Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Edward Lucas

“This is our greatest vulnerability…”

leave a comment »

"This is our greatest vulnerability..."

Note: This post is the thirtieth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 29. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When you’re writing a novel, you’ll often end up reading an entire book for the sake of what turns out to be a single sentence in the finished manuscript. The opposite also holds true: a line or two from a piece of source material can flower and expand in unexpected ways. That’s why I’ve learned to cast my net wide during the earliest stages of the writing process. You never know when you’ll find an idea or image that will illuminate an entire storyline, and in my experience, you’ll often discover such gems in the least promising of places. When I was starting to research City of Exiles, for instance, I knew that the plot would involve the politics of Russian energy. I’d decided from the start that the narrative path opened up by The Icon Thief was one in which I had to drill deeper into elements of the story that had only been superficially explored so far—the workings of intelligence, its relationship to organized crime, the logic of the new Russian state under Putin—and more than anything else, the country’s vast reserves of oil and gas are what make Putin possible. Along with such weighty espionage tomes as The Sword and the Shield, then, I added several books on energy, hoping that I would find a hook or two on which I could hang a story.

Among the books I read were Putin’s Oil by Martin Sixsmith—who has since attained a different kind of celebrity by being played by Steve Coogan in the adaptation of his own Philomena—and The New Cold War by Edward Lucas. This last book was both the most useful and the most daunting: its material was fascinating, but the approach was pointedly dry, a little like reading a book-length article in The Economist, where Lucas worked for many years. On page 170, however, I found one line, which Lucas tosses off almost casually, that ended up shaping the two books that would consume my life for the next eighteen months. Here it is:

The Kremlin has given Gazprom—a private company—the unusual right to recruit and operate its own military forces to protect its overseas pipelines.

At first glance, it might not be clear why this sentence stood out, but it fell onto soil that had been prepared by the reading I’d already done. I knew from The Sword and the Shield that the two main branches of Russian intelligence, the civilian side run by the KGB/FSB and the military side run by the GRU, had long been rivals. And it seemed to me that if a Russian energy company was recruiting its own troops, this said a great deal about the influence of the parties involved.

"You need an intermediary..."

The result—and this is something of a spoiler for those who haven’t read the books—was a trilogy that ended up, rather to my surprise, centering on the rivalry between the FSB and GRU over which side would control the future of energy in Russia. As with most of the useful ideas I’ve ever had, it was the product of a fortuitous combination. If I’d only read The Sword and the Shield, I’m not sure it would have occurred to me to make that struggle a central part of the narrative; if I’d just read The New Cold War, I might have passed over that sentence without noticing it. As a pair, with one source following close to the other, they led to a new train of thought. In many ways, it’s for moments like this that I became a novelist rather than another kind of writer: fiction, which gains much of its interest from its blurring of lines between imagination and reality, is much more hospitable than nonfiction to this sort of speculative juxtaposition. (I was tempted for a long time to call Gazprom by its own name, but after some thought, I decided to call it Gaztek instead, both because I was inventing considerably beyond the public record and because I thought it would give me more options when I wrote the third book in the series, which ultimately turned out not to involve Gaztek at all.)

Of course, the challenge, which I’m not sure I entirely solved, was to ground this intelligence struggle, which for the most part involves people and organizations we haven’t met, into vivid narrative terms. The story had to stay focused on a particular, concrete chain of events—in this case, Karvonen’s deadly mission in Helsinki—with the other forces operating mostly in the background. If the reader takes an interest in this, all the better; if not, the details can be safely ignored in favor of the immediate action. Still, I had to sketch in some of this background first, which is what occupies most of Chapter 29, as Powell meets with Howard Archer, the founder of the Cheshire Group, the activist hedge fund whose lead Russian analyst was killed a few chapters earlier. It’s a talky scene, and I kept it as short as I could, although the material here could have been treated at much greater length. Cheshire, as some readers might have noticed, is based loosely on a real hedge fund based in London that had its fair share of trouble with the Putin regime, and although Powell’s visit only occupies a few pages, it isn’t just there to provide exposition. We’ll be encountering this fund again before the novel is over, and in Eternal Empireit moves to center stage. Which, once again, is something I never could have expected…

Written by nevalalee

May 8, 2014 at 9:43 am

Research as a way of dreaming

with 5 comments

As I argued yesterday, researching a novel, at least at its earliest stages, isn’t primarily about factual accuracy, but about dreaming. While it’s certainly important for an author to get his or her facts straight—if only because there’s nothing like an obvious error to yank the reader out of the story—such fact-checking can usually wait until later in the process, sometimes even after the bulk of the novel is finished. The first round of research, by contrast, is less about verifying facts than about gathering material for the imagination, which runs best when kept fed and happy. Here, then, are some tips on approaching the research process when you have the germ of an idea for a novel, but not much else:

1. Cast your net wide. Later, as you dig more deeply into the meat of your story, specifics are essential, but at the earliest stages, they can be deadly. An unwritten novel can be about anything, and it’s a mistake to lock yourself into one particular conception before it’s absolutely necessary. It’s best, then, to begin your research with as general a view on the subject as possible—even to the point where the subject itself disappears. For Kamera, which is about the art world, I didn’t begin with books on art collecting, or even on the history of art, but with books on eyesight and visual perception. In particular, I began with James Elkins’s excellent Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?—a book I found at random in the library, as I’ll be discussing further below. And if it weren’t for an aside in Elkins’s book, I never would have thought of learning more about Marcel Duchamp, a decision that has shaped the past three years of my life, and counting. Careers are made from such moments.

2. Stay off the Internet. While the Internet certainly has its place in the research process—especially for checking the thousands of small, specific details in a novel that would be impossible to verify otherwise—it isn’t very good for dreaming. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and how the right side, which is where ideas come from, operates at a slower pace than the left. Doing research online is a classic left-brained activity: it’s fast, efficient, superficial. To lure out the right brain, you need to park yourself in a comfortable chair with a couple of the largest books you can find, because it’s often not until after a few hundred pages that the right brain finally kicks in. Sometimes you’ll emerge with only one good idea from a book of three hundred pages—as I recently did with The New Cold War by Edward Lucas—but it’s an idea that never would have occurred to you online. Books, in this case, are just better.

3. Read the books that nobody else reads. Books and authors go through cycles of popularity, and in my experience, it’s the books that are out of print or out of fashion that are the most fruitful for a writer’s work. Remember, we aren’t looking for factual accuracy, but to coax the right brain to life, a sensation that is almost inseparable, at least to me, from the smell of old books and bookstores. (Which, my dad says, is really the smell of mildew. “And happiness,” I reply.) If you’re doing research on a particular subject, unless it’s something like search engine optimization, look for books that were published before you were born: they’re likely to be better written, more eccentric, and more conducive to imagination than books that came out yesterday. The more recent the book, the more likely it conforms to currently fashionable habits of thought, which is the last thing a writer needs. (Example: an original edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, while useless as a reference book, is infinitely superior to more recent versions as a tool for dreaming.)

4. Let books find you. On this subject, I’ve already quoted Robert Graves, who said that the books he needed to write The White Goddess “were soon sent, unasked for, by poet friends or tumbled down into my hands from the shelves of a second-hand sea-side bookshop.” Most writers, I imagine, know how this feels. Perhaps the most useful book that I’ve found in the research for Midrash is James Billington’s great The Icon and the Axe, which I discovered in the dollar bin of the Housing Works Bookstore in New York. And I’ve already mentioned how the heart of Kamera was inspired by a chance library discovery. But such books will only find you if you’re prepared to recognize them when they appear—and if you haunt used bookstores and libraries on a regular basis. If you don’t already spend at least an hour a week browsing the stacks somewhere, you probably should.

5. Allow for randomness. Sometimes the best ideas come from sources that have nothing to do with your novel at all. It’s hard to predict when such moments will come—it can be when you’re watching television, or at the movies, or reading a novel on a plane—but it’s also possible to encourage them to appear. There are certain books in our culture that are treasure hoards of randomness, mines of ideas waiting to attach themselves to your imagination, and it’s crucial to find time for these books as well. You’ll probably have your own favorites, but my own indispensable lucky bags of ideas include Brewer’s Dictionary (the older the edition, the better), The Whole Earth Catalog (ditto), The Golden Bough, The White Goddess, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Eckermann’s Conversations of Goethe, and (a recent discovery) The Portable Dragon.

This, then, is the first stage of research, which involves endless browsing and daydreaming, and what seems like a lot of wasted time—as does much of a novelist’s life. But this stage is so essential that I recommend that you devote at least a month to it (though more than six weeks is verging on procrastination). Later, when you’re drawing on the well of ideas you’ve acquired, you’ll be very glad you did.

A novel in nine months

with 5 comments

So how do you write a book in nine months? More specifically, how do you write a 100,000-word sequel to a complex novel that took almost two years to write in the first place?

The short answer is that I don’t really know. I do know, however, that it needs to happen, or so my contract tells me. As for the specifics, you’ll be hearing a lot about them between now and this coming September. In the meantime, though, here’s a general sense of what to expect:

On Tuesday of this week, I’m scheduled to deliver a fairly detailed proposal for the sequel to Kamera to my agent for comment and approval. This proposal, which is about seven double-spaced pages long, will then go to my editor at NAL, who will hopefully like what he sees. (Among other things, I receive a third of my advance on acceptance of the outline.) Once I get the green light, I can dive more deeply into the writing process, which so far has consisted mostly of a lot of structured daydreaming.

At that point, the real fun begins. I always try to start the research process by casting my net as wide as possible, so I’m going to begin by mining a few large nonfiction books for inspiration, among them The New Cold War by Edward Lucas, The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, and The Icon and the Axe by James Billington. (These titles may give you a sense of the territory that this new novel will be exploring.) Once I’ve finished my first round of reading, I’ll then begin to drill more deeply into areas that are directly relevant to the story at hand.

My current plan is to spend a couple of months on this preliminary research, which may also include a trip to London, after which I’ll start outlining the first part of the novel. Hopefully I’ll begin the writing itself sometime in March. I’m aiming to have a decent draft ready by early August, at which point it will go out to readers. I’ll then spend two months on revisions before delivering the manuscript to my publisher on September 30. (Since the novel isn’t scheduled to come out until the end of 2012, I expect that there will be quite a few more rewrites in the interim.)

Can I do it? Yes, probably. But it’s going to be an intense and interesting year. Stay tuned for more updates.

What I’m reading this week

leave a comment »

Mailer by Peter Manso. Purchased for $2.65 at the Borders on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. (It’s closing in January, so everything is marked down 20% or more.) I’d devoured this book growing up—it’s an oral biography with a lot of gossip—but hadn’t seen the revised edition, with its incredibly vitriolic afterword by Manso. His disillusionment with the last two decades of Mailer’s career isn’t hard to understand, but his tone of condescension and bitterness toward everyone involved—including Mailer’s wife and kids—makes it difficult to take him seriously. Still, this is a mostly fine book that I’m glad to have in my library again.

The New Cold War by Edward Lucas. Research for my second novel, which I’m scheduled to deliver in September.

The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. I recently realized that I could put together a complete collection of Calvin and Hobbes strips for only $24 by shopping the bargain bin at Better World Books (easily the best online used bookstore around), so I snatched them up right away. This collection, which came out in 1992, probably represents the strip’s creative peak.

The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. This is the most useful recent guide I’ve seen on the publishing process, with hundreds of pages devoted to what happens after you sign your book contract. (The only thing missing, as far as I can tell, is a guide to writer’s taxes.) Not to be confused with The Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy, and Birth, which is the first thing that came up when I searched for it on Amazon. (Although that looks pretty interesting, too.)

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2010 at 9:28 am

%d bloggers like this: