Lee Kelly talks about A CRIMINAL MAGIC

Today, Fantasy Literature welcomes Lee Kelly, whose second novel, A Criminal Magic, was released in February of 2016 (and Jana thought it was fantastic). Ms. Kelly was kind enough to chat with Jana about inspirations, sorcery, jazz music, and letting the reader become part of the creative process. Comment below for a chance to win a copy of A Criminal Magic!

Jana Nyman: The idea of a government-sanctioned prohibition of sorcery — particularly in the vein of the very real prohibition of alcohol in the U.S. in the early 20th century — makes sense when you think about it, but I’ve never seen it implemented before. How did the idea come to you, and did the concept undergo any revisions as you wrote A Criminal Magic?

credit: Pieter M. van Hattem

Photo credit: Pieter M. van Hattem

Lee Kelly: The initial idea came to me through what I like to call stress-induced brainstorming ;). I had signed a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster for my first novel, City of Savages, and an “UNTITLED BOOK TWO.” But when it came time to pitch my editor, Navah Wolfe, a second book idea, I found myself floundering a little, unable to settle on a concept I was excited about. So I took a step back and tried to think about what I really wanted to read. I made this five-page list of everything I loved (as a child and as an adult) — books, TV shows, films, franchises, time periods, historical events — you name it. And then I pored over that list until my brain just started making fun and interesting connections — until the words sorcerers, magic, and Prohibition started to congeal together on the page.

But yes, the concept went through various revisions — during my own process before I finished the draft I turned into my editor, as well as afterwards. For some reason, I was initially very hesitant to completely depart from real Prohibition — in an early draft, both alcohol and “sorcered spirits” (aka sorcerer’s shine) were illegal, but that ended up producing a muddy concept, and led to far more worldbuilding questions than answers. It was only once I broke completely from reality (and made alcohol legal in A Criminal Magic’s alternative world), that the worldbuilding finally started coming together.

Joan and Alex’s narrative voices are totally different even though they’re two halves of the same story. How did you separate their stories and voices in your head? What sorts of challenges did this pose for you?

I appreciate this question, because I spent so much time trying to make their voices distinct and their stories line up — so thank you, I’m so glad you thought it worked! As you know, Joan and Alex are playing each other, and also (especially in the case of Joan) playing and lying to themselves a little too. Each of them knows things the other doesn’t, and sometimes this withheld information is crucial to the sequence of events, and so I knew I had to be really careful in writing their interiority and dialogue so as not to conflate their inside information.

That makes sense.

So I ended up revising each character separately. Meaning, after I had a working draft, I started with Chapter 1 and chronologically revised Joan’s chapters and the scenes in Alex’s chapters where Joan would act and speak (though I would read them/write them as Joan). Then, once I was fully done with Joan, I did the same exercise with Alex (revising Chapters 2, 4, and so on, including the scenes Alex shares with Joan in “her” chapters, but the second time around I focused on Alex’s actions and dialogue). I really felt like this was the only way to keep organized, otherwise I was worried I might start to assign Joan’s thoughts and secret information to Alex, or vice versa.

This process took a ton of time, but once both sides were done and I read the book through as a whole for the first time, it was actually a surprising read — almost like I was a true first reader.

While you provide names and backgrounds for your characters, many of them aren’t given extensive physical descriptions — why is that? Was it a way of including the reader in the creative process by allowing them to fill in the blanks?

It’s cool you picked up on that, exactly! I was hoping this story would feel a little bit like a magic trick itself — I was trying to give the characters an otherworldly quality to them, as if they were part of the visual show/reading experience. I hoped readers would assign their own traits and descriptions to them, and see who they wanted to see in the story.

The ending of A Criminal Magic is conclusive, but seems to leave open the possibility that you could return to this world at some point in the future. Was this intentional, and do you think you might have more stories to tell about Joan and Alex, or perhaps completely different characters?

Yes! You got me — I would LOVE to revisit this world again. I just had a blast with the magic and the setting. Some readers have commented that they’d love to see more of the Prohibition Unit-side of things — because of Alex’s undercover work, I didn’t get a chance to explore the world outside of the Red Den as much as I would have liked. I think a “magic Untouchables” companion novel from Alex’s perspective could be a lot of fun to write.

Agreed! I think that would be a great way to give readers a wider perspective on the world.

The 1920s is commonly thought of as the Jazz Age, particularly because speakeasies were a common venue and source of revenue for jazz musicians. Did you listen to any jazz from those days in order to help create that specific time period in your novel?

credit: Carl Van Vachten

Photo credit: Carl Van Vachten

I did! There’s this Pandora station called “Big Band” which I’d often have on in the background while writing (especially the scenes at the “magical speakeasy” in the novel, the Red Den), and I’d also play hits from the era (Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith).

In general, I like to listen to instrumental music while writing “travel” scenes and fight scenes … and I must have listened to The Road to Perdition’s soundtrack at least fifty times during the drafting of this novel.

Are there any authors or genres in particular who have influenced you as a writer? What books do you like to read whenever you have free time?

I’d say Suzanne Collins, for her ability to make you care about her characters while simultaneously driving you wild from story tension and suspense, and Gillian Flynn, for her twisty plots, but moreover for creating such deep, complicated, dangerous female characters. But my earliest influences were Norton Juster (author of The Phantom Tollbooth), Roald Dahl and Madeleine L’Engle — I remember reading their books as a kid and thinking, “This is what I would love to do.”

As far as what books I like to read, I read pretty broadly (a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, but also young adult, commercial thrillers and literary fiction). I think I tend to read what I’m not writing/drafting as a counterpoint (and as a break)!

That’s a great way to give your brain a break!

Sorcerer's Shine credit Navah Wolfe

Photo credit: Navah Wolfe

Lastly, I’d like to ask about your favorite drink recipe — either as it relates to your creative process (as a relaxation aid while writing, for example) or something involved with your work. Are there any beverages which remind you of A Criminal Magic, or which you drank to celebrate its publication?

I love this question! I am a huge fan of book and cocktail pairings myself :). My revision process for this book was tight and intense, and there were often late nights. As a reward for finishing a scene (or as motivation to complete a scene, depending on the day), my husband and I would make this deep-red drink called the Claret Cocktail (Licor 43, red wine, brandy, lemon, orange juice).

But at the book launch party, we actually served a different ruby-red concoction that we dubbed the “The Sorcerer’s Shine” (made with dry gin, lemon juice, grenadine, ginger, bitters and pomegranate liquor). I wholeheartedly recommend both!

They both sound delicious, and I think it’s brilliant that you actually made something to mimic the “sorcerer’s shine” in your novel!

Thanks so much for having me Jana — I loved these questions!!

And thank you for stopping by, Ms. Kelly. I loved your answers!

Readers, comment below for a chance to win a hardcover copy of A Criminal Magic. U.S.-based addresses only, please.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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  1. Von Berry /

    Love the concept. I wonder if sorcery is dangerous the way alcohol is or worse.

    • Sorcery itself can be dangerous (if used like a weapon), and the “Sorcerer’s Shine” drink is very addictive; if you’re curious about the novel, I hope you’ll check out my review, too! :)

  2. I want to have a sorcerer’s shine tonight! That sounds perfect!

    Great questions and answers, you two; this book goes on my list right now.

  3. Nicole /

    The concept behind this book is absolutely fascinating. Plus it is the 1920s!

  4. I love the idea of combining the Roaring Twenties / Prohibition era with fantasy. Plus, I’ve heard a lot of good things about A Criminal Magic in general, so I’d love to read this book.

  5. This interview was a lot of fun to read Jana! :) Thanks for the introduction to a new (to me) book/author!

  6. Maurice Robinson /

    Interesting idea + hardcover giveaway, is this legal?

  7. April /

    This book was already on my To Read list so I really enjoyed the introduction to a bit of behind the scenes here. Thanks!

  8. Lee/Jana – fabulous conversation. I love the insights into the mind of the creator/writer and process involved in fleshing out certain details that a reader takes for granted.

  9. My wife & I have been looking forward to reading A Criminal Magic since we’re both fans of urban fantasy and tales set in the ’20s.

  10. OK, I already wanted to read this book. Now I also want to drink “The Sorcerer’s Shine” with it.

  11. Janeen /

    Wow! I am definitely curious now!

  12. Sara L, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of A Criminal Magic!
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

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