Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James Joyce

Beethoven, Freud, and the mystery of genius

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“The joy of listening to Beethoven is comparable to the pleasure of reading Joyce,” writes Alex Ross in a recent issue of The New Yorker: “The most paranoid, overdetermined interpretation is probably the correct one.” Even as someone whose ear for classical music is underdeveloped compared to his interest in other forms of art, I have to agree. Great artists come in all shapes and sizes, but the rarest of all is the kind whose work can sustain the most meticulous level of scrutiny because we’re aware that every detail is a conscious choice. When we interpret an ordinary book or a poem, our readings are often more a reflection of our own needs than the author’s intentions; even with a writer like Shakespeare, it’s hard to separate the author’s deliberate decisions from the resonances that naturally emerge from so much rich language set into motion. With Beethoven, Joyce, and a handful of others—Dante, Bach, perhaps Nabokov—we have enough information about the creative process to know that little, if anything, has happened by accident. Joyce explicitly designed his work to “keep professors busy for centuries,” and Beethoven composed for a perfect, omniscient audience that he seemed to will into existence.

Or as Colin Wilson puts it: “The message of the symphonies of Beethoven could be summarized: ‘Man is not small; he is just bloody lazy.'” When you read Ross’s perceptive article, which reviews much of the recent scholarship on Beethoven and his life, you’re confronted by the same tension that underlies any great body of work made within historical memory. On the one hand, Beethoven has undergone a kind of artistic deification, and there’s a tradition, dating back to E.T.A. Hoffmann, that there are ideas and emotions being expressed in his music that can’t be matched by any other human production; on the other, there’s the fact that Beethoven was a man like any other, with a messy personal life and his own portion of pettiness, neediness, and doubt. As Ross points out, before Beethoven, critics were accustomed to talk of “genius” as a kind of impersonal quality, but afterward, the concept shifted to that of “a genius,” which changes the terms of the conversation without reducing its underlying mystery. Beethoven’s biography provides tantalizing clues about the origins of his singular greatness—particularly his deafness, which critics tend to associate with his retreat to an isolated, visionary plane—but it leaves us with as many questions as before.

Sigmund Freud

As it happens, I read Ross’s article in parallel with Howard Markel’s An Anatomy of Addiction, which focuses on the early career of another famous resident of Vienna. Freud seems to have been relatively indifferent to music: he mentions Beethoven along with Goethe and Leonardo Da Vinci as “great men” who have produced “splendid creations,” although this feels more like a rhetorical way of filling out a trio than an expression of true appreciation. Otherwise, his relative silence on the subject is revealing in itself: if he wanted to interpret an artist’s work in psychoanalytic terms, Beethoven’s life would have afforded plenty of material, and he didn’t shy from doing the same for Leonardo and Shakespeare. It’s possible that Freud avoided Beethoven because of the same godlike intentionality that makes him so fascinating to listeners and critics. If we’ve gotten into the habit of drawing a distinction between what a creative artist intends and his or her unconscious impulses, it’s largely thanks to Freud himself. Beethoven stands as a repudiation, or at least a strong counterexample, to this approach: however complicated Beethoven may have been as a man, it’s hard to make a case that there was ever a moment when he didn’t know what he was doing.

This may be why Freud’s genius—which was very real—seems less mysterious than Beethoven’s: we know more about Freud’s inner life than just about any other major intellectual, thanks primarily to his own accounts of his dreams and fantasies, and it’s easy to draw a line from his biography to his work. Markel, for instance, focuses on the period of Freud’s cocaine use, and although he stops short of suggesting that all of psychoanalysis can be understood as a product of addiction, as others have, he points out that Freud’s early publications on cocaine represent the first time he publicly mined his own experiences for insight. But of course, there were plenty of bright young Jewish doctors in Vienna in the late nineteenth century, and while many of the ideas behind analysis were already in the air, it was only in Freud that they found the necessary combination of obsessiveness, ambition, and literary brilliance required for their full expression. Freud may have done his best to complicate our ideas of genius by introducing unconscious factors into the equation, but paradoxically, he made his case in a series of peerlessly crafted books and essays, and their status as imaginative literature has only been enhanced by the decline of analysis as a science. Freud doesn’t explain Freud any more than he explains Beethoven. But this doesn’t stop him, or us, from trying.

“And this has something to do with Operation Pepel?”

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"A few of the files talk about a poison program..."

Note: This post is the forty-first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 40. You can read the earlier installments here

As I’ve written here elsewhere, research in fiction is less about factual accuracy than a way of dreaming. Fiction, like a dream, isn’t assembled out of nothing: it’s an assimilation and combination of elements that we’ve gathered in our everyday lives, in stories we hear from friends, in our reading and consumption of other works of art, and through the conscious investigation of whatever world we’ve decided to explore. This last component is perhaps the most crucial, and probably the least appreciated. Writers vary in the degree of novelistic attention they can bring to their surroundings at any one time, but most of us learn to dial it down: it’s both exhausting and a little unfair to life itself to constantly be mining for material. When we commence work on a project, though, our level of engagement rises correspondingly, to the point where we start seeing clues or messages everywhere we look. Research is really just a way of taking that urge for gleaning or bricolage and making it slightly more systematic, exposing ourselves to as many potential units of narrative as we can at a time when we’re especially tuned to such possibilities.

The primordial function of research—-of “furnishing and feathering a world,” in Anthony Lane’s memorable phrase—is especially striking when it comes to details that would never be noticed by the average reader. Few of us would care whether or not the fence at No. 7 Eccles Street could really be climbed by an ordinary man, but for James Joyce, it was important enough for him to write his aunt to confirm it. If we’re thinking only in terms of the effect on readers, this kind of meticulous accuracy can start to seem a little insane, but from the author’s point of view, it makes perfect sense. For most of the time we spend living with a novel, the only reader whose opinion matters is our own, and a lot of research consists of the author convincing himself that the story he’s describing could really have taken place. In order to lose ourselves in the fictional dream, the smallest elements have to seem persuasive to us, and even if a reader couldn’t be expected to know that we’ve fudged or invented a detail that we couldn’t verify elsewhere, we know it, and it subtly affects how deeply we can commit ourselves to the story we’re telling. A reader may never notice a minor dishonesty, but the writer will always remember it.

"And this has something to do with Operation Pepel?"

In my own fiction, I’ve tried to be as accurate as I can even in the smallest things. I keep a calendar of the major events in the story, and I do my best to square it with such matters as railway schedules, museum hours, and the times for sunrise and sunset. (As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “And how troublesome the moon is!”) I walk the locations of each scene whenever possible, counting off the steps and figuring out how long it would take a character to get from one point to another, and when I can’t go there in person, I spend a long time on Google Street View. It may seem like a lot of trouble, but it actually saves me work in the long run: being able to select useful details from a mass of existing material supplements the creative work that has to be done, and I’m always happier to take something intact from the real world than to have to invent it from scratch. And I take a kind of perverse pleasure in the knowledge that a reader wouldn’t consciously notice any of it. At best, these details serve as a kind of substratum for the visible events of the story, and tiny things add up to a narrative that is convincing in its broadest strokes. There’s no guarantee that such an approach will work, of course, but it’s hard to make anything work without it.

In City of Exiles, for instance, I briefly mention something called Operation Pepel, which is described as a special operation by Russian intelligence that occurred in Turkey in the sixties. Operation Pepel did, in fact, exist, even if we don’t know much about who was involved or what it was: I encountered it thanks to a passing reference, amounting to less than a sentence, in the monumental The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin. (It caught my eye, incidentally, only because I’d already established that part of the story would center on an historical event involving Turkey, which is just another illustration of how parts of the research process can end up informing one another across far-flung spaces.) Later, I tie Operation Pepel—purely speculatively—to elements of the Soviet poison program, and the details I provide on such historical events as Project Bonfire are as accurate as I can make them. None of this will mean anything even to most specialists in the history of Russia, and I could easily have made up something that would have served just as well. But since I invent so much elsewhere, and so irresponsibly, it felt better to retain as many of the known facts I could. It may not matter to the reader, but it mattered a lot to me…

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2014 at 9:44 am

“But the changes reveal more than they intend…”

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"But the body of God appears throughout scripture..."

Note: This post is the thirty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 35. You can read the earlier installments here

Yesterday, I alluded to the cartographer Arthur H. Robinson’s story of how he developed his famous projection of the globe: he decided on the shapes he wanted for the continents first, then went back to figure out the underlying mathematics. Authors, of course, engage in this kind of inverted reasoning all the time. One of the peculiar things about a novel—and about most kinds of narrative art—is that while, with a few exceptions, it’s designed to be read in a linear fashion, the process of its conception is anything but straightforward. A writer may begin with a particular scene he wants to write, or, more commonly, a handful of such scenes, then assemble a cast of characters and an initial situation that will get him from one objective to the next. He can start with an outrageous plot twist and then, using the anthropic principle of fiction, set up the story so that the final surprise seems inevitable. Or he can take a handful of subjects or ideas he wants to explore and find a story that allows him to talk about them all. Once the process begins, it rarely proceeds straight from start to finish: it moves back and forth, circling back and advancing, and only in revision does the result begin to feel like all of a piece.

And I’ve learned that this tension between the nonlinear way a novel is conceived and the directional arrow of the narrative is a central element of creativity. (In many ways, it’s the reverse of visual art: a panting is built up one element at a time, only to be experienced all at once when finished, which leads to productive tensions and discoveries of its own.) In most stories, the range of options open to the characters grows increasingly narrow as the plot advances: the buildup of events and circumstance leaves the protagonist more and more constrained, whether it’s by a web of danger in a thriller or the slow reduction of personal freedom in a more realistic novel. That’s how suspense emerges, covertly or overtly; we read on to see how the characters will maneuver within the limits that the story has imposed. What ought to be less visible is the fact that the author has been operating under similar constraints from the very first page. He has some idea of where the story is going; he knows that certain incidents need to take place, rather than their hypothetical alternatives, to bring the characters to the turning points he’s envisioned; and this knowledge, combined with the need to conceal it, forces him to be more ingenious and resourceful than if he’d simply plowed ahead with no sense of what came next.

"But the changes reveal more than they intend..."

This is why I always set certain rules or goals for myself in advance of preparing a story, and it often helps if they’re a little bit arbitrary. When I started writing City of Exiles, for instance, I decided early on that the vision of Ezekiel would play a role in the plot, even if I didn’t know how. This is partially because I’d wanted to write something on the merkabah—the vision of the four fabulous creatures attending the chariot of God—for a long time, and I knew the material was rich and flexible enough to inform whatever novel I decided to write. More important, though, was my need for some kind of overriding constraint in the first place. Knowing a big element of the novel in advance served as a sort of machine for making choices: certain possibilities would suggest themselves over others, from the highest level to the lowest, and if I ever felt lost or got off track, I had an existing structure to guide me back to where I needed to be. And really, it could have been almost anything; as James Joyce said of the structure of Ulysses, it’s a bridge that can be blown up once the troops have gotten to the other side.  (Not every connective thread is created equal, of course. Using the same approach I’d used for my previous novels, I spent a long time trying to build Eternal Empire around the mystery of the Urim and Thummim, only to find that the logical connections I needed just weren’t there.)

Chapter 35 contains the longest extended discussion of Ezekiel’s vision in the novel so far, as Wolfe pays her second visit to Ilya in prison, and it provides an illustration in miniature of the problems I had to confront throughout the entire story. The material may be interesting in its own right, but if I can’t find ways of tying it back to events in the larger narrative, readers might well wonder what it’s doing here at all. (To be fair, some readers did have this reaction.) At various points in this chapter, you can see me, in the person of Wolfe, trying to bring the discussion back around to what is happening elsewhere in the story. According to the rabbis, Ezekiel’s vision can’t be discussed with a student under forty, and those who analyze the merkabah without the proper preparation run the risk of being burned alive by fire from heaven, which turns it into a metaphor for forbidden knowledge of any kind. And my own theory about the vision’s meaning, in which I’m highly indebted to David J. Halperin’s book The Faces of the Chariot, centers on the idea that elements of the story have been redacted or revised, which points to the acts of deception and erasure practiced by the Russian intelligence services. In the end, Wolfe leaves with a few precious hints, and if she’s able to put them to good use, that’s no accident. The entire story is designed to take her there…

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2014 at 9:55 am

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

Luca Brasi flubs his lines, or the joy of happy accidents

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Marlon Brando and Lenny Montana in The Godfather

During the troubled filming of The Godfather, Lenny Montana, the actor who played the enforcer Luca Brasi, kept blowing his lines. During his big speech with Don Corleone at the wedding—”And may their first child be a masculine child”—Montana, anxious about working with Brando for the first time, began to speak, hesitated, then started over again. It was a blown take, but Coppola liked the effect, which seemed to capture some of the character’s own nervousness. Instead of throwing the shot away, he kept it, and he simply inserted a new scene showing Brasi rehearsing his words just before the meeting. It was a happy accident of the sort that you’ll often find in the work of a director like Coppola, who is more open than most, almost to a fault, to the discoveries that can be made on the set. (A more dramatic example is the moment early in Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen punches and breaks the mirror in his hotel room, which wasn’t scripted—Sheen cut up his hand pretty badly. And for more instances of how mischance can be incorporated into a film, please see this recent article by Mike D’Angelo of The A.V. Club, as well as the excellent comments, which inspired this post.)

You sometimes see these kinds of happy accidents in print as well, but they’re much less common. One example is this famous story of James Joyce, as told by Richard Ellimann:

Once or twice he dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to [Samuel] Beckett, though dictation did not work very well for him; in the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett didn’t hear. Joyce said, “Come in,” and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, “What’s that ‘Come in?’” “Yes, you said that,” said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, “Let it stand.”

Similarly, a chance misprint inspired W.H. Auden to change his line “The poets have names for the sea” to “The ports have names for the sea.” And it’s widely believed that one of the most famous lines in all of English poetry, “Brightness falls from the air,” was also the result of a typo: Nashe may have really written “Brightness falls from the hair,” which makes more sense in context, but is much less evocative.

Lenny Montana in The Godfather

Still, it isn’t hard to see why such accidents are more common in film than in print. A novelist or poet can always cross out a line or delete a mistyped word, but filmmaker is uniquely forced to live with every flubbed take or reading: once you’ve started shooting, there’s no going back, and particularly in the days before digital video, a permanent record exists of each mistake. As a result, you’re more inclined to think hard about whether or not you can use what you have, or if the error will require another costly camera setup. In some ways, all of film amounts to this kind of compromise. You never get quite the footage you want: no matter how carefully you’ve planned the shoot, when the time comes to edit, you’ll find that the actors are standing in the wrong place for one shot to cut cleanly to the next, or that you’re missing a crucial closeup that would clarify the meaning of the scene. It’s part of the craft of good directors—and editors—to cobble together something resembling their original intentions from material that always falls short. Every shot in a movie, in a sense, is a happy accident, and the examples I’ve mentioned above are only the most striking examples of a principle that governs the entire filmmaking process.

And it’s worth thinking about the ways in which artists in other media can learn to expose themselves to such forced serendipity. (I haven’t even mentioned the role it plays in such arts as painting, in which each decision starts to feel similarly irrevocable, at least once you’ve started to apply paint to canvas.) One approach, which I’ve tried in the planning stages of my own work, is to work in as permanent a form as possible: pen on paper, rather than pencil or computer, which means that every wrong turn or mistaken impulse lingers on after you’ve written it. A typewriter, I suspect, might play the same role, and I have a feeling that writers of a previous generation occasionally shaped their sentences to match a mistyped word, rather than going through the trouble of typing the page all over again. Writers are lucky: we have a set of tools of unmatched portability, flexibility, and privacy, and it means that we can deal with any errors at our leisure, at least until they see print. But with every gain, there’s also a loss: in particular, of the kind of intensity and focus that actors describe when real, expensive film is running through the camera. When so much is on the line, you’re more willing to find ways of working with what you’ve been given by chance. And that’s an attitude that every artist could use.

Written by nevalalee

October 8, 2013 at 8:12 am

The problem of narrative complexity

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David Foster Wallace

Earlier this month, faced with a break between projects, I began reading Infinite Jest for the first time. If you’re anything like me, this is a book you’ve been regarding with apprehension for a while now—I bought my copy five or six years ago, and it’s followed me through at least three moves without being opened beyond the first page. At the moment, I’m a couple of hundred pages in, and although I’m enjoying it, I’m also glad I waited: Wallace is tremendously original, but he also pushes against his predecessors, particularly Pynchon, in fascinating ways, and I’m better equipped to engage him now than I would have been earlier on. The fact that I’ve published two novels in the meantime also helps. As a writer, I’m endlessly fascinated by the problem of managing complexity—of giving a reader enough intermediate rewards to justify the demands the author makes—and Wallace handles this beautifully. Dave Eggers, in the introduction to the edition I’m reading now, does a nice job of summing it up:

A Wallace reader gets the impression of being in a room with a very talkative and brilliant uncle or cousin who, just when he’s about to push it too far, to try our patience with too much detail, has the good sense to throw in a good lowbrow joke.

And the ability to balance payoff with frustration is a quality shared by many of our greatest novels. It’s relatively easy to write a impenetrable book that tries the reader’s patience, just as it’s easy to create a difficult video game that drives players up the wall, but parceling out small satisfactions to balance out the hard parts takes craft and experience. Mike Meginnis of Uncanny Valley makes a similar point in an excellent blog post about the narrative lessons of video games. While discussing the problem of rules and game mechanics, he writes:

In short, while it might seem that richness suggests excess and maximal inclusion, we actually need to be selective about the elements we include, or the novel will not be rich so much as an incomprehensible blur, a smear of language. Think about the very real limitations of Pynchon as a novelist: many complain about his flat characters and slapstick humor, but without those elements to manage the text and simplify it, his already dangerously complex fiction would become unreadable.

Pynchon, of course, casts a huge shadow over Wallace—sometimes literally, as when two characters in Infinite Jest contemplate their vast silhouettes while standing on a mountain range, as another pair does in Gravity’s Rainbow. And I’m curious to see how Wallace, who seems much more interested than Pynchon in creating plausible human beings, deals with this particular problem.


The problem of managing complexity is one that has come up on this blog several times, notably in my discussion of the work of Christopher Nolan: Inception‘s characters, however appealing, are basically flat, and the action is surprisingly straightforward once we’ve accepted the premise. Otherwise, the movie would fall apart from trying to push complexity in more than one direction at once. Even works that we don’t normally consider accessible to a casual reader often incorporate elements of selection or order into their design. The Homeric parallels in Joyce’s Ulysses are sometimes dismissed as an irrelevant trick—Borges, in particular, didn’t find them interesting—but they’re very helpful for a reader trying to cut a path through the novel for the first time. When Joyce dispensed with that device, the result was Finnegans Wake, a novel greatly admired and rarely read. That’s why encyclopedic fictions, from The Divine Comedy to Moby-Dick, tend to be structured around a journey or other familiar structure, which gives the reader a compass and map to navigate the authorial wilderness.

On a more modest level, I’ve frequently found myself doing this in my own work. I’ve mentioned before that I wanted one of the three narrative strands in The Icon Thief to be a police procedural, which, with its familiar beats and elements, would serve as a kind of thread to pull the reader past some of the book’s complexities. More generally, this is the real purpose of plot. Kurt Vonnegut, who was right about almost everything, says as much in one of those writing aphorisms that I never tire of quoting:

I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.

The emphasis is mine. Plot is really a way of easing the reader into that greatest of imaginative leaps, which all stories, whatever their ambitions, have in common: the illusion that these events are really taking place, and that characters who never existed are worthy of our attention and sympathy. Plot, structure, and other incidental pleasures are what keep the reader nourished while the real work of the story is taking place. If we take it for granted, it’s because it’s a trick that most storytellers learned a long time ago. But the closer we look at its apparent simplicity, the sooner we realize that, well, it’s complicated.

“The following morning, a few blocks from the courthouse…”

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"The following morning..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 33. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of the great pleasures of planning a new writing project is the chance to do research on location. Writing is such a sedentary pursuit that any excuse to get out of the house is usually welcome, and one of the best ways a writer can spend his time is by exploring new or familiar places with an eye to their dramatic potential. And you don’t need to go far afield to make fascinating discoveries. One thing I’ve learned as a writer is that the observing faculty—the part of the brain that mines the world around you for material—can’t stay switched on all the time: it’s just too exhausting. Ideally, a writer, as Henry James said, should be one on whom nothing is lost, but aside from a few exceptional personalities like Proust or Updike, most of us learn to parcel out our energies, activating that ravenous inner eye only when necessary. In particular, it tends to be most alert when we’re regarding a location with a specific story in mind. And once we’ve made that inward adjustment, the most ordinary places are suddenly bursting with meaning.

In particular, when you’re writing a thriller, you’re often looking for a new way to stage a murder or a chase in a real location. Most suspense novelists ultimately become what Thomas Pynchon calls “aficionados of the chase scene, those who cannot look at the Taj Mahal, the Uffizi, the Statue of Liberty without thinking chase scene, chase scene, wow yeah Douglas Fairbanks scampering across that moon minaret there…” In my own work, I’ve mentally planned heists, killings, and chases in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, London, and elsewhere, a process that usually involves spending hours at a museum, neighborhood, or public building, taking surreptitious photographs and generally acting as suspiciously as possible. On a few occasions, I’ve received stern warnings from security. And although I’ve sometimes been forced to plan scenes from a distance, with the help of guidebooks, photo references, and Google Maps, there’s no substitute for being there on the ground yourself, pacing off the exact route that your hero or villain will follow.

"Leaving the checkpoint, he entered the courthouse..."

And like most forms of research, location work isn’t primarily about factual accuracy, but about furnishing the material for dreams. It’s much more rewarding to write a scene that takes place on a real, particular street, with specific alleys and stairwells and other landmarks for the action, than to invent one for a street that exists only in your imagination. A real location, like a standing set, suggests props, story beats, and bits of business that would never occur to you on your own. Later, while you’re writing, you’re free to fudge the details if you must, but it’s better to work within the constraints that the actual location affords. James Joyce knew this when he asked his aunt to verify that an ordinary man could climb over the fence at No. 7 Eccles Street. And if you’re writing a chase scene, you’re more likely to come up with something ingenious or surprising when you notice, say, that none of the exits are conveniently located near the area where the main action takes place, and that your protagonist will need to get past several levels of security in order to make his escape.

This is basically the process that went into Chapter 33 of The Icon Thief, in which Ilya meets Sharkovsky for an exchange at the New York County Courthouse. I chose this landmark because I wanted my characters to meet in a secure location with metal detectors, so that neither one could be armed, and a courthouse seemed like an interesting backdrop. Once the decision was made, I spent the better part of an afternoon hanging out in Foley Square, checking out the surroundings and taking notes on secondary locations I might want to use—the playground, the comfort station, the construction site at the federal building next door—before entering the courthouse itself. Inside, I took notes on security, layout, and architecture, and paid special attention to the placement of the emergency exits. Above all else, I tried to see the building as it would look through Ilya’s eyes. And by the time I was done, I found that the logic of the building had determined the shape of the chapter itself, as well as the two that followed. Because I couldn’t see it, naturally, without thinking of a chase scene…

Written by nevalalee

February 7, 2013 at 9:50 am

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