Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Donne

“Before I knew thy face or name…”

leave a comment »

"Rogozin turned to face her..."

Note: This post is the seventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 6. You can read the previous installments here.

If I had to sum up the creative process in just one phrase, it would be as the conversion of the arbitrary into the inevitable. A finished work of art presents itself to us as a coherent set of symbols, but the process behind it is always somewhat random and contingent. A single decision that seemed like an intuitively good idea at the time can have unpredictable repercussions down the line, and each link in that chain represents just one out of many diverging possibilities. Some alternatives are clearly better than others, but it’s impossible to say which one is the best, and even an artist’s most logical choices are predicated on moments that emerged earlier out of impulse and chance. Revising the result so that it seems all of a piece may feel like trickery, but it’s really another instance of how art strains to imitate life. A lifetime is made up of countless incidents that could have gone any number of ways, and it’s often the smallest things—a smile, a harsh or kind word, a book or article read at the right time—that nudge us along the path we end up taking. And if it all seems obvious in retrospect, it’s only because we’ve engaged in a form of editing and unconscious revision of our own.

In fiction, both halves of the process—the arbitrary and the inevitable—are equally essential. In order to write a story that seems inevitable in itself, we first need to generate a sufficient amount of arbitrary material, like the chaos that precedes the biblical act of creation. Sometimes that search for randomness can be conscious and systematic; more often, it’s merely a result of the way authors think, gleaning bits and pieces of action, imagery, and information that might be useful later. Attaining a critical mass of raw data, which can consist equally of research, imagination, and personal experience, is an indispensable initial step, for the architects as much as the gardeners. A few decent hunches, or details that might as well have been drawn out of a hat, provide the initial set of constraints required to guide the rest. Later, we can be more logical about the details we introduce to fill in the gaps, and logic takes over entirely at certain stages of writing and revision, but those elements grow like a crystal around the seed that chance provides. And this can apply as much to the largest aspects of a story, like plot and character, as to the tiny touches a writer puts in because it felt right at the time.

"Before I knew thy face or name..."

Take the character of Vitaly Rogozin in Eternal Empire. He’s only onstage for a handful of chapters, and he serves largely as a plot point to advance the overall story, but as supporting figures go in these books, he’s a pretty good one. His core conception—a famous dissident and exile who turns out to have been working for Russian intelligence all along—feels like the kind of thing a novel like this would have in mind from the beginning. Yet nearly everything I know about him was decided either on a whim or as a consequence of prior choices I’d made without much thought. Rogozin first appears in City of Exiles as the handler Karvonen meets at the opening of the novel, and the role he plays there is purely functional. He doesn’t even have a name, and in the earliest drafts, he didn’t have much in the way of distinguishing characteristics either. When I belatedly realized that this character, whoever the hell he was, would play a major role in any sequel, I went back and introduced a few details that were sufficiently specific to pay off in the next book but vague enough to leave me some wriggle room. (Whenever I add escape hatches like this, I always think of the moment at the end of Wrath of Khan when Spock touches McCoy’s head and says “Remember.” At the time, nobody involved knew what it meant, but they were shrewd enough to know it would come in handy in Star Trek III.)

Ultimately, I say only that Karvonen’s handler is missing two fingers on his left hand. Why? I don’t know. It seemed memorable; it was concise enough to be tossed off in a sentence of description; and it made it clear that the unnamed handler wasn’t someone else we were going to meet later—which may have been the most important consideration. When it came to fleshing out the character for Eternal Empire, I hit quickly on the idea of making him a literary figure like Solzhenitsyn, although his appearance is closer to Nabokov’s, because it struck me as a choice that would hold my own interest. His missing fingers turned into a piece of backstory: as a reluctant recruit in the Soviet army, he blew them off himself rather than take part in the invasion of Prague. (This feels a lot like an idea I lifted from somewhere else, although I can’t for the life of me remember from where.) And the mistake that betrayed him, as revealed in Chapter 6, was like a filament strung between two narrative necessities. Wolfe’s first clue to his identity was a quote from the poet John Donne in one of the handler’s emails. Donne was another detail I found lying around in City of Exiles, where it was introduced for unrelated thematic reasons, but it also looks ahead to later in Eternal Empire, when the same poem exposes the true motivations of another major character. If it works, it should feel like something I had in mind from the start. Which is just another form of deception…

Written by nevalalee

January 29, 2015 at 9:41 am

“The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker…”

leave a comment »

"The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker..."

Note: This post is the second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 1. You can read the earlier installments here.)

No matter how broad a writer’s range of interests might be, he or she naturally tends to return to the same handful of themes and metaphors. In my case, one of the threads that recurs frequently in my work is a fascination with photography and its connection to violence. Years ago, I thought about writing a screenplay with a lead character based loosely on the young Diane Arbus, and elements of her personality were eventually incorporated—with much transformation—into Maddy Blume in The Icon Thief. I also became fascinated with the work of Cindy Sherman and the argument that Susan Sontag makes, sometimes a bit too insistently, in On Photography:

There is something predatory in the act of taking a picture…Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.

As a result, The Icon Thief was originally titled Camera, and later Kamera, both in homage to the R.E.M. song and as a reference to the poison laboratory of the Russian secret services. And although these elements were less obvious in the final version, it’s no accident that I returned to the same inspirations when it came to plotting the sequel.

In particular, one of the turning points in cracking the story was the decision that Lasse Karvonen, my Finnish killer, would work as a photographer. I’d originally conceived City of Exiles as a sort of duel of assassins, with Ilya and a new villain facing off in a game of cat and mouse across Europe, and although the initial conception changed a lot along the way, I still needed a suitably sinister antagonist. In making Karvonen a photographer, I was partially inspired by the observation in The Sword and the Shield, Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin’s definitive history of intelligence in the Soviet era, that illegal agents in foreign countries would often pose as members of artistic communities, since it was easier to establish a false identity there than in a more conventionally structured profession. The photography angle would also allow me to preserve the art world element from the first novel, and, perhaps best of all, it offered me an excuse to dig into a lot of fascinating material. In the finished draft, it only takes up a few chapters, but it was fun to write, and it helps set the stage for a story that will be deeply concerned with issues of deception, subterfuge, and the enigma of a few mysterious photographs.

"What name did Achilles use when he hid among the women?"

The bulk of this material makes its first appearance in Chapter 1, which introduces Karvonen and his neurotic employer, the photographer Renata Russell. It’s no secret that the character of Renata is somewhat inspired by Annie Leibovitz, at least on a superficial level, although in most respects the two women have little in common. The documentary Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens was a valuable resource here, with its detailed portrait of the artist at work, and I also found inspiration—and ideas for dialogue and bits of business—in the films The September Issue and Picture Me: A Model’s Diary. The other major influence in these scenes is Blow Up, if only because it’s impossible to tell a story about a London fashion photographer without including a nod to Antonioni. In fact, a careful reader might recognize that Renata’s studio in Holland Park is the very same building where David Hemmings works in the movie, which I briefly visited as part of my research on location, and Renata, like Hemmings, lives on Pottery Lane. (The pub where Karvonen meets his contact in the intelligence services is also real, and it’s located only a short walk from the cemetery in Highgate where Karl Marx is buried.)

Otherwise, this chapter is devoted both to setting the plot in motion—as Karvonen obtains a gun, a phone, and a list of targets from his handler—and to establishing motifs that will pay off later. The song playing during Renata’s photo shoot is “Rave On, John Donne” by Van Morrison, which hints at the role in the story of Donne and his poetry. The chalk mark that notifies Karvonen of his appointment is in the form of a crosshairs, but it’s also meant to evoke a wheel with four spokes. The exchange between Karvonen and his handler when they meet (“What name did Achilles use when he hid among the women?”) is one of the poetic questions, first proposed by Sir Thomas Browne, that Robert Graves attempts to answer in The White Goddess, which is another important element in the novel’s web of references. And although we won’t see Karvonen’s handler again, we should give him a good, long look. In the first draft, I didn’t describe him in much detail, but I had a feeling that he’d play an important role later on, so I decided to give him a small identifying tag—something memorable, but vague enough that I could put it to whatever use I needed. In the end, I only noted that part of the first two fingers on his right hand were missing. And it’s not until the third book that we—or I—learn what happened to those fingers…

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2013 at 9:16 am

%d bloggers like this: