Author Lisa Mannetti graciously took time to answer questions about the inspiration behind her newest horror novella, 'The Box Jumper'. In this interview, Mannetti also describes the challenges of writing a horror novella featuring the enigmatic Harry Houdini, what elements make for good horror and genre blending.
'The Box Jumper,' introduces readers to Leona Derwatt, Houdini’s assistant, and mistress. Taken into the magician's confidence, she learns his magic and they become a team exposing fraudulent psychics and mediums of their day. Thirty years after his death, Leona is revealing secrets of his paranormal abilities--but is she telling the truth? This is the intriguing premise of Lisa Mannetti's magical, mysterious novella that delves into the astounding world of Harry Houdini. The lines between truth and fact are blurred and the boundaries between magic and reality are interwoven in a tale of love, darkness and memory.
Lisa Mannetti’s debut novel, The Gentling Box, garnered a Bram Stoker Award and she has since been nominated three times for the prestigious award in both the short and long fiction categories: Her story, “Everybody Wins,” was made into a short film and her novella, “Dissolution,” will soon be a feature-length film directed by Paul Leyden. Recent short stories include, “Esmeralda’s Stocking” in Never Fear: Christmas Terrors; “Resurgam” in Zombies: More Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran, and “Almost Everybody Wins,” in Insidious Assassins. Her work, including The Gentling Box, and “1925: A Fall River Halloween” has been translated into Italian. In addition to The Box Jumper, she has also authored The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, two companion novellas in Deathwatch, a macabre gag book, 51 Fiendish Ways to Leave your Lover, as well as non-fiction books, and numerous articles and short stories in newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Forthcoming works include “Arbeit Macht Frei” in Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories and a novel about the dial-painter tragedy in the post-WWI era, Radium Girl. Lisa lives in New York in the 100 year old house she originally grew up in with two wily (mostly) black twin cats named Harry and Theo Houdini.
Francis Xavier: What is the first line from The Box Jumper?
Lisa Mannetti: “It was the children who brought Houdini back: the ones who were dead or missing.”
FX: Houdini continues to endure with his mysterious, magical legacy, what did you learn about him while doing research for The Box Jumper? Any surprises? And why do you think he continues to fascinate?
LM: I learned several things that were definitely surprising to me. Although I’d read a few biographies years before when I was a kid of nine or ten, I had no idea until I started the intensive research for The Box Jumper just how extraordinary Houdini actually was. For example, on a personal level he was extremely generous. He not only helped out other performers during their lives, he would restore the neglected graves of magicians and colleagues like William Davenport. In addition to assisting members of both his and Bess’s family, he donated time, money and performance tickets for poor and orphaned children, and he gave shows at hospitals for patients confined to their beds.
I never realized Houdini was an aviator—the first actually, in Australia or that he was such a prolific writer of articles, books and films. His father, Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss, was a scholar and Houdini--partly in homage, partly out of a sense of his own inadequate formal education—essentially turned his own home into a library amassing huge collections of books and artifacts on magic, theater, spiritualism and more. He also wanted to start a college of magic that would rival Columbia University. His friendship (initially at least) with Arthur Conan Doyle is well-known, but I was pleased to learn that he actually collaborated with H.P. Lovecraft on some magazine stories.
In the my-idol-turns-out-to-have-feet-of-clay department, I was less thrilled to discover that Houdini had a wandering eye when it came to women. I’m not sure how much the Tony Curtis-Janet Leigh film had to do with the mythos I created in my own mind, and I do believe he loved Bess, but he wasn’t above having affairs with women like Jack London’s wife, Charmian, who espoused open marriage.
Houdini truly was, for his time, the equivalent of today’s most renowned and internationally acclaimed superstars: think (e.g.) Paul McCartney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Stephen King and you’ll get an idea of his magnitude and his effect on audiences. He had enormous charisma and energy and both shine through his work and his life. How could we help but be drawn to him?
FX: Three words to describe your writing?
LM: Intelligent. Original. Dark.
FX: Which part of The Box Jumper challenged you the most?
LM: Well, hopefully the savvy reader—just by glancing at the table of contents—will realize this is also a book about demonic possession, so I’m not handing out a redline roadmap of plot spoilers while answering this particular question. At any rate, I went to a Salesian Catholic school (which might be enough said for some folks) and the nuns—always excellent at instilling terror of the supernatural—did an even better than average job with me. Hearing about how demons tormented (for example) St. John Bosco, some immutable part of my subconscious decided that if the devil went after him (and he founded the order of nuns who taught us), there was certainly no hope to evade whatever disgusting, cackling hell Beelzebub could cook up for me.
Researching this area of the novella was very difficult—writing it was worse. My anxiety (and its attendant fear) was so high I actually had to take a three week break at one point to steel myself for getting it down in words. One part of me was terrified that I was opening a door—the literary equivalent of using a Ouija board. It’s funny now, but at the time—trust me when I tell you this—I hunted up all the old crucifixes that’d belonged to both my parents and the ones that weren’t displayed every night across the tops of all three lamp-lit dressers in my bedroom were hanging around my neck.
FX: Which of The Box Jumper characters do you most identify with?
LM: This is actually a really difficult question because while I like all my characters—even the villainous ones I write about—in this instance the most likable, genuine character is Houdini and I certainly don’t have his talent or abilities. Another perplexity in identifying with any of them for me lies in the fact that some characters in The Box Jumper are real, some are composites drawn from his life and times, and some are wholly fabricated. I understood the motivations of Doyle as well as those of the less savory gang of magicians and mediums like Emery, Ford and Evelyn, but I never completely identified with any of them—including Leona Derwatt—despite the first person narrative. One thematic element I did grasp at the gut level was Leona’s intense desire to be reunited with Harry—the experience of tremendous grief and loss has certainly affected my own life.
FX: What did you learn about yourself as a writer while working on The Box Jumper?
LM: Research has always been a big part of my writing, and I still have some trepidation, but I’m less afraid now to tackle a topic or subject that looms so large in the public mind. Even if it’s exhilarating to explore the life and work of a man like Houdini, it’s still somewhat intimidating as well, so I’m glad I didn’t back off. Working on The Box Jumper gave me the confidence to write a very difficult story set in a Nazi concentration camp just after liberation, and I’m happy to say it will be published this year.
FX: What elements make for good horror fiction?
LM: Generally speaking, the same as any good fiction: characters, plot, theme and well-wrought language—everything that makes up the literary craft. Lots of dark, harrowing works aren’t labeled horror (Suddenly, Last Summer; Sophie’s Choice; In Cold Blood to name just three). If we’re going to say we write horror, I believe we should investigate those catastrophic life and death and (if we choose to do so) other-worldly moments that have the greatest impact on our psyches, our emotions and our souls. It’s not just about catharsis, and I don’t think any of us completely understand the fear and tragedy of what sears us all just going through our ordinary lives, but as writers I believe we have the mandate to try and articulate it.
FX: What are your thoughts on genre blending in works of fiction?
LM: I don’t think it’s the least bit problematic: if a piece is working, it’s working—regardless of the elements it incorporates. The particular needs of the story dictate what should be included. The Box Jumper mixes fact with fiction, history with dreamy surrealism, horror, romance and magic—to name a few. I didn’t set out to make Houdini-soup, but the time setting, the characters and the situation called for quite a bit of exploration on my part; readers can determine for themselves whether or not it worked, and I welcome hearing from them.
FX: Where can we find you and your work online?