Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Maddy looked at the Peter the Great egg…”

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"Maddy looked at the Peter the Great egg..."

Note: This post is the eleventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 12. You can read the previous installments here.

“Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy,” James M. Cain once said to The Paris Review. “There are problems to be solved. It’s not all inspirational.” That’s true. Yet solving those problems—small or large, trivial or crucial, easy or impossible—can be a source of enormous pleasure in itself. If I was initially drawn to writing as an excuse to explore the world around me, I’ve kept at it largely because of the puzzles it tosses up along the way, which make for some of the most absorbing work imaginable. It reminds me of what Janet Malcolm says about psychoanalysis, a discipline that has a lot in common with the art of fiction. On the one hand, you have a road that leads ever further outward across the entire culture, influencing fields as different as history, criticism, law, and education; on the other, you have the road that leads inward into therapy itself, within the mysterious confines of the consulting room, “a hidden, almost secret byway traveled by few.” Malcolm notes that Freud traveled both paths. And writers find themselves doing much the same, wandering far into the wild world while also posing and solving their tiny problems like obsessives in an attic.

And writing, like analysis, is most interesting when those two halves of the process collide. A writer’s reading or direct experience might suggest an idea for a scene, but he’s also forced to reconcile it with the demands of the plot and his own structural assumptions. Anyone who enjoys puzzles can tell you that they’re more challenging in direct proportion to the number of constraints they impose. Reality, of course, yields the most productive restrictions of all. And the more carefully a particular narrative thread has to weave its way through constraints provided by the real world, the more inevitable it seems. It feels less like a solution to a problem, and more like the solution, as if the story had no choice but to move in a particular direction. In Eternal Empire, for instance, there’s a detailed subplot involving a Fabergé egg. It’s the kind of thing that feels like it would have been part of the novel’s conception from the beginning: if I were talking to another author who was writing a trilogy about Russian oligarchs and art, I’d tell him to work Fabergé in there somewhere. But it really fell somewhere in the middle of a long chain of reasoning.

"None of this is under dispute..."

As far as I can recall, my thought process went something like this: “Well, let’s see. I want Maddy, my main character, to go to work for a Russian oligarch—that’s an essential part of the plot. I’ve already established that her background is in the art world, so it makes sense that she’d be working for him in that capacity. He’s a nationalist and deeply involved in politics, so maybe he’s trying to repatriate cultural artifacts back to Russia. Okay, that works. So I need to build the subplot around a particular art object. I’ve already done icons in the previous novel, so what else is there? A Fabergé egg? That feels right. It’s certainly fits into the larger themes of the series. So I should see if there’s one that I can use. [Gets a book from the library on Fabergé eggs, spends hours looking at pictures online.] All right. Here’s the Peter the Great egg. Inside, there’s a tiny figurine of a rider on horseback. And I’ve already used that image elsewhere in the novel. That isn’t so surprising, since it’s a common symbol in Russian iconography. So it sounds promising. Let’s see, then. It says that the Peter the Great egg is currently on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. So I need Maddy to work on repatriating it. But how?”

And that’s how Chapter 12 of the novel ended up taking place in Virginia. Maddy meets with the director of the museum and lays out a complicated case for repatriation, based on the egg’s provenance, the museum’s financial troubles, and the rules governing the sale of artwork to cover operating expenses. The information here is all accurate, at least as far as I could make it, and working through the tangle of available facts felt a lot, as Cain says, like working on foreign policy. (Katherine Neville, author of The Eight, who was kind enough to blurb the book, happened to be familiar with the museum and its board of directors, and she seemed to think that my description here was believable.) More to the point, it all serves a purpose within the narrative. For Maddy to prove her usefulness to Tarkovsky, she has to come up with something ingenious, so I had no choice but to do the same. If it hadn’t worked—if there hadn’t been a suitable egg, say, or if the case for repatriation went nowhere—I probably would have come up with something else. Looking back, though, it seems like it was all meant to be, partially because you remember the ideas that work and forget the ones that don’t. But in this case, lucky for me, it turned out to be a good egg…

Written by nevalalee

March 12, 2015 at 9:42 am

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