On magic and memory

Justin Crann
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Steven Galloway reads from The Confabulist during a Saskatchewan Festival of Words session at the Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery theatre on Friday.

Celebrated author discusses latest novel

By his own admission, Steven Galloway is a poor magician.

In a discussion about his latest novel, The Confabulist, Galloway regaled his audience with a story about how he once tried a magic trick at a media lunch in New York.

"I tried to do this coin trick where you hold the coin and then you make it disappear. It's supposed to be really easy, but I ended up dropping the coin into my lunch," he said with a chuckle.

"Everyone laughed at me and I looked like an idiot, so I have now retired magic from my repertoire."

What Galloway hasn't retired from his repertoire is writing. 

The Confabulist, his fourth novel, focuses on an elderly man with Korsakoff's syndrome — a condition which, among other things, results in confabulation or the filling of gaps in memory with false recollections.

Like some of his other works, the novel also involves a historic figure. In this case Galloway employs the magician Harry Houdini, who his protagonist believes he is responsible for killing.

"I chose Houdini partly because he is so well-known," said Galloway. "In a book where one of the central questions is between the real and the imaginary, Houdini had a few things going for him.

"First is that he, himself, was a completely made-up character … The magician we all know is a conscious creation of this working class, Jewish immigrant," he said.

"But also, because Houdini is a character who has so permeated the cultural consciousness … all of us know something coming into the novel," Galloway added. "If I was writing about a fictional magician, you would trust me to tell the truth about him, but because he isn't you know when I'm lying."

He said the use of a real figure in a work of fiction, or at least as the inspiration for it — a tactic he also used in The Cellist of Sarajevo and Ascension — isn't intentional at the onset of his process, but is the byproduct of his writing style.

"I tend to — as we all do — interact pretty heavily with the world around me, and I think I make up stories about what's going on … I look at (a person's life) and wonder, 'What if that person did this?'" said Galloway.

He said the use of a real figure can act as "an entry point" for readers, but also provides "a kind of foundation" for them.

"But it's a double-edged sword," added Galloway. "You can get a lot of letters from people saying, 'He didn't actually do that.'"

Galloway next appears Saturday at 11:20 a.m. in the Moose Jaw Public Library's south room.

Find Justin Crann on Twitter.

Organizations: Moose Jaw Public Library

Geographic location: New York, Sarajevo

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