Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Printers Row Lit Fest

Books do furnish a life

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The dollar bin at the Strand Bookstore

When I was growing up in Castro Valley, California, one of the high points of any year was our annual library book sale. My local library was located conveniently across the street from my church, so on one magical weekend, I’d enter the parish hall to find row after row of folding tables stacked with discards and donations. In many ways, it was my first real taste of the joys of browsing: there wasn’t a good used bookstore in town, and I was still a few years away from taking the train up to Berkeley to dive into the stacks at Moe’s and Shakespeare and Company. Instead, I found countless treasures on those tables, and because each book cost just a few dollars, it encouraged exploration, risk, and serendipitous discoveries. Best of all was the final day, in which enterprising buyers could fill a shopping bag of books—a whole bag!—for just a couple of bucks. If you’re a certain kind of book lover, you know that this can be the best feeling in the world, and I still occasionally have dreams at night of making a similar haul at the perfect used bookshop.

Over time, though, the books I picked up were slowly dispersed, usually by a series of moves, so that only a few have followed me from California to Chicago. (Looking around my shelves now, the only books I can positively identify as having come from one of those sales are Dean Koontz’s Writing Popular Fiction and my complete set of Great Books of the Western World, which certainly counts as my greatest find—I vividly remember camping out in a corner to guard the volumes until the time came to drag them away.) It’s a cycle that has recurred repeatedly through my life, as I stumble across a new source of abundant cheap books, buy scores of them in a series of impulsive trips, then find myself faced with some hard choices at my next move. Over the course of seven years in New York, I probably spent several thousand dollars at the Strand, much of it in the legendary dollar bin, and when I moved, I donated twelve boxes to Goodwill, coming to maybe five hundred books that had briefly enriched my life before moving on. As Buckminster Fuller wrote about his own body:

I am not a thing—a noun. At eighty-five, I have taken in over a thousand tons of air, food, and water, which temporarily became my flesh and which progressively disassociated from me. You and I seem to be verbs—evolutionary processes.

The Newberry Library Book Fair

A library, I’ve found, is a sort of organic being of its own, growing along with its user, taking in raw materials, retaining some while getting rid of others, and progressing ever closer to an ideal shape that changes, like the body, over time. It’s even more accurate to see a library as the result of a kind of editorial process. The bags of books I picked up when I was in my teens were like a first draft, ragged, messy, but a source of essential clay for the work to come. More drafts followed with every change of address, with the books that no longer spoke to me—or whose purpose had been filled in providing a few happy hours of browsing—standing aside to make room for others. A library moves asymptotically, like a novel, toward its finished form, and in the end, it starts to look like a portrait of the author. To mix analogies, it’s like a sculpture, or a collage, that finds its shape both through accretion and removal. I never could have assembled the library I have now through first principles: it’s the product of time, shifting interests, the urge in my programming to buy more books, and the constraints imposed by mobility and shelving. And although the result may puzzle others, to me, it feels like home.

Not surprisingly, I’ve become increasingly picky, even eccentric, when it comes to the books I buy. Over the last few weeks, I’ve gone to a number of book sales—at the Printers Row Lit Fest and the Open Books store in Chicago—that previously would have left me with several bags to bring home. Instead, I’ve emerged after hours of browsing with a handful of books whose titles bewilder even me: Hidden Images, Design With Climate, The Divining Rod, Ship Models. If I’m drawn increasingly to odd little books, it’s due in part to the fact that I’ve already filled up the shelves in my office, so I tend to favor books that I don’t think I’ll be able to find at my local library. Really, though, it’s because the books I buy now are devoted to filling existing gaps, like a draft of a novel in which the choices I can make are influenced by a long train of earlier decisions. It’s starting to feel like my life’s work, and I treat it accordingly. Every now and then, I’ll cast an eye over my shelves, and if a book doesn’t make me actively happy to see it there, off it goes. Each one that remains carries a reside of meaning or history, if only by capturing a memory of a day spent deep in the stacks. And unlike my other works, it won’t ever be complete, because on the day it’s finished, I will be, too.

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June 23, 2014 at 9:24 am

Why is evil easier to write than good?

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Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

On Saturday, I participated in a panel at the Printers Row Lit Fest on “The Lure of Noir,” moderated by the journalist and mystery writer Robert Goldsborough. I had a great time and really enjoyed meeting my fellow panelists, the authors Bryan Gruley, Brian D’Amato, and Libby Fischer Hellmann. (My wife and daughter were also there, although the latter chose to grow fussy at the exact moment the panel began, so they missed most of the discussion.) As always, the panel gave me a lot to think about, and I particularly enjoyed the questions at the end, one of which allowed me to go on at length about my love for The Third Man. The most interesting question, though, was one for which I didn’t have a ready answer. In essence, the question was this: as an author, how do you come back to yourself after writing in such detail about human evil? My intuitive response, which I gave, was that it’s actually much easier to write about evil than good, and I tend to struggle much more with the latter. Even as I said this, though, I found myself wondering why.

My favorite example from my own work is the novel City of Exiles, which was partially conceived as a confrontation between two moral extremes. On the one hand, you have Lasse Karvonen, my Finnish assassin, whom I deliberately designed to be as amoral and chilling a figure as possible: if the novel as a whole, as I’ve mentioned before, was something of an attempt to construct a thriller from first principles, I tried to do much the same thing with the central villain. Karvonen kills without remorse, usually on contract or to protect himself, and also because he’s simply good at it. And in laying out his backstory and inner life, I quietly incorporated many of the signs of a textbook sociopath, including setting fires and cruelty to animals. (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Thomas Harris mentions “sadism to animals as a child” as one of Hannibal Lecter’s signs of sociopathy in Red Dragon, only to never mention it again in any of the sequels, probably because it didn’t work well for a character who increasingly became the hero of his own series. You can show your antihero committing murder with impunity, but the reader won’t forgive him if he hurts a cat.)

Norman Mailer

The result was a character who was paradoxically a real pleasure to write: in fact, I don’t think any other character has ever made such an easy transition from my head to the page. This wasn’t the case for Karonven’s opponent, Rachel Wolfe, who I’d conceived to be as principled and ethical as Karvonen was vicious. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Wolfe was raised as a devout Mormon—a detail that I introduced almost at random in The Icon Thief—and although she’s starting to question aspects of her faith as the story begins, it still informs many of her life choices. She doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, she doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, and she starts every day with a prayer. These days, Mormonism is often used as a cultural punchline, so part of the challenge was to create a character who was unironically heroic, straightlaced, and admirable, and to have all these aspects of her personality arise from the same place. I think I succeeded, and Wolfe is one of my own favorite characters, but it took a long time to get it right. If Karvonen arose fully formed in the first draft, Wolfe was more the product of countless small revisions and adjustments until she began to resemble the ideal figure I’d imagined.

When I look back it now, though, I can see that it wasn’t Wolfe’s Mormonism that made her hard to write, but the fact that she was a stronger, more ethical person than I was. Norman Mailer, following Hemingway, has written about the difficulties involved in creating characters who are better than the author himself. In his candid, probing essay “The Last Draft of The Deer Park,” Mailer notes:

I had a horror of creating a voice which could be in any way bigger than myself…I was now creating a man who was bigger and stronger than me, and the more my new style succeeded, the more I was writing an implicit portrait of myself as well.

That’s been my experience, too. Ultimately, evil is easier to write because it only asks us to magnify our own worst qualities. I don’t think I have many sociopathic tendencies, but like every writer, I’ve had my share of petty, vindictive feelings, and there’s something clarifying and therapeutic about working them out in a fictional setting: if nothing else, I can take comfort in the fact that I’m not really much like Karvonen at all. With Wolfe, by contrast, I’m implicitly writing about my own limitations. I don’t have her integrity or sense of duty, as much as I wish I did. That, in a nutshell, is why writing about good is so hard: it’s easier to write honestly about the moral traps we’ve avoided—perhaps because of our own caution or timidity—than the higher standards we’re unable to meet. But as difficult as it may be, we still need to do both.

Written by nevalalee

June 11, 2013 at 8:58 am

More news from all over

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Il ladro di reliquie

I’m very pleased to announce that Il ladro di reliquie, the Italian translation of The Icon Thief, was released yesterday by Newton Compton. Here’s how the first paragraph reads:

Andrey era quasi al confine quando si imbatté nei ladri. Erano ormai tre giorni che viaggiava. Di norma era era molto cauto al volante, ma a un certo punto nell’ultima ora la sua mente si era messa a vagare e, scendendo da un breve pendio, era quasi andato a sbattere contro due auto parcheggiate lì davanti.

Although I haven’t seen a surge in fan mail from Italy just yet, I’m still excited to see my novel in the language of Dante and Umberto Eco, and I’m looking forward to receiving my author’s copies. In the meantime, as I’ve noted before, you can check out the first three chapters on the book’s official site, and if you happen to read Italian, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

If you’re in the Chicago area, I also have a pair of upcoming author events that I hope some of you reading this will be able to attend. On Wednesday May 8, I’ll be at the Maze Branch of the Oak Park Public Library at 7pm to discuss City of Exiles and the upcoming Eternal Empire, an opportunity that I owe entirely to the generosity and support of librarian Carolyn DeCoursey, who read The Icon Thief, liked it, and was surprised to discover that the author lived only a few blocks away. I’ve also confirmed that I’ll be appearing at the upcoming Printers Row Lit Fest on June 8 and 9, which is always a highlight of any year. My panel discussion last summer with David Heinzmann, Jan Wallentin, Manuel Muñoz, and Sean Cherover was one of the most memorable author events I’ve ever had, and I’m hopeful that this year will be even more special. (If nothing else, I expect that my newest, biggest fan will be in attendance, and I hope she’ll ask some good questions.) Stay tuned for more details.

Written by nevalalee

April 26, 2013 at 8:53 am

The Thrill of the Mystery

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On Sunday, I’m going to be discussing The Icon Thief on a panel called “The Thrill of the Mystery” at the Printers Row Lit Fest here in Chicago. The panel will also include novelists Jan Wallentin (Strindberg’s Star), Manuel Muñoz (What You See in the Dark), and Sean Cherover (The Trinity Game), and will be moderated by Tribune reporter and crime novelist David Heinzmann (Throwaway Girl). I’m really excited to be a part of this event, which starts at 2:45 pm at University Center on 525 South State Street. Tickets for the panel are currently sold out, but keep checking back on the site for updates—there’s always a chance that more seats will free up.

More to the point, the Printers Row Lit Fest itself is one of the highlights of any year in Chicago. I’ve spoken before about the joy of browsing, and the Lit Fest is a browser’s paradise, with five full city blocks lined with stalls set up by independent booksellers from across the country. Every year, I always find an armful of treasures, and I’d be spending most of the weekend here in any case, happily rummaging for hours. Aside from the books, which are reason enough to come, there are panels, readings, contests, and lots of great music and food. And unlike years past, which have tended to be rainy and gray, the weather this weekend promises to be beautiful. Hope to see some of you there!

Written by nevalalee

June 8, 2012 at 9:24 am

Thinking in pictures

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Last weekend, at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago, I picked up a copy of Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, a novel I’d been meaning to read for a long time. I’d been interested in Perec ever since reading about his work in Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot, and while I’ve only begun dipping into Life, I’m already intrigued by the riches on display. As described in greater detail here, Life is an ambitious experimental novel, centered on a fictional apartment block in Paris, that Perec constructed using a system designed to generate a random list of items (an activity, a position of the body, a writer, even the number of pages) for each chapter, which he then had to incorporate into the narrative. The result, as Perec put it, is a “machine for inspiring stories.” Even apart from the merits of the novel itself, I find this premise tremendously exciting.

Regular readers of this blog know that one of my ongoing obsessions is finding new ways to insert randomness and constraints into the writing process. Writing a novel, at least as I tend to approach it, is such a left-brained activity that it’s necessary to create opportunities for the right brain to participate. Sometimes this happens by accident—while shaving, for example. But there are also ways of approaching randomness more deliberately. I’ve published stories based on juxtapositions of two unrelated articles from science magazines, used random selections from Shakespeare and the I Ching to guide chapters (although I’ve mostly dropped the latter, despite the fun of throwing the coins), and used mind maps to bind all these elements together. And I’m looking forward to applying some of Perec’s techniques to my own work, although probably in a much more limited sense.

Recently, I’ve also discovered another approach that might prove useful. In Origins of Genius (which, in case you haven’t noticed already, is one of the most stimulating books on creativity I’ve read in a long time), Dean Simonton describes a fascinating experiment by psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg:

[Rothenberg] and a colleague began by making up a set of visual stimuli that involved the superimposition of visual images. For example, one contained a photograph of an empty French four-poster bed placed in a period room superimposed over a group of soldiers in combat who were taking cover behind a tank. These highly incongruous homospatial images were then shown to writers and to artists, the latter including individuals selected in a national competition by faculty at the Yale School of Art. The writers were instructed to create new metaphors inspired by the stimuli, while the artists were instructed to make pastel drawings. In comparison with the control group (e.g., subjects who saw the images only separately), individuals exposed to these visual juxtapositions of unrelated images generated more creative products, as judged by independent raters.

In other words, juxtapositions of two unrelated concepts often result in ideas that would not have arisen from considering the two concepts separately, which only confirms one of my most basic convictions about the creative process.

What I find particularly interesting about Rothenberg’s experiment, though, is that the stimuli consisted of images, rather than words, which seems like an especially promising way of encouraging nonverbal, creative thought. With that in mind, I’ve started to incorporate a similar method into my own work, using images randomly chosen from three books that seem ideally suited for such an approach: Phaidon’s chaming little volumes The Art Book, The Photo Book, and The 20th Century Art Book. Each book consists of representative works by five hundred artists, one work to a page, arranged in alphabetical order—an arbitrary system that already lends itself to startling juxtapositions. For instance, in The Photo Book, by an accident of the alphabet, “A Sea of Steps” by Frederick H. Evans appears across from “Washroom in the Dog Run” by Walker Evans, exposing their haunting visual similarities. Two images, taken together, yielding a meaning that neither would have apart—that’s what art is all about, and why I’m looking forward to thinking more with pictures.

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