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Steven Galloway to weave literature with magic at Chan Centre

02/22/2015 03:50 EST | Updated 04/24/2015 05:59 EDT
Literature will meet magic on Thursday when Vancouver's award-winning author Steven Galloway joins illusionist David Gifford to illustrate Galloway's latest novel The Confabulous.

The novel is a fictitious, but semi-biographical account of the life, loves, and murder of legendary magician and evasion artist Harry Houdini.  

To write his novel, Galloway says he did extensive research on Houdini in order to stick as closely as possible to the magician's biography while forming his own narrative.

"He was a very, very skilled magician, there's no doubt about it, but he was not more talented (than others)," Galloway told North by Northwest's Sheryl MacKay. "He was just so good at promoting himself and being Harry Houdini that that kind of propelled him forward."

Galloway says he discovered some fascinating facts about the master illusionist as he worked on his novel.

He was frenemies with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Houdini met in 1920. While they were friendly, each had their own agenda, said Galloway. Conan Doyle was a spiritualist and Houdini wasn't.

"For Arthur Conan Doyle, he felt, if I can win Harry Houdini to the spiritualist cause, that is an enormous coup, and I think Houdini thought, 'Man, if I can break Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I'll win,'" said Galloway. "By the end of Houdini's life, their friendship had completely fallen off."

He was a master of the media

According to Galloway, there were better magicians around in the early 1900s than Houdini, yet he was known as "the number one undisputed magician in the world" because he knew how to work the media.

"There were other way better magicians operating at the time and they would spend a fortune to take out an ad in the Daily Mirror or The New York Times," Galloway said. "Houdini would go jump off a bridge or lock himself in a crate or hang himself upside down on a street for free and get on the front page."

He might have been a spy

Magicians and spies shared a similar skill set in the 1900s — the use of invisible ink and ciphers, hiding things — and there is a theory that Houdini was on the payroll of what would later become the U.S. Secret Service, said Galloway. Houdini's sensational escapes from jails has also prompted people to question whether he had help from the inside.

"You kind of have to ask yourself, why would police force after police force after police force humiliate themselves and be made to look like idiots who couldn't keep someone in jail unless they were kind of being asked to do it by a higher authority?" Galloway asked. 

Steven Galloway will be reading from The Confabulist at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 26 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at UBC.

To hear the full interview with Steven Galloway, click on the audio labelled: Harry Houdini, as imagined by Vancouver author Steven Galloway.

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