Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Silva

“It isn’t that simple…”

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"Maddy kept her eyes on the path..."

Note: This post is the fourteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 15. You can read the previous installments here.

When you’re constructing an extended narrative of any kind, one of the trickiest technical challenges involves the handling of the story’s own past. This is particularly true in television, where the past has a way of piling up over multiple seasons until it threatens to overwhelm the present. Different types of shows take different approaches to the history they accumulate. A procedural tends to just ignore it; a prestige drama confronts it, to the point where late episodes can feel like nothing but a dialogue with what has already happened; and The X-Files ventured an elegant solution of its own, in which episodes fell into two categories, one with a past, the other without. And a truly nimble show, like Mad Men, can continuously engage with its past without dwelling on it. In this week’s season premiere, the fleeting references to Joan’s time at Bonwit Teller or Ken Cosgrove’s history at McCann Erikson are treated as part of the texture. Unless we’re exceptionally attentive—or retentive—viewers, we may not know exactly what they’re talking about, but we can still roll with it. (This leads to a particularly nifty mislead: when Don thinks he’s seen the waitress in the coffee shop before, we can’t be sure he hasn’t, especially because the show casts the part with an actress we swear we know from somewhere.)

Yet as Borges says in “The Garden of Forking Paths: “Everything happens to a man precisely, precisely now. Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen.” That’s as true of fiction as it is of life, and for the most part, the past can’t be allowed to overwhelm the story from one moment to the next. Most of us, after all, rarely reflect explicitly on the events of our own lives, once they’ve been buried deep enough: our memories shape us, but in subliminal ways, and just because our choices are influenced by the ones that came before doesn’t mean we’re aware of it. Stories of any complexity need to selectively impose the same kind of amnesia, both for realism’s sake and as a strategy for managing information. (If anything, many of the protagonists in modernist fiction tend to be more aware of the past than is psychologically plausible: it’s a convention of the genre, allowing the author to introduce material from before the story began, while gently departing from the way most of us actually think.) A show like The Vampire Diaries, which generates and discards an insane amount of plot, technically retains a memory of previous seasons, but employs it purely as a matter of convenience. If it can use it to justify the arbitrary moves of the characters in the current episode, great; if not, it’s as if it never happened.

"It isn't that simple..."

I’ve had to confront these problems repeatedly in my own work, and with mixed results, partially because I was learning so much of it on the fly. These were always going to be complicated novels: The Icon Thief was largely about complexity, with multiple plotlines and connections to the past, both factual and invented, and the next two books had to follow the same template. What I didn’t fully anticipate was the extent to which they would have to deal with the history of the series, as well as their own burden of plot, and at times, the combination became close to unmanageable. It isn’t as problematic in City of Exiles, which introduces a new setting and deliberately leaves a few threads unresolved. But Eternal Empire—which was conceived as a return to the characters and themes of the first book, as well as the conclusion of the series—always felt on the brink of collapsing under its own weight. I’m proud of the result, which I still think is the best novel I’ve published, but I’m also aware that it suffers from a miscalculation about how much of its past to include. It was meant to be novel that could stand on its own, as well a satisfying close to the trilogy, and I’m not sure it is. And given the chance to go back, I would have taken a page from other exemplars of series fiction, like Daniel Silva’s excellent thrillers about Gabriel Allon, and made each book a little more self-contained.

While researching City of Exiles, for instance, I became enamored of the fact—which I first encountered in The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin—that there were two sides to Russian intelligence, the civilian FSB and the military GRU, engaged in an ongoing competition for resources and influence. It’s an idea I hadn’t seen explored elsewhere, and much of the plot of the second novel revolves around one half of the intelligence services framing the other for a complicated crime. It’s a neat angle, and I think it works there. In Eternal Empire, though, the machinations of the secret services become increasingly convoluted: a major plot point involves one character, already a mole, switching from one side to the other, and since the core conflict takes place at a remove from the rest of the action, it’s hard to keep all the pieces straight. Chapter 15 represents my attempt, speaking in Powell’s voice to Maddy, to explain just as much of it as necessary, and I hope that the novel remains engaging even if the reader isn’t clear on the details. (Much of le Carré, for one, is grounded on tangled chains of command that fade together into a kind of electrifying background noise.) Yet I know for a fact that some readers were confused when I didn’t intend them to be. In retrospect, I could have handled it better by trying to do more with less. But Maddy is bewildered, too. And it will lead very soon to a moment of clarity…

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

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