Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Hannibal Lecter

Out of the silence

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Eight years ago, I wrote in one of my very first posts on this blog: “I still hope that [Thomas] Harris comes back and writes another amazing novel. I really do. Even Hannibal, for all its problems, has remarkable moments…All the same, it’s been four years since we saw a new book from Harris, a notoriously slow and methodical writer, and there hasn’t been a whisper of another project. And the pressure to write another Hannibal Lecter novel must be tremendous. But I hope he resists it. Because an ambitious new thriller by Harris without Lecter would be the literary event of the year, maybe the decade.” Looking back, this seems slightly hyperbolical, but I stand by my statement. There was a time when I would have argued that Harris was the best popular novelist in America, based on a remarkably modest body of work. He’s written just five novels, one of which is best forgotten, and his most recent effort of any value is nearly two decades old. Yet between Black Sunday, Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and the most worthwhile parts of Hannibal alone, he’s responsible for more memorable ideas, scenes, and characters than any other bestselling writer I can name, apart perhaps from his longtime admirer Stephen King. No author in my lifetime has done more to break down the barriers between literary and mainstream fiction, based on little more than a dark imagination and an unsurpassed level of technical proficiency. During the years when I was working mostly as a suspense novelist, I read his novels endlessly, and it’s possible that I owe more to his example than to any other writer in any genre.

As a result, I greeted yesterday’s announcement of a new Harris novel, which is scheduled to be released the week before my next birthday, with more than usual excitement. The title and even the basic premise have yet to be revealed, a lack of information reflected in the most comprehensive article that we have on it so far, in the form of a paragraph from the Associated Press:

The Silence of the Lambs author Thomas Harris has a new novel out in May, his first in more than a decade. But don’t expect a return for Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Grand Central Publishing announced Wednesday that Harris will release his first “stand-alone thriller” since his debut, Black Sunday, in 1975. No other details were provided, although the publisher confirmed to the Associated Press that Lecter wasn’t in it. Harris, 78, has released just five previous novels. Four of them feature the flesh-eating Lecter, including The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon.

There isn’t much there, apart from the confirmation that Lecter won’t be involved, which is newsworthy in itself. Lecter is one of the great creations in all of popular fiction—perhaps the most indelible since Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, though, he eventually became a millstone around his creator’s neck. Harris has spent the last half of his career in a losing battle to reconcile Lecter’s star status with the uncompromising version of the character that had been established in the first two novels. It all but destroyed his gifts as a reporter and observer, since the later books were built around what he must have known was a lie. And the prospect of his emancipation is very exciting.

But what really struck me about that article is the realization, which I could have figured out for myself if I had bothered to do the math, that Harris is seventy-eight years old. That’s just one year younger than Philip Roth was when he announced his retirement. These two writers are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, but they have affinities that aren’t entirely obvious. They’re roughly of the same generation, with preternatural abilities of observation and description, and both saw writing as a sort of torture. Stephen King has written of Harris “writhing on the floor in agonies of frustration,” since “the very act of writing is a kind of torment,” and while Roth was more prolific, he found the act of creation to be comparably grueling, as he once told The Paris Review:

Beginning a book is unpleasant…I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. Okay, I say to myself, that’s your beginning, start there; that’s the first paragraph of the book. I’ll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I’ll type all these out on one page. Usually it doesn’t come to more than one page, but if I’m lucky, that’s the start of page one. I look for the liveliness to set the tone. After the awful beginning come the months of freewheeling play, and after the play come the crises, turning against your material and hating the book.

And after he retired, he posted a note on his computer that gave him strength when he looked at it each day: “The struggle with writing is over.”

Few writers remain productive toward the end of their eighth decade, and those who do, like John Updike, are usually those for whom it was easier to keep writing than to stop. If Harris found it painful in his forties, it can hardly be any less agonizing now, and the burden of expectation must be very great. We don’t know what inspired him to return to fiction after all this time, but I can venture a few guesses. Harris signed a lucrative contract over a decade ago, and he might have felt a sense of obligation to fulfill it, although both he and his publisher can live quite comfortably off his backlist. I once guessed that after he outsourced his most famous creation to Bryan Fuller, he’d feel free to write a book of his own, which might be part of the answer. But the best clue of all, perhaps, comes straight from Lecter himself, who advises Clarice Starling to consult Marcus Aurelius in her search for Buffalo Bill:

When you show the odd flash of contextual intelligence, I forget your generation can’t read, Clarice. The Emperor counsels simplicity. First principles. Of each particular thing, ask: What is in it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its causal nature?

When Starling, not unreasonably, asks him to cut to the chase, Lecter rewords the question: “What does he do, the man you want?” And while we know less about Harris than just about any other novelist alive, including Thomas Pynchon, we know exactly what he does. He writes, often brilliantly, and so much of what clouded his talent—Lecter’s seduction of Starling, the revisionist fanfic of Hannibal Rising—was merely, as Lecter might say, “incidental.” And I hope we’ll have one more chance to see his true nature again.

Written by nevalalee

October 4, 2018 at 8:29 am

And then there was one

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Maeve Dermody in And Then There Were None

Note: Spoilers follow for the book and miniseries And Then There Were None.

Over the weekend, my wife and I caught up with the recent BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None, which aired in two parts last week on Lifetime. It’s a nice, overwrought version of Agatha Christie’s story, faithful to the novel in its outlines but cheerfully willing to depart from it in the details, and I liked it a lot. (I particularly enjoyed Maeve Dermody’s swift descent from an Emily Blunt lookalike to something like a crazy cat lady, complete with dark circles under both eyes.) And it also gives me an excuse to revisit the weirdest novel ever to sell one hundred million copies. The book reads like Christie’s attempt to see how far she could push her classic formula—a series of baffling murders in a closed setting—without alienating her audience, and as clinical as the result often feels, readers have never ceased to respond to it: by any reckoning, it’s the bestselling mystery novel of all time. With every single character serving in turn as bystander, suspect, and victim, it takes this sort of novel to its limit, and it incidentally discovers how few of the standard elements are necessary. There isn’t a sympathetic protagonist in sight, or even a detective. As Sarah Phelps, who wrote the miniseries, observes in a perceptive interview:

Within the Marple and Poirot stories somebody is there to unravel the mystery, and that gives you a sense of safety and security, of predicting what is going to happen next…In this book that doesn’t happen—no one is going to come to save you, absolutely nobody is coming to help or rescue or interpret.

In other words, the puzzle itself is the star, just as the plot is the hero in most science fiction—a genre that often overlaps with this sort of mystery. (And Then There Were None was published just a year after “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, which tells much the same story, except with a shapeshifting alien as the villain.) Watching Noah Taylor in the role of the sinister servant who places the ten figurines on the table, I joked that he was playing the Tim Curry part, but’s a hint of truth there: Christie emphasized the gamelike aspects of the genre long before there was anything like Clue, and she plants the seeds of her own future parodies so consciously that there’s hardly any point in mocking those conventions. And Then There Were None is structured like the five-minute mysteries that contemporary readers probably know best through the likes of Encyclopedia Brown: after the last victim dies, there’s a convenient summary of the relevant facts by two bewildered cops at Scotland Yard, followed by what amounts to a sealed bonus chapter with the killer’s confession, complete with a list of the clues that the reader might have missed. As the murderer writes: “It was my ambition to invent a murder mystery that no one could solve.” And if we had any doubt about the identification of the killer with Christie herself, this should put it to rest. Christie is the murderer, even if she appears in the story under a different face and name.

Agatha Christie

This, I think, is why the original novel has always been such a spectacular success: it gets closer than any other to the uneasy way in which the author and the killer, rather than the detective, turn out to be one and the same. Christie’s guilty party is one of the earliest exemplars of a character type that we recognize from John Doe in Seven, Jigsaw in the Saw movies, and even Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker: the killer whose control of the story is so complete that he can’t be separated from the screenwriter. In my discussion of the television series Hannibal, I noted that it sometimes seemed as if Lecter himself was in the writers room, or dictating material to Thomas Harris: he was so adept at manipulating the men and women around him that he practically became the showrunner. If the detective in a mystery novel is a surrogate for the reader, who approaches the text as a series of clues, the killer can only be the writer, and by removing the detective from the story entirely, Christie makes this identity even more explicit. We’re cast in the part of an invisible sleuth, moving unseen on the island as the victims are eliminated one by one, with Christie as our ice-cold antagonist, seated at the other end of the board. (The writer selects her victims as carefully as the killer does: note that all the characters are childless and—except for the servant couple—unmarried, which allows them to be dispatched with a minimum of regret.)

And those ten figures on the dining table aren’t there by accident. They’re tokens in the game that Edward Fitzgerald describes in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

But helpless pieces of the game he plays
Upon this chequerboard of nights and days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.

Christie certainly knew that verse: it appears only a few lines before the stanza that she used a few years later for the title of her novel The Moving Finger. And Then There Were None confirmed her as the genre’s ultimate chess master, and one of the pleasures in reading it again comes from our knowledge of how cunningly she uses the elements of the novel itself—like the third person omniscient point of view—to mislead and ensnare us. (That’s one way in which the miniseries, for all its cleverness, can’t match the novel: Christie moves in and out of the heads of her characters, including the killer, without cheating. A televised version of the same story only has to concern itself with the surfaces, which makes its job relatively easy.) Christie tricked us here in ways that can’t be reproduced, regardless of how many other works have copied its central twist. Mysteries come and go, but And Then There Were None is where the genre begins and ends. And there can only be one.

The monster in the writers room

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Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

Note: Spoilers follow for the season finale of Hannibal.

When it comes to making predictions about television shows, my track record is decidedly mixed. I was long convinced, for instance, that Game of Thrones would figure out a way to keep Oberyn Martell around, just because he was such fun to watch, and to say I was wrong about this is something of an understatement. Let the record show, however, that I said here months ago that the third season of Hannibal would end with Will Graham getting a knife through his face:

In The Silence of the Lambs, Crawford says that Graham’s face “looks like damned Picasso drew it.” None of the prior cinematic versions of this story have dared to follow through on this climax, but I have a feeling, given the evidence, that Fuller would embrace it. Taking Hugh Dancy’s face away, or making it hard for it look at, would be the ultimate rupture between the series and its viewers. Given the show’s cancellation, it may well end up being the very last thing we see. It would be a grim note on which to end. But it’s nothing that this series hasn’t taught us to expect.

This wasn’t the hardest prediction in the world to make. One of the most distinctive aspects of Bryan Fuller’s take on the Lecter saga is his willingness to pursue elements of the original novels that other adaptations have avoided, and the denouement of Red Dragon—with Will lying alone, disfigured, and mute in the hospital—is a downer ending that no other version of this story has been willing to touch.

Of course, that wasn’t what we got here, either. Instead of Will in his hospital bed, brooding silently on the indifference of the natural world to murder, we got a hysterical ballet of death, with Will and Hannibal teaming up to dispatch Dolarhyde like the water buffalo at the end of Apocalypse Now, followed by an operatic plunge over the edge of a cliff, with our two star-crossed lovers locked literally in each other’s arms. And it was a worthy finale for a series that has seemed increasingly indifferent to anything but that unholy love story. The details of Lecter’s escape from prison are wildly implausible, and whatever plan they reflect is hilariously undercooked, even for someone like Jack Crawford, who increasingly seems like the world’s worst FBI agent in charge. Hannibal has never been particularly interested its procedural elements, and its final season took that contempt to its final, ludicrous extreme. In the novel Red Dragon, Will, despite his demons, is a competent, inspired investigator, and he’s on the verge of apprehending Dolaryhyde through his own smarts when his quarry turns the tables. In Fuller’s version, unless I missed something along the way, Will doesn’t make a single useful deduction or take any meaningful action that isn’t the result of being manipulated by Hannibal or Jack. He’s a puppet, and dangerously close to what TV Tropes has called a Woobie: a character whom we enjoy seeing tortured so we can wish the pain away.

Hugh Dancy on Hannibal

None of this should be taken as a criticism of the show itself, in which any narrative shortcomings can hardly be separated from Fuller’s conscious decisions. But as enjoyable as the series has always been—and I’ve enjoyed it more than any network drama I’ve seen in at least a decade—it’s something less than an honest reckoning with its material. As a rule of thumb, the stories about Lecter, including Harris’s own novels, have been the most successful when they stick most closely to their roots as police procedurals. Harris started his career as a crime reporter, and his first three books, including Black Sunday, are masterpieces of the slow accumulation of convincing detail, spiced and enriched by a layer of gothic violence. When you remove that foundation of realistic suspense, you end up with a character who is dangerously uncontrollable: it’s Lecter, not Harris, who becomes the author of his own novel. In The Annotated Dracula, Leslie S. Klinger proposes a joke theory that the real author of that book is Dracula himself, who tracked down Bram Stoker and forced him to make certain changes to conceal the fact that he was alive and well and living in Transylvania. It’s an “explanation” that rings equally true of the novels Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, which read suspiciously as if Lecter were dictating elements of his own idealized autobiography to Harris. (As far as I know, nobody has seen or heard from Harris since Hannibal Rising came out almost a decade ago. Are we sure he’s all right?)

And there are times when Hannibal, the show, plays as if Lecter had gotten an executive producer credit sometime between the second and third seasons. If anything, this is a testament to his vividness: when properly acted and written, he dominates his stories to a greater extent than any fictional character since Sherlock Holmes. (In fact, the literary agent hypothesis—in which the credited writer of a series is alleged to be simply serving as a front—originated among fans of Conan Doyle, who often seemed bewildered by the secondary lives his characters assumed.) But there’s something unsettling about how Lecter inevitably takes on the role of a hero. My favorite stretch of Hannibal was the back half of the second season, which looked unflinchingly at Lecter’s true nature as a villain, cannibal, and destroyer of lives. When he left the entire supporting cast to bleed slowly to death at the end of “Mizumono,” it seemed impossible to regard him as an appealing figure ever again. And yet here we are, with an ending that came across as the ultimate act of fan service in a show that has never been shy about appealing to its dwindling circle of devotees. I can’t exactly blame it for this, especially because the slow dance of seduction between Will and Hannibal has always been a source of sick, irresistible fascination. But we’re as far ever from an adaptation that would force us to honestly confront why we’re so attached to a man who eats other people, or why we root for him to triumph over lesser monsters who make the mistake of not being so rich, cultured, or amusing. Lecter came into this season like a lion, but he went out, as always, like a lamb.

The monster in the mirror

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Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “If you were a horror movie villain, what would be your hook?”

In horror movies, we’re supposed to relate to the victims, but some of the genre’s most enduring works implicate us into an uneasy identification with the monster. I’m not talking about the films that invite the audience to cheer as another mad slasher takes out a platoon of teenagers, or even more sophisticated examples like the original Halloween, which locks us into the killer’s eyes with its opening tracking shot. What I have in mind is something more like Norman Bates. Norman is “nutty as a fruitcake,” to use Roger Ebert’s memorable words, but he’s also immensely appealing and sympathetic in the middle sequence of Psycho, much more so than John Gavin’s square, conventional hero. The connection Norman has with Marion as she eats her sandwich in the parlor is real, or at least real enough to convince her to return the stolen money, and it fools us temporarily into thinking that this movie will be an adventure involving these two shy souls. Because what defines Norman isn’t his insanity, or even his mother issues, but his loneliness. As he says wistfully to Marion: “Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies. They moved away the highway.”

Which is only to say that in Norman, we’re confronted with a weird, distorted image of our own introversion, with his teenager’s room and Beethoven’s Eroica on the record player. Other memorable villains force us to confront other aspects of ourselves by taking these tendencies to their murderous conclusion. Hannibal Lecter is a strange case, since he’s so superficially seductive, and he was ultimately transformed into the hero of his own series. What he really represents, though, is aestheticism run amok. We’d all love to have his tastes in books, music, and food—well, maybe not entirely the latter—but they come at the price of his complete estrangement from all human connection, or an inability to regard other people as anything other than items on a menu. Sometimes, it’s literal; at others, it’s figurative, as he takes an interest in Will Graham or Clarice Starling only to the extent that they can relieve his boredom. Lecter, we’re told, eats only the rude, but “rude” can have two meanings, and for the most part, it ends up referring to those too lowly or rough to meet his own high standards. (Bryan Fuller, to his credit, has given us multiple reminders of how psychotic Lecter’s behavior really is.)

Kevin Spacey in Seven

And if Lecter cautions us against the perversion of our most refined impulses, Jack Torrance represents the opposite: “The susceptible imagination,” as David Thomson notes, “of a man who lacks the skills to be a writer.” Along with so much else, The Shining is the best portrait of a writer we have on film, because we can all relate to Jack’s isolation and frustration. The huge, echoing halls of the Overlook are as good a metaphor as I’ve ever seen for writer’s block or creative standstill: you’re surrounded by gorgeous empty spaces, as well as the ghosts of your own ambitions, and all you can manage to do is bounce a tennis ball against the wall, again and again and again. There isn’t a writer who hasn’t looked at a pile of manuscript and wondered, deep down, if it isn’t basically the same as the stack of pages that Jack Torrance lovingly ruffles in his climactic scene with Wendy, and whenever I tell people what I’m working on at the moment, I can’t help but hear a whisper of Jack’s cheerful statement to Ullman: “I’m outlining a new writing project, and five months of peace is just what I want.”

There’s another monster who gets at an even darker aspect of the writer’s craft: John Doe in Seven. I don’t think there’s another horror movie that binds the process of its own making so intimately to the villain’s pathology: Seven is so beautifully constructed and so ingenious that it takes us a while to realize that John Doe is essentially writing the screenplay. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script was sensational enough to get him out of a job at Tower Records, but despite the moral center that Morgan Freeman’s character provides, it’s hard to escape the sense that the film delights more in its killer’s cleverness, which can’t be separated from the writer’s. Unlike Jack Torrance, John Doe is superbly good at what he does, and he’s frightening primarily as an example of genius and facility without heart. The impulse that pushes him to use human lives as pieces in his masterpiece of murder is only the absurdist conclusion of the tendency in so many writers, including me, to treat violence as a narrative tool, a series of marks that the plot needs to hit to keep the story moving. I’m not saying that the two are morally equivalent. But Seven—even in its final limitations, which Fincher later went on to explode in Zodiac—is still a scary film for any writer who ever catches himself treating life and death as a game.

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2014 at 9:01 am

“Karvonen kept an eye on them…”

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"Karvonen kept an eye on them..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 34. You can read the earlier installments here

“You’ve got to stick to your principles,” as Ray Fiennes says at the end of In Bruges, and that’s as true of characters as of authors. I’ve spoken endlessly here about the importance of constraints, which serve as an aid to creativity by focusing the writer’s thoughts within a restricted range, and this applies equally to the actions of the players within the story. We all have codes, stated or unstated, by which we live our lives, and our decisions have meaning only in the way that they navigate between the needs of the moment and the larger values in which we believe. Without that tension, life would be less interesting, and so would fiction. Characters emerge most fully when they’re given something to react against, and while the external conflicts of the plot provide a convenient source of pressure, it can be even more powerful when the protagonist’s dilemma emerges from within. And at best, the two kinds of pressure fuse into one: events in the world push against the internal struggle, and it can be hard to know where one leaves off and the other begins.

This is particularly true, perhaps counterintuitively, of villains. With heroes, we can generally make a few assumptions about their behavior if they’re going to remain sympathetic: a hero never kills without cause, and if he breaks the law or violates what we think of as a reasonable standard of morality, he usually has a good excuse. Villains, in theory, aren’t nearly so bounded—they can do whatever they like, provided that they remain fun to watch. In practice, though, an antagonist who is a pure psychopath, as in so many dreary horror movies or thrillers, rarely holds our attention for long. As countless writers have observed, we’re all the heroes of our own stories, and it’s less compelling to invent a character who wakes up in the morning deciding what evil acts to perform than to create someone who does terrible things for what he sees as a valid reason. This doesn’t prevent us from writing big, operatic villains: think of Khan, whose every action is motivated by what he thinks is justifiable revenge, or Hannibal Lecter, who prefers when possible to eat only the rude.

"The man crumpled to the floor..."

And a villain’s fate is correspondingly more interesting if it emerges from where his code collides with the events of the narrative. Khan, again, is a great example: he’s got superhuman intellect and strength, but ultimately, his drive for vengeance leads him to make a number of crucial tactical errors. In City of Exiles, Lasse Karvonen—and it’s interesting to note how the consonants K and N recur in these villainous characters’ names, perhaps as a nod to Cain—is as close to a pure force of evil as any I’ve written, but he, too, has values of his own. Karvonen’s case is an unusual one because of his background: he’s Finnish, but he’s working for Russia, his country’s historical enemy, because he sees it as a larger stage for his talents. That contradiction fuels many of his decisions throughout the novel, and his actions can best be understood as an attempt to prove that he can play this ruthless game more capably than a Russian ever could. At the heart of it all, however, is a fundamental assumption. He’ll do whatever it takes to keep his employers happy, but he draws the line at hurting another Finn.

Inevitably, he’ll be asked to break this rule, and the choice he makes when the time comes will turn out to determine his fate. For that moment to have any meaning, though, his code needs to be clearly established. I allude to it first in Chapter 26, perhaps a little too neatly—”He had never spilled a drop of Finnish blood, and he never would”—but it’s Chapter 34 that locks it into the reader’s memory. It’s a self-contained scene with little connection to the rest of the story, and I arrived at it mostly just to give Karvonen something to do at this stage in his journey. (He’s on a cruise ferry bound from Stockholm to Helsinki, and many of the details of the chapter come from my research on these cruises, which offer clubs, shopping, and other entertainment options for passengers.) When Karvonen sees a Russian man abusing his Finnish girlfriend, he takes quick, effective revenge, and it’s a satisfying moment mostly because it does triple duty. It’s perfectly in character for Karvonen; it reminds us of the tensions beneath his unruffled surface; and it sets us up for the turning point, more than a hundred pages later, when his principles will be tested for real…

Written by nevalalee

June 12, 2014 at 9:48 am

“Begin with the cell…”

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"Begin with the cell..."

Note: This post is the thirty-first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 30. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Earlier this week, I exchanged a few emails with a friend of mine who had kindly agreed to look over the first hundred pages of the novel I’m currently writing. He’s a very smart guy who has been active in mystery circles for twenty years and counting, with many books to his name, several teleplays, and most notably his own publishing imprint that beautifully reissues classic works of crime fiction, as well as new novels in the same vein. I wanted his advice because I’d been struggling a little with my rough draft, and I knew I could count on him for some strong opinions, without any sugarcoating, which he certainly delivered. And his notes on the manuscript were prefaced with an odd admission: he didn’t really care for thrillers. He loves mystery fiction—that is, novels in which the solution of a problem in the past is more important than the question of how to prevent a crime in the future—but when it comes to suspense novels, which are all about momentum, his attention starts to stray, whether they’re by Meltzer, Collins, or Baldacci. And as someone who tends to prefer thrillers to mysteries, it made me wonder yet again why I’d been drawn to this particular genre, and why I’ve always felt that it played best to my own strengths and interests.

The reason I like the thriller form, I’ve concluded, is its inherent flexibility. It’s designed to keep the reader turning pages, and as a result, it follows certain conventions: a gripping beginning, a problem set before the protagonist in the first chapter, a steadily rising line of intensity, and scenes of action or violence laid in at various points like the dance numbers in a musical. Within that structure, however, the author is free to write about whatever he likes, and in practice, it can accommodate more variety and complexity than novels in other categories. I’m the kind of writer who likes to take up and put down fresh subjects on a regular basis—I’m much happier writing a novel every nine or twelve months than laboring over it for years—and the thriller, supplemented here and there by short science fiction, is the mode in which I’ve found the most freedom. Mystery tends to hew more closely to an established formula, but thrillers come in all shapes and sizes. (I’ve made the case before that many works of ostensibly literary fiction, such as the novels of Ian McEwan, are actually thrillers elevated by exceptional levels of language and characterization.) And even in the confines of one story, the skeleton that the thriller provides allows for surprising digressions.

"He finished lathering his face..."

One of the reasons I enjoyed writing City of Exiles, for instance, was that while it was essentially an espionage novel with elements of procedural and conspiracy fiction, it also had room for a prison novel in miniature, once Ilya is sent up to Belmarsh. The prison narrative is a genre of its own, with great examples in every kind of media, and while I couldn’t see myself devoting an entire book to it, I relished the chance to explore this kind of story within five or six chapters of the larger plot. Not surprisingly, when it came time to write these sections, I took inspiration both from works of nonfiction—notably Jeffrey Archer’s memoirs—and from books and movies that had explored prison stories in interesting ways. This was long before Orange is the New Black, which is a curious beast of its own, but I did take time to watch Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson and Jacques Audiard’s brilliant A Prophet, the latter of which deeply influenced the look and feel of these scenes. And while the demands of the plot meant that I couldn’t linger on this material longer than necessary, I enjoyed the opportunity it presented to imbed this sequence, like its own short subject, in a novel of greater scope.

Chapter 30, in particular, is basically an homage to prison novels in general. You’ve got the detailed and homely description of Ilya’s cell and routine, his encounter with a potential informant in the exercise yard, his interactions with guards, and his meeting with Vasylenko, his former mentor, who is installed in the adjacent block. And while this material is hopefully interesting in itself, it also plays a role in the rhythm of the scenes that surround it. Thrillers, like many good novels, are often constructed according to principles of contrast: good and evil, of course, but also liberty and constraint, order and chaos, innocence and guilt, with each half of the pair heightening the other. Ilya’s story at the prison works because it stands in contrast to the motion and invisibility that have defined his character in the past, and which continue to define the figure of Karvonen, who is moving unimpeded toward his appointment in Helsinki. I’ll admit that I was also thinking at times of Hannibal Lecter, a figure of infinite possibility who gains much of his interest, at least in Thomas Harris’s original novels, from his confinement within four walls. And if that inspiration isn’t already clear, it’s going to become more obvious in a page or two, when Ilya receives his first visitor…

On the novelist’s couch

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Sigmund Freud

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Freud. Psychoanalysis may be a dying science, or religion, with its place in our lives usurped by neurology and medication, but Freud’s influence on the way we talk about ourselves remains as strong as ever, not least because he was a marvelous writer. Harold Bloom aptly includes him in a line of great essayists stretching back to Montaigne, and he’s far and away the most readable and likable of all modern sages. His writings, especially his lectures and case notes, are fascinating, and they’re peppered with remarkable insights, metaphors, and tidbits of humor and practical advice. Bloom has argued convincingly for Freud as a close reader of Shakespeare, however much he might have resisted acknowledging it—he believed until the end of his days that Shakespeare’s plays had really been written by the Earl of Oxford, a conjecture known endearingly as the Looney hypothesis—and he’s as much a prose poet as he is an analytical thinker. Like most geniuses, he’s as interesting in his mistakes as in his successes, and even if you dismiss his core ideas as an ingeniously elaborated fantasy, there’s no denying that he constructed the central mythology of our century. When we talk about the libido, repression, anal retentiveness, the death instinct, we’re speaking in the terms that Freud established.

And I’ve long been struck by the parallels between psychoanalysis and what writers do for a living. Freud’s case studies read like novels, or more accurately like detective stories, with the analyst and the patient navigating through many wild guesses and wrong turns to reach the heart of the mystery. In her classic study Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Janet Malcolm writes:

In the Dora paper, Freud illustrates the double vision of the patient which the analyst must maintain in order to do his work: he must invent the patient as well as investigate him; he must invest him with the magic of myth and romance as well as reduce him to the pitiful bits and pieces of science and psychopathology. Only thus can the analyst sustain his obsessive interest in another—the fixation of a lover or a criminal investigator—and keep in sight the benign raison d’être of its relentlessness.

To “the fixation of a lover or a criminal investigator,” I might also add “of a writer.” The major figures in a novel can be as unknowable as the patient on the couch, and to sustain the obsession that finishing a book requires, a writer often has to start with an imperfect, idealized version of each character, then grope slowly back toward something more true. (Journalists, as Malcolm has pointed out elsewhere, sometimes find themselves doing the same thing.)

Janet Malcolm

The hard part, for novelists and analysts alike, is balancing this kind of intense engagement with the objectivity required for good fiction or therapy. James Joyce writes that a novelist, “like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails,” and that’s as fine a description as any of the perfect psychoanalyst, who sits on a chair behind the patient’s couch, pointedly out of sight. It’s worth remembering that psychoanalysis, in its original form, has little in common with the more cuddly brands of therapy that have largely taken its place: the analyst is told to remain detached, impersonal, a blank slate on which the patient can project his or her emotions. At times, the formal nature of this relationship can resemble a kind of clinical cruelty, with earnest debates, for instance, over whether an analyst should express sympathy if a patient tells him that her mother has died. This may seem extreme, but it’s also a way of guarding against the greatest danger of analysis: that transference, in which the patient begins to use the analyst as an object of love or hate, can run the other way. Analysts do fall in love with their patients, as well as patients with their analysts, and the rigors of the psychoanalytic method are designed to anticipate, deflect, and use this.

It’s in the resulting dance between detachment and connection that psychoanalysis most resembles the creative arts. Authors, like analysts, are prone to develop strong feelings toward their characters, and it’s always problematic when a writer falls in love with the wrong person: witness the case of Thomas Harris and Hannibal Lecter—who, as a psychiatrist himself, could have warned his author of the risk he was taking. Here, authors can take a page from their psychoanalytic counterparts, who are encouraged to turn the same detached scrutiny on their own feelings, not for what it says about themselves, but about their patients. In psychoanalysis, everything, including the seemingly irrelevant thoughts and emotions that occur to the analyst during a session, is a clue, and Freud displays the same endless diligence in teasing out their underlying meaning as a good novelist does when dissecting his own feelings about the story he’s writing. Whether anyone is improved by either process is another question entirely, but psychoanalysis, like fiction, knows to be modest in its moral and personal claims. What Freud said of the patient may well be true of the author: “But you will see for yourself that much has been gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.”

Written by nevalalee

October 25, 2013 at 8:49 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.

Why is evil easier to write than good?

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Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

On Saturday, I participated in a panel at the Printers Row Lit Fest on “The Lure of Noir,” moderated by the journalist and mystery writer Robert Goldsborough. I had a great time and really enjoyed meeting my fellow panelists, the authors Bryan Gruley, Brian D’Amato, and Libby Fischer Hellmann. (My wife and daughter were also there, although the latter chose to grow fussy at the exact moment the panel began, so they missed most of the discussion.) As always, the panel gave me a lot to think about, and I particularly enjoyed the questions at the end, one of which allowed me to go on at length about my love for The Third Man. The most interesting question, though, was one for which I didn’t have a ready answer. In essence, the question was this: as an author, how do you come back to yourself after writing in such detail about human evil? My intuitive response, which I gave, was that it’s actually much easier to write about evil than good, and I tend to struggle much more with the latter. Even as I said this, though, I found myself wondering why.

My favorite example from my own work is the novel City of Exiles, which was partially conceived as a confrontation between two moral extremes. On the one hand, you have Lasse Karvonen, my Finnish assassin, whom I deliberately designed to be as amoral and chilling a figure as possible: if the novel as a whole, as I’ve mentioned before, was something of an attempt to construct a thriller from first principles, I tried to do much the same thing with the central villain. Karvonen kills without remorse, usually on contract or to protect himself, and also because he’s simply good at it. And in laying out his backstory and inner life, I quietly incorporated many of the signs of a textbook sociopath, including setting fires and cruelty to animals. (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Thomas Harris mentions “sadism to animals as a child” as one of Hannibal Lecter’s signs of sociopathy in Red Dragon, only to never mention it again in any of the sequels, probably because it didn’t work well for a character who increasingly became the hero of his own series. You can show your antihero committing murder with impunity, but the reader won’t forgive him if he hurts a cat.)

Norman Mailer

The result was a character who was paradoxically a real pleasure to write: in fact, I don’t think any other character has ever made such an easy transition from my head to the page. This wasn’t the case for Karonven’s opponent, Rachel Wolfe, who I’d conceived to be as principled and ethical as Karvonen was vicious. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Wolfe was raised as a devout Mormon—a detail that I introduced almost at random in The Icon Thief—and although she’s starting to question aspects of her faith as the story begins, it still informs many of her life choices. She doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, she doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, and she starts every day with a prayer. These days, Mormonism is often used as a cultural punchline, so part of the challenge was to create a character who was unironically heroic, straightlaced, and admirable, and to have all these aspects of her personality arise from the same place. I think I succeeded, and Wolfe is one of my own favorite characters, but it took a long time to get it right. If Karvonen arose fully formed in the first draft, Wolfe was more the product of countless small revisions and adjustments until she began to resemble the ideal figure I’d imagined.

When I look back it now, though, I can see that it wasn’t Wolfe’s Mormonism that made her hard to write, but the fact that she was a stronger, more ethical person than I was. Norman Mailer, following Hemingway, has written about the difficulties involved in creating characters who are better than the author himself. In his candid, probing essay “The Last Draft of The Deer Park,” Mailer notes:

I had a horror of creating a voice which could be in any way bigger than myself…I was now creating a man who was bigger and stronger than me, and the more my new style succeeded, the more I was writing an implicit portrait of myself as well.

That’s been my experience, too. Ultimately, evil is easier to write because it only asks us to magnify our own worst qualities. I don’t think I have many sociopathic tendencies, but like every writer, I’ve had my share of petty, vindictive feelings, and there’s something clarifying and therapeutic about working them out in a fictional setting: if nothing else, I can take comfort in the fact that I’m not really much like Karvonen at all. With Wolfe, by contrast, I’m implicitly writing about my own limitations. I don’t have her integrity or sense of duty, as much as I wish I did. That, in a nutshell, is why writing about good is so hard: it’s easier to write honestly about the moral traps we’ve avoided—perhaps because of our own caution or timidity—than the higher standards we’re unable to meet. But as difficult as it may be, we still need to do both.

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June 11, 2013 at 8:58 am

Hannibal uncaged

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Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

It’s fair to say that I’ve spent more time discussing discussing Hannibal Lecter here than any other character in literature. This is a blog about writing, after all, and Lecter’s example is as good as case studies get, since it serves as both a model and a cautionary tale. The man we meet in The Silence of the Lambs, and to a lesser extent Red Dragon, is arguably the most compelling character to come out of the popular fiction of the last thirty years. Barely a decade elapsed before his most memorable cinematic appearance topped the list of AFI’s heroes and villains, which is astonishing for a role with less than twenty minutes of screen time. At his best, Thomas Harris is a suspense novelist of stunning intelligence and resourcefulness, and he’s written three novels that absolutely deserve to be ranked among the finest in the genre, as well as a flawed fourth book full of remarkable moments—although the fifth is best left unmentioned. But to a large extent, his reputation rests entirely on the creation of one character, and it’s defined his career to a degree that I don’t think he ever expected.

Of course, Harris himself was finally unable to keep Lecter under control, and if his prolonged silence is any indication, it seems that he’s gathering his energies for something else. This is all speculation, of course; Harris is notoriously private, and he’s never been anything but a slow, painstaking writer. But he’s also a man who wrote Hannibal Rising largely to avoid seeing his character fall into other hands, and I believe he’s intelligent enough to sense that the result is by far his weakest book. Hence the surprise of Hannibal, the NBC series that invents entirely new backstories for many of Harris’s most famous characters, all without the author’s involvement. I can’t say for sure what inspired Harris to relinquish control, and for all I know, there could be complicated rights issues involved. But  I’d like to believe that Harris recognizes that he’s already sucked this particular vein dry, and is ready, at last, to move on. I’ve said before that an entirely new suspense novel from Harris would be the literary event of the year, possibly the decade, and I still hold out hope that we’ll see it.

Hugh Dancy on Hannibal

As for Hannibal itself, I’m not sure how I feel. I watched the premiere last week, and plan to tune in again tonight, if only to catch a welcome glimpse of Gillian Anderson. It’s a well-crafted show, and there’s a lot of talent on both sides of the camera, but it also sets problems for itself that it may not be able to solve. Back when Red Dragon was first published, the figure of Will Graham, a profiler who willed himself into crime scenes to the point where he saw them play out through the killer’s eyes, may have been novel, but by now, we’ve seen variations on this character so many times that we’re already tuning out, no matter how hard the show works to make his the result visually exciting. Even more problematic is the casting of Mads Mikkelsen as Lecter. Mikkelsen is a fine actor, but his cold eyes and angular face make it hard for him to convey the character’s supposed charm, much less pass himself off as one of the leading lights of Baltimore society. He all but advertises that he’s the bad guy, which will only make his relationship with Graham increasingly implausible as the series continues.

But it’s really the premise itself that risks making the show unsustainable. Lecter needs to be in his cell, because he’s much less compelling for what he is than for what he was. His qualities as an epicure, a man of culture, and a social darling are all important facts to establish, but they only gain meaning from their absence: Lecter fascinates us once all these things have been taken away, leaving only a cold, flawless brain behind a pane of bulletproof glass, and what both Hannibal and the novel of the same name demonstrate is that it isn’t especially interesting to watch the old Lecter go about his business. (If Harris’s novel is any indication, he spends most of his time shopping.) If the show runs for long enough, it will eventually end up back where it needs to be, but it doesn’t do itself any favors by starting so far back in the timeline. As Lecter himself might say, a television series ought to start from first principles. And as it stands, it’s going to be a very long time before we see Hannibal back where he belongs.

Written by nevalalee

April 11, 2013 at 9:51 am

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.

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January 29, 2013 at 9:50 am

The man who knows

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“I don’t want to be the man who learns—I want to be the man who knows.” This is author William Goldman in Adventures in the Screen Trade, quoting an unnamed movie star whom I’ve always pictured as Steve McQueen, although it probably wasn’t. Goldman is making a slightly cynical point about how a screenwriter needs to give every good moment in the script to the star, and especially can’t show the hero asking questions or carrying the burden of exposition. On a deeper level, however, this quote gets close to the heart of what we, in the audience, want from our heroes. Everyone has a different sense of the qualities of the ideal movie hero, but at the top of my own list is competence. When I’m looking for escapism, I like movies and books about men and women who are good at their jobs, who are smart and resourceful, and who embody the kind of confidence, or at least conviction, that I’d like to see in myself. As Emerson said of Napoleon, heroes are like the rest of us, except quicker, more decisive, and always sure about what to do next. Which only means that a hero is someone who sees at a glance what it took the screenwriter weeks to figure out.

I’ve been thinking about this recently while reflecting, once again, on the appeal of The Silence of the Lambs, which was inexplicably left out of the A.V. Club’s recent rundown of the fifty best movies of the ’90s. (Honestly, I’m not the kind of person who usually complains when a list like this omits one of his favorite films, but really, this is beyond comprehension.) Hannibal Lecter is one of our great villains—he’s at the top of the AFI list—but he’s also, weirdly, one of the most compelling heroes of the past several decades, and a lot of this is due to the reasons that I mention above. He isn’t just brilliant, but hugely resourceful. His escape from the security facility in Tennessee consists of one audacious move after another, and even if we can’t buy every detail, it’s hard not to be swept up by the result. And his ingenuity is really just a distillation and acceleration of the craft of Thomas Harris. That’s the beauty of fiction: a plan that took Harris months, if not years, to work out on paper occurs to Lecter in real time, over the course of twenty dense pages. And that kind of unnatural clarity of action is what fictional heroism is all about.

Of course, Lecter has since degenerated as a character, and although I’ve talked about this far too many times before, it hints at an important truth. In his book Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card draws a useful distinction between cleverness and intelligence:

[I]n our society with its egalitarian ideals, any obvious display of intelligence or erudition suggests elitism, snobbery, arrogance…Yet we love a character who is clever enough to think of solutions to knotty problems. Does this seem contradictory? It is contradictory…The audience loves a character who solves problems and knows exactly the right facts when he needs them—but they don’t like a character who flaunts his superior knowledge or acts as if he knows how clever he is.

As an example, Card cites the case of Indiana Jones, who is intellectually brilliant by definition, but slightly bumbling whenever we see him in the classroom—and endlessly inventive and resourceful when pressed into action. And Lecter is a cautionary counterexample. We don’t like Lecter because he can quote Renaissance poetry and appreciate fine wine, but because he outsmarts his enemies and deals ingeniously with problems presented by the story. The trouble with Hannibal and its sequel is that in the end, we’re left with nothing but Lecter the cultured epicure, to the point where his taste for the finer things in life becomes actively annoying, while his acts of violence grow increasingly baroque and grotesque. This, more than anything else, is where Harris faltered.

Which just means that a hero is only as good as the plot in which he finds himself. If you’ve constructed a surprising story in which the protagonist reacts in engaging ways, you’ve already solved most of the problems of writing a convincing hero, including the issue of making him seem too competent. You can always build flaws into your protagonist—Smiley’s miserable domestic life, Lawrence’s inner torment, Indy’s tendency to get in over his head—but really, if your plot is a match for the hero you’ve constructed, those qualities will take care of themselves. This is why James Bond, even in the best of the early films, is both a seductive icon and a narrative void: the plots are just too arbitrary and absurd to present him with any real challenge. It also explains why Casino Royale is, by a large measure, the best of all the Bond films, not because it goes out of its way to present us with a flawed Bond, but because the story around him, for once, is worthy of the character’s inner resources. Bond is still the man who knows, but in this case, the filmmakers knew just a little bit more. And that’s exactly how it should be.

“Outside, the bathhouse was clean and bright…”

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(Note: This post is the fourteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 13. You can read the earlier installments here.)

By now, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I don’t like backstory. This isn’t a philosophical objection, but a practical one: I’ve found that there’s a certain category of characters, in both fiction and film, who are simply more effective the less you know about their background. This is emphatically true of Forsyth’s Jackal, for instance, and it used to be true of Hannibal Lecter before Thomas Harris decided to destroy him in his last two novels. And it’s true of my own Ilya Severin, who resembles Lecter and the Jackal only in that he’s a character who works best when the reader is allowed to fill in the blanks. Of course, you can’t do without some backstory—but a little goes a long way. Chapter 13, in which we learn a bit about Ilya’s background, the death of his parents, and his relationship with his mentor Vasylenko, is a crucial chapter, then, and not just for The Icon Thief: I didn’t realize it at the time, but the conflicts I establish here won’t be fully resolved for another two novels.

This chapter also receives particular emphasis from its place in the novel’s structure. Until now, the novel has alternated chapters between Maddy, my lead character, and the secondary protagonists, a structural device that I imposed late in the game in order to give more emphasis to Maddy’s story. Chapter 13 is the first time I break this pattern—normally the reader would expect a Maddy chapter here—and although I didn’t plan it deliberately, I think this works to subconsciously underline the scene’s importance. A novel’s structure can convey messages below the reader’s normal level of awareness, and here, it tells us to pay attention: Maddy’s narrative isn’t the only one we need to be following. (Needless to say, I was only able to violate the established pattern because Maddy had already been established as the novel’s primary character and had been given some interesting objectives. If I’d disrupted the structure earlier in the book, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.)

Not surprisingly, this was a hard chapter to write. I haven’t really kept track, but I have a feeling this may be the most frequently reworked chapter in the entire novel, at least when it came to the many small structural changes that were required to fit it smoothly into the surrounding narrative. Earlier versions tended to bring the novel’s momentum to a temporary halt, so I did what I could to minimize the interruption, cutting the chapter as much as possible and lopping off most of the first page, as First Blood author David Morrell helpfully recommends. I also rearranged the material a bit: the original draft opened with several paragraphs of description of the banya, or bathhouse, where the action takes place, before launching into the scene itself. By opening with a line of dialogue instead and saving the full description for later—the novelistic equivalent of starting with a closeup before cutting to a wide shot—the first page reads much more smoothly. It’s a tiny fix, but so effective that I often do the same thing now whenever I need to introduce a new location.

If I indulge myself a little more than usual in setting the stage here, it’s because this chapter is based on one of my more memorable excursions as a writer, when I spent a day at a Russian bathhouse in Sheepshead Bay. I’m part Finnish, so I’ve always been fond of saunas, but outside of certain memorable movies, I didn’t know much about the Russian version. The resulting field trip gave me more material than I could possibly use, but many of the details in the ensuing chapter—like the birch leaves floating on the surface of the pool after someone dives in after flogging himself with the venik—come directly from that excursion. And my day at the bathhouse was a reminder of why I’d wanted to become a novelist in the first place: it’s a license to explore parts of the world that I otherwise never would have seen, even in my own back yard. Later expeditions would take me to London, Brussels, and beyond, but in some ways, this is the one I remember most fondly…and it only took half an hour on the N train.

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August 8, 2012 at 10:02 am

“You know what a night porter is?”

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(Note: This post is the fifth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 4. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When it comes to writing about Ilya Severin, the cerebral thief and assassin who stands at the center of The Icon Thief and its sequels, my approach has always been that less is more. I’ve spoken at length about my dislike of backstory, and my feeling that characters like Hannibal Lecter have been destroyed by the spotlight retroactively thrown on their origins, and in Ilya, I saw a chance to test out this theory in real time. As a result, I’ve been careful, almost to a fault, to withhold nearly all information about Ilya’s past except what is crucial for the plot, content to let him express himself primarily through his actions in the present. This was partially calculated to grant me flexibility in subsequent installments, and also due to a sort of authorial indifference: unlike a lot of writers, I’m not particularly interested in what someone was doing before the story began, as long as he or she has a compelling presence on the page. Consequently, there are major elements in the lives of Maddy, Powell, Ilya, and other important characters in The Icon Thief that remain a mystery even to me.

The result, I hope, is a character who holds our attention, even as the reader is left wanting to know more about his past. Does it work? I’m the last person in the world to judge this properly, but as far as I can tell, Ilya becomes more interesting the less we see of him, and certainly more interesting than if we’d been given his full backstory. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t tried to make him a complex character; indeed, I was all but forced to deal with the complexities that arose from his original conception. Ilya began as little more than a neat idea for an antihero—a Russian Jew, steeped in the cabala, who is also an expert thief and killer—but the more I thought about him, the more problematic he became. Why would so intelligent a man be working as an assassin, especially given the mob’s historical antisemitism? And as I started to work through these issues, I began to see that the organic complexities that arose from his character were far more interesting when his past was kept in shadow, perhaps because I sensed that no backstory could do justice to his contradictions. (This is one reason why I responded so positively to Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive.)

When I look back at Chapter 4, in which Ilya is fully seen for the first time after his brief appearance in the prologue, one of the first things that comes to mind is how much I cut from it. The first draft of this chapter was something like 3,300 words long; the published version is 1,800 words. So what got cut? A lot of it was excess verbiage describing Ilya’s arrival at the airport and his subsequent trip to Brighton Beach, the sort of thing that any responsible revision would have pared away. But the biggest cut of all was a long, introspective passage in which Ilya reflects on his failure in Budapest, his subsequent actions, the reappearance of the painting he was assigned to retrieve, and his intention to recover it. The first draft of this material covered about five hundred words. In the final version? It’s a single sentence, or not even half a sentence: “Ever since Budapest, he had been dealt another hand entirely.” That’s it. Everything else—his humiliation at his failure, his loss of status, his determination to restore his reputation—is contained between the lines in the scene that follows. And the result is much better than before.

That said, this chapter gave me a lot of problems, and I don’t think I really fixed it until the final draft. The first conversation between Ilya and Sharkovsky, the Brighton Beach gangster he meets here for the first time, has to accomplish a lot: it needs to suggest the tension between these two characters and the differences between Ilya and the men with whom he has been assigned to work, while also telling us something about Sharkovsky himself and setting up the next phase of the plot. This is a lot to ground to cover in just over a thousand words, and it took me a lot of tinkering to get it right. The key moment, oddly enough, is a minor one: Sharkovsky’s speech about the night porter and the problem of loss of inventory. It’s a good speech on its own, but it also hints at Sharkovsky’s underlying shrewdness and his attitude toward Ilya, who serves as a night porter for the mob—left alone as long as he does his job well, but held responsible when something goes wrong. And when Ilya, in response, takes out the photo of the man from the auction, we get a sense, for the first time, of the job he has been sent here to do…

Written by nevalalee

May 24, 2012 at 10:30 am

Backstory—what is it good for?

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Yesterday I indulged in another rant about Thomas Harris and the decline of Hannibal Lecter, which brings me to a larger problem of which all writers should be aware: the pitfalls of backstory. Before we begin, I should point out that my views on the subject are somewhat extreme, which has led to occasional disagreements with readers and editors. But after years of writing, reading, and watching film and television, everything I’ve ever seen points toward one conclusion: backstory is deadly. It’s boring, it brings the momentum of the narrative to a halt, and most damningly, it does nothing to enhance our appreciation for the characters in a work of fiction. Characters are defined by what they do over the course of the story. What they’ve done before the story begins just doesn’t matter.

There are at least two reasons for this. The first, as William Goldman points out in Which Lie Did I Tell?, is that characters—especially heroes—must have mystery. Our favorite characters in movies or literature, whether they’re Hamlet, Lecter, or Rick Blaine, leave as many questions unresolved as they answer, which is why they’re so interesting to think about. In my experience, the less we know about a character’s past, the more intriguing he becomes, provided that he’s also interesting now. Conversely, if a character isn’t engaging in the context of the story itself, it doesn’t matter how fascinating you’ve assured us he was in the past. Many writers like to introduce their characters with long biographical digressions, as Carl Sagan does in Contact, but this rarely works as intended. It’s far more important to focus on what the character does in the moment.

For proof, look no further than AFI’s list of the top 100 movie heroes and villains. Many of these characters have since been exhaustively explored in sequels, novelizations, and fanfic, but the striking thing is how little we learn about them in the films where they made their greatest impression. We learn nothing of James Bond’s backstory in Dr. No, or in any of the classic Bond films—and even in Casino Royale, a deliberate attempt to show us the early Bond, his life before the movie is left unexplored. The same applies to Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, to John McClane, and even to Atticus Finch and T.E. Lawrence. And this is doubly true of villains: there’s Lecter, of course, but even Darth Vader, who remains just a man in a mask until the end of The Empire Strikes Back. In many cases, we’ve learned a lot more about these characters since then, but with few exceptions, this has nothing to do with why we fell in love with them in the first place.

So what’s a writer to do? At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’ve made a list of my own highly restrictive rules for backstory, with the caution that these only reflect what works for me:

  1. Don’t give any backstory in a character’s first appearance. A sentence or two briefly explaining who he is and why he’s here, if necessary, is more than enough. Just slide him directly into the action.
  2. Don’t worry about motivation. As long as the character’s objective in each scene is clearly defined, you don’t need to explain how he was shaped by events that took place years ago.
  3. After the character has been established by a handful of good scenes, and his role in the story is clear, then, if you must, insert some backstory. But no more than necessary. And always, if possible, conveyed through action or dialogue, rather than through flashbacks.

One last paradox: if you’ve followed these rules, readers are going to want more backstory. You’re going to get pleas for backstory from readers, from agents, from editors. Resist them if you can. If they want to know more about a character, it means you’ve done your job as a writer. But that doesn’t mean you should give it to them. Just ask Thomas Harris.

Written by nevalalee

September 14, 2011 at 9:17 am

Hannibal’s crossing

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Last year, I wrote a long post titled “The sad case of Hannibal Lecter,” in which I lamented the fact that one of the most compelling fictional characters of the past thirty years had been destroyed by excessive backstory and authorial indulgence. Since then, this posting has become one of the most frequently viewed entries on this blog—mostly because of people searching for the Hannibal Lecter mask—and I’ve had a chance to revisit Lecter several more times, notably while reflecting on the movie adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs. What remains unchanged is my original conviction that Lecter is a ferociously effective supporting player who wilts when thrust into the spotlight, a wish-fulfillment character who doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s always dangerous when an author falls in love with his own creation, and in this case, fond father Thomas Harris ended up being Lecter’s worst enemy.

So you can imagine my feelings at the announcement that Lecter is being retooled for a new television series, of all things, focusing on the relationship between Hannibal and FBI profiler Will Graham prior to the events of Red Dragon. Bryan Fuller, the producer given the unenviable task of bringing this show to life, is a smart guy, and it’s possible that he’ll surprise me with an unexpected take on the material. And Lecter will evidently be confined to his cell for most of the series, which is exactly where he belongs. But for the most part, this project seems utterly misguided, an attempt to wring the last bit of interest out of a character who made his most indelible impression in eighteen minutes of screen time. Even if there really is demand for more Lecter, this is a textbook example of Joss Whedon’s axiom: “Don’t give people what they want. Give them what they need.”

And yet there’s a bright side to all this. Thomas Harris, despite his self-imposed seclusion, was once the best suspense novelist in the world. There’s a reason why The Silence of the Lambs recently topped NPR’s list of the best thrillers of all time: no one, not even Forsyth, has been better than Harris at his peak. And one of the saddest spectacles in recent literature has been watching Harris waste his talent on Lecter. After the novel Hannibal, there was clearly nowhere else for the character to go—especially once the movie version’s ending departed so radically from the original—so Harris was forced to dig deep into backstory, with the usual sorry results. Lecter’s dialogue used to be razor sharp, if often slightly too clever; in Hannibal Rising, he was reduced to lines like “My heart hops at the sight of you, who taught my heart to sing.” As Anthony Lane said in his review of the book: “What the hell is going on here?”

But I remain hopeful that the old Harris still exists. We know for a fact that Harris is a slow, laborious writer: Stephen King has spoken of him as “writhing on the floor in agonies of frustration.” But the results were worth it. The more mediocre thrillers I read, the more I come to appreciate the Harris of Black Sunday, Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and even parts of Hannibal: his attention to detail, the density and texture of his prose, the inventiveness of his violence, and his odd compassion. And I’m convinced he can do it again, as long as he leaves Lecter behind. I’ve always thought that a new thriller by Harris, without Lecter, would be a major publishing event, and the fact that Harris seems willing to relinquish his most cherished creation to television—when he wrote Hannibal Rising expressly to prevent an unauthorized prequel from being made—implies that he has finally learned to let go. With Lecter outsourced to Bryan Fuller, could Harris give us another great novel? My heart hops at the thought.

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2011 at 8:49 am

Fiction into film: The Silence of the Lambs

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It’s been just over twenty years now since The Silence of the Lambs was released in theaters, and the passage of time—and its undisputed status as a classic—sometimes threatens to blind us to the fact that it’s such a peculiar movie. At the time, it certainly seemed like a dubious prospect: it had a director known better for comedy than suspense, an exceptional cast but no real stars, and a story whose violence verged on outright kinkiness. If it emphatically overcame those doubts, it was with its mastery of tone and style, a pair of iconic performances, and, not incidentally, the best movie poster of the modern era. And the fact that it not only became a financial success but took home the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as the four other major Oscars, remains genre filmmaking’s single most unqualified triumph.

It also had the benefit of some extraordinary source material. I’ve written at length about Thomas Harris elsewhere, but what’s worth emphasizing about his original novel is that it’s the product of several diverse temperaments. Harris began his career as a journalist, and there’s a reportorial streak running through all his best early books, with their fascination with the technical language, tools, and arcana of various esoteric professions, from forensic profiling to brain tanning. He also has a Gothic sensibility that has only grown more pronounced with time, a love of language fed by the poetry of William Blake and John Donne, and, in a quality that is sometimes undervalued, the instincts of a great pulp novelist. The result is an endlessly fascinating book poised halfway between calculated bestseller and major novel, and all the better for that underlying tension.

Which is why it pains me as a writer to say that as good as the book is, the movie is better. Part of this is due to the inherent differences in the way we experience movies and popular fiction: for detailed character studies, novels have the edge, but for a character who is seen mostly from the outside, as an enigma, nothing in Harris prepares us for what Anthony Hopkins does with Hannibal Lecter, even if it amounts to nothing more than a few careful acting decisions for his eyes and voice. It’s also an example of how a popular novel can benefit from an intelligent, respectful adaptation. Over time, Ted Tally’s fine screenplay has come to seem less like a variation on Harris’s novel than a superlative second draft: Tally keeps all that is good in the book, pares away the excesses, and even improves the dialogue. (It’s the difference between eating a census taker’s liver with “a big Amarone” and “a nice Chianti.”)

And while the movie is a sleeker, more streamlined animal, it still benefits from the novel’s strangeness. For better or worse, The Silence of the Lambs created an entire genre—the sleek, modern serial killer movie—but like most founding works, it has a fundamental oddity that leaves it out of place among its own successors. The details of its crimes are horrible, but what lingers are its elegance, its dry humor, and the curious rhythms of its central relationship, which feels like a love story in ways that Hannibal made unfortunately explicit. It’s genuinely concerned with women, even as it subjects them to horrible fates, and in its look and mood, it’s a work of stark realism shading inexorably into a fairy tale. That ability to combine strangeness with ruthless efficiency is the greatest thing a thriller in any medium can do. Few movies, or books, have managed it since, even after twenty years of trying.

Written by nevalalee

July 12, 2011 at 8:39 am

The sad case of Hannibal Lecter

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Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.

—Hannibal Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs

Yesterday I mentioned The Silence of the Lambs as a book that any aspiring writer might want to study to see how, exactly, it works, and with good reason: it’s possibly the most perfect thriller ever written. One could also read, with profit, the two earliest novels by Thomas Harris: Black Sunday is a fine, underrated book, and Red Dragon, though it has some structural problems, is still astonishing. Yet Hannibal, his fourth novel, should be approached with caution, and Hannibal Rising should best be avoided altogether. And the story of how Harris went from being the finest suspense novelist in the world to a shadow of his former self is an instructive cautionary tale.

Harris began his career as a crime writer for the Associated Press, and his background in journalism—like that of Frederick Forsyth, my other favorite suspense novelist—is evident in his earliest novels. Black Sunday is full of fascinating reportage, while Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs are virtual textbooks on forensic profiling and criminal investigation. (While I was writing The Icon Thief, I was almost always rereading one of those three books, along with the best of Forsyth and James M. Cain.) Harris’s writing could be baroque, but he also had a nice ear for technical jargon, and a sense of how smart cops and FBI agents might talk among themselves.

None of these things would have made so great an impact, however, if Harris hadn’t also created Hannibal Lecter, the most vivid and enduring fictional character of the past thirty years. And the really impressive thing is that Lecter originally appeared in only a handful of chapters in Red Dragon and perhaps a quarter of the pages in The Silence of the Lambs. (Anthony Hopkins’s performance in the movie version of the latter consists of only eighteen minutes of screen time.) We don’t learn much about Lecter, we see him only briefly, but we—and the other characters—spend a lot of time thinking and talking about him when he isn’t onstage. And this is crucial to his character’s appeal.

Why? Here’s the big secret: when you shine a spotlight on Hannibal Lecter, he disappears. He’s unbelievable. He’s omniscient, infallible, unfailingly one step ahead of his adversaries. Aside from being utterly insane, he’s perfect. The fact that he’s embedded within a novel that is otherwise incredibly convincing and plausible, down to the smallest details of police procedure, blinds us to the fact that Lecter is a fantasy. And that’s fine. Nearly all the great heroes of popular fiction—and Lecter is a hero, cannibal or not—are fantasies as well, and they don’t hold up to scrutiny. WIlliam Goldman, in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell?, does a nice job of explaining why, in reference to a very different character:

The character of Rick [in Casablanca], of course, is very old—he’s the Byronic hero, the tall dark handsome man with a past.

Most movie stars—actors, not comedians—have essentially all played that same role. And they have to always face front, never turn sideways—

Because, you see, there’s nothing to them. Try and make them full, try and make them real, and guess what? They disappear.

…Hollywood heroes must have mystery.

Which applies just as much to Lecter, if not more so. It also applies to many of the most popular characters in fiction, who exist entirely in the moment. For all the valiant efforts of Sherlockians, we know almost nothing about the past of Sherlock Holmes. Forsyth’s Jackal doesn’t even have a name. And while it isn’t necessary for every novelist to go so far, remember this: backstory can be deadly. The primary interest of a fictional character comes from what he does, or doesn’t do, in the story itself, not from what happened to him before the story began. Character comes from action. If you’ve written a compelling character, of course, readers are naturally going to want more backstory, which is great—but that doesn’t mean you should give it to them.

Which is precisely where Harris went wrong. In Hannibal, and even more so with Hannibal Rising, Harris forgot that his most famous character absolutely needed to remain a mystery. Lecter was the breakout star of the series, after all, and readers clearly wanted to see more of him. So Harris turned Lecter into the lead, rather than a key supporting character, gave him a massive backstory involving Nazis, cannibalism, and a castle in Lithuania, and finally made him, in Hannibal Rising, almost entirely admirable and heroic. To use Martin Amis’s memorable phrase, Harris had “gone gay” for Lecter. And the series never recovered.

I still hope that Harris comes back and writes another amazing novel. I really do. Even Hannibal, for all its problems, has remarkable moments (although Hannibal Rising is almost entirely worthless). All the same, it’s been four years since we saw a new book from Harris, a notoriously slow and methodical writer, and there hasn’t been a whisper of another project. And the pressure to write another Hannibal Lecter novel must be tremendous. But I hope he resists it. Because an ambitious new thriller by Harris without Lecter would be the literary event of the year, maybe the decade. While another Lecter novel would be thin gruel indeed.

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