My father leaving was his last act of magic. He had locked himself in a glass aquarium filled with water. The idea was to disappear from the aquarium and reappear onstage. My mother, pregnant with me at the time, saw what happened at the rehearsal: he vanished but never returned. No one could explain it. It was supposed to have been an illusion, after all. The stage was searched. Even the real police looked for him, but he was gone. Gone where? I asked her once, and she said nobody knew, not even the world’s greatest magicians. She told me there was a cruelty to magic because it takes a thing, transforms it, and then turns it back into what it was. My father had forgotten the turning back part.

Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg’s stories have or will soon appear in One Story, Conjunctions, American Short Fiction, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, Best New American Voices 2010, and The Pushcart Prize XXIV. Her debut collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009), was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, longlisted for The Story Prize, and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. A second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, is forthcoming from FSG. She currently teaches creative writing at George Washington University and lives in Baltimore.

Q&A by Pei-Ling Lue

PL: Where did the idea for this story come from?
Lv: I’ve been trying to write a story about magicians for years. I’m fascinated by magic, by the quality of illusion. In some ways, fiction and stage magic have a lot in common.
PL: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
Lv: This story is included in my forthcoming collection, The Isle of Youth, and out of the seven stories in the book, “The Greatest Escape” was definitely the hardest. It took me a long time to find the right formula, the right set of events and circumstances, which was a symptom of the larger problem of not understanding the characters. I knew there was a mother/daughter magician team, but everything else remained locked, a mystery. Margaret Atwood has a great quote about not sitting down “in the middle of the woods” when you’re struggling with a story, so I tried to keep going. I changed the tense, the setting, the point-of-view. Earlier incarnations were set in Baltimore and Los Angeles, but when the setting shifted to Hollywood, Florida, I could feel the story beginning to take flight.
PL: How long did it take you to complete this story?
Lv: I worked on “The Greatest Escape” for over a year, on-and-off.
PL: “The Greatest Escape” is about a mother-daughter relationship, as was your story for One Story, “What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.” Is this just a coincidence, or is this a relationship you like to explore? What’s your own relationship with your mom like?
Lv: It does seem to be a recurring trend, doesn’t it? Thankfully my relationship with my mom is very close, but I do think parent/child relationships are inherently complicated—because there is so much trust, so much closeness, there is an enormous capacity for harm.
PL: What do you see in the future for Crystal? Does she become a Level How long did it take you to complete this story magician?
Lv: I tend to not think about characters much after their stories end, or I might continue to think about them in the context of their story, but rarely beyond. That said, if I had to guess, I think Crystal will do fine. She’s very scrappy and resourceful.
PL: I think a lot of people discover some great truth about themselves during their teenaged years. Perhaps this is because it’s the age most parents feel that their children can handle more complicated ideas. Did anything like that ever happen to you?
Lv: Not really, to be honest. My teenage years were very difficult. I barely made it out, and I actually never graduated from high school. It was a period of trying to escape truth—or maybe looking for truth, but in all the wrong ways. It wasn’t until I was shifting through the rubble in my early twenties that some truths—often tough truths—began to emerge. But perhaps I keep returning to that age in fiction because it was such a fraught time for me (as it was, to some degree, for most other people). I love writing about teenagers because they are in this in between place, on the tight rope between childhood and adulthood, on the cusp of so much. And, of course, all teenagers keep secrets, and it’s those secret lives I’m most interested in.
PL: You grew up in Florida, did setting this story in Florida make it easier to write about?
Lv: Yes. Three of the stories in The Isle of Youth are set in Florida, though not in Orlando, where I grew up, but farther south. Still, I’ve spent time in the southern part of the state and I know the texture of Florida well. I’ve come to appreciate Florida more with age. When I was a teenager, Orlando seemed boring, the suburbs—now I can see the ways in which the state is wonderfully bizarre.
PL: Did you research the magic world in writing this story? If so, what’s the most interesting story that you discovered?
Lv: Yes! I think being able to read about magicians was one of the things that kept me going when the writing was hard. I love the Houdini stories, all his escapes. What a mythic, fascinating character. I’m no Houdini expert, but from what I’ve read, he seemed to regard magic as a craft, as opposed to claiming his acts were aided by supernatural forces. And so many of his ideas are relevant to fiction writers. Here’s a favorite: “The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death.” In other words, raise the stakes.
PL: What are you working on now?
Lv: I’m working on a new story and getting ready to dive into a novel revision.
PL: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
Lv: On a technical level, I took a workshop with Jim Shepard a few years ago and he talked about this thing called rate-of-revelation, or the idea that a story should always be revealing new emotional information about the characters (as opposed to just hitting the same notes over and over). That’s a condensed version, but suffice it to say that the concept really changed the way I viewed my stories in revision and also the way I read student work. Two other pieces of stellar advice I’ve come across recently: Elizabeth Gilbert, from an interview in The Rumpus: “there’s a contract between you and the mystery. And the mystery is the thing that brings life to the work. But your part of the contract is that you have to be the plow mule, or the mystery won’t show up. It might not even show up if you do your work. There’s no guarantee. It doesn’t promise you anything, but I can promise you that if you don’t do your work, it won’t show up.” Etgar Keret, from an interview in Rookie: “when it comes to writing the way you do, you’ll always be the world champion at being yourself.”