Brad Abraham on Magicians Impossible, worldbuilding, characterisation and Jason Bishop

Yesterday I posted my review of Magicians Impossible, but getting to that point was an exercise in going through it over and over again trying to minimise the vibe of Ahhhh, just read this. 

Not quite the book review readers would be looking for, I think! (Though really it’s that good!)

So Brad Abraham is the kind of author you’d any to fan girl forever because after meeting him via Twitter, and listening to the book — that he sent me because Audible Australia still hasn’t released his book here —  he answered some questions for me about writing Magicians Impossible, his work as a screenwriter, comics writer AND journalist.

  • What are you reading right now? What attracted you to this book?

My reading goal for 2018 has been to re-read as many of the books that inspired me to become a writer in the first place as possible. I’m not a fast reader – I like to take my time with a book, to go through it slowly and savour each word. I’m a shitty multitasker as is so I only read one book at a time. So with that all on the table I’m currently re-reading THE BLOODY RED BARON by Kim Newman, which is the second book in his ANNO DRACULA series, which is set in a world where Dracula ascended to the English Throne as Queen Victoria’s consort.

The entire series pulls in characters and incidents from a range of fiction – TBRB features appearances by everyone from Edgar Alan Poe and Bela Lugosi to Dr. Caligari and Mata Hari. Anno Dracula was the first “alternate history” book I ever read, but TBRB is my favourite of the series, owing to its World War One setting. I’m ‘something of a WW1 buff – a long-in-the-works TV project I’m involved in is set in that era – specifically aviation of the period (my great-grandfather was a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps in that war).

Re-reading it has been interesting though as it’s the first time I’ve read it since becoming an author myself. I’m a lot more aware of technique now and am impressed with how well Newman juggles story, character, action, and all those sly literary and pop-culture references he manages to work in without seeming intrusive – even Snoopy makes an appearance!

I’m always looking to discover new books and authors as well so this year I plan to alternate between one old book and one new, but re-reading a favorite book is like catching up with an old friend, and I heartily recommend everyone – writer or reader – take time to revisit the stories that inspired them.

  • How would you describe Magicians Impossible to new readers?

My publisher has taken to calling it “Harry Potter meets James Bond”, which is apt as it takes the familiar tropes of both those series and reworks them into something that’s as much a commentary on those series as it is a new take on them.

In a nutshell though MAGICIANS IMPOSSIBLE is the story of Jason Bishop, a 30 year-old bartender who, following the apparent suicide of his father, discovers that his dad was in fact a magic-wielding secret agent in the employ of the Invisible Hand; an ancient order of Mages who use magic in the service of defending the world against agents of darkness and chaos who call themselves the Golden Dawn. It turns out Jason’s father was murdered by the Golden Dawn, and now they’re coming for Jason. The only way to survive: join the Invisible Hand, learn the skills of a Mage, and enter the battle against the Golden Dawn. But what Jason (and the reader) soon discovers is that in this world of magic nothing is as it seems.

  • One of the things I enjoyed so much is how the magic world and the normal world existed alongside each other. What were the most important things you kept in mind while writing both these worlds in this book?

The most important thing was to have both worlds feel authentic, and lived in.

The “real” world Jason inhabits before the magical world intrudes is very much our world right now. The bar he works at in NYC is based on an actual bar, and his hometown of Cold Spring New York is an hour up the Hudson River from NYC. The places we visit through the course of Jason’s experiences in the magical world – the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, the Cloisters in New York, the Louvre in Paris – are all places you can go and visit yourself.

But I wanted the magical world to have its own rules and history but to feel grounded in its own reality. That’s what the magic of Magicians Impossible is based on: real-world folklore and mythology, particularly Celtic and Middle Eastern myth.

I didn’t want to invent my own mythology so much as I wanted to use what was already there. I’ve always loved folklore and mythology and fairy tales. Growing up I always asked myself whether the real world created myths, or whether it was the reverse; that those myths were real, and out world was built around them. With Magicians Impossible I got to have it both ways.

  • Before reading Magicians Impossible, I had gone through a book that was a wonderful magical world, but the author had bogged down the narrative with tons of history of the land and exposition in regards to that history, and as a result the pacing suffered terribly. How do you approach pacing? What are the tips and tricks that you relied on in keeping up Magicians Impossible’s action-packed pace?

Pacing is important in any writing.

If the reader isn’t compelled to keep reading those words and turning those pages to see what happens next you’ve failed to engage them. No matter how crafty you are with dialogue and character and quotable text, if your story doesn’t move, you’re going to lose people.

I knew before I started that I wanted Magicians to feel a bit like a James Bond movie – they all have this propulsive narrative structure where you’re thrust into the action right at the beginning without context, there’s a bit of a pause to catch your breath, and then you’re back into it, with the subsequent set-pieces (hopefully) topping the previous.

To do that, I wanted the chapters to be relatively uniform as far as length went. I read somewhere that the average reader reads for maybe 15 minutes at night before bed, and the average number of words for that was about 3000-3500. So I figured that range was a good one to settle into. It meant they’d likely get through a chapter a night and be done the book in a month. Of course I’ve heard from many readers who said they were up until the wee hours of the morning because they were in the home stretch of the book and wanted to know how it all ended.

Having pre-determined length I was comfortable with chapter-wise, I was able to go in and structure each chapter into what is essentially your classic 3-act structure, with a defined mid-point. You can easily read any chapter in the book and see a turning point in its development at pretty much the dead middle. This can be an unexpected reveal, or just a moment of action that kicks things into a higher gear.

Now, some would argue that makes a book like this too “fast” but my favourite books have been the ones that grab you by the scruff of the neck and just pull you through the story and deposit you on the other side, all breathless like you just got off a roller-coaster.

I also knew I needed to keep world-building and magical history to a minimum. Some of it is necessary especially when you’re creating a world from scratch, but I constantly had to ask myself “is this important in the context of the story I want to tell?” For the big questions and mysteries I wanted to employ more literary techniques than just exposition. That’s why the whole backstory of the Invisible Hand versus the Golden Dawn unfolds in the form of a story Jason is told by one of the other characters rather than what it originally was (which was a big indigestible block of exposition). In anything I write try and keep the exposition and world-buildings to a minimum. I’d rather they flow from the story rather than from a character’s mouth. That’s not to say I’m always successful – sometimes you just need to have someone come out and say what’s going on so you can move the story forward.

  • You’ve written comics, scripts for TV and movies, and worked as a journalist – how did the writing in those help – or hinder – writing Magician Impossible?

I think they all helped, though not so much with the first draft of Magicians, which was a very tough hill to climb. I became a father mid-way through the writing of the book and that changed everything about myself and everything about a story that at is heart is a story of fathers and sons. I knew going in that my background as a screenwriter would come back to haunt me as far as the book’s reception was concerned because I knew people would look at the book and say “well, obviously this is just a movie or TV idea he wrote as a novel so he could sell it to Hollywood”. But I wanted to write a novel, period, not some “intellectual property” to “platform” into Hollywood success.

So in drafting the book I had to throw out all those skills I’d picked up over the years and just write. It took a very long time, and the book changed substantially from what I initially conceived to what I finally executed. If anything, those skills I picked up as a screenwriter and – more specifically – a journalist, helped immeasurably when it came time for the subsequent rewrites.

Unlike many writers, editing and rewriting is my favourite part of the process, where you just take this big lump of material – your first draft – and shape it into something much more concise. Journalism taught me the power of words, where using three words to describe something was better than a paragraph, and when to be merciless.

Screenwriting taught me how to structure a story and establish characters in as efficient a manner as possible. Comic books taught me how to write a story visually; to put an image in the reader’s mind that sticks with them throughout so you don’t have to keep re-establishing it over and over again. All those experiences helped craft the final version of the novel.

  • I thoroughly enjoyed Jason’s characterisation and evolution from beginning to end – how would you describe him at the beginning versus the end?

Jason at the beginning of the book is a guy who’s going nowhere fast and quite content to just exist. He’s not looking to change the world. If anything the world he inhabits has been quite rough on him as of late. He lost his best friend, the aunt and uncle who raised him, and now his father. He’s been living in kind of an extended adolescence, living day-to-day with no real plan for the future, and now it feels like his entire world is crashing down around him, that every tie to his childhood and his past is dying off. Then he discovers this world of magic and through it he begins to question who he is, where he was, and where he’s going.

And those questions he asks himself become questions he asks of everything that he’s shown. It’s asking those questions that allow him to see through the smoke and mirrors of this new world where nothing is as it truly seems. I don’t want to get into any big spoilers but by the story’s conclusion he’s made peace with who he was, but is able to leave that person behind and embrace this new world and its possibilities with the confidence he never had before. It’s that growth he undergoes as a character that helps speed him through his training, so the magical journey and his inner one do indeed mirror one another. Sometimes all you need in life – and in magic – is that nudge through the right door.

  • What was most important that readers understand about him and Magicians Impossible by the end?

What I hope readers take away about Jason and the world he inhabits, is that it’s less about finding the McGuffin and conquering evil as it is about discovering your place in the world.

They say it’s not the destination but rather the journey; all your successes and failures are what make you the person you are right now, and will continue to be. Jason makes mistakes. He screws up, he trusts the wrong people, he says and does really stupid things. But he learns from those mistakes, he picks himself up and brushes himself off and keeps going. That said if all the reader takes away from Magicians Impossible is a fun, fast, exciting read that’s okay too. Sometimes a story just needs to entertain.

  • What’s next for Jason?

Well, that’s the big question isn’t it? It all depends on how this book is received. It’s now in its second printing, which is encouraging, and made several “Best of” lists, so people seem to like it. To be completely truthful, when I started writing Magicians I envisioned it as a closed narrative – a “one and done” story. I saw it as Star Wars – not “Episode IV” not “A New Hope” – just “Star Wars”. There were no prequels, there were no sequels, there was just “beginning-middle-end”.

To be honest I’m not really a fan of book series and can count on one hand the ones I’ve truly enjoyed (Anno Dracula, and Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap & Leonard series are two that spring to mind). To me so much of a story’s power comes from its conclusion – that it has an end-point.

But in the writing of this book I found several ways where I could continue the story should the demand be there. Part of that was my decision to change the fates of several supporting characters; some were saved from the chopping block just days before I delivered the book to St. Martins Press. I do hope I get to tell a larger story now, and answer some questions raised in this book that were left open.

I’d love to continue the story of Magicians Impossible because it’s a really fun sandbox to play in, but if this is a one-and-done book, that doesn’t make me any less proud of it.

Thank you Brad for your time in answering these questions! 

You know what’s the worst? Finding an amazing book that isn’t a series! SOBS. Which should tell you just how good this book is!

If this is indeed the end of Jason’s story, I am utterly thrilled with it. Magicians Impossible made me excited about urban fantasy, in no small part because Abraham finds a balance between an urban fantasy, thriller and intimate story about fathers and sons, and family.

Go out and read people! And also tweet, Facebook and everything else to St Martin’s Press about a sequel!

6 Comments

  • The overlap of the real and the magical sounds awesome! And sometimes fast-paced is just what you need. The fast-paced books usually are the ones that grip you and don’t let go! How interesting to learn how the screen-writing and other things affected the novel writing. But I’m excited to hear it might be a series since I do plan to read it and imagine I will probably like it! Great interview!

    • Verushka says:

      He did such a superb mix of them both in this book! I came to this from a very badly paced one, and dove into this and he just hot all the right notes with it and I fangirled through the whole damn thing, Kristen! I don’t think it’s as dark as your usual fare, but I think you’d like it.

  • Great interview. This book does sound fascinating. I really like standalone books because I have a hard time keeping up with series, but at the same time, when I really love a book – I often wish there was more! lol I’ve never read Anno Dracula but I’ve heard a lot about it so I might need to read that sometime. I love re-reading books, but I haven’t done so much in years and I need to make more time for it!

    -Lauren

    • Verushka says:

      LOL, I am the same — when I love a book, I want more! Like with Dear Daughter? No way there could be a follow up, but dammit I WANT IT!

  • What a great interview! I was already intrigued about this book after reading your review, but now I really want to read it. I like that he actually wanted it to have the feel of a James Bond movie.

  • I’m always impressed by writers who have a handle on more than one style — someone who can pull off comics, novels, *and* journalistic writing is someone I want to be reading. Plus the “Harry Potter meets James Bond” vibe sounds like a ton of fun!

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