Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“But the details remained unclear…”

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"But the details remained unclear..."

Note: This post is the seventeenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 18. You can read the previous installments here.

Yesterday, I happened to pick up my paperback copy of Salem’s Lot, a novel I haven’t read in its entirety in close to twenty years. Leafing through the prologue, I was struck, first of all, by how great a natural stylist Stephen King was from the very beginning: the opening pages lure you into the story as gracefully and unobtrusively as any I know. But I was particularly taken by one early sentence: “It was September 5, 1975, and summer was enjoying her final grand fling.” What’s interesting about this statement, obviously, is its specificity. Salem’s Lot was published in October of 1975, and according to the note appended to its last page, it took close to three years to write. As best as I can imagine, then, the date we see here was a late addition, inserted once King had a sense of the timing of the book’s initial appearance. It’s clearly meant to suggest that the main action is taking place exactly when readers would have been encountering it for the first time, and if the book had happened to come out a few years earlier or later, I don’t doubt that it would have been amended accordingly. The date itself doesn’t matter; it’s here to create the impression that the story was happening just as the book went on sale.

Of course, Salem’s Lot hasn’t been out of bookstores for the four decades since, so that sentence, which stamped the story with immediacy on its first printing, ultimately turns it into a period piece. Another writer might have reasonably avoided giving the year at all, hoping to keep it in the reader’s emotional present tense—which, in theory, is exactly when a horror story should be most powerful. Really, though, it comes off as a surprisingly canny choice. Time turns all novels into period pieces anyway, and by stating the year explicitly in the text, Salem’s Lot feels somehow less dated: it isn’t trying to pretend that it’s taking place at any other time. Originally, the date served to set the story emphatically in the present, presumably to provide a contrast to a core narrative as old as Dracula; in some ways, though, setting it in the recent past is even more effective, since it forces us to revisit a period that we thought had been safely defined in our memories. And it’s a trick that King has repeated several times since: much of It expressly takes place on May 31, 1985. (If the Cary Fukunaga movie adaptation goes ahead as scheduled, and they update it for the present day, the flashbacks to the protagonists’ childhoods would presumably take place at the time when the novel first appeared, which is a fascinating development in itself.)

"Maddy had paid little attention to the news..."

My own novels have taken a similar tack, and although the reasons were somewhat different, I’d like to think that the overall effect is the same. Each book in the series is set in a clearly defined time period: The Icon Thief, which was published in March 2012, takes place between June 19 and July 6, 2008, aside from the prologue and epilogue. As I’ve said before, this was a makeshift solution to a problem that presented itself as the novel was being written. I’d conceived the plot before the financial crisis, and when the bottom fell out, I was concerned that the impact on the economy would make much of the story—which revolves around a bullish environment for art investing—obsolete or worse. The answer, I decided, was to set the whole thing in the recent past, not to a distracting degree, but enough so that an attentive reader would pick up on the timeframe. In the end, I needn’t have worried: by the time the novel came out, the art market had recovered. But I still liked the idea of tailoring events to the calendar. It provided a useful structure for plotting out the action; it allowed for a measure of historical irony; and, as King knew, it adds a touch of verisimilitude, a sense that this isn’t a story that could occur at any time, but only here. And even if the majority of readers didn’t notice, I’d prefer to believe that it contributed something to the finished result.

I followed that basic template for the next two novels, and while City of Exiles only incidentally nods to its timeframe, mostly in the scene set at a particular London Chess Classic, it became crucial to Eternal Empire. The entire novel is timed to lead up to the protests that erupted against the Putin regime in late 2011, and while these turned out to be something of a damp squib in historical terms, they functioned nicely as an internal climax within the plot. More significantly, much of the action unfolds against the backdrop of the riots that consumed London that summer. Our first real hint of what might be coming—aside from the section header that reads “July 27-August 8, 2011,” which most readers could be forgiven for overlooking—appears in Chapter 18, when Maddy skims a story about the death of Mark Duggan. The next few chapters closely track the events of that week, sometimes hour by hour. And while I tried to be as accurate here as possible, perhaps with an eye to a hypothetical reader who would analyze the chronology as carefully as the fans of the Sherlock Holmes stories, I’m well aware that everything I did was mostly for my own sake. Shaping the plot around actual events, like any constraint, was a rich source of ideas, and even if the effect is a subtle one, it grounds the story in ways that wouldn’t have been there if I’d left the dates unspecified. As King understood, sometimes the best way to keep a story in the moment is to set it the day before yesterday…

Written by nevalalee

April 30, 2015 at 9:05 am

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