Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Siberian Education

“That’s all I was asked to give…”

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"Bogdan spoke first..."

Note: This post is the thirty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 38. You can read the previous installments here.

Ever since I got it for Christmas, I’ve been slowly working my way through the special features for the Blu-ray of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, which, among its other pleasures, offers us the chance to listen once more to the voice of Christopher McQuarrie, one of the smartest men in movies. As with such legendary screenwriters as David Mamet or Robert Towne, nearly everything McQuarrie has to say is of interest, and his commentary track and interviews are loaded with insights into the challenges of making a huge franchise movie by the seat of your pants. (My favorite tip is that if you’re filming a scene with a lot of exposition, keep the characters in tight closeup, against a backdrop that can be easily recreated in the studio, just in case you need to reshoot the whole thing to accommodate a change in the plot.) And he tells an amusing anecdote about how the movie solved a tricky narrative problem. The film’s obvious high point is the lengthy sequence at the Vienna Opera House, culminating in the assassination of the Chancellor of Austria, but for a long time, they didn’t know how the killing tied in with the rest of the script. McQuarrie and his producer Tom Cruise brainstormed various possibilities, but they were all impossibly convoluted, and they only slowed down the story at a crucial hinge point. Finally, on the day of the shoot, Cruise came up with a single line: “Killing the Chancellor tonight was a statement—the start of a new phase.” And that, incredibly, was all they needed.

I love this kind of thing, in part because it echoes how Alfred Hitchcock solved a similar dilemma in North by Northwest—a movie that Cruise consciously evokes in Rogue Nation‘s opening scene. In his famous interview with François Truffaut, which was recently the subject of its own documentary, Hitchcock says:

My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, “What does he do?”
The counterintelligence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and an exporter.”
“But what does he sell?”
“Oh, just government secrets!” is the answer.
Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!

And the suspense genre, in particular, often boils down to an exercise in seeing how little information you need to get from one point in the story to another.

"That's all I was asked to give..."

This can also apply to what was once a series of scenes: to accelerate the narrative, you cut the sequence down to the one moment that gets the point across. Pauline Kael hints at something like this in her initial, mostly unfavorable review of Raging Bull:

[Scorsese] makes this movie out of remembered high points, leaping from one to another. When Jake is courting the fifteen-year-old platinum-blond Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), he takes her to a miniature-golf course, and their little golf ball rolls into a little wooden church and never comes out. The scene is like one of a series in an old-movie montage showing the path to marriage. But Scorsese just puts in this one step; probably for him it stands for the series.

Kael may be right, but I think it’s more likely that additional material was written, shot, or improvised, and Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker kept cutting it until they ended up with the one scene that they needed. Raging Bull, like Goodfellas and Casino, is full of this kind of compression because it covers a large expanse of time, but the same is equally true of stories that cover a lot of space. You try to skip as many transitional moments as possible, and sometimes you end up nudging the balance a bit too far in the wrong direction. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne magically reappears in the besieged Gotham City after escaping from a foreign prison, and the film doesn’t provide any information whatsoever about how he did it. It’s easy to say “Well, he’s Batman,” but the lack of even the slightest nod toward the problem momentarily takes us out of the movie—a rare but not totally uncharacteristic lapse in an otherwise superbly organized film.

Chapter 38 of Eternal Empire provides a nice example of a single moment that takes the place of what could have been an entire sequence. Earlier in the novel, I establish that Vasylenko has been sprung from prison solely because he can provide safe passage, using his connections with the criminal underworld, on Ilya’s journey across Europe. To justify this, I needed to provide at least one instance in which those contacts were employed, and it ended up taking the form of this scene, in which Ilya and Bogdan visit the home of a “bride of the brotherhood” in Yalta. It’s a cute little chapter, in which Ilya obtains some necessary equipment, learns about the next phase of his mission, and even has a brief moment of emotional connection with the woman who has given him refuge. (It’s a small touch, but it will pay off much later, in the very last scene of the entire trilogy.) What’s funny, though, is that this could have been part of a much longer story arc. In his previous appearance, Ilya was in Moldova, or nearly five hundred miles to the west, and I don’t talk at all about how he got from one place to another, although he certainly could have had a few adventures along the way. At this point in the novel, though, it’s more important to keep the story clocking along, so his encounter with Katya—whose background, I’m fairly sure, was lifted from a few paragraphs in Nicolai Lilin’s Siberian Education—has to stand in for the rest. I think that it works, and even if the reader momentarily wonders how Ilya got here, it doesn’t really matter. His next meeting, as we’re about to see, will be far more interesting…

“He knows what needs to be done…”

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"The front door had been removed from its hinges..."

Note: This post is the thirty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 35. You can read the previous installments here.

A few days ago, I was browsing the shelves of my neighborhood thrift store when my eye was caught by a book called Alaska Bush Pilots in the Float Country. Its dust jacket reads: “The men who brought airplanes to Alaska’s Panhandle were a different breed: a little braver than the average pilot and blessed with the particular skills and set of nerves it requires to fly float planes, those Lockheed Vegas made of plywood that were held together by termites holding hands, as well as the sturdy Fairchild 71s and Bellanca Pacemakers.” And while this isn’t a title that might appeal to your average reader, I came very close to buying it—and I have a feeling that I will soon. Why? Like most writers, I’m constantly on the lookout for promising veins of material, and my inner spidey sense began to tingle as soon as I saw that cover. If I had to describe the kind of short stories I like to write, I’d call them plot-driven works of science fiction, usually staged against a colorful backdrop, and often with elements of horror. The Alaskan Panhandle in the early twenties seems like as good a setting as any for this kind of narrative, and that little book on bush pilots was visibly packed with more information than I would ever need to construct a novelette. Writers of a certain stripe come to treasure works of nonfiction that provide a narrow but deep slice of knowledge about a previously unexplored area, and finding that book automatically set me thinking about bush pilots in Alaska, even though the subject had never occurred to me before.

When you’re a writer, you often find yourself shaping the elements of a story, or even entire premises, based on the material that happens to be available. Constructing a plot of any kind is hard enough without having to squeeze useful color out of a bare handful of facts, and the richer and more abundant your source material, the better your chances of emerging with something good. Elsewhere, I’ve called this the availability factor, with a nod to a similar principle that W.I.B. Beveridge discusses in The Art of Scientific Investigation: “The great American bacteriologist Theobald Smith said that he always took up the problem that lay before him, chiefly because of the easy access of material, without which research is crippled.” The italics here are mine. Finding a promising source can mean the difference between a story that seems to write itself and one that never gets off the ground. As I’ve stated before, I often leaf through tattered science magazines in search of articles that might lead to an interesting combination of ideas. (And it isn’t enough to have just one. A good story almost always comes from the intersection of two or more.) But during the initial browsing stage, I’m not just looking for topics that pique my interest: I’m looking for articles of a certain length and density of detail. Within a few seconds, I can usually tell if the article will have enough of the raw goods to be worth revisiting, and I fold down that page before moving on.

"He knows what needs to be done..."

Of course, in most cases, you don’t end up using all of the material that a source provides: more often, you’re lucky to get a couple of tidbits that can be turned into the germ of a scene or plot point. Yet that doesn’t undermine the validity of this approach; if anything, it confirms it. I never tire of quoting the words of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky: “Poetry is like mining for radium. The output an ounce, the labor a year.” And good ore is more likely to yield those few useful fragments. Let’s say that one percent of what a writer reads while doing research ends up being used in the finished work—a fraction that is probably on the high side. You’re better off, then, if you learn to concentrate your reading on sources fruitful enough for that proportion to pay off in a meaningful way, and, even more usefully, to nudge the story in one direction or another based on the presence of existing material. If writing a story is like an excursion into unknown territory, there’s no harm in bending the path a little in order to pass through caches that previous explorers have left behind. And as with Alaskan Bush Pilots in the Float Country, the discovery of one especially dense, unexploited mine of ideas can be enough to encourage you to spend more time in one area, and maybe to even set up camp there for good. (Like a bush pilot, a consistently productive writer needs particular skills and a set of nerves, especially when the plot is held together by termites holding hands.)

In the case of Eternal Empire, I don’t think I would have taken the story into one important direction—Ilya’s excursion into Moldova—if I hadn’t stumbled across the book Siberian Education by Nicolai Lilin. As a work of nonfiction, Lilin’s memoir has been questioned, and even while reading it for the first time, I found it hard to shake the nagging sense that it was too tidy to be real. (It was a little like the “exercise in counterintelligence” that Norman Mailer describes in the afterword to Harlot’s Ghost, as the researcher learns “to penetrate the obfuscations, cover-ups, evasions, and misapprehensions” of a dubious work.) But much of the detail, when separated from its autobiographical substrate, was convincing, and there was so much worth preserving that I deliberately bent Ilya’s path across Europe to take advantage of it. A few of the details, notably the idea of the symbolic objects that thieves use to send coded messages, ended up being important to the plot. But there was so much else that I liked that I essentially invented Chapter 35 as a kind of clearinghouse to hold it all. The pigeons on the old man’s rooftop; the door taken off its hinges, indicating that all are free to enter the house; the slightly stooped posture of a former convict used to knocking his head on the bunk above; the elaborate way the thieves make tea; how they pass a shared cigarette back and forth; all of this is taken from Lilin, and it added a lot of flavor to what was otherwise a purely functional scene. As a writer, you learn not to spurn such gifts. And taking any novel to completion is an education in itself…

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