Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“He saw a word in his mind’s eye…”

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"He saw a word in his mind's eye..."

Note: This post is the fifty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 54. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I still have the notebook page on which I began jotting down ideas for the novel that eventually became The Icon Thief. At that point, I hadn’t yet acquired the good habit of dating all my notes, but from context, I seem to have started work on the story just over five years ago. As a result, the page is a time capsule of both my thoughts while roughing out the novel and my writing process at the time. In most ways, my approach hasn’t changed all that much, and the ideas I sketched out here are surprisingly close to what the novel eventually became. Here’s a sample:

Three levels of plot: supposed order, alleged order, and real order.
Themes: paranoia, information overload, vision/eyesight
New York art world; intersection between art + finance

This is followed by a long list of potential plot points or ideas from the real world, some of which ended up being crucial to the story that resulted, while others were eventually discarded. Neither Marcel Duchamp nor Étant Donnés are mentioned until the fourth page of notes, at which point I’d been working on the idea for several weeks. And on the top of the first page is the title of the novel I had in mind: Camera.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve rarely had much luck with the initial titles of my novels, and they’ve invariably had to be changed, usually with only a few weeks left before delivery of the manuscript. I have a weakness for opaque, suggestive titles that have more than one meaning, while publishers tend to be happier with titles that clearly signal what the book is going to be about. Consequently, I need to walk a fine line, and I’m very happy with the title The Icon Thief. Still, I do miss Camera. I’d wanted to write a novel with that name for a long time, although the original conception survives only as a shadow in what was eventually published: the initial plot, which I now think was probably too ambitious for my talents at the time, was about a man piecing together the reasons behind a loved one’s suicide by looking at the photos on her camera after her death. There’s a touch of this in the finished novel, as Maddy tries to figure out the clues that Ethan left behind, and my research into the life of the photographer Diane Arbus informed some elements of Maddy’s personality. Really, though, its presence in the story is more like that of a ghost, or a double exposure, dimly visible behind the plot’s convolutions.

"He was telling me who made the poison..."

The other inspiration for the title was “Camera” by R.E.M., possibly their saddest and most mysterious song, and one with a particularly haunting backstory. When I wrote that title at the top of the page, I didn’t have a plot in mind yet, but I certainly had a tone I wanted to capture, as well as a handful of themes that had always fascinated me: the gap between what we see and what we think we understand, the tendency for images to be misinterpreted, and the ambiguity of the photographic medium itself. These themes were radically transformed in the final product, and perhaps that’s the way it should be. But the working title achieved its purpose. It allowed me to focus my thinking, emphasizing some themes in preference to others, and at one crucial point, it also informed me that I was on the right track. Early in the process, I realized that the Russian chemical warfare program would be a part of the story, since it allowed me to unite several key themes—conspiracy, paranoia, Russia itself—into one convenient thread. And I still remember the strange thrill I felt when I learned that Laboratory 12, the notorious poison laboratory of the secret services, had also been known as Kamera.

Kamera, then, was the title under which the novel went out to publishers, and that’s how it was sold. And it’s instructive, at least to me, to go back over the story to see how it reads with its original title in mind. An ambiguous title is a sort of clue to the reader, a hint to keep an eye out for information that might otherwise seem unimportant, and in that light, a sequence like that of Chapter 54 would read altogether differently. We’ve already witnessed the end of Anzor Archvadze, dying in the hospital with a case of toxic epidermal necrolysis and barely managing to force out his last words: “Camera. Camera.” It’s not until several chapters later that Powell sees the words for what they really are. In the novel as it stands, it’s a good scene, but it would have been even better in the original version, as the true meaning of the title locked into place. Kamera, of course, means chamber, so the working title served triple duty: it was meant to evoke the poison program, the various roles that cameras and photographs play in the narrative, and the chamber of Étant Donnés itself. All this was lost in the final version. And although I’m mostly pleased by the way it turned out, I can’t help but miss what was there before…

Written by nevalalee

July 5, 2013 at 8:55 am

2 Responses

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  1. Beautifully written post, Alec. Despite my not yet having read your book, it’s a treat to see how your initial ideas, and the original title, evolved and yet served their purpose throughout the writing process. But, too, it seems a shame that Kamera didn’t hold final sway. I, too, enjoy somewhat ambiguous titles which, when closely considered, add a new dimension to the reading. An example that comes to mind is a sonnet I wrote about Calypso, who remained unnamed throughout. I entitled it, “The Nymph of Ogygia”.

    Sean M. Madden

    July 5, 2013 at 11:33 am

  2. Thanks so much! And I do hope you check out the book one of these days…

    Titles are crucial, both for shaping the reader’s experience and for guiding the author’s thinking. It isn’t often until I come up with a title—even an interim one—that I start to understand what the story is really about, and I’ll often tweak the story slightly in retrospect to justify all of a title’s implications.

    nevalalee

    July 5, 2013 at 11:42 am


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