Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Eugène Delacroix

“He knew exactly where they were going…”

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"He knew exactly where they were going..."

Note: This post is the thirty-second installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 31. You can read the previous installments here.

When I first saw the cover of The Icon Thief, my debut novel, I’ll admit that I regarded it with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was a beautiful book, with a design that stuck closely to the layout that I’d informally proposed in an email to my editor: a view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, surmounted by a red sky, with occult images faintly visible overhead. On the other hand, the images themselves gave me pause. One, on the upper right corner, was the face of a generic cherub; the other, on the upper left, was the pointed tower of a building that I didn’t recognize. Neither seemed to have much, if anything, to do with the plot of the novel itself, and I suspected, no doubt correctly, that they had been included simply to give the cover a touch of Da Vinci Code atmosphere. I didn’t necessarily mind this, but when I showed the cover to three different people, I was asked three times what those images were, and I had to reply that I didn’t know. When I asked my editor about this, he said that he’d check with the artist. Later that day, he got back to me to say that the image on the upper left was a sketch of Peles Castle in Romania. Since I’d never heard of Peles Castle, that didn’t mean much to me. But I was grateful for the information, and I wrote back: “Now all I need to do is set a scene at Peles Castle in a future novel, so I can pretend that the image was a clue.”

At the time, this was simply a joke. I only had a contract for two novels, and City of Exiles had already been plotted out to the point where I couldn’t include a side trip to Romania merely on a whim. The more I thought about it, though, the more intrigued I became. I’d always hoped to turn the series into a trilogy, and the third novel didn’t exist as anything more than a collection of vague notions. It could take place in Romania as well as anywhere, especially since the geographic arc of the series already seemed to be inching eastward, as the action moved from New York across the ocean to London and finally, most likely, to Russia. When I looked into the history of Peles Castle itself, it seemed like it would make for an interesting backdrop for a scene or two. So when I finally began serious work on the book that turned into Eternal Empire, well over a year later, the idea that we’d end up at Peles Castle was one of only a handful of plot points that I jotted down on my initial sheet of notes. As far as inside jokes went, it was pretty obscure, but I liked the idea that the cover of the first novel hinted obliquely at the plot of the third. And even if it was an accident, I could pretend that I’d had something like it in mind all along. (You could even argue that the cherub on the right side of the cover looks ahead to the very different cherubim that play a role in City of Exiles, but that’s purely a coincidence.)

"Peles Castle..."

And I wouldn’t have bothered with this if I hadn’t already known that arbitrary mistakes or accidents can serve as a source of narrative inspiration. Constraints of any kind are always useful, and an accident that points in a particular direction can be as productive a clue as any. For the most part, my novels were thrown together essentially at fancy, as much as I would later try to make everything seem inevitable, and drawing on the first book’s cover for inspiration was another way of using every part of the buffalo. And it’s not entirely without precedent. Authors have often drawn retrospective inspiration from the illustrations for their books, as F. Scott Fitzgerald did with Francis Cugat’s cover for The Great Gatsby. Here’s how A. Scott Berg relates the story in Max Perkins: Editor of Genius:

[Fitzgerald wrote] an emphatic plea not to let any other book have the early dust jacket sketch that Max had casually shown him much earlier. It featured two gigantic eyes—supposedly those of the heroine, Daisy Fay Buchanan—brooding over New York City. That illustration had inspired Fitzgerald to create an image for the book—the billboard of an oculist named Dr. T.J. Eckelburg; the sign had two enormous eyes on it, which would stare from above onto the novel’s proceedings.

As a result, in Chapter 31 of Eternal Empire, when Ilya follows Bogdan to a cottage that overlooks Peles Castle, he’s following a trail that had been laid down years before. And to some extent, the scene that follows, in which Ilya discovers that his actions will determine whether Maddy will live or die, could have taken place almost anywhere. But there’s a deeper, weirder logic governing the story that I have trouble explaining in rational terms. As I’ve noted before, I had an idea that this novel would begin with the vandalism of a painting that would convey a secret message, but I wasn’t sure what this message would be. I arrived at Delacroix’s Ovid Among the Scythians almost by process of elimination: I wanted the painting to be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, since I could write about it credibly without having to pay a visit, and the reference to the Scythians, which ties into the fundamental themes of the series, only sealed the deal. Ultimately, I decided that the secret meaning of the painting’s destruction would hinge on the location it depicted, which happened to be the Port of Tomis—in Romania. And for the life of me, I can’t remember whether or not my desire to use Peles Castle as a setting informed that decision. I can only assume that it did. But I’d like to think that this series simply wanted to go to Romania, and I merely followed its lead. In the end, it turned out to be a short visit. But we were meant to come here all along…

Written by nevalalee

September 10, 2015 at 8:58 am

“Arkady arrived at the museum at ten…”

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"Arkady arrived at the museum at ten..."

Note: This post is the first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering the prologue.

A few years ago, at my beloved Newberry Library Book Fair, I picked up a copy of Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama. Because I got it on the last day, in which all prices are cut by half, I ended up buying it for only four dollars. I’d wanted to check it out ever since it was first published, and it’s typical of a lot of the books I buy these days—a big, beautiful tome that I might never read from cover to cover, but which makes me happy whenever I see it on the shelf. I’m conscious of the fact that this strays a bit from my own conception of a working library: like Umberto Eco, I may not have read all the books I own, but I’d like to think that each one is there for a reason. A single idea, a moment of clarity, even a loving hour’s browse is enough to justify a purchase. At some point shortly thereafter, then, I sat down with Rembrandt’s Eyes and simply turned the pages, trying to get a bird’s eye view of what it had to offer. About about halfway through, I stumbled across a story that caught my attention at once: Schama’s detailed account of the bizarre act of vandalism in which a young Lithuanian knifed and threw acid at Rembrandt’s Danaë at the Hermitage. I made a note of it. And it eventually formed the basis for the prologue to Eternal Empire.

It’s one of my favorite memories from writing any of my novels, because it represents a rare successful example of what writers are supposed to be doing all the time. In theory, we’re always on the lookout for material, and when we notice an interesting anecdote or instance of human behavior, it really ought to go right in the notebook. Practically speaking, of course, we’re more likely to forget it. If I happened to cling to this particular idea, it’s because I was primed for it: at the time, I was still working on City of Exiles, and the prospect of a third novel in the series was actively on my mind. So I actually wrote it down, as a good writer should, telling myself that it would make for a nice, arresting opening. At first, I didn’t know how it would tie in with the larger story I was slowly beginning to glimpse, but I arrived fairly quickly at one possible solution—that the destruction of a painting could serve as an attempt to convey a message, via press coverage of the incident, that a desperate intelligence operative couldn’t communicate in any other way. (If this sounds a little familiar, it may be because it isn’t far off from the premise of Borges’s story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and I acknowledge the influence in the epigraph.)

"But that all lay in the future..."

Once I had the episode’s narrative role in mind, what remained was largely a matter of filling in the blanks, both mechanically and on a more intuitive level. I decided early on that I wanted to set the scene at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, since it was a museum I could plausibly visit for research purposes, although by then I’d already moved to Chicago. (As it happened, I didn’t have the chance to do any work on location until after the prologue had already been written. Luckily, the Met is a museum I know well—I went there once a week for years—and there were plenty of online resources available, including the museum’s own virtual tour. In the end, my trip there only filled out a few minor details, although not until I’d been yelled at by a guard for surreptitiously videotaping the security line.) I also searched the museum’s collections for a potential painting to ruin, and I seem to have rapidly zeroed in on one promising candidate: Eugène Delaroix’s Ovid Among the Scythians. At the time, the novel I was writing was actually called The Scythian, a title I still regret losing, and it didn’t take a genius to see that the closer I could tie this painting into the story’s existing themes, the better.

This still left the small matter of what message the painting’s destruction was supposed to send. Fortunately, the fates conspired in my favor, as they often do in such situations. Ovid Among the Scythians depicts the exiled poet at the port of Tomis, now known as Constanta in Romania, a city on the edge of the Black Sea. I’d already decided—for reasons that I hope to explain in later post—that one of the novel’s subplots would follow a journey by megayacht across the Black Sea to the Russian resort town of Sochi. Constanta was a logical disembarkation point for such a voyage, and it seemed easy enough to connect the message sent by Arkady, my unfortunate spy, to that particular plot point. Later, I realized that opening the novel with an instance of art vandalism also provided a convenient way of reintroducing the character of Maddy Blume, who commits a similar act at the end of The Icon Thief. (There’s another nod to Maddy in a painting that Arkady pauses to examine in the same gallery, Delacroix’s Abduction of Rebecca, which foreshadows what happens to her at the end of Part I.) The result, I think, is still pretty neat, and it stands a nice instance of how unlikely components can be assembled, by looking both forwards and backwards, into a story that seems to have been conceived as a whole. It doesn’t always happen that way, but here, it works nicely. Or it’s better, at least, than what happens to poor Arkady…

Quote of the Day

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Orphan Girl at the Cemetery by Eugène Delacroix

Painting, in the beginning, was a trade like any other. Some men became picture makers as others became glaziers or carpenters. Painters painted shields, saddles and banners. The primitive painter was more of a craftsman than we are; he learned his trade superlatively well before he thought of letting himself go. The reverse is true today.

Eugène Delacroix

Written by nevalalee

September 16, 2014 at 7:30 am

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