Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Thoughts on an author’s commentary

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My author's copies

I don’t know how many authors really enjoy reading their own books. In my case, whenever I start a project, I tend to operate under the illusion that it’s a novel I’m going to enjoy reading for my own pleasure. I write stories that I’d like to see, and ones that I don’t think other authors are writing—not necessarily because they’re so original, but because they’ve been tuned to reflect a certain balance of plot, action, and concept that I happen to like. By the time I’m done, though, I’ve spent so long in the story that I can barely see the words on the page, and going back to read it again has about as much appeal as eating the same dinner for three days in a row. Still, there are times when I’ve reread my work and been sucked in despite myself. Short stories like “Kawataro” or “The Boneless One” tend to hold up better, since they were often the product of a few weeks of work, rather than months or years. I can flip through one of my stories and get lost again in the plot, while a novel is usually inseparable from the memory of the year or so it occupied in my life.

As a result, it was a little strange to sit down to confront a book that used to be a part of me, only to be set aside and revisited long after the fact. Of course, when I started my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, I didn’t know what the experience would be like. At first, I saw it primarily as a way for me to get some things off my chest: the book is loaded with references, hints, and little jokes, and I wanted to document those elements so they wouldn’t be lost forever. I also wanted to talk about the decisions I made along the way, showing how logical—or otherwise—my choices had been and how many other directions a story can take. Once a novel is published, it starts to seem inevitable, but really, a text covers up countless alternatives, like the layers of the paintings in The Mystery of Picasso, and I wanted to strip away the surface to uncover some of those discarded variants. Finally, I hoped that the book would provide convenient illustrations and examples for some of the topics I wanted to cover here: plot, structure, handling action and exposition, creating suspense.

"Andrey was nearly at the border when..."

In the end, it didn’t turn out quite as I intended. I could have simply listed off the references and my own cute stories about how each chapter was written, but I quickly figured out that this wasn’t particularly interesting, especially because many of the visitors to this blog haven’t read the book. It also felt a little self-indulgent, and not in a good way. There’s a reason, I discovered, why most authors leave commentary and interpretation to the critics, even if they get most of it wrong: a novel is a living thing, capable of multiple interpretations, and it can be a mistake for the author to explain what he was thinking in too much detail. Early on, then, I made a conscious effort to frame each post in terms of a larger writing topic, using the chapter as necessary to illuminate the points I was making. Sometimes the chapter itself wouldn’t be mentioned until the last paragraph, if at all, and I rarely did close analysis of the text. (This is partially because I knew I’d only end up wishing that I’d written it differently, and also because I didn’t want to kill the novel for myself any more than I already have.)

The result ended up being more of a monster than I expected. A director’s audio track can be tossed off in a couple of hours, but this commentary took close to sixteen months and something like 30,000 words, or a third of the novel itself. But the most valuable thing about it, at least for me, lay in how it clarified my feelings toward the novel itself. The Icon Thief was my first published book, and like all debut novels, there are things about it that its author would like to change: I’d give more background on the art historical material, for instance, and I’d try to hold the reader’s hand a little more over the first hundred pages. But I’m surprised at how much I still like it. In some ways, it’s an odd, unwieldy novel, and it never fit comfortably into any one category: the cover makes it look like a Da Vinci Code knockoff, but its heart lies with the dry, slightly frigid skepticism of Marcel Duchamp, even as it tries to incorporate big action set pieces and the elements of a crime procedural and international thriller. In the end, though, I think it all sort of works. And that’s really the most any author can ask of his own novel.

Written by nevalalee

August 16, 2013 at 8:35 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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