Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Titanic

The Ballad of Jack and Rose

leave a comment »

Note: To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the release of Titanic, I’m republishing a post that originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on April 16, 2012.

Is it possible to watch Titanic again with fresh eyes? Was it ever possible? When I caught Titanic 3D five years ago in Schaumburg, Illinois, it had been a decade and a half since I last saw it. (I’ve since watched it several more times, mostly while writing an homage in my novel Eternal Empire.) On its initial release, I liked it a lot, although I wouldn’t have called it the best movie of a year that gave us L.A. Confidential, and since then, I’d revisited bits and pieces of it on television, but had never gone back and watched the whole thing. All the same, my memories of it remained positive, if somewhat muted, so I was curious to see what my reaction would be, and what I found is that this is a really good, sometimes even great movie that looks even better with time. Once we set aside our preconceived notions, we’re left with a spectacularly well-made film that takes a lot of risks and seems motivated by a genuine, if vaguely adolescent, fascination with the past, an unlikely labor of love from a prodigiously talented director who willed himself into a genre that no one would have expected him to understand—the romantic epic—and emerged with both his own best work and a model of large-scale popular storytelling.

So why is this so hard for some of us to admit? The trouble, I think, is that the factors that worked so strongly in the film’s favor—its cinematography, special effects, and art direction; its beautifully choreographed action; its incredible scale—are radically diminished on television, which was the only way that it could be seen for a long time. On the small screen, we lose all sense of scope, leaving us mostly with the charisma of its two leads and conventional dramatic elements that James Cameron has never quite been able to master. Seeing Titanic in theaters again reminds us of why we responded to it in the first place. It’s also easier to appreciate that it was made at precisely the right moment in movie history, an accident of timing that allowed it to take full advantage of digital technology while still deriving much of its power from stunts, gigantic sets, and practical effects. If it were made again today, even by Cameron himself, it’s likely that much of this spectacle would be rendered on computers, which would be a major aesthetic loss. A huge amount of this film’s appeal lies in its physicality, in those real crowds and flooded stages, all of which can only be appreciated in the largest venue possible. Titanic is still big; it’s the screens that got small.

It’s also time to retire the notion that James Cameron is a bad screenwriter. It’s true that he doesn’t have any ear for human conversation, and that he tends to freeze up when it comes to showing two people simply talking—I’m morbidly curious to see what he’d do with a conventional drama, but I’m not sure that I want to see the result. Yet when it comes to structuring exciting stories on the largest possible scale, and setting up and delivering climactic set pieces and payoffs, he’s without equal. I’m a big fan of Christopher Nolan, for instance—I think he’s the most interesting mainstream filmmaker alive—but his films can seem fussy and needlessly intricate compared to the clean, powerful narrative lines that Cameron sets up here. (The decision, for instance, to show us a simulation of the Titanic’s sinking before the disaster itself is a masterstroke: it keeps us oriented throughout an hour of complex action that otherwise would be hard to understand.) Once the movie gets going, it never lets up. It moves toward its foregone conclusion with an efficiency, confidence, and clarity that Peter Jackson, or even Spielberg, would have reason to envy. And its production was one of the last great adventures—apart from The Lord of the Rings—that Hollywood ever allowed itself.

Despite James Cameron’s reputation as a terror on the set, I met him once, and he was very nice to me. In 1998, as an overachieving high school senior, I was a delegate at the American Academy of Achievement’s annual Banquet of the Golden Plate in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, an extraordinarily surreal event that I hope to discuss in more detail one of these days. The high point of the weekend was the banquet itself, a black-tie affair in a lavish indoor auditorium with the night’s honorees—a range of luminaries from science, politics, and the arts—seated in alphabetical order at the periphery of the room. One of them was James Cameron, who had swept the Oscars just a few months earlier. Halfway through the evening, leaving my own seat, I went up to his table to say hello, only to find him surrounded by a flock of teenage girls anxious to know what it was like to work with Leonardo DiCaprio. Seeing that there was no way of approaching him yet, I chatted for a bit with a man seated nearby, who hadn’t attracted much, if any, attention. We made small talk for a minute or two, but when I saw an opening with Cameron, I quickly said goodbye, leaving the other guest on his own. It was Dick Cheney.

Written by nevalalee

December 20, 2017 at 9:00 am

“She stared at the burning ship…”

leave a comment »

"There was no one else there..."

Note: This post is the fifty-second installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 51. You can read the previous installments here.

A few weeks ago, an animated video was released online that showed the sinking of the Titanic rendered in real time—all two hours and forty minutes of it. Watching it in shorter stretches is a surprisingly compelling experience, no matter where you start it playing. You’re struck, above all, by just how little seems to happen for so long, until the horrifying ending, in which the bulk of the ship is sucked underwater in less than ninety seconds. It’s riveting, but it’s also a rebuke to conventional narrative. And the Titanic story presents other problems as well. It’s hard to maintain clarity and momentum on any ship sinking at night. You’re dealing with the constrained geography of a big ship itself, in which it can be hard to keep track of where people are and what they’re doing, much of which has to be described using an unfamiliar vocabulary. Darkness and the sheer number of moving bodies make it even harder to maintain a clean line of action. And the way a nautical disaster unfolds resists the natural pacing of a story, with a moment of disaster followed by long stretches of nothing, as the ship sluggishly lists or sinks. Sometimes, as in the case of the Costa Concordia, there isn’t even a clear end point: it just lies there crippled in the water. Everything either happens so fast that it can’t be grasped or so slowly that even the participants start to feel impatient. If I had to write a script about it from scratch, I’m not entirely sure how I’d structure it. Maybe as a love story?

As I’ve noted here before, James Cameron’s Titanic may not have aged well when it comes to some of its more granular qualities, like dialogue, but it’s unsurpassed at staging and choreographing huge blocks of action, and it does it so invisibly that it’s easy to underestimate how hard it really was. It brilliantly solves all the problems I mentioned above, and it does such a good job of keeping the audience informed and oriented throughout that I’d be tempted to use it as a case study in a screenwriting class. The decision to show us an animated visualization of the ship’s destruction at the beginning of the movie, for instance, with a character from the present explaining the physics behind each stage, is a masterstroke: it delivers exposition and foreshadowing all at once, and it allows us to keep track where we are during the sinking without thinking about it twice. Victor Garber’s lovely scene with the ship’s blueprints accomplishes much the same thing. (I’d even argue that the love story itself, and most of its associated plot points, originated a solution to the problem of how to fill those crucial hours of sinking time in which not much of anything else is happening.) When I began work on Eternal Empire, I was forced to think about all of this more systematically. I was writing a novel about a yacht that had to sink, which meant I had to crack all the narrative issues that it presented—and I ended up watching Titanic itself more than once.

"She stared at the burning ship..."

Once I knew that the ship had to be destroyed, I turned my attention to how to do it, which was driven both by practical concerns and by the kind of story I wanted to tell. The easiest way to sink a yacht is to approach it in a smaller vessel and detonate a shaped charge against the hull, as used with such devastating effect against the U.S.S. Cole. I toyed with using a remote-controlled boat, but I quickly discarded the idea, mostly for aesthetic reasons. It just didn’t seem interesting or spectacular enough, and I sensed that it would be hard to stage it in an exciting way. An unmanned boat coming up against a yacht at night didn’t give me much in the way of striking imagery, or even a perspective from which to describe the events, unless I broke one of my own rules as a writer and wrote it from the point of view of an objective observer. Since an attack like this would go unnoticed until the moment the explosives detonated, I just didn’t see a way of structuring it, properly, as a series of escalating beats, and I also thought that it would take too long for the reader to figure out what had happened. Basically, I wanted to be able to provide just the right amount of tension before all hell broke loose: enough to make Maddy aware of the inevitable disaster, but not so much that it dissipated the shock. And I wanted it to be visually memorable.

I finally decided to use a drone. In my defense, I should point out that I wrote this sequence at a time when a drone strike wasn’t a total cliché. (Looking back at my notes, I seem to have finished writing this chapter just a week or so before seeing The Bourne Legacy, which used a drone in a similar way. I was probably troubled by this at the time, but it didn’t stop me from pressing on, which was the right choice: I suspect that most people’s memories of that movie are pretty hazy anyway.) The attack would still be over in the blink of an eye, and it ended up covering less than a page. But the nature of a drone, and the staging of the scene on the water, gave me three useful beats, while an attack by boat would have given me only one. Maddy hears the whine of a rocket just before the shadow boat that accompanies the yacht goes up in flames; she sees the drone circling back in her direction in the sky; and finally she sees another line of white as a second rocket smashes into the yacht itself. The result reads like a continuous rush of action, as it should, but the fact that it can be disassembled into smaller components makes the action just a bit more clear. I had to depart slightly from logic to make it work: in actuality, the yacht should have been the primary target, with the shadow boat coming next, but I wanted Maddy to witness the first explosion before feeling the second. The result, I think, is a sweet little scene. And the attack isn’t over yet…

Written by nevalalee

May 5, 2016 at 9:04 am

“This is the finest yacht I’ve ever seen…”

with 2 comments

"This is the finest yacht I've ever seen..."

Note: This post is the thirty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 37. You can read the previous installments here.

A few days ago, I was leafing through What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry—I’m putting together some artwork for my daughter’s birthday—when I found myself entranced by a cutaway diagram of an ocean liner run by a crew of mice. I was originally planning to hang it on the wall for Beatrix’s party, but now I’m tempted to keep it for myself. It reminds me, inevitably, of the similar cutaway set that Wes Anderson employs in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which he says was the image around which the entire movie was built, and it also made me reflect on the appeal of a ship as a backdrop for stories. It’s impossible to look at this kind of image without imagining a whole world of plots to go along with it, even more so than for one of Scarry’s lovingly rendered city scenes. I haven’t spent much time on the water, but I’m drawn instinctively to that setting: my novelette “The Boneless One,” which I briefly considered calling “The Knife Aquatic,” was mostly inspired by my fascination with this sort of research yacht, and a good chunk of Eternal Empire takes place on the megayacht of a Russian oligarch. And although I’ve written elsewhere about why I’m drawn to such ships for their thematic resonances, I don’t think I’ve ever drilled down to the deeper reasons why authors from Melville to Katherine Anne Porter have seen a ship as perfect stage for a human drama that assumes a larger significance.

Most obviously, a shipboard setting imposes certain constraints that can only be fruitful. Much as a bottle episode in a television show encourages the writers to think more intently about the meaning or usefulness of every prop and corner of the soundstage, a story or sequence set primarily in a single closed location forces a novelist to be smarter about utilizing the materials at hand. It’s the closest that a written work can come to the intensity of a stage play, in which the resources you have are starkly limited, and you have to squeeze every drop of dramatic potential from a few available items. This is true of any focused setting, of course, but it seems all the more true with a ship. There’s a sense of isolation inherent to the vessel itself: with most bottle stories, you have to invent reasons why the characters can’t just leave, while an oceangoing ship is necessarily a world of its own for much of its journey. A more subtle factor is the way in which the ship itself is designed to be self-contained. Even on a megayacht, there’s little room for what isn’t functional, and all of the pieces are designed to work together. A ship, even more than a house, is a network of architectural connections, and the ways in which those linkages play out—as expressed most fully in a cutaway diagram—naturally suggests lines of action. The result, as I write in one of my favorite lines in Eternal Empire, is “a masterpiece of foresight and design surrounded on all sides by night.”

"She had studied the yacht's layout very carefully..."

A ship is also an irresistible location because it allows the writer to have it both ways: it’s both an isolated setting and one that allows for the possibility of movement from one point to the next. And there are all kinds of metaphorical overtones here that are probably best left unstated. In her author’s note to Ship of Fools, which I read while researching my own novel, Porter writes:

The title of this book is a translation from the German of Das Narrenschiff, a moral allegory by Sebastian Brant…When I began thinking about my novel, I took for my own this simple almost universal image of the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity. It is by no means new—it was very old and durable and dearly familiar when Brant used it; and it suits my purpose exactly.

Reading this, it’s hard not to think that Porter is being a bit too explicit, especially when she adds: “I am a passenger on that ship.” These allegorical qualities are obvious enough without forcing them on the reader’s attention, and I can forgive it mostly if I think of that note as a kind of cutaway diagram in itself, laying open the novel’s innards as it proceeds on its way. And Porter, at least, is in good company. As Melville himself wrote in White-Jacket: “For a ship is a bit of terra firm cut off from the main; it is a state in itself; and the captain is its king.”

Chapter 37 of Eternal Empire was my attempt to put this kind of cutaway diagram into prose form. It starts, deliberately, on the sun deck, the highest point of the ship, allowing for a view of the entire yacht, and then proceeds down through the salon and the cabins, with Maddy’s thoughts filling in the rest. There’s a narrative rationale for the attention that the yacht receives here—Maddy has good reasons to learn everything she can about the layout, the security system, and the routine of the crew—and it also gives the reader a map for navigating some complicated action in the book’s second half. Really, though, my impulse here is the same as the one that causes Steve Zissou to say to the audience directly: “Let me tell you about my boat.” And when Rahim, Maddy’s friend, brags about the “watertight bulkheads, thicker plate, and stronger scantlings” that allow the yacht to be ready for anything, I hope that most readers will think of the Titanic. (I revisited James Cameron’s movie more than once while writing these scenes, particularly the lovely moment when Thomas Andrews, played by Victor Garber, uses a cutaway diagram of his own to explain why they’re all screwed.) In the end, if writers are drawn to ships, it’s for the reason that Émile Chartier expresses so beautifully: “Every boat is copied from another boat…It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up on the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied…One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.” And that’s true of novels, too…

A cut above the rest

with 2 comments

Saul Bass in the editing room

The other day, my wife pointed me to a recent poll by the Motion Picture Editors Guild of the best-edited movies of all time. Most of the usual suspects are here, although not, curiously, The Usual Suspects: Raging Bull and Citizen Kane top the list, followed by the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Psycho, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as a few enticing surprises. (I’ve never seen All That Jazz, which sits at number four, although the fact that a subplot revolves around the protagonist’s attempts to edit a movie of his own makes me wonder if there’s a touch of sentiment involved.) What struck me the most about the ranking is its fundamental oddity: it seems natural that a list like this would exist for movies, but it’s hard to imagine a similar one for books or albums, which are as intensely edited as any motion picture. So, for that matter, are plays, songs, magazine articles, and podcasts. Nearly any work of art, in fact, has undergone an editing process, if we take this to mean only the systematic arrangement of its component parts. To take a slightly offbeat example: Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass” might seem like a trifle, but it’s ruthlessly organized, with a lot of ideas—some, admittedly, lifted from Chuck Berry—flowing seamlessly together. The editing, if we’re willing to grant that a pop song can be as consciously constructed as a film by Martin Scorsese, is brilliant. So why are we so used to talking about it in movies and nowhere else?

A few possible explanations come to mind, starting with the fact that the roles of movie editor and director usually, although not always, reside in two different people. Choices about editing can be hard to separate from earlier choices about structure, and the division of labor in movie production—with structural decisions shared among the screenwriter, editor, director, and others—make film editing feel like a pursuit in itself, which is less obvious in a novel or album. (Literary editors and music producers play a crucial role in the arrangement of the pieces in their respective fields, but their contribution is harder to define.) It doesn’t hurt that movie editors are probably the only ones we’ve ever seen accepting an award on television, or that books on film editing considerably outnumber those of any other kind. Perhaps most relevant of all is the very nature of editing a movie, which differs from other types of editorial work in that the amount of raw material is fixed. When you’re writing a book, it’s possible to write new chapters to fill in the gaps in the story; a recording artist can always lay down a fresh version of a track; but a movie editor is stuck with the dailies that the director delivers. These days, this isn’t necessarily true: directors like Peter Jackson plan for reshoots even before principal photography begins, and modern software allows for considerable freedom in creating new shots in post. But the image still persists of the editor exercising his or her will on a resistant mass of footage, solving narrative problems under enormous constraints. Which is what makes it so fascinating.

The editing room of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

So what do we mean when we say that a movie had great editing? There’s an old chestnut, which isn’t any less true for being so familiar, that if you’ve noticed the editing in a movie, the editor has done a poor job. That’s right as far as it goes, and it’s equally correct that the showier moments in a smartly edited movie have a way of obscuring more meaningful work. The multiple film stocks in JFK might grab the eye, but they’re much less impressive than the massive amount of information that the movie allows the viewer to absorb. Famous cuts, like the one from the match to the desert in Lawrence of Arabia or the time jump in 2001, are the ones we recall, but we’re less prone to take notice of how expertly those films keep us oriented in two of the most confusing environments imaginable—the desert and outer space. And we’re often barely aware of how much of a movie has been constructed in postproduction. When you compare the script of The Usual Suspects with the final result, it’s hard not to conclude that the movie’s secret hero, its true Keyser Soze, is editor John Ottman: the whole closing montage of sounds, images, and dialogue, which is the first thing many of us remember, isn’t even hinted at in the screenplay. But we aren’t meant to see any of this. We’re left with the stubborn, redundant axiom that if a movie is great, its editing was great as well. That’s why the Editors Guild poll is foremost a list of terrific movies, and one of the first such lists that I’d recommend to anyone who was interested in learning more about film.

That said, as I’ve suggested above, there are times when we can’t help but be grateful for the problems that a movie’s editor has solved. Managing the delivery of complicated information, as we often see in the movies of David Fincher, poses tremendous challenges, and Gone Girl and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo play like thrillers in which most of the drama is unfolding in the editing room. Casino, which I recently watched again just for my own pleasure, does this kind of thing so beautifully that it makes The Wolf of Wall Street seem a little lame by comparison. When it comes to keeping the audience grounded during complex action, we’re likely to think first of the films of Paul Greengrass, who has ruined much of modern action filmmaking by chopping up the footage so fluently that he encourages less talented filmmakers to do the same—hence the vast divide between The Bourne Supremacy and Quantum of Solace. (Although if I had to name one movie that still fills me with awe at how expertly it choreographs and assembles action on a large scale, it would have to be Titanic.) And editors have often been called upon to pull shape and logic out of seemingly unworkable footage. Annie Hall wasn’t even a love story before Ralph Rosenblum, by his own account, saw what its three hours of raw material were really about, and the result is a film that seems perfect, even if it was anything but preordained. Elsewhere, I’ve described creativity as the conversion of the arbitrary into the inevitable. And that, really, is what editors do.

Oscar heaven, Oscar hell

with 2 comments

Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your least favorite Best Picture winner?”

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about awards. The other day, the nominees for the Nebulas were announced, and although my name wasn’t among them, I wasn’t particularly surprised: I only published one story last year, “The Whale God,” and although Analog has the highest circulation of any surviving science fiction magazine, it tends to be overlooked when awards season rolls around—unless I missed it, it didn’t have any nominations at all this year. Still, I always look forward to the Nebulas and the Hugos with more than usual interest, since these are the only awards in existence in which I have anything like a shot at scoring a nod. In theory, there’s nothing keeping me from getting nominated one of these days: I’ve been very lucky when it comes to publication and placement, and these stories are reaching all the right eyeballs. The only obstacle, which is a considerable one, is writing an excellent story that a lot of people think is worth honoring. At this point, I’ve done well enough as a short story writer that the only thing standing in my way is me, and although I won’t claim that I’m thinking about a story’s awards potential when I write it up and send it off, I’d be lying if I said it had never crossed my mind.

There’s a category of Hollywood players that probably feels much the same way about the Academy Awards. Once you’ve reached a certain level of success in a field that is recognized by the Oscars, whether it’s acting or screenwriting or sound effects editing, you presumably start to think, well, why not me? The difference, of course, is that there are so many other intangibles. For the big ticket awards, you’ve got massive advertising campaigns and more subtle kinds of pressure operating on behalf of the different contenders, and even in the technical categories, excellent work has a way of being overlooked when it isn’t attached to a box office hit or a Best Picture juggernaut, which is really just a convenient way of sifting through the vast universe of potential candidates. Hovering somewhere above all this is the Academy’s indefinable sense of what makes for a worthy nominee: there’s no real point in complaining that the Oscars have no correlation with the best movies of any given year, since we’re dealing with a hive mind that has evolved its own set of preferences over time. (You could even make a good case that the last time the Best Picture winner conceded with the consensus choice for the year’s true best movie was with Casablanca in 1942.)

Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon in Crash

When it comes to making a list of undeserving Best Picture winners, then, we’re really talking about three different things. There are the winners that were simply bad films in their own right, although there are fewer of these than you might expect. I thought Crash, for instance, which tends to be the first movie anyone brings up in this context, was perfectly fine—although it labored under the delusion that it was about race when it was really about class—and we all know that I like Titanic one hell of a lot. Titanic, it happens, is a classic example of the second category, which covers movies that beat out more worthy contenders. Of course, this happens every time, so I’m not going to complain that James Cameron triumphed over L.A. Confidential, even if it’s my favorite American movie of the last twenty years, or that The King’s Speech won over Inception. Last, and perhaps most subtly, are otherwise decent movies that led nowhere. Even a mediocre winner has the benefit of handing a blank check to the director and the other principals for at least one passion project, so it’s always a little sad to see that opportunity go to waste. Shakespeare in Love is a nice enough movie, but it’s hard not to see it now as something of a dead end for everyone involved, except perhaps for the marketing prowess of the Weinsteins.

So if I had to pick my least favorite Best Picture winner, I’d have to go with something like The Deer Hunter. It isn’t an easy or obvious choice, because it’s a movie of undeniable technical merits, and there are some extraordinary moments. Yet it’s also a hysterical, sentimental, and borderline racist work that turns Vietnam into what William Goldman aptly calls a comic book movie, with Christopher Walken somehow surviving months of professional Russian roulette only to die in De Niro’s arms. In theory, it was honored over many other deserving movies, although it’s hard to imagine many of my own favorite films from that year—Gates of Heaven, Days of Heaven, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Halloween—scoring a nomination, which they didn’t. Most of all, it directly led to the greatest debacle in Hollywood history, Heaven’s Gate, a movie that never would have been made if Michael Cimino hadn’t won the Oscar, and which resulted in the fall of one great studio, United Artists, and the end of the auteur system of the seventies. Looking back at what I’ve just written, I can’t help see some significance in how many times I’ve typed the word “heaven,” and in fact one of the four nominees that The Deer Hunter beat out that year was Heaven Can Wait. Winning an Oscar might seem heavenly, but occasionally, it turns out to be hell.

Written by nevalalee

February 28, 2014 at 9:36 am

Wealth, power, and the ship of fools

with 4 comments

Paul Allen's Octopus

There was a period in my life when I was pretty sure I was going to be rich. Shortly after college, I got a job at a hedge fund in Manhattan that had an unusual hiring philosophy: it was eager to recruit recent Ivy League graduates with no previous financial experience—including those, like me, whose primary area of interest was the humanities—into roles that might seem, at first, like a strange fit. In particular, it placed a lot of writers, artists, and other creative types into operational and research positions, reasoning that they’d be able to attract smart, talented people if they offered them a good salary and the promise of being able to finish one’s play or opera outside of work. In the end, I spent close to four years there, trying to write fiction while also moving deeper into the financial world, first on the investor relations side and later in researching potential new funds and businesses. Eventually, I noticed that the ideal held out by the firm—of being an artist and a financial professional—didn’t really pan out: people tended to either put their creative dreams on hold to focus on their careers, or they quit. And as I’ve explained before, I ultimately chose the latter.

Needless to say, the situation at my old firm didn’t remain quite as rosy after my departure: the market crashed, the fund lost a fair amount of money, and it laid off many of the creative types it had hired in happier times. I’m not sure I could get a job there again now. And I have no regrets—although I’m still feeling the effects of the experience more than seven years later. Among other things, it gave me a sense of how money really works for the first time, and it quickly accustomed me to thinking of enormous sums of cash in casual ways, although there were still times when the amount of capital flowing in and out seemed absurd. (I’ll never forget the day when one of the firm’s partners paid for a personal investment in the fund with a handwritten personal check, drawn on a regular checking account, for a million dollars.) Not surprisingly, you can see the influence on my fiction, which returns repeatedly to financial themes. The Icon Thief largely takes place at an art hedge fund modeled in part on my former employer; in City of Exiles, we briefly glimpse an activist fund that will play a much larger role later in the series; and in Eternal Empire, we spend more time among the very wealthy themselves. Because this is a book about oligarchs.

Roman Abramovich's Eclipse

For me, the most fascinating symbol of the new form of wealth, which concentrates staggering amounts of money in the hands of very few, is the megayacht. A yacht on the order of Larry Ellison’s Rising Sun or Paul Allen’s Octopus is literally the most expensive thing a private citizen can own: with price tags exceeding $200 million or more, they’re more costly than any form of real estate, and they can cost upward of $20 million per year simply to operate. I’ve had a curious fascination with these yachts for a long time, and once I realized that Eternal Empire was going to center on the figure of a Russian oligarch, I knew I’d have to put such a yacht into the story. Much of the second half of the novel takes place on a fictional yacht, the Rigden, whose dimensions would put it “not quite in the top ten of the largest yachts ever built,” as one of my characters puts it. Researching this material was a pleasure, and I spent many hours paging through yacht plans and specifications to build my massive ship in a bottle. But as seductive as the surface elements can be, I soon found that the Rigden, like any ship, was a natural focal point for larger symbolic and thematic concerns. A ship, whether it’s the Pequod or Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, always seems to stand for something more, and mine was no exception.

In this case, it inevitably evolved into a symbol of one of my favorite themes: the limits of control. There’s a reason why so many suspense novels take place in environments of extreme wealth. Part of this is escapism, devolving at times into lifestyle porn; part of it is the sense that, as Balzac said, behind every great fortune lies a crime. Most of all, though, it simply takes one of the central precepts of the thriller—that for all the bulwarks we erect against danger and risk, we’re rarely in control of our own lives—to its logical conclusion. As examples from fiction and the daily news remind us, wealth alone is no barrier to misfortune, as both Anzor Archvadze in The Icon Thief and Mikhail Khodorkovsky in real life have discovered. And I think the reason I’m fascinated by the yachts of the wealthy is that they stand for the same thing as all ships: the human impulse to set our own resources against the unknown. Sometimes the result is the Eclipse; sometimes it’s the Titanic or the Costa Concordia. I won’t say what happens to the Rigden. But a megayacht, for all its glamor and power, is still insignificant compared to the ocean around it, or, as I put it at a crucial point in Eternal Empire: “A masterpiece of foresight and design surrounded on all sides by night.”

Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2013 at 8:46 am

“Gentlemen, we have a warrant…”

leave a comment »

"Gentlemen, we have a warrant..."

(Note: This post is the forty-second installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 41. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of the few things I know about writing is that less is usually more, and that a story is generally effective in proportion to how much the author can leave out. As overstuffed as my novels tend to be, I’m always trying to pare back elements like backstory and personal description, to the point where my advance readers often beg me to put them back in. A lot of things, I’ve found, are best left to implication, although it takes a lot of revision and feedback to find the right level of clarity. Still, there are always places where it’s necessary to spell things out. When a story contains a lot of complicated action, for instance, it’s often useful to brief readers on what they’re about to see, which can be allowed to unfold more impressionistically when the crucial moment comes: it’s fine if your characters are confused or uncertain, but that’s rarely an emotion you want in the reader, unless you’re trying to achieve it on purpose. (The best example I know of this kind of advance grounding is the computer simulation of the sinking ship in Titanic, a movie whose shrewdness of construction has been frequently underestimated.)

And giving your reader a game plan for how the action is supposed to unfold can be particularly useful in suspense. A good thriller is all about anticipation, and there’s a peculiar satisfaction in being given just enough information on what’s about to take place to look forward to the action to come—and especially to see how it deviates from what the characters are expecting. In describing the scene in The Godfather where Michael shoots Sollozzo and McCloskey, David Thomson talks about “the sinister charm of action foreseen, spelled out, and finally delivered,” and when properly done, it’s one of the most useful tools in a writer’s arsenal. Hence the moment in any decent heist movie in which the logistics of entering the mansion, disabling the security system, and cracking the safe are lovingly described in advance, which stands as one of the few instances when exposition builds the suspense, rather than destroying it.

"The club stands in a line of restaurants..."

Suspense, as Thomson points out in his discussion of Inception, has a lot in common with comedy, which is also built on anticipation and surprise, and at its best, this approach embodies a classic piece of comedy advice: “Tell them what you’re going to do. Then do it. Then tell them what you did.” In a thriller, though, this last step might be better described as “Then tell them what really happened.” Because spelling out the coming action carries an additional charge of irony and tension. A sophisticated reader—which is to say anyone who has seen a movie or two—is well aware that nothing ever goes entirely as planned: a properly constructed caper film, for instance, will withhold the most essential information until the big score itself begins to unfold, as in Ocean’s 11, which means that any initial description of the plan is really just a list of things that can go wrong. And as always, it’s best to acknowledge this, and play off the reader’s knowledge of the genre, rather than trying to fight against it.

Chapter 41 of The Icon Thief, for example, is largely taken up by one of my favorite categories of this kind of exposition: the police briefing in advance of a raid. Louis Barlow, the FBI assistant special agent in charge, spends several pages describing what will take place when they finally raid Sharkovsky’s club in Brighton Beach, and because of the considerations I’ve mentioned above, I give more space to this speech than I might have done elsewhere in the novel. In fact, this is one of the few chapters that was significantly expanded in the rewrite, as it became clear to me that I needed to lay out the impending action as clearly as possible—and if I’ve done my work properly, the reader will appreciate it on several levels at once. It creates anticipation for the scene to come; it provides a kind of map for following the action itself, which will ultimately unfold across multiple points of view; and, best of all, it allows the reader to wonder what, exactly, is going to go wrong. Because as you can probably guess, this raid isn’t going to go exactly as planned…

Written by nevalalee

April 4, 2013 at 8:52 am

%d bloggers like this: