Surrounded by Houdini
So, let’s just say: I have a lot of Houdini stuff. A lot. Too much? No, I didn’t say that. I just said “A lot.”
When I’m writing a book, I like to be entirely submerged. I have no earthly idea if this helps the writing, hurts the writing or has no impact at all on the writing … but it’s basically the only way I know how to do these things. When I wrote my first book, “The Soul of Baseball,” I refused to listen to any kind of music except Kansas City-inspired jazz. When I wrote my second book, “The Machine,” I only listened to songs from 1975. When I wrote my third book, “Paterno,” I didn’t have to do anything to be immersed because that experience swallowed me up whole.
But Houdini was always going to be an entirely different thing because it was so different from anything else I’ve ever done. How could I lose myself in Houdini’s world? How could I surround myself with the sort of wonder and mystery and awe that I hoped to inject into the book?
Right. I bought a whole lot of Houdini stuff.
How much? My wife, Margo, will tell you that every single day of the writing process two or three boxes would arrive on our front porch. I believe this to be a gross exaggeration … and then I look at my Houdini office and see all the books, the posters, the nicknacks, the dolls, the handcuffs, the magic tricks, the stuffed animals, the unclassifiable items such as the Houdini beer stein … and, yeah, doing the math, she’s probably right.
I can’t really explain it: I felt this need to be surrounded by Houdini.
Like I say, I have no idea if this helped the book. But I can tell you: I’m not entirely sure I could have written the book without it. There’s something I learned a long time ago but it’s something that still surprises me today: Writing a book is hard. I don’t mean that in the general way though it is generally true that writing a book is hard.
I mean that compared to OTHER kinds of writing — newspaper, magazine, blog, poetry, essay, short story — writing a book is hard. It’s different. I didn’t appreciate that at all when I began my first book. I thought it would be a lot like writing a really long newspaper article (or, more accurately, a series of really long newspaper articles).
But with the book I would find myself stuck for hours at a time — something that was never true when I was writing newspaper articles. I found that I needed something pushing me forward at all times. I wrote almost all of “The Soul of Baseball” in coffee shops and a little table at the Kansas City Public Library … I just couldn’t write it at home. I needed to plunge deep into myself to write the book, and it took me a long time to figure that out. That’s where the music idea came from: I was looking for inspiration at every turn, and the jazz that so moved and ignited Buck O’Neil was the music I needed to move and ignite the book.
I still don’t get this at all. As anyone who has read my work through the years knows, I have no problem whatsoever writing words. I write too many words. Always. My emails are too long. My letters are too long. My Tweets are too long. Words pour out of me faster than I can type them. I hiccup a 2,000 or 3,000 word post on why Bruce Springsteen rocks or what it feels like watching my daughter play a tennis match or why it drives me crazy that there has never been a great email app.
But with The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, I spent days and days and days on just the opening story of the book. I know part of it is that you want every word to be perfect in a book, there’s a different intensity about it. And I know part of it is that a book is such a daunting challenge, so many pages, so many words, you can’t see the end.
But there’s something else too, something cosmic, something profound, something a bit unfathomable about the book-writing process. I still don’t get it.
I just knew that I had to get a whole bunch of Houdini stuff to write this book.
So I did. I know it probably sounds like I’m exaggerating about how much Houdini stuff I’ve bought but … I’m not.
And to prove it, my younger daughter Katie and I have started an Instagram series where we will post Houdini stuff every day until the book comes out on Oct. 22. We might have started the series a little bit too far out — I’m not sure the appetite is for 60 photos of Houdini things — but I have no doubt that I have more than enough Houdini stuff to get us to the finish line.
Here are the posts from the first three days.
This is the Houdini bear that the US Postal Service released in 2002 in celebration of the new Houdini stamp.
He is happy in the sun.
This is Houdini Bear, the adorable little stuffed bear that the U.S. Postal Service offered as part of their unveiling of the Harry Houdini stamp. I will not tell you how many times I wandered over to the shelf and picked up Houdini Bear during the writing process.
This is a poster from Houdini’s big show. It was, as you can see on the poster, three shows in one. He would do some magic. He would do some escapes. And then, in the third part, he would expose mediums. This was his dream — his entire career, Houdini wanted his own successful show but it wasn’t until the end of his life that he finally got it. Houdini was performing this show when he died on Halloween, 1926.
And here’s the Houdini beer stein I mentioned. It opens and closes … if you click on the photo you can see the little video Katie and I put up on Instagram.
And we’ll keep putting up more and more stuff; Katie is very much into this. If you would like to follow us over at Instagram, hey, we’d love to have you.