One of author Steven Galloway's most vivid childhood memories is of sitting at a picnic table when he was about 5 years old, playing checkers with his great-uncle Johnny.
"He let me beat him, and I knew he let me beat him," Galloway said recently when describing the inspiration for his new book, "The Confabulist." "But I felt incredibly proud and happy because that meant that I had some merit in his world.
"The problem is that Uncle Johnny died the year before I was born."
Since making that unsettling realization, Galloway, now 38, has been fascinated by false recollections. In "The Confabulist," he uses the mystery swirling around the life and death of the famed escape artist Harry Houdini to explore the links between magic, memory and mortality.
The novel recounts the blow to the stomach that at the time was thought to have ruptured Houdini's appendix — now known to be medically impossible.
In place of the real-life person who delivered the blow, Galloway substitutes the fictional Martin Strauss. Much of the story is told from Strauss' point of view.
When Galloway comes to Baltimore on Thursday to read from his new novel, he'll be visiting a town where he already has an established following. A previous book, "The Cellist of Sarajevo" was the 2012 One Maryland One Book selection.
An edited version of Galloway's conversation with The Baltimore Sun appears below.
Your book is called "The Confabulist," a fancy word for someone who believes his own false memories. Why do you think these mental missteps occur, and how do magicians exploit them?
There are four phases to a magic trick: the magical effect, the magician's method, misdirection and reconstruction. Misdirection and reconstruction are key.
Our brains are storytellers, and memories are fluid. Our brains reconstruct what we believe happened, not the actual facts.
If you know there are bears around and you hear crashing in the bushes, you attribute it to a bear. It could be a rhinoceros that no one ever knew lived in that part of the forest. But, you're going to think "bear" because you have all the other information, and you may even think that you saw a bear.
The magician knows that what actually happened and what we remember having happened can be entirely different things.
Why did you invent the Martin Strauss character instead of using his real-life counterpart?
I was interested in the idea of people who lead unremarkable lives. They're folks like us. They're not out there escaping from crates and rivers and being chained to stuff. Then they do one thing sort of on the spur of the moment and suddenly everyone knows who they are — like the guy who caught the baseball a couple of years ago [altering the course of a pennant race]. I was interested in how that absolutely changes a person's life forever.
Your book contains real-life figures, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the Czar Nicholas. What parts of the book are based on fact and which parts are invented?
Mostly I speculate where there's a gap or hole in the historical record or a question asked by it.
In the case of whether Houdini was a spy, his initials appear in [British Secret Service head] William Melville's notebooks. Most people are pretty convinced the two met when Houdini was in London. Houdini did meet with [U.S. Secret Service head] John Wilkie, and both of those guys did employ magicians as spies.
Houdini did go to Russia, and Houdini did say in his diary that he was asked to be a spiritual adviser to Czar Nicholas.
But Houdini was writing his diaries with the full knowledge that they would be read after his death, so it's not really a trustworthy historic document.