Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Karvonen looked out at the view…”

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"Karvonen looked out at the view..."

Note: This post is the fourth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 3. You can read the earlier installments here.)

A thriller is only as good as its villain, and if City of Exiles works at all, it’s because Lasse Karvonen is easily the most compelling villain I’ve created for any of my novels. He definitely struck a chord with a lot of readers: my agent, for instance, was particularly taken by him, and just the other day he half-jokingly suggested that I should write a prequel from Karvonen’s point of view. What makes him stand out to me, as the writer, is the fact that he gave me surprisingly little trouble. His original conception made it onto the page with almost no alterations, and I was rarely in doubt of how he’d behave or what he’d be thinking. Part of this is due to the fact that Karvonen is a clinical psychopath, down to the classic childhood behaviors of setting fires and cruelty to animals, and until the second half of the novel, in which his feelings grow slightly more complicated, I was able to keep his motivations stark and simple. If character is best defined by action, it’s no wonder that Karvonen works so well: he has a clear, murderous mission, he sticks to it relentlessly, and his decisions are all logical in the moment. (If all my characters lent themselves to being so cleanly drawn, these novels would be much easier to write.)

Yet I was always careful to keep Karvonen from becoming just a stock bad guy, and in particular, I tried to build elements into his character that I would find engaging. His Finnish background, which will be explored in greater detail later in the novel, was a major element in this: I’m half Finnish and Estonian, I’ve spent time in Helsinki, and I was drawn to the idea of making my villain a big, scary Finn—because you really don’t want to mess with these guys. I also liked the idea of making him a photographer. As I mentioned earlier, this was partially because illegal agents often find jobs in artistic communities, where it’s easier to develop a plausible cover story, but I also wanted to make him an artist for its own sake. Karvonen, like many of the characters in these books, is defined largely by his competence, and I had the feeling that he’d take his work as a photographer just as seriously as his true calling as an assassin. He’s good at what he does, no matter what it is, and that goes a long way toward making him someone we find interesting, even if his actions are evil ones.

"He began with a straight print..."

The art world element in City of Exiles isn’t as fully developed as it was in The Icon Thief, but I’m never averse to including an interesting detail or piece of gossip if I think it will help me develop my characters and their world, and I do this several times in Chapter 3. Renata’s financial problems are obviously intended to recall those of Annie Leibovitz, although a quick look at their respective personal lives quickly reveals that the two women otherwise don’t have much in common. The story that Renata tells in this chapter, about a financial magazine that stopped publishing annual photos of the year’s top dealmakers because subjects complained when they were dropped from the list, is lifted from an anecdote in Leibovitz’s At Work. And the scheme that Karvonen and Renata invent—to contract with another magazine to do a gallery of portraits of the city’s top business leaders, then throw a party and sell the prints to the subjects at an exorbitant price—is all too real: it was inspired by a similar idea concocted by Peter Max and the editors of the defunct industry magazine Trader Monthly, as memorably chronicled here by Randall Lane.

Reading over this chapter again, though, my greatest impression is that of an author finding his way into the material in whatever way he can. I put Karvonen in the Shoreditch Triangle neighborhood of London because of its historical connection to the art scene, and on impulse, I gave him a cat, although I wasn’t sure how it would pay off. (We’ll see this cat at least one more time before this novel is over, and to all animal lovers who are reading this, I apologize in advance.) I also spent a lot of time researching material on photo retouching and printing, which is a subject I’ve always found fascinating—I wrote an entire screenplay on the subject a few years ago—and which seemed to offer an indirect way of evoking some of the central themes of this novel: interpretation, illusion, deception. The result only occupies a paragraph or two in the resulting chapter, as Karovnen edits and prints out a few images from the recent photo shoot, but I tried to make the details here as accurate as I could. These are all tiny things, but when you put them all together, you get a picture of Karvonen and his world. Although he has some deeper secrets as well…

Written by nevalalee

October 11, 2013 at 8:35 am

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