As a magician, I am accustomed to people asking me about rabbits…
As a writer, John Gaspard is accustomed to people asking him about magic. His wonderful Eli Marks Mystery Series features magician and reluctant amateur sleuth, Eli Marks, and his cranky Uncle Harry, also a magician and a debunker of magic scams.
Soft-boiled, humorous, and taking place in the — dare I say? — enchanting world of professional magicians, this series is a treat.
John also makes movies! Check out his film blog, Fast, Cheap Movie Thoughts, which riffs off the name of one of his own books on movie making, Fast, Cheap and Under Control. In the interview, he recommends a book by William Bayer, Breaking Through, Selling Out, Dropping Dead and other notes on Film Making. You can keep abreast of Johns’ many activities on Facebook.
John gives a shout-out to fellow Minnesota writer Judith Guest (of Ordinary People fame, but also the writer of suspense novel, The Tarnished Eye) as well as mystery writer Lawrence Block, a long-time favorite of mine as well. He also talks about the great work The Amazing Randi has done in debunking frauds. Other magicians mentioned in this conversation: Dai Vernon, Lance Burton and Eugene Burger, and of course Harry Houdini.
And I want to give a shout-out myself to Henery Press, which is doing a great job of publishing soft-boiled and cozy series, especially ones that are a little outside the lines, at a time when other publishers are ending many long-time series. They also publish Gigi Pandian’s Jaya Jones series, another favorite of mine. If you missed my conversation with her, you can check it out here.
This was such a fun conversation. Enjoy!
Transcript of Interview with John Gaspard
Laura Brennan: My guest today may not be a professional magician, but he certainly creates magic on the page. John Gaspard’s novels are clever, funny and satisfying mysteries, with a flourish of stage magic.
John, thank you for joining me.
John Gaspard: Happy to be here.
LB: Before we start talking about your novels, I’d like to talk a little bit about you. You also have a career in film and television, is that right?
JG: Well, career might be a strong word. I have sold things to television and I have produced a number of low-budget feature films on my own. I started out as a teenager making films and I was directing them, so I was just always the director.
LB: Well, I love that. I love that you take what you have and instead of letting it languish in a drawer somewhere, you actually went out and made it. And you started doing this when you were a teenager?
JG: I did! I am one of the first people in the country or maybe even the world to make a feature-length Super 8 single sound system film. Which meant that the sound was right there on the film when you recorded it, as opposed to double system, where it is recorded separately. I did a couple of 16mm films in the ’90s, they were all features, and then three digital features since around 2001.
LB: So you have always wanted to write?
JG: I always wanted to make movies, and since no one was handing me scripts I sort of fell into the writing part.
LB: I like that because when you’re writing a novel, you are both a writer and the director.
JG: Yes. Yes, there’s a lot more control going on in writing a novel.
LB: So let’s move into novels. How did you get started then, moving away from writing and directing features and into novels?
JG: Well, I’d always figured that as I got a little bit older, I’d be doing less schlepping of film equipment and low-budget filmmaking. And I had read a book in my teens by William Bayer called, Breaking Through, Selling Out, Dropping Dead and Other Notes on Film Making, which is a really good little book on the mindset you need to get a no budget feature done.
In the introduction, he went on to say that he’d stopped making films and become a novelist because he was just too frustrated by the Hollywood system. And I always thought oh, I could do that later on. And then one day, I got an idea for a novel. And I tried it first as a screenplay, and it went, no, I don’t want to be a screenplay, I want to be novel. It was called The Ripperologists. And it’s about an author who has written a lot of mystery novels. She thinks she’s figured out who Jack the Ripper was, so she writes a nonfiction book, not really realizing that it’s a very tightknit group, those ripperologists, when it comes to all their theories and the evidence they’re looking for. They are very hard-core, science-based. And she wasn’t really. And so I thought it would be interesting to see, to pit that character against someone who really was a ripperologist, and have them both have to solve a present day series of murders that imitated the Jack the Ripper murders from 1888.
So I did that one, and then had an idea for a series. I’m a big fan of a writer named Lawrence Block, who’s not really a cozy mystery writer, generally, he has a couple of different series. One of them is kind of cozy, it’s his Burglar books. So it’s The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, The Burglar Who… They all start with The Burglar. And they’re about a guy who runs a bookstore and his burglar. And I thought, you know what? I have so many friends were magicians. I have a surprising number of friends who are magicians. I thought that would be a good place to start. After a couple of years of just kind of banging around on it, I figured out how to make the first one work and that’s called The Ambitious Card, and that introduces us to Eli Marks, a rather charming hapless professional magician who co-runs a magic shop in Minneapolis with his cranky uncle Harry and who keeps getting involved in murders.
LB: Well I have many things to say about this book, but let me start by saying how much I love cranky uncle Harry.
JG: Yes, it’s interesting, I had dinner the other night with a friend who is also what you would call a constant reader. And she reminded me that she had extracted a promise from me after the first book, it wasn’t even a promise was more like a threat, where she said, “You will never kill Harry, right?” And I said, yes, Harry will never die.
LB: Their relationship is so special and so central to the series.
JG: There are analogs in the magic world, not of an uncle and nephew magician but of — I’m thinking of a guy named Eugene Burger in Chicago who has a lot of younger magicians that he’s mentored. Or James Randi, also a magician. That relationship between, in this case, Harry, who has done magic since almost the end of vaudeville. He’s done every kind of magic, the things he can teach Eli about magic and also about life, it’s just really interesting. And he’s funny because he’s cranky.
LB: You say you have friends who are magicians. Surely you must do some magic yourself?
JG: I can do a couple of tricks, only because I have to. You know, at a book signing, I can kind of blow your mind a little bit for a few minutes, and the don’t come back and watch it again because you’ll figure it out. So I know little bit about magic, I just need to know more than you, the average reader.
LB: That’s perfect! You need to be one ahead.
JG: Yup. Exactly. One ahead or one and a half ahead, all the time.
LB: The other thing about that first book, The Ambitious Card, is that, it’s very intricately plotted. I’m goint to be careful not to give anything away, but you lay in things that pay off.
JG: Well, I’m not really good at mysteries. I don’t have a mystery mind so it takes a long time for me to put together what the mystery is going to be. And then it really is kind of knowing what the endgame is and working backwards from that. Knowing that if a phone text and the way words are spelled is going to be important, then I’ve got to put that in several times earlier. It’s, in screenwriting we call it laying pipe, where the first few chapters or first act is all about putting all the pieces in place that are going to pay off later. So you really have to know what those are. So I really can’t just sit down and write and go, gee, I wonder what’s going to happen?
In The Ambitious Card, I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say, at a certain point, there are no more suspects. But murders are still happening. Because the suspects are all dead or they’re in jail or in the hospital. I went, oh, my goodness, I need more suspects! And I sort of added one on the spot. I’ve gotten better at that now, looking ahead and going, after you kill Person 1 and Person 2 and Person 3, is there anybody left who could have done it who isn’t obvious? You have to go find them and put them in there.
LB: See, people don’t understand that these are real problems that mystery writers face.
JG: They really are. I remember saying to my wife when I was working on the second book, how many ways can somebody die because of winter? She said, what do you mean? Because the book, that second book, really takes place in the dead, dead, dead of Minnesota winter. And it’s snowing constantly. I needed to come up with ways that winter would kill somebody, where it wasn’t necessarily someone doing something, maybe it is, it’s someone using winter to kill you. So we have a car sliding on ice, we have, we get huge chunks of ice and snow on our roofs that fall… It’s all about ice and snow and how to kill people that way.
LB: And it also makes for interesting dinnertime conversation. Let’s see how many different ways we can kill someone with winter.
JG: Yes, exactly.
LB: So your series now has three novels and you have just released a short story.
JG: We did. I think it was you who pointed out that these books are coming out every Fall. And I didn’t realize that and there’s not one this year just because I’ve been very busy. And they’re hard to write, mysteries are hard to write. They may be easy for some people but hard for me. So I suggested to the publisher, Henery Press, that we put out a short story I did called The Invisible Assistant. So in the show notes you’ll get a link to either download it in any e-book format you want or we also have a 40 minute audiobook of it. You can listen to it, I don’t think you can download it, it’s on Soundcloud, I don’t know if they allow downloading. But it’s only 40 minutes and it’s narrated by my usual narrator Jim Cunningham, who does an amazing job. He is Eli Marks.
LB: That is so neat. How fun was that the first time you heard him do your character?
JG: Well, it’s interesting because he in many ways got me into magic, and also got me into Jack the Ripper because he has all these bizarre interests. And so a lot of the magicians I know, I know through Jim. But he’s also a professional actor and voice talent and does radio and TV commercials every day. So he’s used to standing in front of a microphone doing stuff. And he understands my sense of humor and he gets magic, and he is all the terms so nothing slows him down. He gets it all and he’s funny and he’s wry and he has a great voice. And I keep telling people who ask me, which of your books should I read? I say, don’t. Listen to them on audio. They’re just more fun on audio. He does a really nice job.
And it was, it’s terrific, I have a little — studio is a strong word. I have some blankets set up in a corner of the basement and he goes behind the blankets and I sit around the corner with my little headphones on and we just laugh and have a great time as he plows through the books. And we’ve got two done and the short story, we’re about halfway through the third book, The Miser’s Dream.
LB: You do it all.
JG: Well, to be fair, I do have a best friend who’s a professional voice talent. So that’s half the battle right there. They tried for a long time, Henery Press, to sell the audio rights to the books, but the Eli Marks mysteries are different from I would say 95% of the cozies out there. Because not a thriller, there’s not a lot of hard action, there’s no sex, there’s no profanity, so it’s a cozy, technically, but most cozies have female leads.
LB: But I would not have considered the Eli Marks books to be cozies. I don’t consider Lawrence Block to be a cozy writer. I would’ve considered both of you to be more, I know there’s really no particular name for it, but I would’ve said traditional. Traditional amateur sleuth mysteries.
JG: Yeah. Certainly with Block’s Burglar books, those are not cozies because they are just a lot harder edged. Not as hard edged as his Scudder mysteries, which are very hard edged, but they’re a little hard-edged. The Eli Marks mysteries are all soft corners, there’s no hard edge. In every other way they do fit the definition of cozy, because it’s a nonprofessional, the difference is it’s not a female.
LB: You also, in the tradition of cozies, you have a little touch of romance going on.
JG: Yes. Yes. That happened a lot sooner than I anticipated. And in the second book I had to get rid of her for a little bit. It will resolve in a positive way eventually, they won’t break up again. In other cozies, on the female side anyway, it seems to be very common that they have two guys they’re going out with. Or a new guy comes in town and the other guy is kind of on-again off-again, and there’s a bit more flexibility there. Whereas with Eli and Megan, they met in the first book, they’re together. And so you really can’t have any sexual tension with other people that goes anywhere — you can have attention, but it can’t go anywhere — because they are already sort of committed to each other. Which kind of boxes you in a little bit.
LB: Well, I would agree with you, except I really like Megan.
JG: Yeah. Megan is fun. Megan is based in a lot of ways on my wife who loves magic and has no desire to know how anything is done. Ever, ever, ever. She wants it always to be magical.
LB: Well, you are very respectful in that case. There were some times when there was a trick that was meant not to mystify, but to really con. And those you did call out. But the other ways, you were very respectful about not revealing the exact ways in which some of the tricks were done.
JG: Right. That was very purposeful because in the world magic, you never give away how something is done. But I also want to make sure that those magicians who read the books don’t throw them across the room because the magic is wrong. I have to walk that fine line between this is how a trick is done — and a very good example of that, I think it’s in book two, The Bullet Catch, where Eli does a very standard magic trick called The Invisible Deck, where a person thinks of a card and then you give them an invisible deck and they find their card in the invisible deck and they turn the card backwards in the deck and in they shuffle it. And you make a real deck appear, they tell you what the card was, you span the deck and there, only one card is upside down in the deck and it’s their card. Just about every magician in the world does it and there’s a series of steps you have to go through to perform the trick properly. So in the book, as Eli does it, he does exactly the way you’d have to do it. He does the things and says the things you have to say at the right points, which are meaningless to a normal reader, like, oh he’s doing a card trick. But a magician would go, okay, that’s exactly how that trick is done. And he did it right.
LB: It is a very delicate line that you walk there.
JG: Well, magicians are an angry bunch when it comes to things being revealed. Another side of the equation is where magicians go, I don’t care if you know how I’m doing it, because it doesn’t matter how I’m doing. I’m doing it so well that it doesn’t matter. The presentation, my performance, how I’m interacting with you — that’s what’s important. And there was a series many many years ago about a magician — it was a reality show which a magician revealed secrets. I forget the name of it it was like Secrets of Magic Revealed or something. And he took big illusions and he showed how they were done. And this of course upset a lot of magicians and they pulled the tricks from their act because now everyone in the audience knew. Except for Lance Burton, who is a huge magician or at least was in Las Vegas at the time, who the next night with then put that trick into his act. Just to show that it doesn’t matter if you know how it’s done, it’s still amazing. Because you’re working with someone who’s really really really good at what they do. And that’s what’s so cool about magicians, is there are guys who have spent years and years learning to do that you’d never even see. But it makes for amazing tricks.
LB: The other thing that magicians seem to be against, the way you say they get angry about revealing tricks, they also seem to get angry about people who present magic as if it were supernatural. And Harry Houdini of course is the most famous example of someone who was not pleased by this.
JG: And that comes up a lot in The Ambitious Card because there’s a character named Grey who is a mentalist, which is a subfield of magic, who does present what he’s doing as real. And that has proven to be really harmful for a lot of people in real life. And so magicians for the most part don’t mind mentalists except the ones who say, this is real. And that’s where they draw the line. Because it isn’t real. There’s a guy named The Amazing Randi spent years and years and years, he’s probably in his 90s now, debunking that sort of thing. He has even said, back when he did it as a younger man, he was a mentalist, that no matter what he said, no matter how many caveats he threw in, this is not real, this is not real, there was always somebody in the audience who thought it was real. And who would come up to him and say, can you help me find this, or do that, or whatever, because you obviously have powers. And even, in the case of Houdini, his good friend was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes. A medical doctor, clearly a very bright man, but he believed that a lot of what Houdini did was true magic. And even if Houdini, he would show him, Doyle would say, no, no, but it’s really magic. When you walk through brick wall, you really walk through a brick wall.
LB: He wanted to believe.
JG: He wanted to believe, was it his son who died? His son died, and he got pulled into the whole fairy photo thing. You know, it’s weird, because he was so smart and so clever, but he needed to believe that.
LB: One of the other things it seems to be a theme in both Ripperologists and the Eli Marks series is the idea of having together people who are science-based and people who are more believers.
LB: So is that something that you find the tension of that being interesting?
JG: I do. I do. The group of science-based, in the case of magicians, and certainly in The Ripperologists, it’s just fun to have people who are that smart, certainly smarter than me but I can click it on paper. And then, a lot of the psychic stuff that is talked about in The Ambitious Card is stuff that I either researched, I went to a lot of psychic symposiums, or things that have happened to me or people I know. I did have — Harry has a reading in that book that Megan does in which Eli takes 30 pages of notes, there’s not one thing that connects. And then it turns out there’s one minor thing that does, that I added in. But I had that same experience where this woman talked to me for 45 minutes and I have reams of notes of the things she said and not one thing. And you would think, pure chance would suggest you’re gonna come up with something. So that was a fun way of looking at it, but then I also have Megan who straddles the two. Her boyfriend’s a magician but she also runs a shop that sells crystals. And she’s open to anything. It’s all magic to her.
LB: Right. There’s a gentleness in there, and I think it speaks to our need to believe. It’s very nicely done.
JG: Thank you.
LB: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned yet?
JG: One question that I’m asked a lot by new writers is what did it take to get published? And so I do like to talk about that a little bit. Because it’s a very heart-stomping process. So I’ll just say that with The Ripperologists, I found an agent in New York, a lovely woman who worked for a big agency who really liked the book and who gave me some good pointers on making it better. And she shopped it around to everybody in the world. Everybody. Everybody looked at that book. A couple of people were a little interested, but one of them wanted it completely rewritten and wanted me to name who the actual Jack the Ripper killer was in the book, which I thought, I can’t do that. So she said, I’m sorry, I can’t do anything more with this book. But by that point I’d written The Ambitious Card, so I gave that to her and she showed it to everybody in the world. And nobody wanted it. And she gave that a year or so and she said, it’s a hard time for publishing, they’re not taking new authors, I don’t know what to tell you. I like both books, I just can’t sell them. I said, okay, that’s fine.
And then another agent popped up, who had been a New York agent and was semi retired and living in Arizona and she, I forget how I hooked up with her, but she loved both books and she said, let me try to sell them. And nobody wanted them. And she said, I’m sorry, these are both great, I love these books, but I can’t sell them. And I said, all right, thanks for trying. And I was starting to think about maybe self-publishing, which I ultimately did with The Ripperologists.
And then I read a review in Mystery Scene Magazine of a cozy mystery. It didn’t sound like mine, but it had the same sort of humorous feel to it, and I thought, oh, who published this? And it said, published by a little company called Henery Press. And I tracked them down on the Internet, and they were new and they were out of Texas and the managing editor was a graphic designer who was also a mystery writer. And I sent her The Ambitious Card and she sent back a form email that said, thanks, I’ve got a big pile of stuff here, this will be a while. And about a week later she called and said, I don’t know how your book got to the top, it really shouldn’t have, but I just read it and I’d love to publish it. And they had, I don’t know, maybe 20, 25 books at that point that they’d published. But they were very smart about it and she’s a graphic designer, so the covers are really good. All the covers are really good on all the books, and they are all really branded. So if it was one of, she’s a mystery writer, if it was one of her books, they all look the same but very different. Everybody was really branded nicely. And they did The Ambitious Card, and they did The Bullet Catch, and they did The Miser’s Dream. And a huge part of it is, the covers look really nice. They look very professional. They are engaging. They’re a little fun. And they sold the rights to Ambitious Card and Bullet Catch to Japan, which is a perfect country to sell magic novels to because the Japanese love magic and they love mysteries. So they’ve done really well with it. And it was pure luck. Everybody in the world had said no to that book. Everybody. Two really good agents had done the best they could do with both the books. Nobody wanted it. I just happened to read a review, happened to see the publishers name, they seemed kind of similar to what I was doing. They looked at it, it somehow got to the top of the pile faster than it should have. And a week later it was sold.
So to anybody who’s frustrated, you know, local Minnesotan Judith Guest who wrote Ordinary People, I believe she was rejected by more than 100 publishers. You really just can’t give up. And I know that self-publishing is certainly a good avenue, but if you’re going to go down that route, I would highly recommend that you get a professional editor to go through your book, because I’ve been sent a number of self published books that were just horribly edited. And I would suggest you get a designer to design your cover. Because I’ve seen a lot of self published books that the cover immediately says, I’m a self published book.
LB: Yeah, the covers — your covers are brilliant. And covers are really, we do judge books by their covers.
JG: We do. We absolutely do. And I got really lucky because the people who wanted to publish the book, she’s a graphic designer that’s what she’s done for years. She gets it, and she gets how to make each of the books look different but the same. In the case of the Eli Marks books, if I didn’t like a slightly animated style, a very lighthearted look, I’d be quite unhappy. But I’m very happy because that’s one of the first things people say about the books is, wow, I love those covers! Because they really do a great job of giving you a sense of what’s going to be inside.
LB: Yeah. They’re spectacular.
JG: The downside of it is, it does limit me as to the central trick in each book because as Kendall, my editor, pointed out, the first book was cards. I can’t do cards again for a while. So the second book was The Bullet Catch, and that was good — although we didn’t want to put a gun on the cover. And the third book was The Miser’s Dream, but the third book was supposed to be a book called The Trick That Cannot Be Explained. Which is a great trick, developed by a guy named Dai Vernon. And we couldn’t do that because A) it was cards again, and it would be too soon after The Ambitious Card to have cards on the cover. And B) the title’s too long. We can’t tweet The Trick That Cannot Be Explained. So we decided at that point that every title from now on is going to be the something – something. The Miser’s Dream, the short story is The Invisible Assistant. The next book is The Linking Rings. So it always has to be a new style of trick, and it has to be three words.
LB: Oh, but now I want to know The Trick That Cannot Be Explained!
JG: Well, I can tell you! I can tell you what the trick is. It’s a really cool trick. I mean, he wouldn’t do it all the time, but basically, he pick up a deck of cards, shuffle them and say, “Say a card.” You’d say, four of clubs. And he’d turn over the deck, and it was the bottom card. Or he’d flip the top card, and it was the top card. That was the trick.
JG: Well, exactly. And he called it The Trick That Cannot Be Explained because he said, I really cannot explain how I do it, although there have been books written on it and I know how he does it and it’s amazing how he does it, but he can’t — you or I could not do that trick. You’d have to be a magician with a lot of years of experience and a lot of chutzpah to make the trick work.
LB: Well, I look forward to seeing a lot of years of Eli making his tricks work.
JG: I hope so too, thank you.
LB: I love books where I learn something. And your books, it’s not that I’m learning magic, it’s that I’m learning about the world of magic. And I find that so special to draw me in like that.
JG: It’s a very special world, and the world of Ripperologists is just as interesting. Very smart people. I went to an actual Ripper convention, very smart people trying to solve a problem that happened a long time ago. It’s really interesting. These niche groups are fun.
LB: Thank you so much for talking to me today, John.
JG: Happy to do it. Thank you, Laura.