The Joy of Writing Houdini
The question I’ve been asked most often — and the question I expect to be asked most often once the crazy book promotion kicks into gear this October — is “Why Houdini?”
Or, “Houdini? Huh? What?”
So I’m going to save that answer for a future newsletter.
Instead, I want to talk about why writing The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, was such a joyous book writing experience.
Every book has its own challenges, its own joys, its own miracles.
The joy of Houdini comes from an odd place: I loved knowing almost nothing about Houdini or magic as I began. This is the first time in forever that I came into a big project with absolutely no expertise, no sources, no experience, no nothing. I knew no one in the magic world. I knew no one in the Houdini universe. I was entirely blank.
Instead I began Houdini armed only with a blurry series of questions about wonder (the reason I was drawn to the topic in the first place): Have we lost it in today’s world? No? Well, where can we find it? Who are some of these people keeping it alive? And, most of all, why does a small and muscular vaudeville performer still spark that wonder more than 100 years after he reached his height?
How could Harry Houdini possibly still be the most famous magician on earth?
What does he still teach us about wonder?
All the overwhelming worries I had at the start — I didn’t have a jumping off point, didn’t have a source to call, didn’t have a friend to introduce me around, didn’t have anything — turned out to be the best part of this whole crazy adventure.
I was out on the tightrope, just like I had been when I was first trying to become a writer.
And I absolutely loved every minute of it.
Numerous people inspired me to take this on … but I would have to put Susan Orlean at the top. I don’t really know Susan, but we are Twitter friends — just a couple of Clevelanders on the Interwebs — and I’m a huge fan. She has a philosophy about writing, one she summed up recently on a podcast: “I begin, always, not knowing anything,” she said. “I never write about something I know anything about. It opens the world to me.'
It’s true. There’s something so liberating about that, so much fun, about unabashedly entering a world as the dumbest person in the room. Some of my favorite moments as a sportswriter began that way. Before I began my first interview with race car driver Jimmie Johnson, I told him (quite truthfully) that I know nothing about NASCAR or racin’ or any of that. And I quickly proved this by asking a million of the most basic questions you could imagine, such as what it means for a car to be “loose” — I’d heard that so many times but I had no idea what it meant.*
*This technique or whatever you might call it doesn’t always work. I once tried a similar line of questioning with race car driver Mark Martin, and he snapped in a conversation-ending way, “I”m not here to teach you about racing.” That was fun in its own way too.
I asked Bob Baffert, the most accomplished horse trainer in America, such basic horse racing questions that the reporters around me sent a Kentucky Derby record for eye-rolling. I asked Hall of Fame batter Billy Williams to explain to me the difference between a slider and a curveball. I asked hockey star Pat LaFontaine the difference between a slap shot and a wrist shot. Yeah. I really did that.
And, looking back. I absolutely loved asking these questions, even if they made me look stupid, especially if they made me look stupid, because I really didn’t care about that. I come into every conversation with that assumption. I cared about learning stuff.
After a while, though, you become an established sportswriter, and you’ve asked all the basic questions, and looking stupid doesn’t necessarily play to your benefit.
With Houdini, I had full freedom to look stupid again. It was wonderful. My lack of understanding liberated me to ask the incomparable David Copperfield what is cool about magic, and I had the freedom to ask the incredible sleight-of-hand artist Joshua Jay what makes card tricks cool, and I had the freedom to nag the brilliant magic inventor and writer Jim Steinmeyer anytime there was anything I didn’t understand (which was, more or less, everything).*
*There are so many amazing characters in this book, I cannot wait to introduce you to some of them over the next few weeks.
Of course, any and all of them had a similar freedom to tell me to go jump off a pier with handcuffs on (the way Houdini used to). But they didn’t. None of them. I had been told at the start that the magic community is suspicious of laymen (muggles) and would be tough to crack. I found it to be the exact opposite. Everyone was warm. Everyone was kind. Everyone was boundlessly generous.
And that made this book the ultimate adventure. Every single day, I would wake up thrilled and curious to see what amazing thing would happen next. I remember so many days, so many amazing moments, but one of my favorites when I interviewed Jen Kramer, who is the only woman to have a full show in Vegas right now. We talked about the power of magic, the Houdini poster on her wall, the way her life led to this need to spark wonder in others.
And then, right in the middle of the interview, Jen tore off the corner of a seven of diamonds, then put the piece and the card in her mouth and restored it. She handed the card to our oldest daughter, Elizabeth, who still carries it around with her.
I mean — how could you not love writing a book like that?