Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 24th, 2014

“And this has something to do with Operation Pepel?”

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"A few of the files talk about a poison program..."

Note: This post is the forty-first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 40. You can read the earlier installments here

As I’ve written here elsewhere, research in fiction is less about factual accuracy than a way of dreaming. Fiction, like a dream, isn’t assembled out of nothing: it’s an assimilation and combination of elements that we’ve gathered in our everyday lives, in stories we hear from friends, in our reading and consumption of other works of art, and through the conscious investigation of whatever world we’ve decided to explore. This last component is perhaps the most crucial, and probably the least appreciated. Writers vary in the degree of novelistic attention they can bring to their surroundings at any one time, but most of us learn to dial it down: it’s both exhausting and a little unfair to life itself to constantly be mining for material. When we commence work on a project, though, our level of engagement rises correspondingly, to the point where we start seeing clues or messages everywhere we look. Research is really just a way of taking that urge for gleaning or bricolage and making it slightly more systematic, exposing ourselves to as many potential units of narrative as we can at a time when we’re especially tuned to such possibilities.

The primordial function of research—-of “furnishing and feathering a world,” in Anthony Lane’s memorable phrase—is especially striking when it comes to details that would never be noticed by the average reader. Few of us would care whether or not the fence at No. 7 Eccles Street could really be climbed by an ordinary man, but for James Joyce, it was important enough for him to write his aunt to confirm it. If we’re thinking only in terms of the effect on readers, this kind of meticulous accuracy can start to seem a little insane, but from the author’s point of view, it makes perfect sense. For most of the time we spend living with a novel, the only reader whose opinion matters is our own, and a lot of research consists of the author convincing himself that the story he’s describing could really have taken place. In order to lose ourselves in the fictional dream, the smallest elements have to seem persuasive to us, and even if a reader couldn’t be expected to know that we’ve fudged or invented a detail that we couldn’t verify elsewhere, we know it, and it subtly affects how deeply we can commit ourselves to the story we’re telling. A reader may never notice a minor dishonesty, but the writer will always remember it.

"And this has something to do with Operation Pepel?"

In my own fiction, I’ve tried to be as accurate as I can even in the smallest things. I keep a calendar of the major events in the story, and I do my best to square it with such matters as railway schedules, museum hours, and the times for sunrise and sunset. (As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “And how troublesome the moon is!”) I walk the locations of each scene whenever possible, counting off the steps and figuring out how long it would take a character to get from one point to another, and when I can’t go there in person, I spend a long time on Google Street View. It may seem like a lot of trouble, but it actually saves me work in the long run: being able to select useful details from a mass of existing material supplements the creative work that has to be done, and I’m always happier to take something intact from the real world than to have to invent it from scratch. And I take a kind of perverse pleasure in the knowledge that a reader wouldn’t consciously notice any of it. At best, these details serve as a kind of substratum for the visible events of the story, and tiny things add up to a narrative that is convincing in its broadest strokes. There’s no guarantee that such an approach will work, of course, but it’s hard to make anything work without it.

In City of Exiles, for instance, I briefly mention something called Operation Pepel, which is described as a special operation by Russian intelligence that occurred in Turkey in the sixties. Operation Pepel did, in fact, exist, even if we don’t know much about who was involved or what it was: I encountered it thanks to a passing reference, amounting to less than a sentence, in the monumental The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin. (It caught my eye, incidentally, only because I’d already established that part of the story would center on an historical event involving Turkey, which is just another illustration of how parts of the research process can end up informing one another across far-flung spaces.) Later, I tie Operation Pepel—purely speculatively—to elements of the Soviet poison program, and the details I provide on such historical events as Project Bonfire are as accurate as I can make them. None of this will mean anything even to most specialists in the history of Russia, and I could easily have made up something that would have served just as well. But since I invent so much elsewhere, and so irresponsibly, it felt better to retain as many of the known facts I could. It may not matter to the reader, but it mattered a lot to me…

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2014 at 9:44 am

Quote of the Day

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Arthur Waley

The wheelwright, the carpenter, the butcher, the bowman, the swimmer, achieve their skill not by accumulating facts concerning their art, nor by the energetic use either of muscles or outward senses, but through utilizing the fundamental kinship which, underneath apparent distinctions and diversities, unites their own primal stuff to the primal stuff of the medium in which they work.

Arthur Waley

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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