“Pay attention to the woman behind the curtain …”
That’s the tagline for Club Deception, a sinister new noir thriller by Sarah Skilton set in the cutthroat world of professional illusionists. On stage, magic is a boy’s club for sure, with men headlining most of the lead acts. But behind the scenes, powerful women are in charge of determining what you see — and what you don’t.
The author, whose previous books include the YA books Bruised and High & Dry, focuses her novel on a private club for magicians — and within its walls there are rivalries, love affairs, career backstabbing, and ultimately (as we discover in the first few pages) a homicide.
Skilton spoke with EW Radio’s Behind the Scenes this week about the role of women in magic, and her personal connection to the prestidigitation scene.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Magicians always try to get us to look one way, but with this book you look the other – at the wives, girlfriends and other women who operate backstage, mostly unseen.
SARAH SKILTON: My elevator pitch for it used to be The Prestige meets Desperate Housewives with a little Sons of Anarchy thrown in, because I liked the idea of having drama plus a dark comedy, plus a little bit of feminist comedy, plus the murder mystery and also a lot of romance. I threw all those together because that’s the type of stuff that I love to read and I love to watch: something that can’t be clearly categorized as this, this, or that.
And you know this scene personally. You’re married to the illusionist Joe Skilton [Ed. note: You can check out some of his sleight-of-hand videos throughout this post], so I assume some of the book comes from real-life experience. Although … maybe not the murder part?
I will not answer that! [Laughs] As I said at one of my book events, the only time my husband Joe is in the book is two places: in the dedication and in the acknowledgements. Everything else is completely fictional. There are philandering husbands and there are people who are stealing each other’s assistants and stealing each other’s acts, and trying to sell some antique papers that have been stolen. So, there’s all sorts of lowdown behavior going on.
But some of it is drawn from real life. Club Deception sounds a little like The Magic Castle in Hollywood, a place where magicians congregate to perform and share secrets of the craft.
Yeah, that was definitely an inspiration. But I had to be careful to really fictionalize it. I don’t want a band of angry magicians coming after me. The thing about the Magic Castle though is that it is open to anyone who can get a pass, whereas Club Deception is an underground magic club in both senses of the word. It’s created from a former speakeasy in downtown L.A. – so it’s underground in that sense, but it’s also underground because unless you’re a club member, you don’t know about it and you can’t get it.
There are lots of books about magic, but most focus on the Harry Potter type — not the realistic world of illusions and performing. How do you maintain the eeriness and wonder without going supernatural?
That was really important to me because most books about magicians take place during sort of the Golden Era of the late 1800s early 1900s, or it’s mainly focused on the men, or it has a supernatural element, like you mentioned. They’re wizards, you know? I didn’t want to do any of those things. I wanted to have several female leads. I wanted to have it take place right now.
You do focus on the women of this world — even though men get most of the attention professionally.
I have the main character, Claire, who is the secret behind the club’s success. She is the shadow government: She runs the whole place, but her husband gets all the credit because he’s the one on stage and he’s the one winning all of the awards. She has stage fright, so she’s never going to be in the spotlight, but in her heart she wants to be — and she believes that she is just as much of a magician as he is.
Claire lives and breathes magic, but we also meet Jessica, who is newly married to another performer. She knows nothing, and is sort of like the reader, a newbie in this world.
Jessica is sort of the young trophy wife who’s married an older magician whose first wife died under mysterious circumstances, so there’s a little homage to Rebecca in there. But she has loved magic since she was a child, so she’s familiar with sort of the outside aspect of it.
You also introduce us to Kaimi Lee and Landon Gage who are a pair of … I guess “grifters” is the right word?
Yeah, that’s a very good word for them. Kaimi is an art dealer but she’s willing to look the other way if there isn’t a clear line of sale for the art that she’s hawking, and she comes across some very rare and extraordinary magical artifacts through Landon Gage, a magician who runs sort of a pickup artist scam. They’re working together to sell these artifacts.
There’s a more innocent newcomer to the business, too…
Felix is the fourth main character, a young magician who’s a former baseball player, but after an injury he’s now stuck working at a magic shop in the Valley. And I have to credit my husband for the name of the funny store, Merlin’s Wonderporium, because we though, “What’s the silliest name for a magic shop that would make Felix sort of die inside a little bit to be working there?”
Here’s where revenge comes into the story. Claire decides helping young Felix would be a good way to get back against her famous husband…
Claire is so enraged by her husband’s infidelity and their years of her not getting credit that she deserves. So she decides she’s going to coach Felix into beating out his mentor, her husband, for Magician of the Year. So, they’re working secretly behind the scenes to pump up Felix’s act. There’s a lot of shady dealings going on, a lot of characters who are not black and white, not good or bad, very much in the middle.
You make the point in the book that women don’t feel welcome at center stage in the world of magic, both in the fictional story and in real life. Why do you think that is?
It’s a combination of a couple of things. Part of it is really simple: it’s not something that most girls or young women think of doing as their fantasy career, and so the just simply don’t really pursue it. I do know a couple of female magicians and they’re just as talented, but it is incredibly rare. And I also think that it’s definitely a bit of a boy’s club.
Do the audiences have a part in pushing women away from the profession, too?
I think there is a little bit of that stigma of they don’t want a woman going around proving that she knows something that you don’t and putting it in your face, you know, for that certain type of audience member.
Club Deception does show that when women are part of the act, they end up doing the heavy lifting, even if they’re not the headliner.
The assistants are the best kept secret in magic. They have to do extraordinary things, and the magician has to look good, look commanding, look like he’s the one actually controlling everything. But he’s there for misdirection, you know? “Look at me as I wave my wand and I invoke the magic words! … And don’t look over there where she’s doing a quick change or cramming herself into an impossible space.
What’s the quickest way to make enemies in the magic world? I assume it’s revealing how the tricks are done?
Yeah, and also I think people are starting to push back on the classic routines where the magician is kind of a jerk to the audience, which can occasionally fall into humiliating the person that they’ve brought up on stage.
So, don’t expose tricks, don’t be mean-spirited, and I assume murder, as in the book, is also frowned upon?
Murder is generally frowned upon, yes.
Club Deception is available now.