Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Dyatlov Pass

“So what are we saying here?”

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"A plane with Menderes on board..."

Note: This post is the forty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 43. You can read the earlier installments here

When you’re constructing an argument, whether in fiction, science, or philosophy, when it comes time to lay out your reasoning step by step, you’ll often end up presenting it in the reverse order from which it originally occurred. Sometimes a big idea will arise through accident, intuition, or the need to justify a preexisting position, and after taking it as a starting point, we search retrospectively for the evidence required to support it. Yet when we publish our findings, we pretend as if we arrived at the conclusion through a sequential chain of logic, proceeding from small to large, rather than the other way around. It’s clear, for instance, that scientists often proceed intuitively, at least when it comes to identifying a promising avenue of research, and that major discoveries can be the product of happenstance, luck, or trial and error. In most finished papers, that unruly process is reshaped into a tidy progression from hypothesis to conclusion, which seems only reasonable, given how deeply science depends on a shared language and set of standards. But it also skims over the mistakes, the dead ends, and the unquantifiable factors that affect any kind of intellectual activity.

We find much the same principle at work in fiction, most obviously in the mystery genre. While some authors, like Lawrence Block, can write most of a detective novel with only the vaguest idea of who might ultimately be responsible for the crime, most writers determine the identity of the guilty party early on, then go back to lay down a series of clues for the protagonist to follow. Unlike scientists, writers are careful not to make the progression seem too neat: it isn’t particularly satisfying to read a mystery in which every clue is handed to the hero on a silver platter, so a smart author builds in a few red herrings, wrong turns, and setbacks, an illusion of chance that has been as meticulously crafted as the solution’s apparent orderliness. In the end, though, the hero is moving through a series of encounters that the writer has put together in reverse, and if he often seems absurdly insightful, it’s only because he’s being steered on his way by an author who knows the ending. That’s equally true of puzzle mysteries, of the kind exemplified by Dan Brown, in which the protagonist is presented with a set of enigmas to solve. It doesn’t take much skill to come up with an anagram that the hero can crack at sight, but the reversed order of presentation makes it seem clever rather than a simple trick.

"So what are we saying here?"

In the real world, this kind of backwards reasoning can be dangerous: reality is sufficiently dense and complicated that you can find evidence to support almost any theory, as long as you hide your work and present only a selective subset of all the available facts. One of the factors that makes conspiracy fiction so intriguing is the way in which it edges right up against the point of unforgivable distortion: unlike a pure mystery, the conspiracy novel takes real people and events as its material, but the result is little different from a whodunit that begins with the knowledge that the gardener did it, then scatters bloody gloves and shoemarks for the detective to find. In City of Exiles, for example, I make the case that the Dyatlov Pass incident—in which nine mountaineers died mysteriously in the snow in the Ural Mountains—was a test, conducted at the last minute, of a neurological weapon that was intended to bring down the plane of the Turkish prime minister Adnan Menderes. Menderes was, in fact, in a plane that crashed outside Gatwick Airport on February 17, 1959, or only two weeks after the Dyatlov Pass incident, and though he survived, the pilots were killed, and no convincing explanation for the accident has ever been found.

As presented in the novel, the links that join one incident to the other are structured as a chain of inferences leading inevitably to one conclusion. (It’s inevitable, at least, within the context of the story, although for reasons I’ve mentioned before, I was careful to pull back from the theory in the book’s penultimate chapter.) The writing process, however, was altogether different. I’d started with the Dyatlov Pass, and I knew for reasons of plot and symbolic resonance that I wanted to tie it into a plane crash—an image that occurred to me, in a totally arbitrary fashion, as a way to tie the story back to Ezekiel’s vision of the merkabah. With this in mind, I went back and searched for plane crashes that had taken place within the proper window of time, and the Gatwick accident had all the right elements. Everything else, including whatever motivation the Soviet security services might have had for killing Menderes, came after the fact. Laid in a straight line, it feels like it was conceived that way from the beginning, but it could have been very different. While doing my research, my attention was drawn to another plane crash that took place on February 3, 1959, just one day after the Dyatlov Pass incident. It was the crash that killed Buddy Holly. But if I’d gone in that direction, I don’t know how this novel would have looked…

Written by nevalalee

August 14, 2014 at 9:08 am

“We can’t trust our eyes or ears…”

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"A very interesting possibility..."

Note: This post is the fortieth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 39. You can read the earlier installments here

As I’ve noted here many times before, a conspiracy novel is really just an extreme manifestation of the rage for order that drives so much of fiction, as well as life itself. Given a seemingly random string of symbols, we’re naturally inclined to look for patterns, and the same holds true for events or artistic works that lend themselves to a range of interpretations. This is why paranoid readings of art and history so often go hand in hand. We tend to associate this inclination with the likes of Dan Brown, in whose books the reading of a painting becomes inextricable from a larger reinterpretation of historical events, but the impulse is much older and deeper. The urge to impose meaning on a text and to find a pattern in history, if not identical, are at least manifestations of a common need. And it’s no surprise that the methods used in both cases—analogy, juxtaposition, substitution, selective emphasis and deemphasis—are so similar. A conspiracy theorist poring over the records of the Kennedy assassination thinks in much the same way as a literary critic constructing a new reading of Pale Fire.

Yet there’s something qualitatively different about applying conspiratorial thinking to real history and doing the same to works of art. In the latter case, the reader runs the risk of distorting the author’s intentions and missing the work’s real value, but whatever harm it does is localized and subjective. A work of art should be open to various readings, and while some may be more valid than others, it’s easy to treat the process as a game. When we turn to actual events, though, the fallout from conspiratorial thinking is more troubling. Even in ambiguous situations, we know that there is one version of the truth, however hard it might be to uncover, and misrepresenting it does a disservice—or worse—to the facts. This is particularly true for events that occurred within living memory. When a theory began to circulate within days that the tragedy at Sandy Hook was a false-flag operation, we were rightly horrified, but few of us blink twice at stories that construct conspiracies around, say, Jack the Ripper, or even the Black Dahlia murder. And if we’re confronted by conspiracy theorists who pick targets that are too close to home, it’s tempting to respond, as Buzz Aldrin once did, with a punch to the face.

"We can't trust our eyes or ears..."

I like reading and writing conspiracy fiction as much as anyone else, but I’m uncomfortably aware of these issues. At the end of The Icon Thief, I was careful to blow up the paranoid story I’d constructed around Marcel Duchamp and the Rosicrucians, even though I’d like to believe that Duchamp himself would have been amused by it. City of Exiles posed similar problems. Like many conspiracy novels, it consists of two threads, one literary, focusing on the Book of Ezekiel, and one historical, focusing on the mystery of the Dyatlov Pass. When it came to the merkabah, I didn’t feel the need to hedge my bets: Ezekiel’s vision has been a locus for elaborate interpretation for centuries, and I felt that my reading—heavily indebted to David J. Halperin’s work in The Faces of the Chariot—was as valid as any other. The Dyatlov Pass was a different matter. This was a real event in which nine people died, and for those directly affected by it, the memory is a living one. I had what I thought was a plausible theory that covered much of the available evidence, but I wasn’t ready to commit to it altogether, especially because I suspected that many readers were encountering the story here for the first time.

In the end, I pulled back, although this doesn’t become clear until the novel’s closing pages. In Chapter 39, the two threads meet decisively for the first time, with Ilya and Wolfe moving toward a solution to both mysteries. Their appearance here together is no accident; throughout the novel, the study of the merkabah—which was said to call fire from heaven upon those who embarked on it without the proper preparation—has served as a metaphor for the investigation of secrets that might best be left in darkness. Here, at last, we also see that there’s another level of connection: just as a divine vision can lead to madness or death, the hikers at the Dyatlov Pass may have died in a similar way. Ilya only hints at the possibility here, and the full story will emerge gradually in the following chapters. The result is an extended piece of speculation and conjecture, and to my eyes, it’s at least as convincing as any other explanation that has been proposed. Ultimately, though, I undermine it, out of what I can only call respect for a tragedy that resists any definitive solution. I have a feeling that a lot of readers may have been left dissatisfied by this. But I really don’t think I had any other choice…

Written by nevalalee

July 17, 2014 at 10:11 am

“Tell me about the Dyatlov Pass…”

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"Tell me about the Dyatlov Pass..."

Note: This post is the twenty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 27. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When a work of fiction incorporates real people or events into the narrative, it’s usually for one of two reasons, both equally legitimate. The first is to add an air of verisimilitude. Fiction is a sort of confidence game in which the writer has to convince the reader that imaginary events really took place, and one of the ways we do this is by including material that the reader can verify, which theoretically increases the credibility of the aspects we invent. This is part of the reason why modern realistic fiction spends so much time on a detailed inventory of everyday life. When we notice that John Updike is very good at describing how rain looks on a screen door, we’re more likely to accept his reflections on the inner lives of his characters, which we assume are based on equally intense observation. On a somewhat different level, that’s why thrillers spend so much time describing hardware and weaponry: even if we don’t know offhand what kind of holster would go with James Bond’s Walther PPK, that kind of concrete information grounds and supports the story’s less plausible aspects. The same is true of historical figures or situations. Frederick Forsyth includes Margaret Thatcher or Simon Weisenthal in his novels for the same reason he gives us the technical specs for the Jackal’s rifle: it blurs the line between fact and invention, and at its best, it makes the fictional side more credible—although when badly done, as when a description rings false, it can also take us out of the story.

The other reason for including verifiable information is to provide an additional set of constraints for the story itself, which is where ingenuity thrives. When a writer decides to set a novel in a specific historical period, whether recent or remote, he quickly finds himself with reduced room to maneuver: in order to be true to the logic of the story, he needs to accommodate the plot to dates, geography, period customs and conventions, modes of speech, and countless other factors that wouldn’t be an issue for a story set in some undefined present time. Obviously, a lot of novels simply ignore inconvenient facts, but others see them as a challenge, or, even better, as a spur to creativity. One of the things I love about Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, a novel that has influenced my own writing in countless ways, is the rigor of the conspiracy theory it constructs. The game that the protagonists play—finding hidden connections in history while operating within existing texts and documents—runs in parallel to the process of the author himself:

The connections must not be original. They must have been made before, and the more often the better, by others. Only then do the crossings seem true, because they are obvious…We didn’t invent anything; we only arranged the pieces.

And Eco’s approach is only a highly stylized and witty variation on what all novelists do when they take existing material as their inspiration. Arranging the pieces is part of the fun.

"Wolfe felt a passing chill..."

In City of Exiles, as with The Icon Thief, I knew that I wanted to integrate a real historical event into the story in an original and surprising way. For The Icon Thief, it was the life and work of Marcel Duchamp, who has inspired so much farfetched speculation that it wasn’t so much a question of inventing a conspiracy theory as deciding which one to use. City of Exiles presented me with the opposite problem. After looking into various possibilities from Russian history, I decided to build a subplot around the Dyatlov Pass incident, in which eleven hikers in the Ural Mountains were found dead in exceedingly strange—and as of yet unexplained—circumstances. I knew from the start that I’d have much less material to work with: the known facts of the incident amount to some blurry photographs, a few contemporary accounts, and a mass of interpretation that repeats and distorts the same handful of details. I also knew that most readers wouldn’t have heard of the incident, which wasn’t widely known outside of Russia. (This was long before Renny Harlin decided to make a movie about it.) This was why I wanted to write about it so badly: it was such good material that I couldn’t believe there hadn’t been a novel about it already, and I wanted to get there first. But it also meant that whatever facts I incorporated would have to stand on their own, without the extra shiver of recognition that occurs when a reader encounters a familiar fact displayed in a surprising light.

In theory, I could have used the material’s unfamiliarity to invent whatever I needed to make the story work, but I decided early on to stick to the facts as much as I could. (I knew that plenty of errors would creep their way into the story on their own.) Chapter 26 of City of Exiles serves as a kind of baseline briefing to the reader, a chance to summarize what we know about the Dyatlov Pass in preparation for the expansion and reinterpretation that will later take place. At the risk of sounding like Dan Brown, I can say that everything in this chapter is true, as far as I was able to make it, and although it runs the risk of loading the story down with exposition, I took comfort in the fact that the material was inherently interesting. And I knew that at least some readers would be factchecking me. One of the peculiar things about our connected age is that authors need to worry not just about what readers have in their heads, but what they can easily access online: I know for a fact that many people read The Icon Thief in parallel with Wikipedia. In some ways, these novels are only complete when they inspire readers to check out some of the sources, and I wanted anyone who took the trouble to verify the facts to find that they were consistent. If I’ve done my job well, that discovery should give the novel an additional charge, and even if the reader simply moves on and takes the material here at face value, I hope it still stands on its own. And what happened at the Dyatlov Pass certainly doesn’t need any exaggeration…

Written by nevalalee

April 24, 2014 at 9:51 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.”

Written by nevalalee

November 26, 2012 at 10:08 am

A brief commercial

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I don’t normally make direct appeals on the blog like this, but since it’s Black Friday, I thought it might be worth pointing out that if you haven’t yet picked up a copy of The Icon Thief, this would be a good time to do so: its sequel, City of Exiles, is being released by Penguin on December 4, and although each book stands on its own, they’re even better when read as a series. (Needless to say, reading both would also be a great way to prepare for the release of Eternal Empire, which, in case you missed my earlier announcement, is now scheduled to be published on September 3, 2013). Starting on Monday, I’ll be doing a number of posts leading up to the release of the new novel, in which I’ll discuss its influences and historical background, including the mysterious episode of the Dyatlov Pass. All in all, it’s going to be an exciting month, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you here!

Written by nevalalee

November 23, 2012 at 9:50 am

Posted in Books, Publishing

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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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