There are many different kinds of magic. Any novelist gets to choose what kind or kinds to incorporate in the stories we tell. In the new historical fantasy novel The Glass Magician, Caroline Stevermer incorporates stage magic from the golden age of vaudeville with a more mystical, inventive system of transformative magic, and the combination is intoxicating.
Set in a Gilded Age New York City that reimagines its richest, most exclusive families as magically talented shape-shifters who are also most at risk from dangerous supernatural enemies, The Glass Magician follows Thalia Cutler, a magician’s assistant who quickly finds out that her magical talents might extend far beyond those she shows onstage. I spoke with Stevermer about the origins of her magical society, researching an activity famously hostile to outsiders, and the creative possibilities unique to her chosen genre.
Your setting, an alternate New York City in the Gilded Age, is a fabulous one for your stage magician main character and the fascinating magic-driven society structure you’ve envisioned. At what point in the writing process did you choose that setting?
I’ve always been fascinated by the turn of the twentieth century. My previous fantasy novels, A College of Magics and A Scholar of Magics are set a little later, in 1911. The art, the interior design, even the fashion is amazing. So that place and time were almost the first things I knew for certain about the novel.
Research on stage magic can be a challenge for writers who aren’t themselves magicians—when researching my novel The Magician’s Lie, which is set in the same time period, I started out picturing myself digging through old playbills in obscure libraries, but I ended up finding a lot more useful information on, of all places, YouTube. How did your research process go? How did you decide how in-depth to get in describing how your characters’ illusions work?
I’ll bet it can be a challenge for actual stage magicians too!
I watched as much as I could get my hands on. (I think I’ve seen everything Penn & Teller had on Netflix at the time!) I used period sources to locate places in the novel—for example, the walk from the Ostrova Magic Company to the elevated railroad. Of course, I read all I could find. But as I’m sure you’ve experienced, there comes a point when one risks overwhelming the reader with detail. So lots of research was left on the cutting-room floor, figuratively speaking.
Been there for sure. But within that reality-based framework you also got to imagine so much. In The Glass Magician, people fall into one of three categories based on their capabilities: Traders, who can change into a specific animal form; Sylvestri, who have an affinity with nature; and Solitaires, who form the vast majority of the population and have no magical talents. Was there a particular inspiration for the rules of this world? Did they change at any point in the writing process?
I’m one of those writers who can’t talk about what I’m working on until I’ve actually written it down, so I won’t share my many, many thoughts. But yes, things did change as the implications of what I’d written sank in.
As for inspiration, I’m intrigued by the folklore of transformation, from selkies to the kitsune. With E. Ryan Edmonds, I co-wrote “The Springfield Swans,” a short story in the Snow White, Blood Red anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling that retells the legend of the seven swans—with baseball. So here I am many years later. Swans again!
I’m fond of saying that historical fiction is really never just about the past, and I’m intrigued by the genre of historical fantasy, combining elements of the documented past with fantastical or supernatural elements that drive the story. What do you feel this genre gives you the freedom to do as a writer that you wouldn’t be able to accomplish in a different genre?
What a great question! Historical fantasy gives me the freedom to tell the story I want to tell, rather than trying to stick to grim reality. But many times, reality was not as grim as the history we learn in school makes it seem. Things like women stage magicians, for example. Once I knew there was more to stage magic than the stereotypical man in a top hat, the story ideas took flight.
No spoilers, but some of the events near the end of the book seem to hint that there’s more in store for your main character, Thalia Cutler. Should we expect to see more of her in the future? More of this world of Traders, Sylvestri and Solitaires?
I am working on the sequel right now. That’s why I avoided going into detail in question 3 above. Thalia has many questions!
The Glass Magician
By Caroline Stevermer
Published April 7, 2020
Bestselling author of THE MAGICIAN'S LIE and GIRL IN DISGUISE. Feminist, mother, mystery. Now out: WOMAN 99, March 2019 in the US & Canada.