Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“You know what it means?”

with 2 comments

"You know what it means?"

Note: This post is the third installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 2. You can read the previous installments here.

The other day, I told my wife that raising a child always feels like it’s about to degenerate into total chaos, and that the best thing I can do is keep it from crossing that fine line. A millimeter to this side, and you’re good; a millimeter beyond it, and it all falls apart. She responded by saying that I give myself too little credit—all things considered, we keep things pretty well in hand. But the difference between a moment that resides comfortably in the safe zone and one that is inches short of spiraling out of control isn’t always clear. As a dad, you’re constantly engaging in a series of small tradeoffs, picking your battles and managing the situation to keep it running smoothly, and if you’ve done your job well, nobody will ever notice. The instant it slips over the edge, though, it spills over into the entire grocery store or restaurant. Which is a lot like being a writer. Every good novel, even one of huge technical or emotional ambition, should feel effortless from one sentence to the next. You don’t want to catch the author straining. But if the result works, a story that unfolded in the first draft like magic and one that fought back every step of the way will look more or less the same.

I got to thinking about this after reading blogger and longtime commenter Darren Goossens’s review of City of Exiles. He liked the book a lot, and his comments are insightful and on point: it’s exactly the kind of review any author would love to get from a reader. But the reservations he expresses are interesting in themselves. He notes, correctly, that the novel “aims at the heart of the genre,” and that many of its structural conventions—the short chapters, the regular spacing of twists or cliffhangers—limit its range to that of a conventional thriller. And he isn’t wrong. As the author, though, I have my own perspective on the book’s form, which felt to me, and still does, like a set of tactics for keeping an already unwieldy story from breaking apart. Both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles are more precarious in conception than they might seem at first glance: they’re complicated books with multiple protagonists and plotlines, some of which only occasionally intersect, and they’re very talky, often on subjects that have only a tangential relation to the story itself. Early on, I realized that in order for these novels to succeed at all, I’d have to subject every other narrative element to a kind of relentless discipline. Whether or not it works for most readers is another question, but I can safely say that to the extent that these novels appear to move by the numbers, it’s only a way of disguising, or enabling, their underlying weirdness.

"Rogozin slipped the medallion back into his pocket..."

In other words, if these novels seem a little impersonal in their construction, it’s because they’re very personal on a deeper level, at least in the sense that they’re all about subjects and ideas I felt like talking about at the time. There are moments when the result just barely works, and if that isn’t obvious, it’s for much the same reason that my choices as a parent ought to be invisible: you don’t notice the effort until it breaks down. The line falls at different places for different readers, and I know for a fact that some people find these novels obscure or overly complicated. But that number would have been far greater, if the books had even been published at all, if I hadn’t tacked back to thriller conventions whenever I could. I’m drawn to the suspense genre, as I’ve noted before, because it supplies a proven bag of tricks for keeping readers going through the delivery of dense, complicated material that another sort of story might not be able to sustain. When I look back at these novels, I’m struck by how many fundamental choices—not just in structure, but even in plot, character, and theme—are really just ways of making the whole thing marginally possible. And sometimes the distinction between those tricks and the more crucial elements they’re designed to support fades almost into invisibility.

In Eternal Empire, for example, much of the story revolves around the image of the Thracian rider, a motif that recurs repeatedly in the iconography of Russia and the Balkans. Under the name of St. George, he appears on the Russian coat of arms, and he’s the patron saint of the intelligence services. We see him first in Chapter 2, in the painting and medallion that Wolfe studies at the home of Vitaly Rogozin, the man she’s about to arrest for espionage; later, it reappears in the form of the miniature figurine inside the Fabergé egg that Maddy is assigned to retrieve; and I also overtly connect it to the Khazars and the Scythians, the vanished tribes of horsemen that symbolize the two halves of Ilya’s personality. If I’ve done my job, it should all seem organic and unforced, but really, it’s a conscious way of creating a link between stories that don’t overlap until well past the book’s halfway point. (As best as I can recall, I first encountered the image in the nonfiction book The Bathhouse at Midnight, tied it into the figurine in the egg, then moved backward to incorporate it into the remaining storylines.) Fortunately, it all sort of worked; if it hadn’t, I would have gone with something else entirely. As it stands, like so much else in these novels, it’s a thread that might not seem like much in itself. But if you pull it out, the rest starts to unravel…

Written by nevalalee

December 31, 2014 at 10:06 am

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks for you nice comments on my comments! I am out of my depth discussing this with a real writer, but that has never stopped me before…

    I see that a novel can not afford to ‘sprawl’ in too many dimensions. When the content is as varied as in your books (religion, science, politics and art are all huge topics), then the story itself has to be tightly constrained. Like raising a kid — don’t be ‘too generous’ and just end up giving the book/child enough latitude to get into trouble.

    Maybe I should shut up until I’ve successfully wrestled with the complexities of long narrative myself!


    December 31, 2014 at 4:38 pm

  2. And many of your comments were absolutely right—particularly the hope you expressed that I’d tackle something more ambitious in the future. I’m making a stab in that direction right now, and you’ll be among the first to hear how it goes…


    January 2, 2015 at 1:41 pm

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