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Author talks magic, memories, Houdini

| Saturday, July 19, 2014, 7:48 p.m.
Escape artist Harry Houdini is shown in chains in this photo circa 1899. (AP Photo)
Author Steven Galloway

Canadian author Steven Galloway explores the fickle nature of memory in “The Confabulist,” his book about the life and death of one of the world's most famous magicians, Harry Houdini.

The book's main character, Martin Strauss, reflects on a life in which he believes he killed the Hungarian-American escape artist.

Both Houdini, who died suddenly in 1926 of a ruptured appendix after being punched repeatedly in the stomach, and Strauss narrate parts of the tale in which fact and fiction intermingle and memories cannot be trusted.

Galloway, 38, gained fame for his 2008 bestseller, “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” set during that city's siege in the mid-1990s. The award-winning book caused a stir when Vedran Smailovi, a cellist whose story inspired the title, said he was not contacted about it and should have been compensated for the use of his image.

“The Confabulist,” like “The Cellist,” mingles history with fiction.

Galloway talked about writing “The Confabulist,” meeting Smailovi and the ways in which lives are shaped by events that may never have happened.

Question: How did you arrive at that intersection of magic and memory?

Answer: Magic has always felt, to me, like a bit of a metaphor for life. We like to think our brains are tape recorders, and that when you're looking for a memory, you're going back into the record and finding that bit. But that is not how brains work. Your memory is really some guy making stuff up. I discovered as an adult that I had whole chunks of memories of things that didn't happen.

I have a memory of an encounter with an uncle, a really fond memory, but I discovered later in life this uncle died before I was born. The more I looked into what psychologists and doctors know about how the human memory works, the more I became convinced that our brains are magicians pulling magic tricks on us all the time.

Q: Do you think confabulations impact our lives just as much as real memories?

A: Absolutely. There's a question you get as a novelist a lot. Someone will take a particular detail of a book and ask, “Did that really happen?” And there's often a profound disappointment when you say “No, I made it up,” as if it's now of less value. We explore reality through imagining things. I think it would be wrong not to do that. If you don't do it, you're cutting off an enormous method we've developed to understand the world.

Q: Were you always interested in Harry Houdini?

A: My interest in Houdini came out of deciding to write the book. I knew some basic stuff about him, but I wasn't an expert.

Q: “The Confabulist” deals with the competing world views of rationalism and spiritualism. Where do you think the book comes out on that question?

A: Houdini wasn't a believer in spiritualism. He was a skeptic. I think the tension between the empirical rationalism that Houdini so loved and the hocus pocus of spiritualism are metaphors for the idea that truth is neither fact nor fiction. It can be both or neither.

Q: In “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” you drew the ire of Vedran Smailovi, a real-life Sarajevo cellist. Does an author have any responsibility to make clear which parts of a novel are historically accurate or not?

A: I don't think the novelist has any responsibility within the context of a book to clarify that. One of the differences between fiction and creative nonfiction is that in fiction, you have the suspension of disbelief, whereas in creative nonfiction you don't. ... I think it's pretty clear that I am asking for suspension of disbelief and getting it from the reader.

Q: You met with Smailovi— did you clear the air?

A: We ultimately agreed to disagree. His beef was that I referenced his story. The book is not about the cellist. He is just an image within it. But he felt that I should have paid him for doing that.

Nicholas P. Brown is a staff writer for Reuters.

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