrepid FBI agent, essentially began as a convenience to the plot: in the first draft of The Icon Thief, she more or less exists to give Powell someone to talk to, and early on, she had little to do except play Watson to his Holmes. Making her a woman was something that occurred fairly late in the outline process, mostly because I saw that the novel, as it stood, had a dearth of female characters. Yet gradually, almost without my being aware of it, she caught fire. The slightly random decision to make her a Mormon, in particular, provided me with an incredibly rich vein of material: as an outsider, I’ve long admired many aspects of Mormon culture—its emphasis on frugality, preparedness, industry, and general clean living—and what I wanted, above all else, was to create an admirable, intelligent, heroic character who was also a Mormon without apology or irony. If I’ve since had Wolfe begin to doubt aspects of her own faith, that’s more a reflection of my own personality than anything else, and she’s still the straitlaced, slightly square woman with whom I fell in love.

In the end, then, Wolfe became not only the lead of City of Exiles, but probably the character I like the most in the entire series, and the one who has been the greatest pleasure to write. And this is only a measure of how unpredictable this process can be. I plan and outline my novels very carefully, to an extent that has caused occasional amusement or consternation among other writers, but this doesn’t exclude the possibility of surprises—rather, it creates a matrix in which such surprises naturally occur. The decision to follow Wolfe wherever she took me was made intuitively, almost on impulse, and there was no guarantee at the time that I’d made the right call. Now, however, it seems inevitable. If Maddy was my attempt to write a character who reflected, in some ways, who I was at the time, Wolfe is more like the person I’d like to be. She’s stronger, smarter, and more principled than her creator, but she’s also trying to answer some of the same questions about the world, and I count myself lucky to have lived for a time in her head. And it’s something that never would have happened if I hadn’t been asked to turn my first book into a series. On Monday, I’ll be talking more about the challenges of series fiction, and what the experience has taught me about writing in general.

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November 30, 2012 at 9:59 am

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Quote of the Day

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November 30, 2012 at 7:30 am

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London through an exile’s eyes

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From the very beginning, I knew that City of Exiles would be set in London, but I’m not entirely sure how I decided this. The obvious explanation is that this is where the last few pages of The Icon Thief unfold, with a quiet act of revenge at a town house in Fulham, and it was easiest to pick up the story more or less where it left off. But that’s only part of the reason. Once I realized that I was writing a series of at least two books, and probably three, it seemed inevitable that the action would gradually move east, starting in New York, crossing the ocean, and continuing across Europe until it finally ended, in the concluding installment, in Russia. London was the logical next step. And because it’s a city with a rich history as a setting for the kind of suspense and mystery novels I love, from Conan Doyle to John le Carré, I knew that I had to do it justice, as I hoped I’d done with the New York and Philadelphia locations of The Icon Thief.

The trouble was that although I’d been to London several times, I’d never regarded it with the sort of greedy, scavenging eye of an author looking for material, which meant that if this novel was going to work at all, I had to do research on location. In the end, I flew out for a week in February of last year for what must be one of the strangest trips on record. I had six full days to visit a range of places that could have easily taken twice as long to cover properly. My only guide was a very tentative outline of the plot. I’d assigned various parts of the city to different chapters as best as I could, based on geographical or narrative considerations, but in many cases, I wasn’t sure what would happen in the scene until I got there. (For example, the chapter in which Lasse Karvonen, my Finnish assassin, pays a visit to Finsbury Park was basically plotted in real time, as I walked up and down a block of houses below the railway tracks, looking for the best way to kill a man.)

And the result was a very unusual working vacation, the highlight of which was probably my side trip to Belgium, in which I spent $300 on a train ticket to Brussels only to turn around and come back within a couple of hours, all for the sake of describing a similar trip that a character takes in a single chapter. (I did have a chance to visit the Royal Museums, where I paid homage to The Death of Marat, the painting that makes a brief appearance in the epilogue of The Icon Thief.) When I left, my phone didn’t have any of the usual snapshots of tourist attractions or historic sites. Instead, it was picture after picture of garages, weedy lots, council estates, apartment complexes, and pub toilets. My only real tourist stop appears in the novel as well: like my protagonist, Rachel Wolfe, I made a pilgrimage to Baker Street, only to find a block of dry cleaning shops and fast food restaurants. I wore out a pair of shoes and developed a bad case of blisters, and every night, I wrote in my tiny hotel room for hours.

But none of this, I should make clear, was for the sake of mere accuracy, although I was trying to be as correct in my descriptions as possible: it was about gathering imaginative material. Knowing that one of your characters will die in a garage in Stoke Newington isn’t as helpful as knowing that he’ll die in this garage, on this particular block, with a Turkish restaurant on the corner and peeling wheatpaste flyers on the fence across the street. Later, after realizing that a large part of the novel would essentially consist of a detailed crime procedural, I supplemented my location work by reading a shelf’s worth of books on police work and forensics, many of which I picked up in the true crime sections of used bookstores in London. But without that short but intense visit, I don’t think the resulting novel would have worked at all. I doubt I’ll ever be able capture the city in all its complexity, but I can at least write about it from the point of view of a visitor—or an exile. Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit more about some of the exiles themselves, and how I found my novel’s unlikely heroine.

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November 29, 2012 at 9:37 am

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Quote of the Day

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November 29, 2012 at 7:30 am

A vision of the chariot

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Technically, you aren’t supposed to study the work of the chariot until the age of forty, but I first encountered it as a teenager, in the pages of The White Goddess by Robert Graves. At the time, I thought that this was one of the greatest books ever written, and although it’s still among my favorites, I’ve since come to regard it with a degree of ambivalence. In fact, it’s an incredibly evolved version of the sort of obsessive overinterpretation that we see among the characters in Foucault’s Pendulum, or even the novels of Dan Brown, only executed at a immeasurably higher level of sophistication. If anything, this makes me love the book all the more: it’s unsustainable as a religious or historical argument, but as an example of an unparalleled intuitive intellect exercising his talents on the whole range of poetic and mystical literature, it’s a delight, and there’s never been anything quite like it. I still think it’s a book that everyone should read, but with full awareness that it’s more like an ingenious magic trick, infinitely repeated, than a tenable work of religious history.

Not surprisingly, the parts of the book that have stuck with me most strongly are the ones that seem, at first, like sidelines to the main argument. Graves tells us, in an aside, how to untie the Gordian knot, and gives us practical solutions to the “unanswerable” questions from Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial: what song the sirens sang, and what name Achilles assumed when he hid among the women. And he also deals, unforgettably, with the vision in the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, in a handful of pages that have haunted me for most of my life. Ezekiel is in exile, standing by the river Chebar, when the heavens open and he has visions of God. From out of a whirlwind, he sees four winged cherubim emerge, each with the head of a man, a lion, an eagle, and an ox, as well as the feet of a calf, and the wheels of a vast chariot—each “a wheel within a wheel”—that turn of their own accord. Above the chariot is the figure of a man, made of fire from the waist down. Ezekiel falls into a swoon, and out of the sky, a voice begins to speak.

The first point that needs to be made about this vision is that it was literally dangerous to its readers: the rabbinical tradition tells of students who studied the vision before they were adequately prepared, and were struck by lightning or consumed by heavenly fire. It was forbidden to be read aloud in the synagogue. Yet the very act of setting up warning signs around a text like this amounts to an invitation for certain readers to study it more closely, resulting in a vast tradition of merkabah, or chariot, mysticism designed to allow the initiate to experience a similar vision, even at the risk of madness or death. Graves, for his part, believed that the vision amounted to a religious revolution, initiated by Ezekiel, in which the cult of the mother goddess and her two consorts was replaced by that of a masculine creator set against the goddess and the devil. At least, that’s what I seem to remember—the argument here is even more convoluted than usual, although frequently spellbinding on the page.

And the story continues to fascinate me. Part of it, I suppose, is the idea of a text that can cause the death or madness of an unprepared reader, which might be taken as an extreme example of the power of secrets and the risks of incautious interpretation. As I result, I spent years trying to get it into a novel, starting with an unfinished manuscript I began in high school, and intermittently in the years since. When it came time to write City of Exiles, which also centered on questions of interpretation—and the dangers that come with its misuse—I finally had an excuse to delve into it more deeply, in the person of my character Ilya Severin, who I knew would take an interest in such things. And it wasn’t until recently, when I discovered the extraordinary book The Faces of the Chariot by David J. Halperin, that I began to glimpse a solution that made literary and dramatic sense. Halperin’s book is very hard to find, and I wound up devouring it in one sitting, taking copious notes, in the reading room of the British Library. Tomorrow, I’ll explain how I ended up there, and why I decided to set my second novel in London.

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November 28, 2012 at 9:43 am

Quote of the Day

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November 28, 2012 at 7:30 am

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Entering the Dyatlov Pass

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In February of 1959, a group of Russian hikers, led by a man named Igor Dyatlov, embarked on an expedition in the Ural Mountains. Most of the group consisted of students or graduates of Ural Polytechnic Institute, and all were experienced mountaineers. The route they had planned was a challenging one, taking them along the eastern shoulder of a peak known in the Mansi language as Kholat Syakhl, or Mountain of Death. After arriving in the area by train, they took a truck north to the last inhabited settlement and began to walk along the valley. On the second day, one of the hikers became ill and had to turn back, leaving nine members in the group. That night, with visibility worsening, they strayed off course, and ultimately decided to camp on the side of the mountain to wait out a severe storm. Days later, when they failed to check in at their destination as scheduled, a rescue operation was set in motion, and finally discovered the remains of the camp three weeks after the group’s disappearance.

The first thing the rescue team discovered was the group’s abandoned tent, which had been badly damaged, and seemed to have been torn open from the inside. Following a line of footprints to the woods, the rescuers found the bodies of two men, both shoeless and dressed only in their underwear, although the temperature on the night of their death had been twenty degrees below freezing. Three more bodies were found across a distance of several hundred yards, as if they had tried and failed to return to camp. All had succumbed to hypothermia, and one had a fractured skull. The remaining bodies were unearthed two months later, under a deep covering of snow in a ravine in the woods. One victim had died of hypothermia. The rest had suffered severe injuries, including chest fractures and skull damage, although no external wounds were visible, and one of the hikers, a woman, was missing her tongue.

Ever since, the Dyaltov Pass incident, which an official investigation concluded was the result of “a compelling unknown force,” has been the object of intense speculation. Possible explanations, none of them completely satisfying, have included a weapons test, an attack by local tribesmen, or even an alien abduction. (Orange lights were allegedly seen in the direction of the pass on the night of the hikers’ deaths, although the fact that a snowstorm was raging at the time has called these reports into question.) But the more I reflect on the incident—and I’ve been thinking about it a lot for the past year—the more I feel that strangest thing about it is how little known it is, at least outside of Russia. I’ve always been a sucker for unexplained events, but I’d never heard of this incident until I began to look systematically at Russian history for an episode that could provide a starting point for my second novel. The fact that it took place at the height of the Cold War, and wasn’t fully reported until years later, may account for its relative unfamiliarity. But I’m still amazed that it isn’t more famous than it is.

In any case, when I initially encountered the story of the Dyatlov Pass, I had much the same reaction that I did when I first saw Étant Donnés, the work of art that stands at the heart of The Icon Thief: I knew that there was an extraordinary novel here, and that if I didn’t write it now, someone else almost certainly would—I’d just been lucky enough to get there first. My greatest challenge, I realized, lay in simply doing it justice, by conveying something of its strangeness and terror while also providing a solution that was original and hopefully convincing. Whether or not I’ve succeeded is something that my readers will need to decide for themselves, although I feel that the answer set forth in City of Exiles is at least worthy of consideration, and one that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been proposed before. Taken on its own, however, it wasn’t quite enough to sustain an entire novel. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how I combined it with one of my earliest obsessions, and how, after many false starts, I finally managed to write a book about one of the most enigmatic mysteries in the Western tradition: the work of the chariot.

Written by nevalalee

November 27, 2012 at 10:11 am

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