Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Thanks, Mom. I know…”

with 2 comments

"Activity is the genius of this church..."

Note: This post is the seventh installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 6. You can read the earlier installments here.)

For the most part, I’m proud of my work as a writer, but I’m also aware of one flaw that my published novels all share: they’re about individuals, most of them psychologically isolated, and they have little to say about larger social units. None of the primary characters in these books are married. Most don’t seem to have interesting personal lives outside the bounds of the story. Ilya is an orphan—both his parents died while he was in Vladimir Prison—and we learn next to nothing about Maddy’s family or life history. When a more conventional relationship is introduced, it’s largely to advance the plot, as when Maddy and Ethan briefly drift together and fall apart in The Icon Thief. And the books are almost entirely lacking in sex. Needless to say, I’m far from the only suspense novelist to focus his energies on a narrow slice of human experience: even someone like Frederick Forsyth, who can otherwise write about anything, fumbles when it comes to talking about men and women. You could even argue that isolation is a necessary aspect of the conspiracy thriller, which tends to pit its individuals against the world. But in terms of my own growth as a writer, and of my ability to treat subjects and stories that don’t fit into the neat confines of the plots I’ve made, it’s a limitation, and a serious one.

I’ve spent a lot of time asking myself why my books are so emotionally constrained. Part of it, as I’ve just mentioned above, has do to with the way in which they’re structured: these are intricate plots that need to move quickly from one story point to the next, so there isn’t a lot of time to take in the emotional landscape outside the frame. Another factor might be my own life situation when I conceived the book that set the template for the series. When I wrote The Icon Thief, I was in my late twenties, living alone in New York, and still several years away from marrying and becoming a father. You write what you know, consciously or not, and at the time, I knew a great deal about being single in a big city and not much firsthand about anything else. It’s also possible that my approach to fiction in itself made it difficult for me to construct convincing relationships. Writing about Saul Bellow in Cannibals and Christians, Norman Mailer observes:

Bellow’s one major weakness…is that he creates individuals and not relations between them, at least not yet…It is possible that the faculty of imagination is opposed to the gift of grasping relationships—in the act of coming to know somebody else well, the point of the imagination may be dulled by the roughness of the other’s concrete desires and the attrition of living not only in one’s own boredom but someone else’s.

"Thanks, Mom. I know..."

Now, I’m not about to compare myself to Bellow, and the passage above probably tells us more about Mailer in any case. But I can’t help finding a distant echo here to my own situation. I approach writing as an act of imagination, and particularly of invention: I take pride in my ability to come up with intricate plots and complications. This is an inherently solitary activity, and even as I treat fiction as an excuse to explore the world, the impulse remains one-sided, even mercenary. When I look at a location or an idea or another person, the writerly part of my brain is asking: “How can I use you?” Everything is turned into material to be worked out later, in private, which doesn’t lend itself well to unpacking human relationships. I tend to use fiction to create problems—to generate complexity—and not to untie the knots of ordinary interaction that I see around me. For the most part, I’m content with this: all writers evolve along certain lines, picking and choosing which battles to fight. The work informs the personality as much as the personality does the work, and I like constructing my little puzzles. But whenever I can, as much for the sake of my own growth as for the story itself, I try to inch a bit further toward those aspects of life that I’ve left underexplored.

You can see a few tentative stabs in this direction in City of Exiles, which is the first novel I wrote in full awareness of how emotionally constrained these stories had become. Later on, we’ll meet Powell’s father for the first time, in a chapter that comes as close as anything in these novels to providing a window on character for its own sake—and the result is one of my favorite scenes in the series. First, though, we’re introduced to Wolfe’s mother, as a voice on the other end of the phone in Chapter 6. At first glance, their interactions function as comic relief, and I like the juxtaposition between Wolfe’s conversation with her mom and the work she’s doing: she begins the chapter by tracing the weapons found at the murdered armorer’s apartment and ends it with the revelation that Ilya is back in the city, all while fending off her mother’s questions about how often she goes to church. But it also gets at something important about Wolfe’s character. Rachel Wolfe is in transition, caught between two stages, and her mother’s voice on the phone reminds her of how hard it is to let go of the past, even as she moves into something less defined. Like most of the other players in the story, she’s a lonely atom, an exile, but being alone isn’t her natural state, as it is with Ilya. It’s a path she’s chosen. And for once, we’re given a sense, at least as far as these books can manage, of what she’s left behind…

Written by nevalalee

November 15, 2013 at 9:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. The difference between you and most other authors is: you are conscious of what and where your “flaws” are. You are your own most serious critic. Can’t wait to see how your next novel is going to take you. Blessings!


    November 16, 2013 at 1:09 pm

  2. Awww…thanks!


    November 18, 2013 at 9:26 am

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