As well as the following interview with Lisa Mannetti, I'll be giving a paperback copy of The Box Jumper to one lucky winner (who happens to live in the U.S. or Canada). To enter, all you have to do is send me an email at therabidfox[at]gmail[dot]com before midnight EST on Monday night, Dec 1, 2015, with the subject "BOX JUMPER." Sound good? Great. Now, onto the interview ...
Gef: Where did the fascination with Harry Houdini start for you?
Lisa: It began in my childhood. Like most fans (or in my case, worshipper) I caught a rerun of the Tony Curtis/Janet Leigh film and within a week, I was in the local public library hunting up the first of many biographies and books I’d eventually read.
Gef: One of the aspects to Houdini I found fascinating was his eventual outing of his former idol, Robert Houdini, as a fraud. Another was his strained friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle over spiritualism. Particularly since his early career included his own brand of less-than-authentic occult endeavors to put food on the table. Do you think, in his work of debunking the supernatural, he was battling against his own public image and those close to him who bought into his stunts? What do you think drove this guy?
Lisa: To answer question two (which is actually a minimum of four questions) as thoroughly as I’d like I’d have to write you about 5,000 words for starters. But sure, let’s take a quick whack at addressing your queries. In his book, A Magician Among the Spirits, Houdini talks about his youthful fling with the occult as a lark and more importantly, that he was aware of the deceptions he perpetrated—but strictly as entertainment value, with the only goal being to mystify his audiences. He was always interested in Spiritualism (though he never personally subscribed to it as a faith), but approached it as a skeptic with an open mind; gradually he was not only chagrined at his own shamming, but he realized the tricks perpetrated by the mediums of his day bordered on criminal acts and undermined the seriousness of the grief that follows a death. He writes “I too would have parted gladly with a large share of my earthly possessions for the solace of one word from my loved departed—just one word that I was sure had been genuinely bestowed by them—and so I was brought to the full consciousness of the sacredness of the thought, and became deeply interested to discover if there was a possible reality to the return, by Spirit, of one who had passed over….”
This excerpt gives us one inkling about his mindset: Houdini sincerely kept hoping there were genuine mediums out there, and he was—over time—more and more angered by their fraudulent stunts, which he felt not only hoodwinked the vulnerable, but actually endangered them. He often cited the fact that after Conan Doyle’s 1922 Carnegie Hall lecture, for example, a woman named Maude Fancher killed her infant and herself while leaving behind a letter written to Doyle proclaiming she was inspired by the Spiritualist movement to hasten her transition to the afterlife. Houdini, who also spoke before Congress in an attempt to get a law against phony psychics enacted, was himself an exceedingly generous man and it enraged him that psychics were pocketing enormous fees preying on the grief-stricken. Spiritualism was one of the fastest growing religions in the post- WW I-era and tricksters knew no bounds when it came to roping in the willing, the gullible and the curious.
This is a meager response—but I note there are five additional interrogatives, so I figured I ought to move on….<grin>
Gef: Rather than tell the tale from Houdini's perspective, you went with one of his assistants. Was this to help keep him at arm's reach and retain that air of magic about him?
Lisa: That’s a terrific concept—unfortunately it’s not the reason I came up with the fictional Leona Derwatt, the unreliable narrator in THE BOX JUMPER. I knew I wanted to write about Houdini and after doing a lot of research, I sat down to listen to what my muse (or, if you prefer, my subconscious) had to say. Luckily, since I’d done a ton of work, Leona had plenty of facts at her fingertips so that neither one of us would sound completely stupid on the subject. I also “divined” almost immediately that she was in love with Houdini. It was a huge shock when I learned, as much as he loved Bess and was devoted to her, that Houdini had a wandering eye—among other anatomical parts. So, I guess to compensate for what was (to me) disappointing news about an idol, I jumped into the romantic subject matter even more deeply than I might have ordinarily. It also turned out that I really adored Leona, too, and I think that helps create a great deal of sympathy for her.
Gef: What was it about this book, if anything, that you approached differently from you previous titles?
Lisa: You mean aside from intensive research, careful construction, the emphasis on and importance of language, nuance and even sentence rhythm? You do? Oh, okay. One thing I included in this work (a practice I plan on continuing—but more on this later in reference to my work in progress) was embedding a few “secrets.” Not guessing them or hunting them up certainly won’t diminish a reader’s experience in the least, but for those who are addicted to puzzles, spy technique, or have always dreamt of becoming a private investigator, there are a few hidden clues sprinkled here and there. And anyone who figures out any two of these crafty enigmas can email me and win a free signed copy. I’m not saying I’ll personally sign it—and there’s no chance I can get Ian Fleming or J. Edgar Hoover since they’re both dead—actually, I will sign it….
Gef: How intensive does the research process get for you? What little tricks have you picked up with approaching the research phase of writing?
Lisa: Extremely intense—everything from reading as much as possible (and taking notes) before I write, to stopping in the middle of a sentence to research on the fly for something I just thought of that I want to add (the name of a street or a particular product, say). I read at least fifty books and articles, watched tons of videos and, I still find more to watch and read and even though the novella is done and I’m no longer under the gun, I’m still interested, so now reading about his world is part of my leisure reading.
The best trick I learned and swear by is that research helps enormously with both plot and character development. Try it, you’ll like it.<grin>
Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?
Lisa: “Kill all your darlings….” Okay, maybe if it’s really bogging down the story, get in there with the hatchet…on the other hand, some darlings need to be coddled and rethought—maybe your particular sweetums just belongs elsewhere, maybe (depending on the work and the medium) it needs to be expanded, maybe it’s a hint for something else you haven’t thought about previously. Take it out if necessary, but save it in your Notes and Cuts file. Worst case scenario: Some of those darlings make terrific Hallmark card sentiments and you can either earn some extra bucks or make Grandma’s day.
“Write what you know….”I don’t know that I despise this one—because we all do it, and with good reason, but there are ramifications to consider: Joseph L. Manciewicz knew nothing about the theater, yet one of his best films (in fact, one of the best films ever made) was ALL ABOUT EVE; on the other hand, he knew tons about film and THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA was both a critical and commercial failure. I guess what I may be trying to say is that if your darling is about something you know, maybe you do need to sharpen up that axe….
Gef: How would you gauge your progression as a writer thus far, and where you do see your imagination taking you next?
Lisa: Since I’m very hard on myself, I see my progression so far as much too slow, and often think of myself as a professional slacker. I not only plan on never retiring, when a physician said to me recently, “You might be in the middle of a great book when you die,” I replied, “I better be.” So, you get the idea.
Next, I don’t know—not for sure, anyway—but at the moment, the novel-in-progress I’m working on is entitled RADIUM GIRL. It’s about a fictional character horrifically affected by the post-WWI-era dial painters tragedy. Lots of research (including a terrific find from the Library of Congress no one else has mentioned), lots of darkness and tragedy and plenty of hidden secrets. I’m very excited about it and am hoping to finish this spring.
Anyhow, Gef, many thanks for the opportunity to talk to all the Wag the Fox blog readers!