Thursday, December 27, 2018

Len Rosen on writing fiction/making magic: Aha!


HALLIE EPHRON: I am a huge fan of magic (the how-to of it; stories of great magicians and debunkers like and Harry Houdini and James Randi), and also of Len Rosen's crime fiction ever since I read his first, All Cry Chaos. So I was thrilled to have Len's new novel, The Kortelisy Escape, to read over the holiday.

I whipped through it,
a fantastic twisty, heartwarming grandfather-grandaughter tale that mixes magic and mystery. Throw in a set of Russian nesting dolls... perfect for the season.
Kirkus gave it a starred review: "A master storyteller weaves a tale of love, pain, and sleight of hand.... [A] clever and richly enjoyable novel."

I'm thrilled to host Len today, talking about magic and writing.

LEN ROSEN:
In his 1991 essay “The Magic Show,” Tim O’Brien (Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried) finds in his life-long fascination with magic as metaphor for writing fiction.

Successful fiction¸ he claims, like successful stage magic depends on performers using the tools of their trade to create stunning effects. Onstage, a bottle of wine might appear from thin air; on the page, a character’s plight might evoke pity. Both effects are remarkable in that they’re illusions. Both are impossible, yet the impossible is made real.

Like stage magicians, writers conjure illusions so perfectly that we find ourselves rooting for or against people who don’t exist save for strings of letters on a page.
Where does Jane Eyre live, exactly? In a book? In our minds? In conversations with friends? She’s alive, but then again not. Writers are magicians. When we are in full command of our tricks—point of view, framing, plotting, and so much more—we, too, make the unreal real. We move audiences to belief.

I’ve been thinking a lot about magic and writing. My just-released novel, The Kortelisy Escape, concerns the lives of a fourteen-year-old-girl who apprentices herself to her aged grandfather, an amateur magician who’s scheduled to perform magic shows across New England. Grace Larson is an orphan; Nate Larson is an ex-con running from trouble—characters who have good reason to distrust each other. But with time there comes a thaw and, with more time, trust.

Kortelisy
is a mystery and a coming-of-age story told through a series of increasingly dangerous tricks.

Magic may be a metaphor, but I employed it literally to drive my plot, and this created challenges. How was I going to use words to reproduce for readers the ultimate surprise and delight of magic shows: the “AHA!” moments at the conclusion of great tricks? That “AHA!” is profoundly non-verbal. Audiences may gasp when a full-size bowling ball drops from a thin sheaf of papers. Their jaws may drop. Their eyes may go wide and they’ll definitely laugh and applaud. What they don’t do in their moments of wonder is talk. Yet words are all a novelist has. How was I going to use words to evoke a wordless experience?
I spent five years answering this question, describing magic tricks from the outside—from the audience’s point of view; from the inside—the magician’s point of view; from the deeper inside—the interior monologue all in search of the elusive “AHA!” Could I reproduce on the page what magicians achieve every night, onstage?

As it happened, Kortelisy’s biggest wonder-inducing moments came not through a depiction of stage magic but through human interaction: through affections unfolding between a wounded old man and a doubly wounded child. I used plot, metaphor, misdirection and every other tool in my writer’s kit to deliver “AHA!” moments to readers.

You can’t fake love and you can’t fake the grand “AHA!”, Nate tells Grace as she struggles to learn and perform her own magic. Nor can readers fake engagement with a story. Either the writer pulls off the effect—empathy for characters who exist only on the page—or not. Either jaws drop or they don’t.

When O’Brien suggests that the deepest mystery fiction explores is character, I understand him to mean this: We can’t have one another’s dreams, can’t know one another’s thoughts and emotions.  At the smell of rolls baking in an oven, I can’t recall, as you do, the Thanksgiving dinner five years ago when your daughter announced she was pregnant. The brutal fact of existence is that we’re radically separated from one other even as we spend our lives seeking connection. Fiction helps us bridge the unbridgeable. The biggest mystery of Kortelisy is not how a grandfather and granddaughter use stage magic to outwit people who wish them harm. It’s how, despite every reason to reject each other, a nearly ruined old man and nearly ruined child instead save each other.

I needed to write a novel about a magician to appreciate fully O’Brien’s account of magic as metaphor. Without the deeper mysteries of real human emotions being plumbed, the writer’s tricks—all the techniques of fiction—can take us only so far. To deliver an “AHA!” experience on the page every bit as compelling (and non–verbal) as those magicians deliver onstage, we writers must use our skills to achieve the greatest trick of all: convincing readers to care for people who exist nowhere but in our heads.

If we can get them to care, we’ve got our “AHA!”


HALLIE: By the end of The Kortelisy Escape, I was rooting so hard for Grace and Nate, but by then trusting that Len would manage the magic needed to save them.


What's your relationship to magic? Do you watch the show and happily suspend belief? (READ LEN'S BOOK!) Or do you need to know how the sleight-of-hand is achieved? (READ LEN'S BOOK!

42 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your new book, Len, and the wonderful reviews it has received. I am looking forward to meeting Nate and Grace . . . .

    I love those AHA moments when I’m reading, and I love them in a magic show. I’m good with watching and appreciating the art without needing to know how it’s come about . . . .

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    1. Thanks! Interesting how a magic show makes want to KNOW how the magician pulled off the effect. Fiction doesn't invite that response,unless you're a writer wanting to know how the writer pulls off the impossible--you know, the nuts and bolts, the moves. When I'm reading a great novel (when I'm not in my writer;s head), I totally fall for the effect.

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  2. It sounds like I need to read Len's book! Stage magic fascinates me, but I see it as only one facet of the much larger magic that happens any time people gather together in the dark to be carried away by what's happening up there on the artfully lit stage. Music, drama, comedy, dance; we create something larger than all these by sitting in the audience together and believing. Some of the most inspiring moments of my life have happened when we, as an audience, believed in fairies enough to bring Tinkerbell back to life, or joined hands with the other 40,000 people in the room to sing "Hey Jude." Even when we know how the magic is done, there is something profoundly satisfying in the careful building of tension, and the brilliant rush of the AHA moment of release when we all do it together as a community. That's why, I think, even in this day of digital downloads and high-speed streaming, we still enjoy going out of our houses and away from our computers to share the experience of live performance with other believers.

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    1. Bravo, Gigi! Beautifully said!!

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    3. Here, here! When it works, there's true magic when the curtain rises on a live performance.

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    4. I take what Gigi writes to heart. What could possibly induce 40,000 people to attend an event and, collectively, connect--not only to the art but to one another. In the theater, at a concert we connect collectively. Over fiction, the connection is private but just as profound. For me, all this speaks of a fundamental, existential need. Maybe I'm projecting my neediness. Who knows? I just feel MUCH better when the connection comes, in whatever form: concert, play, magician's show, book.

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  3. Congratulations, Len - this sounds fantastic!

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  4. Congratulations, Len! Wow! Sounds fantastic and I'll have to read this. I really do love a good magic act. I don't try to "figure it out" I just want to be amazed and I usually am.

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    1. I'm always trying to figure it out... the cool thing is in Len's books, he SHOWS you just how the tricks work. And STILL I go "Aha!"

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    2. I'm with you. I know people who, after attending a magic show, rush to Google for explanations of tricks that stumped them. I'd rather let the trick linger and think about it for days. In researching Kortelisy, I spent lots of time with magicians--and there are still several tricks that boggle my mind.

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  5. I know about POV and other 'tricks' of what makes writing good--but when I read a book, I don't think about any of this--I want to go along for the ride. Same with other kinds of magic, as Gigi pointed out, I don't want to know the inner workings of the magician's craft, see behind the scenes at the ballet or the play or the concert. I'll be looking for Len's book!

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    1. Me too, Flora - I hate to see the 'strings and pulleys' - just want to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride.

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    2. Those of us who manage the strings and pulleys love you both!

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    3. Gets me every time--how much effort goes into making us believe in the effects before us: magic, theater, dance. I come out the other side and think:where did that hour go?

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  6. Congratulations on the new book, Len, and thank you for being with us on this lost-between-the-holidays day! I don't know why I have never found your books before, but I just looked up your earlier works and am now looking forward to enjoying them all.

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  7. When the curtain goes up, I want the magic and wonder. It's only afterwards that I think about the ropes and pulleys. The same is true when I read a book.

    Congratulations on your new release! Looking forward to reading it.

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    1. This is the test, isn't it? To seduce the audience SO totally that we altogether forget about ropes and pulleys. With the very best performances, I find it daunting to return to the work to identify and study the techniques that brought it off. Sometimes I learn the most form an otherwise great performance that hiccups for just a moment or two. That gives me a handle to ask: What's not happening here that happened so beautifully elsewhere?

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  8. May I just say?This is one the the BEST booksI have eve read. Quick story: I met Len, oh, years and years ago. I was at a party, and was talking to a new acquaintance (I didn't know who she was) about his amazing book I was reading, how it was terrific and I adored it, and on and on. she asked me what it was, and I said it's All Cry Chaos, by Len Rosen. She paused, and looked at me. "I'm his agent, "she said. And the pointed."Len's right over there." We've been friends and writing buddies ever since! YAAAY And wow--I love this book.

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    1. Love that story Hank! Congratulations Len, off to add your new book to the pile...

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    3. Back at you, Hank. One of the magic tricks you are forever pulling off in your novels is the initial setup so tightly coiled that the story, with mounting tension, springs fully formed from it. I'm starting something new, now, and I've been channeling Hank. What's the setup? WHAT is the setup? Get that right and it'll carry the whole story. It's true: Friends and writing buds.

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  9. Congratulations, Len!

    Like Flora, I know the "mechanics" are going on, but when I'm immersed, I don't think about them. I want to enjoy the show!

    Mary/Liz

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  11. Hi, Len! What a great post. I'd never really thought about the creation of characters as magic, but it's so true--the writer makes real the unreal.

    I am usually happy to suspend belief, unless I'm in, as Len says, "writer's head," in which case I want to know all the behind the scenes nuts and bolts. The best of both worlds, maybe.

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  12. This is so interesting and I am intrigued by the book. I might add that one of the best mystery writing classes I ever took, a long time ago, was taught by someone who was also a magician. At the last class, he performed a trick and then demonstrated how it was done. He said, "That is how you write a mystery. Engage the reader's eyes over HERE, while the action is taking place over THERE." Yeah.

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  13. I never thought of authors as magicians, but you are. How many times have I missed non-existent characters after finishing a book? How many times have I had trouble picking my next book to read because I was still so immersed in the non-existent world of the book I just finished? And one day last summer I was going somewhere with my sister when I spotted a white van. I started to say that we needed to go to the police, because that was the van they were looking for. Then I remembered that that was a situation in the book I was reading at the time. Wow, you authors create something real out of the thoughts in your heads!

    Len, I’m looking for your books!

    DebRo

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    1. That is wonderful, DebRo. (Was it the book The White Van?) xoxooo

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    2. We were on vacation and I brought several books to read. I don’t remember what that particular book was, but I was wary of white vans for a couple of days there!!!

      DebRo

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    3. White van? Fictional world bleeding into the actual. Or is it the actual that bleeds into the fiction? I'm constantly blending the two. Know what you mean.

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  14. Oh, my goodness, THE KORTELISY ESCAPE sounds absolutely compelling. And I had never heard the comparison of writing to magic, but it's wonderful how well it works!

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    1. Let's credit Tim O'Brien for the that connection. I remember reading his essay and found it immediately compelling.

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  15. Len is this book on Kindle? I am not seeing it on Amazon.

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    1. Edith, the book will be o Kindle--in a two or three weeks, I think. Glitch at the publisher's. Will make the request again. Check back--and I'll remember to send you a note.

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  16. I love stage magic! It’s just thrilling! Congrats on the book, Len! I can’t wait to read it!

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  17. I have always wondered why people pay money to be dreceived by magicians. I certainly have, many times.

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