The Magic of Writing Fiction about Magic

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I’ve loved magic since I was a kid. I eagerly watched magicians on television, especially Doug Henning, Harry Anderson, and David Copperfield. It looked so cool that they could appear to cut a person in half, make something vanish, or perform some other jaw-dropping feat. In my head, I knew that the illusions performed were not physically possible. Harry Anderson wasn’t “really” sticking a giant hatpin right through his arm on Saturday Night Live. David Copperfield wasn’t “really” making a 747 disappear. Doug Henning didn’t just…do that, did he? But I still was enthralled. The craft of illusion fascinated me, and even though I was able to suspend my disbelief, I admired the work and practice it must have taken to make the performances look so smooth.

Then I had a chance to peek behind the curtain. I lived with a magician for a few years, and he had a lot of magician friends. I watched them practice; I went to their shows; I learned about their props. And for a short time, I was an actual assistant, right down to the fishnet tights and misdirection. I wasn’t very good at my job, but it was a lot of fun to dress up on a weekend and try to get people to put money in our hat. I learned how to juggle and perform a few simple illusions, much to the delight of various small, fussy children and their weary parents.

I still watched the professionals with agog, even though most of the time I knew how the tricks worked. I met Harry Anderson in a Manhattan magic store (he’s adorably sweet and freakishly tall), I spoke with David Copperfield after one of his shows (eerily intense and possibly a vampire), ditto Jeff McBride (less eerily intense than Copperfield though), among others. But there was one thing I noticed time and time again.

Nearly all of the women I’d met in magic were the assistants. They were better than I had been, earned a lot more money than I had, but they weren’t headlining.

My career ambitions lay elsewhere, and just as well, because as I said, I wasn’t very good at my assistant job. You need to be flexible to fold yourself into some of those illusions, and that wasn’t in my skill set. But the question still ruminated in the back of my mind: why aren’t there more women in magic?

As I grew into writing and left magic to the professionals, I discovered two fundamental truths. First, no experience is wasted. Second, certain themes and ideas resonate for a reason. I hoped that one day I would find a suitable vehicle for my magical past and write about a woman who wanted to be a magician in her own right. And then Christina Davenport popped into my head. When I first “met” her, she was a snarky waitress, auditioning to become a magician’s assistant, hoping he wouldn’t figure out that she wanted to use him as a springboard into her own spotlight. It was a sort of power struggle between her and the magician: he wanted her to get inside a box illusion and she didn’t want to reveal her claustrophobia or her ambitions. When I started asking her more questions, a story developed.

How to handle the magic in the story was another challenge.

I’d hung around enough magicians to have internalized the idea that you don’t spill the secrets. Even though magicians like Penn and Teller do let a few cats out of the bag, it’s done strategically, and to let the audience share in the wonder of how something is done.

But how could I write a story set in a background of street and stage magic without a little peek inside—enough to pull a reader into the world and make the (sometimes imagined for the sake of the story) illusions look real without ticking off the magicians by revealing too much? Well, the magicians union hasn’t made me disappear yet, so maybe I struck the right balance.

Another reason I liked working with the theme of magic is that it sort of mirrors the art of fiction itself. Fiction writers harness the power of misdirection, of showmanship, and throw around a little sleight of hand when needed. So even though I might have been a bad assistant, maybe it was because I was really rehearsing for a different role in magic.

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A quick and shamelessly promotional note—for a limited time, A Sudden Gust of Gravity will be available free from The Choosy Bookworm. If you sign up for the Read and Review program, you’ll get a free copy of the book in exchange for your honest review. Even though it’s listed under “suspense and thrillers,” the story is more on the suspense-y, romance-y side. Categories are funny sometimes.

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Relics

pharaoh-471589_1280I’m sharing a story I wrote from Friday’s 2-Minutes-Go. There’s some great writing going on. Click here if you’d like to see what we came up with this week. Maybe one week, you’ll join us. [Audio version on SoundCloud.]

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He was still attempting to reach her, still attempting to explain. From the moment Marta had stormed out of their house, where she’d discovered her professor husband with his best student, throughout her ride to the airport, and even as she was checking into her hotel room in Alexandria, she sent his calls, texts, and voicemail messages into the ether. The ancient Egyptians she studied had the right idea. If you wanted to vanquish an enemy, remove the evidence. Chip their names from edifices, strike them from scrolls, let their good deeds, if any, never be spoken of again. The memories were harder. Especially because the two of them had made this discovery together. They’d found the pharaoh’s mistress. And yes, the irony cut her like the high-tech tools they’d used to exhume the remains. She’d been invited to speak at the opening of the exhibit; he’d declined, and now she knew why. But it was too late to back out, and besides, Marta felt she owed it to the “secret queen,” as historians had come to call her, to honor her memory, to drag her from the burial chambers relegated to the pharaoh’s servants, where she’d been hidden for thousands of years.

There was time before the curators expected her, so she asked for a private tour. She trailed a hand over the Plexiglas covering the death masks and relics and the mummified remains of the woman herself. She must have been important to him to merit such an honorable afterlife. Buried among the servants, yes, forgotten by the ages, certainly, but what ordinary person at that time in Egypt, even a palace servant, was treated so well in death? “I know you all too well,” she whispered. Squeezing her eyes shut, she remembered a time when she was the best student, the eager disciple of the man who had declined to come to Egypt and share the spotlight. She ducked into a corner and called him. “Do you love her?” she said. His silence told the story, and she hung up, and deleted him.