Houdini Lives After Death in New Novel
An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Victoria Kelly
Columnist Anna Roins
by Victoria Kelly
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Some say Harry Houdini was the greatest magician who ever lived – certainly, he was a remarkable escape artist. Over the years, his life (and death) has fascinated fans, writers, and filmmakers, alike.
Before he died, Houdini vowed he would find a way to speak to his beloved wife, Bess from beyond the grave using a coded message. Kelly’s impressive debut is about this remarkable woman and her attempts to reach her late husband. She draws on real events in their extraordinary lives and creates a hopeful end to their long and happy marriage.
From Coney Island to Europe during the dazzling 1920s, this book is sure to delight lovers of historical fiction.
“Kelly’s mesmerizing reimagining shines a light on the kind of love that burns strong even after death.” People Pick: Best New Books – People Magazine
AUTHORLINK: Ms. Kelly, it’s so great to talk to you about your debut novel, Mrs. Houdini. Most people hold a fascination for master magician, Harry Houdini and have seen the old Hollywood (largely fictional) film that depicts his life featuring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. What made you write decide to write about Bess, his wife, another under-the-radar woman of history in the style of historical fiction?
KELLY: Thank you–it’s such a pleasure to be featured on Authorlink! Before the book, I knew almost nothing about Harry Houdini or magic, but I have always been interested in religion and spirituality, and the debate over whether there is actually life after death. Many years ago, I read an article that explained how Bess and Harry had made a pact with each other: whoever died first would pass along a secret, prearranged code to the surviving person, from “other side.” It turned out that their story—their marriage, and Bess’s search to communicate with Harry’s spirit—was full of remarkable, beautiful and tragic events. But there was very, very little published about Bess, and a lot that was unknown about her—which gave me the opportunity to write the end of their love story as I think they would have wished it could have been.
|“Harry desperately wanted the afterlife to be real; but he died unable to prove it, to himself or others . . .”|
AUTHORLINK: It’s our pleasure to have you. It was a great read! As you say in your book, the 1920s represented the height of the spiritualist movement. Much of the public believed the barrier between life and death was permeable. In your research, did you discover the ‘general rule’ that people who have passed away cannot come back through a medium or as a ghost, after the year they died? What other interesting facts have you discovered about spiritualism in your research?
KELLY: Harry desperately wanted the afterlife to be real; but he died unable to prove it, to himself or others, through any of his many experiences with mediums. I tried to do my own research; I went to a few mediums—one of whom was way off the mark and another who was only slightly accurate. I ended up concluding the same thing Harry did—that there might be some true mediums out there, but I hadn’t met them yet. Any “rules” about ghosts and spirits that come up in the novel are entirely of my own creation. I did learn that spiritualism in the 1920s was a lot different than it is now; mediums relied heavily on dark rooms, eerie noises, and generally things we laugh about today. But at the same time, we are watching people like Jonathan Edwards and the Hollywood Medium on TV and there are a lot of similarities between what people believed then and what they believe now. I think it’s human nature to want there to be more than what we can see.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, that’s true. What made you decide to sit down and write a novel about Bess Houdini? Have you written any other novel?
KELLY: I wrote two unpublished novels before writing Mrs. Houdini. The first was my college thesis, and the second I wrote in graduate school while I was earning my MFA in Creative Writing. It was devastating at the time that nothing came of them, but when I look back now I realize that everything I wrote then was making me a better writer. I couldn’t have written Mrs. Houdini without having written those books first. And I would not have wanted my debut novel to be something I would look back on with disappointment. I was so fortunate that for several years before Mrs. Houdini I had an agent, Trena Keating, who believed in my talent and urged me to keep writing. And I think there is some truth to the fact that you have to live life a little before you can write about it. Now, I have kids; my husband and I have been through three military deployments; we have known people who have died too young. In college, I could write beautiful essays about writers, but I wasn’t really my own writer yet. I’m 32 now, and I know I have a lot of living left to do, and I would like to think that I’ll only keep getting better and better as a writer.
AUTHORLINK: That’s really interesting, thanks. Bess gave extensive interviews about Harry and her relationship with him to a man called Harold Kellock, who in turn wrote a biography entitled Houdini: His Life Story (Blue Ribbon Books, 1931) (now out of print). You were shocked when you came across it in a second-hand book shop and bought it for ten dollars. Upon opening it you discovered Bess Houdini’s signature inside the cover. You said, ‘’if there ever was a sign that perhaps her story should be told, I believe that was it.’’ Do you think that people who have passed away can send us messages in the form of signs or ‘codes’? That dead people can alter the landscape just slightly, enough for the coded words to come through – especially if they liked riddles in life like Houdini did? Or, do you think we see what we want to see?
KELLY: This might sound crazy, but my father has the ability to sense things that aren’t there. It’s something he has always been able to do. When my sister and I were trying to trace our family history for the Daughters of the American Revolution, my father went to a cemetery he had never been to, looking for the grave of one of our ancestors. It turned out that the cemetery was enormous and he had no record of where the site was. But he found himself pulled across the grass to the very grave he was looking for. We have many other stories like that. I really do believe that things like that can happen, and not by coincidence. Whether or not the dead can alter the landscape as explicitly as in Mrs. Houdini, I’m not so sure. But I’d like to believe that my finding Bess’s signature was some kind of sign. Harry Houdini signed many things, but her signature is pretty rare.
|“The hardest thing was overcoming my own self-doubt.. . . .I was constantly battling my own fears that nothing would come of this book . . .”|
AUTHORLINK: That’s fascinating. What was the hardest thing about writing Mrs. Houdini? What was the easiest?
KELLY: The easiest part was writing the historical details of Atlantic City. I never watched Boardwalk Empire because I didn’t want my details to come across as copies of details from the show. Instead, I interviewed my dad. His parents grew up in Atlantic City; they met as teenagers working on the Steel Pier in the 1940s. My dad passed along the stories his parents and grandparents told him about Atlantic City through the century.
The hardest thing was overcoming my own self-doubt. When I was writing Mrs. Houdini, most of my friends from graduate school had already published one or two books. I was constantly battling my own fears that nothing would come of this book I was working so hard on. Then I had my first daughter in the middle of writing the book and that put everything into perspective for me. I think I’ve learned that we receive our successes in our own time.
AUTHORLINK: While your book is mostly based on factual evidence of Houdini’s life, you also took some ‘liberties’ to flesh out the emotional and technical side of Bess’s story. To the extent of your knowledge, did Bess ever receive messages from her husband even though she formally renounced any connection she might have had with him through séances? Were the different codes that Bess received true? Especially the ones that led her to meet photojournalist, Charles Radley which then helped her solve Houdini’s legacy? What about the photo of Houdini taken in 1905 at Young’s Pier with an old Harry standing head-on to the camera, while the younger version of himself prepares to leap into the frozen river? Did a photo like that, whether real or doctored, purportedly exist? What about the bank account in the Boardwalk National Bank? Was that real?
KELLY: Almost everything from the chapters on the Houdinis’ early years and marriage was taken from real events. But most of the chapters that occurred after Harry’s death—the photography; the bank account; the clues—were imagined. However, it is true that Harry did leave Bess a secret code, based on a song she sang when they first met, which was later revealed in a fake medium’s hoax. Bess vowed publicly that she would try to reach Harry for ten years; after ten years, with no success, she stopped her search. This was why I wrote the novel. I didn’t want their love story to end like that. I thought, what if Harry did communicate with Bess after all? What reasons might she have had to keep this communication a secret? And the story evolved from there.
AUTHORLINK: What kind of research was involved for Mrs. Houdini? What was your daily writing schedule – half research, half writing? How long did it take you to write the book?
KELLY: It took me two years to research and write the book before Atria Books bought it. I spent about six months reading every book about Houdini I could find, and writing a detailed outline of the entire plot. I knew I had to come up with the sequence of events before I could write a single word, especially because the development of the clues and the code was complicated. Having a young baby actually proved very helpful because it gave me structure. My daughter went to day-care for five hours a day, and I would write; the rest of the day, I didn’t think about writing. This is what kept me from overthinking the book.
AUTHORLINK: While Houdini’s talent lay in his ability to display supernatural abilities he was a non-believer of actual magic. In fact, he claimed they were just highly involved tricks that nearly cost him his life – on and off the screen. He even performed a magic trick on Sir Arthur Conan Boyle who was a great believer in spiritualism so he could show him that magic did not exist. Why do you think, then, he was a believer in the afterlife and the occult? That he could contact his mother after her death, or that he could cross the veil to reach Bess after his own death?
KELLY: Houdini was very emphatic that his tricks were not real magic, and that he himself did not have any supernatural powers. I think this stemmed from a guilty conscience; when he and Bess were first married and working on the carnival circuit, they pretended to perform real séances for money, and ultimately realized they were hurting people in the process. For the rest of his life he despised people who purposely deceived others. I think it was Harry’s mother’s death that made him desperate to find proof of an afterlife. She was everything to him, and I think the idea that he might never see her again was devastating to him. I also think there was a part of him that was fascinated by the idea that the things he was pretending to do—walk through walls, read people’s minds—might be actually be possible. There is a link between magic and spirituality and I think people who are interested in one are often interested in the other.
|“. . . I’ve found that turning my ‘writing mind’ off when I’m not writing has made me a happier person. A book-in-progress can really dominate your whole life if you let it.”|
AUTHORLINK: You’re very perceptive when it comes to behaviour. For instance, at Loc 173 you state that Bess, ‘…was stewing in the insult of his silence, and it had brought out another, harsher side to her.’ Do you use a notebook to jot down observations of human behaviour, or do they materialize out of your imagination when it’s time to write?
KELLY: Sometimes I’ll notice something interesting in my day-to-day life and note it for later, but I’ve found that turning my ‘writing mind’ off when I’m not writing has made me a happier person. A book-in-progress can really dominate your whole life if you let it. Instead, I’ve found that reading right before I sit down to write helps get me in a zone where I can visualize my own scenes and try to get inside them in the moment. I also spend a lot of time crafting sentences. Sometimes it can take me a whole hour to write a paragraph. I think one of the most perceptive writers was F. Scott Fitzgerald. He had a fluidity to his writing that was remarkable, the ability to make something he toiled over for hours seem as if he had dashed it off in a minute.
AUTHORLINK: You are also a highly talented poet. Your poetry collection When the Men Go Off to War received widespread critical acclaim since being published in September 2015 by the Naval Institute Press. The Military Times hailed it for, ‘’themes of departure, absence, and homecoming [which] are universal in place’’ and esteemed poet Dick Allen called it, ‘’Meticulously crafted [and] highly readable …one of the finest first collections I’ve read in the last decade.’’ What comes more naturally to you, poetry or prose? Or do they carry each other?
KELLY: I wrote a lot of poetry as a teenager and college freshman, but what I was writing was not very good. I turned to fiction and didn’t write a single poem until eight years later, when I was a new wife and my husband was deployed for seven months to the Middle East. I was in a dark place and struggling with my writing, so I decided to take a poetry course for fun. I went into it with no expectations, and I did not plan to publish any of it. The poet Dean Young said once, “Always remember your first urges, why you wrote your first poem.” This is what I was trying to do—to bring back the joy in writing that I had lost somewhere along the way. But I found that I had become a much better poet in the years I had not been writing poetry. This is probably because I finally had something to write about. My husband and many of our friends were fighting a war on the other side of the world, and I was at home folding clothes and grappling with this division between my life and theirs. So I decided to write about it. In many ways, poetry comes more naturally to me because my poetry is more autobiographical than my fiction. Dick Allen, who I had never met, came across one of my poems and contacted me out of the blue to tell me how much he admired it. Over the years he became a good friend and mentor, and I owe him a lot. I know there are not that many people who, at the height of their success, will go out of their way like that to encourage someone just starting out. Dick Allen is one of them; the novelist Geraldine Brooks is another. I hope that one day I will have the chance to be as gracious to a young writer as they were to me.
AUTHORLINK: How remarkable you hadn’t written a word of poetry for eight years. Which authors/books inspire you? What are you working on next, and what are your ambitions for your writing career?
KELLY: Right now I’m spending a bit of time working on a new collection of poems inspired by a historic hotel next to my house. Mainly I’m focusing on my next novel that, not to give too much away, is based on a military incident in the 1940s. As in Mrs. Houdini, there are glimmers of the supernatural. As for my ambitions, while it would be great to be known as a ‘famous writer’, I would hope firstly to be known as a ‘good writer’. So I am always reading and trying to become better. I very much admire novelists like Ann Patchett, Maile Meloy, Geraldine Brooks, Jennifer Haigh, Claire Messud, Jennifer duBois and Keija Parssinen.
|“. . . sometimes what seems like a blessing can be a curse, and what seems like a curse can be a blessing.”|
AUTHORLINK: Terrific. And on a final, personal note, what advice would you give to your younger self?
KELLY: Patience! I wish I could tell my younger self that good things take time. There is an old Chinese folktale called The Lost Horse that ends with the lesson that sometimes what seems like a blessing can be a curse, and what seems like a curse can be a blessing. I still have to remind myself sometimes that when things don’t work out the way I planned, it doesn’t mean they won’t work out for the best.
AUTHORLINK: Too true. Ms. Kelly, thank you for your time today. We hope you enjoy the continued success of Mrs. Houdini and look forward to your next novel and work of poetry in the future.
KELLY: Thank you so much for such thoughtful questions and for taking the time to interview me!
|About the Author:|
Victoria Kelly was born in New Jersey and graduated Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University. A U.S. Mitchell Scholar, she received her M.Phil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland and went on to earn her M.F.A. in Creative Writing in 2009 from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Her fiction and poetry have appeared in the anthologies and dozens of literary journals. Her first poetry chapbook, Prayers of an American Wife, was the winner of the Coal Hill Prize and was published by Autumn House Press in 2012. Her debut full-length poetry collection, When the Men Go Off to War, was published in hardcover in September 2015 by the Naval Institute Press as the Press’s first original poetry publication in their over-100-year history. Her debut novel, Mrs. Houdini, was published by Simon & Schuster (Atria Books) on March 1, 2016.
Victoria is a two-time Pushcart Prize Nominee and has taught Creative Writing at the University of Iowa and Old Dominion University. She lives with her husband and daughters.
|About Anna Roins:|
Anna Roins is a lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist who writes about social and community issues and has edited dissertations, websites, and books.
She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London.
Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.
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This post was written by Anna Roins