My older brother introduced me to Harry Houdini on a wet English summer’s day sometime in the mid-1980s. We were trapped inside while it poured down outside and I guess I was being a pain because I was bored. John felt the need to entertain me. I was 7, maybe 8, so John would have been 12ish. We didn’t play together as often as we used to and we’d drift apart even more once John became a teenager and therefore cool by default. But on this day we were having fun in each other’s company leaping around our shared bedroom, bellowing and guffawing, playing one of our brilliantly weird storytelling mash-ups of heroes and villains. At least, having fun until I got fed up with being the bad guy all the time. I wanted to be Batman for once. Why was John always King Arthur, Luke Skywalker, Spiderman, Steve Austin? To stop me moaning he said I could be Harry Houdini. And I asked: ‘Who?’
I was soon obsessed.
In hindsight I think one of the things that appealed to me so much was the fact that Houdini was real. Really real. A real-life person. There were photos! Most of mine and John’s play-heroes were made-up, fictional, possibly mythical. But Houdini had been a honest-to-goodness living legend. He’s been called ‘America’s first superhero’. But he didn’t get to be super because he was accidentally bitten by a radioactive spider or was bestowed a multi-million dollar inheritance or even born of magical parents. He got his amazing powers because he strived so damn hard to achieve them. And to a working class kid from the North of England that mattered. A lot.
And I suppose, in the beginning, I followed the usual path of most Houdini obsessives. I received rope burns, dislocated shoulders and even a cracked rib thanks to my terrible but enthusiastic imitations. Luckily card tricks are less dangerous and even now I can still fool my 6 year-old daughter with a couple of them.
Down the years my desperation to be a magician faded but not my interest in Houdini. My desperation to write took over. But it’s been said before that novelists and conjurers share a little bit of DNA. We’re both hoping our audiences can suspend their disbelief long enough for us to entertain them. Fiction should also be an intricately constructed illusion.
With Houdini and the Five-Cent Circus I’m not trying to tell the true story – definitely not attempting a biography, there are plenty of them already. I’ve taken a handful of reported incidents from Houdini’s childhood, and shuffled them up, before dealing them out into what I hope is an original and entertaining narrative. I hope the truth that shines through is just how imaginative and ambitious Erik was. And how driven he needed to be before he could become Harry. Destiny didn’t happen to him. He chased it down.
Barrington Stoke are a publisher who specialize in nurturing new and struggling readers. I’ve written this book with the intention of introducing young people to the fascinating immigrant boy Erik who refused to be restrained and grew up to conquer the world. But I’d also like to reveal the wonderful escapism of books and reading too.
For now I’ll be sending a copy of the book to my big brother, as a thank you. And when she’s old enough, I’ll read it with my daughter. She has her own heroes she likes to play and pretend to be but there’s always room for one more hero in the world. And especially for one who’s self-made.
Thanks for joining us Keith! You can read the first chapter of Houdini and the Five Cent Circus here.