Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘A Prison Diary

“There were many ways to kill a man…”

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"There were many ways to kill a man..."

Note: This post is the tenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 11. You can read the previous installments here.

I don’t think there’s ever been a better depiction of the creative process on film than the one we find in Apollo 13. If you’ve seen the movie, you remember the scene. A team of engineers at NASA is confronted with the problem of converting the carbon scrubbers on the damaged spacecraft to ones that will work on the lunar module, using only the materials that the astronauts have on board. As they dump a bunch of boxes full of equipment—space suits, tubing, the inevitable duct tape—onto a conference table, the lead technician holds up a pair of carbon scrubbers and announces: “We gotta find a way to make this fit into a hole for this using nothing but that.” (My favorite touch is the voice in the background saying: “Better get some coffee going, too.”) As I’ve noted before, it’s a lovely illustration of what Stuart Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible,” the creation of something new from whatever happens to be lying around, and I know for a fact that it inspired one of my oldest friends to become an engineer. And I’ve started to realize that I became a novelist for many of the same reasons.

In the arts, the idea of the adjacent possible is better known as bricolage, literally “tinkering,” as memorably described by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss: “[The bricoleur’s] universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand,’ that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogenous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project.” And although the possibilities at a writer’s disposal might seem infinite, in practice, we start engaging in bricolage as soon as we begin a story, and continue to do so throughout the process. Taking a challenging premise and doing our best to execute it within the constraints it presents is one kind of bricolage; so is solving a tricky narrative problem in a way consistent with everything that has come before. We’re acting as bricoleurs when we visit a location and work out a chase scene using the real layout of a building or street, or when we start with a twist ending and engineer the story backwards so that the result seems inevitable. And the greater the number of constraints we impose on the universe of potential materials, the more interesting the result tends to be.

"When the solvents had evaporated..."

There’s a nice little example from Chapter 11 of Eternal Empire, in which one of my lead characters is forced, a la MacGyver, to engage in a bit of bricolage himself. While incarcerated at Belmarsh Prison, Ilya is ordered to kill another convict in order to prove his loyalty, and it all has to be done in a way that won’t implicate him. Prisoners, of course, are some of the original bricoleurs: a glance at the improvised weapons that inmates have constructed out of a plastic comb, a shoelace, and a bit of wire offers us a particularly murderous illustration of the adjacent possible. (If we’re looking for a pair of martyrs to the act of bricolage, we couldn’t do better than the gangsters Harry Pierpont and Charles Makley, who tried—and failed—to escape from prison using fake guns carved from soap and painted with shoe polish.) While I could have had Ilya put together some kind of clever shiv, it seemed more fun to see what else I could do using the materials available. And as it happened, I had a useful source of information: the list of items that inmates can purchase with their commissary accounts at Belmarsh, as helpfully reproduced in its entirety by Jeffrey Archer in his memoir A Prison Diary.

The result was the sort of logic puzzle that thriller and mystery writers delight in setting for themselves. Looking at the commissary list that Archer provides—which consists mostly of tobacco, batteries, toiletries, stationary, and salted snacks—I was able to cobble together a plan in which Ilya uses tea bags, butane, and alcohol to extract the nicotine from several packs of cigarettes. (On this point, at least, no exaggeration was necessary: pure nicotine is one of the most potent poisons imaginable, and sixty milligrams on the skin can be fatal.) I had to fudge a few of the steps, and I departed from the commissary inventory in a number of ways: the alcohol was provided by a flask of bootleg prison liquor, while the plastic syringe that Ilya uses to administer the poison was appropriated from a workshop where inmates refill printer cartridges. Still, when I was done, it felt like literally the only solution that worked within the limits the story had imposed, and the fact that it used poison seemed particularly appropriate, since toxins of one sort or another play an important thematic role elsewhere in the series. And while killing an inmate might hold less immediate appeal than saving three astronauts, in both cases, as Apollo 13 famously puts it, it all starts when we have a problem…

Written by nevalalee

March 5, 2015 at 9:37 am

“It was forty minutes to Belmarsh…”

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"It was forty minutes to Belmarsh..."

Note: This post is the twenty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 25. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Researching a novel is like researching nothing else, and you soon find that whatever scholarly skills you acquired in school aren’t particularly useful when it comes to furnishing the details of an imaginary world. Whenever possible, I like to base stories on my own observations, whether picked up on the fly or gathered during a systematic process of investigation, but there are times—as when you’re writing about a different historical period or a world that you can’t conveniently explore on your own—when you need to rely on published materials. Once you start, you quickly find that the process goes both ways. Early on, when the story you’ve got in mind is still relatively unformed, you’re looking to existing works to fill out your picture of a location or milieu, and important elements of the story will often be shaped by the resources you happen to have. Later, when the plot is more or less locked into place and you’re refining minor points, you find yourself looking for specific information, which is a much chancier proposition. Sometimes, you get lucky, and you stumble across an article that contains the exact tidbit of material you need. Otherwise, you can either change the scene, skip over the parts you can’t confirm, or make up something plausible. And if you’ve done it right, even an attentive reader won’t be able to tell the difference.

From a writer’s point of view, there’s nothing more useful than a good memoir. Academic works, which approach the subject on a higher level, can be useful for sanity checks and confirming that your overall conception makes sense, but as a novelist, you’re often more interested in details that don’t turn up in more general treatments: sounds and smells, the layout of rooms, the color of the wallpaper, the minutiae of someone’s daily routine. Good works of journalism can be equally useful, and I’ve learned to always check the archives of The New York Times and The New Yorker for any articles on a subject for which I need to quickly acquire a working knowledge. A Times piece on the history of the boardwalk at Brighton Beach, for instance, provided me with some vivid anecdotes for an opening chapter of The Icon Thief, which was essentially written around the material I’d found. Whatever the source may be, I’ll usually go over it several times, underlining or marking the margins whenever I find something interesting, and I’ll revisit it at various points throughout the process, keeping an eye out for fresh insights along the way. (A detail that may have seemed irrelevant during the outlining phase may turn out to be crucial in the rewrite.)

"The guard looked him over..."

For the sections of City of Exiles relating to Ilya’s experience within the British legal and penal system, my primary source was A Prison Diary by Jeffrey Archer, which is the kind of nonfiction resource that a writer dreams of finding. Archer, as some of you probably know, is the thriller author and life peer who spent two years in prison on a perjury charge, and his memoir of his time in Belmarsh is both a mine of firsthand information and a compelling read in its own right, which isn’t always true of the books I use for background. (Whenever I deliver the final draft of a writing project, I’ll do a purge of the works that I’ve accumulated for research purposes, and Archer’s book is one of the few I’ve kept for its own sake.) He seems to have approached his experience with an eye to using it as material himself, as he later did in his novel A Prisoner of Birth, and along the way, he produced an invaluable document for other writers. I consulted several other texts for additional details, including the works of the notorious Charles Bronson, and collected visual references whenever I could. Given the circumstances of my research trip to London, a visit to Belmarsh itself was unfortunately out of the question, and if I hadn’t had so much good background at my disposal, I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to put Ilya in prison at all.

Of course, not all of what you find ends up in the final draft. Chapter 25, in which Ilya is remanded to prison and arrives at Belmarsh for the first time, was originally much longer than it is now; in fact, it may have been the chapter in the novel that I cut the most. It’s one of those overstuffed portmanteau scenes, like Chapter 23, that falls at the point in the story where it has to cover a ton of ground in a short amount of time, bringing Ilya from the courtroom to a quick interview with Powell to the bus, the prison entrance, the receiving area, and the medical ward, with several layers of bureaucracy and important secondary characters introduced at each stage. The problem is that the real action is taking place elsewhere, at least for now, so I cut the chapter with every draft to get the reader more quickly to the next development. As a result, the details that survived the process are the ones that do double duty, unobtrusively providing atmosphere while also underlining Ilya’s isolation, which stands in contrast to the freedom with which Karvonen, his antagonist, is able to operate. If it works, it’s because the material itself is interesting and Ilya’s progression from one form of imprisonment to the next gives it a logical structure. The details themselves are all well and good, but they’re only useful to the extent that when Ilya enters his cell at last, we’re with him every step of the way…

Written by nevalalee

April 10, 2014 at 10:03 am

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