“He knew exactly where they were going…”
When I first saw the cover of The Icon Thief, my debut novel, I’ll admit that I regarded it with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was a beautiful book, with a design that stuck closely to the layout that I’d informally proposed in an email to my editor: a view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, surmounted by a red sky, with occult images faintly visible overhead. On the other hand, the images themselves gave me pause. One, on the upper right corner, was the face of a generic cherub; the other, on the upper left, was the pointed tower of a building that I didn’t recognize. Neither seemed to have much, if anything, to do with the plot of the novel itself, and I suspected, no doubt correctly, that they had been included simply to give the cover a touch of Da Vinci Code atmosphere. I didn’t necessarily mind this, but when I showed the cover to three different people, I was asked three times what those images were, and I had to reply that I didn’t know. When I asked my editor about this, he said that he’d check with the artist. Later that day, he got back to me to say that the image on the upper left was a sketch of Peles Castle in Romania. Since I’d never heard of Peles Castle, that didn’t mean much to me. But I was grateful for the information, and I wrote back: “Now all I need to do is set a scene at Peles Castle in a future novel, so I can pretend that the image was a clue.”
At the time, this was simply a joke. I only had a contract for two novels, and City of Exiles had already been plotted out to the point where I couldn’t include a side trip to Romania merely on a whim. The more I thought about it, though, the more intrigued I became. I’d always hoped to turn the series into a trilogy, and the third novel didn’t exist as anything more than a collection of vague notions. It could take place in Romania as well as anywhere, especially since the geographic arc of the series already seemed to be inching eastward, as the action moved from New York across the ocean to London and finally, most likely, to Russia. When I looked into the history of Peles Castle itself, it seemed like it would make for an interesting backdrop for a scene or two. So when I finally began serious work on the book that turned into Eternal Empire, well over a year later, the idea that we’d end up at Peles Castle was one of only a handful of plot points that I jotted down on my initial sheet of notes. As far as inside jokes went, it was pretty obscure, but I liked the idea that the cover of the first novel hinted obliquely at the plot of the third. And even if it was an accident, I could pretend that I’d had something like it in mind all along. (You could even argue that the cherub on the right side of the cover looks ahead to the very different cherubim that play a role in City of Exiles, but that’s purely a coincidence.)
And I wouldn’t have bothered with this if I hadn’t already known that arbitrary mistakes or accidents can serve as a source of narrative inspiration. Constraints of any kind are always useful, and an accident that points in a particular direction can be as productive a clue as any. For the most part, my novels were thrown together essentially at fancy, as much as I would later try to make everything seem inevitable, and drawing on the first book’s cover for inspiration was another way of using every part of the buffalo. And it’s not entirely without precedent. Authors have often drawn retrospective inspiration from the illustrations for their books, as F. Scott Fitzgerald did with Francis Cugat’s cover for The Great Gatsby. Here’s how A. Scott Berg relates the story in Max Perkins: Editor of Genius:
[Fitzgerald wrote] an emphatic plea not to let any other book have the early dust jacket sketch that Max had casually shown him much earlier. It featured two gigantic eyes—supposedly those of the heroine, Daisy Fay Buchanan—brooding over New York City. That illustration had inspired Fitzgerald to create an image for the book—the billboard of an oculist named Dr. T.J. Eckelburg; the sign had two enormous eyes on it, which would stare from above onto the novel’s proceedings.
As a result, in Chapter 31 of Eternal Empire, when Ilya follows Bogdan to a cottage that overlooks Peles Castle, he’s following a trail that had been laid down years before. And to some extent, the scene that follows, in which Ilya discovers that his actions will determine whether Maddy will live or die, could have taken place almost anywhere. But there’s a deeper, weirder logic governing the story that I have trouble explaining in rational terms. As I’ve noted before, I had an idea that this novel would begin with the vandalism of a painting that would convey a secret message, but I wasn’t sure what this message would be. I arrived at Delacroix’s Ovid Among the Scythians almost by process of elimination: I wanted the painting to be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, since I could write about it credibly without having to pay a visit, and the reference to the Scythians, which ties into the fundamental themes of the series, only sealed the deal. Ultimately, I decided that the secret meaning of the painting’s destruction would hinge on the location it depicted, which happened to be the Port of Tomis—in Romania. And for the life of me, I can’t remember whether or not my desire to use Peles Castle as a setting informed that decision. I can only assume that it did. But I’d like to think that this series simply wanted to go to Romania, and I merely followed its lead. In the end, it turned out to be a short visit. But we were meant to come here all along…