Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“An exile from the country of the saints…”

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"Wolfe began every day on her knees..."

Note: This post is the fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 4. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When I made Rachel Wolfe a Mormon in The Icon Thief, I had no idea that she’d end up as the central figure in City of Exiles. At the time, as I’ve explained before, I saw it as a convenient way to give her a little more personality, and it provided me with just enough material to enliven a crucial supporting character. Later, when Wolfe was upgraded to the status of lead protagonist, I realized that there were a number of directions in which I could take this particular detail. I could simply retcon it out of existence, or, more reasonably, ignore it as something that wasn’t relevant to the story; I could make her a lapsed Mormon, which might have been thematically interesting in itself; or I could embrace it, making Wolfe a devout Mormon who was unironically smart, admirable, and brave. When in doubt, I’ve learned to go with the idea that seems the most challenging, so I went with the final option. In practice, the novel splits the difference between the last two approaches: Wolfe is serious about the role of faith in her life, but she’s also full of doubt, and although the result may not be as pure as it was in my head, it ended up being better for the novel as a whole, as well as more suited to my personality as a writer.

All the same, even if Wolfe was starting to question her religious assumptions, I wanted her to maintain the externals as much as possible. There are aspects of Mormonism that seemed utterly organic to her character as a straitlaced federal agent, and I tried to keep as many of these as I could: the teetotalling, the avoidance of debt, the lack of swearing. It also seemed appropriate to the concerns of the overall novel. City of Exiles is a crowded story with a dense web of themes, not all of them intuitively related, but they all tend to center on the idea of exile itself: national, spiritual, and emotional. Exiles often maintain a semblance of their old ways long after they’ve experienced a change of address, and it felt right that Wolfe would continue, for example, to pray every morning, although she’s no longer sure if anybody is listening. She’ll always be a stickler for structure, even as she learns to improvise her way around the obstacles the world presents, and it made sense to me that she’d continue to value the ways in which these traditions have shaped her life, long after she’s left the country of the saints.

"An exile from the country of the saints..."

This is why I open Chapter 4 with the image of Wolfe on her knees, an unconscious echo of the kneeling body we saw earlier in the book. I still think it’s a startling introduction: we’ve met Wolfe already, both in the previous novel and in a prior chapter, but this is her real debut as the heart of the story. Before long, we’ll jump back into the plot, which has to cover a lot of ground, but first I wanted to give Wolfe a contemplative page or two to set up her personal journey. I dressed the set as carefully as I could with details that would hint at what her life has been like in London. She’s living in a sterile extended stay apartment in Vauxhall, but there’s a lump of bread dough rising on the counter—a nod, perhaps, to the way she was brought up, and also what strikes me now as an interesting bit of symbolism, although I didn’t see it at the time. She walks to work along the Thames, which, with its muddy, depressing bank, counts as another way the city has failed to live up to her expectations. (I’ve walked the same stretch of the river.) And when she arrives at the office, she’s faced with a choice: prolong a foundering investigation, or cut her losses and take what she can get now.

We’re also introduced to a number of key supporting characters at the Serious Organised Crime Agency, some of whom will go on to play an important role both in this book and in Eternal Empire. There’s Maya Asthana, Wolfe’s deskmate and best friend in London, pretty, a little vain, and the sharpest person in the office when she isn’t busy planning her wedding; Arnold Garber, a hothead pushing the team to focus on immediate results; and Dana Cornwall, the flinty officer in charge of the intelligence directorate, who finds herself struggling to balance political concerns with the needs of the investigation. (Cornwall’s name is a nod, sightly disguised, to the man who calls himself John le Carré, as well as to another fictional character whose identity should come as no surprise.) And, of course, there’s Alan Powell, Wolfe’s mentor, whose example she has increasingly begun to question. I’ve spoken elsewhere about how I took pains to fill out the ensemble here more carefully than I did in The Icon Thief, thinking that the resulting combinations of characters might be useful. As it turned out, this was absolutely the case, and in ways that shocked even me. But that’s a story for much later…

Written by nevalalee

October 18, 2013 at 8:40 am

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