Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 6th, 2013

“Manuel was watching the man with the books…”

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"Manuel was watching the man with the books..."

Note: This post is the first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering the prologue. You can read my earlier commentary for The Icon Thief here.)

If I have one small regret about City of Exiles, it involves a minor quirk of its publication history. When I agreed to write a sequel to The Icon Thief, my editor at Penguin said that they wanted to include a teaser for the second novel at the end of the first, which seemed like it made sense. I happily got to work on a prologue that would set up the events of the next installment, which was revised and edited in advance of the rest of the novel, and it was ultimately published on schedule as a bonus chapter in the first book. What I didn’t anticipate was the effect that the prologue would create when it was read immediately after the last page of its predecessor. At the end of the The Icon Thief—which was originally intended to stand alone—I bring Ilya, my central protagonist, to a moment of closure and relative peace: he’s made his choice and walked away from his old life. A gap of nine months between the two novels, I thought, would give him an adequate break, but in reality, it lasts for less than a page. The reader finishes The Icon Thief, then turns to the prologue of City of Exiles, and before you know it, Ilya is on the run again, which doesn’t seem entirely fair or satisfying.

That said, this was a fun, if difficult, prologue to write. I was returning to these characters after a long hiatus: I’d written the final draft of The Icon Thief many months earlier, and part of me felt as if I were starting from scratch. My initial challenge, then, was to figure out what Ilya was doing and where he would be when he was overtaken by his violent past. I decided, first of all, that Ilya would need a real job: I’ve never been a fan of the plot convention, best typified by the Bourne films, that a lone man on the run nevertheless seems to have access to unlimited cash and resources. I also wanted Ilya to be doing something that was consistent with the character I’d established, and I finally hit on the idea of making him a translator. Like the heroes of many suspense novels, Ilya speaks whatever language is required by the demands of the plot—in The Icon Thief, at minimum, he seems to know Russian, English, Hebrew, and Assyrian—and I figured I could at least bake this talent into the character itself. As for where he’d be, I chose the town of Marbella in Spain, both because of its associations with continental crime and because I’d spent my honeymoon there, which meant that my location research was already done.

"A bird, perhaps an eagle..."

Up to this point, the prologue was conceived almost from first principles, but when the time came to actually write it, I took a serious wrong turn. The first draft was outlined and written from the point of view of a secondary character we won’t see again, a waitress named Malena who gets to know Ilya as a regular customer. They strike up a friendship; he agrees to tutor her in English to help her get her degree; and when she’s attacked on the way home from work, Ilya comes to her rescue, dispatching her assailants with a degree of skill that frightens her—and forces him to go on the run again. I liked the conceit of seeing Ilya through someone else’s eyes, as well as the chance to give him a moment of ordinary human connection before it’s abruptly torn away. When I went back to read it, however, I found that it didn’t work. For one thing, unlike the prologue to the previous book, it took forever to get going: I needed a page or two of Ilya and Malena chatting before the action began, and as much as I cut it, I couldn’t make it play. More to the point, it didn’t have much to do with the plot of the novel that followed, and it didn’t strike me as a strong advertisement for the book, which was the role it had to play as a bonus to The Icon Thief.

As a result, a few weeks before the prologue was due, I rewrote it completely to unfold from the point of view of one of two local hitmen who have been contracted to take out Ilya in Marbella. This way, the intrigue starts in the first paragraph, rather than being delayed for several pages, and it gives me an excuse to indulge in a few of the reversals and bits of tradecraft I enjoy, as Ilya turns the tables on his pursuers. And it allowed me to give Ilya a few clues that would shape his actions in the coming novel—although I was careful to keep them fairly vague, giving me the freedom to take the plot in whatever direction I needed. When questioned, one of the two men admits that he came from London; later, on examining his body, Ilya finds the tattoo of an eagle, inscribed in raised white lines on his chest. When he flees the scene a moment later, his only regret is for all the books he’s leaving behind. The reference to London was simply a way to get Ilya to where I wanted him to be, and the reference to his books helps motivate a future plot point, in which Ilya’s bookish habits give Wolfe a means of tracking him. The eagle’s meaning is a little more subtle. In Ezekiel’s vision of the merkabah, he describes heavenly creatures with four faces: those of a man, an eagle, a lion, and an ox. We’ve just seen the eagle. And we’ll meet the others soon…

Written by nevalalee

September 6, 2013 at 9:08 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

September 6, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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