Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jeffrey Archer

“There were many ways to kill a man…”

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"There were many ways to kill a man..."

Note: This post is the tenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 11. You can read the previous installments here.

I don’t think there’s ever been a better depiction of the creative process on film than the one we find in Apollo 13. If you’ve seen the movie, you remember the scene. A team of engineers at NASA is confronted with the problem of converting the carbon scrubbers on the damaged spacecraft to ones that will work on the lunar module, using only the materials that the astronauts have on board. As they dump a bunch of boxes full of equipment—space suits, tubing, the inevitable duct tape—onto a conference table, the lead technician holds up a pair of carbon scrubbers and announces: “We gotta find a way to make this fit into a hole for this using nothing but that.” (My favorite touch is the voice in the background saying: “Better get some coffee going, too.”) As I’ve noted before, it’s a lovely illustration of what Stuart Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible,” the creation of something new from whatever happens to be lying around, and I know for a fact that it inspired one of my oldest friends to become an engineer. And I’ve started to realize that I became a novelist for many of the same reasons.

In the arts, the idea of the adjacent possible is better known as bricolage, literally “tinkering,” as memorably described by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss: “[The bricoleur’s] universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand,’ that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogenous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project.” And although the possibilities at a writer’s disposal might seem infinite, in practice, we start engaging in bricolage as soon as we begin a story, and continue to do so throughout the process. Taking a challenging premise and doing our best to execute it within the constraints it presents is one kind of bricolage; so is solving a tricky narrative problem in a way consistent with everything that has come before. We’re acting as bricoleurs when we visit a location and work out a chase scene using the real layout of a building or street, or when we start with a twist ending and engineer the story backwards so that the result seems inevitable. And the greater the number of constraints we impose on the universe of potential materials, the more interesting the result tends to be.

"When the solvents had evaporated..."

There’s a nice little example from Chapter 11 of Eternal Empire, in which one of my lead characters is forced, a la MacGyver, to engage in a bit of bricolage himself. While incarcerated at Belmarsh Prison, Ilya is ordered to kill another convict in order to prove his loyalty, and it all has to be done in a way that won’t implicate him. Prisoners, of course, are some of the original bricoleurs: a glance at the improvised weapons that inmates have constructed out of a plastic comb, a shoelace, and a bit of wire offers us a particularly murderous illustration of the adjacent possible. (If we’re looking for a pair of martyrs to the act of bricolage, we couldn’t do better than the gangsters Harry Pierpont and Charles Makley, who tried—and failed—to escape from prison using fake guns carved from soap and painted with shoe polish.) While I could have had Ilya put together some kind of clever shiv, it seemed more fun to see what else I could do using the materials available. And as it happened, I had a useful source of information: the list of items that inmates can purchase with their commissary accounts at Belmarsh, as helpfully reproduced in its entirety by Jeffrey Archer in his memoir A Prison Diary.

The result was the sort of logic puzzle that thriller and mystery writers delight in setting for themselves. Looking at the commissary list that Archer provides—which consists mostly of tobacco, batteries, toiletries, stationary, and salted snacks—I was able to cobble together a plan in which Ilya uses tea bags, butane, and alcohol to extract the nicotine from several packs of cigarettes. (On this point, at least, no exaggeration was necessary: pure nicotine is one of the most potent poisons imaginable, and sixty milligrams on the skin can be fatal.) I had to fudge a few of the steps, and I departed from the commissary inventory in a number of ways: the alcohol was provided by a flask of bootleg prison liquor, while the plastic syringe that Ilya uses to administer the poison was appropriated from a workshop where inmates refill printer cartridges. Still, when I was done, it felt like literally the only solution that worked within the limits the story had imposed, and the fact that it used poison seemed particularly appropriate, since toxins of one sort or another play an important thematic role elsewhere in the series. And while killing an inmate might hold less immediate appeal than saving three astronauts, in both cases, as Apollo 13 famously puts it, it all starts when we have a problem…

Written by nevalalee

March 5, 2015 at 9:37 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…

“It was forty minutes to Belmarsh…”

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"It was forty minutes to Belmarsh..."

Note: This post is the twenty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 25. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Researching a novel is like researching nothing else, and you soon find that whatever scholarly skills you acquired in school aren’t particularly useful when it comes to furnishing the details of an imaginary world. Whenever possible, I like to base stories on my own observations, whether picked up on the fly or gathered during a systematic process of investigation, but there are times—as when you’re writing about a different historical period or a world that you can’t conveniently explore on your own—when you need to rely on published materials. Once you start, you quickly find that the process goes both ways. Early on, when the story you’ve got in mind is still relatively unformed, you’re looking to existing works to fill out your picture of a location or milieu, and important elements of the story will often be shaped by the resources you happen to have. Later, when the plot is more or less locked into place and you’re refining minor points, you find yourself looking for specific information, which is a much chancier proposition. Sometimes, you get lucky, and you stumble across an article that contains the exact tidbit of material you need. Otherwise, you can either change the scene, skip over the parts you can’t confirm, or make up something plausible. And if you’ve done it right, even an attentive reader won’t be able to tell the difference.

From a writer’s point of view, there’s nothing more useful than a good memoir. Academic works, which approach the subject on a higher level, can be useful for sanity checks and confirming that your overall conception makes sense, but as a novelist, you’re often more interested in details that don’t turn up in more general treatments: sounds and smells, the layout of rooms, the color of the wallpaper, the minutiae of someone’s daily routine. Good works of journalism can be equally useful, and I’ve learned to always check the archives of The New York Times and The New Yorker for any articles on a subject for which I need to quickly acquire a working knowledge. A Times piece on the history of the boardwalk at Brighton Beach, for instance, provided me with some vivid anecdotes for an opening chapter of The Icon Thief, which was essentially written around the material I’d found. Whatever the source may be, I’ll usually go over it several times, underlining or marking the margins whenever I find something interesting, and I’ll revisit it at various points throughout the process, keeping an eye out for fresh insights along the way. (A detail that may have seemed irrelevant during the outlining phase may turn out to be crucial in the rewrite.)

"The guard looked him over..."

For the sections of City of Exiles relating to Ilya’s experience within the British legal and penal system, my primary source was A Prison Diary by Jeffrey Archer, which is the kind of nonfiction resource that a writer dreams of finding. Archer, as some of you probably know, is the thriller author and life peer who spent two years in prison on a perjury charge, and his memoir of his time in Belmarsh is both a mine of firsthand information and a compelling read in its own right, which isn’t always true of the books I use for background. (Whenever I deliver the final draft of a writing project, I’ll do a purge of the works that I’ve accumulated for research purposes, and Archer’s book is one of the few I’ve kept for its own sake.) He seems to have approached his experience with an eye to using it as material himself, as he later did in his novel A Prisoner of Birth, and along the way, he produced an invaluable document for other writers. I consulted several other texts for additional details, including the works of the notorious Charles Bronson, and collected visual references whenever I could. Given the circumstances of my research trip to London, a visit to Belmarsh itself was unfortunately out of the question, and if I hadn’t had so much good background at my disposal, I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to put Ilya in prison at all.

Of course, not all of what you find ends up in the final draft. Chapter 25, in which Ilya is remanded to prison and arrives at Belmarsh for the first time, was originally much longer than it is now; in fact, it may have been the chapter in the novel that I cut the most. It’s one of those overstuffed portmanteau scenes, like Chapter 23, that falls at the point in the story where it has to cover a ton of ground in a short amount of time, bringing Ilya from the courtroom to a quick interview with Powell to the bus, the prison entrance, the receiving area, and the medical ward, with several layers of bureaucracy and important secondary characters introduced at each stage. The problem is that the real action is taking place elsewhere, at least for now, so I cut the chapter with every draft to get the reader more quickly to the next development. As a result, the details that survived the process are the ones that do double duty, unobtrusively providing atmosphere while also underlining Ilya’s isolation, which stands in contrast to the freedom with which Karvonen, his antagonist, is able to operate. If it works, it’s because the material itself is interesting and Ilya’s progression from one form of imprisonment to the next gives it a logical structure. The details themselves are all well and good, but they’re only useful to the extent that when Ilya enters his cell at last, we’re with him every step of the way…

Written by nevalalee

April 10, 2014 at 10:03 am

“At this hour of the morning, the prison was quiet…”

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"At this hour of the morning, the prison was quiet..."

Note: This post is the ninth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 8. You can read the earlier installments here.)

There’s an unspoken assumption among many readers and critics that a good author should base his work entirely on personal experience, either derived from his own life or those of people he knows, and that it’s a sign of weakness to be overly dependent on research. If it’s clear that a writer has relied heavily on secondary sources to tell a story, or, worse, if the nature of those sources is readily detectable, it’s sometimes treated as a sort of lapse, even as an embarrassment. It’s generally agreed, for instance, that Tolstoy’s material on the Freemasons in War and Peace was based on his reading, not on firsthand information: he wasn’t a Mason himself, and other Masons wouldn’t be likely to share any details with him directly, so the scenes depicting Pierre’s initiation—which are believed to be fundamentally accurate—were derived from a handful of books. I’ve read critics who treat this as an objective flaw in an otherwise unimpeachable masterpiece, as if the knowledge that Tolstoy had to do a bit of research undermines our impression of him as an omniscient sage of the human world. And this flies in the face of the fact that all of War and Peace is a monumental work of research and construction, since it contains so much that Tolstoy never could have witnessed himself.

And this applies as much, if not more so, to contemporary authors. Ian McEwan, for example, based large sections of Atonement on the memoirs of Lucilla Andrews, who served as a nurse during the London blitz. McEwan wasn’t shy about giving credit to Andrews—he mentions her in his acknowledgments—but when a few readers pointed out how certain details in his novel seemed to be taken directly from her work, there was a mild outcry, with some even calling it a form of plagiarism. I doubt that anyone would have raised the issue if McEwan had conducted interviews with Andrews directly, but the revelation that parts of his story were transparently indebted to another book made some readers uncomfortable. The plagiarism charge was ridiculous, of course, as none other than Thomas Pynchon, a monster of research himself, made clear in an open letter to his publisher:

Unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the encyclopedia, the Internet, until, with luck, at some point, we can begin to make a few things of our own up. To discover in the course of research some engaging detail we know can be put into a story where it will do some good can hardly be classed as a felonious act—it is simply what we do.

"When they reached the last corridor..."

Pynchon’s assessment of research as a kind of period of consolidation until “we can begin to make a few things of our own up” is absolutely correct, and library research is part of nearly every ambitious novelist’s bag of tricks. Research, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is less about factual accuracy than about providing the material for dreams, a gathering of “engaging details” that can furnish and feather the fictional nest we’ve created. (That last phrase is Anthony Lane’s, discussing Gustave Flaubert’s own voluminous research for Salammbo.) That’s true of literary as well as popular fiction: Saul Bellow had never been to Africa when he wrote Henderson the Rain King, but he was able to draw on travel accounts, textbooks, his own experience as a student of anthropology, and above all his own peerless imagination to create a remarkably convincing story, as even Norman Mailer admitted: “I don’t know if any other American writer has done Africa so well.” And it’s particularly indispensable for a novelist working in a field like suspense, where so much of the narrative necessarily deals with aspects of human life—murder, crime, conspiracy—that few writers have the luxury or desire to experience directly.

This was particularly true of City of Exiles, which I knew from the start would include long sequences set in the British prison system. I didn’t have any expectation of spending much time there myself, so I was forced to fall back on a handful of useful secondary sources: the memoirs of Charles Bronson, best known these days as the subject of a movie starring Tom Hardy, and especially the diaries of the suspense novelist Jeffrey Archer, who was sent to prison for perjury. We first see the result in Chapter 8, in which Powell and Wolfe pay a visit to Belmarsh to see the imprisoned gangster Vasylenko. Most of the details here, like the corridor that changes from lavender to green to blue as you enter a secure area, or the description of the interview room, walled with glass on all four sides like a fish tank, were taken from Archer’s book, and I draw on it repeatedly for all of the prison material that follows. I’m not sure if admitting this counts as a breach in the contract between an author and his readers—a suspense novelist, after all, is often expected to know something about everything—but I don’t see any harm in acknowledging my sources. Without their help, I wouldn’t have been able to write this novel at all. And we’re going to be spending a lot of time behind bars…

Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2013 at 9:33 am

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