By Zoë Gulliver
Alec Nevala-Lee is a novelist and freelance writer whose first book, The Icon Thief, is a thriller set in the New York art world. It’s the first in a trilogy published by Penguin. A second installment, City of Exiles, came out last year, with a third, Eternal Empire, to appear September 2013. In addition to writing short fiction, his essays and nonfiction have been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Salon, The Rumpus, and The Daily Beast. He lives in Oak Park, Illinois with his wife and baby daughter and somehow finds time to blog eloquently at http://nevalalee.wordpress.com/ and give smart replies to interview questions by email.
You say on your website that you wrote your first novel at the age of thirteen, but that “thankfully, only one copy survives.” How many copies were there? What is the general premise, and does it relate to or foreshadow some of your work now?
The only remaining copy consists of two hundred faded double-spaced pages from an ancient dot-matrix printer, and although there’s probably a version of it somewhere on floppy disk, it’s in a format that’s no longer readable—which is true of almost everything I wrote before high school. I haven’t looked at it in almost two decades, but it was heavily influenced by Dune and the work of Orson Scott Card, and involved intelligent fish and a religious matriarchy on a planet covered entirely by water. I still love science fiction, but these days, I tend to focus on contemporary settings, and leave the world-building to the experts.
You were interested in writing from a young age, yet you didn’t seek it as a career until after a degree and several years at a financial firm. What do you think it was that finally pushed you towards pursuing your passion, even when it was less financially secure?
I spent years trying to write and work at the same time, but never managed to finish a novel, and finally concluded that I had to choose one or the other. Looking back, I’m not sure that quitting my job was necessary: I suspect that I would have been able to write at least one book if I’d developed some of the habits—especially outlining—that I acquired only later. But in my case, it wasn’t until I became more serious about writing for a living that I started to figure out the practical side.
What is your process/approach to writing? Where do you get your inspiration from, and how does it drive your process?
I’m always on the lookout for new ideas, and I’m constantly reading and searching for stories. I generally start any writing project by deciding on a subject I want to explore—in The Icon Thief, for instance, it was the world of art dealing and investing. I talk to people, read a lot of books, and travel if I can, all with an eye to possible scenes and characters. Once I’ve acquired a critical mass of material, I put together a detailed outline that covers the first section of the novel, although I’m careful to leave certain questions unanswered. As soon as I have a sense of the structure, I start writing, usually a chapter a day. Then I repeat the process for the second part, which often requires additional research, and so on until the rough draft is done—which is when the real work begins.
Penguin is obviously a pretty prestigious publisher, and tends to be quite competitive as a result. When publishing, especially with large companies like Penguin, how do you (or mostly how did you, before you became successful and known) separate yourself from the noise?
In all honesty, the best way to stand out these days is to submit your work through a good agent, especially if you’re determined to approach a major publisher. Not only will most of the big houses not read unagented manuscripts, but an agent’s knowledge of the marketplace and specific editors can be crucial. As for finding an agent, some authors have luck with unsolicited submissions, but a better way is to live as much as possible among other writers—which is also a good habit for its own sake—while developing your craft as ruthlessly as you can.
How much influence does your publisher and/or your editor have over your writing?
These days, much of the editorial process—at least at the major houses—has been outsourced to literary agents, largely because the editors themselves are busy with the business of packaging and marketing books. I spent more than a year reworking The Icon Thief with an agent before going out to publishers, but the notes I received from my editor at Penguin took about two weeks to address. (My editor’s suggestions tend to focus on specific points of clarification and expansion, but they’re invariably helpful, and they always improve the resulting novel tremendously.)
At what point did you feel that you had become “successful’?
I’m not sure a writer can ever feel entirely successful, but seeing The Icon Thief in stores was certainly validating—it was the first time I ever felt comfortable describing myself as a writer at parties. Another big turning point was when I sold a novel based on a synopsis alone: it’s nice to be paid in advance for something you haven’t yet written.
What advice would you give to young writers? What advice do you wish you’d had?
Begin as early as you can. I’d say it takes ten years of solid work—or a million words—before you start to get comfortable with craft, so it pays to get your apprenticeship out of the way as soon as possible. I’d also recommend learning how to outline: it often makes the difference between a finished novel and one that exists only in fragments.
And don’t go back to read your own work until the entire draft is done.
If you had to pick just one thing, what is the most critical element to writing?
Apart from discipline and the ability to write a clean sentence, I’ve found that what separates professionals from most aspiring authors is a willingness to cut. Nearly every first draft by a diligent writer contains a core of good material, but also a lot of false starts, and it’s the reluctance to look at a story objectively and cut what doesn’t belong—even if it took weeks or months of hard labor—that keeps a lot of promising writers from taking their work to the next level.
Zoë Gulliver is a creative writing BFA at UBC in Vancouver, currently finishing her final year. She writes screenplays, graphic novels, and fiction, and a taste of her latest graphic novel can be seen in the UBC magazine, Fugue.