Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“You really want to keep going?”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 24. You can read the earlier installments here.)

As Sandra Bullock notes in Speed, “Relationships that start under intense circumstances, they never last.” All the same, they can be a lot of fun to watch. It’s surprisingly hard for works of art in any medium to tell convincing love stories, but it helps when they take place in the context of an exciting story, and it isn’t hard to see why: the symptoms of excitement and emotional infatuation are roughly the same, and when a movie sets our hearts racing for other reasons, it’s easy to transfer those feelings to the characters themselves. Roger Ebert points out that the best movie romances take place against a backdrop of adventure and suspense, and his own favorites include films like Casablanca, Notorious, and Gone With the Wind. In recent years, this kind of love story has fallen out of fashion, which is a shame. Although Titanic provides one gigantic counterexample, the fact remains that most romantic movies are set in a world that has been drained of danger, emotional or otherwise, and without that sense of vicarious risk, it’s hard for us to relate to the feelings unfolding onscreen.

The same point applies to novels as well. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is an effective love story largely because the stakes, outside the immediate circle of characters, are so high. Few books have affected me as deeply as The Magus by John Fowles, which embeds two extraordinarily complicated love stories within a web of mythology, intrigue, and betrayal—the novelistic equivalent of Hitchock’s achievement in Vertigo. And the stakes don’t need to arise from the story alone: they can be artistic and creative as well. My favorite movie romance, Chungking Express, is irresistible precisely because of the incredible artistic balancing act that Wong Kar-Wai performs before our eyes, and it’s impossible to separate the romantic longing of its two central stories from the director’s own intoxicating love of cinema. And it’s no accident that our most compelling depiction of sexual jealousy and obsession can be found in the pages of Marcel Proust, the most original and accomplished novelist of the last hundred years.

At first glance, this may not have much to do with The Icon Thief, which is a love story only in passing. Yet I don’t think I could have written convincingly about Maddy and Ethan’s relationship—which, as I’ve mentioned before, I’d been thinking about for years—without the structure of the thriller around it. Even before I had the rest of the plot, I wanted to tell a story about two very different people who enter into a relationship and are destroyed by the qualities of sympathy and imagination that drew them together in the first place, and the result works better in a thriller, at least in my hands, than it would in a more ordinary setting. Maddy and Ethan, like the tragic couple in real life who partially inspired their story, end up in a folie à deux, enabling one another in their delusions precisely because they’re so intelligent and so much on the same wavelength, until it tears them apart at the worst possible moment. And although I wouldn’t stress this point too much, it’s possible that their story lightly externalizes the kinds of ordinary, less dramatic heartbreaks that most of us feel at one time or another—which is why it can be so effective to see them enacted within the context of a thriller.

But that’s all in the future. Right now, in Chapter 24, we only see them drawing closer together, and it’s no accident that the initial flicker of romance occurs as they both enter into physical danger for the first time. I was careful to structure the action of this chapter—in which they illicitly explore Archvadze’s mansion and stumble across a heist in progress—to parallel the heightening of their more private feelings. They’re challenging and testing one another every step of the way, and as Maddy notes, if they were to stop the escalation, “the evening would conclude in some other way”—which I still think is the sexiest line I’ve ever written. And I don’t think I could have written this love story at all without the support of the surrounding thriller. Romance in my novels tends to be left implicit and offstage, partially because I think it’s more interesting that way, but also because I don’t always trust myself to write it the way it deserves. What I can do is write an exciting scene about two characters who begin to suspect that their feelings for one another may go deeper than mere friendship. And if I do it right, that’s all we need…

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