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Author Steven Galloway comes to Baltimore

'The Confabulist' uses Harry Houdini's death to explore questions of magic, memory and mortality

By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

6:29 PM EDT, May 2, 2014

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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.

Tell me about the strange circumstances surrounding Houdini's death.

Houdini is to this day the only person in recorded medical history who has had put on his death certificate that he suffered a ruptured appendix as a result of blunt-force trauma. Every doctor that I've spoken to said that's not possible because that's just not how the appendix works.

Realistically, Houdini died of being a Type A male who was too stubborn to go to the doctor until after his appendix ruptured, and because he lived in an era before penicillin was discovered. That's probably what killed him.

On the other hand, were the spiritualists regularly threatening his life? Yes. Was he imperiling a [by today's standards] multimillion-dollar business? Absolutely, he was.

I've taken opportunities like that and expanded them into a more satisfying story.

Do you think a belief in magic is based on the desire for immortality?

Yes. If we actually lived our lives with the knowledge in the front of our minds that we're going to die, we'd be absolutely crippled.

Things like religion and magic let us put our mortality on the back burner. If someone conducting a seance can talk to our dead Aunt Sally, maybe in some form she isn't really dead.

Therefore, maybe we won't really die, either. We'll just cross over to the Great Beyond.

I hear that you're a prankster of some note, and somehow that seems to be of a piece with your weightier preoccupations. Tell me about your favorite practical joke.

A friend and I have been involved in a decadelong practical joke war. My friend created a Myspace page and put up posters with my picture and my phone number advertising a "seminar" that I was giving on how to make love like a unicorn. The posters went up all over town.

Some folks thought it was real. I was getting phone calls from people who wanted to know all about it. I think the posters stayed up for about a week.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

Author Steven Galloway reads at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Free. Information: 410-377-2966 or theivybookshop.com.

About the book: "The Confabulist" was released April 29 by Random House of Canada. $29.95. 320 pages.