Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist who earned her MFA from American University, where her plays have been performed. Her debut novel The Magician’s Lie is a weekly or monthly pick by Indie Next, People Magazine, and Publishers Weekly, among others. People calls it, “Smart and intricately plotted… a richly imagined thriller.” – Meg
Switching Genres: Greer Macallister on writing historical fiction
As writers, we’re often encouraged to “find our voice,” as if there’s only one. But just as there are many characters and plots inside each of us, there are many voices, and many writers. I am a poet, and a playwright, and a short story writer, and now a novelist. My work is told in many different voices. I feel I become a new writer every time I begin a new piece. In the case of The Magician’s Lie, I became a historical fiction writer.
In the beginning, I was inspired by an absence. Books, movies, TV commercials and other media often refer to the classic image of a magician cutting a woman in half. I began to wonder why it’s always the woman cut in half by a man, and never the other way around. Why don’t we see a female magician cutting her male assistant in half? So I decided I wanted to write that book, about that magician.
But I had a choice to make. There are magicians, and there are magicians. Did I want this woman to be a modern, contemporary woman, maybe with a Vegas stage show and a TV special? Or did I want to set the story in a time when magic shows were more widespread, when they’d be part of an evening’s entertainment for the average citizen? In that case, it would be possible for a controversial show to truly cause a sensation. I did some preliminary research to find a time when it would be unusual but not impossible for a woman to take to the Vaudeville stage as an illusionist, and anchored the story on a real-life event where a real-life female magician took the stage for a dangerous illusion called the Bullet Catch at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
In January 1897.
And so I became a new writer, a writer I’d never been: a historical fiction writer.
I didn’t know anything about 1897 off the top of my head. Would there have been electric lights? What would such a woman wear? How would she get around? How much did the streetcar cost? There were streetcars, right? Maybe?
I learned on the job. I started writing, and researched along the way. The action of the book started in the mid-1880s and continued through 1905. As a contemporary fiction writer I’d been fast, but as a historical fiction writer, I was agonizingly slow. The research took over, halting the writing for long periods, when I couldn’t get through a scene without stopping to gather information. Had sequins been invented yet? Telephones existed, but would a small town police station have one, and if so, what would its ring sound like? What crops would a farmer grow in East Tennessee?
Over the five years that it took me to write The Magician’s Lie, I learned how to balance research and writing. I lost some of the immediacy (and certainly the speed!) of writing contemporary fiction, but I gained something I absolutely treasure – the ability to transport the reader to a completely different world. Choosing the right details and working them into the text gently, softly, as if there were no other way – I grew to love the challenge, and to me, that’s where historical fiction really shines. If I’ve done my job, and truly become the writer I needed to be to produce this book, it will sweep the reader away. In this way I get to be a new writer – and, in a way, a new kind of magician. – Greer