an interview with Martyn Bedford      
photo of giles bedford

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  Bold Type: Where did you get the idea for The Houdini Girl?

MB: I wanted to write a novel about deceit and betrayal, and their shocking impact on people. But I needed a premise, a starting point, to hang the story on. Then I read in a newspaper about a woman dying in a car crash. I posed the question: what if? What if this woman was making the journey in secret, unknown to her partner? What if her death made him wonder about where she was going, and why? What if his search for the truth gradually revealed a hidden side to her, a double life? And what if she wasn't the only one with a secret? That was my starting point.

How did you come up with the character Red?

MB: Once I had the basis of a story, I had to decide what type of man my central male character should be. Giving him a job that fitted in with the novel's themes of deceit and betrayal would enable me to explore these ideas through him. So I made him a magician. Illusion is all about making people believe what you want them to believe, or what they want to believe. There are obvious parallels with deceitful relationships. As for his personality, it was necessary (for reasons to do with the plot) that I let the reader like him without being entirely sure about trusting him.

BT: What about Rosa?

MB: To a small degree, she--especially in her speech patterns and mannerisms--is based on a couple of Irish women I have known over the years. Her attitude, however, is pure invention on my part. I wanted to make her feisty; a victim who refuses to be victimized. I wanted her vulnerability to be concealed beneath a thick protective layer of aggression. For purposes of plot and theme, she had to be so sexy that the reader, initially, is deceived into believing sexuality is all there is to her.

BT: Which of these two characters do you identify with most?

MB: Rosa. She is absolutely nothing like me, but I loved writing her chapters, thinking her thoughts, talking in her voice. Flights of pure imaginative escapism for the author. I like Rosa so much it makes me sad that she exists only as a fictional character. And a dead one, at that.

BT: Does magic play a part in your life?

MB: I don't do magic tricks, never have done. Before writing this book I wasn't even especially interested in magic or magicians. But once I'd chosen that profession for Red, I carried out extensive research into the subject and got hooked. All the illusions described in The Houdini Girl are based on actual stage magic that I have seen performed or read about in books or heard about from magicians. I find it interesting that, in such a technologically sophisticated age, conjuring tricks can still hold an audience spellbound with wonder.

BT: How much of the novel was planned before you started writing?

MB: I worked out a rough framework of characters, key scenes and events, as I always do, then altered things as I went along. I find I need some kind of structure to work with, so long as it's flexible enough to let the storyline and the characters breathe. This novel pretty much followed the plan I made, although I abandoned a couple of plot twists as they proved to be cumbersome and unnecessary complications. Also, the ending is quite different to how I'd envisaged-- but I can't say how or why without spoiling it for those who haven't yet read the book!

BT: How did you decide upon the title?

MB: Originally, the novel was going to be called The Zigzag Girl, after the zigzag girl illusion described in an early chapter. But while I was working on it, two or three books came out with 'zigzag' in the title (Zigzag Street, The Zigzag Kid) so I had to change it. The Houdini Girl occurred to me for a couple of reasons--firstly, because the great Harry Houdini figures in the book; secondly, because the idea of Rosa as some kind of escapologist--emotionally if not physically--is very apt. In fact, I like the eventual title much better than the one I discarded.

BT: Did you visit Amsterdam while researching the novel?

MB: I've been to Amsterdam several times. It is, I think, my favourite of the European cities I've visited. When I decided to set the second half of the novel there, I went across for five days to conduct specific research--mainly 'location' stuff (bars, streets, cafés, buildings etc.) for scenes I planned to write. Fact-based material on the city, I got from books and the internet at my local library. Amsterdam has so much more to it than the sleazy sex-and-drugs element which gives it its chief notoriety. Of course, my novel will do little to alter this reputation- -but I'm a novelist, not a tourism officer.

BT: What writers do you like to read?

MB: I read a lot of American fiction in my teens and twenties--Kerouac, Salinger, Hemingway, Steinbeck. It was Kerouac's On the Road, which I read while travelling around the U.S., that made me want to be a writer. More recently, I've become a fan of Vonnegut, Carver, Auster, Proulx, Morrison, Oates and DeLillo (I'm re-reading White Noise at the moment.) My favourite contemporary British writers are Alan Warner, Rupert Thomson, A.L. Kennedy and James Kelman. I like Margaret Atwood--The Handmaid's Tale is right up there with The Trial, Slaughterhouse Five and Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman among my most-loved novels.

BT: Is The Houdini Girl typical of your work?

MB: Yes and no. Its themes are different to those of my two earlier novels, only one of which (Acts of Revision) was published in the U.S. The structure and narrative style are also markedly different. This is the most plot-driven of the three books. What they do have in common is accessibility for the reader and an attempt to balance story and ideas. I want my work to be easily read without being superficial; enjoyable but challenging. Page-turners with substance, I suppose. That's the aim, anyway.

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