Mysteries, Magic, and Filmmaking with John Gaspard

Magic is something I know almost nothing about. Luckily, my guest today, John Gaspard, who is a filmmaker as well as a writer, is here to talk about his magician-sleuth Eli Marks.

After John and I spoke I began reading the first book in the Eli Marks series and I love it. Eli is witty and smart, and in a heap of trouble in the first book, The Ambitious Card. Eli strikes me as a deeply thoughtful guy, someone who tries to see what’s going on behind the obvious, which is perhaps a perfect metaphor for what detectives and amateur sleuths – and magicians! – do. I suspect Eli is a bit like his creator, John, who was fun to chat with and clearly loves his writing hobby (he explains that he doesn’t like to think of it as a job).

If you like cozy mysteries with well-drawn characters and a sense of humour, I think you’ll like John’s Eli Marks series.

In the intro I mention that Skype was acting up on the day I interviewed John, so I hope the slightly bumpy audio isn’t too annoying for you listeners. I may have to beg John to come back on the show in January 2018 when his next book is released, so we can have a chat without having to deal with Skype’s idiosyncrasies.

You can find out more about today’s guest, John Gaspard, and all his books on his website Fast Cheap Movie Thoughts. You can also find him on Twitter @johngaspard and on Facebook.

This podcast episode is sponsored by the free mystery novella, Charlie Horse.

1890. Frontier British Columbia. When one of her students is accused of a crime, will new schoolteacher Julia Thom be able to prove his innocence?

For a limited time you can click here, or on the cover image at right to get your free copy.

Links and resources mentioned in this episode

  • Click on any of the book covers to go to John’s books on Amazon
  • John mentions his magician mentor Suzanne’s appearance on Penn and Teller’s show, Fool Us. Click here to see that. [8 mins]

Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on Stitcher.

You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.

Transcription of Interview with John Gaspard

Alexandra: Hi, everyone. Welcome to “It’s A Mystery” podcast. I’m Alexandra Amor, and I’m here today with John Gaspard. Hi, John!

John: Hello, how are you doing?

Alexandra: Very well, how are you?

John: Good.

Alexandra: Good, thank you for being here. So I just wanted to give everyone a little bit of an introduction before we begin.

John Gaspard is the author of the Eli Marks mystery series about a working magician who occasionally gets involved in solving murders. In real life, John’s not a magician, but he has directed half a dozen low-budget feature films that cost very little and made even less, and that’s no small trick, he says. He’s also written books on the subject of low-budget film-making. His blog, “Fast, Cheap Movie Thoughts”, was named one of the 50 best blogs for movie-makers. On the blog, he occasionally produces a podcast as well called “Fast, Cheap Movie Talk”. So welcome, John, it’s so great to have you here today.

John: It’s good to be here.

Alexandra: Oh, good.

Why don’t you first tell us a little bit about Eli Marks and where you got the idea for that character?

John: I wish I knew exactly where it came from. I had finished a novel called “The Ripperologists“, which is about two competing experts on Jack the Ripper, and wanted to do a series, and wasn’t quite sure what to do. I would guess that if I asked you my standard question which is, “How many magicians do you know,” you would probably say zero or one.

Alexandra: Zero.

John: Right?

Alexandra: Yeah.

John: Zero, right. Most people don’t know them. And then, my next question would be, “How many live magic shows have you seen in your life?”

Alexandra: Zero.

John: Zero, okay. Well, the average is three.

Alexandra: Oh, okay.

John: So, it’s something everyone’s sort of familiar with via culture, but which they haven’t personally taken part in. And the people I knew that were magicians were very interesting. And then, I got attracted to the names of tricks, which all sound like book titles.

The first book is called “The Ambitious Card”, the second one’s called “The Bullet Catch”, third one’s called “The Miser’s Dream”, the new one’s called “The Linking Rings”.

They all had good mystery title names. And then, it was just a question to figure out, well, if I did one, who would this guy be? And I chose to have a male lead, which is not normally the case with cozies, not a great idea. But I didn’t know that, and I would have had trouble writing from a female point of view anyway.

And, using “The Ambitious Card” as the first title, that really jumped out at me. I put together a story that involved the card trick, The Ambitious Card, which is a trick where you pick a card and give it back to the magician. That’s put in the deck, the deck is mixed, and then, no matter what he does, every time he turns up the top card, it’s that same card.

You put it back in the deck, it’s gone. You tear it up, it’s gone. It just keeps turning her up. And I thought, well, that would be a fun thing if a magician did that trick with somebody, and then that card was found with their body, and then that card continually found on other bodies, which would make him a suspect, and they have to figure out why and how. So that was how the first one started, and it just sort of grew from there.

Alexandra: I was going to bring up the idea of the titles because I assumed they were all magic tricks. And I thought they were really great titles, actually. And you mentioned that most cozy mysteries have a female protagonist.

I was reading in one of your reviews, and someone actually said that they liked it, that this was one of the few cozy mysteries that they had found with a male protagonist, and they really appreciated it.

John: Yes, the people like that, and no one’s said they’ve disliked it. It’s just people kind of go with what they’re used to, and they’re sort of used to the, you know, the woman who runs the headshop who happens to be a detective. That’s a little more common in the genre, so…

Alexandra: Yes.

John: But other than that, it’s very much like other cozies in that it’s an amateur detective who just stumbles into these things.

Alexandra: Yes, yep, exactly.

Would you say that your worlds of film-making and writing collide at all? Did you write the screenplays for your films?

John: In most cases, yes. And the collision point would be that you get a good idea of how to write a scene, how to keep a story moving if you’ve written a lot of screenplays, because movies are a lot more forgiving than novels. You can kinda go off track a little bit more in a novel and take little side trips that you can’t take in a movie.

So, you get very used to figuring out what’s the fastest way get into the scene, what’s the key things I need to do, what’s the best way to get out and leave people wanting to go to the next scene. So in that regard, yeah, definitely is very good practice.

Alexandra: And the films came first, right, and then the novels later?

John: Yes, for the most part. I’ve still done just a couple films since I’ve started writing novels, a couple really low-budget movies. But yeah, I’ve been making movies since I was 13 years old, so that was definitely the longer stretch for me.

Alexandra: Right, yeah, okay. And one of the things I noticed, too, that your reviewers really liked and appreciated about your books was the character development. And I imagine that something that’s important to you, I know it is for me as a writer and a reader.

I really appreciate stories with good character. Is that something that you consciously try to focus on when you’re writing?

John: Yeah, sort of. I don’t really think they’re terrifically, deeply developed. But each book, specifically for my lead character, Eli, I try to have him having some sort of, I don’t know if moral quandaries is the right word, but just something he’s trying to figure out which would, I guess, in the end, add some depth to it.

In the first book, “The Ambitious Card”, there’s a question of lying to people, because magicians lie, and some of them are very, very open about it and say, “I’m about to lie to you,” and then they lie to you. And he’s working with a student who’s having a lot of problems doing that, and trying to be a magician and that guilt. And so, the idea of guilt and lying works into that book quite a bit. The other three books after that, each have had their own little thing that Eli’s dealing with.

Alexandra: Okay, yeah. I noticed, too, that he has an ex-wife who’s married to a detective.

John: Yes.

Alexandra: Yes, yeah, so he’s got a bit of a past there.

Tell us a bit about Deirdre Sutton-Hutton.

John: Yes, the poorly named, Deirdre Sutton-Hutton. She’s actually a character that I lifted from a movie I did years ago who was a tough…in that case she was a police detective, but I made her an assistant district attorney in this one.

I needed an in for Eli into the police, either to get information or why it was he kept getting involved in murders. And it helped in the very first one that he was the primary suspect. He’s only been kind of a minor suspect in other books, but he’s the primary suspect in “The Ambitious Card”. And there was a rivalry and a distrust with her new husband, a homicide detective, who he calls by the full name every time he meets him, Homicide Detective Fred Hutton.

So there’s not only the detective is always suspicious of him, and thinks he’s sort of trivial, but there’s that, “Hey, you know, you stole my wife,” because he literally did. I mean, they were there, they had an affair, and all of a sudden Eli’s divorced. He calls it a drive-by divorce.

But that divorce then helped gave me a reason to put Eli back in his childhood home which was above the magic store, on 48th and Chicago in Minneapolis. I’ve got him back living day to day with Uncle Harry, who was recently widowed, and so he sort of…I wouldn’t say just walks into his home, because Harry is much, much smarter than Eli. But they do make an interesting pair because Harry is a compitant magician, can work in any form, has done everything in the show business, magic form.

Eli is a sort of middling, pretty good corporate magician, who has a good 35 to 40-minute act. He can make it 50 minutes if he adds knock-knock jokes. He can do some close-up magic. He can do a little bit of kid’s magic. But he’s nowhere near the specialist that his uncle is. So there’s always that tension between the two of them that Eli doesn’t really work as hard as his uncle thinks he should.

Alexandra: His uncle has owned the magic shop for the 50 years that it’s been going. Is that correct?

John: Boy, I’ve never done the chronology of it. He’s owned it since its beginnings, but he was married for 50 years, and his wife died several years ago, and they traveled quite a bit. So my guess is that he’s owned it for at least 40 years, yes. And it doesn’t really exist.

If you come to Minneapolis, and I recommend you do, it’s a lovely day today, there is other things on the block that are mentioned. The movie theater on one side, the bar, Adrian’s, on the other, both exist. But the magic store, I just made up, I stuck it in between.

However, I was talking to the owner of the theater recently, and he said, “Well, no, there was actually a little store right here,” and he pointed out a place beside the marquis where there had been a door. And he said, “Yeah, we didn’t use to have a candy counter there. So you could actually…Yeah, there was a little candy store right in there.” So there was a store there at some point, I just didn’t realize it.

Alexandra: Oh, that’s good.

John: But, yeah, Harry runs the store for the first four books, three or four books. And then he…later in the series, Eli runs the store.

Alexandra: Oh, okay, yeah.

You have plans for another book that’s coming out later this year. Is that right?

John: “The Linking Rings” is done and it will be out in January [2018]. I work with a company called Henery Press in Dallas, and they do lots and lots of mysteries. I was, I think, one of the first writers they signed.

And, unlike many of their other writers, I’m not under contract to write a book. So when I finish it, I hand it in, and then when they have an opening, they slide it in. In this case, they don’t have an opening until January. And they, I think, would prefer that I would be on contract with them, and I’d have to write a book. And that’s not fun, so I prefer to keep it as more of a hobby and not have to write a book.

Alexandra: Do you imagine that you would stop if Eli and the other characters aren’t interesting to you anymore?

John: Well, I always said if I did more than one, I’d do three. If I did more than three, I’d do five. If I did five, I’d do at least six. I don’t know why I said that, but that’s what I always said.

I’m writing book number five right now, and I have a pretty good idea for book six. And there’s really no end in sight. I mean, the characters have…there’s been changes in character. Some people have died, some people are getting married. There will be more going on. But, no, as long as I can think of a magic trick that I like the title of and a problem to get Eli into, I can see going on for awhile.

I’ve also had a couple short stories with him, for…we did one as a promotional piece. I think I sent you information on “The Invisible Assistant”. People can read that or listen to the audiobook of that to get an idea of it.

And then, there’s one coming out next year called “The Last Customer”, which is an anthology. I don’t know if the anthology has been named yet, for…in honor of the local bookstore owner here, “Once Upon a Crime” books, Gary, the owner that died last year. So we’re putting out a book about bookstores and customers, and Eli has a short story in that.

Alexandra: Oh, nice!

Do you enjoy working in that short form? It must be kinda tricky for a mystery story.

John: Short stories are hard, they’re hard. I remember, I think it was Lawrence Block, the writer, said, “Write a novel before you write a short story,” because it’s a lot easier to write, I think, a good novel than a good short story. It’s a really tight form, and you’ve gotta have a really good idea what you’re doing. So the two that I’ve done [inaudible 00:13:32] been both okay. I’ve had other requests for it, and if I don’t have the right story, I can’t. For some reason, a novel’s easier. I guess it’s like a feature-length film, it’s easier for me to tackle.

Alexandra: Yes, yeah, I can imagine that. And especially with a mystery, which needs all the loose ends to be tied up by the time it’s over. I mean, some short stories aren’t like that, and you can be left not knowing what happened. But with a mystery, you can’t do that.

John: Right, yeah, there’s a lot of threads.

Alexandra: Yeah, yes, exactly.

When you’re thinking about the story, you mentioned that you like to have a magic trick to base it on, and so have you learned more magic tricks or more magic as you’ve gone along and written these books?

John: Yes, the first book, “Ambitious Card”, took a long time to write because I had to learn a bunch of stuff to really get up to speed. I don’t have to know as much as a working magician, I just need to know more than the average person, and, as luck would have it, the average person doesn’t know a whole lot about magic, so that helps.

But I had to make sure that any of the magic presented in the book either…both, A, was correct, that it’s…the way it’s presented is the way a trick is actually done, because I hate things that involve magicians where they do the impossible. So it had to be real and something you could do, and be a…couldn’t give away how it was done. So there were very few exceptions. I don’t ever really give away how a trick is done. You might get kind of a general idea.

There’s a mentalist psychic in the first book, “The Ambitious Card”, where I do give away a couple things there, because he’s kinda dishonest and I felt okay with that. But I had to do a lot of research.

I actually studied with a local magician named Suzanne, and learned how to do an Ambitious Card. I thought, I’ll learn the title trick for every book, so I learned how to do a pretty good Ambitious Card routine, and kind of came up with my own which turns up in later books as Eli’s trick.

And then I got to the second book and decided to call it “The Bullet Catch”, which is when you fire a gun. Actually, an audience member comes up and fires a gun at you from across the stage, and you catch the bullet in your mouth. And that’s when I decided that I didn’t have to learn every trick, because that’s just too dangerous.

Alexandra: Yeah, that sounds like a pretty advanced trick. Holy cow!

John: Yeah, more than a dozen magicians have died performing that trick.

Alexandra: No!

John: Yeah. Yes, yes.

Alexandra: Oh my goodness, okay. Wow. And magic sorta strikes me as something that’s, like, it’s got a whole community and a world of its own. You know, when you meet people who are really into magic, they’re really into it. And it’s not, as you said right off the top, at the beginning of the show, it’s not something that a person encounters every day. I’ve never met a single magician.

Do you have a lot of magicians in your life now, or have you become a part of that community?

John: I have actually become a bit of a part of that community. The one I took lessons from, Suzanne, who is world-renowned, she approached me after I went to see her at a local show and we were talking about other…it was a restaurant show that she had done, and we talked about shows in other cities.

There’s a weekly show in Chicago called Magic Cabaret, there’s a weekly show in New York. Los Angeles has a Magic Castle, London has Magic Circle. But Minneapolis doesn’t have a place where you could come and just see magic. There are some magicians who work in restaurants who can work at your table for three-and-a-half or four minutes, or if you happen to be working for a company that has an annual party and a magician shows up. There are no places to see really good magicians.

And so, we’ve started a monthly program called Sunday Night Magic at a local theater. And because of her connections with people she knows, we get really good magicians in. And we’re doing it just as a limited test, but so far it’s gone really well and I’ve met a lot of really interesting magicians.

And then when my wife and I travel, if there’s magic where we’re going, we always go see shows there. So I see way more…In fact, I had one magician tell me I see too much magic. He said, “Yeah, you’ve seen enough. You don’t need to see anymore.” So, yeah, way more than I probably should.

Alexandra: You mentioned that writing is more of a hobby for you, it’s not your primary occupation.

Do you have a writing routine, or do you just write when the spirit moves you, or how does that work?

John: A little of both. I take notes all the time. I have a pad by my bedside which I use, because that’s when the best ideas seem to come, just before you fall asleep or just when you wake up.

And I’m always sending myself emails, and then I just assemble the notes into a long Word document. And then when I feel like I have enough, when I know exactly where I’m going for at least halfway of the book, and I know where it ends, because I always know from middle point to the end it’s gonna change in ways so it doesn’t…I don’t have to get that too locked out. Then I’ll start writing.

My wife teaches ballet a couple nights a week, and I don’t really watch sports so, those nights, I might sit down and write a bit here or there. You know, Stephen King always talks about walking around with a book under his arm. If you’re standing in line at a movie or a store or something, you know, he will read. And I don’t do that with writing, but it’s kinda close. I mean, I’ll come up with an idea for a paragraph and just say it into my phone and email it to myself. So it really is happening…you never know when or where I’ll be writing something.

Alexandra: With that approach of using the little bits of time you have, how long does it take you to write a book?

John: It varies, but usually a year to a year-and-a-half from beginning to end. I’m not fast. Most people will say, “Let’s write a novel in a month.” Good for you.

Alexandra: Well, I think they’re also doing it eight hours a day.

John: Yeah, I suppose so. And I’m not, I’m just doing it a little bit here, a little bit there. And, you know, or you run into things where…you know, I’ll find a scene where Eli’s alone in the magic shop, and he is…and I go, he is what? Okay, he’s trying out a card trick. Okay, what is he trying out? Well, then I gotta go down that rabbit hole. Okay, he’s a pretty good magician, so what would he be trying to do that a pretty good magician reading this would go, “Yeah, that’s what I would do in my spare time,”? And so, it’s that sort of stuff with little bits of detail.

The third book, “The Miser’s Dream”, Eli sees a body out his apartment window. There’s a movie theater next door and he can see, kind of, into the projection booth of the movie theater, and he sees a body lying on the floor of the projection booth. So there’s a lot of stuff with the theater manager and Eli in that book, and the theater manager is doing this thing where she combines two or three movies into, like, double or triple features.

But she only does ones that sound good on the marquis. Like, “Guess Who’s Coming to My Dinner With Andre”, and you laugh, and that’s nice, but it took months for me of just going, “What’s…,” because I had to have lists of them, of him just naming off what she’s showing. And so, that sort of thing, you just kind of, you wait and it appears and you quickly write it down. And I still have lists of stuff we never got around to, and I’ll come back to that.

Alexandra: Have you had feedback from magicians?

John: Yes, a couple of really prominent ones have either told me they liked them, or I’ve heard from other magicians that they’ve recommended that they read them, which was really, really nice. I did explain to the publisher early on, because they said, “Oh, great! That’s a built-in audience, magicians,” and I said, “No, this is a book for mystery lovers.”

If you like cozy mysteries, you’ll like this book. If you’re a magician and you don’t like that kind of book, you’re not gonna like it. And, you know, people don’t necessarily wanna read fiction about their profession, really. But the ones who have read it have been very complimentary and have pointed out what I got right, and, so far, no one’s pointed out anything wrong, because I do have sort of a group of magicians who read them.

To make sure the magic’s right, I do have magician friends who are willing to read the manuscripts and point out if I’ve got a term wrong, if I’m stating a trick wrong, if I’m saying something in the wrong order. That doesn’t happen quite as often. If, historically, I have something wrong…

There’s a famous story about a magician named Max Malini who made a block of ice appear on top of a table at dinner. They’d been eating for 90 minutes, he picked up his hat, and there’s a block of ice underneath it, and I got that slightly wrong. Not so wrong that a person reading it would notice, but a magician would have gone, “No, no, no, no, no, no, that’s not how…he did it like this.”

It’s great to have that set of experts I can go to to make sure that I’m getting everything right. And I have emailed them questions, and their answers have, you know…I once emailed, “Is there anything that has gone wrong in your act,” and a couple wrote back and wrote, “No. Nothing ever goes wrong with my act. I’m an expert.” But, yeah, it’s great to have that cadre of people helping me out.

Alexandra: Yes, yeah, exactly. And so, I notice we’re getting close to the end of our time, so I just want to ask you one more question.

Is there anything that you’ve learned about magic that has really surprised you that you didn’t know before?

John: Yes. The biggest surprise I’ve noticed, and I’ll tell it as a story of my friend Suzanne, who’s not “my friend Suzanne”, she’s my teacher. She was on a show called “Penn & Teller: Fool Us”, which is a magic show where magicians Penn and Teller have different magicians come on and do tricks for them, and if Penn and Teller can pick out how it’s done you don’t win. If they can’t figure it out, then you get an award.

It’s very prestigious within the magic community to fool Penn and Teller, and my friend Suzanne did. She has a lovely trick with a Band-Aid, and she fooled them, and she was telling me about it. And she said at the end of the story, “Do you want to know how the trick is done?”

Now, maybe 10 years ago, I would’ve said, “Yes! Yes, how is it done?” But I’ve found that, more often than not, the answer to how it’s done is nowhere near as interesting as the mystery of how it’s done. So I didn’t ask, you know, she didn’t tell me how that was done. And I’ve spent less and less time trying to figure out how tricks are done now, because the solution is never as interesting as the mystery that they presented.

Alexandra: Yeah, oh, that’s so interesting to hear! And you know what? I just had an epiphany myself. I didn’t realize that magicians could invent their own tricks. That’s probably going to sound really stupid, but I just assumed magicians were all sort of doing tricks that had already been invented.

But it sounds like, just like comedians, they can create their own material.

John: Yes, and that’s a big issue within the magic community. Magicians who act like a cover band, just doing everyone else’s stuff, and magicians who create new effects.

Now, there’s nothing really new, but there’s new ways of presenting it. But all the concepts are still there, there’s just people who find twists on them. But, yeah, people are…and those are the ones who fool Penn and Teller, are the ones who are doing something that they have gone back into the history books, found something, found a way to update it, and then they can’t figure out how it’s done.

Alexandra: Oh, very cool. That’s amazing. Well, thank you so much for speaking to me today, John. I really appreciate it. So why don’t you let everyone know where they can find your books?

John: Happy to.

Alexandra: Oh, good.

John: Yes, well, you can find the Eli Marks mysteries, you know, on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Just search for “Eli Marks” or for “John Gaspard”. The first two books in the series are also on audible.com, as audiobooks read by the incomparable Jim Cunningham, who gets great, rave reviews because he does a really wonderful job, really brings it to life.

And then, that will lead us into the links for how to get “The Invisible Assistant”, which people can download as a short story e-book or also as an audio short story from the links, and see if they like Eli Marks and his world.

Alexandra: Exactly. Alright, and I’ll put links to those in the notes. And we should also mention, too, that “The Ambitious Card”, which I bought today, is 99 cents.

John: It’s 99 cents as an e-book. Yep, go for it.

Alexandra: Yeah, great. Well, thanks once again, John. It’s really been great chatting with you.

John: Oh, no problem. Take care.

Alexandra: You, too. Bye-bye.

John: Bye.

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