Jeff Glor talks to Jim Steinmeyer about "The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston Versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards"
Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?
Jim Steinmeyer: I've worked with magicians throughout my career, and when I was a boy in Chicago, I'd actually known magicians who had been friends of Thurston. Still, he always seemed to remain a mysterious, guarded personality. It was difficult to get a sense of his performances or his career. Over the years, I gradually came to discover that his personality and experiences were a key to the mystery. Even more, his story -- what he chose to tell people as well as what he chose to conceal from the public -- is one of the great stories about American show business. I think that Thurston tells us a great story about entertainment at the turn of the nineteenth century, about fame and success. The fact that he had basically become obsolete by the end of his career, virtually forgotten, only exemplifies the changing tastes as well as the nature of stage magic.
JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?
JS: As always, the surprise to me is getting to know these people. It sounds funny to explain it that way, but you approach these personalities by first reading the standard press releases and biographies, and then, as the research progresses, you begin to really understand them, their desires and fears. It's sometimes one or two letters, or a simple account or review, which provides the perspective. That's the key that begins to unlock the mysteries of personality. I'm always surprised to, in effect, shake hands with these great entertainers of a century ago. I really end up feeling like I know what it was like to watch them perform, and to experience the heights and depths of their careers.
JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
JS: Much of my career is spent working with magicians, developing material for their performances and also creating special effects and illusions for Broadway shows. My books about magic have been real opportunities for me to explore the history of magic. It's great that I've had the opportunity to introduce new readers to these subjects, but I always feel, selfishly, that these books give me a much greater appreciation of magic. I'm always working with performers on new projects, and I hope to keep busy with that.
JG: What else are you reading right now?
JS: I read a lot of nonfiction. For some reason, that's always my preference; maybe it's because I write nonfiction and I feel supportive of those stories. I'll mention a couple that I just finished. Simon Garfield's "Just My Type" is a great collection of essays about typefaces. Believe it or not. And, of course, each of those encompasses a fascinating story about style, personalities, or historical movements. James Shapiro's "Contested Will," which is a book about the Shakespeare authorship controversies. It's so smart, so clever, because this author, for the first time, asks why certain people felt compelled to create these controversies, and that takes the subject to a completely new level.
JG: What's next for you?
JS: I've written a few books that aren't books on show business or magic, and my next book will be one of those. It's called, "Who Was Dracula?" and it's a historical story about Bram Stoker's novel and the important influences that were responsible for that character. It will be published by Penguin early next year. It's really a great tale, with lots of surprises and ties to history. And, I confess, there's plenty of "show business" in this story, too, because Stoker was heavily influenced by the late Victorian theatre. I think that Dracula has to be seen in that context.
For more on "The Last Greatest Magician in the World," visit the Penguin Group website.