Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Eight

“Maddy looked at the Peter the Great egg…”

leave a comment »

"Maddy looked at the Peter the Great egg..."

Note: This post is the eleventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 12. You can read the previous installments here.

“Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy,” James M. Cain once said to The Paris Review. “There are problems to be solved. It’s not all inspirational.” That’s true. Yet solving those problems—small or large, trivial or crucial, easy or impossible—can be a source of enormous pleasure in itself. If I was initially drawn to writing as an excuse to explore the world around me, I’ve kept at it largely because of the puzzles it tosses up along the way, which make for some of the most absorbing work imaginable. It reminds me of what Janet Malcolm says about psychoanalysis, a discipline that has a lot in common with the art of fiction. On the one hand, you have a road that leads ever further outward across the entire culture, influencing fields as different as history, criticism, law, and education; on the other, you have the road that leads inward into therapy itself, within the mysterious confines of the consulting room, “a hidden, almost secret byway traveled by few.” Malcolm notes that Freud traveled both paths. And writers find themselves doing much the same, wandering far into the wild world while also posing and solving their tiny problems like obsessives in an attic.

And writing, like analysis, is most interesting when those two halves of the process collide. A writer’s reading or direct experience might suggest an idea for a scene, but he’s also forced to reconcile it with the demands of the plot and his own structural assumptions. Anyone who enjoys puzzles can tell you that they’re more challenging in direct proportion to the number of constraints they impose. Reality, of course, yields the most productive restrictions of all. And the more carefully a particular narrative thread has to weave its way through constraints provided by the real world, the more inevitable it seems. It feels less like a solution to a problem, and more like the solution, as if the story had no choice but to move in a particular direction. In Eternal Empire, for instance, there’s a detailed subplot involving a Fabergé egg. It’s the kind of thing that feels like it would have been part of the novel’s conception from the beginning: if I were talking to another author who was writing a trilogy about Russian oligarchs and art, I’d tell him to work Fabergé in there somewhere. But it really fell somewhere in the middle of a long chain of reasoning.

"None of this is under dispute..."

As far as I can recall, my thought process went something like this: “Well, let’s see. I want Maddy, my main character, to go to work for a Russian oligarch—that’s an essential part of the plot. I’ve already established that her background is in the art world, so it makes sense that she’d be working for him in that capacity. He’s a nationalist and deeply involved in politics, so maybe he’s trying to repatriate cultural artifacts back to Russia. Okay, that works. So I need to build the subplot around a particular art object. I’ve already done icons in the previous novel, so what else is there? A Fabergé egg? That feels right. It’s certainly fits into the larger themes of the series. So I should see if there’s one that I can use. [Gets a book from the library on Fabergé eggs, spends hours looking at pictures online.] All right. Here’s the Peter the Great egg. Inside, there’s a tiny figurine of a rider on horseback. And I’ve already used that image elsewhere in the novel. That isn’t so surprising, since it’s a common symbol in Russian iconography. So it sounds promising. Let’s see, then. It says that the Peter the Great egg is currently on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. So I need Maddy to work on repatriating it. But how?”

And that’s how Chapter 12 of the novel ended up taking place in Virginia. Maddy meets with the director of the museum and lays out a complicated case for repatriation, based on the egg’s provenance, the museum’s financial troubles, and the rules governing the sale of artwork to cover operating expenses. The information here is all accurate, at least as far as I could make it, and working through the tangle of available facts felt a lot, as Cain says, like working on foreign policy. (Katherine Neville, author of The Eight, who was kind enough to blurb the book, happened to be familiar with the museum and its board of directors, and she seemed to think that my description here was believable.) More to the point, it all serves a purpose within the narrative. For Maddy to prove her usefulness to Tarkovsky, she has to come up with something ingenious, so I had no choice but to do the same. If it hadn’t worked—if there hadn’t been a suitable egg, say, or if the case for repatriation went nowhere—I probably would have come up with something else. Looking back, though, it seems like it was all meant to be, partially because you remember the ideas that work and forget the ones that don’t. But in this case, lucky for me, it turned out to be a good egg…

Written by nevalalee

March 12, 2015 at 9:42 am

“He found himself studying her face…”

leave a comment »

"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

Entering the Eternal Empire

leave a comment »

Eternal Empire

A few months ago, my editor asked if I had any thoughts on the cover art for Eternal Empire, the third and final novel in the series begun by The Icon Thief. I responded, as always, with a detailed memo on possible images and symbols, complete with attached reference photos for convenience. (For The Icon Thief, I even briefly weighed the possibility of putting together a mockup in Photoshop, before rightly discarding the idea as obnoxious even by the standards of overprotective authors.) Several weeks later, I was sent the proposed cover, and when I opened the file, I saw that the design team had essentially ignored all my suggestions—and I couldn’t have been happier. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the publishing process, it’s that the players at every stage are much more qualified to do their own jobs than I would ever be, and it’s best to leave them alone. The result is probably the handsomest cover for any novel in the series, although I’d put City of Exiles at a close second, and I’m pleased to finally have the chance to unveil it here and on its official page.

This isn’t quite the final version, however. When the time came for us to go out to other authors for blurbs, one of the first writers who came to mind was Katherine Neville, the author of the classic bestseller The Eight. I owe Neville a great deal: I first read The Eight many years ago, and in terms of pure entertainment, I think it’s probably still the best of all historical conspiracy thrillers, assuming that we put Foucault’s Pendulum in a peculiar category of its own. It’s one of those books that influenced me in ways that I’ve only belatedly begun to realize: the appearance of David’s Death of Marat in the epilogue of The Icon Thief, for instance, was prompted by a discussion of the painting in James Elkins’s Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?, but it was also subconsciously inspired by the role of Marat and Charlotte Corday in Neville’s novel, and my decision to set a crucial section of City of Exiles at a chess tournament in London was an undeniable homage to the single most memorable sequence in The Eight.

The Eight by Katherine Neville

For this reason, among others, Neville had long been on my dream list of potential blurbers, and we’d actually gone out to her for City of Exiles, although a miscommunication prevented her from reading the novel in time. She expressed an interest in seeing the next book in the series, however, so as soon as Eternal Empire was ready, we sent her a copy in manuscript form—and to my delight, she responded with an incredibly generous blurb that you can read on the novel’s Amazon page, and which will appear on the final version of the cover. As I’ve noted here before, going out for blurbs is a funny business, and the result depends as much on luck as on the book’s quality. But on a personal level, I find it fundamentally satisfying that Neville’s name will appear on the last book in the series. If it hadn’t been for The Eight, it’s possible that these books wouldn’t exist at all, at least not in their current form, and it makes me feel as if a circle—or an infinite loop—has closed.

And it also feels like the end of a journey. Eternal Empire won’t be released for another four months, and there’s still plenty of work to be done in the meantime—I just finished going over the copy edit, which was staggeringly thorough, with page proofs and advance copies still to come. At this point, however, the text is pretty much locked, and it marks the conclusion of a process that began more than five years ago, when I started doing research for The Icon Thief. The resulting novels have their strengths and weaknesses, and there are probably things I’d do differently if I had the chance to write them over again. Still, as they stand, these books are inseparable from my own story as a writer, as I’ve continued to figure out, sometimes in public, the best way of turning the ideas and influences I love into something individual and personal. At the moment, the next step remains excitingly unclear, although I hope to have an update here soon. And I’m grateful for the chance to have come this far.

Written by nevalalee

April 30, 2013 at 9:07 am

%d bloggers like this: