Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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.

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2012 at 9:59 am

Posted in Books, Publishing, Writing

Tagged with ,

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