Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Eternal Empire

“She did not think that she had been seen…”

leave a comment »

"The binder she had selected..."

Note: This post is the ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 10. You can read the previous installments here.

Occasionally, I’ll catch myself talking about writing as if it were nothing more than a collection of tricks. It’s much more than that, of course—there’s inspiration, intuition, and hard work involved, although there are tricks that apply to these aspects as well. And there’s always the danger that craft itself can turn into a crutch, or a way of avoiding a story’s deeper implications, once a writer has acquired enough dexterity to paper over lapses of logic or imagination. Yet if I’ve focused primarily on the tricks here, it’s for good reason. For one thing, it’s easier to find something relatively new to say each day about the technical aspects of writing: if I were more focused on inspiration and motivation, I’d end up writing the same post over and over again. And the world is already filled with books on writing that seem designed to do little more than urge aspiring authors to believe in themselves. There’s absolutely a place for this, and I’ve long benefited from words of encouragement from writers as different as John Gardner, Annie Dillard, and Stephen King. In the long run, though, most writers figure out the why for themselves; it’s the how that keeps them from taking their work to completion.

And craft has pleasures and consolations of its own. Writing is about a lot of things, but it’s largely a matter of creating a certain kind of awareness, both toward the world itself and toward other works of fiction. When you’re in the middle of writing a novel, you look at the people, places, and situations around you in a way that doesn’t have a parallel anywhere else; an ongoing project turns the brain into a kind of magnet, drawing bits and pieces of material that would have gone unnoticed if there hadn’t been a place to put them. What sets the great noticers, like Nabokov and Updike, apart from the others is that they don’t seem able to turn it off, even if they aren’t working on a particular story. For the rest of us, that quality is heightened when we’re tackling something specific: it makes us just a little more conscious, a little more aware. But an understanding of writing’s technical side—which really only emerges after we’ve written a novel or two of our own—goes a long way toward maintaining that level of awareness in the meantime. In art, as in science, we’re more likely to notice something interesting if we have a general idea of what we’re trying to find, and a lot of craft boils down to recognizing something useful when we see it.

"She did not think that she had been seen..."

Once you’ve been writing for long enough, you naturally start to pick up on details of appearance, incident, or behavior that might come in handy one day, but craft also teaches you to pay attention to things that are a little more abstract: a way of describing something, a structure that creates suspense, a scene or character type that you can appropriate and apply to a more concrete problem. Often I’ll be watching a movie or reading a book, absorbed but not particularly excited, and find that my interest is suddenly much higher than it was before. At such times, it helps to step back and try to figure out what happened. I vividly remember watching the great Argentine movie The Secret in Their Eyes, for instance, and feeling a spike in suspense during a scene when two characters illegally enter the house of a suspect in search of a piece of evidence. The entire sequence is charged with tension, and it isn’t hard to see why: even if they aren’t caught in the act, the real possibility remains that they will be, and everything that happens—even exposition—is more interesting as a result. I filed this away, and later, when it came time to write a new scene for The Icon Thief, I had Powell do much the same thing, knowing that it would probably hold the reader’s attention.

That’s the kind of trick I like, and once you start looking for them consciously, it adds a new layer of interest to every work of fiction you experience. When I saw the recent adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I felt a similar surge in interest during the great scene—taken almost exactly from the original novel, which I hadn’t read at that point—in which Peter Guillam, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, steals a file from the archives of his own intelligence agency. It’s a nifty sequence that involves good timing, quick improvisation, and the substitution of one folder for another, and it’s basically a set piece, in its original sense: a scene that could be lifted from one story and inserted into another without much in the way of modification. It doesn’t matter what the folder contains; the beats of the sequence would remain exactly the same. I liked it so much, in fact, that I felt no compunction in using it in Chapter 10 of Eternal Empire, in which Maddy has to steal a binder from the office in which she works. Shrewd readers will probably see the parallels, and might even see it as an homage, when it’s more a case of using a good trick at the right time. Any decent novel, of course, is more than the sum of its tricks. But they’re often necessary for us to obtain what we need, like Guilliam, without getting caught…

Written by nevalalee

February 26, 2015 at 9:17 am

The timeline of one novel

leave a comment »

A page from the author's notebook

Since it’s Labor Day, I thought I’d mark the occasion by considering an unusual, highly specialized form of labor: the progress of a novel from initial idea to finished book. In particular, I’d like to talk about the timeline. One of the most mysterious aspects of writing fiction, at least from the outside, is how long each stage requires. A novelist will sometimes end a book with a statement of how long it took to complete, like the terse “Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921” at the end of Ulysses, but that little number often raises more questions than it answers. How much of that time was spent on a first draft? How much on revision? When a novelist says that a book took about nine months to finish, what does that really mean? With Eternal Empire appearing in stores tomorrow, I thought it might be interesting—at least to me—to look back at my own files to see exactly how and when this novel came into being. Whether or not this will be useful for anyone else is another question, but I don’t think it hurts to share this information, since I haven’t often seen it elsewhere.

I’d been mulling over the prospect of a third installment almost as long as I’d known that this would be a series in the first place, and for years, there was a page devoted to random ideas for a final novel in my writer’s notebook. The first tangible evidence I have of the direction the novel would take is an extended notebook entry dated July 12, 2011, followed by a small text file from September 4, which consists of nothing but a short excerpt from the book by Rachel Polonsky I mentioned here last week, along with a stanza from Alexsandr Blok’s poem “The Scythians.” Three weeks later, while I was still waiting for notes on the final draft of City of Exiles, I finished a seven-page proposal for a novel that was known, at that stage, as The Scythian. Even at this early stage, the synopsis was fairly complete, but my agent and I still waited for almost three months before sending it out, since we wanted to approach my editor after he’d read and approved the final draft of the second novel. On December 12, the proposal was finally emailed to my editor, and by early January, we had a handshake offer, with a deadline of November 1, 2012. (As always, the contract and payment took longer to finalize, but that’s a topic for another post.)

A page from the author's notebook

As usual, I decided to spend the first month or so of the writing process entirely on research, with only a general sense of how the material I found would fit into the final story. Looking back at my own notes, I seem to have focused primarily on the Shambhala angle and putting together a chronology and visual materials on the London riots. By January 30, I felt confident enough to start a detailed outline of the first third of the book, which I finished on March 5—which happened to be the day before The Icon Thief was released. I immediately began work on the manuscript itself, aiming to write a rough version of a chapter each day, and finished up Part I on April 29. This section of the draft ended up being about 59,000 words long. I don’t seem to have wasted any time in getting to work on Part II, and I started research and outlining on April 30. I began writing Part II on June 15, taking a short break to revise the prologue, which would appear as a teaser at the end of City of Exiles. Part II was finished around August 5, amounting to 50,000 words, and outlining for Part III began the next day. I finished this outline within two weeks, and I had a draft of the entire novel by August 30. Total length was about 125,000 words.

At this point, I normally would have taken an extended break, but given my compressed timeline, I ended up waiting only a week or so before diving into the revision. In the meantime, a number of significant events had occurred: my original editor left Penguin, leaving the book in the hands of another, and the title changed from The Scythian to Eternal Empire. (If I’m going to be honest, I do miss the original title, although the new one is still pretty good.) I continued to revise the manuscript over the next couple of months, cutting the draft down to 100,000 words, and delivered a version to my publisher two days before my deadline, on October 30. I then took the long break I’d been craving for months, using the time to write the story that ended up being published as “The Whale God” and doing some tentative work on the manuscript that I hope will be my fourth novel. I also had my first daughter. I got notes back from my editor on February 9; returned a revised version, which included a new chapter and some additional material, on March 1; got the copy edit on April 16 and page proofs on May 9, both of which involved some small changes; and by May 14, I was absolutely, positively done. And tomorrow, you’ll see the result for yourself.

Written by nevalalee

September 2, 2013 at 8:47 am

The end is the beginning is the end

leave a comment »

The Scythian Trilogy

As I’ve noted before, the number three has a magical quality for authors, which may be why so many of us are tempted to write trilogies. If the second installment in a series is about building on the world established by the first and taking it into unexpected directions, the third is generally about coming full circle: it revisits and reimagines the events that brought us here in the first place, often revealing surprising perspectives on the story’s origins. The Dark Knight Rises is a good recent example: in many ways, it’s an attempt to engage Batman Begins through the lens of The Dark Knight, and both of the earlier films are enriched in the process. It doesn’t always work, of course: I may be in the minority here, but to my eyes, a movie like The Bourne Ultimatum gets a little mired in backstory when it tries to cast new light on what came before. And as The Bourne Legacy unfortunately demonstrates, once you’ve already attempted that kind of thematic return, it can be very hard to move forward in an interesting way—which is why so many franchises fall apart when they attempt a fourth installment.

In my case, a trilogy wasn’t necessarily a part of the plan—I would have considered myself lucky enough just to get The Icon Thief into print—but once I knew that I’d be writing a set of connected novels, I had to think hard about what this really meant, both in general and for these books in particular. Writing City of Exiles forced me to consider the problem of a sequel, which needs to continue the story established in the previous installment while remaining a satisfying book in its own right, and Eternal Empire, in turn, obliged me to deal with the issue of endings. I knew from the start that this would be the last book in the series, and I wanted to come up with a strong conclusion while I still had the freedom and ability to do so. As a result, when it came time for me to plan out the third book, only a few months after finishing the second, I was thinking as much about destruction as creation. (Years from now, if I ever write a fourth novel with these characters, I may need to eat my words, but for the moment, let’s assume that I stick to my guns.)

The Scythian Trilogy

I decided, in short, that Eternal Empire would be a direct sequel to The Icon Thief to a degree that City of Exiles was not. In a sense, it ends up serving double duty: City of Exiles ends on a cliffhanger that the third novel needed to resolve, but it also reaches further back to the first installment, so the resolutions of these two books essentially unfold in parallel before converging at the very end. I don’t think I was aware of this structural peculiarity while I was writing the book, and if I’d known, I’m not sure I would have gone through with it. It meant a lot of complicated bookkeeping and rebalancing, as I tried to give each character his or her fair share of attention while advancing the story at the same time, and at one point, I worried that the book would become too unwieldy to manage. (In fact, it ended up being exactly the same length as the previous two novels, although not without a lot of cutting and reworking.) Throughout it all, I was encouraged by the fact that the ending was in sight, which allowed me to take greater risks than if I were hoarding material for future books. For better or worse, it’s all here.

And it freed me to do something that I thought I’d never do: bring back Maddy Blume, the protagonist of The Icon Thief. Of all the characters I’ve created, I feel most protective of Maddy, whose inner life, in some ways, is closest to my own. As I recently explained in my author’s commentary for the first book, I felt that I’d resolved her story on an appropriate note of ambiguity, and I didn’t want to bring her back for a sequel, both because I couldn’t think of a plausible way of including her and because I thought she deserved a break. Eventually, though, I found myself curious about what she’d been doing in the intervening years, and I finally hit on a narrative device that would allow me to reintroduce her in a logical way. Sometimes the belated return of an established character can make it seem as if an author is writing fanfic for his own creations—which I’ve hopefully managed to avoid. But the result, at least for me, is the novel that I’ve been building toward all along, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time. And I think it’s the best book I’ve ever written.

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2013 at 8:23 am

Writing a thriller in the real world

with 2 comments

The 2011 London riots

When I began researching The Icon Thief in March of 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 12,500 points, and it was about to go much higher. Exactly one year later, while I was revising the rough draft, it had plunged to 6,600, and although it slowly recovered from there, it remained far below its previous heights even after the novel was released. (In fact, it wasn’t until after the release of my second novel that the market earned back its losses from the crash.) For most books, this wouldn’t have been an issue, but it presented me with a peculiar problem: my book was set in the New York art world, which was hit especially hard by the downturn, and many of my assumptions about the art market and art investing—not to mention that state of Russia—were no longer correct. I could have tried to revise the entire manuscript to take these events into account, but I chose a different strategy: I recast the novel to take place explicitly in the months before the financial crisis, which I’d address directly only in the epilogue. That way, I’d be able to retain most of the story I’d written, and setting it in a specific period would lend the plot a useful degree of historical irony.

In retrospect, I needn’t have worried: by the time The Icon Thief was finally released in early 2012, the markets had largely recovered, and the art world—especially on the auction side—had returned to business as usual. Still, it made for a better novel, and it also set a template for the installments that followed, which, for the sake of consistency, I decided to also set on specific dates in the recent past. Of course, this approach has pitfalls of its own. A casual reader isn’t likely to pick up on any chronological inconsistencies, but I’ve always been mindful of the example of obsessive Sherlock Holmes fans, who argue endlessly over the date on which the stories take place and ruthlessly pick apart Arthur Conan Doyle for his “mistakes”—which can be as minor as incorrectly describing the London weather or train schedule for a particular weekend in 1895. As a result, I resolved early on to make the details as accurate as I could. For each of these novels, I’ve put together a calendar to make sure that the action unfolds in a logical way, and I’ve tried to account for things like railway schedules, weekends, and holidays. (Occasionally, there will be a small discrepancy, such as the fact that July 4 comes and goes in The Icon Thief without anyone taking notice of it.)

2011 Russia Protests

This becomes particularly difficult whenever I make use of real historical events. For City of Exiles, this was a minor consideration: the only real limiting factor was the timing of the annual London Chess Classic, which ended up being the event around which the chronology of the rest of the novel was structured. Things got a little more complicated for the third book. Shortly after I returned from a research trip to London for the second novel, the country erupted in riots, and I knew at once that they were something I wanted to incorporate into a future book. Ultimately, I conceived a lengthy sequence covering several chapters in Eternal Empire that unfolds against the backdrop of the riots. When I sat down to write it, however, I found that keeping the action accurate would be a real challenge. I went back and worked out the chronology of the riots as thoroughly as I could, going hour by hour when necessary, and I tried to make the description of the events as close to the facts as possible, although I ended up fudging a few details here and there for the sake of the story. And I’m very proud of the result, which I think is one of the strongest set pieces in the entire trilogy.

The second major historical event that I wanted to include was the series of demonstrations against the Putin regime that occurred in Russia at the end of 2011. Here, my task was a little easier, since the protests took place outside of the main timeframe of the action, and I could hold off on addressing them until the end of the novel. All the same, the novel builds toward these events in many ways, both subtle and unsubtle, and they provided me with a pivotal historical moment that, in retrospect, the entire series seems to anticipate. In the end, of course, the demonstrations didn’t achieve much, and their ultimate significance is more symbolic than real. But having a factual event waiting for me at the conclusion of the novel guided my choices and shaped the characters in ways that wouldn’t have happened if I’d set the story at some indefinite time in the present, and there’s no question that all three novels have been enriched by the historical context in which they were set and written. Like many aspects of this series, this quality began as an accident, then became central to my ambitions for these books. And although I’m not sure I’ll ever try anything quite like it again, I can’t imagine these novels in any other way.

Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2013 at 9:02 am

Wealth, power, and the ship of fools

with 4 comments

Paul Allen's Octopus

There was a period in my life when I was pretty sure I was going to be rich. Shortly after college, I got a job at a hedge fund in Manhattan that had an unusual hiring philosophy: it was eager to recruit recent Ivy League graduates with no previous financial experience—including those, like me, whose primary area of interest was the humanities—into roles that might seem, at first, like a strange fit. In particular, it placed a lot of writers, artists, and other creative types into operational and research positions, reasoning that they’d be able to attract smart, talented people if they offered them a good salary and the promise of being able to finish one’s play or opera outside of work. In the end, I spent close to four years there, trying to write fiction while also moving deeper into the financial world, first on the investor relations side and later in researching potential new funds and businesses. Eventually, I noticed that the ideal held out by the firm—of being an artist and a financial professional—didn’t really pan out: people tended to either put their creative dreams on hold to focus on their careers, or they quit. And as I’ve explained before, I ultimately chose the latter.

Needless to say, the situation at my old firm didn’t remain quite as rosy after my departure: the market crashed, the fund lost a fair amount of money, and it laid off many of the creative types it had hired in happier times. I’m not sure I could get a job there again now. And I have no regrets—although I’m still feeling the effects of the experience more than seven years later. Among other things, it gave me a sense of how money really works for the first time, and it quickly accustomed me to thinking of enormous sums of cash in casual ways, although there were still times when the amount of capital flowing in and out seemed absurd. (I’ll never forget the day when one of the firm’s partners paid for a personal investment in the fund with a handwritten personal check, drawn on a regular checking account, for a million dollars.) Not surprisingly, you can see the influence on my fiction, which returns repeatedly to financial themes. The Icon Thief largely takes place at an art hedge fund modeled in part on my former employer; in City of Exiles, we briefly glimpse an activist fund that will play a much larger role later in the series; and in Eternal Empire, we spend more time among the very wealthy themselves. Because this is a book about oligarchs.

Roman Abramovich's Eclipse

For me, the most fascinating symbol of the new form of wealth, which concentrates staggering amounts of money in the hands of very few, is the megayacht. A yacht on the order of Larry Ellison’s Rising Sun or Paul Allen’s Octopus is literally the most expensive thing a private citizen can own: with price tags exceeding $200 million or more, they’re more costly than any form of real estate, and they can cost upward of $20 million per year simply to operate. I’ve had a curious fascination with these yachts for a long time, and once I realized that Eternal Empire was going to center on the figure of a Russian oligarch, I knew I’d have to put such a yacht into the story. Much of the second half of the novel takes place on a fictional yacht, the Rigden, whose dimensions would put it “not quite in the top ten of the largest yachts ever built,” as one of my characters puts it. Researching this material was a pleasure, and I spent many hours paging through yacht plans and specifications to build my massive ship in a bottle. But as seductive as the surface elements can be, I soon found that the Rigden, like any ship, was a natural focal point for larger symbolic and thematic concerns. A ship, whether it’s the Pequod or Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, always seems to stand for something more, and mine was no exception.

In this case, it inevitably evolved into a symbol of one of my favorite themes: the limits of control. There’s a reason why so many suspense novels take place in environments of extreme wealth. Part of this is escapism, devolving at times into lifestyle porn; part of it is the sense that, as Balzac said, behind every great fortune lies a crime. Most of all, though, it simply takes one of the central precepts of the thriller—that for all the bulwarks we erect against danger and risk, we’re rarely in control of our own lives—to its logical conclusion. As examples from fiction and the daily news remind us, wealth alone is no barrier to misfortune, as both Anzor Archvadze in The Icon Thief and Mikhail Khodorkovsky in real life have discovered. And I think the reason I’m fascinated by the yachts of the wealthy is that they stand for the same thing as all ships: the human impulse to set our own resources against the unknown. Sometimes the result is the Eclipse; sometimes it’s the Titanic or the Costa Concordia. I won’t say what happens to the Rigden. But a megayacht, for all its glamor and power, is still insignificant compared to the ocean around it, or, as I put it at a crucial point in Eternal Empire: “A masterpiece of foresight and design surrounded on all sides by night.”

Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2013 at 8:46 am

The secret of the Khazars

leave a comment »

Image of Khazar and captive

As I’ve noted here before, when you write the first novel in what turns out to be a series, the possibilities are limitless, but for each subsequent installment, you find yourself increasingly hedged in by what came before, and not necessarily in a bad way. The Icon Thief and its first sequel were more loosely connected than most: the primary protagonist doesn’t reappear, the setting is very different, and many of the central motifs have changed. City of Exiles is less of a conspiracy novel and more of a straightforward international thriller, and in order for the two books to feel tonally consistent, I knew I’d have to reproduce some of the first book’s less obvious elements in a somewhat different form. I’d structure the plot, as before, around an unexplained historical mystery; Russia and the interlocking worlds of intelligence and organized crime would still drive the story; and, more subtly, I wanted to reintroduce a thread of Jewish mysticism. This last element played a more subdued role in The Icon Thief, but it was so intuitively appropriate to the kinds of stories I was telling—with their themes of close reading and interpretation—that I wanted to expand it in the sequel.

In City of Exiles, this took the form of an extended exploration of the vision of Ezekiel, which has fascinated me ever since I first encountered it in The White Goddess by Robert Graves. For Eternal Empire, I wanted to write about something similar, although at reduced length, just as I knew that I’d need to revisit other themes from the previous novels. At first, I thought it would be easy. I’ve been interested in Jewish mysticism and the rabbinical tradition for most of my life, and in Ilya, I had a character whose thoughts could take the story in any direction I wanted. From this rich reservoir of potential material, I finally decided, almost at random, to insert a thread about the Urim and Thummim, the mysterious stones, kept in the breastplate of the high priest, that were evidently used for divination by the ancient Israelites. I chose them because they were inherently interesting, would allow me to draw on some intriguing sources, and were relatively unexplored in the kind of novel I was writing, although there have been a few attempts to put them at the center of an Indiana Jones-type adventure. What I had in mind was something else, a kind of thematic counterpoint to the main action, similar to the role that Ezekiel’s chariot had played in the previous book.

A page from Dictionary of the Khazars

I began, as always, by doing a lot of reading, including Cornelis Van Dam’s excellent recent study of the subject, and I ended up with what I’d like to think is a plausible, evocative, and novel interpretation of the Urim and Thummim. And I’d love to use it someday. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that the topic, while compelling, just didn’t work for the purpose I’d intended. Even now, I’m not entirely sure why: I suspect that it was probably too remote from the underlying story, and the thematic resonance I needed just wasn’t there. As a result, I found myself switching gears after I’d already written half the novel. Casting about for another subject, I hit on the story of the Khazars, which had been on my mind for a long time. The Khazars were a tribe of horsemen who, at their peak, dominated much of Central Asia during the Dark Ages, serving as a kind of bulwark between Byzantium and the Arab empires. At some point, remarkably, they underwent a mass conversion to Judaism, forming the first authentically Jewish kingdom since the time of the Bible. The details of the conversion are still unclear: it may have been a politically motivated decision, allowing them to build a more organized religious society while remaining independent of their Christian and Muslim neighbors. Or, as I argue in Eternal Empire, it may have been something else. In any case, nobody knows: Russia ultimately wiped the Khazars off the map, and aside from a few scattered artifacts, nothing of their kingdom remains.

Of course, I’m not the first novelist to be drawn to this story, and one of my secret motivations for writing about it was the excuse to finally read Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, an extraordinary book that now ranks among my ten favorite novels of all time. (My other primary source was Arthur Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe, mostly because I find Koestler interesting as a writer, although I’m aware that his conclusions about the Khazars—he argues that they were the true ancestors of the Ashkenazi Jews—are highly controversial.) And while I knew from the start that my take on the subject wouldn’t be nearly as rich as Pavic’s, I could tell that I’d made the right choice. Ilya Severin, the Jewish thief and former assassin who stands at the center of the trilogy, is also known as the Scythian, a name I gave him because of its historical connotations: the nomadic Scythians have always been central to the Russian imagination, to which they represent the forces of the East fighting with the culture of the West for control of the nation’s destiny. The same conflict plays out within Ilya, on a smaller scale, but I’d always felt guilty that I’d never made the connection between him and the Khazars, who lived and died in the same land as the Scythians. In Eternal Empire, Ilya says as much: “Given the choice, I would rather have been a Khazar.” And now, at last, he’ll have his chance.

How I discovered Shambhala

leave a comment »

Tibet by Nicholas Roerich

One of the most profound benefits of being a novelist—and one that I don’t think gets enough attention—is the quality of heightened awareness it creates. When you’re looking for a story idea, your attitude toward the world around you is subtly shifted: material that might never have caught your eye otherwise is captured and assimilated, because it actually has somewhere to go. That’s why I like to start the research for a book in an intermediate state of mind, when I’m open to inspiration without prejudice but also have a sense of what I’m trying to find. It reminds me a little of the famous story of the young Albert Einstein and his Uncle Jakob, as Walter Isaacson tells it:

His uncle Jakob Einstein, the engineer, introduced him to the joys of algebra. “It’s a merry science,” he explained. “When the animal that we are hunting cannot be caught, we call it X temporarily and continue to hunt until it is bagged.”

For authors, X is the germ of a story idea, and the only way to find it is to label it as an unknown, then start hunting for it widely and systematically.

In the case of Eternal Empire, I happen to know exactly when I first encountered the initial seed, which hasn’t always been the case for the novels I’ve written. For The Icon Thief, I hunted ideas by reading everything I could find on art history, starting in the extensive collection of art books at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. A stray reference in Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? by James Elkins, a book I took off the shelf almost at random, led me to the bizarre conspiracy theory involving Marcel Duchamp that Philippe Duboy describes at length in Lequeu. In the end, I didn’t use any material from Duboy’s book, but it set me in the right direction, and I eventually found myself standing outside the door of Étant Donnés. City of Exiles was born in a similar way: I knew that the sequel had to focus on a mystery from the history of Russia, and after another period of wide reading, I settled on the strange case of the Dyatlov Pass. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I first heard about this story—which even has its own movie now—I said: “That’s it.” But it took a lot of exploration to get to that point.

Shambhala by Nicholas Roerich

By contrast, the central theme of Eternal Empire all but fell into my lap, and I have this blog to thank for it. In June of 2011, I wrote a post called “Agnosticism and the Working Writer,” in which I approvingly quoted a piece by the blogger Jessa Crispin, who pointed out that for a poet like W.B. Yeats, mystical beliefs can be enormously useful. Elsewhere in the same essay, to illustrate the potential abuses of magical thinking, Crispin quoted a passage from a recent work of journalism that caught my attention at once:

It’s rumored that Putin has, as journalist Rachel Polonsky relays, “assigned money from the national budget to be spent on another search for the doorway to Shambhala in the Altai region of Siberia, a cosmic energy centre where he likes to pose for photographers, seated half-naked on a horse, like some latter-day Mongol khan.”

And all I could really say was: “Thank you.” I immediately sought out Polonsky’s book, Molotov’s Magic Lantern, and I ultimately used another passage—about Putin’s desire to retrieve a piece of the polar seabed from the Arktika expedition, allegedly because the entrance to the underground kingdom of Shambhala is rumored to exist at the pole—as the epigraph to Eternal Empire.

Regular readers of this blog will understand why I found Shambhala and its modern incarnations so appealing. It’s a story that has meant a lot of things to a lot of people: it began as an allegorical kingdom in Buddhism, a kind of metaphorical empire of enlightened souls, and inspired James Hilton’s fantastical vision of Shangri-La. Later, others began to suspect that Shambhala might actually exist, perhaps as a hidden kingdom in Tibet or elsewhere in Central Asia, which inspired a number of strange expeditions on the part of the Soviet Union and the Nazis, as chronicled by Andrei Znamenski in his fascinating book Red Shambhala. As such, it provided me with a playing field to explore the topics that I find interesting as a novelist: interpretation, the evolution of myth into fact, and the way we impose meaning on the world. It was general enough of a subject to give me latitude as a writer to make it mean whatever I wanted, but also specific enough yield a mine of compelling historical detail. In short, it was perfect. And I was very lucky to stumble across it—but only because I was looking for it, or that elusive X, in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

August 26, 2013 at 8:36 am

%d bloggers like this: