Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Icon Thief commentary

Thoughts on an author’s commentary

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My author's copies

I don’t know how many authors really enjoy reading their own books. In my case, whenever I start a project, I tend to operate under the illusion that it’s a novel I’m going to enjoy reading for my own pleasure. I write stories that I’d like to see, and ones that I don’t think other authors are writing—not necessarily because they’re so original, but because they’ve been tuned to reflect a certain balance of plot, action, and concept that I happen to like. By the time I’m done, though, I’ve spent so long in the story that I can barely see the words on the page, and going back to read it again has about as much appeal as eating the same dinner for three days in a row. Still, there are times when I’ve reread my work and been sucked in despite myself. Short stories like “Kawataro” or “The Boneless One” tend to hold up better, since they were often the product of a few weeks of work, rather than months or years. I can flip through one of my stories and get lost again in the plot, while a novel is usually inseparable from the memory of the year or so it occupied in my life.

As a result, it was a little strange to sit down to confront a book that used to be a part of me, only to be set aside and revisited long after the fact. Of course, when I started my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, I didn’t know what the experience would be like. At first, I saw it primarily as a way for me to get some things off my chest: the book is loaded with references, hints, and little jokes, and I wanted to document those elements so they wouldn’t be lost forever. I also wanted to talk about the decisions I made along the way, showing how logical—or otherwise—my choices had been and how many other directions a story can take. Once a novel is published, it starts to seem inevitable, but really, a text covers up countless alternatives, like the layers of the paintings in The Mystery of Picasso, and I wanted to strip away the surface to uncover some of those discarded variants. Finally, I hoped that the book would provide convenient illustrations and examples for some of the topics I wanted to cover here: plot, structure, handling action and exposition, creating suspense.

"Andrey was nearly at the border when..."

In the end, it didn’t turn out quite as I intended. I could have simply listed off the references and my own cute stories about how each chapter was written, but I quickly figured out that this wasn’t particularly interesting, especially because many of the visitors to this blog haven’t read the book. It also felt a little self-indulgent, and not in a good way. There’s a reason, I discovered, why most authors leave commentary and interpretation to the critics, even if they get most of it wrong: a novel is a living thing, capable of multiple interpretations, and it can be a mistake for the author to explain what he was thinking in too much detail. Early on, then, I made a conscious effort to frame each post in terms of a larger writing topic, using the chapter as necessary to illuminate the points I was making. Sometimes the chapter itself wouldn’t be mentioned until the last paragraph, if at all, and I rarely did close analysis of the text. (This is partially because I knew I’d only end up wishing that I’d written it differently, and also because I didn’t want to kill the novel for myself any more than I already have.)

The result ended up being more of a monster than I expected. A director’s audio track can be tossed off in a couple of hours, but this commentary took close to sixteen months and something like 30,000 words, or a third of the novel itself. But the most valuable thing about it, at least for me, lay in how it clarified my feelings toward the novel itself. The Icon Thief was my first published book, and like all debut novels, there are things about it that its author would like to change: I’d give more background on the art historical material, for instance, and I’d try to hold the reader’s hand a little more over the first hundred pages. But I’m surprised at how much I still like it. In some ways, it’s an odd, unwieldy novel, and it never fit comfortably into any one category: the cover makes it look like a Da Vinci Code knockoff, but its heart lies with the dry, slightly frigid skepticism of Marcel Duchamp, even as it tries to incorporate big action set pieces and the elements of a crime procedural and international thriller. In the end, though, I think it all sort of works. And that’s really the most any author can ask of his own novel.

Written by nevalalee

August 16, 2013 at 8:35 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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“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

“It’s always the other ones who die…”

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"It was a chess pawn..."

Note: This post is the sixtieth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 59. You can read the earlier installments here. Major spoilers follow for the ending of the novel.)

For some reason, my novels tend to end in hospital rooms. Both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles conclude with one character paying a visit to another in recovery, during which most of the unanswered questions in the story are addressed. To some extent, this is an artifact of the way these novels are constructed: the penultimate chapters tend to be heavy on action, with the players sustaining a certain amount of damage, and there isn’t a lot of time in the heat of events to resolve any of the plot’s remaining mysteries. And although it’s best for a novel to end as soon after the climax as possible, there’s also room for a bit of falling action and consolidation. Practically speaking, of course, these scenes should be as short as possible, a rule that I’ve followed fairly well in two out of three novels—I think the hospital visit in City of Exiles runs a little long. (If I’m being honest, I should also confess that I’ve been influenced by the final chapter in Red Dragon, which uses an important character’s recuperation in the hospital to tie off a number of crucial plot points.)

The last chapter of The Icon Thief, not counting the epilogue, has to walk a particularly fine line. Powell’s final speech to Maddy, who is recovering in the hospital after the events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, essentially tears down the entire novel: the Rosicrucians don’t exist, Maddy and Ethan were suffering from a chemically induced paranoia, and she broke into the installation for no rational reason. I know that this revelation troubled some readers, along with at least one editor, who expressed an interest in acquiring the novel if I could rewrite the ending so that the Rosicrucians were real—which would have meant turning it into another story entirely. Still, in order for this to seem like anything but an enormous cheat, I had to put something inside Étant Donnés for Maddy to find, but it had to play by the rules. It had to be plausible, consistent with what I knew about Duchamp, expressive of the novel’s themes, and evocative enough to compensate the reader for the extended trick the novel had played. And for most of the writing process, I had no idea what this object would be.

"It's always the other ones who die..."

My memory of when the answer hit me is oddly specific. I was standing in the appraisal line at the Strand in New York, waiting to resell a few used books, when it occurred to me that Maddy could find a pawn from the chess set that Duchamp had carved for himself in Buenos Aires. The pawn—which can be seen here—seemed like an ideal object for a number of reasons. It was small and easily concealable, so it could have remained unnoticed in Étant Donnés for decades and also lie clutched in Maddy’s hand, unseen, after her departure from the museum. It was symbolically resonant, yet nonspecific, so it could sustain any number of readings. And it tied in with many of the novel’s themes and touchstones: chess, of course, but also Through the Looking-Glass, with its sense of entering a strange world, a mirror image of our own, in which a pawn that makes it to the end of the board can become a queen. (Incidentally, the pawn may not have been Duchamp’s own handiwork: he seems to have carved the chessmen himself, but left the pawns to be turned by a local woodcarver, a technicality that I didn’t think was worth mentioning.)

If this novel has one message, it’s that when all is said and done, it’s enough to survive. As I’ve said before, I’m drawn to conspiracy fiction because it seems to get at something close to the heart of how we experience the world. We’re always telling stories to ourselves about history and our own lives, and we have a tendency to find patterns that aren’t really there. If Maddy’s journey means anything, it’s because the Rosicrucians were secretly her way of dealing with her own failures and disappointments: it’s easier to accept life’s reverses if we sense that there’s a guiding hand, even a sinister one, controlling it behind the scenes. The pawn reminds us that there’s a dignity in simply making it across the board, even if the contest itself lacks any logic, like the moves in Carroll’s looking-glass game. And in the original draft, I had intended to leave Maddy here. Later, of course, the story took a turn that I hadn’t anticipated. Next week, I’ll be finishing up this commentary with a look at the epilogue, in which we discover that Maddy’s story is far from over…

“Before her stood the wooden door…”

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"Before her stood the wooden door..."

Note: This post is the fifty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 58. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One piece of advice I’ve learned to share with aspiring writers is that if you aren’t sure how to end a story, take the scene you like best—the one you’re absolutely dying to write—and restructure the plot so that it serves as your climax. This may take a bit of tinkering, since you’ll often be tempted to put the big scene as early as possible, if only because you know you’ll actually get to write it. Really, though, endings count for so much that you need to save the best for last. A reader’s opinion of a story will largely turn on how satisfied he or she is by how it concludes, and a novel that unfolds beautifully for three hundred pages won’t survive a failure of nerve in the last thirty. In the case of my own novels, I usually know what the ending will be, at least in general terms, soon after I get the initial idea. The process of writing a novel is so uncertain and unpredictable that it helps to have a destination in mind: when I’m stranded in second-act problems and trying to get out of a jam, it helps to know that I have an ending that will work if I can manage to bring it off.

Of course, it’s one thing to know in broad strokes what the climax will be, and quite another to put it into narrative form. For The Icon Thief, as I’ve noted before, I knew that the novel would end with Maddy breaking into the installation of Étant Donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but I didn’t know what she would find there; I only knew that there had to be something, or else the entire story would seem like one long cheat. I also didn’t know how that moment would tie in with the machinery of the larger plot. Twenty pages from the end, I still had a lot of material to tie off, and for the sake of narrative momentum, I knew that I’d have to stage what followed—Sharkovsky’s attempt on Maddy’s life, Ilya coming to the rescue, and Ilya’s final escape—as close to the installation itself as possible. Trying to cover all of this in a way that seemed surprising and logical within the considerable constraints that the location presented was a real headache, and it took me a long time to make it work.

"Ilya turned back to Sharkovsky..."

In the end, as usual, it was the location itself that provided the answers I needed, and it wasn’t until I spent a few hours at the museum, repeatedly walking over the same ground, that the pieces fell into place. And I’m still proud of much of what happens here. I like the little MacGyver trick, involving a fragment of a porcelain spark plug, that Maddy uses to get past the tempered glass in the installation. The moment when Sharkovsky—and the reader—thinks that he’s killed Maddy, only to realize that he shot the dummy inside by mistake, may stretch credulity a bit, but I enjoyed the effect so much that I kept it in. And Ilya’s final escape through the window in the Duchamp gallery, which I told you we’d see again, is a nice touch of badassery. (This moment, incidentally, involves one of the novel’s few intentional cheats: I don’t think it would actually be possible for Ilya to escape through this window, which is made of bulletproof glass, in the manner in which he does here. By the time I realized this, though, I’d already written the scene, and after some thought, I decided to let it stand, with a nod to the rule of cool.)

The result is the single longest chapter in the novel, as well as one of the few that switches between multiple perspectives, cycling from Sharkovsky to Maddy to Ilya. I hope it feels like a satisfying conclusion; it’s certainly one of the few chapters that I can read again for my own pleasure as if it had been written by someone else. But the passage that sticks with me the most is the final beat between Maddy and Ilya, in which she silently asks him to spare Sharkovsky’s life. It’s an important moment for both of them: it conveys the essential difference between these two characters, points a way forward for Ilya to leave behind his violent past, and lays the groundwork for the epilogue’s closing twist. And we’ll revisit this moment again. At the climax of Eternal Empire, the final novel in the trilogy, I harken back to it, but both Maddy and Ilya have charged a great deal in the meantime. And it’s not until then, at the very end of the series, that we understand what that exchange of glances really meant…

Written by nevalalee

August 2, 2013 at 9:03 am

“But something else was involved…”

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"But something else was involved..."

Note: This post is the fifty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 56. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When I first began working on The Icon Thief, I knew that I’d be walking a fine line. For reasons that I’ve discussed before, I’ve always been drawn to conspiracy fiction, but it’s generally been of the skeptical variety, like Foucault’s Pendulum or The Illuminatus Trilogy, which raises as many questions as it answers. In many cases, the conspiracy at the heart of the novel is revealed to be the product of the protagonist’s imagination or paranoia, and even seemingly unambiguous events can be read in any number of ways. This kind of thing can sometimes feel like a tease for the reader—or an attempt to have your cake and eat it, too—but I think it’s intuitively closer to how I suspect the world really works: the answers we seek aren’t always straightforward, our preconceptions shape what we choose to see, and the search for a overarching explanation can ultimately turn into a perverse form of idealism. So while I didn’t think I’d be capable of writing a straight conspiracy thriller in the Dan Brown manner, I wanted to retain as many of the pleasures of the genre as possible while breaking it down as gently as I could.

What I realized early on, as my notes from the period indicate, was that I essentially had to construct three different plots for the same novel. The first plot would be a conspiratorial fantasy that would allow me to indulge in my love of historical arcana: the Rosicrucians, the Bolsheviks, the Vehmgericht, Acéphale, the Black Dahlia murder, the intersection of art and the occult at Monte Verità, and more, all centered on the mysterious figure of Marcel Duchamp. Lying beneath it would be a more skeptical reading that would explain away the intricate web of conspiracy I’d constructed—accurately enough, I might add—as a product of coincidence, overinterpretation, and misguided ingenuity. Finally, and most crucially, would be the real conspiracy, one that would frame the events of the story in more realistic terms, but which would also be striking and compelling in its own right. (Attentive readers will notice that this is basically the structure that Umberto Eco employs in Foucault’s Pendulum, although he does it at much greater length and with several additional layers of deception and interpretation.)

"Powell pointed to a square of paper..."

In the end, this final level of reality ended up revolving around the looting and disappearance of fine art in Europe at the end of World War II, a story fascinating enough to drive an entire thriller in its own right. My primary sources here were the nonfiction works The Rape of Europa and The Lost Museum, the latter of which was where I first heard the story of the art collector Paul Rosenberg, whose collection may well have ended up in a secret warehouse run by Russian intelligence. Chapter 56 of The Icon Thief, in which the true outlines of the plot are laid out at last, is one of my favorite chapters in the entire novel, and one of the few that I can still read happily for my own pleasure. My only quibble with it is that, yes, Reynard does confess to his role awfully quickly, but as I’ve said elsewhere, sometimes you just need to get on with the plot. (If you’re really interested in trivia, I can reveal here that the history of my fictional Study for Étant Donnés, as well as the description of its provenance markings, is based on Courbet’s Nude Reclining by the Sea, which hangs in an adjacent wing to the Marcel Duchamp gallery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

Looking back, I’m happy with the triple plot I constructed, but I’m also aware that this approach may have cost me a few fans. Readers who weren’t interested in conspiracy fiction at all might have taken one look at the cover of the novel—which certainly looks a lot like a Dan Brown knockoff—and concluded that it wasn’t for them, while those who were looking for a straightforward conspiracy thriller might have felt cheated by the revelation that much of the book is a mislead. I tried my hardest to construct a story that struck a happy medium, although I’m aware that such a strategy always leaves readers hanging to either side. But I’m not sure I had much of a choice. The moment I decided to base my novel on Duchamp, the ultimate skeptic, I knew that I had to honor his refusal to be confined to any one interpretation, however colorful or intriguing it might be. I can’t say that I know how Duchamp himself would have reacted to the uses to which I put his work, but I’d like to think that he’d at least be amused. And I hope he’d be willing to forgive me for what I’m about to do to him next…

“A message here that she was supposed to see…”

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"Looking around the courtyard..."

Note: This post is the fifty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 55. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I’m proud of the novels and stories I’ve published, but if they all have one limitation, it’s that they aren’t comfortable with the idea of a story—or even a scene—in which nothing much happens. This isn’t to say that they’re packed exclusively with action: even Eternal Empire, which probably has more straightforward action scenes than the previous two novels combined, takes a little while to ramp up. But in most respects, there’s always something happening in these books. There are plot points to cover, information to convey to the reader, characters who need to get from point A to point B. The plots are invariably complicated, and most of them were cut down considerably from their original length, which means that each page carries more than its share of story. This is entirely intentional: I like dense, layered novels, and I enjoy seeing how far I can push complexity within the bounds of the genre I’ve chosen. But it’s still an approach that limits the kinds of stories I can tell or moods I can evoke. And although I’m well aware of this, I’m still some distance away from being comfortable with scaling it down.

In the entry on Yasujirō Ozu in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson diagnoses this tendency in a beautiful passage I’ve quoted here before:

[S]o many American films are pledged to the energy that “breaks out.” Our stories promote the hope of escape, of beginning again, of beneficial disruptions. One can see that energy—hopeful, and often damaging, but always romantic—in films as diverse as The Searchers, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Run of the Arrow, Rebel Without a Cause, Vertigo, Bonnie and Clyde, Greed, and The Fountainhead. No matter how such stories end, explosive energy is endorsed…Our films are spirals of wish fulfillment, pleas for envy, the hustle to get on with the pursuit of happiness.

Needless to say, that’s an impressive list of movies, and many of our best recent films—from the work of Christopher Nolan to Pixar—have been predicated on similar principles. Yet it’s often the stories that find time for silence and emptiness that linger the most in the reader’s imagination, and you’d have trouble finding a truly empty moment in any of my novels.

"There was a message here..."

Well, maybe there’s one. In Chapter 55 of The Icon Thief, after Maddy arrives in Philadelphia, she walks across the bridge and heads for the museum on foot. It’s probably the least eventful chapter in the entire novel: there’s a tiny bit of plot, as she stops into a hardware store to pick up the items she’ll need to break into Étant Donnés, but for the most part, we’re alone with Maddy and her thoughts. And I like the result a lot. It’s based closely on my own visit to the city, in which I followed a route much like the one Maddy walks here, taking notes as I went. (Although the hardware store is a fictional one, introduced after I arrived at the museum and realized how difficult breaking into the installation would actually be.) It’s one of my favorite memories from writing this novel, especially for the moment when I paused outside the museum, taking in its layout, and noticed the same curious detail that Maddy does. The museum is laid out symmetrically, with identical east and west wings, with only one anomalous element: a single glass pane, with no corresponding window on the other side, that looks into the gallery devoted to Marcel Duchamp.

It’s the last really calm scene in the entire novel, as we prepare to enter its closing sequence of revelations and confrontations. Even here, though, the machinery of the plot isn’t entirely out of sight, and it’s likely that I felt justified in indulging in a quiet moment here because I knew—as does the reader—that Sharkovsky is waiting to follow Maddy into the museum as soon as she arrives. And the more I look at this chapter, the more it seems to hint at a way forward for the rest of my work. If the reader accepts the scene, it’s because the silence is charged with a form of anticipation, one that wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the previous events of this very busy novel. Finding the right balance between activity and stillness is a narrative problem that I still haven’t cracked, for all my thoughts about craft, but for a few pages, I feel as if I got it right. At the time, of course, I wasn’t thinking in those terms: I just wanted to pause and focus on the location where the climactic action of the novel would take place, making sure that the reader, along with Maddy, noticed the window of the Marcel Duchamp gallery. We’ll be seeing that window again…

Written by nevalalee

July 12, 2013 at 9:10 am

“He saw a word in his mind’s eye…”

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"He saw a word in his mind's eye..."

Note: This post is the fifty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 54. You can read the earlier installments here.)

I still have the notebook page on which I began jotting down ideas for the novel that eventually became The Icon Thief. At that point, I hadn’t yet acquired the good habit of dating all my notes, but from context, I seem to have started work on the story just over five years ago. As a result, the page is a time capsule of both my thoughts while roughing out the novel and my writing process at the time. In most ways, my approach hasn’t changed all that much, and the ideas I sketched out here are surprisingly close to what the novel eventually became. Here’s a sample:

Three levels of plot: supposed order, alleged order, and real order.
Themes: paranoia, information overload, vision/eyesight
New York art world; intersection between art + finance

This is followed by a long list of potential plot points or ideas from the real world, some of which ended up being crucial to the story that resulted, while others were eventually discarded. Neither Marcel Duchamp nor Étant Donnés are mentioned until the fourth page of notes, at which point I’d been working on the idea for several weeks. And on the top of the first page is the title of the novel I had in mind: Camera.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve rarely had much luck with the initial titles of my novels, and they’ve invariably had to be changed, usually with only a few weeks left before delivery of the manuscript. I have a weakness for opaque, suggestive titles that have more than one meaning, while publishers tend to be happier with titles that clearly signal what the book is going to be about. Consequently, I need to walk a fine line, and I’m very happy with the title The Icon Thief. Still, I do miss Camera. I’d wanted to write a novel with that name for a long time, although the original conception survives only as a shadow in what was eventually published: the initial plot, which I now think was probably too ambitious for my talents at the time, was about a man piecing together the reasons behind a loved one’s suicide by looking at the photos on her camera after her death. There’s a touch of this in the finished novel, as Maddy tries to figure out the clues that Ethan left behind, and my research into the life of the photographer Diane Arbus informed some elements of Maddy’s personality. Really, though, its presence in the story is more like that of a ghost, or a double exposure, dimly visible behind the plot’s convolutions.

"He was telling me who made the poison..."

The other inspiration for the title was “Camera” by R.E.M., possibly their saddest and most mysterious song, and one with a particularly haunting backstory. When I wrote that title at the top of the page, I didn’t have a plot in mind yet, but I certainly had a tone I wanted to capture, as well as a handful of themes that had always fascinated me: the gap between what we see and what we think we understand, the tendency for images to be misinterpreted, and the ambiguity of the photographic medium itself. These themes were radically transformed in the final product, and perhaps that’s the way it should be. But the working title achieved its purpose. It allowed me to focus my thinking, emphasizing some themes in preference to others, and at one crucial point, it also informed me that I was on the right track. Early in the process, I realized that the Russian chemical warfare program would be a part of the story, since it allowed me to unite several key themes—conspiracy, paranoia, Russia itself—into one convenient thread. And I still remember the strange thrill I felt when I learned that Laboratory 12, the notorious poison laboratory of the secret services, had also been known as Kamera.

Kamera, then, was the title under which the novel went out to publishers, and that’s how it was sold. And it’s instructive, at least to me, to go back over the story to see how it reads with its original title in mind. An ambiguous title is a sort of clue to the reader, a hint to keep an eye out for information that might otherwise seem unimportant, and in that light, a sequence like that of Chapter 54 would read altogether differently. We’ve already witnessed the end of Anzor Archvadze, dying in the hospital with a case of toxic epidermal necrolysis and barely managing to force out his last words: “Camera. Camera.” It’s not until several chapters later that Powell sees the words for what they really are. In the novel as it stands, it’s a good scene, but it would have been even better in the original version, as the true meaning of the title locked into place. Kamera, of course, means chamber, so the working title served triple duty: it was meant to evoke the poison program, the various roles that cameras and photographs play in the narrative, and the chamber of Étant Donnés itself. All this was lost in the final version. And although I’m mostly pleased by the way it turned out, I can’t help but miss what was there before…

Written by nevalalee

July 5, 2013 at 8:55 am

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