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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