Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Red Shambhala

“And what does that name have to do with this?”

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"The word on the side of your yacht..."

Note: This post is the thirtieth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 29. You can read the previous installments here.

Earlier this week, in response to a devastating article in the New York Times on the allegedly crushing work environment in Amazon’s corporate offices, Jeff Bezos sent an email to employees that included the following statement:

[The article] claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter is heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either…I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the [Times] would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

Predictably, the email resulted in numerous headlines along the lines of “Jeff Bezos to Employees: You Don’t Work in a Dystopian Hellscape, Do You?” Bezos, a very smart guy, should have seen it coming. As Richard Nixon learned a long time ago, whenever you tell people that you aren’t a crook, you’re really raising the possibility that you might be. If you’re concerned about the names that your critics might call you, the last thing you want to do is put words in their mouths—it’s why public relations experts advise their clients to avoid negative language, even in the form of a denial—and saying that Amazon isn’t a soulless, dystopian workplace is a little like asking us not to think of an elephant.

Writers have recognized the negative power of certain loaded terms for a long time, and many works of art go out of their way to avoid such words, even if they’re central to the story. One of my favorite examples is the film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Coming off Seven and Zodiac, David Fincher didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a director of serial killer movies, so the dialogue exclusively uses the term “serial murderer,” although it’s doubtful how effective this was. Along the same lines, Christopher Nolan’s superhero movies are notably averse to calling their characters by their most famous names: The Dark Knight Rises never uses the name “Catwoman,” while Man of Steel, which Nolan produced, avoids “Superman,” perhaps following the example of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which indulges in similar circumlocutions. Robert Towne’s script for Greystoke never calls its central character “Tarzan,” and The Walking Dead uses just about every imaginable term for its creatures aside from “zombie,” for reasons that creator Robert Kirkman explains:

One of the things about this world is that…they’re not familiar with zombies, per se. This isn’t a world [in which] the Romero movies exist, for instance, because we don’t want to portray it that way…They’ve never seen this in pop culture. This is a completely new thing for them.

"And what does that name have to do with this?"

Kirkman’s reluctance to call anything a zombie, which has inspired an entire page on TV Tropes dedicated to similar examples, is particularly revealing. A zombie movie can’t use that word because an invasion of the undead needs to feel like something unprecedented, and falling back on a term we know conjures up all kinds of pop cultural connotations that an original take might prefer to avoid. In many cases, avoiding particular words subtly encourages us treat the story on its own terms. In The Godfather, the term “Mafia” is never uttered—an aversion, incidentally, not shared by the original novel, the working title of which was actually Mafia. This quietly allows us to judge the Corleones according to the rules of their own closed world, and it circumvents any real reflection about what the family business actually involves. (According to one famous story, the mobster Joseph Colombo paid a visit to producer Al Ruddy, demanding that the word be struck from the script as a condition for allowing the movie to continue. Ruddy, who knew that the screenplay only used the word once, promptly agreed.) The Godfather Part II is largely devoted to blowing up the first movie’s assumptions, and when the word “Mafia” is uttered at a senate hearing, it feels like the real world intruding on a comfortable fantasy. And the moment wouldn’t be as effective if the first installment hadn’t been as diligent about avoiding the term, allowing it to build a new myth in its place.

While writing Eternal Empire, I found myself confronting a similar problem. In this case, the offending word was “Shambhala.” As I’ve noted before, I decided early on that the third novel in the series would center on the Shambhala myth, a choice I made as soon as I stumbled across an excerpt from Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern, in which she states that Vladimir Putin had taken a particular interest in the legend. A little research, notably in Andrei Znamenski’s Red Shambhala, confirmed that the periodic attempts by Russia to confirm the existence of that mythical kingdom, carried out in an atmosphere of espionage and spycraft in Central Asia, was a rich vein of material. The trouble was that the word “Shambhala” itself was so loaded with New Age connotations that I’d have trouble digging my way out from under it: a quick search online reveals that it’s the name of a string of meditation centers, a music festival, and a spa with its own line of massage oils, none of which is exactly in keeping with the tone that I was trying to evoke. My solution, predictably, was to structure the whole plot around the myth of Shambhala while mentioning it as little as possible: the name appears perhaps thirty times across four hundred pages. (The mythological history of Shambhala is treated barely at all, and most of the references occur in discussions of the real attempts by Russian intelligence to discover it.) The bulk of those references appear here, in Chapter 29, and I cut them all down as much as possible, focusing on the bare minimum I needed for Maddy to pique Tarkovsky’s interest. I probably could have cut them even further. But as it stands, it’s more or less enough to get the story to where it needs to be. And it doesn’t need to be any longer than it is…

How I discovered Shambhala

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Tibet by Nicholas Roerich

One of the most profound benefits of being a novelist—and one that I don’t think gets enough attention—is the quality of heightened awareness it creates. When you’re looking for a story idea, your attitude toward the world around you is subtly shifted: material that might never have caught your eye otherwise is captured and assimilated, because it actually has somewhere to go. That’s why I like to start the research for a book in an intermediate state of mind, when I’m open to inspiration without prejudice but also have a sense of what I’m trying to find. It reminds me a little of the famous story of the young Albert Einstein and his Uncle Jakob, as Walter Isaacson tells it:

His uncle Jakob Einstein, the engineer, introduced him to the joys of algebra. “It’s a merry science,” he explained. “When the animal that we are hunting cannot be caught, we call it X temporarily and continue to hunt until it is bagged.”

For authors, X is the germ of a story idea, and the only way to find it is to label it as an unknown, then start hunting for it widely and systematically.

In the case of Eternal Empire, I happen to know exactly when I first encountered the initial seed, which hasn’t always been the case for the novels I’ve written. For The Icon Thief, I hunted ideas by reading everything I could find on art history, starting in the extensive collection of art books at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. A stray reference in Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? by James Elkins, a book I took off the shelf almost at random, led me to the bizarre conspiracy theory involving Marcel Duchamp that Philippe Duboy describes at length in Lequeu. In the end, I didn’t use any material from Duboy’s book, but it set me in the right direction, and I eventually found myself standing outside the door of Étant Donnés. City of Exiles was born in a similar way: I knew that the sequel had to focus on a mystery from the history of Russia, and after another period of wide reading, I settled on the strange case of the Dyatlov Pass. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I first heard about this story—which even has its own movie now—I said: “That’s it.” But it took a lot of exploration to get to that point.

Shambhala by Nicholas Roerich

By contrast, the central theme of Eternal Empire all but fell into my lap, and I have this blog to thank for it. In June of 2011, I wrote a post called “Agnosticism and the Working Writer,” in which I approvingly quoted a piece by the blogger Jessa Crispin, who pointed out that for a poet like W.B. Yeats, mystical beliefs can be enormously useful. Elsewhere in the same essay, to illustrate the potential abuses of magical thinking, Crispin quoted a passage from a recent work of journalism that caught my attention at once:

It’s rumored that Putin has, as journalist Rachel Polonsky relays, “assigned money from the national budget to be spent on another search for the doorway to Shambhala in the Altai region of Siberia, a cosmic energy centre where he likes to pose for photographers, seated half-naked on a horse, like some latter-day Mongol khan.”

And all I could really say was: “Thank you.” I immediately sought out Polonsky’s book, Molotov’s Magic Lantern, and I ultimately used another passage—about Putin’s desire to retrieve a piece of the polar seabed from the Arktika expedition, allegedly because the entrance to the underground kingdom of Shambhala is rumored to exist at the pole—as the epigraph to Eternal Empire.

Regular readers of this blog will understand why I found Shambhala and its modern incarnations so appealing. It’s a story that has meant a lot of things to a lot of people: it began as an allegorical kingdom in Buddhism, a kind of metaphorical empire of enlightened souls, and inspired James Hilton’s fantastical vision of Shangri-La. Later, others began to suspect that Shambhala might actually exist, perhaps as a hidden kingdom in Tibet or elsewhere in Central Asia, which inspired a number of strange expeditions on the part of the Soviet Union and the Nazis, as chronicled by Andrei Znamenski in his fascinating book Red Shambhala. As such, it provided me with a playing field to explore the topics that I find interesting as a novelist: interpretation, the evolution of myth into fact, and the way we impose meaning on the world. It was general enough of a subject to give me latitude as a writer to make it mean whatever I wanted, but also specific enough yield a mine of compelling historical detail. In short, it was perfect. And I was very lucky to stumble across it—but only because I was looking for it, or that elusive X, in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

August 26, 2013 at 8:36 am

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