13 November 2014

A Q&A with Erin Thomas

Author Erin Thomas kindly agreed to a brief Q&A about her latest book for the 11-14 set, "Forcing the Ace."  Read what Erin has to say about The Den, Magic Mike, Justin Flom, Sorcerers Safari and more!

1. Your book portrays magic very authentically.  How much time did you spend researching the magic community? 

First of all, thank you for the compliment! Of all the books I’ve written, this is probably the one I enjoyed researching the most. That’s lucky, because I had originally pitched a few different ideas to Sarah Harvey, the editor of the Limelights series at Orca. Most of them were for areas of the performing arts where I had at least a little bit of knowledge or experience. And then there was the magic idea. When that one turned out to be her favourite, I knew I was going to be doing a lot of research.

I spent months learning about magic. Many months. I initially met with a friend’s son, who happens to be a magician. He sent me to Browser’s Den magic shop in Toronto, and suggested that I get in touch with “Magic” Mike Segal, who runs a week-long summer camp for young magicians. Both of those turned out to be incredible leads.

I read instructional books about magic and watched a ton of videos and television specials, including those “magic’s secrets revealed” types of shows. I learned how a lot of magic effects are created, but I don’t kid myself that it’s the same thing as being able to actually create the effects—that would take hours upon hours upon hours of practice. I did fumble around with cards a little bit… enough to gain a healthy respect for how hard it is. I also attended a workshop that Justin Flom presented at Browser’s Den and met some of the magicians there.

The best research opportunity was the visit to camp when you and I met, Nicole. It was incredible to have the opportunity to speak to so many young magicians in person and learn what they feel is most important about the art. That was relatively late in my writing timeline, and I remember wishing I could re-imagine the whole book after that. I made some adjustments to the storyline I had, and decided that I’m probably not done writing about magicians—there are so many more stories to tell.

2. How does the performance art of magic differ from any of the other performance arts that you know about?  How is it the same?

I think one thing that makes magic special is that it rewards a certain kind of suspension of disbelief. When you see a play or a ballet, you know that you are watching a show unfold… you’re conscious of the artifice. With magic, that’s still the case—we all know that chairs can’t float and cards don’t change colour—but I think there’s a tiny voice inside saying, “Maybe.” The magician and the viewer agree together to pretend that the laws of physics can be suspended, just for a little while. At least, that’s how I prefer to watch magic performed.

Another thing that makes magic special is that it can be enjoyed on so many levels. There’s the element of wonder and the feeling that the world might have possibilities in it beyond the everyday—that’s the first level. On the second level, it’s a puzzle to be solved, if you enjoy that sort of thing. I don’t think I’d want to try too hard to solve it, but sometimes that can be fun. And even when you know how an effect is performed, the third level of enjoyment kicks in, which is just the pure pleasure of watching someone do something well.

Of course, all the performance arts have some things in common. What strikes me most is the extreme amount of dedication and focus required. Even a short performance requires countless hours of learning and practice, whether you’re playing the piano or making one disappear.

3. What were the three biggest surprises to you, about the magic community?

I was most surprised by how welcoming and forthcoming everyone was. There were magicians I reached out to via email, and some I met in person. Nearly without fail, they were all warm, polite, supportive and extremely helpful. Seriously, falling-over-backwards helpful. I wasn’t kidding about wanting to write more about magicians; there just wasn’t room in one small book to use all the story possibilities that people opened up for me, or to do credit to the amount of help they offered. Maybe because of the secrecy associated with the craft, I had expected to meet with more resistance, but that wasn’t the case at all.

One thing I found interesting was the overlap between magic and other crafts. I hadn’t thought of it, but a magician needs to master stagecraft the way an actor does—voice projection, bearing, even character creation. It’s funny, but I never thought about a magician putting on a “persona” for an act. To me as an audience member, they simply were the way they were. It’s silly in retrospect. And then, of course, there’s the storytelling aspect—a performance can be like a short story, in a lot of ways. Some of the best short stories show a character in a moment of change, and create that change for the reader. A magician creates that change moment in the audience. That takes planning, and a rigorous editing process. I got a glimpse at that editing process when I sat in on a performance workshop at the Sorcerers Safari camp.

The third surprise reveals more about my ignorance going into this, I think. I really had no idea that some of the people I met were “big deals” in the magic community until after the fact. They didn’t act like it—they were just these lovely, friendly, down-to-earth people, happy to talk about magic. It was kind of like meeting Margaret Atwood in a bookstore and asking her for reading recommendations without having any idea who she is. I hope I didn’t annoy anybody too much.

4. How did you learn about magic being used for physical rehabilitation?  Did you know there's a Toronto based organization, Magicana, that runs a program like that at a children's rehabilitation hospital?

Oh, yikes. I don’t remember who told me about that initially, and I don’t see it in my project notebook right now. I do remember that as soon as I heard about magic being used this way, I loved the idea, and wanted to include it in the book somehow—I thought it was absolutely the perfect thing for someone struggling to re-learn motor skills. I’ve known some people involved in terrible accidents, and so I know how long the road back can be. This just struck me as a wonderful, positive aspect of the magic community, and I wanted to make it part of the story.

I didn’t know about Magicana, but I researched other organizations that run similar programs. It’s wonderful that there’s one right in Toronto.

5. Currently, magic is strongly male dominated.  I was surprised to see so many magical females represented in your book.  Was that a conscious decision?  If so, why?
It was a conscious decision. I wanted to admit in the book that magic is male dominated, but still present some female magicians as characters, to show that to readers as a possibility. I didn’t have room for a huge cast, so the balance probably comes out more female because of that. Partly, it was in response to the fact that Zoe’s backstory, the way she comes to magic, is a bit tragic and atypical. Because of that, I didn’t want hers to be the only ‘female’ story in the book. I gave Donna a more conventional magic backstory—her father was a magician. “Magic families” were something else I learned about by talking to magicians, and I love the idea of the craft being something shared between a parent and a child. Jack and Donna end up on rocky ground later in life, but magic remains their connection point.

6. Is there anything else you'd like our readers to know?  (About you, your research, your books, the limelight series, as examples.)
Mostly just that I enjoyed learning more about the magical community, and I’d like to thank everyone who helped, especially the Sorcerers Safari group. Magicians are a fascinating bunch.

Overall, I think the Limelights books do a great job of providing a behind-the-scenes look at the different arts, so I’d recommend them to anyone who’s curious about what goes on backstage. 

Thank you Erin for your candid insight into the writing process!

A reminder to enter today to win your copy of Forcing the Ace!

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