Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘City of Exiles

What I learned from my second novel

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City of Exiles

“When I was a critic,” writes François Truffaut, “I thought that a successful film had simultaneously to express an idea of the world and an idea of cinema.” I’d argue that this holds true of all works of art, no matter what form they take. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from trying to survive as a working writer, it’s that every book is secretly about the process of its own creation, and the ideas that it tries to express about the world are inextricable from the author’s own experience in writing it. This was certainly the case with City of Exiles. As I’ve said many times before, this is a book about interpretation—about how we read meaning into the world around us and into our own lives—dramatized in the form of two authentic unsolved mysteries: Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot and the incident in the Dyatlov Pass. I combined these two plot threads almost at fancy, drawn intuitively by their thematic and narrative resonance, and did the best I could to embed my solutions in an exciting story about men and women who are also in search of answers, or at least willing to impose them on others. Exile, in this novel, is sometimes literal, but it’s more often a state of existence that my characters carry within themselves, and it’s only now, when I can look back at the book with some detachment, that I understand that this was a story I had to write at that point in my career.

In some ways, I wrote City of Exiles largely to prove to myself that I could. The Icon Thief, like all first novels, was something of a fluke, however diligently pursued: I was writing on my own, without a lot of outside expectations beyond the ones I’d created for myself, and although I’d been writing fiction for most of my life, I was still figuring out basic problems of craft as I went along. My second novel, inevitably, was conceived and written under radically different circumstances. I was being paid to write a book under contract; I had a number of interested parties deeply invested in the outcome; and I was operating under considerable time constraints. It took more than two years to bring my first novel to completion, while the second had just over nine months from synopsis to delivery, which left me with little room for error. As as result, I had to plan it carefully and hope that the final product wasn’t too different from what I’d promised to write. It was a difficult, often taxing experience, but in the end, the novel was startlingly close to the story I’d set out to tell, although there were a number of big surprises along the way. And for the first time, I got a sense of what it really meant to be a working novelist. (It’s no accident that my work on the book coincided with the birth of this blog.)

Detail of the cover of City of Exiles

This struck me, and still does, as the most meaningful discovery I made. When you’re writing your first novel, you’re secretly convinced, and not without reason, that everything will stand or fall on this one book. A second novel, by contrast, implies the future existence of a third, and possibly more, which leads to a very different state of mind. It’s less about any one book than about the idea of working on something or other for the rest of your life, and City of Exiles was the novel where this vision of what my career might be finally fell into place. When I agreed to write it, I didn’t know what the novel would be about, and I had never anticipated writing a series: I just knew that, by the end of the year, it had to exist. The result was a curious mixture of freedom and constraint. The book could be about anything, really, as long as it resembled a sequel to The Icon Thief and brought back certain crucial characters from the first novel. (In fact, Ilya’s return was essentially written into the contract, probably as a formality to ensure that the book I delivered wasn’t completely unlike its predecessor.) Although the finished work hopefully feels like all of a piece, it was initially assembled from various components I simply felt like writing about, trusting that they would come together in the right way. It was a test of all I’d learned since writing my first book, and there were times, in the early days, when I felt that I was willing this novel into existence.

But every novel is the result of some combination of willpower and serendipity, and as I continued to write, I found myself learning a great deal about the story along the way. (As I hope to explain further in an eventual author’s commentary, there’s one shocking development that I didn’t anticipate at all when I began writing, and which deeply influenced the plot of the third installment.) And in many ways, I’m prouder of it than of anything else I’ve published. While The Icon Thief reads, accurately, like a highly compressed version of a novel that was originally much longer, City of Exiles feels to me like the work of a novelist who is finally hitting his stride. In the passage quoted above, Truffaut continues: “Today, I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between; I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse.” To my eyes, this book pulses with the effort of a writer earnestly committed to figuring out his own craft and what his life as a novelist will be, as much as to solving the problems, sometimes devastating, faced by his characters themselves. It helped me understand, for the first time, what John Gardner means when he describes writing as a way of life in the world. And in the end, the life whose meaning I was discovering, line by line, was my own.

City of Exiles is available now at bookstores everywhere.

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December 4, 2012 at 9:59 am

The challenges of series fiction

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A few of my novels

It would be nice if writing a series of novels came down to publishing a bunch of books with vaguely similar covers, but unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. Series fiction, especially in suspense, is inherently problematic because it violates an important aspect of what we know about the world. It’s true that life doesn’t lend itself to being confined easily within four hundred pages, and any story can be extended indefinitely in either direction—life rarely affords us the luxury of tidy endings. (As Sydney Pollack points out in Eyes Wide Shut: “Life goes on. It always does. Until it doesn’t.”) But series fiction pushes this sense of continuity in artificial directions, by assuming that not only does life go on, but it rhymes. In most mystery series, the protagonist doesn’t change appreciably from book to book, is confronted with the same kind of case in each installment, and usually ends up more or less where he started. Events in one book rarely have any impact on the next. And while this sort of structure is acceptable on television—although it took me a while to accept the lack of narrative memory on shows like The X-Files—it often rings false in fiction, and can even become enervating for the author himself. Conan Doyle famously killed off his own creation, and one occasionally senses a touch of exhaustion in such otherwise excellent writers like Daniel Silva, whose publishers have gently nudged him back toward his trademark character when he might have preferred to move on.

When it came time to write the sequel to The Icon Thief, I wanted to avoid this trap as best as I could. I was determined, for instance, that City of Exiles change the stakes of the series in tangible ways, and when I realized, early in the planning process, that I was simply repeating the same pattern as before—of Ilya staying just barely ahead of his pursuers—I decided to move forcefully in the opposite direction, with consequences that readers of the novel will discover for themselves. In some ways, I was aided by the fact that I’d never intended my debut novel to be the first installment in a series. In an excellent essay published in the classic mystery companion Murder Ink, the novelist Peter Dickinson draws a useful distinction between novels that were conceived with a series character in mind and those that stumbled into it by accident. A deliberate series hero, he observes, often starts out with a list of quirky character markers designed mostly to set him apart from similar protagonists (“Let’s say he has a club-foot and rides an enormous bike…”), while the accidental hero evolves in a more organic way, based on the needs of the first novel in which he appears:

These are the detectives who come into existence because the author wants to write a particular book. The book itself demands a detective, and he grows into being, quite slowly, finding his shape and nature from the needs of the book and the author’s own needs.

"In the lightning-paced sequel..."

This is essentially what happened with Ilya, as well as with my beloved Rachel Wolfe. I didn’t intend to bring them back, and when I did, I found that I was stuck with the attributes I’d invented for them in the first novel—which ended up being a source of fruitful ideas and constraints. The single greatest trick I’ve learned from writing a series involves finding where the real essence of a novel, or a character, lies, and not confusing this with more superficial qualities. Ilya was conceived as a resourceful thief and assassin, but in the second novel, he doesn’t steal much of anything and kills only out of necessity. As a result, I was forced to dig deeper, and by following some hints from the first novel—his bookishness, his fascination with Jewish mysticism, and his discovery that everything he believed about his sense of honor was a lie—I was able to see him more clearly than before, as a man trying to come to terms with the division between the two halves of his personality. Similarly, if my only goal had been to write a novel with a story resembling that of the first, I would have centered it on another enigmatic work of art, which was the last thing I wanted to do. Instead, I looked at the novel slantwise, and saw that it was really about the problem of interpretation, and the stories we tell about ourselves and the world around us. This led me to concentrate on historical mysteries instead, and ultimately led me into the Dyatlov Pass.

Series fiction also turned out to be a testing ground for my ideas about backstory. Usually, I deal with my aversion to backstory by refusing to create it in the first place, to the point where important details of my characters’ backgrounds are left deliberately vague, even to me. For my second book, not only did this backstory already exist, but there was an entire novel’s worth of it, so I had to decide early on how much of this previous material to include. My solution, which probably won’t come as a surprise to regular readers, was to refer to the earlier book as little as possible, which ended up being both a philosophical and a pragmatic decision. The second book in a series occupies a peculiar position: it needs to reward those who have read the first novel, but also be accessible and interesting to those encountering these characters for the first time. Finding the right balance between telling a completely self-contained story and honoring the complicated history of the first novel was a real challenge, and it taught me a lot about what information is essential and what can be safely dropped—a lesson that I’ve put into practice for the third and final novel in the series, Eternal Empire, and hope to draw upon for any books I write in the future. The result, I’d like to think, is a pair of novels that read perfectly well on their own, but gain additional richness and resonance when taken as part of a larger whole. Tomorrow, on the day City of Exiles finally comes out, I’ll try to pull all of this together, and explain what I learned from writing my second novel.

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2012 at 9:48 am

How I fell in love with a Mormon

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"Wolfe was young, cute, and Mormon..."

When I began figuring out the plot of City of Exiles, the most surprising decision, and one I never could have anticipated when I first sent The Icon Thief to publishers, involved the identity of the central protagonist. At first glance, I had an obvious candidate for the lead of my second novel: Ilya Severin, the Russian thief and former assassin who stands at the heart of the entire series. Yet I had good reasons for wanting to avoid telling most of the novel from Ilya’s point of view. As I’ve explained before, Ilya is one of those characters, like Hannibal Lecter, who becomes more interesting, at least to my eyes, the more he’s kept offstage. Over the course of three novels, I’ve guarded him very carefully, and there are still aspects of his interior life and backstory that I don’t know myself, which is precisely how it should be. Ilya is far from an idealized figure, and has his share of vulnerabilities and flaws, but I also wanted him to retain an aura of mystery. Explain too much, or write too many chapters from his point of view, and the mystery falls away. And although he’s still a crucial character in these books, less than a third—and maybe closer to a quarter—of the series is narrated from his perspective.

I also didn’t want to write the second novel from the perspective of Maddy Blume, the art analyst who drives most of the action of The Icon Thief. My reasons for moving beyond Maddy are slightly more complicated. On a practical level, it didn’t seem plausible that she’d be involved in another convoluted thriller plot so soon after the first one ended: unlike Ilya, she isn’t naturally part of that world, and although she makes certain choices at the end of the previous book that will end up haunting her later, I thought she deserved a break. I was also a little exhausted from writing about her the first time around. Maddy is by far the most difficult character I’ve ever had to create, and although I’m pleased by the result, I made a lot of wrong turns along the way. At the time, I didn’t see how to return to her story without repeating much of the material from before, and I wanted the second novel to feel fresh, as well as accessible to readers encountering the series for the first time. (Of course, nothing is set in stone: Maddy returns as a lead character in my third novel, Eternal Empire. But I don’t think I could have hit on that new story, which follows inexorably from the events of the first novel, without taking a step back in the meanwhile.)

"Wolfe began every day on her knees..."

As a result, when I looked over the first book to decide who my protagonist would be, I ended up being drawn to the last person I could have expected. Elsewhere, I’ve noted that Rachel Wolfe, my intrepid FBI agent, essentially began as a convenience to the plot: in the first draft of The Icon Thief, she more or less exists to give Powell someone to talk to, and early on, she had little to do except play Watson to his Holmes. Making her a woman was something that occurred fairly late in the outline process, mostly because I saw that the novel, as it stood, had a dearth of female characters. Yet gradually, almost without my being aware of it, she caught fire. The slightly random decision to make her a Mormon, in particular, provided me with an incredibly rich vein of material: as an outsider, I’ve long admired many aspects of Mormon culture—its emphasis on frugality, preparedness, industry, and general clean living—and what I wanted, above all else, was to create an admirable, intelligent, heroic character who was also a Mormon without apology or irony. If I’ve since had Wolfe begin to doubt aspects of her own faith, that’s more a reflection of my own personality than anything else, and she’s still the straitlaced, slightly square woman with whom I fell in love.

In the end, then, Wolfe became not only the lead of City of Exiles, but probably the character I like the most in the entire series, and the one who has been the greatest pleasure to write. And this is only a measure of how unpredictable this process can be. I plan and outline my novels very carefully, to an extent that has caused occasional amusement or consternation among other writers, but this doesn’t exclude the possibility of surprises—rather, it creates a matrix in which such surprises naturally occur. The decision to follow Wolfe wherever she took me was made intuitively, almost on impulse, and there was no guarantee at the time that I’d made the right call. Now, however, it seems inevitable. If Maddy was my attempt to write a character who reflected, in some ways, who I was at the time, Wolfe is more like the person I’d like to be. She’s stronger, smarter, and more principled than her creator, but she’s also trying to answer some of the same questions about the world, and I count myself lucky to have lived for a time in her head. And it’s something that never would have happened if I hadn’t been asked to turn my first book into a series. On Monday, I’ll be talking more about the challenges of series fiction, and what the experience has taught me about writing in general.

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2012 at 9:59 am

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London through an exile’s eyes

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From the very beginning, I knew that City of Exiles would be set in London, but I’m not entirely sure how I decided this. The obvious explanation is that this is where the last few pages of The Icon Thief unfold, with a quiet act of revenge at a town house in Fulham, and it was easiest to pick up the story more or less where it left off. But that’s only part of the reason. Once I realized that I was writing a series of at least two books, and probably three, it seemed inevitable that the action would gradually move east, starting in New York, crossing the ocean, and continuing across Europe until it finally ended, in the concluding installment, in Russia. London was the logical next step. And because it’s a city with a rich history as a setting for the kind of suspense and mystery novels I love, from Conan Doyle to John le Carré, I knew that I had to do it justice, as I hoped I’d done with the New York and Philadelphia locations of The Icon Thief.

The trouble was that although I’d been to London several times, I’d never regarded it with the sort of greedy, scavenging eye of an author looking for material, which meant that if this novel was going to work at all, I had to do research on location. In the end, I flew out for a week in February of last year for what must be one of the strangest trips on record. I had six full days to visit a range of places that could have easily taken twice as long to cover properly. My only guide was a very tentative outline of the plot. I’d assigned various parts of the city to different chapters as best as I could, based on geographical or narrative considerations, but in many cases, I wasn’t sure what would happen in the scene until I got there. (For example, the chapter in which Lasse Karvonen, my Finnish assassin, pays a visit to Finsbury Park was basically plotted in real time, as I walked up and down a block of houses below the railway tracks, looking for the best way to kill a man.)

And the result was a very unusual working vacation, the highlight of which was probably my side trip to Belgium, in which I spent $300 on a train ticket to Brussels only to turn around and come back within a couple of hours, all for the sake of describing a similar trip that a character takes in a single chapter. (I did have a chance to visit the Royal Museums, where I paid homage to The Death of Marat, the painting that makes a brief appearance in the epilogue of The Icon Thief.) When I left, my phone didn’t have any of the usual snapshots of tourist attractions or historic sites. Instead, it was picture after picture of garages, weedy lots, council estates, apartment complexes, and pub toilets. My only real tourist stop appears in the novel as well: like my protagonist, Rachel Wolfe, I made a pilgrimage to Baker Street, only to find a block of dry cleaning shops and fast food restaurants. I wore out a pair of shoes and developed a bad case of blisters, and every night, I wrote in my tiny hotel room for hours.

But none of this, I should make clear, was for the sake of mere accuracy, although I was trying to be as correct in my descriptions as possible: it was about gathering imaginative material. Knowing that one of your characters will die in a garage in Stoke Newington isn’t as helpful as knowing that he’ll die in this garage, on this particular block, with a Turkish restaurant on the corner and peeling wheatpaste flyers on the fence across the street. Later, after realizing that a large part of the novel would essentially consist of a detailed crime procedural, I supplemented my location work by reading a shelf’s worth of books on police work and forensics, many of which I picked up in the true crime sections of used bookstores in London. But without that short but intense visit, I don’t think the resulting novel would have worked at all. I doubt I’ll ever be able capture the city in all its complexity, but I can at least write about it from the point of view of a visitor—or an exile. Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit more about some of the exiles themselves, and how I found my novel’s unlikely heroine.

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2012 at 9:37 am

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A vision of the chariot

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Technically, you aren’t supposed to study the work of the chariot until the age of forty, but I first encountered it as a teenager, in the pages of The White Goddess by Robert Graves. At the time, I thought that this was one of the greatest books ever written, and although it’s still among my favorites, I’ve since come to regard it with a degree of ambivalence. In fact, it’s an incredibly evolved version of the sort of obsessive overinterpretation that we see among the characters in Foucault’s Pendulum, or even the novels of Dan Brown, only executed at a immeasurably higher level of sophistication. If anything, this makes me love the book all the more: it’s unsustainable as a religious or historical argument, but as an example of an unparalleled intuitive intellect exercising his talents on the whole range of poetic and mystical literature, it’s a delight, and there’s never been anything quite like it. I still think it’s a book that everyone should read, but with full awareness that it’s more like an ingenious magic trick, infinitely repeated, than a tenable work of religious history.

Not surprisingly, the parts of the book that have stuck with me most strongly are the ones that seem, at first, like sidelines to the main argument. Graves tells us, in an aside, how to untie the Gordian knot, and gives us practical solutions to the “unanswerable” questions from Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial: what song the sirens sang, and what name Achilles assumed when he hid among the women. And he also deals, unforgettably, with the vision in the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, in a handful of pages that have haunted me for most of my life. Ezekiel is in exile, standing by the river Chebar, when the heavens open and he has visions of God. From out of a whirlwind, he sees four winged cherubim emerge, each with the head of a man, a lion, an eagle, and an ox, as well as the feet of a calf, and the wheels of a vast chariot—each “a wheel within a wheel”—that turn of their own accord. Above the chariot is the figure of a man, made of fire from the waist down. Ezekiel falls into a swoon, and out of the sky, a voice begins to speak.

The first point that needs to be made about this vision is that it was literally dangerous to its readers: the rabbinical tradition tells of students who studied the vision before they were adequately prepared, and were struck by lightning or consumed by heavenly fire. It was forbidden to be read aloud in the synagogue. Yet the very act of setting up warning signs around a text like this amounts to an invitation for certain readers to study it more closely, resulting in a vast tradition of merkabah, or chariot, mysticism designed to allow the initiate to experience a similar vision, even at the risk of madness or death. Graves, for his part, believed that the vision amounted to a religious revolution, initiated by Ezekiel, in which the cult of the mother goddess and her two consorts was replaced by that of a masculine creator set against the goddess and the devil. At least, that’s what I seem to remember—the argument here is even more convoluted than usual, although frequently spellbinding on the page.

And the story continues to fascinate me. Part of it, I suppose, is the idea of a text that can cause the death or madness of an unprepared reader, which might be taken as an extreme example of the power of secrets and the risks of incautious interpretation. As I result, I spent years trying to get it into a novel, starting with an unfinished manuscript I began in high school, and intermittently in the years since. When it came time to write City of Exiles, which also centered on questions of interpretation—and the dangers that come with its misuse—I finally had an excuse to delve into it more deeply, in the person of my character Ilya Severin, who I knew would take an interest in such things. And it wasn’t until recently, when I discovered the extraordinary book The Faces of the Chariot by David J. Halperin, that I began to glimpse a solution that made literary and dramatic sense. Halperin’s book is very hard to find, and I wound up devouring it in one sitting, taking copious notes, in the reading room of the British Library. Tomorrow, I’ll explain how I ended up there, and why I decided to set my second novel in London.

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2012 at 9:43 am

Entering the Dyatlov Pass

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In February of 1959, a group of Russian hikers, led by a man named Igor Dyatlov, embarked on an expedition in the Ural Mountains. Most of the group consisted of students or graduates of Ural Polytechnic Institute, and all were experienced mountaineers. The route they had planned was a challenging one, taking them along the eastern shoulder of a peak known in the Mansi language as Kholat Syakhl, or Mountain of Death. After arriving in the area by train, they took a truck north to the last inhabited settlement and began to walk along the valley. On the second day, one of the hikers became ill and had to turn back, leaving nine members in the group. That night, with visibility worsening, they strayed off course, and ultimately decided to camp on the side of the mountain to wait out a severe storm. Days later, when they failed to check in at their destination as scheduled, a rescue operation was set in motion, and finally discovered the remains of the camp three weeks after the group’s disappearance.

The first thing the rescue team discovered was the group’s abandoned tent, which had been badly damaged, and seemed to have been torn open from the inside. Following a line of footprints to the woods, the rescuers found the bodies of two men, both shoeless and dressed only in their underwear, although the temperature on the night of their death had been twenty degrees below freezing. Three more bodies were found across a distance of several hundred yards, as if they had tried and failed to return to camp. All had succumbed to hypothermia, and one had a fractured skull. The remaining bodies were unearthed two months later, under a deep covering of snow in a ravine in the woods. One victim had died of hypothermia. The rest had suffered severe injuries, including chest fractures and skull damage, although no external wounds were visible, and one of the hikers, a woman, was missing her tongue.

Ever since, the Dyaltov Pass incident, which an official investigation concluded was the result of “a compelling unknown force,” has been the object of intense speculation. Possible explanations, none of them completely satisfying, have included a weapons test, an attack by local tribesmen, or even an alien abduction. (Orange lights were allegedly seen in the direction of the pass on the night of the hikers’ deaths, although the fact that a snowstorm was raging at the time has called these reports into question.) But the more I reflect on the incident—and I’ve been thinking about it a lot for the past year—the more I feel that strangest thing about it is how little known it is, at least outside of Russia. I’ve always been a sucker for unexplained events, but I’d never heard of this incident until I began to look systematically at Russian history for an episode that could provide a starting point for my second novel. The fact that it took place at the height of the Cold War, and wasn’t fully reported until years later, may account for its relative unfamiliarity. But I’m still amazed that it isn’t more famous than it is.

In any case, when I initially encountered the story of the Dyatlov Pass, I had much the same reaction that I did when I first saw Étant Donnés, the work of art that stands at the heart of The Icon Thief: I knew that there was an extraordinary novel here, and that if I didn’t write it now, someone else almost certainly would—I’d just been lucky enough to get there first. My greatest challenge, I realized, lay in simply doing it justice, by conveying something of its strangeness and terror while also providing a solution that was original and hopefully convincing. Whether or not I’ve succeeded is something that my readers will need to decide for themselves, although I feel that the answer set forth in City of Exiles is at least worthy of consideration, and one that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been proposed before. Taken on its own, however, it wasn’t quite enough to sustain an entire novel. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how I combined it with one of my earliest obsessions, and how, after many false starts, I finally managed to write a book about one of the most enigmatic mysteries in the Western tradition: the work of the chariot.

Written by nevalalee

November 27, 2012 at 10:11 am

How I reverse-engineered my own novel

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“The conditions of writing change absolutely between the first novel and the second,” Graham Greene observes. “The first is an adventure, the second a duty.” Or at least it’s an adventure of a markedly different kind. A first novel is essentially a series of incursions into uncharted territory: the writing process is full of wrong turns, experiments in tone and structure that later need to be abandoned, and thematic elements introduced on the fly that turn out to be crucial to the entire conception, while others are discarded or transformed into something unrecognizable. Yet the strangest thing of all is that once the manuscript is complete, what used to be a creature shaped by chance and improvisation is now something else entirely—a template. A story that was originally constructed in response to specific, unpredictable narrative problems is now, weirdly enough, the model for its successor, at least when the second novel is designed to follow narratively and thematically from the one that came before it. And the situation is especially peculiar for an author who suddenly finds himself in the position of writing a sequel to a novel that was intended to stand on its own.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I first wrote The Icon Thief, I had no intention of writing a sequel to a book I’d conceived as a self-contained story, but when I finally sold the manuscript to Penguin, a second novel was part of the deal. When it came time to plot out the next installment, I found myself doing what Frederick Forsyth claims he did while figuring out his own second novel: he went back to his first book and reverse-engineered it, reading it again to see what he’d done intuitively and breaking it down to its basic components. In my own case, there were a number of elements in the first book that I knew I wanted to keep. I liked the underlying structure, which followed three distinct narrative threads that would overlap at various points and finally come together in the climax, and I’d learned few tricks in the meantime that would help me organize this material without a lot of the mistakes that I’d made in earlier drafts. One of these threads, as before, would be a straightforward crime procedural that would provide a useful narrative line for the reader to follow through the thickets of the plot. And I wanted to include some combination of the historical, financial, and religious elements that I’d enjoyed incorporating into the first book.

Most of all, I had to ask myself what the first novel had really been about. The answer, not surprisingly, was one that I’ve mentioned many times before: The Icon Thief turned out to be a book about how we impose meaning on the world and the events of our own lives, even in the absence of real information, or in the face of information overload. In my first book, these themes had arisen from an enigmatic work of art, but I didn’t want to go back to that well again. (Frankly, after two years spent reading about Duchamp, I was feeling a little burned out on art history.) Better, I thought, to focus on the competing interpretations of an enigmatic event, an approach that would ground the novel in a mystery from the real world—which I thought was one of the most appealing aspects of the first novel—and give the characters a chance to indulge in the kind of historical detective work that I relish writing. And it seemed fairly clear that this mystery, whatever it was, would come from the history of Russia. As I’ve explained before, I stumbled into Russia as a subject almost by accident, but now that the rules of the game had been laid down, I knew that I had to start exploring this material in a more systematic way.

Throughout the initial stages of the process, I kept asking myself a simple question: what expectations would my first novel have raised in the mind of a reasonable reader? Looking back over the story I had so far, I saw that it hinted at a larger picture involving the workings of Russian intelligence, but only in very general terms. For the sequel to build logically from the first book, I needed to drill more deeply into this shadow world, and give a clearer sense of its rules and operations. Consequently, I began by reading everything I could about Russia and its intelligence services, always keeping an eye out for the kind of enigmatic incident that could provide the germ of a story. And that’s how I stumbled across the Dyatlov Pass. Tomorrow, I’ll go into more detail about what it means and what I found there, but for now, I’ll only say that as soon as I saw it, I knew that I’d found the narrative heart of what would eventually become City of Exiles. I don’t recall the exact words I said at that moment. But I believe they were something like this: “That’s it.”

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November 26, 2012 at 10:08 am

Entering the City of Exiles

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When I began planning the sequel to The Icon Thief, the challenge was to find a story that would feel like an organic, exciting extension of my first novel—which had been conceived as a self-contained work—while also expanding the scope of the narrative and going more deeply into themes that had only been touched upon by the original. I was guided in the process by two ideas. The first was that the action of these books would gradually move east, drawing ever closer to the enigma of Russia, which meant that the logical setting for the sequel was London. My second idea was that the underlying theme of the series was how we impose order on our understanding of the world, especially of the past. The first novel explored the historical mystery of Étant Donnés and the Rosicrucians, but I knew I couldn’t just repeat that. And I ultimately decided that the second novel would focus on one of the strangest unsolved mysteries in Russian history: the unexplained deaths of nine mountaineers on February 2, 1959, in the Dyatlov Pass.

All this is a preamble to saying that I’ve finally added a page to this blog for my second novel, City of Exiles, which will be released on December 4. The new page gives you a sense of the plot and introduces you to the novel’s lead, FBI Special Agent Rachel Wolfe, who appears in a crucial secondary role in The Icon Thief but now moves to center stage. I’m also pleased to be able to share the novel’s cover, prepared by the stellar team at New American Library, which has always listened attentively to my suggestions and invariably blown me away with the result. The design closely tracks my own vision, with a wintry palette that mirrors the novel’s often frigid setting and a melancholy view of London’s Trafalgar Square. (And if you’re curious, the image faintly visible in the sky above the city is the ox from Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly chariot, otherwise known as the merkabah—and that’s all I have to say about that for now…)

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2012 at 9:36 am

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