Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A writer’s family values

with 3 comments

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about family. Over the weekend, my wife and I hosted my parents, my brother, and my grandmother at our house in Oak Park, meaning that we had four generations living for a few days under the same roof—which is enough to make anyone reflect a little on the joys and complexities of family life. After seeing my mother off yesterday, I had my reading at the Oak Park Public Library, where I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time, who had his adorably enormous baby son in tow. (He also happens to be the photographer who took my excellent author photos.) When I took questions at the end of the reading, he asked if having a newborn daughter had changed the way I write. I responded, truthfully, that this was an excellent question to which I didn’t have a good answer, but that I expected it would, although the effects have yet to be seen. Every novel, as I’ve said before, is secretly about the process of its own creation, and it’s inevitable that a major change in my personal life will be reflected indirectly in the stories I write.

At the moment, though, if there’s one thing the characters in my novels have in common, it’s that they’re all alone. Ilya, the central character of the trilogy, is literally an orphan, and he’s defined by the fact of his isolation, which pits him against other players and larger systems in a game that he plays on his own. We never learn anything about Maddy’s parents, and Wolfe’s family only appears in a couple of phone calls from her mother. Powell is largely shaped by the absence of his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. And none of these characters are married or in a serious relationship. Part of this is due to the conventions of the thriller, which generally doesn’t have much room for family narratives: it tends to focus on individuals versus the world, particularly in conspiracy stories. It also has something to do with my situation when I first conceived the series. At the time, I was living alone in New York, and although I was far from lonely, like most writers, I spent much of my time in my own head.

Odysseus and the Sirens

And while I’d argue that themes of isolation are central to The Icon Thief and its sequels, it also strikes me as a limitation. Families are central to many of the most interesting stories we know, both because they provide such rich material for drama and because they allow us to see the characters from multiple perspectives. I’ve always been fascinated by the example of Odysseus, the most fully realized figure in ancient literature, who acquires much of his interest because we see him in every role a man can play: he’s a father, a son, a husband, a lover, a beggar, a companion, and a king. (It’s no accident that one of his epithets is polytropos, “the man of many turns.”) The same principle applies to Hamlet, whose character is defined by his radically different relationships with Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Horatio, Polonius, his father’s ghost, various courtiers, and even the skull of Yorick. And such characterizations work both as a narrative strategy and as a reflection of life itself, in which we all suffer from a loneliness or individuality that finds its fullest expression in the company of others.

In other words, family is both a subject and a valuable fictional tool, and the fact that these elements play such a minor part in the novels I’ve written is something I occasionally regret. I always welcome the chance to depict my characters in the light of a range of relationships, and I feel that Wolfe, for instance, is nicely enriched by her interactions with her mother. I just wish there were more of it—and I suspect there will be. These days, my life has changed a lot since I first started out as a writer: in the five years since I began work on the first draft of The Icon Thief, I’ve gotten married, acquired a house and mortgage, and found myself the father of a beautiful daughter. And although I’ve spent most of the ensuing time on projects that were conceived much earlier, I don’t doubt that I’ll start to see the signs in my own work. Writing, at its heart, is a way of seeing the world around me more clearly, and it can’t help but evolve as the life around it changes as well.

Written by nevalalee

May 9, 2013 at 9:17 am

3 Responses

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  1. Your last sentence captures it oh so well: “Writing, at its heart, is a way of seeing the world around me more clearly, and it can’t help but evolve as the life around it changes as well.” I know my writing has changed as I’ve matured, settled down with husband and house, and nurtured what seems to be an endless string of cats. I take comfort in this evolution as I feel my writing has improved, technically as well as artistically, because of it.


    May 10, 2013 at 8:23 am

  2. Odysseus is a good model for a writer’s characters, isn’t he, as he is many sided, multi-faceted. When I think of good writing, those authors generally have multi-faceted characters.


    May 10, 2013 at 9:37 pm

  3. @1WriteWay: Thanks so much! If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, it’s that the writing life can’t be separated from the life around it.

    @VictoriaJoDean: Agreed—and such facets are generally best expressed by the character’s relationships with others. Achilles is another good example from classical mythology: he’s defined by his opposition to such dissimilar figures as Hector, Agamemnon, and Odysseus.


    May 11, 2013 at 8:24 am

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