Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 2013

Entering the Eternal Empire

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Eternal Empire

A few months ago, my editor asked if I had any thoughts on the cover art for Eternal Empire, the third and final novel in the series begun by The Icon Thief. I responded, as always, with a detailed memo on possible images and symbols, complete with attached reference photos for convenience. (For The Icon Thief, I even briefly weighed the possibility of putting together a mockup in Photoshop, before rightly discarding the idea as obnoxious even by the standards of overprotective authors.) Several weeks later, I was sent the proposed cover, and when I opened the file, I saw that the design team had essentially ignored all my suggestions—and I couldn’t have been happier. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the publishing process, it’s that the players at every stage are much more qualified to do their own jobs than I would ever be, and it’s best to leave them alone. The result is probably the handsomest cover for any novel in the series, although I’d put City of Exiles at a close second, and I’m pleased to finally have the chance to unveil it here and on its official page.

This isn’t quite the final version, however. When the time came for us to go out to other authors for blurbs, one of the first writers who came to mind was Katherine Neville, the author of the classic bestseller The Eight. I owe Neville a great deal: I first read The Eight many years ago, and in terms of pure entertainment, I think it’s probably still the best of all historical conspiracy thrillers, assuming that we put Foucault’s Pendulum in a peculiar category of its own. It’s one of those books that influenced me in ways that I’ve only belatedly begun to realize: the appearance of David’s Death of Marat in the epilogue of The Icon Thief, for instance, was prompted by a discussion of the painting in James Elkins’s Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?, but it was also subconsciously inspired by the role of Marat and Charlotte Corday in Neville’s novel, and my decision to set a crucial section of City of Exiles at a chess tournament in London was an undeniable homage to the single most memorable sequence in The Eight.

The Eight by Katherine Neville

For this reason, among others, Neville had long been on my dream list of potential blurbers, and we’d actually gone out to her for City of Exiles, although a miscommunication prevented her from reading the novel in time. She expressed an interest in seeing the next book in the series, however, so as soon as Eternal Empire was ready, we sent her a copy in manuscript form—and to my delight, she responded with an incredibly generous blurb that you can read on the novel’s Amazon page, and which will appear on the final version of the cover. As I’ve noted here before, going out for blurbs is a funny business, and the result depends as much on luck as on the book’s quality. But on a personal level, I find it fundamentally satisfying that Neville’s name will appear on the last book in the series. If it hadn’t been for The Eight, it’s possible that these books wouldn’t exist at all, at least not in their current form, and it makes me feel as if a circle—or an infinite loop—has closed.

And it also feels like the end of a journey. Eternal Empire won’t be released for another four months, and there’s still plenty of work to be done in the meantime—I just finished going over the copy edit, which was staggeringly thorough, with page proofs and advance copies still to come. At this point, however, the text is pretty much locked, and it marks the conclusion of a process that began more than five years ago, when I started doing research for The Icon Thief. The resulting novels have their strengths and weaknesses, and there are probably things I’d do differently if I had the chance to write them over again. Still, as they stand, these books are inseparable from my own story as a writer, as I’ve continued to figure out, sometimes in public, the best way of turning the ideas and influences I love into something individual and personal. At the moment, the next step remains excitingly unclear, although I hope to have an update here soon. And I’m grateful for the chance to have come this far.

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April 30, 2013 at 9:07 am

Quote of the Day

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Pac Man

There was the temptation to make the Pac Mac shape less simple. While I was designing the game, someone suggested we add eyes. But we eventually discarded that idea because once we added eyes, we would want to add glasses and maybe a mustache. There would just be no end to it.

Toru Iwatani, in Programmers at Work

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April 30, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Rediscovering the dictionary

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John McPhee

I’ve never owned a dictionary. Well, that isn’t precisely true. Looking around my bookshelves now, I can see all kinds of specialized dictionaries without leaving my chair, from Hobson-Jobson: The Anglo-Indian Dictionary to Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. About a year ago, moreover, I was lucky enough to acquire not just a dictionary, but the dictionary. As much as I love my Compact Oxford English Dictionary, however, it isn’t exactly made for everyday use: the volumes are bulky, the print is too small to read without a magnifying glass, and it’s easy to get lost in it for hours when you’re just trying to look up one word. And as far as a conventional desk dictionary is concerned, I haven’t used one in a long time. My vocabulary is more than adequate for the kind of fiction I’m writing, and whenever I have to check a definition just to be on the safe side, there are plenty of online resources that I can consult with ease. So although I have plenty of other reference books, I just never saw the need for Webster’s.

But I was wrong. Or at least I’m strongly reconsidering my position after reading the latest in John McPhee’s wonderful series of essays on the writing life in The New Yorker. The most recent installment covers a lot of ground—it contains invaluable advice on how to write a rough draft, which McPhee says you should approach as if it were a letter to your mother, and includes a fascinating digression on the history of the magazine’s copy editors—but the real meat of the piece lies here:

With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus.

The emphasis is mine, but McPhee’s case speaks for itself. He explains, for instance, that he wrote the sentence “The reflection of the sun races through the trees and shoots forth light from the water” after seeing “to shoot forth light” in the dictionary definition of “sparkle.” And after struggling to find a way to describe canoeing, he looked up the definition of the word “sport” and found: “A diversion in the field.” Hence:

A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a diversion in the field, an act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself.

A page from the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary

As far as thesauruses go, McPhee calls them “useful things” in their proper place: “The value of a thesaurus is in the assistance it can give you in finding the best possible word for the mission that the word is supposed to fulfill.” In my own case, I tend to use a thesaurus most often in the rewrite, when I’m drilling down more deeply into the meaning of each sentence, and when issues of variety and rhythm start to take greater precedence. I rely mostly on the thesaurus function in Word and on an occasional trip to the excellent free thesauruses available online, where the hyperlinks allow me to skip more easily from one possible synonym to another. And although I recently found myself tempted by a copy of Roget’s at my local thrift store, I expect that I’ll stick to my current routine. (Incidentally, I’ve found that I tend to read thesauruses most obsessively when I’m trying to figure out the title for a novel, which is an exhausting process that needs all the help it can get—I vividly remember going to Thesaurus.com repeatedly on my phone while trying to find a title for what eventually became City of Exiles.)

But McPhee has sold me on the dictionary. After briefly weighing the possibility of picking up McPhee’s own Webster’s Collegiate, I ended up buying a used copy of the American Heritage Dictionary, since I remember it fondly from my own childhood and because it’s the dictionary most warmly recommended by the Whole Earth Catalog, which has never steered me wrong. It’s coming on Tuesday, and after it arrives, I wouldn’t be surprised if it took up a permanent place on my desk, next to my reference copies of my own novels and A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes. Whether or not it will change my style remains to be seen, but it’s still something I wish I’d done years earlier. Dictionaries, as all writers know, are books of magic, and we should consult them as diligently as we would any religious text, an act, like canoeing, performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself. As Jean Cocteau says: “The greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order.”

Written by nevalalee

April 29, 2013 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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April 29, 2013 at 7:30 am

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A letter from Georges Bizet

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Georges Bizet

You may imagine that it is maddening to interrupt my cherished work for two days to write cornet solos. One must live!…I have had my revenge. I have made the orchestra supernaturally vulgar. The cornet shrieks like a band in a public-house, the ophicleide and the bass-drum mark the first beat agreeably, with the bass trombone and the violoncellos and contrabasses, while the second and third beats are assailed by the horns, the violas, the second violins, the two first trombones, and the drum—yes, the drum! If you could only see the viola part! Those are hapless men who pass their lives playing such machines. Horrible!

Georges Bizet

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April 28, 2013 at 9:50 am

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Thomas Merton on a poet’s logic

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Thomas Merton

There is a logic of language and a logic of mathematics. The former is supple and lifelike, it follows our experience. The latter is abstract and rigid, more ideal. The latter is perfectly necessary, perfectly reliable: the former is only sometimes reliable and hardly ever systematic. But the logic of mathematics achieves necessity at the expense of living truth, it is less real than the other, although more certain. It achieves certainty by a flight from the concrete into abstraction. Doubtless, to an idealist, this would seem to be a more perfect reality. I am not an idealist. The logic of the poet—that is, the logic of language or the experience itself—develops the way a living organism grows: it spreads out towards what it loves, and is heliotropic, like a plant.

Thomas Merton

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April 27, 2013 at 9:50 am

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More news from all over

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Il ladro di reliquie

I’m very pleased to announce that Il ladro di reliquie, the Italian translation of The Icon Thief, was released yesterday by Newton Compton. Here’s how the first paragraph reads:

Andrey era quasi al confine quando si imbatté nei ladri. Erano ormai tre giorni che viaggiava. Di norma era era molto cauto al volante, ma a un certo punto nell’ultima ora la sua mente si era messa a vagare e, scendendo da un breve pendio, era quasi andato a sbattere contro due auto parcheggiate lì davanti.

Although I haven’t seen a surge in fan mail from Italy just yet, I’m still excited to see my novel in the language of Dante and Umberto Eco, and I’m looking forward to receiving my author’s copies. In the meantime, as I’ve noted before, you can check out the first three chapters on the book’s official site, and if you happen to read Italian, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

If you’re in the Chicago area, I also have a pair of upcoming author events that I hope some of you reading this will be able to attend. On Wednesday May 8, I’ll be at the Maze Branch of the Oak Park Public Library at 7pm to discuss City of Exiles and the upcoming Eternal Empire, an opportunity that I owe entirely to the generosity and support of librarian Carolyn DeCoursey, who read The Icon Thief, liked it, and was surprised to discover that the author lived only a few blocks away. I’ve also confirmed that I’ll be appearing at the upcoming Printers Row Lit Fest on June 8 and 9, which is always a highlight of any year. My panel discussion last summer with David Heinzmann, Jan Wallentin, Manuel Muñoz, and Sean Cherover was one of the most memorable author events I’ve ever had, and I’m hopeful that this year will be even more special. (If nothing else, I expect that my newest, biggest fan will be in attendance, and I hope she’ll ask some good questions.) Stay tuned for more details.

Written by nevalalee

April 26, 2013 at 8:53 am

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