Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Handelman

“Karvonen set his hands on the container…”

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"The highway toward Namur..."

Note: This post is the twenty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 28. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When you’re doing research for a novel, you’re really searching for two separate but related things, which can be conveniently described as the how and the what. The how—the aspect of research that focuses on factual details and bits of description—is the part that gives the entire process its bad reputation. When you’ve roughed out a story and are starting to fill in the outlines with experience, observation, and reading, it’s tempting to put in everything you know, to the point where the narrative is overloaded with background information that you’ve gathered and can’t bear to cut. That material has its place as a kind of seasoning, and I enjoy it as much as every other writer, but I’ve learned to cut it down to a minimum, and it’s usually only after several drafts that I figure out how much color and reportage to include without overwhelming the plot. Fortunately, after a few revisions, you start to forget where fact leaves off and invention begins, allowing you to regard it all with the same eye. Once you’ve lived with a novel for a while, it no longer matters whether a detail was spun out of whole cloth or painstakingly unearthed: if it fits, it stays, and if it doesn’t, it goes.

The other half of research, the what, is a lot more fun. I’ve found that the best time to begin research is when the general subject matter of a story is clear but the particulars are still unresolved. That way, when you find an especially lovely piece of material, you can adjust the plot to accommodate it. This may seem like a backward kind of approach—in theory, the story should unfold organically from an initial situation—but in practice, you’ll often find yourself making room for pieces that you want to include just because they’re beautiful for their own sake. When I read Ian McEwan, for instance, I’m often conscious of him bending the story slightly to make room for things he simply wants to talk about, like the digression on the Monty Hall problem that takes up several pages of Sweet Tooth or many of the more vivid moments in the Dunkirk evacuation or military hospital sequences in Atonement. Writing, as I’ve said before, is a kind of bricolage, with the author scrounging through whatever is at hand and arriving at a structure that covers as much of it as possible, and if you take that away, you’re robbing yourself of one of the profoundest pleasures that writing can afford.

"Karvonen set his hands on the container..."

Occasionally, you’ll come across a building block of material so promising that it ends up shaping entire chapters or sequences that never would have occurred to you otherwise. The prologue of The Icon Thief, for example, arises from a vivid anecdote in Stephen Handelman’s Comrade Criminal about an art smuggler being detained by bandits on the road to Hungary: as soon as I read it, I knew that it would make for a great opening for a novel, even if I wasn’t sure how it would fit in with the rest. Similarly, when I stumbled on the account in Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin’s The Sword and the Shield of the weapons caches that the KGB hid throughout Europe for use by undercover agents in case of a violent uprising, I knew I wanted to build a scene around it in City of Exiles. When you’re doing research, you count yourself lucky if you make even one discovery like this in five hundred pages of reading, and this tidbit—which includes a verbatim memo with step-by-step instructions on how to locate the cache and disarm the explosive it contains—seemed too good to pass up. And since Karvonen was already going through Belgium, which is one of the countries in which such caches were kept, it was easy to send him on this errand.

The result is a conscious pastiche of that gorgeous sequence in The Day of the Jackal when the titular assassin tests out his rifle in the forest of the Ardennes, the very same forest, in fact, in which Karvonen finds himself here. (Both men take take the highway from Brussels to Namur, and I’d like to think that the spot where Karvonen digs up the cache is only a stone’s throw away from where the Jackal held his target practice.) While I can’t say what I’ve written here is nearly as good as Forsyth’s scene, which I seem to reread every six months or so, I’d like to think that it captures some of the same spirit. It’s definitely a hardware chapter, complete with inventories of tools and detailed technical background, and it doesn’t serve any larger purpose in the story except in providing Karvonen with a shotgun and pistol that will pay off later on—weapons that I could have given to him in any number of ways. In its own modest fashion, through, it fills in the world and the background of the story, provides a touch of authenticity, and gives Karvonen something interesting to do on his way to his final destination. Best of all, it provides me with a literal example of Chekhov’s gun. And we all know that it’s going to go off sooner or later…

“Andrey was nearly at the border when he ran into the thieves…”

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(Note: This post is the first installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering the novel’s prologue. You can read the prologue and the first few chapters here.)

The opening of any novel is a sort of triangulation, or compromise, between several sometimes contradictory factors. You want to begin with an arresting scene that will engage the reader’s attention, hopefully from the very first page. You need to set up themes and images that will pay off later in the book. You’re trying to will yourself, the author, into the story for the first time, which often requires writing a lot of introductory material that will later be discarded. And you’re doing all this at a point in the process when the rest of the book is just a vague shape in the distance—although you’ll usually go back to revise what you’ve written once you’ve got a better sense of where you’re headed. In my own case, whenever I start a novel, I’m always thinking about my own favorite openings in fiction, such as that of The Postman Always Rings Twice, which Tom Wolfe famously extolled as a model of narrative momentum. Not every novel needs to come out of the corner so quickly, but in general, especially when you’re working in suspense, there’s something to be said for getting right down to business.

Here’s how the prologue to The Icon Thief came about. When I first realized that my book was going to center on the world of Russian organized crime, I began by reading everything I could on the subject. One of the most useful books I found was Comrade Criminal by Stephen Handelman, a well-documented look at the rise of the Russian mafiya in the early nineties. In particular, Handelman devotes several pages to the trade in smuggled art and icons, including a brief account of an encounter between a solitary art smuggler and a pair of bandits on a deserted road—a rather common occurrence in that line of work. As I read the description, something clicked, and I made a note of it, thinking that a similar incident might make a good opening scene for my own novel. At the time, I didn’t know who my smuggler was, or what he was smuggling, but something about that lonely image stuck in my mind. And a surprising amount of the subsequent plot—including the fact that much of the story revolves around a smuggled work of art—arose from my attempt to figure out how we arrived at that one moment.

In my experience, that’s how writing a novel works: you’re start with a single image or idea, which leads to others, until a huge plant has grown from that one mustard seed. Once I had the figure of the smuggler, for instance, I had to figure out who he was and where he was going, and I spent an ungodly amount of time coming up with a plausible background for the man I ended up calling Andrey. In the original draft of the prologue, I go into great detail about his past—he’s married with one child and hopes to start a coffee shop in Moscow—nearly all of which ended up being cut in the final version. In fact, the first draft contains something like a thousand words of material, much of it painstakingly researched, that was cut for reasons of space or clarity. (For example, the “border” mentioned in the book’s opening sentence is the border between Russia and Ukraine, just outside Shebekino, although I don’t name any of these places in the final draft.) These excisions were necessary, and I don’t miss any of the extra material. But it made Andrey more real to me, which was crucial, since he’s the first person in the novel we meet, even if his real function is to introduce us to a much more important character who appears in the prologue’s final pages.

When I look back at the prologue now, I’m especially pleased by the details that are essentially inside jokes: the fact that Andrey ends up in a hotel on Rákóczi Road in Budapest, for instance, is a nod to Foucault’s Pendulum, in which a mysterious figure with a similar name plays a small but crucial role. I also like the fact that Andrey is playing a Deep Purple mix tape while he’s driving. This, too, was a fairly random decision—I somehow came up with the idea that the bandits, while accepting other forms of tribute, would take his mix tape as well—but it led to some unexpected discoveries. The music playing here had to be something that a Russian might plausibly have in his tape deck, while also, ideally, having some larger thematic resonance, and I arrived at Deep Purple, or Dip Pepl, because I knew they were big in Russia. (Medvedev, apparently, is a devoted fan.) But the song itself provides a clue of what is to come. “Smoke on the Water” is about a fire on the shore of Lake Geneva, the occasional home of both Lenin and Nabokov, who will later cast their shadows across the story. It also, interestingly, appears in the background of a certain work of art to which the reader will soon be introduced. And then we’re off to the races.

Written by nevalalee

April 30, 2012 at 10:41 am

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