by Nancy Means Wright
Last Sunday I witnessed a morning of magic with a couple who call themselves Magicians Without Borders. Looking more like clowns than Houdinis in striped pants and comical caps, magicians Tom Verner and Janet Fredericks, a husband and wife team, entertained us with the usual tricks: pulling scarf after scarf out of their mouths, tugging on a box impossible to lift until, “exhausted,” they ask a child for help and voila! the six-year-old picks it right up! And the applause brings a huge smile to her face.
Verner and Fredericks, we discovered, travel to the most remote, war-torn places in the world to bring laughter and hope to orphans and refugees. We watched a video of a thousand brown, white, and black grinning faces in makeshift camps in far-off lands like India, Somalia, Ethiopia, Burma (Myanmar), El Salvador, Haiti, the Iran-Afghan border. The aim is to entertain, yes. But to educate and empower as well, they insist–to teach about HIV, polio, abuse and other ills of the world. Never mind they don’t speak the local tongue. “Magic is a universal language,” Verner says. ‘We make things appear–and then disappear. And then reappear–but changed. Transformed.
Like the faces of those children.
Not that everything goes as planned. A poor Iraqui mother, seeing Verner turn a fake gold coin into a dozen coins before her eyes, handed him a dinar to implore “Please. Now make me money!” Luckily, his pockets held a few dinars that he was able to “multiply.” But not enough coins, alas, to feed a hungry family.
Returning to my desk after the show, I thought of the magic we try to make in our own books. I recalled a mystery writer with a female magician as sleuth, and another writer who turned a villain into a magician. And I remembered Daniel Stashower, with whom I shared a panel at Malice when The Houdini Specter came out. Some of us write paranormal mysteries with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, or wicked fairies like my fellow Vermonter, Jennifer McMahon in Don’t Breathe a Word. Or Charlaine Harris, whose bestselling books feature Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress. Inspired by Harris and my own lovelorn daughter who used to make long distance calls to a psychic named Stormy, I’ve written a psychic into my latest mystery-in-progress.
Even the most pragmatic among us use tricks, or red herrings in our work, don’t we? Deliberate misdirections or misrepresentations to fool and surprise the reader? Characters or objects that appear, and then disappear? And then re-appear–but changed?
A 2011 blog by writer Margot Kinberg brought me back to my beloved Gaudy Nights by Dorothy Sayers, when Harriet Vane is invited to her Oxford alma mater to take part in a celebratory dinner. She hesitates, unsure of her welcome after her own trial for murder. Yet she can now drive there in her own car, rather than the train she took as a student, “and for a few hours more she could ignore the whimpering ghost of her dead youth and tell herself that she was a stranger and sojourner, a well-to-do woman with a position in the world.” A sort of epiphany, as it were. a magic moment. For on arrival, she finds herself more welcomed than she’d feared, and the college dean begs her to help resolve a series of mysterious events. We all know how well she did with that!
Nor can we forget Shakespeare’s influence on us. We’re familiar, of course, with the magical A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the February 10 Sunday NY Times, author Stephen Greenblatt admires magician Prospero and the winged servant Ariel in The Tempest. But he particularly notes an affinity between the monster Caliban and Maurice Sendak’s young Max, who encounters mythical beasts and exotic landscapes in Where the Wild Things Are. Greenblatt sees in these two characters “a secret sharing, an instinctive fascination with some of the same half-hidden springs of human aggression, fear and longing.”
Haven’t most of us embodied these “half-hidden springs” in our books? Magical moments, or epiphanies, as our sleuth “realizes” the truth after weeks and months of trying to resolve a murder?
What moments of light have sprung up in your books? Or in your own life?
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