Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Étant Donnés

“Before her stood the wooden door…”

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"Before her stood the wooden door..."

Note: This post is the fifty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 58. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One piece of advice I’ve learned to share with aspiring writers is that if you aren’t sure how to end a story, take the scene you like best—the one you’re absolutely dying to write—and restructure the plot so that it serves as your climax. This may take a bit of tinkering, since you’ll often be tempted to put the big scene as early as possible, if only because you know you’ll actually get to write it. Really, though, endings count for so much that you need to save the best for last. A reader’s opinion of a story will largely turn on how satisfied he or she is by how it concludes, and a novel that unfolds beautifully for three hundred pages won’t survive a failure of nerve in the last thirty. In the case of my own novels, I usually know what the ending will be, at least in general terms, soon after I get the initial idea. The process of writing a novel is so uncertain and unpredictable that it helps to have a destination in mind: when I’m stranded in second-act problems and trying to get out of a jam, it helps to know that I have an ending that will work if I can manage to bring it off.

Of course, it’s one thing to know in broad strokes what the climax will be, and quite another to put it into narrative form. For The Icon Thief, as I’ve noted before, I knew that the novel would end with Maddy breaking into the installation of Étant Donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but I didn’t know what she would find there; I only knew that there had to be something, or else the entire story would seem like one long cheat. I also didn’t know how that moment would tie in with the machinery of the larger plot. Twenty pages from the end, I still had a lot of material to tie off, and for the sake of narrative momentum, I knew that I’d have to stage what followed—Sharkovsky’s attempt on Maddy’s life, Ilya coming to the rescue, and Ilya’s final escape—as close to the installation itself as possible. Trying to cover all of this in a way that seemed surprising and logical within the considerable constraints that the location presented was a real headache, and it took me a long time to make it work.

"Ilya turned back to Sharkovsky..."

In the end, as usual, it was the location itself that provided the answers I needed, and it wasn’t until I spent a few hours at the museum, repeatedly walking over the same ground, that the pieces fell into place. And I’m still proud of much of what happens here. I like the little MacGyver trick, involving a fragment of a porcelain spark plug, that Maddy uses to get past the tempered glass in the installation. The moment when Sharkovsky—and the reader—thinks that he’s killed Maddy, only to realize that he shot the dummy inside by mistake, may stretch credulity a bit, but I enjoyed the effect so much that I kept it in. And Ilya’s final escape through the window in the Duchamp gallery, which I told you we’d see again, is a nice touch of badassery. (This moment, incidentally, involves one of the novel’s few intentional cheats: I don’t think it would actually be possible for Ilya to escape through this window, which is made of bulletproof glass, in the manner in which he does here. By the time I realized this, though, I’d already written the scene, and after some thought, I decided to let it stand, with a nod to the rule of cool.)

The result is the single longest chapter in the novel, as well as one of the few that switches between multiple perspectives, cycling from Sharkovsky to Maddy to Ilya. I hope it feels like a satisfying conclusion; it’s certainly one of the few chapters that I can read again for my own pleasure as if it had been written by someone else. But the passage that sticks with me the most is the final beat between Maddy and Ilya, in which she silently asks him to spare Sharkovsky’s life. It’s an important moment for both of them: it conveys the essential difference between these two characters, points a way forward for Ilya to leave behind his violent past, and lays the groundwork for the epilogue’s closing twist. And we’ll revisit this moment again. At the climax of Eternal Empire, the final novel in the trilogy, I harken back to it, but both Maddy and Ilya have charged a great deal in the meantime. And it’s not until then, at the very end of the series, that we understand what that exchange of glances really meant…

Written by nevalalee

August 2, 2013 at 9:03 am

“She crossed the threshold…”

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"She crossed the threshold..."

Note: This post is the fifty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 57. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When I first started writing The Icon Thief, I knew from early on that the novel would end with Maddy breaking into the secret chamber behind Étant Donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For those of you who might need a reminder, this work—which was discovered and installed in the museum only after Marcel Duchamp’s death—lies in its own room just off the main gallery. It consists of a pair of wooden doors, which Duchamp bought in Spain and had specially cut to size, set into a brick archway. Through two small eyeholes, the viewer can see into the chamber beyond, in which the body of a nude woman, really a realistic dummy covered in calfskin, lies on a bed of dry grass, an upraised lamp in one hand. It’s the work that sparked much of the plot of this novel in the first place, partially because it’s so striking in its own right, but also because it inspires countless interpretations. And for a story in which the way we interpret or misread the world around us is such a crucial theme, I couldn’t think of a better way to end it than to have Maddy break into the installation itself in search of one last clue.

Obviously, this presented a number of problems, both narratively and logistically. Much of the novel is devoted to stacking the deck so that the reader truly believes, when the moment comes, that Maddy would be capable of taking such drastic action. I also wanted my description of the installation and its violation to be as accurate as possible, which turned out to be something of a challenge, especially in the early stages of research. At the point when I finally had to figure out how the scene would work, my only good source of pictures and diagrams of the interior was Duchamp’s own Manual of Instructions, which was published in a limited edition by the museum after the installation was first opened up for photographs. A few of the illustrations had been reproduced in Juan Antonio Ramírez’s useful book Duchamp: Love and Death, Even, but I soon realized that I’d have to get my hands on the real thing. As luck would have it, I managed to find a copy at a bookstore a short walk away from where I was living in Brooklyn, and although it was fairly expensive, it was more than worth the price.

"Then her vision cleared..."

Once I had the source, I studied the diagrams and pictures carefully, trying to see how the installation looked from the inside, how best to break into it, and what Maddy would encounter when she laid her hands on it for the first time. I learned, for instance, that the dummy itself consisted of several pieces: the torso, the left thigh, and the forearm and hand, which would all come apart if someone picked it up. Other details, such as the appearance of the underside of the armature, were less clear, and I had to extrapolate them from my sources as best I could. Much later, as I was finishing up the novel, the excellent study of Étant Donnés by Michael R. Taylor was published, with detailed interior photographs and essays on its construction that would have been incredibly useful. I discovered it too late for it to have a meaningful impact on most of the action, but I was able to use it to correct a few mistakes, and I later sent a copy of the novel to Taylor as a token of my appreciation.

Eventually, though, I knew that I’d have to go to the museum itself. The result was a visit that went much like the one I describe in Chapter 57, as Maddy figures out her mode of attack. Like Maddy, I noticed that behind the room with the visible door, there was another room that contained the dummy and tableaux itself, and that it appeared as an enigmatic unnumbered square on the upper left-hand corner of the museum map, like the secret chamber in the library in The Name of the Rose. There was an unmarked door leading into this room from the gallery devoted to Brâncuși, but I didn’t think you could easily force the lock. (I tried it gently—and as I’ve often reflected while doing location research for these stories, I’m lucky I didn’t get arrested.) I also spent a lot of time studying the wooden doors themselves, which I knew could be slid open to allow photographs to be taken of the interior, and I confirmed, as I’d long feared, that it wasn’t just a matter of getting the doors open: there was a pane of glass behind the door, not specified in Duchamp’s original plan, to protect the interior and prevent anyone from attempting precisely what I wanted to do. And to give my novel the ending it needed, I knew I’d have to break through it…

“He saw a word in his mind’s eye…”

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"He saw a word in his mind's eye..."

Note: This post is the fifty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 54. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I still have the notebook page on which I began jotting down ideas for the novel that eventually became The Icon Thief. At that point, I hadn’t yet acquired the good habit of dating all my notes, but from context, I seem to have started work on the story just over five years ago. As a result, the page is a time capsule of both my thoughts while roughing out the novel and my writing process at the time. In most ways, my approach hasn’t changed all that much, and the ideas I sketched out here are surprisingly close to what the novel eventually became. Here’s a sample:

Three levels of plot: supposed order, alleged order, and real order.
Themes: paranoia, information overload, vision/eyesight
New York art world; intersection between art + finance

This is followed by a long list of potential plot points or ideas from the real world, some of which ended up being crucial to the story that resulted, while others were eventually discarded. Neither Marcel Duchamp nor Étant Donnés are mentioned until the fourth page of notes, at which point I’d been working on the idea for several weeks. And on the top of the first page is the title of the novel I had in mind: Camera.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve rarely had much luck with the initial titles of my novels, and they’ve invariably had to be changed, usually with only a few weeks left before delivery of the manuscript. I have a weakness for opaque, suggestive titles that have more than one meaning, while publishers tend to be happier with titles that clearly signal what the book is going to be about. Consequently, I need to walk a fine line, and I’m very happy with the title The Icon Thief. Still, I do miss Camera. I’d wanted to write a novel with that name for a long time, although the original conception survives only as a shadow in what was eventually published: the initial plot, which I now think was probably too ambitious for my talents at the time, was about a man piecing together the reasons behind a loved one’s suicide by looking at the photos on her camera after her death. There’s a touch of this in the finished novel, as Maddy tries to figure out the clues that Ethan left behind, and my research into the life of the photographer Diane Arbus informed some elements of Maddy’s personality. Really, though, its presence in the story is more like that of a ghost, or a double exposure, dimly visible behind the plot’s convolutions.

"He was telling me who made the poison..."

The other inspiration for the title was “Camera” by R.E.M., possibly their saddest and most mysterious song, and one with a particularly haunting backstory. When I wrote that title at the top of the page, I didn’t have a plot in mind yet, but I certainly had a tone I wanted to capture, as well as a handful of themes that had always fascinated me: the gap between what we see and what we think we understand, the tendency for images to be misinterpreted, and the ambiguity of the photographic medium itself. These themes were radically transformed in the final product, and perhaps that’s the way it should be. But the working title achieved its purpose. It allowed me to focus my thinking, emphasizing some themes in preference to others, and at one crucial point, it also informed me that I was on the right track. Early in the process, I realized that the Russian chemical warfare program would be a part of the story, since it allowed me to unite several key themes—conspiracy, paranoia, Russia itself—into one convenient thread. And I still remember the strange thrill I felt when I learned that Laboratory 12, the notorious poison laboratory of the secret services, had also been known as Kamera.

Kamera, then, was the title under which the novel went out to publishers, and that’s how it was sold. And it’s instructive, at least to me, to go back over the story to see how it reads with its original title in mind. An ambiguous title is a sort of clue to the reader, a hint to keep an eye out for information that might otherwise seem unimportant, and in that light, a sequence like that of Chapter 54 would read altogether differently. We’ve already witnessed the end of Anzor Archvadze, dying in the hospital with a case of toxic epidermal necrolysis and barely managing to force out his last words: “Camera. Camera.” It’s not until several chapters later that Powell sees the words for what they really are. In the novel as it stands, it’s a good scene, but it would have been even better in the original version, as the true meaning of the title locked into place. Kamera, of course, means chamber, so the working title served triple duty: it was meant to evoke the poison program, the various roles that cameras and photographs play in the narrative, and the chamber of Étant Donnés itself. All this was lost in the final version. And although I’m mostly pleased by the way it turned out, I can’t help but miss what was there before…

Written by nevalalee

July 5, 2013 at 8:55 am

“It was two hours to Philadelphia…”

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"Outside a diner in Herald Square..."

Note: This post is the fifty-third installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 52. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Four years ago, I took a bus from New York to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see Étant Donnés for the first time. I’ve mentioned before that I like to tackle each part of a novel in turn, focusing on researching, outlining, and writing one section at a time while leaving the rest relatively undefined. Here, though, I was taking this approach to its extreme. At that point, I’d already been working for more than nine months on the novel that would later become The Icon Thief, a story that depended enormously on interpretations of Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic final masterpiece. I’d written solid drafts of Parts I and II, which spent a lot of time speculating on the work’s history and meaning, and I knew that Part III would climax at the doorway of Étant Donnés itself. Yet although I’d studied photographs and diagrams of the installation, read countless critical studies, and even paid an exorbitant amount of money for a reproduction of Duchamp’s original Manual of Assembly, I’d never gone to see it in person. There’s no particular reason for this; it’s only two hours by bus, and most sane writers would have made this pilgrimage early on, probably before a word of the rough draft had been written.

When I boarded the bus that day, then, it’s fair to say that I was in a state of considerable apprehension. I was excited about seeing the installation at last, but part of me also worried that I’d discover something during my trip that would ruin my plans for the novel’s conclusion. (As it happens, I did stumble across one inconvenient fact at the museum that forced me to rethink the logistics of the ending, but I’ll deal with story when I come to it.) But there was a reason I’d waited so long. I don’t generally talk about character and its creation in mystical terms: I spend a lot of time thinking about my characters, particularly about their objectives and specific actions, but I’m usually content to keep them at arm’s length—which in my case is probably a good thing. When I do research on location, for instance, I try to regard the scene through the eyes of the primary character, but I’m also thinking as a writer, noting down ideas, retracing my steps, and looking for useful details or bits of business. If I’d gone to Philadelphia earlier in the process, that’s the detached mode in which I’d have been operating, and it’s possible that I wouldn’t have been thinking of my characters at all.

"It was two hours to Philadelphia..."

On the day I finally did go, however, I was in a very different state. I’d been living with the character of Maddy Blume for a long time—even longer than I’d spent working on the novel itself—and I knew deep down that it was important for me to spend this last trip as much in her head as possible. I’ve noted elsewhere that every novel is secretly about the process of its own creation, and in this case, I had good reasons to identify myself with Maddy: we’d both been obsessed with Étant Donnés for a long time from a distance, and much of my own research process ended up in the novel itself, refracted through her point of view. She worked at a firm whose offices resembled those of my old company, she lived on my block in Brooklyn, and when I envisioned her violent struggle with Sharkovsky, I staged it to take place within inches of my own desk. As a result, it was easy for me to put myself in Maddy’s shoes. I wasn’t being stalked by a killer, but I was being followed by something equally insidious: an unfinished novel that I suspected would rise or fall based on what Maddy could do at that museum.

Not surprisingly, many of the small details in Chapter 51 of The Icon Thief—as well as many of the chapters that followed—reflect my experience that day. And in retrospect, I’m glad that I waited to go. One of the wisest pieces of advice on creativity I know comes from the great film editor Walter Murch, and it’s a point that I frequently repeat to myself:

Each stage leaves a residue of unsolved problems for the next stage—partly because the particular dilemma you’re facing cannot be solved in terms of the medium you’re working in right then…It would be deadly if you did solve all the problems in the script—you do not want to be asking for the gods’ help at every stage—because then everything subsequent would be a mechanical working out of an already established form…

In this case, the unsolved problem in the story happened to coincide with the mystery within the plot itself, which strikes me as a good way of attacking the conclusion of a novel that had previously been planned and outlined almost to a fault. Instead of approaching this trip with a writer’s objectivity, I was going to the museum, like Maddy, in a state of nervous anticipation. And neither Maddy or I knew what to expect…

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2013 at 8:47 am

“Then she saw that there was no way out…”

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"What am I really thinking?"

Note: This post is the fifty-second installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 51. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In theory, a novel should unfold as neatly as a proof in mathematics, with the plot emerging from a sequence of logical objectives and actions arising from the protagonist’s central problem. In practice, of course, it isn’t quite as straightforward. A manuscript in progress is a complex system, with elements on the smallest level invisibly affecting the largest. An author will often start with a handful of scenes or moments he wants to write, structuring the rest of the story—including the motivations of the central characters—so the plot will advance along a path that he happens to find interesting. There’s nothing wrong with this: I imagine that nearly every book contains scenes that have less to do with rigorous narrative economy than with what the author feels like writing at the time. Usually, these preconceived goals change along the way as well, and the resulting plot is the product of an ongoing process of action and reaction. Writing a novel isn’t a straight line: it’s more of slalom. And in the end, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to where you want to arrive without falling down on the way.

The Icon Thief went through many radical transformations from its initial conception to its final form, but I knew from the very beginning that it would end with Maddy physically breaking through the door of Étant Donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. If nothing else, this was a striking, memorable conclusion, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from experience, it’s that if a really good ending suggests itself, you should do whatever you can do steer the story in that direction. And I generally won’t start serious work on a novel at all until I have a decent climax in mind. (In City of Exiles, I had two—the incident on Chigorin’s plane and the final chase in Helsinki—and Eternal Empire similarly builds to an ending that I’d roughed out on my very first page of notes.) The trouble was getting Maddy to that point in a way that would seem inevitable. The scene as written, which I’ll discuss in more detail within the next couple of months, is one that arouses strong reactions from readers: there’s no conventional violence, at least not yet, but to see a work of art desecrated in such a visceral way is hopefully a little shocking. But it wouldn’t work at all if the reasons behind it didn’t make sense.

"Then she saw that there was no way out..."

Chapter 51 of the novel is eventful in its own right, but its real purpose lies in preparing the reader for the climax that will occur seven chapters later. As a result, the real challenge lay in the amount of ground it had to cover. In less than seven pages, I had to leave Maddy convinced that the conspiracy against her life was real; that the answer lay inside Étant Donnés; and that the only way to save herself was to go to the museum and see what was inside the installation with her own eyes. I also needed time for her to be attacked at home by Sharkovsky, fend him off, learn that Ethan was dead, and see Ilya watching as she fled her apartment. All these moments are important in themselves, but they’re really designed to propel her into the novel’s endgame. Whether or not it works is something that I’m hardly prepared to judge, but if nothing else, I’d say it achieves its purpose within the logic of the story, whether the reader believes in the Rosicrucian conspiracy or suspects that Maddy’s paranoia may have another cause. But if this succeeds, it’s only because I’ve taken pains as the author to stack the odds.

In constructing the beats of the scene itself, I was largely inspired by the climactic scene in Rear Window, in which Jimmy Stewart fights off an intruder using the tools of a photographer’s trade, a gimmick, as Hitchcock rightly observes in his interview with Francois Truffaut, that is really nothing more than canny screenwriting. And many of the other details—Maddy hiding in the closet, Sharkovsky seeing the burning cigarette—were consciously introduced an excuse for me to play with the toys that this kind of scene provides. The idea that Maddy would use replicas of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades—the shovel, the bottle rack—to fend off her attacker is a little cute, but I like it. The Icon Thief is a fairly cerebral novel, and when I look back at it now, I wonder if it might not be too clinical: I wouldn’t change it in any fundamental way, but there are times when I worry that its devotion to a clockwork plot gets in the way of more immediate pleasures. That’s why staging this knockdown brawl between Maddy and Sharkovsky was so satisfying. And although Sharkovsky is out of commission for now, they still have one last confrontation in store…

Written by nevalalee

June 14, 2013 at 9:18 am

“Inside, there were five racks of paintings…”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 23. You can read the earlier installments here.)

The painting at the center of The Icon Thief is basically a MacGuffin. There, I said it. At this point, I hope there isn’t any doubt about the sincerity of my respect for and fascination with Marcel Duchamp and the ways in which his example and influence are deeply entwined with the themes of this novel, to the point where the decision to structure the plot around the mystery of Étant Donnés seems all but inevitable. But it wasn’t. If I’d been ordered to change the premise to involve the theft and recovery of a different work of art entirely, I could have done so with minimal disruption to much of the surrounding story. I would have had to construct a new conspiracy theory around a different artist and write a new ending to accommodate the shift in emphasis, but perhaps seventy percent of the novel—everything involving Powell’s investigation, the Russian mob, and much of the art world material as well—would have survived intact. Would it have required major surgery? Of course. But it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as bad as the grueling rewrites that I’ve been asked to do for other projects.

That’s the nature of the MacGuffin: an object that exists to drive the plot and characters, but which could easily be replaced by something else, if necessary. And this is true even of objects that seem inextricably connected to the stories in which they appear. You could replace the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the Rod of Aaron or the Urim and Thummim or any number of other equivalent artifacts without changing an iota of the plot, aside from a few lines of dialogue. I’ve argued elsewhere that a good MacGuffin can immeasurably enrich the story in which it appears, or at least give the writer ideas for scenes or images that never would have occurred to him otherwise, and this is certainly true of The Icon Thief. But it says something about the nature of suspense fiction, and perhaps its limitations, that its components are so interchangeable. I knew from the beginning that this novel, as a conspiracy thriller set in the art world, would need to be structured around a particular work of art, and Étant Donnés was by far the best I found—and, if I’m going to be totally honest here, one of the best that anyone has ever found. But that doesn’t mean that something else wouldn’t have worked more or less as well.

You could even make the argument that other works of art would have been more appropriate, given the factual background of the novel itself. In Chapter 23 of The Icon Thief, Ilya finally penetrates to the art vault in which the painting is kept, after using a number of the clever tricks so dear to the heist story. Inside, he finds a rack of paintings, of which I write: “He did not give them a second glance, although one was a Braque and the other was a Bonnard.” These paintings are mentioned only in passing, but they’re really a nod to the other directions that the plot might have taken. Braque and Bonnard were two of the artists in the collection of Paul Rosenberg, an art collector who plays a crucial role in the true story that secretly lurks in the background of the novel, and if I were a real stickler for accuracy, I would have chosen one of these artists, or Picasso or Matisse, instead. If I chose Duchamp, it was only because he was the artist I wanted to write about. In fact, Rosenberg, at least to my knowledge, never collected Duchamp, although he certainly could have, and so I felt justified in awarding him this fictional painting.

Which brings us to another important point about MacGuffins. Study for Étant Donnés doesn’t actually exist, although I was careful to find a place it could have occupied in Duchamp’s catalog and to explain how it might have remained unknown to the larger art world. And the primary reason I went with a fictional painting, along with the various revelations about its provenance and history that I wanted to make, was that I needed a painting that would work as a MacGuffin. In particular, it needed to be relatively small, so that it could be smuggled unobtrusively out of Russia and so that Ilya could carry it out of the mansion under one arm—and, later in the novel, roll it up and conceal it beneath his clothes. In retrospect, this strikes me as a bit of a cheat, which is why, in Eternal Empire, I structure an important plot point around a real work of art, the Peter the Great egg made by the House of Fabergé, and take pains to characterize its appearance and provenance as accurately as possible. Here, though, the invented painting falls under the anthropic principle of this particular novel: without it, the rest of the story couldn’t exist in its current form. And this painting still has a long way to go…

Written by nevalalee

November 2, 2012 at 10:06 am

“Maddy arrived ten minutes early…”

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(Note: This post is the fourth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 3. You can read the earlier installments here.)

As I’ve mentioned before, I knew from early on that The Icon Thief would follow three parallel stories, each unfolding more or less independently until they converged at the end of the novel. Once I’d identified my three main characters—Maddy Blume, Alan Powell, and Ilya Severin—the problem became one of structuring the novel so that the narrative transitions made sense. I quickly discovered that there’s a reason why most books and movies, with the occasional exception, focus so clearly on one protagonist: not only does it give the audience someone to root for, but it allows for a kind of narrative clarity that can be hard to achieve with more than one main character. I finished the first draft of the novel thinking that I’d solved this structural problem fairly well, but one of the earliest comments I got back from readers was that I’d done almost too good a job of cutting between the three strands: I’d given Maddy, Powell, and Ilya roughly the same number and distribution of scenes, so it was hard to figure out what the novel’s true center of interest was supposed to be. And I soon found that fixing this problem would require some radical restructuring, at a point when the entire novel had already been written.

In the end, I was forced to conclude that, while it might not be as elegant as the perfectly balanced structure I’d initially conceived, I had to pick a main protagonist, both in terms of narrative screen time and emotional emphasis. The obvious choice was Maddy: she was arguably the most complex, interesting character, as well as the most relatable, and the one I’d conceived first. (In some ways, Ilya was the real heart of the book, but for reasons I’ll explain later, it was important not to overexpose him.) Once I’d decided to focus on Maddy, the book’s structural problems came clear: in the original draft, Maddy first appeared in Chapter 1, but wasn’t seen again until Chapter 4, after the two other main characters had been introduced, and her scenes were similarly parceled out throughout the first half of the novel, which made it hard for the reader to get involved in her situation. To make her the obvious lead, I saw that I had to keep cutting back to her end of the plot. Chapter 1 would still be about Maddy, but after introducing Powell in Chapter 2, I’d cut back to Maddy again, and continue focusing on her in alternate chapters for the first eighty pages or so. When in doubt, Maddy’s story would be my home base, and the reader, I hoped, would respond accordingly.

When I looked at the novel in this light, I realized, with a sinking feeling, that it would require some radical surgery. The number of chapters allocated to Powell had to be reduced, which required cutting and combining several of his scenes. Even more problematic was the realization, after I’d reshuffled the pieces, that I needed a new scene for Maddy, one that would come right after Powell’s introduction, to lock in the impression that she was the main character. None of the scenes I’d written so far fit the bill, which placed me in the somewhat awkward position of having to write a crucial early chapter from scratch, several months after I’d finished what I thought was the final draft of the novel. Because of its placement, it had to be a strong, interesting scene, but it couldn’t upset the sequence of chapters that had already been written. This presented me with a rather challenging puzzle to solve, much as a director might request a reshoot to fill in a plot hole revealed in the editing room. Luckily, as a writer, my budget is unlimited, so it wasn’t hard to reassemble the cast for a new scene in which Maddy meets a couple of friends in a New York restaurant for a drink—and some information.

Looking back at Chapter 3, I can’t say it’s one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, but it’s a nice, cleanly written chapter that does more or less what I needed it to do. By the time I wrote it, I’d been living with Maddy for well over a year, so I understood aspects of her character—her ambition, her relative destitution, her willingness to use others, and her underlying loneliness—better than I had before, so I was able to bring these out more clearly. (It also allowed me to describe her appearance more fully, which was another common request from readers.) I also solved another problem almost by accident. In the first draft, and this was nothing but a dumb mistake on my part, I didn’t fully explain the art world mystery behind Étant Donnés until much later, when Maddy goes to meet Alexey Lermontov, her former employer. Reading the novel over again, I realized that by withholding these details for no good reason, I was failing to play one of my strongest cards, and that this new scene provided a convenient way of putting this information up front. In short, by adding one fairly straightforward chapter toward the end of the writing process, I addressed the novel’s structural problems, gave more insight into a difficult main character, and foregrounded some of the most interesting material in the entire book. Now that’s a good fix!

Written by nevalalee

May 18, 2012 at 10:19 am

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