Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“I’d like to buy a ticket for today’s tournament…”

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"Ilya looked around the room..."

Note: This post is the eighteenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 17. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When you write a novel, you’re hoping  to control as much of the process as possible, but some of the most important factors will always be out of your hands, which is exactly how it should be. In the case of The Icon Thief, for instance, I never would have guessed that the massive stock market crash and ensuing downtown that occurred halfway through my first draft would end up deeply influencing almost every word I wrote over the next four years. I’d conceived this novel from the beginning as a thriller set in the New York art world, and for months, I’d conducted diligent research into the art market, auctions, galleries, and the underground trade in stolen paintings. The financial crisis changed everything. Art is often touted as an alternative form of wealth that will retain its value when other investments are falling, but when the entire system implodes, art suffers as much as anything else. Within a few weeks, articles were already warning of  a prolonged slowdown in the art market, which meant that one of the core premises of my novel—a hedge fund that would treat art like any other asset class—no longer seemed even remotely plausible.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried: the art market turned out to be considerably more resilient than the rest of the economy, and by the time The Icon Thief was finally published, auction prices were back at record highs. Still, I didn’t know this at the time, so I was faced with several uncomfortable choices. I could ignore the problem; I could scrap the art fund angle entirely; or I could make the story a period piece that was set at a specific historical moment before the crisis. This last option was by far the most appealing, since it would both address my immediate narrative problem and provide a useful measure of historical irony, as the reader realized that the world in which these characters lived would change drastically in a matter of months. In the end, that’s what I ended up doing, and the approach worked just fine. Yet it also opened up another set of challenges that I couldn’t have anticipated. I’d conceived this novel as a standalone work, but it unexpectedly turned into the first book in a series. And since the first installment would serve as a template for the rest, it meant that every other novel in the trilogy would also have to take place during a specific stretch of time in the recent past.

"I'd like to buy a ticket for today's tournament..."

I’ve spoken elsewhere about the difficulties that this posed, especially for Eternal Empire, which was set against the backdrop of the London riots. For City of Exiles, it meant that I had to square the events of my novel as much as possible with the facts of the timeline that I’d chosen. Early in the process, for example, I’d conceived of an extended suspense sequence taking place at a chess tournament, following the Alfred Hitchcock rule that a story that takes place in Switzerland has to include the Alps, lakes, and chocolates: I was writing about Russia, and it seemed inevitable that I’d build part of the story around chess. (I’d already covered ballet in the previous book, and if the series had continued into a fourth novel, it’s possible that I would have ended up with a major subplot about pairs skating.) Since the story was set in London, the obvious choice was to set the scene at the London Chess Classic, which imposed certain constraints on the time of year in which the story could take place. And because the example set by the first book dictated that the events would occur at a particular point in the past, this meant that I had to stage everything at the actual tournament that was held in 2010—I was writing this, remember, in early 2011, so this was the most recent date that made sense.

I hadn’t been to the London Chess Classic myself, of course, but I was fortunate enough to find a trove of photographs, videos, and floor plans from the previous year’s tournament on its official site. Naturally, I spent hours poring over this material, taking notes on background detail, schedules, and the details of the games themselves. Later, on my research trip to London, I paid a visit to the Olympia Exhibition Center, the results of which are displayed in Chapter 17, in which Ilya walks the same route. (On the day I was there, the conference center was hosting the LondonEdge exhibition of punk, burlesque, and gothic fashion, which provided me with some of the trip’s most interesting souvenirs.) Obviously, few readers will bother verifying that the timeline of the novel matches the real tournament so closely, but as a writer, sticking to the facts as much as I could provided a useful framework for structuring the action of the story itself. I also may have been inspired by the example of Sherlock Holmes fans, who will notice if Conan Doyle happens to set a story on a balmy weekend in London in 1886 when the weather was really rainy. I probably got a lot of things wrong, but I hope that I got at least a few right. And in any case, the tournament is about to take a rather different turn from what really happened that day…

Written by nevalalee

February 13, 2014 at 9:40 am

One Response

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  1. Tis all true! Have you seen the Punchy Land’s version Robin Hood yet?

    Professor VJ Duke

    February 13, 2014 at 10:21 am


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