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Interview: July 3, 2014

Rosie Thomas is the author of numerous critically acclaimed, bestselling novels, including THE KASHMIR SHAWL, IRIS & RUBY and SUNRISE. She is known for her globe-trotting fiction, but in her latest book, THE ILLUSIONISTS, she stays in her home country of England and travels laterally: back in time to the 19th century. In this interview with’s Norah Piehl, Thomas talks about the aha! moment when she knew she would have to write a book about magicians (not coincidentally, it was around the same time she knew she’d have to leave the library so she wouldn’t disturb anyone with her uncontainable excitement), as well as why she decided to set her book in Victorian London, the “golden age for stage magic.” She also opens up about her favorite character in a book full of memorable ones and the fascinating territory she’ll be exploring next. What was your inspiration for writing THE ILLUSIONISTS?

Rosie Thomas: When I was researching my last book, THE KASHMIR SHAWL, I had a character who was a magician-mountaineer, and I needed to look up a stage illusion for him to perform with one of my heroines. I unearthed a book with a description of a classic "box trick" that was perfect, but I found myself reading on beyond what I needed to know. As I did so, I felt that authentic prickle down my spine that always means IDEA. A book about magicians and illusion set against harsh Victorian reality, I thought? I was so excited that I had to leave the library to stop myself jumping up and down and go out for a walk!

BRC: You've written novels set all over the world and, to a certain extent, in different time periods. This is your most ambitious writing to date. What drew you to set this book in the 19th century?

RT: It was the golden age for stage magic. The music halls were at the height of their popularity for mass entertainment, reliable and cheap public transport allowed people to travel in search of enjoyment, and improving economic conditions meant that there was money to spend on leisure rather than just survival. Crucially, new science meant that electricity and magnetism and chemical reactions could be employed to create amazing new illusions.

BRC: What kinds of research did you do in preparation for writing THE ILLUSIONISTS?

RT: I read. A lot! If only I had had a time machine to actually travel back there.

BRC: Did you uncover any particularly surprising facts or anecdotes in the course of your research? What was the most interesting piece of information you learned about life in London at this time?

RT: I found out all sorts of fascinating details. There wasn’t room to put all of them in the book (we’ve all read the kinds of novel that go, “OK, now here’s my research”). But I did discover that until the advent of respectable theatres and places of entertainment (before about 1850/60, the halls and saloons and supper clubs were really only for prostitutes or rough women), a lady could only go into public places for as long and as far as her bladder would carry her! So an ordinary but decent woman of the lower orders was more or less confined to her own home or the houses of friends and family --- just because there was nowhere safe outside for her to "go"!

BRC: THE ILLUSIONISTS is full of memorable, larger-than-life characters. Were any of them based on real-life figures from the 19th century?

RT: There was a very famous dynasty of British stage magicians called the Maskelynes, whose theatre was the Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly. Aspects of their lives and work appear in the book, rather than the five generations of real people. There is an exquisitely preserved music hall theatre in London’s east end called Wilton’s, and I drew quite heavily on that for the Palmyra.

BRC: How about some of the illusions you write about? Are they based on actual performances from the time?

RT: Very much so. I read Robert-Houdin’s book, and Jasper Maskelyne’s, and several others.

BRC: Are you a fan of magic shows and illusion? Did you talk with any contemporary magicians as you worked on the book? If so, were they prepared to give up their secrets?

RT: Not so much, oddly. Modern magic seems quite show-bizzy and personality-driven compared with the Victorian versions. I don’t suppose any magician would have been willing to share his secrets with me, although, having said that, I do enjoy Penn and Teller’s funny revelations of how things are done.

BRC: Even without the literal conjuring, there's always something sort of magical about novels set in the world of the theater. Your book’s backstage scenes are particularly rich. Have you ever worked in the theater?

RT: I’m glad to hear that --- and I’m slightly abashed to admit, No. I made it all up, with the help of a couple of theatrical memoirs and the application of what we all know from going to the theatre as often as possible.

BRC: As I noted earlier, THE ILLUSIONISTS is full of memorable characters. Which one came to you first? Which was the most fun to write?

RT: Oh, without a doubt, Devil. I have written dozens of female central characters, and sometimes their men seem relatively pale. I really wanted to create an anti-hero, a man full of life and appetites and flaws. Some readers have said that he isn’t very likable, and the answer to that is, well --- no, he isn’t. Quite a lot of people in real life aren’t nice either, but that doesn’t mean they are uninteresting. Rather the opposite, often enough. Devil was such a joy to write. I love him, and I know I would have fancied him as much as Eliza does. Carlo and Heinrich were pretty satisfying to dream up, too.

BRC: In the U.S., your novel is being compared to some other popular books set in the world of show business, like THE NIGHT CIRCUS and WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. Did you read these books (or others) for inspiration? Do you read fiction when you're writing fiction, or does that just muddy the waters?

RT: I’m highly flattered by the comparison. In fact, I haven’t read either novel, deliberately. I try to avoid reading anything in the same approximate area when I’m writing. It’s like pouring blue ink into a glass of clear water --- the other voice just floods through.

BRC: I read a post on your blog about the making of the book trailer for THE ILLUSIONISTS. Can you tell us a little more about what that process was like? How was it to see your book come to life?

RT: My partner is an advertising creative director, so making a little promo film like this is very much his field. We went on a rather grueling trip through Central Asia last year, and planning and storyboarding the video sustained us over any number of dismal shashlik dinners. When we came home, we rented Wilton’s theatre for the shoot, and the director-cameraman was a friend of my daughter’s, and the magician and the dancer were friends of his, so it was very much a family affair. It was really satisfying to give a physical aspect to the scenes that had been in my head for so long.

BRC: What's one area of the world and one historical era that you've never written about but still hope to explore in a novel someday?

RT: Ah…shhh…but Persia, and that elaborate spy-diplomacy-murder battle that was played out between the British and the Russians on the borders between Asia and India, known as the Great Game.

BRC: I understand that your next project is a sequel to THE ILLUSIONISTS. Is this the first time you've written a sequel? What was it about this novel that demanded a follow-up? What has the writing process been like so far?

RT: The provisional title is DAUGHTER OF THE HOUSE, and it takes up the story of the daughter born to Eliza and Devil on the day of the Diamond Jubilee. There was so much more of the Palmyra story waiting to unfold, I just couldn’t leave it there --- and the intention always was to continue with a sequel because there was too much narrative to fit into one book. It is the first time I’ve done this, and there are technical problems in deciding precisely how much backstory to include without boring readers who have read the first book whilst not bewildering those who have not. That said, I’m enjoying the process because I feel there’s a really rich background and established characters to draw on. There seems to be more depth and space for my imagination to work in, and it seems to be coming along pretty well. I hope to have it finished by the end of the summer, so it should be published next year.