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Interview: January 29, 2015

Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright, and now novelist, whose debut, THE MAGICIAN’S LIE, is getting great buzz. It’s the spellbinding story of a notorious illusionist accused of murder: When the Amazing Arden swaps her saw for a fire ax, Officer Virgil Holt will have to decide if it's a new trick or an all-too-real murder. But will Arden reveal her secrets, even when her life is at stake? In this interview with’s Kate Ayers, Macallister talks about her fascination with Adelaide Herrmann, the “Queen of Magic” and the inspiration for Arden, and how a glaring absence in Adelaide’s history moved her to write this story. She also shares how she was quickly disillusioned of any romantic ideas she had about research, as well as which authors have had the greatest influence on her. Your debut novel is set in the late 1890s and early 1900s. What made you choose this time period? I realize one character, Adelaide Herrmann, is based on a real magician, so that likely influenced your choice. But Herrmann had a long and successful career. What was it about the turn of the century that intrigued you?   

Greer Macallister: You’re right that the history of the real Adelaide Herrmann was instrumental in choosing the time period. I wanted to use a real event, her staging of the Bullet Catch in New York City in 1897, as a way to inspire my protagonist, the Amazing Arden. Once I had that anchor, everything else coalesced around it.

BRC: Herrmann was a rare phenomenon as a female magician. Did she inspire THE MAGICIAN’S LIE? You said at some point you might like to write a book featuring her as the main character. Is there a chance of the Amazing Arden making an appearance in that book as well? She is, after all, young enough to cross paths with Herrmann again.

GM: The inspiration for the book was entirely fictional --- it started with an absence. I realized that I’d seen countless references to a male magician cutting a female in half, but not a single one to a female magician cutting a man in half. So I decided I wanted to write that book, about that magician. And then I started researching, looking for examples of real-life female magicians, and Adelaide really jumped out at me. She was called the “Queen of Magic,” and the most successful woman in the category by far. I have, however, bent the truth of her career to fit the story that I wanted to tell, so she doesn’t get to practice magic as extensively or successfully in my book as she did in real life. If I write about Adelaide again, I’ll have to decide how to deal with that.

BRC: This book deals with two stories, which come together at the end. A murder takes place one night in 1905. Officer Virgil Holt has seen the Amazing Arden’s magic show, and learns of the discovery of a body at the scene of her famous Halved Man illusion later that night. Naturally, evidence points toward Arden as the killer. When Officer Holt apprehends her, she tells him her story, beginning back in her childhood. So we see Holt listening and watching in hopes of ferreting out the truth, while Arden explains what led up to the present. The policeman displays care and understanding while thinking of his own future, while the magician is fighting for her freedom. Which of these two viewpoints was the most interesting to write?

GM: I loved writing both viewpoints, which are obviously very different. Arden is spinning a tale. It’s first-person past tense, and it’s lyrical and hypnotic, intended to draw in both the in-book audience of the story, which is Holt, and the real-life reader as well. Holt’s is a little more clipped and sharp, and it’s third-person present tense, more focused on exactly what’s happening in the moment. I don’t think the book would work without one or the other. And I wanted the reader to feel conflicted, to be rooting for both to get what they want, even though Holt and Arden are in direct conflict the entire time. I get very fond of my characters. I loved being inside both his head and hers.

BRC: Arden’s life changed when a young man named Ray came into her family’s lives. And not for the better. It took Arden a lot of time to muster the courage to finally accuse Ray of the many evil things he’d done, and then her mother refused to act on it. How pivotal do you think that scene is? And did you mean to accentuate the course of a person’s life because of one cowardly decision?

GM: That scene is certainly pivotal to the story. There are several moments in the book where someone makes an irrevocable decision and the plot moves in a new direction --- I enjoy those shifts as a reader and wanted to use them as a writer. Arden’s mother’s decision is very much what I think a woman of her time would have done --- not cowardly, necessarily, but she’s just so limited in her options and unable to break free of those constraints.

BRC: Clearly, the issue of women’s rights was in its infancy during this time period, and the justice system was unpredictable and primitive. Ray could come off as charming, making Arden appear to be histrionic at best and a liar at worst. How much did you wish to explore and expose abuse and its deadly consequences in our history?

GM: Sadly, our justice system can still be pretty whimsical, which is not something you want in a justice system, and some people are surprisingly retrograde about women’s rights. But yes, in this time period, both of those things were much earlier in their development, and both are huge potential obstacles for Arden. I definitely wanted Arden to face challenges as a woman that she wouldn’t have as a man --- both in her chosen profession, as a magician and elsewhere in her life, starting as a girl. A boy in her situation would have had different options, a different dynamic. But she’s highly vulnerable, and that makes her desperate. The story and the character were always my focus, but I did also want readers to think about how limited women’s options were in this era, and maybe to think about what’s changed and what hasn’t since then.

BRC: The police officer, Virgil Holt, is as broken as Arden, facing almost as bleak a life as she is. Capturing a murderess could help him keep his job. But then he sees an opportunity to profit personally from letting her go. How much did you want to focus on his inner struggle?

GM: I wanted him to feel as real as Arden, even though he has much less control of the story. She basically gets to hold the microphone a lot more than he does. I wanted them to be in complete opposition, but neither is necessarily right or wrong --- they both have valid concerns and needs and goals. And the stakes are life or death, for both of them.

BRC: At one point, the magician says, “What I loved most about the magic I did as the Amazing Arden was that it wasn’t real.” Throughout much of her story, she is trying to escape the realities of her life. What was your aim in having Arden constantly looking over her shoulder? Possibly to show that, at some point, we all will have to quit running and face our demons?

GM: That’s definitely part of it --- I wanted to incorporate a lot of dualities in the book, so you have escape vs. conflict, innocence vs. guilt, power vs. vulnerability, and so on. And a book like this also really needed a plot, something to tie the action together. I could have written a much longer book about all the different adventures Arden had as a traveling magician, but if it’s just a series of vignettes, that ends up being a lot less compelling for the reader. Having her on the run keeps you wondering when and if she might get caught.

BRC: What can you share about how you conducted your research for THE MAGICIAN’S LIE? Was there anything that surprised you?

GM: It took me a long time to figure out how to get research right. The danger is that you get so entranced by the research that you lose track of the writing, and that definitely happened to me more than once. It took me something like five years to write THE MAGICIAN’S LIE, and if I hadn’t been so distracted by the research process, I probably could have cut that in half. In the early going, I couldn’t write a scene until I knew the historical detail: what hat would she have been wearing, were there electric lights, what was the name of the theater, and so on and so on. I eventually learned to put in placeholders and keep moving, separating my writing time and my research time. It also surprised me how much is available on the Internet. I had a fantasy of poking through dusty books and faded posters, but I learned a lot that I ended up using from Google searches and YouTube videos.

BRC: Readers love to hear who and what influences authors. Do you have a favorite book or writer, or perhaps experience, you would point to as something that spurred you to write?

GM: I was a huge Madeleine L’Engle fangirl in my youth, so she was probably the biggest influence from the beginning. A WRINKLE IN TIME was a powerful find for me as a writer and a reader. From my college years onward, Margaret Atwood has been a major inspiration --- I just love how she can just skip across forms and topics and genres, and excel so beautifully in all of them. I could do a top five favorite books list that would all be Margaret Atwood books.

BRC: And, of course, everyone will want to know if you have another novel in the works. If so, will it revolve around magic and/or Adelaide Herrmann?

GM: Yes, I’m working on my next book --- it’s been hard to find time for it, but I’m actually hopeful that my hours in hotel rooms and on airplanes for the book tour will add up to some serious writing time. As for the topic, I’ll be like my protagonist and keep a few things to myself to maintain an air of mystery!