Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Looking forward, looking back

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The Scythian Trilogy

If you ask a man how many times he has loved—unless there is love in his heart at the moment—he is likely to answer, “Never.”

—Ben Hecht, A Child of the Century

Every now and then, I’ll go over to the bookshelf, pull down a copy of one of my own novels, and idly leaf through the pages. Whenever I do, my first thought is usually, Hey, this isn’t bad. But I can’t say that I’m all that tempted to read them over again. Finished works are like the old girlfriends or boyfriends of the writing life: they’ve left you with some lasting memories and some regrets, but now that it’s all over and done, you don’t necessarily want to go poking around to see what might be there today. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t written a novel can understand the ambivalence with which a writer regards a story that used to be a living, growing entity, and now is something closer to a dead thing, with its mistakes and typos still intact. I like my novels; they were always books that I wanted to read myself. But going back to revisit them again now feels a little like digging around into matters that shouldn’t be disturbed. As the members of Spinal Tap say about their first drummer, who died in a bizarre gardening accident: “The authorities said it was best to leave it unsolved.”

John Updike says somewhere in Self-Consciousness that it doesn’t make sense to be afraid of death, since we’ve all successively taken on and given up a series of selves that might as well be other people entirely. I have a feeling that he was pushed into that insight by his work as a novelist, which superimposes a second layer of reinvention on the changes that we all undergo. A writer is never quite the same person he was while writing a particular novel: you immerse yourself for a year or so in a web of lives that feel very real in the moment, but they’re diminished the second you turn to the next story. I’ve always said that a draft of any novel amounts to a message from my past self to the future, and that’s doubly true of everything that ended up in print. I vaguely remember the months of work that each book required, and certain moments in the creative process are indelibly vivid, but a lot of it has faded into a kind of creative haze. Keeping focused on the work at hand is hard enough; if you want to give the current story everything you have, you need to kill all those old darlings.

The Scythian Trilogy

But that can be its own kind of trap. I’ve often thought that the secret to living a fulfilling life, not that I’ve managed to do this myself, is less about transforming into something better than about fully integrating all the old selves that we’ve left behind. If we could face each day as the sum of our experiences from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, with all those strange byways and fleeting obsessions and forgotten loves and hates organized into one person, we’d emerge as beings of incredible complexity, no matter how mundane the individual pieces might be. In practice, that’s not how we approach life: we’re more concerned with the little dilemmas that confront us every morning than with finding a shape for the whole. (Say what you will about psychoanalysis, but its underlying project—to understand the present in terms of the past—is hugely important, and it’s no surprise that it can require a lifetime of talk just to process what has already happened.) That’s true of writing, too. You do a better job of solving the problems in front of you if you have some sense of where you’ve been before, which means fighting against the amnesia that descends once you’ve moved on from an old story.

That’s a big part of the reason why I’ve spent so much time on the writer’s commentaries on The Icon Thief and City of Exiles. Like a lot of features on this blog, they’re really something I do for myself, even if I’d like to think that other readers—even those who haven’t picked up any of the novels—might get something out of it as well. They’re an excuse to confront old pages, gleaning any lessons I can from whatever I find there, while always remaining honest about their shortcomings: otherwise, there wouldn’t be much of a point. Sometimes I’m a little confused by my own conclusions; I still can’t decide if City of Exiles is the strongest novel in the series or the weakest. But even that confusion has its place. Next week, I’m going to start the process all over again for Eternal Empire, the final novel in the trilogy, and the one that I probably know the least well. If it inspires you to purchase a copy, that’s fantastic, but selling books was never really the point here. It’s more a way of setting down certain impressions for my own edification before time and distance erase them all. That may seem like a lot to put on three books that were never intended to be much more than smart, diverting thrillers. But that’s how it always feels when you look up an old flame.

Written by nevalalee

December 5, 2014 at 9:42 am

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