“Real” Magicians

IF IT SEEMS hotter than usual this summer, blame Sarah Skilton and her latest novel, Club Deception. Her sizzling noir set in the cutthroat, secret — and very sexy — world of Los Angeles stage magicians hit shelves July 25. Fortunately, its delicious cocktail of romance, betrayal, and murder makes an excellent poolside companion, if you need cooling down.

The darkly comic and steamy feminist thriller marks a departure for Skilton, whose first two critically acclaimed novels, Bruised and High & Dry, were for teen readers. Ironically, though, it’s also brought her closer to home: like her novels’ heroines, Sarah is married to a magician. Unlike them, she is not a suspect in his murder. At least, as of this writing …

I interviewed Sarah via email.


KRISTEN KITTSCHER: You’ve already written two (excellent!) novels for young adults — the poignant contemporary Bruised and the fabulous neo-noir High & Dry, but Club Deception marks your first foray into writing for an adult audience. How does it compare?

SARAH SKILTON: Thank you! With YA, you get the intensity of “firsts” (first job, first heartbreak, first time standing up to parents, et cetera) and the passion of those moments is terrific. I loved writing for teens, but having overdosed on reading YA I must admit I got [whispers] a little sick of 17-year-olds. With Club Deception, it was fabulous to write for characters closer to my age; characters whose decades of experiences have shaped their personalities and worldviews. I could pretend it was refreshing to write about sex, drugs, and alcohol — but my YA books had a bit of that, too! Still, this felt like a book I had been longing to write for a while.

One of the many aspects I loved about Club Deception was how it explores the very male-dominated world of magicians through a feminist lens. Here’s this world in which, as one character points out, essentially mute women are sawed in half to roaring applause — and yet you turn that world on its head. Far from passive, these magicians’ wives and girlfriends are reclaiming power. In many ways, the novel doubles as a dark feminist comedy. Can you talk a little about how you explore gender roles in the novel?

Sure! I had noticed that many films, TV shows, or novels about magicians tend to be historical fiction (late 1800s/early 1900s), fantasy-based (i.e., the magicians are wizards with supernatural powers), or lack women. I was dying to write a book about modern, “real” magicians, and to make women integral to the story — but female magicians in a classic sense have always been rare (for reasons I explore in Club Deception), so I decided my book needed a Sons of Anarchy component. Fans of that show know that, despite the über-masculine framing of the story, Katey Sagal’s matriarch character is the one who holds the motorcycle club together. I enjoyed the idea of a “shadow government” of wives and girlfriends navigating the exciting and bizarre world of present-day magic because: A) I’d never seen that before, and B) as a magician’s wife myself, I knew I wanted the wife perspective to shine through. It was something I could bring to the table that was different.

Speaking of being a magician’s spouse, how did that influence or inspire the novel?

Because of my husband, who’s not only a talented magician but a wonderful guy, I’ve become protective of magicians. Too often in pop culture they’re depicted as villains, buffoons, entertainers for two-year-olds, or as terrible at magic. It’s not that I don’t understand the humor — we’re both obsessed with Gob Bluth II — but I was determined to go in another direction. The magicians I know through my husband are incredible, with distinct and creative stage personalities. I’ve been eager to show readers that magicians fall into dozens of categories, many of which are not acknowledged in books, TV, or film.

Club Deception is, fittingly, set in Los Angeles — a city of illusions and entertainment where dreams are fulfilled and broken. As in much noir, the city itself feels like a vital character in your cast and not just a (very authentic) backdrop. Talk to us a little about Los Angeles as a setting for the novel. Are there any literary portrayals of the city that inspired your writing?

Definitely. I’ve lived in Los Angeles since 1999, and there are so many things about the city that seem (and are) strange when you first arrive. I tried to tap into the vaguely hallucinatory sensation that can hit newcomers — in this case, the character of Jessica, who’s from the Midwest like I am: the fake diner on Wilshire Boulevard at Fairfax, rented out strictly for filming; the fact that anyone can walk off the street, sign up for Central Casting on a whim, and be on the set of their favorite TV show the next day; celebrity sightings; the sprawl, the beaches, the mountains, and the traffic all within a laid-back culture; all that great stuff. Janet Fitch, Megan Abbott, Mercedes Lambert, Walter Mosley, Dashiell Hammett, Carrie Fisher, and Raymond Chandler have written California-set books that inspired me. And the song “Come a Long Way” by Michelle Shocked, which lists a zillion Los Angeles neighborhoods, has been in my head since the ’90s!

The novel is told from multiple points of view, from the ambitious young upstart magician to the ingénue new wife of an established celebrity — one of whom may in fact be a killer. Can you talk about why you chose that narrative structure for this particular story?

I wanted to include different types of magicians — from stage show to close-up to street magic to cardists — because laypeople don’t always realize there’s a wide variety of magician types; they think magic is strictly for children or that it has to include huge props or animals. It was important to me to juxtapose the “workers” (guys who make a living performing magic) with the aspiring/hobbyist magicians, and with the experts who maybe don’t make as much money but are respected by other magicians for their artistry. I wanted to provide a way in for readers, while making the more arcane aspects of magic accessible, which is why the characters have different degrees of familiarity with magic. Felix wants to be a magician; Jessica is a magician’s wife (and has loved magic since childhood); Claire is secretly an expert in the field but is thwarted from performing; and Kaimi is completely green to it all. By allowing a few of the characters to remain on the outside looking in, I hoped to maintain a sense of intrigue and mystery. The questions — What is Cal hiding? What is Jonathan’s endgame? — become more nerve-wracking when we never include their points of view. We’re forced to imagine and speculate, which hopefully heightens the drama. Also, I love when characters who would otherwise not necessarily be friends come together because they’re all members of a club. It’s fun to see opposite personalities bounce off each other.

At a key moment in your novel, one of your protagonists asserts that storytelling is the key to brilliant magic. Club Deception has me thinking of the many overlaps between writing and performing magic: whether telling stories, creating illusions, or diverting attention from the mystery tricks of the trade, we’re both fabulists. It would seem to me that the novelist’s goal differs, though: she creates illusions to get at a truth. Do you have any thoughts about how the two compare?

That’s a cool way to look at it! I have noticed that each book I’ve written, including the unpublished ones, contain elements of my life that I’m struggling to address or bring to light. The settings, characters, and style of story are different, but I’m interested in highlighting a truth that can’t otherwise be stated.

Club Deception has such fabulous twists. Can you talk a little bit about how you constructed the book?

The short answer is: backward. With this book as well as High & Dry (my noir mystery for teens), I didn’t decide whodunit until late in the game. Once I figure out the conclusion, I work backward filling in earlier details to ensure that the reveal fits and make sense. This is because I don’t want my knowledge of the culprit to seep into the storytelling unintentionally, or for characters to “cheat” and allude to it without my permission.


Kristen Kittscher is a former middle school English teacher and the author of mysteries for young readers.



Feed Your HeadSubscribe to LARB's FREE Newsletter