Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 24th, 2013

“When Maddy went to see Reynard…”

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"When Maddy went to see Reynard..."

(Note: This post is the forty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 48. You can read the earlier installments here.)

For every published page of a novel, there’s usually a page or more of deletions, dead ends, and wrong turns. This makes sense: even when you work from a fairly detailed plan, as I generally do, you’re always figuring out important elements of the story as you go along, and it often isn’t until after you’re finished that you even know what the book is about. What’s more surprising is how quickly the old material vanishes down the memory hole. I’ve since gotten better about not overwriting my rough drafts, but when I wrote The Icon Thief, I was still cutting close to half of the total word count from first version to last. This meant losing scenes, digressions, subplots, and a lot of lovingly researched background. Needless to say, these were all good cuts, to the point where I don’t even remember what’s missing when I read the novel again. And whenever I think about a scene that was cut or radically revised—as was the case with Ethan’s death—it’s a very strange feeling, as if these events had taken place in some alternate but monetarily plausible universe that now seems hard to imagine.

Chapter 50 of The Icon Thief is one of the few sections where I vividly remember cutting something, mostly because it was a detail that I enjoyed but removed after overwhelming opposition from my early readers. It’s a quiet but important scene of the sort that takes place at least once in every conspiracy novel: the moment when the protagonist takes her concerns to a sympathetic outside party, only to be told that it’s all in her mind. (As usual, Foucault’s Pendulum has the best version of this scene I’ve ever read.) In this case, Maddy, shaken by her last argument with Ethan, goes to Reynard, her boss, to tell him about the plot they think they’ve discovered. Reynard listens, concerned, and then reasonably takes down her argument point by point. There’s no evidence that Lenin ever crossed paths with the Dadaists; Aleister Crowley was nothing but a fabulist; John Quinn, who knew both Crowley and Duchamp and was rumored to be the spymaster for the former, may have been precisely what he appeared to be, a patron of the arts with interesting friends.

"Reynard glanced at the clock..."

And so on. The reader, of course, knows better than to take this sort of rational explanation at face value. But here’s the funny thing: Reynard is absolutely correct. All the points he makes are valid ones—they’re actually very close to my own feelings about the conspiracy theory my novel invents—and when he says that Maddy and Ethan may simply have been imposing a false pattern onto history, he’s right, although the reasons behind their paranoia are a little more complicated. At the time, though, this is far from clear, at least if I’ve done my work correctly. And any reader with a sense of the genre knows that it’s often the man who calmly suggests that you lie down and think things over who later shoves you into an unmarked van. Reynard isn’t quite on that level, but he’s certainly not telling the whole truth, and the challenge in writing this scene was to allow him to serve as a voice of reason without the reader suspecting that he’s in on the plot. After a bit of fiddling, I came up with this moment, which occurs as Maddy is about to leave his office:

“It’s all right.” Reynard walked her to the office door, laying a hand on her shoulder. “If you see Ethan, tell him that after all is said and done, I still want him here. And I still want you.”

Maddy looked into Reynard’s eyes. He did not remove his hand. For an inexplicable instant, she felt something pass between them, and knew with sudden certainty that he was going to take her in his arms.

In the end, the moment passed, leaving her unsure of what had happened, if anything had happened at all…

Now, I liked this a lot. I’d conceived it as a form of sleight of hand, a way to deflect readers from the possibility of Reynard’s guilt by distracting them with this awkward moment. The trouble is that it worked too well. Nearly every reader who read the novel in manuscript objected to this passage, saying that it made Maddy seem like the kind of woman who gets romantically involved with every man in her professional life. If only one reader had raised the issue, I might have ignored the note, but in this case, the consensus was strong enough that I finally cut these paragraphs just before we went out to publishers. And I still regret it a little, although I have no doubt that it was the right call. As it stands, I have a feeling that many readers will suspect that Reynard is up to no good, but I’m okay with it. We may have a hunch that Reynard is involved, but we don’t know why. And there are still a few big surprises in store…

Written by nevalalee

May 24, 2013 at 8:09 am

Quote of the Day

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Beth Anderson

My own mystic bent leads me to believe that musical variations, collage, reiteration and process, or evolution, are beautiful. Life is worth living and beauty is worth making.

Beth Anderson

Written by nevalalee

May 24, 2013 at 7:30 am

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