1. You’ve been writing as a journalist for years, but this is your first book for children – how long did it take?
That’s actually quite hard to answer. This book is shorter than one of the newspaper features I used to write each day, but it took substantially longer! The process is just so different. The story itself went through a few drafts and then there was collaboration with the publisher, designer and illustrator, which all took time. While the book is a fictionalized story inspired by one moment in Houdini’s childhood, I also wanted to read several biographies on him before starting. So, you could say I spent a lot of time not writing it. That research also came in useful for the flip side of the book, where I’ve tried to paint a picture of the ‘real’ Harry Houdini and what he went on to achieve. A few of his best-known escapes and illusions are featured too.
2. Was it hard to write a children’s book? What was the most difficult part?
I enjoyed the challenge. In many ways it brought me back to my childhood, where I produced reams of (probably not very good) stories and rhymes. I often took it upon myself to take up where some books finished, just so I could continue to have the characters in my life. I think I probably ended up with a lot of pastiches of other people’s work back then!
Probably the most difficult part of this book was keeping it so succinct – that and writing around the concept. It was always going to have a concertina format so children could open up the whole book and follow the tightrope running along each page. That, of course, meant the tightrope had to play a part all the way through, which made for certain narrative restrictions. I also wanted to suggest that Harry could be any child, while providing a sense of who he went on to become.
3. How many times have you read the manuscript to your own children – and what do they think?
Only a couple of times. I didn’t tell them I’d written it first (I often read them proof versions of the children’s books I’ve edited, so they weren’t suspicious), but I was genuinely delighted by their reaction. They really liked it and didn’t believe I wrote it, although I’m not quite sure how to take that. I’m waiting for the illustrations to be completed before showing them again.
4. At the time of writing, the work is still being illustrated by Laura Catalan – how have you worked with her? What’s the process?
Laura recently illustrated another book for Green Bean and – luckily for me – she liked both the story and concept and wanted to take this project on. I didn’t really know how it would work or whether I would have any involvement at all, but Laura has been wonderfully inclusive. She lives in Spain and the art director Nathalie Eyraud lives in France, so I’ve never actually met either of them, but Green Bean publisher Michael Leventhal organized some Zoom meetings between us and I’ve been able to witness Laura’s illustrations develop. It’s been incredibly exciting seeing the words come to life. I remember thinking as I wrote the book how tricky it would be to illustrate, due to the ever-present tightrope, but Laura has proved more than up to the challenge. It’s all still evolving but I love what she’s done so far: her depiction of Harry, her incredible attention to detail and her inclusion of hidden, comic elements. I can’t wait to see the whole book and open it all out.
5. Why do you think so many people still know about Harry Houdini? Aren’t there other equally impressive escape artists from the same period?
Are there? I’m honestly not sure there are, although I always feel a bit sorry for his brother, Hardeen, who was by all accounts a very talented magician, illusionist and escape artist too but he has been very much eclipsed by his brother. It’s true that Houdini had a lot of imitators, but I think he was probably better than them. He offered money to anyone who could beat him in an escape, but he always won – something he was keen to publicize! As to his extraordinary fame and reputation, I’d say several factors come into play. Firstly, he was so good at what he did! Here was a man who could seemingly escape the inescapable – chains, handcuffs, locks, ropes, nailed-down crates, prisons – often while hanging upside down or engulfed in water. By all accounts he was also a great showman and knew how to enthral an audience. During some of his most dangerous escapes, such as those where he was bolted inside his Chinese Water Torture Cell, he would ramp up the tension as much as he could. He would have assistants standing by with an axe to break him free should he fail to escape in time. He would encourage audience members to try and hold their breath for as long as it took him to free himself (they never could). He would publicize his shows with dramatic slogans such as ‘failure means a drowning death’. The fact that Houdini was seemingly prepared to put his life at risk every night thrilled audiences and bolstered his fame. He was also a master of self-promotion. In a time before television or the Internet, he would go to the local police station of whichever town he was next due to perform in, and ask officers to lock him up in their highest-security cells. Then, in front of the local press, he would free himself in minutes. The result was front-page news and sold-out shows. Then, of course, there was the fact that he never revealed his secrets. Even now, people are still offering theories as to how he pulled off some of his most spectacular stunts. There is nothing more intriguing than not knowing how something is done.
5. In reality, were Harry’s parents supportive of his unusual career plan? And how close to reality is the whole story?
This story is set when Harry is seven and his father is the local rabbi. This is certainly true and it was quite a sunny period in the Houdini family history. The family had emigrated from Hungary and were living in Appleton in the US state of Wisconsin. According to Houdini, his father was very learned and came from a long rabbinical line, so it’s likely that he harboured ambitions for at least one of his seven children to follow in his footsteps – rather than into magic and escapology! Later, when he lost his position as a rabbi and the family were plunged into a hand-to- mouth existence, Harry’s father may well have come to view show business as a legitimate way for his talented son to escape from poverty and support the family. Entertainment was already becoming a well-trodden path for many immigrants like Harry hoping to make their fortune. There’s no record of Harry’s father’s views so we’ll never know for sure. Harry was only eighteen when his father died, but interestingly it was to Harry (rather than to any of his other children) that his father turned to on his deathbed. He made Harry promise always to look after his mother, Cecilia, and make sure she wanted for nothing. Harry absolutely did that, and he and his mother were tremendously close. She made the outfit he wore for his very first circus act (red stockings knitted onto long johns!) and you sense that she would have supported him whatever he did.
As to how much of my story is true, it’s certainly the case that Harry visited a travelling circus when he was seven. It’s also true that he was so struck by seeing the high-wire artist there that he went home and painstakingly learned to copy him. Walking the tightrope is not something that Houdini is really known for – a fact that I found appealing in itself – but it was the first circus skill he ever mastered and it may well have set him off on his famous career path. This is a fictionalized story, though, so a bit of artistic licence has also come into play.
6. Did Harry Houdini really have a chicken called Banjoe?
Yes! I found that detail in one of the Houdini biographies (The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini by Bruce MacNab). Although she’s only mentioned once in the narrative, I thought it would be fun to have Banjoe featured in each illustration so children could spot her on every page. She’s learning to walk the tightrope too – she wants to be the hen Houdini! I couldn’t find very much detail about Banjoe, unfortunately, apart from the fact that Harry’s mother named her and that she would come when Harry whistled. She featured in some of Harry’s early tricks
when he couldn’t afford the exotic birds or doves that other magicians would use. I wasn’t sure whether Banjoe was male or female but, given at this point in Harry’s life he had five brothers (his sister was born later) I thought it’d be appropriate if Banjoe was a she!
7. The book is about Houdini walking a tightrope – have you tried yourself? Or have you tried any of his other tricks?
Balancing on tree trunks and branches with my children (which Harry also does in the story) is about as close as I’ve come to tightrope walking, but my publisher did give me a pair of ‘Houdini’s handcuffs’ which he longingly hopes will inspire my new party trick. I do have a bit of a circus background, though. My grandfather ran off to become a ringmaster. Family legend has it that he slept on a bed of nails. I’ve not tried that either.
8. Where do you stand on the ‘Own Voices’ debate? How do you feel writing about a Jewish escapologist?
I couldn’t hope to do full justice to that debate here but, as I see it, the drive behind the ‘Own Voices’ movement is to encourage authors from minority and marginalized groups to write works of fiction that reflect their own experiences. The resulting books are then deemed to have an element of authenticity that might otherwise be lacking. That’s got to be a good thing – both in terms of representation and authenticity and in helping to overturn some of the damaging stereotypes that exist. But does it necessarily follow that an author should be excluded from writing about people from different backgrounds to their own? I’d hope not. A writer who falls into a particular minority group may not want to write exclusively about that minority. Equally, a writer who is not from a marginalized background shouldn’t feel restricted to writing about non-marginalized groups. I feel deeply uncomfortable about the idea of putting limitations on authors and the wider implications that could have.
I believe writers have a certain responsibility to their subject matter but it’s surely the challenge of an author to be able to empathize, to write from different perspectives and, in many cases, to give free rein to their imaginations. I’m not Jewish and Houdini was and, of course, he was such a worldwide sensation that he has already been written about by so many authors, but I hope I’ve done him justice. At its heart, this is a story about a boy discovering his passion and then having to work very hard to achieve it, with the sense of thrill and satisfaction that brings. I wanted it to be a universal story that many children, whatever their faith or lack of it, will relate to – and enjoy! In terms of respecting Houdini’s Jewish heritage, Laura (the illustrator), Michael Leventhal (Green Bean publisher) and I have all done our utmost to ensure the Jewish details of the book are as authentic as possible for the time period. For example, the pages that show Harry having a traditional Friday-night meal and where he is outside synagogue are the two which have taken by far the most research.
9. Can you offer any tips for aspiring writers?
Perhaps ask me that in another year or two. Just to make yourself put pen to paper is probably good advice, though. I’m a great procrastinator, which isn’t a good trait. That’s why working for a newspaper suited me: there’s nothing like a daily deadline to galvanize you into action!
10. Which stories do you remember reading as a child? Why do you think they made an impression on you?
Where to start? I’m not sure I was all that picky as a child. I read all the classics – the Winnie the Poohs, the Alice in Wonderlands, the Narnia books. I loved Enid Blyton – the Magic Faraway Tree, the Wishing-Chair, the Secret Seven, the Famous Five books – all the works of Roald Dahl, and I had a huge collection (recently uncovered) of Charlie Brown and Snoopy books. Why did they make an impression on me? All for different reasons, but I think there was an abundance of imagination, inventiveness, escapism, humour, a healthy dollop of anarchy or some emotional pull that a child can relate to. I still hold Plop, the baby barn owl from The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark, in great affection for that last reason. Listing some of these books makes me recall so many more that there isn’t space to mention here, but I also adored some older ones that my mother passed down, such as The Lord of the Rushie River, written and illustrated by the author of the Flower Fairies poems – and there were books that I primarily loved for their lavish illustrations, such as the Errol Le Cain version of the classic Twelve Dancing Princesses. Lately, I came across my old copy of Gobbolino, the Witch’s Cat, which gave me butterflies in my stomach, though I couldn’t actually recall much about it! I’ve read several of these stories to my children now and, of course, you discover that some don’t always live up to your childhood memory of them. When they do, though, it’s wonderful.
Harry Houdini would have loved this story based on his early highwire exploits! Many thanks Julie.