Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Vasili Mitrokhin

Putin and I

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About ten years ago, I wrote a conspiracy thriller set in the New York art world. The decision was largely a practical one—I had written but been unable to sell a long science fiction novel, and I switched to suspense mostly because I knew that it was in my wheelhouse. When I started, I didn’t have a plot in mind, and my initial approach was simply to read as widely as I could and assemble pieces that I thought might be useful. One was Marcel Duchamp’s installation Étant Donnés, which Jasper Johns once called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” Another was the unexplained double suicide of the artists Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake. And a third was a curious incident that took place two years earlier at Sotheby’s, in which an unknown bidder—with a Russian accent—paid a record amount for a portrait by Picasso, despite “the relentless and unsophisticated manner in which he waved his paddle.” That was how Russia entered the story, and while I wasn’t sure how I was going to use it, I had an ace up my sleeve. I knew that the Russia angle would let me get away with practically anything, because the truth was invariably stranger than fiction, and it was impossible to come up with any plot point that was more farfetched than actual events. As the backdrop for a conspiracy novel, it was perfect. In The Icon Thief, these elements were used mostly for atmosphere, but I did a deep dive into the intricacies of the secret services in the sequels, City of Exiles and Eternal Empire, complete with a rivalry between the civilian and military branches of Russian intelligence that in retrospect may have been one level of complexity too many. (My best source was The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, which I recommend highly to anyone looking for a historical perspective on recent developments. I’ve just started watching the first season of The Americans with my wife, and it’s clear that the show’s writing staff was reading it closely, too.)

At the time, my decision to focus on Russia was a matter of narrative convenience, and not because of any contemporary relevance that I thought it might have. (As the creator of The Americans has said: “People ask us how we were so prescient. We weren’t prescient. We were the opposite of prescient.”) In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe published an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he claimed to outline the chain of reasoning behind his poem “The Raven.” Here’s how he allegedly arrived at the image of the dead Lenore:

I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death—was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

Critics often read Poe’s essay as a sort of fiction in itself, but it’s reasonable to see it as a series of high-speed photographs of the artist’s mind, like a picture of a bullet being shot through an apple. It slows down and fixes an instinctive phenomenon that normally occurs within seconds. Poe is laboriously dissecting a process in which every poet engages—the search for symbols that can do double or triple duty within the poem. Poetry is the art of compression, and the hunt for fruitful images or metaphors is a way of saving space. You pack each line with maximum meaning by looking for combinations of words that can stand both for themselves and for something else.

In the case of my novels, “Russia” itself is a word that calls up an entire world of intrigue, but there’s an even better one. Over two years ago, in a discussion of Eternal Empire, I wrote: “I think that I was able to condense this material so much because I hit on the right cluster of symbols. If the death of a beautiful woman, as Poe says, is the most poetical subject in the world, there are a few words that perform much the same function in conspiracy fiction, and the best of them all—at least for now—is ‘Putin.’ Vladimir Putin is the Lenore of Eternal Empire.” It seemed to me that Putin’s name was the most evocative word in the lexicon of the modern thriller, allowing me to do in a few sentences what might otherwise require five pages. In utilizing a real political figure in a novel, I was following the example of Frederick Forsyth, who built The Day of the Jackal around an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle and gave prominent speaking parts to Margaret Thatcher in several of his later books. Ideally, this sets up a sliding scale of verisimilitude, starting with obvious figures like Putin, working its way down through less familiar politicians or incidents, and finally entering the realm of pure fiction. Even if you’re reasonably conversant with current events, you can have trouble telling where history leaves off and invention begins, especially as the novel shows its age. (I have a feeling that most contemporary readers of The Day of the Jackal aren’t aware that the opening sequence is based on fact, which is an interesting case of a novel outliving the material that it used to enhance its own credibility.) In theory, the transition from someone like Putin to the fictional characters at the bottom of the pecking order should be totally seamless. We know that Putin is real and that most of the other characters aren’t, but in some cases, we aren’t sure, and the overwhelming fact of Putin himself serves to organize and enhance the rest of the story.

As a result of my hunch about the subject’s potential, I spent five years of my life thinking about Putin and Russia, which was more than I ever intended. By the end, I was feeling burned out, so I closed Eternal Empire on a note of unwarranted optimism. The events of the novel were timed to coincide with a series of protests that took place toward the end of 2011, of which Ellen Barry wrote in the New York Times:

Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow on Saturday shouting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin,” forcing the Kremlin to confront a level of public discontent that has not been seen here since Vladimir V. Putin first became president twelve years ago…The demonstration marked what opposition leaders hope will be a watershed moment, ending years of quiet acceptance of the political consolidation Mr. Putin introduced…He is by far the country’s most popular political figure, but he no longer appears untouchable and will have to engage with his critics, something he has done only rarely and grudgingly.

Even then, I knew that this was less of a turning point than it seemed, but I wanted my novel—which centers on the figure of a Russian dissident modeled on Mikhail Khodorkovsky—to arrive at some kind of closure. But I never imagined how timid these novels would seem one day, even if they were superficially prescient in other ways. (An important subplot in The Icon Thief describes the poisoning of a political enemy overseas using a nerve agent, which back then was safely in the realm of fiction.) Years ago, I wrote on this blog: “Nothing that a writer can invent about Russia can possibly compare to the reality.” It turns out that I was right. I’m proud of these three novels, but I haven’t gone back to read them in a long time. And I frankly don’t know if I ever can again.

“It isn’t that simple…”

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"Maddy kept her eyes on the path..."

Note: This post is the fourteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 15. You can read the previous installments here.

When you’re constructing an extended narrative of any kind, one of the trickiest technical challenges involves the handling of the story’s own past. This is particularly true in television, where the past has a way of piling up over multiple seasons until it threatens to overwhelm the present. Different types of shows take different approaches to the history they accumulate. A procedural tends to just ignore it; a prestige drama confronts it, to the point where late episodes can feel like nothing but a dialogue with what has already happened; and The X-Files ventured an elegant solution of its own, in which episodes fell into two categories, one with a past, the other without. And a truly nimble show, like Mad Men, can continuously engage with its past without dwelling on it. In this week’s season premiere, the fleeting references to Joan’s time at Bonwit Teller or Ken Cosgrove’s history at McCann Erikson are treated as part of the texture. Unless we’re exceptionally attentive—or retentive—viewers, we may not know exactly what they’re talking about, but we can still roll with it. (This leads to a particularly nifty mislead: when Don thinks he’s seen the waitress in the coffee shop before, we can’t be sure he hasn’t, especially because the show casts the part with an actress we swear we know from somewhere.)

Yet as Borges says in “The Garden of Forking Paths: “Everything happens to a man precisely, precisely now. Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen.” That’s as true of fiction as it is of life, and for the most part, the past can’t be allowed to overwhelm the story from one moment to the next. Most of us, after all, rarely reflect explicitly on the events of our own lives, once they’ve been buried deep enough: our memories shape us, but in subliminal ways, and just because our choices are influenced by the ones that came before doesn’t mean we’re aware of it. Stories of any complexity need to selectively impose the same kind of amnesia, both for realism’s sake and as a strategy for managing information. (If anything, many of the protagonists in modernist fiction tend to be more aware of the past than is psychologically plausible: it’s a convention of the genre, allowing the author to introduce material from before the story began, while gently departing from the way most of us actually think.) A show like The Vampire Diaries, which generates and discards an insane amount of plot, technically retains a memory of previous seasons, but employs it purely as a matter of convenience. If it can use it to justify the arbitrary moves of the characters in the current episode, great; if not, it’s as if it never happened.

"It isn't that simple..."

I’ve had to confront these problems repeatedly in my own work, and with mixed results, partially because I was learning so much of it on the fly. These were always going to be complicated novels: The Icon Thief was largely about complexity, with multiple plotlines and connections to the past, both factual and invented, and the next two books had to follow the same template. What I didn’t fully anticipate was the extent to which they would have to deal with the history of the series, as well as their own burden of plot, and at times, the combination became close to unmanageable. It isn’t as problematic in City of Exiles, which introduces a new setting and deliberately leaves a few threads unresolved. But Eternal Empire—which was conceived as a return to the characters and themes of the first book, as well as the conclusion of the series—always felt on the brink of collapsing under its own weight. I’m proud of the result, which I still think is the best novel I’ve published, but I’m also aware that it suffers from a miscalculation about how much of its past to include. It was meant to be novel that could stand on its own, as well a satisfying close to the trilogy, and I’m not sure it is. And given the chance to go back, I would have taken a page from other exemplars of series fiction, like Daniel Silva’s excellent thrillers about Gabriel Allon, and made each book a little more self-contained.

While researching City of Exiles, for instance, I became enamored of the fact—which I first encountered in The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin—that there were two sides to Russian intelligence, the civilian FSB and the military GRU, engaged in an ongoing competition for resources and influence. It’s an idea I hadn’t seen explored elsewhere, and much of the plot of the second novel revolves around one half of the intelligence services framing the other for a complicated crime. It’s a neat angle, and I think it works there. In Eternal Empire, though, the machinations of the secret services become increasingly convoluted: a major plot point involves one character, already a mole, switching from one side to the other, and since the core conflict takes place at a remove from the rest of the action, it’s hard to keep all the pieces straight. Chapter 15 represents my attempt, speaking in Powell’s voice to Maddy, to explain just as much of it as necessary, and I hope that the novel remains engaging even if the reader isn’t clear on the details. (Much of le Carré, for one, is grounded on tangled chains of command that fade together into a kind of electrifying background noise.) Yet I know for a fact that some readers were confused when I didn’t intend them to be. In retrospect, I could have handled it better by trying to do more with less. But Maddy is bewildered, too. And it will lead very soon to a moment of clarity…

“And this has something to do with Operation Pepel?”

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"A few of the files talk about a poison program..."

Note: This post is the forty-first installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 40. You can read the earlier installments here

As I’ve written here elsewhere, research in fiction is less about factual accuracy than a way of dreaming. Fiction, like a dream, isn’t assembled out of nothing: it’s an assimilation and combination of elements that we’ve gathered in our everyday lives, in stories we hear from friends, in our reading and consumption of other works of art, and through the conscious investigation of whatever world we’ve decided to explore. This last component is perhaps the most crucial, and probably the least appreciated. Writers vary in the degree of novelistic attention they can bring to their surroundings at any one time, but most of us learn to dial it down: it’s both exhausting and a little unfair to life itself to constantly be mining for material. When we commence work on a project, though, our level of engagement rises correspondingly, to the point where we start seeing clues or messages everywhere we look. Research is really just a way of taking that urge for gleaning or bricolage and making it slightly more systematic, exposing ourselves to as many potential units of narrative as we can at a time when we’re especially tuned to such possibilities.

The primordial function of research—-of “furnishing and feathering a world,” in Anthony Lane’s memorable phrase—is especially striking when it comes to details that would never be noticed by the average reader. Few of us would care whether or not the fence at No. 7 Eccles Street could really be climbed by an ordinary man, but for James Joyce, it was important enough for him to write his aunt to confirm it. If we’re thinking only in terms of the effect on readers, this kind of meticulous accuracy can start to seem a little insane, but from the author’s point of view, it makes perfect sense. For most of the time we spend living with a novel, the only reader whose opinion matters is our own, and a lot of research consists of the author convincing himself that the story he’s describing could really have taken place. In order to lose ourselves in the fictional dream, the smallest elements have to seem persuasive to us, and even if a reader couldn’t be expected to know that we’ve fudged or invented a detail that we couldn’t verify elsewhere, we know it, and it subtly affects how deeply we can commit ourselves to the story we’re telling. A reader may never notice a minor dishonesty, but the writer will always remember it.

"And this has something to do with Operation Pepel?"

In my own fiction, I’ve tried to be as accurate as I can even in the smallest things. I keep a calendar of the major events in the story, and I do my best to square it with such matters as railway schedules, museum hours, and the times for sunrise and sunset. (As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “And how troublesome the moon is!”) I walk the locations of each scene whenever possible, counting off the steps and figuring out how long it would take a character to get from one point to another, and when I can’t go there in person, I spend a long time on Google Street View. It may seem like a lot of trouble, but it actually saves me work in the long run: being able to select useful details from a mass of existing material supplements the creative work that has to be done, and I’m always happier to take something intact from the real world than to have to invent it from scratch. And I take a kind of perverse pleasure in the knowledge that a reader wouldn’t consciously notice any of it. At best, these details serve as a kind of substratum for the visible events of the story, and tiny things add up to a narrative that is convincing in its broadest strokes. There’s no guarantee that such an approach will work, of course, but it’s hard to make anything work without it.

In City of Exiles, for instance, I briefly mention something called Operation Pepel, which is described as a special operation by Russian intelligence that occurred in Turkey in the sixties. Operation Pepel did, in fact, exist, even if we don’t know much about who was involved or what it was: I encountered it thanks to a passing reference, amounting to less than a sentence, in the monumental The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin. (It caught my eye, incidentally, only because I’d already established that part of the story would center on an historical event involving Turkey, which is just another illustration of how parts of the research process can end up informing one another across far-flung spaces.) Later, I tie Operation Pepel—purely speculatively—to elements of the Soviet poison program, and the details I provide on such historical events as Project Bonfire are as accurate as I can make them. None of this will mean anything even to most specialists in the history of Russia, and I could easily have made up something that would have served just as well. But since I invent so much elsewhere, and so irresponsibly, it felt better to retain as many of the known facts I could. It may not matter to the reader, but it mattered a lot to me…

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2014 at 9:44 am

“Karvonen set his hands on the container…”

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"The highway toward Namur..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

A novel in nine months

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So how do you write a book in nine months? More specifically, how do you write a 100,000-word sequel to a complex novel that took almost two years to write in the first place?

The short answer is that I don’t really know. I do know, however, that it needs to happen, or so my contract tells me. As for the specifics, you’ll be hearing a lot about them between now and this coming September. In the meantime, though, here’s a general sense of what to expect:

On Tuesday of this week, I’m scheduled to deliver a fairly detailed proposal for the sequel to Kamera to my agent for comment and approval. This proposal, which is about seven double-spaced pages long, will then go to my editor at NAL, who will hopefully like what he sees. (Among other things, I receive a third of my advance on acceptance of the outline.) Once I get the green light, I can dive more deeply into the writing process, which so far has consisted mostly of a lot of structured daydreaming.

At that point, the real fun begins. I always try to start the research process by casting my net as wide as possible, so I’m going to begin by mining a few large nonfiction books for inspiration, among them The New Cold War by Edward Lucas, The Sword and the Shield by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, and The Icon and the Axe by James Billington. (These titles may give you a sense of the territory that this new novel will be exploring.) Once I’ve finished my first round of reading, I’ll then begin to drill more deeply into areas that are directly relevant to the story at hand.

My current plan is to spend a couple of months on this preliminary research, which may also include a trip to London, after which I’ll start outlining the first part of the novel. Hopefully I’ll begin the writing itself sometime in March. I’m aiming to have a decent draft ready by early August, at which point it will go out to readers. I’ll then spend two months on revisions before delivering the manuscript to my publisher on September 30. (Since the novel isn’t scheduled to come out until the end of 2012, I expect that there will be quite a few more rewrites in the interim.)

Can I do it? Yes, probably. But it’s going to be an intense and interesting year. Stay tuned for more updates.

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