Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Harlot’s Ghost

“He knows what needs to be done…”

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"The front door had been removed from its hinges..."

Note: This post is the thirty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 35. You can read the previous installments here.

A few days ago, I was browsing the shelves of my neighborhood thrift store when my eye was caught by a book called Alaska Bush Pilots in the Float Country. Its dust jacket reads: “The men who brought airplanes to Alaska’s Panhandle were a different breed: a little braver than the average pilot and blessed with the particular skills and set of nerves it requires to fly float planes, those Lockheed Vegas made of plywood that were held together by termites holding hands, as well as the sturdy Fairchild 71s and Bellanca Pacemakers.” And while this isn’t a title that might appeal to your average reader, I came very close to buying it—and I have a feeling that I will soon. Why? Like most writers, I’m constantly on the lookout for promising veins of material, and my inner spidey sense began to tingle as soon as I saw that cover. If I had to describe the kind of short stories I like to write, I’d call them plot-driven works of science fiction, usually staged against a colorful backdrop, and often with elements of horror. The Alaskan Panhandle in the early twenties seems like as good a setting as any for this kind of narrative, and that little book on bush pilots was visibly packed with more information than I would ever need to construct a novelette. Writers of a certain stripe come to treasure works of nonfiction that provide a narrow but deep slice of knowledge about a previously unexplored area, and finding that book automatically set me thinking about bush pilots in Alaska, even though the subject had never occurred to me before.

When you’re a writer, you often find yourself shaping the elements of a story, or even entire premises, based on the material that happens to be available. Constructing a plot of any kind is hard enough without having to squeeze useful color out of a bare handful of facts, and the richer and more abundant your source material, the better your chances of emerging with something good. Elsewhere, I’ve called this the availability factor, with a nod to a similar principle that W.I.B. Beveridge discusses in The Art of Scientific Investigation: “The great American bacteriologist Theobald Smith said that he always took up the problem that lay before him, chiefly because of the easy access of material, without which research is crippled.” The italics here are mine. Finding a promising source can mean the difference between a story that seems to write itself and one that never gets off the ground. As I’ve stated before, I often leaf through tattered science magazines in search of articles that might lead to an interesting combination of ideas. (And it isn’t enough to have just one. A good story almost always comes from the intersection of two or more.) But during the initial browsing stage, I’m not just looking for topics that pique my interest: I’m looking for articles of a certain length and density of detail. Within a few seconds, I can usually tell if the article will have enough of the raw goods to be worth revisiting, and I fold down that page before moving on.

"He knows what needs to be done..."

Of course, in most cases, you don’t end up using all of the material that a source provides: more often, you’re lucky to get a couple of tidbits that can be turned into the germ of a scene or plot point. Yet that doesn’t undermine the validity of this approach; if anything, it confirms it. I never tire of quoting the words of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky: “Poetry is like mining for radium. The output an ounce, the labor a year.” And good ore is more likely to yield those few useful fragments. Let’s say that one percent of what a writer reads while doing research ends up being used in the finished work—a fraction that is probably on the high side. You’re better off, then, if you learn to concentrate your reading on sources fruitful enough for that proportion to pay off in a meaningful way, and, even more usefully, to nudge the story in one direction or another based on the presence of existing material. If writing a story is like an excursion into unknown territory, there’s no harm in bending the path a little in order to pass through caches that previous explorers have left behind. And as with Alaskan Bush Pilots in the Float Country, the discovery of one especially dense, unexploited mine of ideas can be enough to encourage you to spend more time in one area, and maybe to even set up camp there for good. (Like a bush pilot, a consistently productive writer needs particular skills and a set of nerves, especially when the plot is held together by termites holding hands.)

In the case of Eternal Empire, I don’t think I would have taken the story into one important direction—Ilya’s excursion into Moldova—if I hadn’t stumbled across the book Siberian Education by Nicolai Lilin. As a work of nonfiction, Lilin’s memoir has been questioned, and even while reading it for the first time, I found it hard to shake the nagging sense that it was too tidy to be real. (It was a little like the “exercise in counterintelligence” that Norman Mailer describes in the afterword to Harlot’s Ghost, as the researcher learns “to penetrate the obfuscations, cover-ups, evasions, and misapprehensions” of a dubious work.) But much of the detail, when separated from its autobiographical substrate, was convincing, and there was so much worth preserving that I deliberately bent Ilya’s path across Europe to take advantage of it. A few of the details, notably the idea of the symbolic objects that thieves use to send coded messages, ended up being important to the plot. But there was so much else that I liked that I essentially invented Chapter 35 as a kind of clearinghouse to hold it all. The pigeons on the old man’s rooftop; the door taken off its hinges, indicating that all are free to enter the house; the slightly stooped posture of a former convict used to knocking his head on the bunk above; the elaborate way the thieves make tea; how they pass a shared cigarette back and forth; all of this is taken from Lilin, and it added a lot of flavor to what was otherwise a purely functional scene. As a writer, you learn not to spurn such gifts. And taking any novel to completion is an education in itself…

An exercise in counterintelligence

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Norman Mailer

Some nonfiction awakens the imagination. Its personages take on the luster of good fictional characters, that is, they seem as real and complex as men and women we know intimately. The larger share of nonfiction, however, deadens perceptions. Nonetheless, when one is consumed with a subject, even mediocre treatments can, if read with sufficient concentration, enlarge the working imagination, which, once it becomes passionate, and focused, begins to penetrate the obfuscations, cover-ups, evasions, and misapprehensions of all those middling tomes that are so poorly written that the best clue to what really took place is to be found in the evasions of their style.

A man who has been coaching football for forty years need only watch a high school running back for a few plays to decide whether potential is there. Ditto for good prize-fight managers watching an amateur throw one left hook. Say as much for novelists who have spent their lives at it. I have done enough indifferent writing over the years, and spent so much time contemplating why it is bad, that by now I can read another author’s work and penetrate on occasion to what he is or, even more important, is not really saying. It is similar to that exercise in counterintelligence where one attempts to differentiate the lies from the truths your opponent is offering.

Norman Mailer, in the author’s note to Harlot’s Ghost

Written by nevalalee

November 19, 2015 at 7:30 am

The novel with a key

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The Royal We

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

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

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

American Wife

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

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

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

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

“What’s this guy’s story?”

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"It was Victor Chigorin..."

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

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

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

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

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

"What's this guy's story?"

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

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

Written by nevalalee

February 27, 2014 at 9:28 am

“Powell stared silently through the glass…”

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"Powell stared silently through the glass..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

May 31, 2013 at 8:42 am

To be or not to be?

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Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

One of the most daunting aspects of writing good fiction is the sheer number of rules involved. It’s hard enough to write convincing stories about men and women who never lived, but along with developing empathy and imagination, you also need to think hard about dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, and the sequence of tenses, and in the end, a lot of it comes down to intuition. I’ve been writing for so long that I rarely need to pause to wonder about grammar, and I’ve more or less internalized The Elements of Style—although I still try to read it again every year or so. But no matter how much you think you know, there’s always something you’ve missed. It wasn’t until my first severe copy edit, for instance, that I realized that I was totally ignorant of such matters as the difference between “toward” and “towards” or “further” and “farther,” and I’d never worried much about the use of a comma before the conjunction in a dependent clause. (For the record, I think the latter is fine in certain cases, and I’m strongly in favor of splitting infinitives.)

Faced with so many rules and guidelines, though, it’s easy to lose sight of the larger picture. My favorite example is the admonition, which I’ve seen a lot recently, that writers should avoid “to be” verbs. In itself, the advice seems sound: verbs like is, am, was, and are lack specificity, lend themselves to bland constructions, and aren’t as vivid as verbs that convey clear action. In practice, though, the rule can be a bitch to implement. When we’re told to revise to avoid adverbs or eliminate the passive voice, we can usually fix a sentence by cutting a word or restructuring a clause, but eliminating “to be” verbs isn’t a something you can do with a simple find and replace. (In theory, you could replace most occurrences with the equivalent of “seemed,” which you’ll often see in Updike, among others, and I’ll often do this to emphasize a particular character’s perspective. But this is a solution that is best used sparingly.) Instead, following the rule often means writing a new sentence entirely, which is something that gives most writers the shivers.

The Elements of Style

But there’s a more general lesson here, which is that this rule is more diagnostic than prescriptive. When you go back over your work and find a lot of “to be” verbs, it’s really a sign that other faults are present: your writing may be too abstract, too passive, too general. Going back to fix the offending sentences by hand may address the problem in the short term, but really, the only good solution is to cultivate habits of thought that prevent such constructions from appearing in the first place. Focusing on the verbs themselves is a little like treating the symptoms while ignoring the disease, or, more accurately, counting calories while forgetting to exercise. The ultimate objective is to write concretely, to create images in the mind of the reader, and to put an emphasis on clarity and vividness, and the only way to achieve this is to write endlessly, to patiently revise, and to read authors who embody the qualities of soul you admire.

In short, the problem of style needs to be attacked from both directions. The rules of grammar are there for a reason: they’re a means of facilitating communication and making sure that the reader understands what the writer is trying to say. In practice, though, they’re acquired mostly through trial and error, by writing a million bad words along the way, until the writer starts to develop an ear for good language, in the same way a songwriter can improvise a vocal melody without thinking consciously about the theory of music. Attaining that kind of intuition is every writer’s dream, but even when you attack the problem as diligently as you can, you generally find that craft keeps moving the goal posts. And even the most accomplished author still makes mistakes: Norman Mailer spent something like ten years writing Harlot’s Ghost, and overlooked a dangling modifier in the very first sentence, even if he tried to justify it after the fact. But it’s still worth playing the game, as long as we remember that when we worry about “to be” or not “to be,” craft is still the question.

Written by nevalalee

April 2, 2013 at 9:23 am

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