Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Death of Marat

“He found himself studying her face…”

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"The murdered man lay dead in his bath..."

Note: This post is the sixty-first and final installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering the epilogue. You can read the earlier installments here. Major spoilers follow for the ending of the novel.)

You can tell a lot about a writer by the way he or she approaches endings. Some novelists, like Stephen King, prefer to dive into a story without knowing how it ends, which allows the action to unfold more organically—and also leaves you with the possibility, which we often see in King, of a rousing, suspenseful story that peters out in a vast anticlimax. Others prefer to have a specific ending in sight, or even to work backward from a conclusion, as John Irving says to The Paris Review: “I love plot, and how can you plot a novel if you don’t know the ending first? How do you know how to introduce a character if you don’t know how he ends up?” My own approach, as in most things, involves trying to have it both ways. I generally start with a decent sense of where the story is going, but I postpone any detailed outlining until I’m ready to begin the last fifty pages or so. With The Icon Thief, I figured out the ending pretty quickly, and it remained virtually unchanged throughout more than a year of rewrites. And then, less than a month before we were scheduled to go out to publishers, I changed it.

The original ending tracks the existing epilogue fairly closely until the final page, although there are a number of important differences. My first version was told from the point of view of Vasylenko, a character we haven’t seen except in passing, as he meets with Lermontov—now on the run—to discuss the latter’s move from London to Moscow. The two men visit the British Museum, where David’s Death of Marat is conveniently on loan from Brussels, then head to Vasylenko’s home in Fulham. Ilya is waiting for them there. And although we suspect that he’s there to kill them both, he’s really working to extract a confession with Powell, who is listening on a wire as he waits outside to make the arrests. Ilya leaves the two men to the police, throws his gun into the Thames, and walks away, apparently liberated at last. (Incidentally, I opened the scene with The Death of Marat mostly because I wanted to discuss an ingenious theory about the painting that I first encountered in Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? by James Elkins, although it may also have been an unconscious homage to The Eight by Katherine Neville, who, three years later, would go on to provide the cover blurb for Eternal Empire.)

"He found himself studying her face..."

As endings go, I thought it was pretty good, even if the final beat owed a lot to the last scene of Michael Clayton—a movie I’ve raided for inspiration more than once. Later, though, after the rest of the novel had been revised, I found that the ending no longer worked. The greatest single change to the plot, as I’ve mentioned before, was to have Ethan die at Lermontov’s hands. Once that change had been made, the dynamic of the ending, a hundred pages later, was all wrong. Lermontov had to face the consequences for killing such an important character, and the one who most deserved to take revenge was Maddy. I don’t think I realized this right away; it was more an intuitive sense that the balance of the conclusion was flawed. Once I figured this out, the logic of the scene was fairly straightforward, and I wrote it in less than a day. The revised version is told from Lermontov’s point of view, an important fix, and now it’s Maddy who is working with Ilya to tie off the loose ends. Justifying her involvement required a bit of thought, and I’m still proud of my solution, in which Maddy is able to track Lermontov down based on his purchase of an unusual picture frame from the House of Heydenryk, the owner of which later contacted me to thank me for mentioning his company in such a positive light.

Strangely enough, this radically altered ending, which changes the dynamic of Maddy’s entire journey as a character, didn’t require a great deal of revision for the rest of the novel, although obviously scenes that read one way in the original version acquire a different meaning now. But that small decision ended up affecting the books that followed in fundamental respects. When I wrote The Icon Thief, I wasn’t thinking in terms of a series, and I was content to leave Maddy where we last see her—compromised to some extent by her revenge, yes, but also free to make a life for herself in a way that Ilya is not. Even after I knew that I’d be writing at least one more book with some of the same characters, I wanted to keep Maddy out of it, and she doesn’t appear at all in City of Exiles. (If nothing else, I felt that she deserved a break.) Much later, though, I began to see that her story wasn’t finished, and I found myself curious to see where she ended up after Ilya left her alone on that street in Fulham. The result was Eternal Empire, which in some ways was an attempt to work out some of the implications of Maddy’s last, fateful decision. And the answers I found weren’t always what I expected…

This is the last installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, which I began over a year ago. Tomorrow, I’ll be looking back over the experience and reflecting a bit about what I’ve learned along the way.

Written by nevalalee

August 15, 2013 at 9:02 am

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