Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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“This is our greatest vulnerability…”

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"This is our greatest vulnerability..."

Note: This post is the thirtieth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 29. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When you’re writing a novel, you’ll often end up reading an entire book for the sake of what turns out to be a single sentence in the finished manuscript. The opposite also holds true: a line or two from a piece of source material can flower and expand in unexpected ways. That’s why I’ve learned to cast my net wide during the earliest stages of the writing process. You never know when you’ll find an idea or image that will illuminate an entire storyline, and in my experience, you’ll often discover such gems in the least promising of places. When I was starting to research City of Exiles, for instance, I knew that the plot would involve the politics of Russian energy. I’d decided from the start that the narrative path opened up by The Icon Thief was one in which I had to drill deeper into elements of the story that had only been superficially explored so far—the workings of intelligence, its relationship to organized crime, the logic of the new Russian state under Putin—and more than anything else, the country’s vast reserves of oil and gas are what make Putin possible. Along with such weighty espionage tomes as The Sword and the Shield, then, I added several books on energy, hoping that I would find a hook or two on which I could hang a story.

Among the books I read were Putin’s Oil by Martin Sixsmith—who has since attained a different kind of celebrity by being played by Steve Coogan in the adaptation of his own Philomena—and The New Cold War by Edward Lucas. This last book was both the most useful and the most daunting: its material was fascinating, but the approach was pointedly dry, a little like reading a book-length article in The Economist, where Lucas worked for many years. On page 170, however, I found one line, which Lucas tosses off almost casually, that ended up shaping the two books that would consume my life for the next eighteen months. Here it is:

The Kremlin has given Gazprom—a private company—the unusual right to recruit and operate its own military forces to protect its overseas pipelines.

At first glance, it might not be clear why this sentence stood out, but it fell onto soil that had been prepared by the reading I’d already done. I knew from The Sword and the Shield that the two main branches of Russian intelligence, the civilian side run by the KGB/FSB and the military side run by the GRU, had long been rivals. And it seemed to me that if a Russian energy company was recruiting its own troops, this said a great deal about the influence of the parties involved.

"You need an intermediary..."

The result—and this is something of a spoiler for those who haven’t read the books—was a trilogy that ended up, rather to my surprise, centering on the rivalry between the FSB and GRU over which side would control the future of energy in Russia. As with most of the useful ideas I’ve ever had, it was the product of a fortuitous combination. If I’d only read The Sword and the Shield, I’m not sure it would have occurred to me to make that struggle a central part of the narrative; if I’d just read The New Cold War, I might have passed over that sentence without noticing it. As a pair, with one source following close to the other, they led to a new train of thought. In many ways, it’s for moments like this that I became a novelist rather than another kind of writer: fiction, which gains much of its interest from its blurring of lines between imagination and reality, is much more hospitable than nonfiction to this sort of speculative juxtaposition. (I was tempted for a long time to call Gazprom by its own name, but after some thought, I decided to call it Gaztek instead, both because I was inventing considerably beyond the public record and because I thought it would give me more options when I wrote the third book in the series, which ultimately turned out not to involve Gaztek at all.)

Of course, the challenge, which I’m not sure I entirely solved, was to ground this intelligence struggle, which for the most part involves people and organizations we haven’t met, into vivid narrative terms. The story had to stay focused on a particular, concrete chain of events—in this case, Karvonen’s deadly mission in Helsinki—with the other forces operating mostly in the background. If the reader takes an interest in this, all the better; if not, the details can be safely ignored in favor of the immediate action. Still, I had to sketch in some of this background first, which is what occupies most of Chapter 29, as Powell meets with Howard Archer, the founder of the Cheshire Group, the activist hedge fund whose lead Russian analyst was killed a few chapters earlier. It’s a talky scene, and I kept it as short as I could, although the material here could have been treated at much greater length. Cheshire, as some readers might have noticed, is based loosely on a real hedge fund based in London that had its fair share of trouble with the Putin regime, and although Powell’s visit only occupies a few pages, it isn’t just there to provide exposition. We’ll be encountering this fund again before the novel is over, and in Eternal Empireit moves to center stage. Which, once again, is something I never could have expected…

Written by nevalalee

May 8, 2014 at 9:43 am

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