Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Tzaddikim knew how to be patient…”

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"Ilya glanced at his fuel gauge..."

Note: This post is the fifty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 53. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of the first things a writer needs to realize is that it can be a mistake to base a character too closely on yourself, or to have the plot of a novel track literal events from your own life. Part of this lies in the importance of detachment: when you’re writing about yourself—or a thinly disguised surrogate—or relating incidents that really happened, it can be hard to maintain the necessary objectivity. A reader who doesn’t know you personally can’t be expected to take the same interest in the details of your inner life, at least not before the material has been refined and rethought, and it’s easier to do this when you depart enough from the facts to make their implications seem new. Much of the creative process consists in searching for metaphors or analogies for your own experience, which allow you to deal with what concerns you while regarding the result with a clear eye. In The Spooky Art, for instance, Norman Mailer advised young New York writers to deal with the events of 9/11 indirectly, keeping the emotional core while shifting it into another context:

There must be five hundred young writers in New York who had a day of experience that was incomparable—nothing remotely like that had ever happened before in their lives. And it’s likely that some extraordinary work will come out of it. Hopefully, not all of it about 9/11. If you never write about 9/11 but were in the vicinity that day, you could conceivably, in time to come, describe a battle in a medieval war and provide a real sense of such a lost event. You could do a horror tale or an account of a plague. Or write about the sudden death of a beloved. Or a march of refugees. All kinds of scenes and situations can derive ultimately from 9/11. What won’t always work is to go after it directly. That kind of writing can be exhausted quickly. And the temptation to drive in head-on is, of course, immense—the event was traumatic for so many.

And an experience doesn’t need to be traumatic to lend itself to fictional transmutation. Nearly every choice I’ve made as an author—and writing is really just a series of choices—can be traced back to something in my own history or personality, transformed into something very different that still reflects its hidden origins.

"Tzaddikim knew how to be patient..."

Take Ilya’s religious background. I knew from early on that one of the primary characters in The Icon Thief would be Jewish, and it’s hard to think of any one decision that had a greater influence on the novels that followed: the art world and conspiracy elements that dominate the first installment are gradually toned down, but Ilya’s background and his ambivalence about the two sides of his personality—the Scythian and the Tzaddik—are central to the trilogy, and I don’t think the question is fully resolved until the last page of Eternal Empire. At first, like Wolfe’s Mormonism, this was a detail that I introduced almost at random, merely because I thought it seemed promising: I liked the idea of a hit man who read the Sefer Yetzirah, and I knew that it would allow me to bring in a lot of material that I’d always found interesting. And although these themes never quite come to the forefront of these novels, they’re always there in the background, providing insight into Ilya’s character and a kind of counterpoint to the main action, with its recurrent motifs of interpretation, history, and exile.

Most of all, it allowed me to approach aspects of my own inner life from an unexpected angle. If there’s one theme that I seem condemned to revisit endlessly in my own fiction, it’s the problem of interpretation, of how we find meaning in texts, stories, and the world around us. I’m not the first writer to be drawn to Jewish models as a lens for examining these issues: Borges, among others, has done more with this tradition than I ever could. Still, in creating Ilya, I found that I was inventing a figure who was oddly like myself, as different as we are in most external respects. Like me, he’s drawn to texts and traditions of exegesis, like the midrashim and the cabala, both because of the inherent beauty they possess and because they stand in contrast to what we can and can’t understand about the world around us. The world may be a text, but it pushes back against us in ways that we don’t encounter on the printed page, and just because we’re good at kind of interpretation doesn’t make us good at the other. Ilya’s struggle to come to terms with the way his world works, and with the contradictions of his own personality, gave me a way of dealing with my own. And as the novel draws to its climax, we’re about to find out who Ilya really is…

Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2013 at 8:43 am

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