December 20, 2013

Charles Dennis Explains 'The Magiker'

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You have said that The Magiker is based on a true story.  Have you had actual experience with the evil spirits known as dybbuks?

Fortunately, I have never had any encounters with a dybbuk. But I have had encounters with ibburs—righteous souls who have temporarily taken possession of a human body. A great aunt of mine who died young of a broken heart after marrying a man with whom she wasn't in love was the inspiration for The Magiker.  She was much like Leah Littman, the heroine of our novel, who inhabits the body of Barbara Warren while waiting to be reunited with her true love.

Were you raised in the Jewish faith?

My father and his three brothers grew up in Prussia. My grandfather had come to Canada before World War I, with the intention of sending for his wife and sons once he had established himself.  But when the war broke out, his family was stuck in Prussia.  My grandmother had to go through the war alone, with four boys, who were like the Dead End Kids.  It was very difficult.  They were finally reunited with my grandfather in 1919.  He was ultra-orthodox and was appalled how at how secularized his sons had become.  On my father’s first night in Toronto, my grandfather sought to give him a crash course in Judaism. When the lesson was over, my father turned to my grandfather and asked: “If we’re the chosen people, how come I went through all that shit over there?” My grandfather closed his Bible and said: “I can teach you nothing.” So I was raised in a fairly secular environment. I did go to Hebrew school and had my bar mitvah; and we had Shabbos dinner and observed the High Holidays, Passover, and Hanukah.

My dad never forgot leaving the shtetl in 1919. It was from him that I learned so much about the shtetl life that I describe in The Magiker. My grandmother was so happy to have put that hard life behind her; one of the first things she did when she left the shtetl, on a horse-drawn wagon, was to whip off her sheytel and throw it to the winds. It landed in a tree where the birds began to peck at it.  She vowed that she would never wear it again—and she never did. My father never forgot the image of those birds pecking away at her wig.

I grew up around many Yiddish speakers in Toronto.  Both my parents spoke it when there were matters that didn’t concern us. It was also the language they spoke with their parents.  I didn’t know until I was an adult that my father could also speak Polish. He had no desire to return to Europe. It was only after I had lived in England for two years that he came to visit me—he feared that he might otherwise never see me again. It took a long time for me to piece together my parents’ life before Canada.  An older cousin, Mayer Kirshenblatt, who grew up in Apt and stayed there until 1934 before emigrating to Canada, has memorialized life in the shtetl in a wonderful series of paintings that have been exhibited all over the world.  They really helped me visualize that world in The Magiker.

Have you had any supernatural experiences?

Yes. At a New Year’s Eve party in Toronto in 1972, I met a beautiful young actress from Vancouver named Judith. We sat for an hour chatting. She was such great fun and we really seemed to connect. But the next day, I realized I had not gotten her phone number and, well, that was that. Ten years later, in 1982, I awoke one morning in Toronto and found myself saying Judith’s name aloud and wondering what had happened to her.  Honestly, I had not thought about her since that party.

The next day I walked into a CBC studio where my play, Leslie and Lajos, was being recorded for radio. Two technicians in the control booth were talking about a woman, an actress, who had committed suicide the day before. When I realized that the woman was Judith, I was stunned and shaken.  Why had I suddenly thought of her on the very morning she had killed herself? A friend, who was very much into the supernatural, told me that suicides often reach out telepathically to those who had been kind to them, before they move on. It is an experience that continues to haunt and mystify me, and is embedded in The Magiker.

You've described The Magiker as a "love-beyond-time" romance. Have stories like that had a strong influence on you?

Absolutely, one of my favorite movies is Portrait of Jennie, which starred Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones. It is a wonderful film about a painter who can’t bring any true feeling to his work.  One day he falls in love with a girl, Jennie, whom he meets in Central Park. She provides the spark that lights his artistic passion.  But it turns out that Jennie is the ghost of a girl who died in a hurricane years ago. Robert Nathan wrote the novel it was based on. Years later in Los Angeles, he was my neighbor on Doheny Drive, and I got to know him and his other mystical novels. He was still writing well into his 80s, but his books had gone out of fashion—although they were a great influence on me. They certainly influenced The Magiker. Robert Nathan and his wife, Anna Lee, will appear as characters in my next book, Hollywood Raj.

Another favorite was The Ghost and Mrs Muir.  Remember that one? Gene Tierney was an impoverished widow who fell in love with the spirit of a sea captain played by Rex Harrison.  She was literally the ghostwriter of his best-selling seafaring adventures, which reversed her fortunes. And there was Berkeley Square, in which Leslie Howard is transported back in time to 18th Century London, and its remake, I’ll Never Forget You, with Tyrone Power.  Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeve and Christopher Plummer had a peculiar resonance for me.  It was shot in the century's old Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Lake Huron. All through the film I had a peculiar sense of deja vu, as if I had been in that hotel in another life. Years later, I discovered old black-and-white photos of myself at that same resort when I was four years old. 

How long did it take to write The Magiker

The story has had many incarnations. After the incident in the cemetery where I discovered my teenaged great-aunt’s grave, I wrote it as a short story and tried unsuccessfully to get it published. Then I expanded the idea into a screenplay, then a novella—try getting one of those published in the 21st century! But I refused to give up on the story and began expanding it more and more and discovering new characters based on my life in New York. When my editor read the manuscript for the novel, he was fascinated by it but wanted the reader to learn more about Kabbalah and be plunged even further into that world. The Magiker was meant to be a stand-alone story, but now, with diverse characters like Fletcher Jones and Sister Aurelia having their own mystical credentials, there is a strong likelihood for a sequel, if not a series.

The Upper West Side of Manhattan is so vividly described in The Magiker. Did you ever live there?

I lived there in the late 1990s, at the corner of 92nd and Riverside Drive.  The building was entirely Jewish—except for my wife, who had grown up there and stayed on after her parents moved out.  After we got married, we lived there until our daughter was two. My wife functioned as the Shabbos goy for the more orthodox tenants.

I remember that in the building a rabbi had an apartment that took up a whole floor. It had two different kitchens—one for meat and one for dairy.  People from all over the world came to study with him.  The tiny shul that the psychiatrist Strider visits in The Magiker really exists; it was right around the corner.  And on Simchat Torah, West End Avenue (where the Pasha, a character in the book lives) was filled with celebrants dancing in the street holding Torahs aloft. Although the original short story had been set in Toronto, by the time I expanded it into a novel I was living in Manhattan. I would take my little daughter, Ethne, to whom this book is dedicated, to Central Park where she would curl up in the lap of the Alice and Wonderland statue, play near the Boathouse, and frolic in the snow in the winter—all scenes that are represented in the book. And that all-night Greek coffee shop where the Little Cantor and Strider begin to explore the Magiker's journal is a must for any insomniac living west of Central Park!

You write novels, plays, and direct your own screenplays. What is the common thread in these different art forms? 

I’m a storyteller, and I like telling stories in all media. For example, I wrote a book, The Next-to-Last Train Ride, and then wrote the screenplay, which was made into the movie Finders Keepers, directed by Richard Lester.

But in fact, you started out you first as an actor.

Yes. When I was in second grade my tonsils were removed. My cousin Rosemary gave me a big picture book of Disney’s new animated feature Peter Pan. I hadn’t seen the movie version but something inside me wanted to do a dramatic version of the book. So I rounded up the kids in the neighborhood (more like a press gang) and presented the adaptation in my back yard. I wrote, directed, and acted in it. That was the beginning of my career as a hyphenate. There was no diagnosis of ADHD in the early 50s, but I was pretty hyper. My mother sent me to a woman named Marjorie Purvey, who ran a drama school in Toronto and had a weekly radio show, Peter and the Dwarf, featuring her best students. I made my radio-acting debut on my eighth birthday as Elf 2 in Santa’s workshop. I never looked back.

You have an encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood that has even impressed film historian Robert Osborne. When did your fascination with Tinseltown begin?

The best malaprop ever hurled at me was by a Brooklyn-born producer who called me “a suppository of cinema.” Every Saturday morning I’d sit in reception at Miss Purvey’s waiting for class to begin and read the stack of Theater Arts magazines that were waiting there. I devoured them and the full-length plays that were in each issue. I remember covers featuring Tony Perkins, John Gielgud, Rod Steiger and Jason Robards. Amazingly, I met all of those people years later and either interviewed them or was befriended by them. I never forgot a play or movie I’d seen or the stories surrounding them. My blog, Paid to Dream, is an outlet for that great suppository.

What are you working on next?

I’ve actually finished writing another mystical novel called The Balm of Angeles set in the world of the theater. But it’s waiting in the queue until I finish writing Hollywood Raj, which has been described as Downton Abbey in Hollywood. It’s about the Radfords, an English acting family, living in Hollywood in 1938 when the English colony was populated by the likes of Ronald Colman, Cary Grant, David, Niven, Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff, and on and on. The Nazis are threatening to overrun Europe, and Sir Osmond Radford, the head of the family, is drafted into service as a spy for the British Secret Service.

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