Why Houdini? That’s the big question, the one that most people ask, the one that I need a quick and pithy answer for when the media tour begins in just a couple of weeks. Why in the world would a lifelong sportswriter decide to write a book about Harry Houdini?
There are so many roads to take to answer the question — there’s the whole, “I’ve always written about more than sports,” avenue, there’s “Houdini was more an athlete than a magician,” Boulevard, there’s “I wanted a whole different kind of challenge” Lane and “I’ve always been fascinated by magic” Drive and so on and so on.
So let me tell you the full story and maybe a sound-bite answer will evolve.
In retrospect, I was not an obsessive Houdini fan before I began. I mean, yes, of course, I liked him enough that I decided to write a book about him. I will always remember the first time I saw the Tony Curtis-Janet Leigh movie “Houdini.” I might have done a report on him in school at some point, though I can’t remember. I do like magic and you can’t like magic and be unaware of Houdini.
But my Houdini knowledge was almost non-existent — I knew that his real name was Ehrich Weiss and that was about it.
So, why Houdini? The idea began with Babe Ruth — this will, hopefully, work well on sports talk radio. I was talking with editors at my publishing house about what my next book would be, and they thought it would be interesting for me to take on a famous name and write a big, sprawling and surprising biography. The name they came up with was Babe Ruth. This was not especially interesting to me. For one thing, my friend Leigh Montville had already written a good Ruth book and I knew that another friend, Jane Leavy, was working on a new one. For another, I couldn’t think of a different way to write about Ruth.
They asked me to think about it. So I did. I tried to think about what still interests me about Ruth … and I could only come up with one thing: The man inspires wonder. He inspired wonder in his own time, inspired wonder decade after decade after his death, and he inspires wonder today. He’s a sports hero in ways that I don’t think anyone can ever be a sports hero now — not with Twitter and Facebook and constant coverage and endless replays and so on.
I think we lack wonder today. We don’t lack wonderful things, wonderful people, wonderful accomplishments, not at all. But wonder — it’s a hard thing to hold onto in today’s fast-moving, quick-changing, 24-hour-news world. I think a lot about Steph Curry. When he was at Davidson, and in his early years with Golden State, he inspired more wonder than perhaps any athlete of my lifetime. You watched him and you smiled. You felt yourself lifted off the ground. He did things that didn’t make sense, made shots from places we never saw people even shoot from before, beat double and triple teams with imperceptible fakes and movements, had such a quick release that it looked like the ball voluntarily jumped out of his hands as if it had a life of its own. Plus, he’s so obviously delightful off the court.
He’s still doing these things, and he’s still entirely wonderful. But it doesn’t feel the same, does it? It’s like we’ve seen him do these miracles so many times that they seem less miraculous. Plus his team has won championships, which ticks off the fan bases of all the other teams, so his beautiful underdog quality is gone. I still love Steph completely and wholeheartedly but I run into people all the time who can’t stand him. And even people who like him talk about being bored by him.
If STEPH CURRY cannot keep making us feel wonder, who can?
Anyway, that’s what I thought was interesting about Babe Ruth, that even now he make us feel that ineffable wonder — the belly, the huge swing, the called shot, the homers for kids in the hospital, the time he outhomered every team and so on — and I made a choice. I wanted to write about wonder today.
But I realized that Ruth was not the protagonist of my story.
No, the protagonist had to be Harry Houdini.
Why Houdini? Look: Every single day — I mean EVERY SINGLE DAY — I get a Google Alert with a story that mentions Harry Houdini.
Yesterday there was a story about “Harry Houdini’s War” in the new Doctor Who audio.
The day before it was a story about Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and his efforts to hold on to power. “Benjamin Netenyahu is to tight corners as Harry Houdini was to handcuffs.”
The day before that, there was a story about a Quad Cities dog that escaped the yard often (“played a game of Houdini”), a story of Leeds United’s lucky victories lately (“This Houdini Act Won’t Last Forever”), a story about the Minnesota Gophers’ lucky victories lately (“Gophers Can’t Keep Up Their Houdini Act,”) and a Pennsylvania Trump voter lamenting that promises have not been kept (“He pulled a Houdini on us.”)
This is every day. Houdini is always with us, and he’s always escaping, and we’re always amazed. He’s a street urchin turned sideshow magician turned Vaudeville performer and, even now, after a century of impossible progress, he is still at the very edge of our imagination. If you see someone escape from an impossible situation — a quarterback from a sure sack, a pitcher from a bases-loaded jam, a prisoner from a jail cell, a person from a sticky predicament — Houdini appears before our eyes.
That was the driving force behind this book idea. I wanted to know why Houdini still matters, why he remains the most famous magician in the world, what he still teaches us about wonder and how to inspire it.
So that’s why Houdini.
Now, let me add — I didn’t exactly know how to find any of that stuff. I didn’t know any magicians. I didn’t know anything about magic. But in the greatest run of luck a writer has ever had, I met a whole bunch of people who showed me the way. Next week, I’ll introduce you to one of them, my dear friend, the incomparable John Cox.
Lots of stuff happening on the book front. The book tour is coming together. The media tour is coming together. It’s going to be a wild time.
Here’s a small sampling of what’s coming:
— For those of you who missed it, Rainy Day Books in Kansas City is offering the opportunity to pre-order a signed and inscribed book. I hope to come to your town to sign, but this is the easiest and surest way to get a signed book or signed books for everyone on your gift list. And Remember, I will write anything you like on there (within reason).*
On the timing front: I am planning on signing these on Oct. 25, one day after my awesome KC book event, and then they will go in the mail, so you should have them around Halloween if we do this right. I am told that the requests are pouring in and my signing arm will be up for a serious workout. My autograph spring training has already begun.
*”Reason” defined by author alone.
— The book publishes on Oct. 22 (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound). We’re having an amazing event the night before at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. I will be joined (this blows my mind) by guest Nick Offerman!
— Two days later, on Oct. 24, I’ll be joined by the aforementioned John Cox at Vroman’s in Pasadena. That will be a blast.
— We are finalizing events in and around New York during Halloween week. I cannot wait to tell you the guest stars we’re lining up.
— I’m coming to Magic City Books in Tulsa on Nov. 4! Wow, I haven’t been to Tulsa since the U.S. Open back in 2001. This is going to be great.
More details and info next week. Thanks for reading.