Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

What I learned from my second novel

with 3 comments

City of Exiles

“When I was a critic,” writes François Truffaut, “I thought that a successful film had simultaneously to express an idea of the world and an idea of cinema.” I’d argue that this holds true of all works of art, no matter what form they take. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from trying to survive as a working writer, it’s that every book is secretly about the process of its own creation, and the ideas that it tries to express about the world are inextricable from the author’s own experience in writing it. This was certainly the case with City of Exiles. As I’ve said many times before, this is a book about interpretation—about how we read meaning into the world around us and into our own lives—dramatized in the form of two authentic unsolved mysteries: Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot and the incident in the Dyatlov Pass. I combined these two plot threads almost at fancy, drawn intuitively by their thematic and narrative resonance, and did the best I could to embed my solutions in an exciting story about men and women who are also in search of answers, or at least willing to impose them on others. Exile, in this novel, is sometimes literal, but it’s more often a state of existence that my characters carry within themselves, and it’s only now, when I can look back at the book with some detachment, that I understand that this was a story I had to write at that point in my career.

In some ways, I wrote City of Exiles largely to prove to myself that I could. The Icon Thief, like all first novels, was something of a fluke, however diligently pursued: I was writing on my own, without a lot of outside expectations beyond the ones I’d created for myself, and although I’d been writing fiction for most of my life, I was still figuring out basic problems of craft as I went along. My second novel, inevitably, was conceived and written under radically different circumstances. I was being paid to write a book under contract; I had a number of interested parties deeply invested in the outcome; and I was operating under considerable time constraints. It took more than two years to bring my first novel to completion, while the second had just over nine months from synopsis to delivery, which left me with little room for error. As as result, I had to plan it carefully and hope that the final product wasn’t too different from what I’d promised to write. It was a difficult, often taxing experience, but in the end, the novel was startlingly close to the story I’d set out to tell, although there were a number of big surprises along the way. And for the first time, I got a sense of what it really meant to be a working novelist. (It’s no accident that my work on the book coincided with the birth of this blog.)

Detail of the cover of City of Exiles

This struck me, and still does, as the most meaningful discovery I made. When you’re writing your first novel, you’re secretly convinced, and not without reason, that everything will stand or fall on this one book. A second novel, by contrast, implies the future existence of a third, and possibly more, which leads to a very different state of mind. It’s less about any one book than about the idea of working on something or other for the rest of your life, and City of Exiles was the novel where this vision of what my career might be finally fell into place. When I agreed to write it, I didn’t know what the novel would be about, and I had never anticipated writing a series: I just knew that, by the end of the year, it had to exist. The result was a curious mixture of freedom and constraint. The book could be about anything, really, as long as it resembled a sequel to The Icon Thief and brought back certain crucial characters from the first novel. (In fact, Ilya’s return was essentially written into the contract, probably as a formality to ensure that the book I delivered wasn’t completely unlike its predecessor.) Although the finished work hopefully feels like all of a piece, it was initially assembled from various components I simply felt like writing about, trusting that they would come together in the right way. It was a test of all I’d learned since writing my first book, and there were times, in the early days, when I felt that I was willing this novel into existence.

But every novel is the result of some combination of willpower and serendipity, and as I continued to write, I found myself learning a great deal about the story along the way. (As I hope to explain further in an eventual author’s commentary, there’s one shocking development that I didn’t anticipate at all when I began writing, and which deeply influenced the plot of the third installment.) And in many ways, I’m prouder of it than of anything else I’ve published. While The Icon Thief reads, accurately, like a highly compressed version of a novel that was originally much longer, City of Exiles feels to me like the work of a novelist who is finally hitting his stride. In the passage quoted above, Truffaut continues: “Today, I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between; I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse.” To my eyes, this book pulses with the effort of a writer earnestly committed to figuring out his own craft and what his life as a novelist will be, as much as to solving the problems, sometimes devastating, faced by his characters themselves. It helped me understand, for the first time, what John Gardner means when he describes writing as a way of life in the world. And in the end, the life whose meaning I was discovering, line by line, was my own.

City of Exiles is available now at bookstores everywhere.

Written by nevalalee

December 4, 2012 at 9:59 am

3 Responses

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  1. Congrats! I can’t wait to read it.


    December 4, 2012 at 8:36 pm

  2. When I didn’t win the Goodreads giveaway ;-( I put on my to-do list to pre-order City of Exiles during my weekly trip to the bookstore (Barnes & Noble). I got my phone call this morning advising me that it was in and I was excited to see what Ilya had been up to as well as FBI Agent Rachel Wolfe since The Icon Theif (which I really enjoyed). Just read the Prologue and it seems as though it’s going to be jam packed with mystery and intrigue, a few murders, thrills and suspense, and much more.

    Looking forward to reading this.


    December 4, 2012 at 9:59 pm

  3. @brokenspiners: You’re the kind of reader who warms my heart!

    @Nat: Thanks! I’m very curious to hear what you think…


    December 4, 2012 at 10:41 pm

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