Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How I discovered Shambhala

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Tibet by Nicholas Roerich

One of the most profound benefits of being a novelist—and one that I don’t think gets enough attention—is the quality of heightened awareness it creates. When you’re looking for a story idea, your attitude toward the world around you is subtly shifted: material that might never have caught your eye otherwise is captured and assimilated, because it actually has somewhere to go. That’s why I like to start the research for a book in an intermediate state of mind, when I’m open to inspiration without prejudice but also have a sense of what I’m trying to find. It reminds me a little of the famous story of the young Albert Einstein and his Uncle Jakob, as Walter Isaacson tells it:

His uncle Jakob Einstein, the engineer, introduced him to the joys of algebra. “It’s a merry science,” he explained. “When the animal that we are hunting cannot be caught, we call it X temporarily and continue to hunt until it is bagged.”

For authors, X is the germ of a story idea, and the only way to find it is to label it as an unknown, then start hunting for it widely and systematically.

In the case of Eternal Empire, I happen to know exactly when I first encountered the initial seed, which hasn’t always been the case for the novels I’ve written. For The Icon Thief, I hunted ideas by reading everything I could find on art history, starting in the extensive collection of art books at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. A stray reference in Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? by James Elkins, a book I took off the shelf almost at random, led me to the bizarre conspiracy theory involving Marcel Duchamp that Philippe Duboy describes at length in Lequeu. In the end, I didn’t use any material from Duboy’s book, but it set me in the right direction, and I eventually found myself standing outside the door of Étant Donnés. City of Exiles was born in a similar way: I knew that the sequel had to focus on a mystery from the history of Russia, and after another period of wide reading, I settled on the strange case of the Dyatlov Pass. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I first heard about this story—which even has its own movie now—I said: “That’s it.” But it took a lot of exploration to get to that point.

Shambhala by Nicholas Roerich

By contrast, the central theme of Eternal Empire all but fell into my lap, and I have this blog to thank for it. In June of 2011, I wrote a post called “Agnosticism and the Working Writer,” in which I approvingly quoted a piece by the blogger Jessa Crispin, who pointed out that for a poet like W.B. Yeats, mystical beliefs can be enormously useful. Elsewhere in the same essay, to illustrate the potential abuses of magical thinking, Crispin quoted a passage from a recent work of journalism that caught my attention at once:

It’s rumored that Putin has, as journalist Rachel Polonsky relays, “assigned money from the national budget to be spent on another search for the doorway to Shambhala in the Altai region of Siberia, a cosmic energy centre where he likes to pose for photographers, seated half-naked on a horse, like some latter-day Mongol khan.”

And all I could really say was: “Thank you.” I immediately sought out Polonsky’s book, Molotov’s Magic Lantern, and I ultimately used another passage—about Putin’s desire to retrieve a piece of the polar seabed from the Arktika expedition, allegedly because the entrance to the underground kingdom of Shambhala is rumored to exist at the pole—as the epigraph to Eternal Empire.

Regular readers of this blog will understand why I found Shambhala and its modern incarnations so appealing. It’s a story that has meant a lot of things to a lot of people: it began as an allegorical kingdom in Buddhism, a kind of metaphorical empire of enlightened souls, and inspired James Hilton’s fantastical vision of Shangri-La. Later, others began to suspect that Shambhala might actually exist, perhaps as a hidden kingdom in Tibet or elsewhere in Central Asia, which inspired a number of strange expeditions on the part of the Soviet Union and the Nazis, as chronicled by Andrei Znamenski in his fascinating book Red Shambhala. As such, it provided me with a playing field to explore the topics that I find interesting as a novelist: interpretation, the evolution of myth into fact, and the way we impose meaning on the world. It was general enough of a subject to give me latitude as a writer to make it mean whatever I wanted, but also specific enough yield a mine of compelling historical detail. In short, it was perfect. And I was very lucky to stumble across it—but only because I was looking for it, or that elusive X, in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

August 26, 2013 at 8:36 am

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