Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Frederick Forsyth

“The need for change is there…”

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"The need for change is there..."

Note: This post is the sixty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 60. You can read the previous installments here.

Vladimir Putin is still here. I type these words not because we need to be reminded of that fact—I can’t think of another foreign political leader whose shadow has loomed so ominously over a peacetime presidential race—but to consider what it means. When I began writing The Icon Thief, more than eight years ago, Putin was ostensibly on his way out: he was ineligible to run for a third term, so the reigns of power were passed to Dmitry Medvedev, his chosen successor. Instead, Medvedev appointed him prime minister, and a few years later, Putin was back in the presidency, as if he’d never been gone. It isn’t hard to imagine him pulling the same trick forever, or for as long as his health holds out, which might be for quite some time. He’s only in his early sixties now, which is practically his young adulthood compared to some of the decrepit Russian leaders of the past, and he’s in what he takes pains to assure us is peak physical condition. It’s a situation that ought to keep most of us up at night, but it’s also a boon to suspense novelists. As I once pointed out, Putin’s name is the most evocative word in the lexicon of the modern thriller: it calls up an entire world of intrigue and implication, allowing a novel to do in a few sentences what might otherwise require five pages. As a rhetorical device, it isn’t just confined to fiction, either. Putin wouldn’t be evoked so often in this election if he didn’t have such a powerful hold over our imaginations, and recent events have only confirmed, as I’ve said from the beginning, that nothing that a writer can invent about Russia can possibly compare to the reality.

Incorporating a contemporary or historical political figure into a thriller is nothing new, of course. The gold standard was set, as it was in so many other things, by Frederick Forsyth, who built The Day of the Jackal around an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle, and who gave prominent speaking parts to Margaret Thatcher in several of his later novels. It’s a trick that grows stale when a writer uses it too often, as Forsyth sometimes does, but its easy to understand its appeal. For a certain kind of thriller, the story is less about something that could happen than about what might be happening right now, or that has already happened without our knowledge. Such novels often set up a sliding scale of verisimilitude, starting with big, obvious figures like Putin, working their way down through historical figures or events that aren’t as familiar, and finally entering the realm of pure fiction. Even if you’re reasonably conversant with current events, you can have trouble telling where fact leaves off and invention begins, especially when the novel starts to show its age. (For instance, I have a feeling that most contemporary readers of The Day of the Jackal aren’t aware that the opening sequence, which depicts a failed attempt on de Gaulle’s life, is based on fact—an interesting case of a novel outliving the material that it once used to enhance its own credibility.) Ideally, the transition from someone like Putin to the fictional characters at the bottom of the pecking order should be totally seamless, at least in the moment. We know that Putin is real and that most of the other characters aren’t, but in some cases, we aren’t sure, and the overwhelming fact of Putin himself serves to organize and enhance the rest of the story.

"The protesters were wearing white ribbons..."

Eternal Empire is literally framed by Putin, both in terms of how the novel was conceived and of how it was finally published. It opens with an epigraph from Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern, which describes how Putin asked to have a fragment of the polar seabed brought back to him as a nod to the underground kingdom of Shambhala, and it ends with an excerpt from a New York Times article from December 10, 2011, which describes the abortive protests that flared up that year against the Putin regime. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the entire novel unfolded like a paper flower from those lines in Polonsky’s book, and it isn’t hard to see why they struck me. In juxtaposing the steely figure of Putin, the ultimate pragmatist, with the gauzy myth of Shambhala, it encapsulates the tension that defined the rest of the series, which in many ways is about the collision between practical spycraft and the weirder elements that have a way of impinging on the rational picture. (As Powell says to Wolfe of the Shambhala story: “That doesn’t sound like the Putin I know.”) The closing epigraph attracted me for many of the same reasons. Its image of protesters with white flowers and ribbons was derived from an actual event, but it could easily stand for something more. A white flower can mean just about anything, so it wasn’t hard for me to tweak the story so that the protests seemed to emerge from the Shambhala plot. And the entire narrative was timed to culminate at this moment, which would serve as the visible eruption of the forces that my characters had spent the entire book marshaling in secret.

Now that five years have passed, the image that concludes the trilogy, of Maddy watching the protesters on television, feels very different in tone. The protests themselves are little more than a footnote, and Putin’s hold on power has never been stronger. Since the plot hinges on a plan to change Russian politics from the inside, the historical outcome might seem to undermine the whole story. I’m not sure it does, though. Maddy notes that Tarkovsky has bought himself “a few years” to prepare, which might well mean that his plan is underway even now—although I doubt it. More pragmatically, the characters observe, both here and in the epilogue, that most attempts at reform are crushed, and that a revolution is more likely to die than to endure. (You can picture me typing those lines, more than three years ago, as a way of hedging my bets.) But if there’s a thread that runs through all these novels, it’s the importance of small, private victories in the face of the indifference or hostility of larger systems. I began the series with a conspiracy novel, which is a genre that implicitly raises the issue, even in its pulpiest incarnations, of the relationship between the individual and the impersonal forces to which he or she is subjected. All three books conclude on a similar note, which is that we can try to get glimpse behind the mask, if only for a moment, and then return to the more achievable task of establishing what little order we can in our own lives. It isn’t much of an answer, but it provides just enough consolation to see us through, both in a novel and in the real world. Putin survives, as I suspect I always knew he would. But so do Wolfe and Maddy. And that’s how their story ends…

“There’s something we need to talk about…”

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"There's something we need to talk about..."

Note: This post is the fifty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 50. You can read the previous installments here.

Suspense is usually the most linear of genres, but a lot of thrillers include exactly one flashback. You know the one I mean: it comes near the end, just after the big twist, to explain precisely how you were fooled. In a heist movie, it frequently involves the revelation that the plan you thought the protagonists were following was actually something else entirely, and in films that are heavily dependent on fridge logic, it can reveal that much of the movie you believed you were watching was really an elaborate mislead. At its best, as with the unforgettable flashback that occurs two-thirds of the way through Vertigo, it can singlehandedly justify the whole concept of flashbacks in general; at its worst, in a movie like Now You See Me, it can leave you asking why you bothered taking any interest in the plot at all. And these reveals seem to be becoming more common, as the need to find new variations on old surprises has caused such plots to become ever more convoluted and implausible. (We’re at a point now where a single flashback scene isn’t enough: we’re treated to entire flashback montages, replaying what seems like half of the movie from a different point of view. When handled well, as in The Illusionist, this sort of thing can be delightful, but it can also leave a viewer feeling that the film hasn’t played fair with its obligation to mislead us with what it shows, rather than what it omits.)

This sort of flashback is obviously designed to save a surprise for the end of the movie, which is where we’ve been conditioned to expect it—even if some violence has to be done to the fabric of the narrative to put the reveal in the last ten minutes, instead of where it naturally occurred. This isn’t a new strategy. Jack Woodford, the pulp writer whose instructional book Trial and Error was carefully studied by Robert A. Heinlein, thought that all stories should end with a punch ending, and he offered a very useful tip on how to artificially create one:

A good way to do this is to go ahead and end it with the usual driveling collection of super-climaxes, anti-climaxes and what not that amateurs end stories with, and then go over it, find where the punch ending is, rework the ending so that the anti-climaxes, if there is anything in them at all that really needs to be told, come before the final crux ending.

This is why so many stories contrive to withhold crucial information until the point where it carries the most impact, even if it doesn’t quite play fair. (You frequently see this in the early novels of Frederick Forsyth, like The Odessa File or The Dogs of War, which leave out a key element of the protagonist’s motivation, only to reveal it at the climax or on the very last page. It’s such a good trick that you can almost forgive Forsyth for reusing it three or four times.)

"Let it play out..."

Another advantage to delaying the explanatory scene for as long as possible is that it turns an implausible twist into a fait accompli. I’ve noted before that if there’s a particularly weak point in the story on which the credibility of the plot depends, the best strategy for dealing with it is to act as if has already happened, and to insert any necessary justifications after you’ve presented the situation as blandly as possible. Readers or audiences are more likely to accept a farfetched plot development after it has already been taken for granted. If they had been allowed to watch it unfold from scratch, during the fragile early stages, they would have been more likely to object. (My favorite example is how in the two great American drag comedies, Some Like it Hot and Tootsie, we never see the main characters make the decision to pose as women—we cut to them already in makeup and heels, which mostly prevents us from raising any of the obvious objections.) This explains why the expository flashback, while often ludicrously detailed, rarely shows us the one scene that we really want to see: the conversation in which one character had to explain to the rest what he wanted them to do, and why. Even a classic twist ending like the one in The Sting falls apart when we imagine the characters putting it into words. The act of speaking the plan aloud would only destroy its magic.

I put these principles to good use in Chapter 50 of Eternal Empire, which rewinds the plot slightly to replay a crucial scene in its entirety. Structuring it as a flashback was clearly meant to preserve the surprise, but also to downplay its less plausible angles. For the story to work, Maddy had to reveal herself to Tarkovsky, justify her good intentions, and propose a complicated counterplot, all in the course of a single conversation. I think that the chapter does a decent job of pulling it off, but placing the discussion here, after the effects of the decision have already been revealed, relieves it of some of the weight. The reader is already invested in the premise, simply by reading the events of the preceding chapters, and I hoped that this would carry us past any gaps in the logic. But it’s worth noting that I never actually show the crux of the conversation, in which Maddy spells out the plan she has in mind. Asking a character to fake his death for the sake of some elaborate charade is a scene that can’t possibly play well—which might be why we almost never see it, even though a similar twist seems to lie at the bottom of half of the surprise endings ever written. We don’t hear Maddy telling Tarkovsky what she wants him to do; we just see the results. It’s a form of selective omission that goes a long way toward making it all acceptable. But as the reader will soon discover, the plan hasn’t gone quite as well as they think…

The novel with a key

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The Royal We

As I write this post, my wife is about fifty pages away from finishing The Royal We, a novel that she devoured over the course of the last few days like a bottomless bag of popcorn. I’ve only glanced at the book, but I’ve been impressed by what little of it I’ve seen, starting with the title, which is the kind of clever play on words—while also telling you exactly what the story is about—that could sell a hundred thousand copies in itself. It’s about a college student who meets, falls in love with, and finally marries the Prince of Wales, and if the plot sounds a touch familiar, that’s precisely the point. The Royal We isn’t exactly about Kate Middleton: its protagonist is American, for one thing, and the story diverges from the facts of the most famous public courtship in recent memory in small but meaningful ways. But like Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, another book my wife loved, it’s a novel that all but begs us to fill in the blanks. And although it’s clearly written with taste and skill, it’s also a marketer’s dream. At a time when publishers are struggling to create new brands, the equivalent of high-class celebrity fanfic is as good a way as any to catch a reader’s eye. (Sometimes it doesn’t even need to be especially high class: an erotic fan novel about Harry Stiles of One Direction is being made into a movie as we speak.)

But what sets such recent books apart from prior efforts in the same line is how cheerfully they disclose their sources of inspiration. The roman à clef is as old, in one form or another, as the novel itself, but it really came into its own with the works of writers like Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann—”The giants,” as Spock calls them in The Voyage Home—whose novels were explicitly designed to encourage readers to put famous faces to lightly fictionalized names. As Dean Koontz said years ago in Writing Popular Fiction:

[A roman à clef is] a story in which all the characters seem to be allusions to real people—preferably quite famous people—and to real events the reader may have read of in newspapers and magazines; this establishes a celebrity guessing game among readers and reviewers that strengthens the illusion that you are telling of genuine events and, not incidentally, increases the book’s sales…In actuality, the [novel] bears only passing resemblance to the real lives of the personalities mentioned, but the reader likes to feel that he is getting the whole, ugly story firsthand.

American Wife

And it’s worth noting how hard the novel, like a con artist “accidentally” displaying a briefcase full of cash to a mark, has to work to give the reader a winking nudge about how it should be read, while superficially acting as if it’s trying to keep a secret. The book needs to insist that names have been changed to protect the innocent, even as it makes its reference points obvious, and it demands a tricky balance. Too obscure, and we won’t make the connection at all; too transparent, and we’ll reject it as fantasy. (I’ll leave aside the example of Irving Wallace, one of Robbins and Susann’s contemporaries, who wasn’t above explicitly stating his sources in the text. In The Plot, a scandal involving a character clearly based on Christine Keeler is described as “ten times more exciting than the old Profumo affair,” while in The Fan Club, a pulpy novel about the kidnapping of a famous movie star, a character comes right out and says: “Picture Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot lying in the next room naked.”) The Royal We and American Wife, although less coy, pull off much the same feat by selectively altering a few recognizable elements, as if industriously disguising their source material while implicitly keeping the spirit unchanged.

The result, if done correctly, offers an easy form of subtext, making the novel somewhat more interesting in ways that have little to do with craft. It’s a temptation to which I haven’t been entirely immune: City of Exiles includes a character so manifestly based on Garry Kasparov that I seriously considered just putting him in the story outright, as Frederick Forsyth did with everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Simon Wiesenthal. (If I chickened out in the end, it was mostly because I felt queasy about making the real Kasparov the target of an assassination attempt.) And it’s such a powerful trick that it gives pause to some novelists. In the afterword to Harlot’s Ghost, Norman Mailer writes:

In the course of putting together this attempt, there was many a choice to make on one’s approach to formal reality. The earliest and most serious decision was not to provide imaginary names for all the prominent people who entered the work. After all, that rejected approach would have left one with such barbarisms as James Fitzpatrick Fennerly, youngest man ever elected President of the United States.

Mailer goes on to note that if he’d given us, say, Howard Hunt under an assumed name, the reader would think: “This is obviously Howard Hunt. Now I’ll get to see what made him tick.” By giving us Hunt without a mask, the reader is free to say: “That isn’t my idea of Howard Hunt at all.” And that might even be the most honorable approach, even if it isn’t likely to thrill publishers, or their lawyers.

“Wolfe lowered herself into the basement…”

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"It was probably nothing..."

Note: This post is the eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 9. You can read the previous installments here.

When you’ve read a novel or seen a movie so many times that you practically know every line, your perspective on its strengths and weaknesses inevitably differs from that of someone who only experiences it once. It’s a little like the difference between a tool that you use just occasionally and one that becomes a regular part of your working life. If the blade on a vegetable peeler is slightly dull, it’s only a minor annoyance if you peel potatoes a couple of times a month; if you’re peeling a hundred a day, it’s a tragedy. And you find yourself correspondingly grateful for features that a more casual user would never notice, like an eye gouger or a handle that fits comfortably in your hand. The hard part about buying tools intended for ongoing use is that you often don’t know what you need until you’ve lived with it for years, and a quick glance in the store won’t tell you much. Experience helps, as do reviews and advice from others, but there’s no substitute for an ongoing trial in the field, which is why a site like The Sweet Home revisits every product it recommends after a year of regular usage. And the same holds true for works of fiction, which don’t often reveal their quality until after an extended period of engagement. (Authors try to replicate this process by reading a manuscript repeatedly over a shorter length of time, the artistic equivalent of accelerated life testing in engineering.)

I’ve probably read The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris more often than any other work of popular fiction, and I’m frequently surprised by what parts hold up for me the best. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie just once, you tend to remember a few big set pieces—Lecter’s escape, his exchanges with Starling, the final showdown in the killer’s darkened basement—and with good reason: they’re all great scenes, and it’s unlikely we’d be talking about this story at all if Harris hadn’t conceived and executed those pivotal moments so expertly. As time goes on, though, the sequence that I find myself revisiting the most, especially with an eye to the writing, is the early scene when Starling explores the storage unit belonging to the late Benjamin Raspail. It covers about twelve pages in the paperback edition, and although it climaxes on the memorable image of a severed head in a specimen jar, for most of its length, it’s merely tense and methodical. Yet I honestly believe that this is some of the best writing that Harris, or just about anyone, has ever done in the field of suspense. And along with Frederick Forsyth’s loving account of testing the rifle in The Day of the Jackal, it’s the scene I read whenever I need to be reminded of why I fell in love with this genre in the first place.

"Wolfe lowered herself into the basement..."

So what makes the chapter live for me, when more conventionally dramatic moments in the novel have faded with time? As with most great scenes in fiction, it’s an instance of pleasure in craft unfolding in parallel with the action itself. Starling is excited, but very careful, and the chapter provides her with many small moments of delightful ingenuity—using oil from a dipstick to lubricate a stubborn lock, raising the rusted gate of the storage unit with the jack from her car—that put us permanently on her side, if we hadn’t already been won over by her competence and determination. We’re won over by Harris, too. In outline form, the scene could have been routine in a way that, say, Lecter’s jailbreak would never be; we’re pretty sure, given the buildup, that Starling is going to find something interesting, but it’s too early in the story for us to really be concerned for her safety. So what Harris does is build the chapter up detail by detail, never hurrying, leaving us confident that we’re in the hands of a writer who knows his stuff. The writing is effective but never showy, as it can sometimes be when Harris indulges himself, with a lot of nice turns of phrase (“The padlock jumped like a frog in her hand”). And you feel that Harris lavished even more care on this scene than usual, since it works only to the extent that it gives us our first real taste of Starling in action.

It was perhaps inevitable that I’d try writing an extended homage , which we find in Chapter 9 of Eternal Empire. Looking back, I’m not sure how conscious this was: I knew that the scene opened with a promising lead and ended with the discovery of a body, and I had a limited number of pages in which to pull it off. Following Harris was a case of taking a useful model and trying to stick to best practices, and while I can’t claim that this scene is the equal of its inspiration, it’s still one of my favorites. Like Starling, Wolfe has to solve a succession of small problems to end up where the story needs her to be, and I tried to make each step as logical as I could, although I didn’t have room to be too clever or complicated. This involved a few pieces of sleight of hand, all designed to make the contrivances go down a little more smoothly: Wolfe finds the address because of a page that’s missing from an old road atlas, which I thought was more acceptable than having it written down in plain sight, and once she’s down in the basement, I have her look in the wrong place first—finding a mouse’s nest—so it doesn’t feel that the body was waiting for her on a silver platter. The first draft was cut to the bone, just to keep things moving along, and the result, at least to my eye, is a nice tight string of beats. Whether or not it holds up on the twentieth reading is something I can’t really say. But I’ve read it a lot, maybe more than I wanted, and it works pretty well for me…

Written by nevalalee

February 19, 2015 at 10:19 am

How I discovered my feminine side

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Gillian Anderson in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for Thanksgiving, I’m reposting a few popular posts this week from earlier in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on December 18, 2012.

In some ways, this post shouldn’t be necessary. Honestly, there’s no good reason why a realistic novel with a large cast of characters shouldn’t include a roughly equal number of men and women, at least once we’ve accounted for issues of setting and plot. Yet it’s unquestionably the case that interesting female characters can be hard to find, especially in works by male authors. There’s still no better proof of this than the classic Bechdel Test, in which a movie or other narrative work has to meet three simple criteria in order to pass:

  1. It includes at least two women…
  2. Who have at least one conversation…
  3. About something other than a man or men.

It sounds pretty straightforward, but surprisingly few works of art pass the test. And while this isn’t meant to be taken as a measure of a story’s merit—there aren’t any women in Lawrence of Arabia for a reason—it’s still worth asking why narratives that fulfill all three requirements remain the exception, not the rule.

This is especially true in suspense, in which otherwise great authors, like Frederick Forsyth, either ignore women entirely or prove utterly incapable of writing convincing female characters. As far as my own work is concerned, The Icon Thief and City of Exiles both squeak by, but largely on a technicality: both have women in the lead, but only a couple of female supporting characters with whom my protagonists can have a qualifying conversation. Yet something unexpected happened with my third novel. Eternal Empire is the concluding book of a series that has introduced a number of important female characters over time, and two of the three leads are women from the previous novels, along with many smaller but crucial roles. As a result, I’ve found myself writing numerous chapters in which only women appear. This wasn’t a conscious choice, but simply the way the narrative evolved. And although it might seem odd to comment on it, it’s a measure of the relative lack of female characters in this kind of story that it struck me, after the fact, as surprising.

Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

So how did I end up writing three novels with female protagonists? Part of the answer is that I’ve been enormously influenced by works of art in which unforgettable women appear. I don’t think I’d be writing this kind of book at all if it weren’t for Dana Scully, my favorite character on television, who, in turn, was clearly modeled on the great Clarice Starling. (It’s fitting, then, that Gillian Anderson has played such a prominent role on the Hannibal television series, thus bringing the wheel full circle.) It was also a test for myself as a writer. On some levels, men and women aren’t so different, at least not in a story like this: James Cameron has said that his preferred way of creating a compelling female character is to write for a man and simply change the name—which is how we got Ripley in Alien—and one of William Goldman’s favorite methods for brainstorming his way through a difficult story is to ask, “What if all the characters were women?” All the same, writing for a character whose experience is distinct from my own in certain fundamental ways forces me to think through even the smallest moments, testing them for plausibility, tone, and emotional truth.

Which is something I should be doing anyway, of course, but when I’m writing for a male lead, I’m more likely to overlook such problems, because I’m not subjecting the character to the same kind of scrutiny. When I recently went back to read my first, unpublished novel, for instance, I found that the lead character, a young man not unlike myself at the time, was serviceable, but a little colorless, probably because he was so easily assembled in my imagination that a lot of it failed to make it to the page. A character like Rachel Wolfe, by contrast, seems more real to me than most of my male protagonists, just because I’ve had to work on her more rigorously. In some ways, that’s the greatest possible benefit in writing characters of a different gender. It can’t be an accident that many of our finest novels, from Madame Bovary to Atonement, have been written by male novelists assuming a female point of view. Anything that requires a writer to look twice at things he, or she, might otherwise take for granted can only be a good thing. And in my fiction, as well as in my own life, I have some strong women to thank.

Written by nevalalee

November 27, 2014 at 9:00 am

“Most of the assembly was already done…”

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"Among the electronic parts..."

Note: This post is the forty-second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 41. You can read the earlier installments here

Hardware, as I’ve noted before, lies at the heart of a certain kind of thriller, and a lot of suspense novels seem to have written solely to showcase a particularly seductive bit of weaponry. (Two that come to mind, out of many possible examples, are Ken Follett’s The Hammer of Eden and Frederick Forsyth’s The Fourth Protocol, not to mention the Tom Clancy novel of your choice.) At times, the thriller comes startlingly close to science fiction in its fascination with technology, often in the form of gadgets and devices that don’t yet exist, at least not for the likes of us. In the Bond books and movies, hardware serves as another form of escapism, a sort of consumerist fantasy with Q as a combination of personal shopper and bespoke tailor. And even in superficially more realistic stories, technology feeds into the fantasy in a subtler way. An author’s familiarity with the details of guns or other tools of the trade grounds the more extravagant inventions of the plot, and we’re supposed to assume that if our writer knows what kind of holster would go best with a Walther PPK, he’s equally knowledgable about elements of spycraft and backroom politics that we have no way of verifying independently.

Of course, like all good narrative tricks, this one has its pitfalls, especially when the writer loses sight of the original intention. At its best, hardware can clarify and deepen a certain type of character: the heroes and villains of international suspense tend to be hypercompetent at what they do, even if they’re flawed in other ways, and we learn a little more about them as they go about handling their complicated equipment. All too often, though, technical details turn into an end in themselves, and we end up watching a name on the page take us through the fictional equivalent of a user’s manual. As with most descriptive or decorative elements, the amount a reader can tolerate is directly correlated to its apparent importance. When hardware isn’t essential to a particular plot point, the writer can, and should, get away with an evocative detail or two: an author like Thomas Harris, for instance, is a master at using bits of jargon or terminology to flesh out a passing moment. (“Lieutenant, it looks like he’s got two six-shot .38s. We heard three rounds fired and the dump pouches on the gun belts are still full, so he may just have nine left. Advise SWAT it’s +Ps jacketed hollowpoints. This guy favors the face.”)

"Most of the assembly was already done..."

When we’re dealing with an item of hardware that plays a more central role, we can indulge ourselves a bit more, and if we’ve handled it properly, the details enhance the story that follows: the object becomes a supporting actor in itself, and the action benefits in the same way in which a touch of backstory can enrich an important character. The ultimate example here is the rifle in The Day of the Jackal, which is more memorable than many of the human players involved—although it’s worth noting that we only care because it’s the weapon designed to assassinate Charles DeGaulle. On a more modest level, this also applies to the lethal device in City of Exiles. For most of the story, it’s a MacGuffin, designed only to push the characters from one violent appointment to the next, but as the climax nears, it becomes necessary to see exactly how it works. In Chapter 41, I devote a fair amount of time to describing how Karvonen puts it together, with particular emphasis on the cell phone detonator he constructs. All in all, it takes up about two pages at at point where the book has just over a hundred pages left to run, and I wouldn’t have sacrificed so much space to it if the effect hadn’t seemed worth it.

And there are a few distinct threads here. On the most basic level, I’d like to think that it creates a sense of anticipation: with every step in the process, we start to get a better idea of what this device is designed to do, even if the full details are withheld until the decisive moment. It gives us one last look at Karvonen as we’ve known him before, a careful craftsman, a few chapters before his plans start to spiral out of control. And it gives the reader just enough information to make the workings of this slightly implausible gadget more convincing. If I emphasize the detonator, rather than the heart of the weapon itself, it’s both because I didn’t feel entirely at home with the technical specs—which, thankfully, are hard to track down—and because I didn’t want or need to actually provide the reader with a handbook on building a particularly unpleasant device. In the end, Karvonen observes that the weapon isn’t exactly a thing of beauty, with three separate devices cobbled together with tape, but it works well enough for the task at hand. Which is more or less how I approached it in the writing process. It isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done. And we’re about to find out its true purpose…

Written by nevalalee

July 31, 2014 at 10:12 am

“Karvonen set his hands on the container…”

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"The highway toward Namur..."

Note: This post is the twenty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 28. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When you’re doing research for a novel, you’re really searching for two separate but related things, which can be conveniently described as the how and the what. The how—the aspect of research that focuses on factual details and bits of description—is the part that gives the entire process its bad reputation. When you’ve roughed out a story and are starting to fill in the outlines with experience, observation, and reading, it’s tempting to put in everything you know, to the point where the narrative is overloaded with background information that you’ve gathered and can’t bear to cut. That material has its place as a kind of seasoning, and I enjoy it as much as every other writer, but I’ve learned to cut it down to a minimum, and it’s usually only after several drafts that I figure out how much color and reportage to include without overwhelming the plot. Fortunately, after a few revisions, you start to forget where fact leaves off and invention begins, allowing you to regard it all with the same eye. Once you’ve lived with a novel for a while, it no longer matters whether a detail was spun out of whole cloth or painstakingly unearthed: if it fits, it stays, and if it doesn’t, it goes.

The other half of research, the what, is a lot more fun. I’ve found that the best time to begin research is when the general subject matter of a story is clear but the particulars are still unresolved. That way, when you find an especially lovely piece of material, you can adjust the plot to accommodate it. This may seem like a backward kind of approach—in theory, the story should unfold organically from an initial situation—but in practice, you’ll often find yourself making room for pieces that you want to include just because they’re beautiful for their own sake. When I read Ian McEwan, for instance, I’m often conscious of him bending the story slightly to make room for things he simply wants to talk about, like the digression on the Monty Hall problem that takes up several pages of Sweet Tooth or many of the more vivid moments in the Dunkirk evacuation or military hospital sequences in Atonement. Writing, as I’ve said before, is a kind of bricolage, with the author scrounging through whatever is at hand and arriving at a structure that covers as much of it as possible, and if you take that away, you’re robbing yourself of one of the profoundest pleasures that writing can afford.

"Karvonen set his hands on the container..."

Occasionally, you’ll come across a building block of material so promising that it ends up shaping entire chapters or sequences that never would have occurred to you otherwise. The prologue of The Icon Thief, for example, arises from a vivid anecdote in Stephen Handelman’s Comrade Criminal about an art smuggler being detained by bandits on the road to Hungary: as soon as I read it, I knew that it would make for a great opening for a novel, even if I wasn’t sure how it would fit in with the rest. Similarly, when I stumbled on the account in Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin’s The Sword and the Shield of the weapons caches that the KGB hid throughout Europe for use by undercover agents in case of a violent uprising, I knew I wanted to build a scene around it in City of Exiles. When you’re doing research, you count yourself lucky if you make even one discovery like this in five hundred pages of reading, and this tidbit—which includes a verbatim memo with step-by-step instructions on how to locate the cache and disarm the explosive it contains—seemed too good to pass up. And since Karvonen was already going through Belgium, which is one of the countries in which such caches were kept, it was easy to send him on this errand.

The result is a conscious pastiche of that gorgeous sequence in The Day of the Jackal when the titular assassin tests out his rifle in the forest of the Ardennes, the very same forest, in fact, in which Karvonen finds himself here. (Both men take take the highway from Brussels to Namur, and I’d like to think that the spot where Karvonen digs up the cache is only a stone’s throw away from where the Jackal held his target practice.) While I can’t say what I’ve written here is nearly as good as Forsyth’s scene, which I seem to reread every six months or so, I’d like to think that it captures some of the same spirit. It’s definitely a hardware chapter, complete with inventories of tools and detailed technical background, and it doesn’t serve any larger purpose in the story except in providing Karvonen with a shotgun and pistol that will pay off later on—weapons that I could have given to him in any number of ways. In its own modest fashion, through, it fills in the world and the background of the story, provides a touch of authenticity, and gives Karvonen something interesting to do on his way to his final destination. Best of all, it provides me with a literal example of Chekhov’s gun. And we all know that it’s going to go off sooner or later…

“Tell me about the Dyatlov Pass…”

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"Tell me about the Dyatlov Pass..."

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

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

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

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

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

"Wolfe felt a passing chill..."

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

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

Written by nevalalee

April 24, 2014 at 9:51 am

“Karvonen headed for the platform…”

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"Karvonen headed for the platform..."

Note: This post is the twenty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 26. You can read the earlier installments here.)

These days, we think of an “airport novel” as a thick little paperback sold at Hudson News, designed to give travelers in business class a few hours of diversion, a category in which my own books have occasionally been classified. In the past, though, it meant exactly what it said: a novel in which much of the action took place in airports. They emerged in the Mad Men era, when air travel was accessible for the first time to large swaths of the population, and even if you couldn’t afford a ticket on Pan Am, you could buy a book in which the glamour of modern transportation was evident on every page. If I were doing academic research on what it was like to travel in the sixties and seventies, I’d turn first to the likes of Arthur Hailey and Robert Ludlum, and it’s still true of thrillers today. Suspense novels engage in such loving descriptions of the railway terminals, airline lounges, and private planes that the characters use to get from one point to another that they double as a stealth advertisement for stylish travel. Hence the Falcon 2000EX corporate jet with its dual Pratt & Whitney engines that pops up randomly in The Da Vinci Code, or the line in Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow that Anthony Lane thought was the most boring sentence imaginable: “Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt.”

Why do thrillers love this sort of thing? In part, it’s just a particular example of the suspense novel’s usual fascination with hardware, which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is both designed to appeal to readers who like a side of facts with their violence and to enhance the verisimilitude of an otherwise implausible story. But there’s also something especially attractive about transportation itself. Thrillers, especially those that center on the chase, are often about moving a character from point A to point B—ideally with his adversaries in hot pursuit—and the means by which he gets to his destination inevitably takes up a large part of the narrative. Here, as in so much else, the template was set by Frederick Forsyth in The Day of the Jackal, in which the antihero of the title spends much of his time ingeniously circumventing various forms of transit security. In thrillers, as I’ve said elsewhere, movement across geography often stands as a surrogate or metaphor for narrative motion, and the protagonist’s progress in physical space mirrors the act of turning the pages. Such stories are a sequence of arrivals and departures, and it’s no accident that so many of them, including The Icon Thief, began with a key character arriving at passport control.

"His passport had not been scanned..."

When I was in London doing research for City of Exiles, I bought a ticket to Brussels, boarded the train, spent maybe three hours in Belgium, then came back in time to spend the night at my hotel room near King’s Cross. I wasn’t even particularly interested per se in Brussels: once I arrived, I spent a rainy afternoon doing little more than wandering around until it was time to head back again, although I did make a pilgrimage to the Royal Museums to see The Death of Marat, which had played an important role in the epilogue of the previous novel. What I really cared about was the terminal and the train itself. I knew that much of Part II would consist of Karvonen’s journey to Helsinki, and while I wasn’t able to take the entire trip myself, I wanted to at least be able to describe its beginning and end. Before leaving for London, I had mapped out his itinerary as best I could, using travel guides and online railway schedules, and I knew more or less where he’d be and when, although I wasn’t entirely sure what would happen there. That was one of the peculiar things about this trip: it took place before I’d even outlined most of the novel, so I had to single out specific locations, neighborhoods, and landmarks in hopes that I’d find a place for them later.

The total cost of the trip was about three hundred dollars, all for the sake of a page or two of detail, which counts as one of my priciest expenses per word of material. (Still, the champion here is probably what I dropped on Philippe Duboy’s ridiculous book Lequeu, which I bought for $125 in hopes of finding a few tidbits that I could use in The Icon Thief, only to end up not using a word of it.) But it was money well spent. My discoveries included such minutiae as the look of the Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras, the security and immigration procedures, and the seating arrangements on the train itself. Some of this was important to the plot—I wanted to see how hard it would be for Karvonen to get certain items past security, and whether or not his passport would be scanned on his departure—but for the most part, it served as a kind of background murmur of authenticity against which more interesting events would take place. None of this should be visible to the reader, but its absence would be noticed, at least subconsciously. If nothing else, it seemed necessary that I see it for myself, if only so I could forget about it when the time came to write the scene. In the overall scheme of the story, the train itself is much less important than where Karvonen is going. But it’s good that we travel with him at least part of the way…

“What’s this guy’s story?”

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"It was Victor Chigorin..."

Note: This post is the twentieth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 19. You can read the earlier installments here.)

If you’re a certain kind of writer, you’re constantly dealing with the temptation to include real men and women in your work. I’m not talking about using the people in your personal life as the inspiration for particular characters—which I’m pretty sure all writers have done—but about incorporating public figures under their real names. It’s a tendency you often see in suspense fiction, an inherently unrealistic genre that nonetheless strives for verisimilitude wherever it can, which often involves a bit of judicious trickery. Just as the detailed description of actual hardware, tradecraft, and weaponry lends a spy thriller a veneer of authenticity that can carry the reader over its less plausible elements, populating the story with names the reader will recognize can contribute, at least in theory, to the illusion that these events have actually taken place. Frederick Forsyth, my own favorite suspense novelist, does this almost to a fault: the Nazi hunter Simon Weisenthal plays an important role in The Odessa File, as does the historical SS officer Eduard Roschmann, and in the later novels, Margaret Thatcher practically deserves separate billing.

Using real names also has subtle effects on the way a reader engages with the text, and the results aren’t always what you’d expect. In the afterword to his massive novel Harlot’s Ghost, which features such actual intelligence figures as Howard Hunt and Bill Harvey, Norman Mailer writes:

In the course of putting together this attempt, there was many a choice to make on one’s approach to formal reality. The earliest and most serious decision was not to provide imaginary names for all the prominent people who entered the work. After all, that rejected approach would have left one with such barbarisms as James Fitzpatrick Fennerly, youngest man ever elected President of the United States.

Mailer goes on to note that using fake names might even give the novel an air of authenticity that it doesn’t otherwise deserve. As roman à clef novelists like Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins know, when you transparently base a character on a real person but change the name, it often creates the impression that the author is privy to inside information, and that we’re seeing the real, unexpurgated story under a superficial veil of fiction. Giving a real name allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions: instead of thinking that we’ll find out what made Howard Hunt really tick, we can object that this isn’t our idea of Howard Hunt at all.

"What's this guy's story?"

In my own fiction, which is often inspired by real events and public figures, I’ve gone back and forth on which approach to take. Vladimir Putin, for instance, never appears in the flesh, but he’s often mentioned under his real name, and I didn’t see any way around this: these novels take place at a particular historical moment, and if I was going to write about modern Russia at all, it was impossible to do so without factoring Putin into the equation. I followed this rule whenever I was writing about easily verifiable events—like the London riots that play an important part in Eternal Empire—or when it didn’t seem harmful to call people by their proper names. I drew the line, however, at players with a direct role in the story: I didn’t fell comfortable putting words into the mouth of a real person, even if the odds of his ever reading the novel seemed remote. The one exception, which I considered for a long time, was making Garry Kasparov a character in City of Exiles. I’ve always been fascinated by Kasparov, both in his role as a chess grandmaster and as an unlikely opponent of Putin, and I knew early on that the novel’s plot would need to include either Kasparov himself or an obvious surrogate.

Ultimately, I chickened out, although I suspect that few readers with any familiarity with Russian politics can think that Victor Chigorin, from the moment he appears onstage in Chapter 19, is anyone but Kasparov: they look the same, have much the same background and public persona, and even utter some of the same words, many of which I drew directly from Kasparov’s interviews. To make it even more obvious, the epigraph to the novel, taken from an interview with the former KGB general Oleg Kalugin, mentions Kasparov by name as a potential target of attacks by the Putin regime. (For what it’s worth, I did alter a few biographical details here and there, notably to make Chigorin part Turkish, but in all important respects, Chigorin is as close as I could make him to a portrait of the original, down to what he has for breakfast.) I did this because while I could see myself giving Kasparov plausible actions and dialogue, his ultimate role in the story wasn’t one that I felt like imposing on a real man whose safety has occasionally been a real issue of concern. In fact, I may have pulled back slightly when it came to Chigorin’s fate, even though he was ostensibly a fictional creation. Chigorin survives the events of this novel, but it was a very close call…

Written by nevalalee

February 27, 2014 at 9:28 am

“On top of everything else, she was lost…”

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"On top of everything else, she was lost..."

Note: This post is the fourteenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 13. You can read the earlier installments here.)

If there’s one thing that dissatisfies me about my own work, it’s that its tonal range is so narrow. When you think of major literary writers like Bellow, Roth, or Updike, one element that stands out is the variety of tones and moods they’re able to evoke, moving over the length of a few pages from genuine pathos to social satire to broad comedy. The champion here, as in so much else, has to be Thomas Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow moves from the crudest of slapstick, with digressions into something startlingly close to pornography, into heights of angelic, impassioned prose, often in the course of the same paragraph. On a more mainstream level, the ability to execute these tonal shifts so expertly is one reason why the fiction of, say, Stephen King is so appealing. King’s primary mission is to scare us, but he’s also capable of being extremely funny, and much more—It may be the richest popular novel I know, simply because it proceeds so mysteriously from nostalgia to humor to depths of one’s childhood nightmares. And it’s no accident that these are all long books with an expansive canvas: if you’re going to talk about myriad aspects of human existence, you can’t settle for just one register. Life is too complicated to be easily categorized.

And certain genres are more accommodating to these shifts in tone than others. Fantasy, for instance, seems to encompass a wider emotional range than other types of popular fiction, perhaps because it takes many of its cues from epic or legendary narratives that can’t be conveniently pigeonholed. Suspense, by contrast, tends to be highly limited—or, to put it more generously, extremely focused—when it comes to mood. There’s a wider range of tones within the overall genre itself, from thinly disguised farce to the darkest of noir, but individual suspense writers tend to find and occupy a single register that works for them. I was lucky enough when I started writing thrillers to have a lot of great models to follow, beginning and ending with the work of Frederick Forsyth, and for the most part, I’ve remained within those constraints. This is partially because I’ve seen the consequences of straying out of your wheelhouse: Forsyth may be the most capable writer the genre has ever produced, but his excursions into comedy or romance are tedious at best, painful at worst. And I’ve generally been content to operate within a mode that sticks to the business at hand.

"Good afternoon..."

Still, it’s a limitation, and one of which I’m acutely conscious. There’s almost no humor in my books, for instance. I’m far from humorless in person, and I’d like to think that there’s wit on display in the way the situations in these novels combine, interweave, and build to surprising climaxes. There aren’t many real jokes, though, and whenever I stumble across a situation or moment that seems organically funny, I protect it to the death. (I’m much more likely to cut episodes that serve only to build suspense, because I know there’s plenty more where that came from.) Being funny in fiction is a skill set that demands a lifetime of work in its own right—it’s harder, in a lot of ways, than being serious or tragic—and I’ve spent most of my time developing other elements. One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that the female characters in my fiction, for whatever reason, seem capable of a greater range of tone and emotion than the men. Ilya Severin is a pretty serious guy, and nudging him out of that zone one way or the other would quickly make an already tenuous character close to unmanageable. Maddy and Wolfe seem able to do more, perhaps because they’re entering the story from a more oblique angle.

That’s why I’m fond of a sequence like Chapter 10 of City of Exiles, which happens to encompass a slightly wider tonal range than most of the other things I’ve written. It starts with Wolfe on the phone with her mother, driving out to investigate a potential lead, and it zips through a few faintly absurd character beats—Wolfe gets lost on the way to her destination, pulls over, and blurts out to her mother for the first time that she’s questioning her faith—on its way to a moment of real reflection, as Wolfe admits to herself that her life hasn’t gone the way she wanted. A second later, we’re back to basics, with Wolfe snooping around an industrial site, a la Nancy Drew, to uncover an important lead. It also contains one of the few moments of organic comedy in any of these novels, as Wolfe eludes suspicion by posing as a Mormon missionary. As a chapter devoted to advancing the plot, it’s a modest one, but it’s still one of the only times that the clockwork machinery of the story breaks down to admit something looser and more spontaneous. Part of me wishes that there were more chapters like this. A page later, though, it all snaps back to attention, and maybe that’s the way it should be. We have a lot of ground to cover before we’re done…

Written by nevalalee

January 17, 2014 at 10:00 am

“Thanks, Mom. I know…”

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"Activity is the genius of this church..."

Note: This post is the seventh installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 6. You can read the earlier installments here.)

For the most part, I’m proud of my work as a writer, but I’m also aware of one flaw that my published novels all share: they’re about individuals, most of them psychologically isolated, and they have little to say about larger social units. None of the primary characters in these books are married. Most don’t seem to have interesting personal lives outside the bounds of the story. Ilya is an orphan—both his parents died while he was in Vladimir Prison—and we learn next to nothing about Maddy’s family or life history. When a more conventional relationship is introduced, it’s largely to advance the plot, as when Maddy and Ethan briefly drift together and fall apart in The Icon Thief. And the books are almost entirely lacking in sex. Needless to say, I’m far from the only suspense novelist to focus his energies on a narrow slice of human experience: even someone like Frederick Forsyth, who can otherwise write about anything, fumbles when it comes to talking about men and women. You could even argue that isolation is a necessary aspect of the conspiracy thriller, which tends to pit its individuals against the world. But in terms of my own growth as a writer, and of my ability to treat subjects and stories that don’t fit into the neat confines of the plots I’ve made, it’s a limitation, and a serious one.

I’ve spent a lot of time asking myself why my books are so emotionally constrained. Part of it, as I’ve just mentioned above, has do to with the way in which they’re structured: these are intricate plots that need to move quickly from one story point to the next, so there isn’t a lot of time to take in the emotional landscape outside the frame. Another factor might be my own life situation when I conceived the book that set the template for the series. When I wrote The Icon Thief, I was in my late twenties, living alone in New York, and still several years away from marrying and becoming a father. You write what you know, consciously or not, and at the time, I knew a great deal about being single in a big city and not much firsthand about anything else. It’s also possible that my approach to fiction in itself made it difficult for me to construct convincing relationships. Writing about Saul Bellow in Cannibals and Christians, Norman Mailer observes:

Bellow’s one major weakness…is that he creates individuals and not relations between them, at least not yet…It is possible that the faculty of imagination is opposed to the gift of grasping relationships—in the act of coming to know somebody else well, the point of the imagination may be dulled by the roughness of the other’s concrete desires and the attrition of living not only in one’s own boredom but someone else’s.

"Thanks, Mom. I know..."

Now, I’m not about to compare myself to Bellow, and the passage above probably tells us more about Mailer in any case. But I can’t help finding a distant echo here to my own situation. I approach writing as an act of imagination, and particularly of invention: I take pride in my ability to come up with intricate plots and complications. This is an inherently solitary activity, and even as I treat fiction as an excuse to explore the world, the impulse remains one-sided, even mercenary. When I look at a location or an idea or another person, the writerly part of my brain is asking: “How can I use you?” Everything is turned into material to be worked out later, in private, which doesn’t lend itself well to unpacking human relationships. I tend to use fiction to create problems—to generate complexity—and not to untie the knots of ordinary interaction that I see around me. For the most part, I’m content with this: all writers evolve along certain lines, picking and choosing which battles to fight. The work informs the personality as much as the personality does the work, and I like constructing my little puzzles. But whenever I can, as much for the sake of my own growth as for the story itself, I try to inch a bit further toward those aspects of life that I’ve left underexplored.

You can see a few tentative stabs in this direction in City of Exiles, which is the first novel I wrote in full awareness of how emotionally constrained these stories had become. Later on, we’ll meet Powell’s father for the first time, in a chapter that comes as close as anything in these novels to providing a window on character for its own sake—and the result is one of my favorite scenes in the series. First, though, we’re introduced to Wolfe’s mother, as a voice on the other end of the phone in Chapter 6. At first glance, their interactions function as comic relief, and I like the juxtaposition between Wolfe’s conversation with her mom and the work she’s doing: she begins the chapter by tracing the weapons found at the murdered armorer’s apartment and ends it with the revelation that Ilya is back in the city, all while fending off her mother’s questions about how often she goes to church. But it also gets at something important about Wolfe’s character. Rachel Wolfe is in transition, caught between two stages, and her mother’s voice on the phone reminds her of how hard it is to let go of the past, even as she moves into something less defined. Like most of the other players in the story, she’s a lonely atom, an exile, but being alone isn’t her natural state, as it is with Ilya. It’s a path she’s chosen. And for once, we’re given a sense, at least as far as these books can manage, of what she’s left behind…

Written by nevalalee

November 15, 2013 at 9:00 am

My ten great books #9: The Silence of the Lambs

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The Silence of the Lambs

(Note: For the last two weeks, I’ve been counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

What makes a novel worth reading more than once? In the case of a mystery or thriller, the answer isn’t always clear. After our first read, we know who did it and why, whether the hero will survive, and whether the villain will get away with it: we’ve seen every chase, every reveal, every twist of the plot. If enough time has passed, the details can get a little fuzzy, so it can be fun to revisit the mystery again—I’m not sure I could tell you who the killer was in The Three Coffins or Rim of the Pit, mostly because the culprit’s identity is secondary to more immediate pleasures. But after you’ve revisited a novel enough times, it can be hard to explain what keeps you coming back. I’ve read The Silence of the Lambs from cover to cover on perhaps ten occasions, and I’ve seen the unsurpassed movie version at least as many times, so it’s safe to say that it no longer holds many shocks or surprises. Yet I know I’ll keep reading it for as long as I enjoy popular fiction, and I suspect that it may eventually become the novel I’ll read more than any other. The reasons are hard to pin down, but they clearly don’t have much to do with the specifics of the story, as much as I still admire the ingenuity with which it unfolds. Rather, as with most great suspense novels, it’s more a question of detail, craft, and attitude, which the best works of Thomas Harris—which also include Black Sunday, Red Dragon, and even long sections of Hannibal—display to greater effect than any other novels of their kind. And The Silence of the Lambs remains the best of them all, the one book, along with Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, that epitomizes the heights of the genre in which I’ve unexpectedly found myself making a living.

Harris is first and foremost a master of detail, both in terms of lavish research—I’ve seen Red Dragon recommended to aspiring thriller writers simply as a primer on criminal investigation—and in small, telling moments of observation and character. The scene I’ve reread the most isn’t the first one that might come to mind: it’s the tense, beautifully rendered chapter in which Clarice Starling searches the storage garage that might hold the key to an unsolved murder. In the hands of another writer, the sequence might have been a routine nailbiter, but Harris enriches it with countless lovely touches: the way Clarice, resourceful as always, fixes a stuck lock with a few drops of oil from a dipstick, or how she uses the jack from her car to lever up the rusty door. (Chapter 9 of my novel Eternal Empire is basically an extended homage to this scene, as my own heroine Rachel Wolfe, who owes a great deal to both Clarice and Dana Scully, searches for evidence in the basement of a derelict house.) Plenty of thrillers are filled with such lore, of course, but Harris delivers the goods with a panache inseparable from his larger themes. The Silence of the Lambs is a relentlessly grim story, but it’s also a celebration of intelligence and competence even under the bleakest circumstances. In the figure of Hannibal Lecter, this tendency is taken to an almost inhuman degree: Lecter has nothing but his mind, and his ability to transcend his physical prison is what makes him so improbably seductive. (It’s also why he’s so much less interesting when he isn’t confined to his cell.) And I can’t help but take the story’s most vivid characters as reflections of the author himself. All novelists live by their wits, whether to escape their own prisons or to explore the world’s darker corners, and for a few—too few—great novels, Harris was one of the best explorers we had.

“Powell stared silently through the glass…”

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"Powell stared silently through the glass..."

(Note: This post is the fiftieth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 49. You can read the earlier installments here.)

For a certain kind of novelist, there’s an enormous temptation to base one’s characters on recognizable people, and many stories gain nearly all of their interest from the perception that they’re thinly veiled depictions of real public figures. As Dean Koontz points out in his dated but valuable book Writing Popular Fiction, works by the likes of Harold Robbins or Jacqueline Susann are compelling largely because we think we can guess who these rich, glamorous, oversexed characters are supposed to be, and we’re more likely to take the author’s portrait at face value precisely because the names have been changed: the novel implicitly promises to tell it like it is, without fear of libel, at least for readers who are clever enough to fit names to faces. Irving Wallace went even further, spelling out his sources in the text itself—and often on the back cover copy. As I’ve mentioned before, in a novel like The Plot, Wallace isn’t simply content to create a character based on Christine Keeler, but blandly tells us that her scandal was “ten times more exciting than the old Profumo affair.”

While this can be an effective fictional device, a lot of novelists resist it, and for good reason. Norman Mailer, in his afterword to Harlot’s Ghost, explains that his decision to incorporate real people into the narrative using their proper names arose from a desire to avoid this kind of phony authenticity:

It was obvious, therefore, that one would have to give Jack Kennedy his honest name…One could only strip him of his fictional magic by putting a false name on him; then the reader’s perception becomes no more than, “Oh, yes, President Fennerly is Jack Kennedy—now I will get to learn what made Jack Kennedy tick.”

As a result, Mailer uses the actual names of important characters like Howard Hunt, Allen Dulles, and Bill Harvey, knowing that the reader will naturally be more critical of how these men are portrayed, thinking, “That isn’t my idea of Howard Hunt at all.” And it’s also likely that Mailer, in writing in what amounts to an epic spy novel, was encouraged by the conventions of suspense fiction, in which real names are often used to give the action an air of verisimilitude. Frederick Forsyth, for example, populates his books with such historical figures as Kim Philby and Simon Wiesenthal, many of whom were still alive when these novels were written, allowing him to blur the line between fiction and reportage—which is a large part of his work’s appeal.

"Archvadze, his arms folded across his chest..."

In The Icon Thief and its sequels, I’m operating in a similar mode, and I’ve occasionally run into the problem of whether or not to use the real names of living people. (I’m much less concerned about historical figures, whom I tend to name freely, even as I indulge in other forms of speculation or invention.) President Putin never appears directly in these books, but he’s frequently mentioned, and I decided long ago that it would be absurd to refer to him by any other name. I thought seriously about placing a real energy company at the center of the plot of City of Exiles, but I finally chickened out, reasoning that a fictional version would give me more narrative freedom in later installments. And for a long time, I considered making Garry Kasparov a major figure in the second novel. In the end, I didn’t, although there isn’t much doubt about which legendary chess grandmaster Victor Chigorin is supposed to represent. I changed the name partly to give me more flexibility in constructing the story, and also because I felt uncomfortable subjecting Kasparov to what ultimately happens to Chigorin, which isn’t pretty.

Besides, it’s usually more interesting when characters diverge from their original inspirations. I’ve mentioned before that Maddy and Ethan were loosely based on the real art world couple of Teresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake, although I doubt that many people would have made the connection. In Chapter 49, however, when we finally learn what happened to Anzor Archvadze—who has been missing in action for much of the novel’s second half—I imagine that more than a few readers were immediately reminded of Alexander Litvinenko. The two cases are very different, of course: Litvinenko died of radiation poisoning, while Archvadze is dying of toxic epidermal necrolysis, which bears a greater resemblance to another mysterious death in Russia. Still, I hope that readers do think of Litvinenko, not so much in order to capitalize on the parallels to a real event than out of a desire to remind them of how much like a novel the truth can be. Litvinenko’s death was often compared to something out of a spy thriller, but it was horribly real. And as farfetched as Archvadze’s fate might seem, reality is far stranger…

Written by nevalalee

May 31, 2013 at 8:42 am

Facts with a side of violence

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Frederick Forsyth

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been rereading The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth, my favorite suspense novelist. I’ve mentioned before that Forsyth is basically as good as it gets, and that he’s the writer I turn to the most these days in terms of pure enjoyment: he operates within a very narrow range of material and tone, but on those terms, he always delivers. Reading The Dogs of War again was a fascinating experience, because although it takes place in the world of mercenaries and other guns for hire, it contains surprisingly little action—maybe thirty pages’ worth over the course of four hundred dense pages. The rest of the novel is taken up by an obsessively detailed account of how, precisely, a privately funded war might be financed and equipped, from obtaining weapons to hiring a ship to acquiring the necessary amount of shirts and underwear. And although the amount of information is sometimes overwhelming, it’s always a superlatively readable book, if only because Forsyth is a master of organization and clarity.

Of course, it also works because it’s fun to learn about these things. The Dogs of War is perhaps the ultimate example of the kind of fiction that Anthony Lane, speaking of Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow, has dismissed as “not so much a novel as a six-hundred-page fact sheet with occasional breaks for violence.” Yet the pleasure we take in absorbing a few facts while reading a diverting thriller is perfectly understandable. Recently, I saw a posting on a social news site from a commenter who said that he didn’t read much, but was looking for novels that would teach him some things while telling an interesting story. I pointed him toward Michael Crichton, who is one of those novelists, like Forsyth, whose work has inspired countless imitators, but who remains the best of his breed. This kind of fiction is easy to dismiss, but conveying factual information to a reader is like any other aspect of writing: when done right, it can be a source of considerable satisfaction. In my own novels, I’ve indulged in such tidbits as how to build a handheld laser, how to open a Soviet weapons cache, and what exactly happened at the Dyatlov Pass.

Michael Crichton

That said, like all good things, the desire to satisfy a reader’s craving for information can also be taken too far. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the fiction of Irving Wallace, who crams his books with travelogues, dubious factoids, and masses of undigested research—along with a few clinical sex scenes—until whatever narrative interest the story once held is lost. And my feelings about Dan Brown are a matter of record. Here, as in most things, the key is balance: information can be a delight, but only in the context of a story that the reader finds engaging for the usual reasons. Its effectiveness can also vary within the work of a single author. Forsyth is great, but the weight of information in some of his later novels can be a little deadening; conversely, I’m not a fan of Tom Clancy, and gave up on The Cardinal of the Kremlin after struggling through a few hundred pages, but I found Without Remorse to be a really fine revenge story, hardware and all. The misuse of factual information by popular novelists has given it a bad reputation, but really, like any writing tool, it just needs to be properly deployed.

And it’s especially fascinating to see how this obsession with information—in a somewhat ambivalent form—has migrated into literary fiction. It’s hard to read Thomas Pynchon, for instance, without getting a kick from his mastery of everything from Tarot cards to aeronautical engineering, and James Wood points out that we see much the same urge in Jonathan Franzen:

The contemporary novel has such a desire to be clever about so many elements of life that it sometimes resembles a man who takes too many classes that he has no time to read: auditing abolishes composure. Of course, there are readers who will enjoy the fact that Franzen fills us in on campus politics, Lithuanian gangsters, biotech patents, the chemistry of depression, and so on…

Yet Franzen, like Pynchon, uses voluminous research to underline his point about how unknowable the world really is: if an author with the capacity to write limericks about the vane servomotor feels despair at the violent, impersonal systems of which we’re all a part, the rest of us don’t stand a chance. Popular novelists, by contrast, use information for the opposite reason, to flatter us that perhaps we, too, would make good mercenaries, if only we knew how to forge an end user certificate for a shipment of gun parts in Spain. In both cases, the underlying research gives the narrative a credibility it wouldn’t otherwise have. And the ability to use it correctly, according to one’s intentions, is one that every writer could stand to develop.

Maybe backstory isn’t so bad after all

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Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal

I know what you’re thinking: I’ve finally lost it. For most of the last two years, I’ve used this blog to rail against the use of excessive backstory, advising writers to kill it whenever it occurs, preferably with fire. I’ve pointed out that characters in a novel are interesting because of their words, deeds, and decisions over the course of the narrative, not because of whatever they might have been doing or thinking before the story began. I’ve argued that backstory violates the principle that a good story should consist of a series of objectives, and that character is best revealed through action. I’ve pointed out, stealing an observation from the great William Goldman, that heroes must have mystery, and that to explain away a character through digressions into his past or psychology—at least in most forms of popular fiction—only serves to diminish him. And I’ve often referred to examples of characters who become more interesting the less we know about them, like Forsyth’s Jackal, and those who have been progressively ruined by excessive backstory, like Hannibal Lecter.

I still believe all these things. Recently, however, I’ve found myself writing reams of backstory for two different projects. One, Eternal Empire, is the concluding novel of a series that can’t be entirely understood without additional information about the earlier installments, which is something that I didn’t really appreciate until reading over the most recent draft. The other is a long, self-contained novel I’ve been working on for years, and whose protagonist’s actions make somewhat more sense with a slightly more detailed backstory. In both cases, I added backstory after both novels were finished, in an attempt to address specific narrative problems, namely a lack of clarity that was preventing readers from getting lost in the story. And although I’ve begun to tactically incorporate backstory where it seems advisable, my earlier convictions haven’t changed. For most writers, I’m convinced that less backstory is preferable to the alternative, and that implication and suggestion are more powerful tools than extended passages of introspection. But there are times, looking back at a story that is otherwise complete, when I’ve found that a few scraps of backstory have their place.

Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs

If this seems inconsistent, it’s only because the rules of writing, like most laws, operate under an informal hierarchy, and it’s often worth stretching a minor rule so as to preserve a major one. (Or, as the rabbis say, it’s better to break one sabbath in order to keep many sabbaths.) You can debate which rules are more important than others, but it’s hard to argue with John Gardner’s observation that for most writers, the primary objective is to preserve the fictional dream: the illusion, in the reader’s mind, that these events are actually happening. Anything that tears the reader out of the dream without good reason needs to be examined and, usually, corrected. And one issue that can break the illusion is unintended ambiguity. If the reader puts down the book to wonder about a detail in a character’s past that the author didn’t mean to leave unresolved, it’s probably worth introducing this information, solely for the sake of maintaining momentum. And my reluctance to spell things out has occasionally confused readers in ways I didn’t intend. This led to some trouble with my recent Analog story “The Voices,” and also seems to be an issue in The Icon Thief. (Given the chance, I think I’d insert a few more paragraphs about Duchamp and his place in art history to avoid sending readers to Wikipedia.)

That said, backstory needs to be introduced judiciously, and at the proper point. In particular, it’s often best to save it for a moment when the story can afford to slow down. Such flat moments, which serve as a breather between points of high action, provide a convenient place for filling in the background, as long as it makes sense within the structure of the novel as a whole. The two projects I’m writing now both happen to have a convenient opening in the exact same spot: at the beginning of the second section, which currently picks up immediately from a cliffhanger at the end of the previous chapter. Inserting a flashback here, with the tension of the previous scene unresolved, both extends the suspense and allows me to fill in necessary background in reasonable security that the reader will read on to see what happens next. This sort of thing can be taken too far, of course: I keep such departures as short as possible, afraid that I might conclude what T.E. Lawrence did after rereading a chapter intended as a “flat” in Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “On reflection I agreed…that it was perhaps too successful.” So most of my earlier points still stand—even, or especially, when I’m forced to break them.

Written by nevalalee

January 29, 2013 at 9:50 am

How I discovered my feminine side

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Gillian Anderson in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

In some ways, this post shouldn’t be necessary. Honestly, there’s no good reason why a realistic novel with a large cast of characters shouldn’t include a roughly equal number of men and women, at least once we’ve accounted for issues of setting and plot. Yet it’s unquestionably the case that interesting female characters can be hard to find, especially in works by male authors. There’s still no better proof of this than the classic Bechdel Test, in which a movie or other narrative work has to meet three simple criteria in order to pass:

  1. It includes at least two women…
  2. Who have at least one conversation…
  3. About something other than a man or men.

It sounds pretty straightforward, but surprisingly few works of art pass the test. And while this isn’t meant to be taken as a measure of a story’s merit—there aren’t any women in Lawrence of Arabia for a reason—it’s still worth asking why narratives that fulfill all three requirements remain the exception, not the rule.

This is especially true in suspense, in which otherwise great authors, like Frederick Forsyth, either ignore women entirely or prove utterly incapable of writing convincing female characters. As far as my own work is concerned, The Icon Thief and City of Exiles both squeak by, but largely on a technicality: both have women in the lead, but only a couple of female supporting characters with whom my protagonists can have a qualifying conversation. Yet something unexpected happened with my third novel. Eternal Empire is the concluding book of a series that has introduced a number of important female characters over time, and two of the three leads are women from the previous novels, along with many smaller but crucial roles. As a result, I’ve found myself writing numerous chapters in which only women appear. This wasn’t a conscious choice, but simply the way the narrative evolved. And although it might seem odd to comment on it, it’s a measure of the relative lack of female characters in this kind of story that it struck me, after the fact, as surprising.

Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

So how did I end up writing three novels with female protagonists? Part of the answer is that I’ve been enormously influenced by works of art in which unforgettable women appear. I don’t think I’d be writing this kind of book at all if it weren’t for Dana Scully, my favorite character on television, who, in turn, was clearly modeled on the great Clarice Starling. (It’s fitting, then, that Gillian Anderson will be appearing on the Hannibal television series, thus bringing the wheel full circle.) It was also a test for myself as a writer. On some levels, men and women aren’t so different, at least not in a story like this: James Cameron has said that his preferred way of creating a compelling female character is to write for a man and simply change the name—which is how we got Ripley in Alien—and one of William Goldman’s favorite methods for brainstorming his way through a difficult story is to ask, “What if all the characters were women?” All the same, writing for a character whose experience is distinct from my own in certain fundamental ways forces me to think through even the smallest moments, testing them for plausibility, tone, and emotional truth.

Which is something I should be doing anyway, of course, but when I’m writing for a male lead, I’m more likely to overlook such problems, because I’m not subjecting the character to the same kind of scrutiny. When I recently went back to read my first, unpublished novel, for instance, I found that the lead character, a young man not unlike myself at the time, was serviceable, but a little colorless, probably because he was so easily assembled in my imagination that a lot of it failed to make it to the page. A character like Rachel Wolfe, by contrast, seems more real to me than most of my male protagonists, just because I’ve had to work on her more rigorously. In some ways, that’s the greatest possible benefit in writing characters of a different gender. It can’t be an accident that many of our finest novels, from Madame Bovary to Atonement, have been written by male novelists assuming a female point of view. Anything that requires a writer to look twice at things he, or she, might otherwise take for granted can only be a good thing. And in my fiction, as well as in my own life, I have some strong women to thank.

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December 18, 2012 at 9:50 am

How I reverse-engineered my own novel

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“The conditions of writing change absolutely between the first novel and the second,” Graham Greene observes. “The first is an adventure, the second a duty.” Or at least it’s an adventure of a markedly different kind. A first novel is essentially a series of incursions into uncharted territory: the writing process is full of wrong turns, experiments in tone and structure that later need to be abandoned, and thematic elements introduced on the fly that turn out to be crucial to the entire conception, while others are discarded or transformed into something unrecognizable. Yet the strangest thing of all is that once the manuscript is complete, what used to be a creature shaped by chance and improvisation is now something else entirely—a template. A story that was originally constructed in response to specific, unpredictable narrative problems is now, weirdly enough, the model for its successor, at least when the second novel is designed to follow narratively and thematically from the one that came before it. And the situation is especially peculiar for an author who suddenly finds himself in the position of writing a sequel to a novel that was intended to stand on its own.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I first wrote The Icon Thief, I had no intention of writing a sequel to a book I’d conceived as a self-contained story, but when I finally sold the manuscript to Penguin, a second novel was part of the deal. When it came time to plot out the next installment, I found myself doing what Frederick Forsyth claims he did while figuring out his own second novel: he went back to his first book and reverse-engineered it, reading it again to see what he’d done intuitively and breaking it down to its basic components. In my own case, there were a number of elements in the first book that I knew I wanted to keep. I liked the underlying structure, which followed three distinct narrative threads that would overlap at various points and finally come together in the climax, and I’d learned few tricks in the meantime that would help me organize this material without a lot of the mistakes that I’d made in earlier drafts. One of these threads, as before, would be a straightforward crime procedural that would provide a useful narrative line for the reader to follow through the thickets of the plot. And I wanted to include some combination of the historical, financial, and religious elements that I’d enjoyed incorporating into the first book.

Most of all, I had to ask myself what the first novel had really been about. The answer, not surprisingly, was one that I’ve mentioned many times before: The Icon Thief turned out to be a book about how we impose meaning on the world and the events of our own lives, even in the absence of real information, or in the face of information overload. In my first book, these themes had arisen from an enigmatic work of art, but I didn’t want to go back to that well again. (Frankly, after two years spent reading about Duchamp, I was feeling a little burned out on art history.) Better, I thought, to focus on the competing interpretations of an enigmatic event, an approach that would ground the novel in a mystery from the real world—which I thought was one of the most appealing aspects of the first novel—and give the characters a chance to indulge in the kind of historical detective work that I relish writing. And it seemed fairly clear that this mystery, whatever it was, would come from the history of Russia. As I’ve explained before, I stumbled into Russia as a subject almost by accident, but now that the rules of the game had been laid down, I knew that I had to start exploring this material in a more systematic way.

Throughout the initial stages of the process, I kept asking myself a simple question: what expectations would my first novel have raised in the mind of a reasonable reader? Looking back over the story I had so far, I saw that it hinted at a larger picture involving the workings of Russian intelligence, but only in very general terms. For the sequel to build logically from the first book, I needed to drill more deeply into this shadow world, and give a clearer sense of its rules and operations. Consequently, I began by reading everything I could about Russia and its intelligence services, always keeping an eye out for the kind of enigmatic incident that could provide the germ of a story. And that’s how I stumbled across the Dyatlov Pass. Tomorrow, I’ll go into more detail about what it means and what I found there, but for now, I’ll only say that as soon as I saw it, I knew that I’d found the narrative heart of what would eventually become City of Exiles. I don’t recall the exact words I said at that moment. But I believe they were something like this: “That’s it.”

Written by nevalalee

November 26, 2012 at 10:08 am

“He checked the assembled device, then switched it on…”

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(Note: This post is the seventeenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 16. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Suspense novelists love information. The tradition of loading a thriller with arcane detail, especially involving exotic weaponry and the nuts and bolts of various cloak-and-dagger activities, goes back a long time, but probably reached its high point with The Day of the Jackal, the most memorable sections of which recount the acquisition, testing, and use of a deadly assassin’s rifle, as well as serving as a comprehensive manual of passport fraud. No one has ever done it better than Forsyth does here—including Forsyth himself—but we all keep trying. As I’ve mentioned before, this peculiar urge to combine the content of an action movie with the tone of a PowerPoint presentation can lead to unintentionally humorous accretions of detail, as in the famous line from Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow that critic Anthony Lane has called one of the most boring sentences ever written: “Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt.” And at its worst, as in many of Tom Clancy’s novels, the level of minutiae can render the underlying story unreadable.

So why do we do it? The obvious explanation is that showing your work in certain ways is designed to appeal to the traditional readers of big suspense novels—hence the emphasis on firearms, spycraft, and modes of transportation. (One could assemble a trainspotter’s guide to Europe entirely from the descriptions of continental railway stations in countless suspense novels, including mine.) At the same time, the fact that we see different kinds of arcana in books aimed at other audiences—think of the forensic expertise in the novels of Patricia Cornwell—makes me think that the impulse amounts to more than just a mere fascination with hardware. Information, in the thriller, functions as a kind of synecdoche for the overall plot: by describing functionally minor elements of the story with apparent expertise, the author subliminally persuades us that major aspects of the novel are equally accurate. The Day of the Jackal may be wildly implausible in its larger details, but we wouldn’t know it, because Forsyth describes that rifle so well.

This is all preface to explaining why I spend the better part of two pages in Chapter 16 of The Icon Thief describing how Ilya builds a handheld laser, MacGyver style, out of a flashlight and the diode from an optical drive. The details are accurate enough, as this sort of thing goes—you can watch someone build a similar device here—but on a structural level, the scene isn’t really necessary. I could have shown Ilya with the laser without any explanation, or, even better, dispensed with its construction in a sentence or two. Instead, I spend a fair amount of time on it, not so much to provide instructions on how to build a laser of your own, but because this kind of scene can be pleasurable for its own sake, and it adds to the verisimilitude of what I wanted to come off as a fairly realistic thriller, however outlandish it might be in other respects. (In fact, this is a good time to admit that I came up with the image of Ilya building the laser first, with only a general sense of how it would fit into the rest of the plot—and it went on, as we’ll see, to play an important role in the story at several crucial points.)

Perhaps most important of all, the scene tells us something about Ilya himself. This is the first time we’ve really seen him alone, and like his brief flashback later in the chapter to an exchange in Yekaterinberg, it reveals elements of his character that will pay off down the line: he’s smart, methodical, and capable of doing a lot with limited resources. It’s no accident that he builds his laser himself, with ordinary components: I don’t have much interest in spyware of the James Bond variety, but I’m very interested in seeing characters solve problems when they have almost nothing to work with, which is what Ilya does, on a number of levels, throughout the entire story. And I don’t think this impression would be conveyed nearly as well without the attention to detail we see in this scene. Information, in a thriller, can be a surprisingly useful tool for building characters, especially in a genre that tends to gravitate, for obvious reasons, toward individuals with a certain level of competence. The Jackal is his rifle, and Ilya, at least for the moment, is identified with the little gadget he builds here. And it’s going to come in handy soon…

Better late than never: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

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It’s taken me a long time to get around to le Carré. As I noted in my review of the recent movie adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, my interest in his great subject—the psychology and culture of spycraft—has always been limited at best, so his books can seem forbiddingly hermetic to a reader like me. A writer like Frederick Forsyth, whom I admire enormously, does a nice job of balancing esoteric detail with narrative thrills, while le Carré, although he’s an ingenious plotter, deliberately holds back from the release of action for its own sake. The difference, perhaps, is that Forsyth was a journalist, while le Carré worked in intelligence himself, which accounts for much of the contrast in their work—one is a great explainer and popularizer, so that his books read like a men’s adventure novel and intelligence briefing rolled into one, while the other is all implication. As a result, while I’ve devoured most of Forsyth’s novels, I’ve tried and failed to get into le Carré more than once, and it’s only recently that I decided to remedy this situation once and for all.

Because there’s an important point to be made about le Carré’s reticence, which is that it ultimately feels more convincing, and lives more intriguingly in the imagination, than the paragraph-level thrills of other books. In interviews, le Carré has noted that many of the terms of spycraft that fill his novels were invented by himself, and weren’t actually used within MI6. This hardly matters, because a reader encountering this language for the first time—the lamplighters, the scalphunters, the janitors—has no doubt that this world is authentic. Forsyth, by contrast, stuffs his books with detail, nearly all of it compelling, but always with the sense that much of this information comes secondhand: we applaud the research, but don’t quite believe in the world. With le Carré, we feel as though we’re being ushered into a real place, sometimes tedious, often opaque, with major players glimpsed only in passing. And even if he’s inventing most of it, it’s still utterly persuasive.

This is the great strength of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I finished reading this week. Le Carré is the strongest stylist in suspense fiction, and this book is a master class in the slow accumulation of detail and atmosphere. Sometimes we aren’t quite sure what is taking place, either because of the language of spycraft or the density of Britishisms—”a lonely queer in a trilby exercising his Sealyham”—but there’s never any break in the fictional dream. It’s a book that demands sustained engagement, that resolutely refuses to spell out its conclusions, and that always leaves us scrambling to catch up with the unassuming but formidable Smiley. In this respect, Tomas Alfredson’s movie is an inspired adaptation: it visualizes a few moments that the novel leaves offstage, but for the most part, it leave us to swim for ourselves in le Carré’s ocean of names, dates, and faces. (I haven’t seen the classic Alec Guinness version, which I’m saving for when the details of the plot have faded.)

And yet the overall impact is somewhat unsatisfying. Tinker, Tailor is a brilliantly written and constructed novel, but it’s an intellectual experience, not a visceral one. By the end of the book, we’ve come to know Smiley and a handful of others, but the rest are left enigmatic by design, so that the book’s key moment—the revelation of the mole’s identity—feels almost like an afterthought, with no real sense of pain or of betrayal. (The film has many of the same issues, and as I’ve noted before, it gives the game away with some injudicious casting.) This isn’t a flaw, precisely: it’s totally consistent with the book’s tone, which distrusts outbursts of emotion and buries feeling as deep as possible. That air of reserve can be fascinating, but it also leads to what James Wood, for somewhat different reasons, calls le Carré’s “clever coffin”—a narrowness of tone that limits the range of feeling that the work can express, which is often true of even the best suspense fiction. Le Carré’s talent is so great that it inadvertently exposes the limitations of the entire genre, and it’s a problem that we’re all still trying to solve.

Written by nevalalee

September 7, 2012 at 9:21 am

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