Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘London

London through an exile’s eyes

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From the very beginning, I knew that City of Exiles would be set in London, but I’m not entirely sure how I decided this. The obvious explanation is that this is where the last few pages of The Icon Thief unfold, with a quiet act of revenge at a town house in Fulham, and it was easiest to pick up the story more or less where it left off. But that’s only part of the reason. Once I realized that I was writing a series of at least two books, and probably three, it seemed inevitable that the action would gradually move east, starting in New York, crossing the ocean, and continuing across Europe until it finally ended, in the concluding installment, in Russia. London was the logical next step. And because it’s a city with a rich history as a setting for the kind of suspense and mystery novels I love, from Conan Doyle to John le Carré, I knew that I had to do it justice, as I hoped I’d done with the New York and Philadelphia locations of The Icon Thief.

The trouble was that although I’d been to London several times, I’d never regarded it with the sort of greedy, scavenging eye of an author looking for material, which meant that if this novel was going to work at all, I had to do research on location. In the end, I flew out for a week in February of last year for what must be one of the strangest trips on record. I had six full days to visit a range of places that could have easily taken twice as long to cover properly. My only guide was a very tentative outline of the plot. I’d assigned various parts of the city to different chapters as best as I could, based on geographical or narrative considerations, but in many cases, I wasn’t sure what would happen in the scene until I got there. (For example, the chapter in which Lasse Karvonen, my Finnish assassin, pays a visit to Finsbury Park was basically plotted in real time, as I walked up and down a block of houses below the railway tracks, looking for the best way to kill a man.)

And the result was a very unusual working vacation, the highlight of which was probably my side trip to Belgium, in which I spent $300 on a train ticket to Brussels only to turn around and come back within a couple of hours, all for the sake of describing a similar trip that a character takes in a single chapter. (I did have a chance to visit the Royal Museums, where I paid homage to The Death of Marat, the painting that makes a brief appearance in the epilogue of The Icon Thief.) When I left, my phone didn’t have any of the usual snapshots of tourist attractions or historic sites. Instead, it was picture after picture of garages, weedy lots, council estates, apartment complexes, and pub toilets. My only real tourist stop appears in the novel as well: like my protagonist, Rachel Wolfe, I made a pilgrimage to Baker Street, only to find a block of dry cleaning shops and fast food restaurants. I wore out a pair of shoes and developed a bad case of blisters, and every night, I wrote in my tiny hotel room for hours.

But none of this, I should make clear, was for the sake of mere accuracy, although I was trying to be as correct in my descriptions as possible: it was about gathering imaginative material. Knowing that one of your characters will die in a garage in Stoke Newington isn’t as helpful as knowing that he’ll die in this garage, on this particular block, with a Turkish restaurant on the corner and peeling wheatpaste flyers on the fence across the street. Later, after realizing that a large part of the novel would essentially consist of a detailed crime procedural, I supplemented my location work by reading a shelf’s worth of books on police work and forensics, many of which I picked up in the true crime sections of used bookstores in London. But without that short but intense visit, I don’t think the resulting novel would have worked at all. I doubt I’ll ever be able capture the city in all its complexity, but I can at least write about it from the point of view of a visitor—or an exile. Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit more about some of the exiles themselves, and how I found my novel’s unlikely heroine.

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2012 at 9:37 am

Posted in Books, Publishing, Writing

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London and the voodoo of location

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Yesterday I got back from my trip to London, where I spent a week looking at locations for Midrash, the sequel to Kamera. For just over six days, I lurked around neighborhoods like Shoreditch, Holland Park, Stoke Newington, and Golders Green; studied landmarks like the Olympia Exhibition Centre and the Old Bailey; and even indulged in a six-hour side trip to Brussels. I kept good notes, took a lot of pictures, and seriously destroyed my feet—next time, I’m bringing better shoes. And I came away not only with a substantial trove of information for my novel, but also some reflections on the role of location research in the writing process itself.

At first glance, it might seem that direct experience of a novel’s setting is essential, especially for a story supposedly based on careful research. A location contains crucial information—sights, sounds, smells, and human interactions—that can’t be acquired in any other way: I know from experience that an hour in Bombay will teach you things about India that you’d never learn from a lifetime of reading. And there’s little doubt that a novel would benefit from what Werner Herzog, according to Roger Ebert, calls “the voodoo of location” in movies—the idea that locations “seep into performances and photography and give a special texture to the film.”

Yet the issue isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. Atmosphere is no substitute for story, and excessive use of location research can burden a novel with inessential detail, as we sometimes see in late Michener. And many good or great books have been written without the benefit of actual travel. Saul Bellow wrote Henderson the Rain King without going to Africa, at least as far as I know, and more recently, Scott Smith produced the very good horror novel The Ruins without setting foot in Mexico, although it couldn’t have been hard to make the trip. And the number of classic films not shot on location is impossible to count—after all, nobody on Casablanca got anywhere close to Morocco. (Although it’s hard to imagine The Third Man being shot anywhere but Vienna itself.)

For both movies and novels, the “truth” of a location lies between reality and illusion. No matter how heavily researched a novel’s setting may be, there will always be rooms, houses, and streets constructed entirely from the author’s imagination. The same is all the more true for film, where even the most convincing locations often turn out to be made of spit and cardboard. Some of my favorite cinematic locations are from Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going!, which makes extraordinary use of the Inner Hebrides. Yet the movie’s male lead, Roger Livesey, never came close to Scotland: he filmed all of his scenes in the studio, with a double for long shots, and the movie often cuts between set and location from one angle to the next.

What matters, in the end, is the work itself. As I’ve noted elsewhere about other kinds of research, location work isn’t about factual accuracy, but about furnishing the imagination. The author’s inner eye can play quite profitably in the locations where the novel itself will take place—for Kamera, I spent many happy days haunting the boardwalks of Brighton Beach—but there’s also ample material for dreams in the pages of an atlas, especially when it’s out of date. Sooner or later, at some point in the process, real locations fall away, leaving only what remains on the page. And as much as I loved my trip to London, I’m also aware that it’s only now, back at my desk, that the real location work can begin.

Progess report: London, Brussels, and beyond

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Tomorrow night, I’m flying out to London for six days, as part of a whirlwind research tour for Midrash, the sequel to Kamera. Big Ben and Buckingham Palace aren’t on the itinerary, I’m afraid—just a lot of interesting neighborhoods and locations, where violent or otherwise dramatic events will be playing out in my mind’s eye. The trip may also include a detour to Brussels, where I’m hoping to see Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat in person. (The painting plays an important role in the epilogue to Kamera, but I’ve never seen it in the flesh, so to speak.)

While I’m away, I don’t expect to be very active in the comments section, or on Twitter, but the blog will be updated with new posts throughout the week. There’s some good stuff coming up soon, so keep checking back for more!

Written by nevalalee

February 5, 2011 at 9:47 am

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