Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Tell me about the Dyatlov Pass…”

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"Tell me about the Dyatlov Pass..."

Note: This post is the twenty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 27. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When a work of fiction incorporates real people or events into the narrative, it’s usually for one of two reasons, both equally legitimate. The first is to add an air of verisimilitude. Fiction is a sort of confidence game in which the writer has to convince the reader that imaginary events really took place, and one of the ways we do this is by including material that the reader can verify, which theoretically increases the credibility of the aspects we invent. This is part of the reason why modern realistic fiction spends so much time on a detailed inventory of everyday life. When we notice that John Updike is very good at describing how rain looks on a screen door, we’re more likely to accept his reflections on the inner lives of his characters, which we assume are based on equally intense observation. On a somewhat different level, that’s why thrillers spend so much time describing hardware and weaponry: even if we don’t know offhand what kind of holster would go with James Bond’s Walther PPK, that kind of concrete information grounds and supports the story’s less plausible aspects. The same is true of historical figures or situations. Frederick Forsyth includes Margaret Thatcher or Simon Weisenthal in his novels for the same reason he gives us the technical specs for the Jackal’s rifle: it blurs the line between fact and invention, and at its best, it makes the fictional side more credible—although when badly done, as when a description rings false, it can also take us out of the story.

The other reason for including verifiable information is to provide an additional set of constraints for the story itself, which is where ingenuity thrives. When a writer decides to set a novel in a specific historical period, whether recent or remote, he quickly finds himself with reduced room to maneuver: in order to be true to the logic of the story, he needs to accommodate the plot to dates, geography, period customs and conventions, modes of speech, and countless other factors that wouldn’t be an issue for a story set in some undefined present time. Obviously, a lot of novels simply ignore inconvenient facts, but others see them as a challenge, or, even better, as a spur to creativity. One of the things I love about Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, a novel that has influenced my own writing in countless ways, is the rigor of the conspiracy theory it constructs. The game that the protagonists play—finding hidden connections in history while operating within existing texts and documents—runs in parallel to the process of the author himself:

The connections must not be original. They must have been made before, and the more often the better, by others. Only then do the crossings seem true, because they are obvious…We didn’t invent anything; we only arranged the pieces.

And Eco’s approach is only a highly stylized and witty variation on what all novelists do when they take existing material as their inspiration. Arranging the pieces is part of the fun.

"Wolfe felt a passing chill..."

In City of Exiles, as with The Icon Thief, I knew that I wanted to integrate a real historical event into the story in an original and surprising way. For The Icon Thief, it was the life and work of Marcel Duchamp, who has inspired so much farfetched speculation that it wasn’t so much a question of inventing a conspiracy theory as deciding which one to use. City of Exiles presented me with the opposite problem. After looking into various possibilities from Russian history, I decided to build a subplot around the Dyatlov Pass incident, in which eleven hikers in the Ural Mountains were found dead in exceedingly strange—and as of yet unexplained—circumstances. I knew from the start that I’d have much less material to work with: the known facts of the incident amount to some blurry photographs, a few contemporary accounts, and a mass of interpretation that repeats and distorts the same handful of details. I also knew that most readers wouldn’t have heard of the incident, which wasn’t widely known outside of Russia. (This was long before Renny Harlin decided to make a movie about it.) This was why I wanted to write about it so badly: it was such good material that I couldn’t believe there hadn’t been a novel about it already, and I wanted to get there first. But it also meant that whatever facts I incorporated would have to stand on their own, without the extra shiver of recognition that occurs when a reader encounters a familiar fact displayed in a surprising light.

In theory, I could have used the material’s unfamiliarity to invent whatever I needed to make the story work, but I decided early on to stick to the facts as much as I could. (I knew that plenty of errors would creep their way into the story on their own.) Chapter 26 of City of Exiles serves as a kind of baseline briefing to the reader, a chance to summarize what we know about the Dyatlov Pass in preparation for the expansion and reinterpretation that will later take place. At the risk of sounding like Dan Brown, I can say that everything in this chapter is true, as far as I was able to make it, and although it runs the risk of loading the story down with exposition, I took comfort in the fact that the material was inherently interesting. And I knew that at least some readers would be factchecking me. One of the peculiar things about our connected age is that authors need to worry not just about what readers have in their heads, but what they can easily access online: I know for a fact that many people read The Icon Thief in parallel with Wikipedia. In some ways, these novels are only complete when they inspire readers to check out some of the sources, and I wanted anyone who took the trouble to verify the facts to find that they were consistent. If I’ve done my job well, that discovery should give the novel an additional charge, and even if the reader simply moves on and takes the material here at face value, I hope it still stands on its own. And what happened at the Dyatlov Pass certainly doesn’t need any exaggeration…

Written by nevalalee

April 24, 2014 at 9:51 am

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