Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Gorky Park

“Like catching a fish with your hands…”

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Martin Cruz Smith

By now, many of you have probably seen the New York Times profile that revealed that Martin Cruz Smith, the author of such acclaimed suspense novels as Gorky Park, has suffered secretly for nearly two decades from Parkinson’s disease. Any reader of his stories knows that Smith doesn’t lack for ingenuity, and he’s managed to deal with the symptoms to the extent of publishing five books over the last dozen years, with even his publisher unaware of his situation until recently. It was clearly a novelist’s nightmare: the tremors prevented him from taking notes, sketching, and ultimately even typing, and it made it increasingly hard for him to do research on location. In the end, he was able to rely on his  wife, Emily, as an amanuensis, dictating to her in his office while he typed. As Pam Belluck, the article’s author, shrewdly points out, the process was fraught with pitfalls:

Writers often “think” through their fingertips, not knowing exactly what they’ll create until their hands are at the keyboard. Could Mr. Smith, whose novels braid history, suspense, deadpan humor, and subtly surprising characters, write a book one step removed?

Yet it seems to have worked, at least to a point, although not without a lot of mental and psychic toil.  At a time when novelists increasingly use their personal stories as a sales tool, Smith’s decision to conceal his condition for so long speaks both to his desire for privacy and to a kind of ingrained pride in his tools to which all professional writers can relate: it’s hard for us to admit that we may be operating at less than our best. And it would be a mistake to give Smith the wrong kind of credit for what he’s accomplished. Working with Parkinson’s took courage and tenacity, yes, but also inventiveness, resourcefulness, and superhuman concentration, all of which are qualities that he’s shown before in his writing. Gorky Park is a model thriller that manages to pull off a difficult dance between politics, reportage, and character development, while also constructing an exciting and finely detailed mystery, and it served as a valuable source of inspiration for The Icon Thief. Any writer capable of producing such a book—not to mention so many others over the years—inevitably learns a great deal about tackling complicated, seemingly unsolvable problems.

Jorge Luis Borges

It’s impossible to know if being a novelist, who is often keenly conscious of the gap between his intentions and his capacity to perform them, really gave Smith greater resources to cope with his condition, but his case reminds me of other writers who have been forced to work under similarly difficult constraints. Borges, of course, went blind, and although it represented an undeniable loss to his fiction, he dealt with it by switching focus, moving away from the intricately literate stories of his early period to poems, fables, lectures, and tales drawn from his own memory of Argentina. Solzhenitsyn suffered from a different kind of deprivation: in the gulag, he had a fellow prisoner make him a rosary out of pellets of bread, which allowed him to compose and memorize long passages of poetry without access to pen or paper. None of these writers went so far as to romanticize their predicaments, and I don’t doubt that Borges would have gladly accepted the return of his eyesight and Solzhenitsyn of his writing materials. But it’s a testament to the power of our need to tell stories that it repeatedly survives under the most trying circumstances.

Cruz, not surprisingly, describes his experience with the vividness of a writer who has had a great deal of time to think about what it means and how it feels. Writing by dictation is “like playing football, except you’ve got two quarterbacks.” Typing with Parkinson’s “was like catching a fish with your hands.” And most memorably: “It’s not like Hillary conquering Everest. It’s like Mallory never coming down.” And his efforts speak volumes about the impossibility of giving up the act of telling stories. Smith’s books have done well; if this were simply about earning a living or seeing his name in print, he could have retired long ago. But writing is central to who authors are, and that impulse breaks out against even the most daunting of odds. Noting that he sometimes fails to find the first word he wants, Smith finds a particularly writerly way of putting the situation into a better light: “I like new ways of expressing things. It makes the work alive.” And after revealing that he sometimes suffers from hallucinations, including a black dog that appears in unexpected places, he notes drily: “Having hallucinations for a fiction writer is redundant.”

Written by nevalalee

November 13, 2013 at 9:05 am

“Even before the patrolman said a word…”

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(Note: This post is the third installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 2. You can read the first few chapters of the novel here.)

From the day I first conceived The Icon Thief, its structure was clear in my mind: I knew it would tell three stories, each with a single strong protagonist, that would advance in parallel, occasionally intersect, and converge at the novel’s conclusion. This sort of structure had intrigued me ever since I’d encountered it in the book and movie of L.A. Confidential, mostly because it gave me a chance to engage in the kind of narrative puzzle-making that had drawn me to fiction in the first place, and I’d already tried something similar with my unpublished novel about India. I also knew from the beginning that one story would follow an employee of an art hedge fund in New York, who eventually became Maddy Blume, while another would center on a Russian criminal, later named Ilya Severin. For a long time, however, I didn’t know what my third story would be. At first, I thought about focusing on an art analyst, the character who would evolve into Ethan Usher, but it was too much like Maddy’s story. And it was with a feeling of great relief that I finally realized that my third thread could, and should, be something else entirely: a police procedural.

I was pleased by this decision for three reasons. First was the obvious fact that it gave me a lot of material to work with, with entire shelves of books available for background and inspiration. Second, by making my third lead a criminal investigator, I had a means of organizing and assembling the pieces of what was already looking like a very complex story, with a character who could view the plot from the outside and figure it out with the reader—which, indeed, was the role that this character, eventually named Alan Powell, ultimately ended up playing. Third, and perhaps most important, was that it gave me a narrative line of relative clarity. I knew from early on that this was going to be a complicated novel, and in particular that it was going to be hard to structure Maddy’s story, since I was figuring out her character and motivations as I went along. Ilya’s share of the plot, by contrast, was fairly straightforward—it was a heist that turned into a fight for survival—and I intuitively knew that the third narrative strand should be easy to follow as well. In general, a novel can’t push the bounds of complexity on every level, and by making a third of the story a procedural, I would always have a familiar home base on which to fall back whenever the rest of the plot threatened to get out of control.

So what would my procedural be about? In theory, the initial crime could be almost anything, because it was really just a means of introducing my investigator into the larger plot. A murder seemed like a safe enough bet, and for some reason, I hit on the image of a woman’s headless body mummified in the sand under the boardwalk at Brighton Beach. The headless corpse was, of course, both a nod to Étant Donnés and to the Russian mob’s famous propensity for cutting off the head and hands of its victims. (In this, I was probably more than a little indebted to Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park.) The Brighton Beach setting was inspired by the same angle. But I wouldn’t have been able to write this scene at all if I hadn’t found an article by Michael Wilson of the New York Times about the history of the space under the boardwalk, which, after the beach was extended, had been gradually reclaimed by the sand. And with this fact in mind, I spent several memorable days snooping around the Brighton Beach boardwalk, doing my best to walk in the footsteps of my fictional investigator.

Alan Powell is obviously named after Michael Powell, the director of The Red Shoes, and while it took me a while to get a fix on his character—as I’ll have occasion to discuss elsewhere—this chapter remained largely unchanged from first draft to final version. (I was helped by the fact that the main character’s objective in this chapter, as with the auction scene in Chapter 1, was both clearly defined and familiar from other procedurals.) This scene also marks the first appearance of FBI Special Agent Rachel Wolfe. Wolfe’s history is an interesting one: when I first conceived the part, she was basically just someone for Powell to talk to, and at first, she was a man, not a woman. Even after the first draft, I didn’t really know who she was, and I briefly toyed with the idea of making her South Asian. In making her a Mormon, I was inspired by the historically large number of Mormon agents in the FBI and CIA, and as soon as I made this decision, she blossomed in unexpected ways. In the end, I got to like Wolfe so much that I made her the hero of my second novel, City of Exiles, and she’s perhaps my favorite character in the entire series. Wolfe doesn’t have much to do here, but keep an eye on her. She’s got some surprises in store…

Written by nevalalee

May 10, 2012 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

May 10, 2011 at 7:31 am

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