May 10, 2016
A look behind The Mirror Thief—on sale today!
by Martin Seay
In the spring of 2002, while living briefly in Washington, DC—where my then-girlfriend, now-spouse Kathleen Rooney was finishing her last year of college—I enrolled as a special student at Johns Hopkins to take a writing class called “Experimental Fiction.”
It was a hell of a class. The instructor—Richard Peabody, a terrific writer and under-sung hero of indie publishing—had us turn in something like nine stories over the course of the semester, which exceeds the typical workload for such courses by about seven. Plus, the stories all had to be written to Richard’s rather unpredictable prompts, so you couldn’t just recycle your old material. (Unless, of course, your oeuvre already happened to include “a story in which all the dialogue is stolen from other works of fiction” or “a story in which you personally are a character, and which also features a character borrowed from an existing work of literature and a character borrowed from a cartoon,” which it probably didn’t.)
One night in March, Richard ended class with the assignment to write a story for the following week “in which someone tells a story in which someone tells a story.” As I rode the Metro home, trying to figure out how best to go about doing that, I began to grow concerned that such a project might be tricky to pull off in only a week.
My first draft ended up taking me five and a half years and around seven hundred manuscript pages, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
In those days I was working as a bookseller at a national-chain store in Georgetown, and while shelving in the history section shortly after getting Richard’s assignment, I came across a copy of The Mirror: A History by Sabine Melchior-Bonnet. Originally published in France in 1994, this was a new English translation (by Katharine H. Jewett) commissioned by Routledge—at least in part, one imagines, to take advantage of the sudden vogue for books recounting the histories of particular commodities that had been sparked by Mark Kurlansky’s 1997 blockbuster Cod.
Those proliferating microhistories generally didn’t grab me, but this one looked cool. I took a minute to read the jacket copy, which contained several compelling teasers, including a reference to “how the Venetian Republic employed a combination of both subtle intimidation and outright assassination to protect its mirror-making secrets.” Huh, I thought. I knew a little bit about Venice—I had been mildly obsessed with it ever since spending a couple of misty Lenten backpacker days there a few years earlier: at the time and still today the strangest place I’ve ever been—but this business about mirror-making secrets and outright assassination was all new to me.
I set the book aside to buy later, and I returned to my duties. I shelved, and I thought, and I shelved, and I thought, and by the end of my shift I had pretty much worked out the rough outlines of what would become The Mirror Thief.
I had long wanted to write something about Venice, but had had no notion of how to begin: the topic was too big, too well-trodden. Now, thanks to Richard’s assignment and the idea of the mirror, a path forward started to emerge. Melchior-Bonnet’s book seemed to promise not only plot-level intrigue—I would soon learn that Venice held a near-monopoly on the manufacture of flat glass mirrors for a little under two hundred years, and employed ruthless countermeasures to fend off industrial espionage by foreign powers—but also a bunch of metaphors and motifs that might supply the project with a deeper structure.
A thing that struck me about Venice is the fact that people keep trying to build it again, in places far removed from the Adriatic Sea. These attempts to recreate the city—which suggested a weird and slippery tension between Venice as a place and Venice as an idea, or an image—seemed to rhyme in interesting ways with the notion of the mirror’s reflective, duplicating surface. And the prospect of three nested stories seemed to call for three settings, separate enough in time to allow the characters in each to tell tales about the others.
Therefore I decided to write about Venice by writing about three Venices, in three eras and locations: 1) the original city-state, at a historical moment when its mirror-making industry was at its peak; 2) the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles in the late 1950s, shortly before it became nationally famous as a hotbed of the Beat scene; and 3) the Venice-themed hotel and casino that currently sits at the elbow of the Las Vegas Strip.
When I hastily chose these settings, I was afraid that I wouldn’t find enough connections between them to support a coherent narrative. I ended up with exactly the opposite problem: just about every impulse I pursued echoed with surprising resonances, and the story grew quite naturally, with characters and circumstances materializing to fill the spaces between them. At no point was it difficult to write. The only difficulty lay in finding the patience to give it enough time and space to play out its full hand.
Now—almost exactly fourteen years after I walked into Richard’s next class with twenty-five pages of chaos ending with an apologetic note that read, in effect, “I think I’ll probably keep working on this”—it’s finally time to call this thing done.
The Mirror Thief is on sale now. You can buy your copy here, at your neighborhood independent bookstore, at Barnes & Noble, or at Amazon.
Martin Seay is the executive secretary of the Village of Wheeling, Illinois. The Mirror Thief is his first novel.