№ 4

Ricky Jay

It’s very hard to get behind some­body who’s going to run through the room and shoot peo­ple. But some­one who out­thinks them is remark­ably appealing.”

—The Believer


A pro­posed phi­los­o­phy of life:
Never turn down a chance to meet a one-hundred-year-old man

Ricky Jay, a dear friend of his once observed, can’t remem­ber any­thing that’s hap­pened after 1900. This isn’t a com­monly noted prob­lem for some­one born in 1948 (or some­one born around 1948, since, like so many of the basic facts of Jay’s life, it’s not entirely clear what is true and what isn’t). The sleight-of-hand artist, author, actor, and cura­tor isn’t just con­ver­sant in the minu­tiae of ear­lier eras. In an ideal uni­verse, he admits, he might have inhab­ited the eigh­teenth cen­tury — although he doesn’t see it as dread­ful that he’s found him­self strad­dling the twen­ti­eth and twenty-first.

Ricky Jay’s nat­ural home is the world of decep­tion — of con­jur­ers and con men, of illu­sion and the art of the con­fi­dence game. With a sim­ple deck of cards, he can per­form unpar­al­leled acts of pres­tidig­i­ta­tion. He is a direct descen­dant of sleight-of-hand mas­ters Dai Ver­non and Char­lie Miller. Early on, how­ever, his fame grew out of a wild sig­na­ture pose: wield­ing cards as weapons. Jay could throw cards for speed (90 miles per hour) and dis­tance (190 feet) and, up close, could pierce water­mel­ons. He was also an obses­sive col­lec­tor of arcana from the his­tory of magic, weav­ing long-forgotten tricks and pat­ter into his act, then writ­ing about his dis­cov­er­ies at length, in one-of-a-kind vol­umes such as Learned Pigs & Fire­proof Women (1986) and, more recently, Cel­e­bra­tions of Curi­ous Char­ac­ters, a col­lec­tion of forty-five short essays he first pro­duced for NPR.

Jay’s more recent renown, how­ever, might come from film and tele­vi­sion. Thanks largely to David Mamet, a long­time friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor who first cast him in House of Games (1987), Jay devel­oped a par­al­lel career as an actor. His roles have included a clas­sic James Bond vil­lain (techno-terrorist Henry Gupta in Tomor­row Never Dies), a PI schooled in magic lore (Last Days), and a nar­ra­tor whose syn­tax and style seem lifted straight out of a Ricky Jay tale (Mag­no­lia). He was, for its inau­gural sea­son, a cen­tral part of the HBO series Dead­wood, both as a writer and an actor (in the role of card dealer Eddie Sawyer).

In per­son, Jay seems immune to an interviewer’s worka­day con­cerns. He’s hope­less with dates. He’s hazy on per­sonal details. When we met in Los Ange­les last year — early spring, at a small Japan­ese restau­rant in the Bel Air hills near his home — there was always the sense that the facts were only part of the point. Lis­ten to his sto­ries, about gam­blers and magi­cians and cheats, and you’re led into a world where true fic­tions feel like the way things might really be.


THE BELIEVER: With your enor­mous range as a magi­cian, actor, author, and cura­tor, how are you most com­monly iden­ti­fied these days?

RICKY JAY: It’s still prob­a­bly most with sleight of hand. But the thing that’s excit­ing is when some­one approaches me and says, “I like your work,” and I won­der: What work are you talk­ing about? It’s really nice. I think it’s always most grat­i­fy­ing to be rec­og­nized for some– thing that’s fur­thest away from what you do. In high school, my fan­tasies were to write for the New Yorker and to be in a James Bond movie. It’s much more sur­pris­ing to me that those two things have hap­pened than the suc­cess with my one-man shows in New York.

BLVR: You always wanted to be in a Bond film?

RJ: As a high-school kid grow­ing up in New Jer­sey, sure. It was right in that period when what could be cooler? But the dream was specif­i­cally to throw cards in a James Bond movie. That’s what I wanted to do. I just don’t under­stand how all this hap­pened. I just don’t under­stand how I became friendly with Joe Mitchell at the New Yorker, for instance. Those are the things that are really baf­fling and wonderful.

But we can’t pre­tend any of this has been easy. I had a very tough time mak­ing a liv­ing for a lot of years. But I’ve been one of these peo­ple, my whole life, where I’ve turned down work when I really couldn’t afford to. I just take the jobs that seem sat­is­fy­ing and inter­est­ing, rather than being on some goofy series play­ing some wand-wielding magi­cian. I guess I’ve always had a lot of inter­ests, and I’m for­tu­nate in the fact that I’ve been able to pur­sue them. some­how I was able to scrape enough money together. but I stayed on people’s couches for years — for years I lived on people’s couches.

BLVR: You were never just a sleight-of-hand artist. Your career has nur­tured many of the things that have fas­ci­nated you since you were a kid. If the six-year-old you could have seen how it would all turn out, he’d prob­a­bly have said, “That’s right. That makes sense. That’s what I wanted to do.”

RJ: I sup­pose it makes sense. but, of course, my grand­fa­ther was the rea­son I got into it so young. He was a won­der­ful ama­teur magi­cian, but he was also a really good three-cushion and balk­line bil­liard player. and a really good chess player. And a really good check­ers player. And a cal­lig­ra­pher. Many of the inter­ests I have came from him. He came over from Austria-Hungary as an immi­grant when he was young, and he got fairly suc­cess­ful in business.

BLVR: He was an accountant.

RJ: Right. a CPA — with­out going to col­lege, from an act of Con­gress, which is a pretty bizarre thing in itself. He was an inter­est­ing guy. And what he did was he took lessons in the things that inter­ested him — origami, so many things. By the time I was a kid he was fin­ished tak­ing lessons. He cer­tainly was doing magic. But when he took bil­liard lessons he took them from Willie Hoppe. He found the peo­ple, the won­der­ful people.

BLVR: You met the magi­cian Dai Ver­non through him.

RJ: When I was four. So that’s sort of the point. My grand­fa­ther enjoyed life. By the time I met him, my grand­fa­ther was really into magic. He had fin­ished these other phases. And maybe because I had some inter­est in cryp­tog­ra­phy and cal­lig­ra­phy, he talked to me about them, but he wasn’t actively tak­ing lessons in any of these other areas.

BLVR: Phys­i­cally, you took to sleight of hand immediately.

RJ: Yeah. When I was in junior high school, I remem­ber my par­ents had me take some bat­tery of tests. A research insti­tu­tion gave one of those “think what you’d be good at in the future” kind of tests. Some were phys­i­cal and some were men­tal. There was a test about mov­ing pins into — it looked like a piece of plas­tic with recessed holes in it. And then a pile of pins. You were sup­posed to put exactly three pins into every hole.

BLVR: This wasn’t a problem.

RJ: As it turned out, this was no prob­lem, obvi­ously. I was in the hun­dredth per­centile. Of course, based on this, my par­ents’ deter­mi­na­tion was that I should be a sur­geon. But how much of this was nat­ural incli­na­tion and how much was from all those years of dili­gent prac­tice? I just don’t know. But here’s another thing you have to under­stand. When I was that age, I was awful. It wasn’t like I was some pre­co­cious kid. I was inter­ested, eager. But I’ve seen footage of me when I was seven — it’s silly, it’s ridiculous.

BLVR: How many hours were you prac­tic­ing every day?

RJ: It wasn’t until I was twelve or thir­teen that I really started pay­ing atten­tion. The early stuff is — things with appa­ra­tus. Silly things. When I was thir­teen I did an act for quite a while pro­duc­ing doves. The dif­fer­ence was that Sly­dini [the magi­cian] made me a cos­tume for it, com­pletely by hand. He was a won­der­ful tai­lor. He sewed the cos­tume — basi­cally every seam had a flower on it — and worked on the magic.

BLVR: You first per­formed on TV when you were seven. What was your act?

RJ: Oh, some awful appa­ra­tus crap. Terrible.

BLVR: Over the years, you’ve writ­ten about the impor­tance of the “gifted amateur.”

RJ: Ver­non talked about it, too. In the art of magic, and it’s true to this day, some of the absolute, unques­tion­ably best things are invented by or devel­oped by ama­teurs, not by pro­fes­sion­als, who often make use of things invented by ama­teurs in their acts. These purists who have no inter­est in it other than their appre­ci­a­tion of the art — it’s lovely.

BLVR: As a kid, you must have been try­ing to fig­ure out what you’d like to do for a liv­ing. Did you see a career in magic? Or did you think you needed to do some­thing alto­gether dif­fer­ent — to make sure you had a liv­ing, so you could do magic?

RJ: The odd thing is that most of the peo­ple I was spend­ing my time with were pro­fes­sion­als. That’s, again, part of what made my expe­ri­ences dif­fer­ent. There weren’t many kids who were nine or ten hang­ing out with Ver­non and Sly­dini. These guys were pro­fes­sion­als. That’s incred­i­bly dif­fer­ent. Usu­ally it’s groups of kids hang­ing out together work­ing on things. Although my child­hood friend in New York Persi Dia­co­nis became a leg­endary sleight-of-hand per­former and mathematician.

But I think you’re imply­ing there were spe­cific deci­sions. There wasn’t much of a plan in any of this. There really wasn’t. I mean, once I was in L.A. I real­ized that I wanted to be with Ver­non — that he was an old man and I wanted to be with him. And that’s absolutely the rea­son I moved here. The story that I tell in Ricky Jay and His 52 Assis­tants is that he was in his sev­en­ties and I would get to spend a cou­ple of years with him. He was seventy-eight, but he lived to be ninety-eight! I didn’t move to L.A. because of the busi­ness, to be in tele­vi­sion or act­ing or any of that stuff. I came here to be with Ver­non and to learn sleight of hand. And then I was so lucky to meet Char­lie Miller, who was just as remark­able and per­haps an even more impor­tant fig­ure in my life.

So a lot of that hap­pened when I moved to Cal­i­for­nia. I got to go out with Ver­non almost every night, sit­ting in Cantor’s and talk­ing about magic. I was still cer­tainly devel­op­ing at that time — of course I’m still devel­op­ing. Even now I think of myself as a stu­dent of the art.

But I think we’re mak­ing too much of this as a series of fixed choices. I was a vora­cious reader. I was a lot of things. but the thing that I cer­tainly grew up around was magic and that world. I just didn’t think about mak­ing a liv­ing. I didn’t have a credit card until I was in my thir­ties. I kinda did what I did. And the same was true when I was in col­lege. I wasn’t par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in classes.

BLVR: Where did the card-throwing come from?

RJ: Oh, it prob­a­bly came from throw­ing base­ball cards as a kid in Brooklyn.

BLVR: Really?

RJ: Yeah, that’s another thing that’s changed so much. For kids they’re now col­lectible objects that they put in Mylar and spe­cial books. I mean, we col­lected cards, but we threw them. You threw them against the wall. You matched them heads and tails. You had fun with them. I’m a guy who’s a seri­ous col­lec­tor, and I under­stand the dif­fer­ence. But I also love the idea of hav­ing fun. so I think it was the com­bi­na­tion of hav­ing cards in my hand all the time and also being madly inter­ested in base­ball, until the Dodgers moved out of Brooklyn.

There is some his­tory of magi­cians throw­ing cards. Then I got this crazy idea of using them as weapons. I don’t know where that came from. I guess that was the fresh idea: the idea of using cards as weapons. And in my act I started talk­ing about a book called Cards as Weapons that didn’t exist: “I’m the author of Cards as Weapons, the Lead­ing Hurler of Mar­tial Pro­jec­tiles.” One day I said to myself, “Hey, that would be fun to write this book.” So I wrote the book. But it’s really, I sup­pose, pecu­liar that I spoke about the book for years before it ever existed.

BLVR: How many hours were you prac­tic­ing in those days?

RJ: [Hes­i­tates/] Oh, I don’t know, cer­tainly six or seven. Other times in my life, prob­a­bly ten. But I thought about that, too. Peo­ple would say, “How can you do that?” Well, peo­ple go to jobs they don’t like for eight hours a day. I love this stuff. So prac­tice, for me, was never a bur­den. It was lovely. And I like the fact that it was sat­is­fy­ing, it was reward­ing. I didn’t know as much about prac­tice then as I do now. so I’m sure I wasn’t prac­tic­ing as con­struc­tively as I could have been.

BLVR: Just with a deck of cards in your hand.

RJ: Yeah. so you could do it going to a film. It was just part of my life. I wasn’t any­where with­out a deck of cards.


BLVR: Meet­ing David Mamet was cen­tral to your devel­op­ment as an artist. The lan­guage in his films seems ide­ally suited to you.

RJ: It’s just wonderful.

BLVR: The lan­guage of the underworld?

RJ: It’s some­thing I was par­tic­u­larly into. By then I was already col­lect­ing cant­ing dic­tio­nar­ies and was very inter­ested in the speech, the argot.

BLVR: When I think about your long-held fas­ci­na­tion with the lan­guage of the under­world, of low-life cul­ture, I often won­der: Is it a schol­arly affec­tion, or is it just who you are, that this is the world you live in?

RJ: [Exhales, then begins to sigh] It’s gotta be some crazy com­bi­na­tion of both. I don’t know. Again, I have to say, I didn’t set out to be … I mean, I have to say, I sup­pose if I could look back, if I were to start again, I’d go to school now. I never took a course in the his­tory of show busi­ness. Or a his­tory of lan­guage. Or an act­ing class. Or any­thing. I never did any of that.

BLVR: You were tak­ing cook­ing classes at Cornell’s school of hotel and restau­rant man­age­ment. I think of that story, which you tell in two of your books, of stick­ing your hand into a hot oven — and inad­ver­tently brand­ing the word Ajax onto your fin­gers. Of course, I’m not sure I entirely believe it.

RJ: No, no, no. That’s a real story.

BLVR: But it wasn’t a class on Samuel Johnson’s dictionary.

RJ: Right. and more than that, it wasn’t a course on the his­tory of show busi­ness. I never took a course on vaude­ville or musi­cals. I cer­tainly never took a course on ety­mol­ogy. I really don’t know. I think it all comes back to read­ing. I think ini­tially I was look­ing at low-life books hop­ing there would be some sleight-of-hand tech­niques in them that could be applic­a­ble to me.

BLVR: You were still quite young.

RJ: Oh, yeah. a teenager, even younger. Then I started col­lect­ing them. I had this rit­ual. I’d be on the road, often open­ing for rock-and-roll bands. And I would spend the days going to muse­ums and libraries and book­stores and print shops. Then I’d take a nap and then do my per­for­mance. And I’d be in another city the next day. That’s how I built my col­lec­tion. I also went to libraries and read. There was no Google. In the early years, I cer­tainly couldn’t afford the books that inter­ested me, so I went and read them. You can talk to anti­quar­ian book­sellers who will tell you about me com­ing to their shops for years before I was able to afford their treasures.

BLVR: But this inter­est in the lan­guage of the under­world, of low-life cul­ture, seems to run up imme­di­ately into your inter­est in the art of the con. Where does this inter­est in the con­fi­dence game come from? From sleight of hand? From books? From per­sonal experience?

RJ: It was sim­ply what I did and who I am. Because I wasn’t doing it for a degree, and because I wasn’t doing it for a job, I didn’t have to ratio­nal­ize it. But I do remem­ber at one point in my career say­ing to myself, God, what do I want to do? This his­tor­i­cal stuff or per­form? Because I was so inter­ested in both. And I remem­ber at one point think­ing to myself, Why do I have to make that choice? Why I can’t I do both?

BLVR: Say­ing, “It was sim­ply what I did and who I am”— I think that gets to the heart of the mat­ter. If some­one really con­sid­ered your inter­ests, would it be out of line to won­der whether this guy was, in part, a criminal?

RJ: Sure. I know peo­ple in this world who are crim­i­nals. And I like them. I’ve said this before: we all love con artists unless we our­selves, or peo­ple we know, have been taken. And that les­son has now been brought home by the whole Mad­off scan­dal. Before that it was harder to wrap your head around these things, because so few peo­ple had actu­ally been affected by them. Now I know peo­ple in my life, really wealthy peo­ple, who lost every penny. Now it’s much, much harder to be as casual about con artists. But I do know why some­one would find cons so appeal­ing. That’s why there are so many films and TV shows about them — even though most of them lack verisimil­i­tude. It’s an appeal­ing con­cept: a crim­i­nal who uses brains rather than brawn. It’s very hard to get behind some­body who’s going to run through the room and shoot peo­ple. but some­one who out­thinks them is remark­ably appealing.

BLVR: I guess that’s really my ques­tion: are these cir­cles that you’ve stud­ied up close as a par­tic­i­pant or sim­ply as a keen (and dis­in­ter­ested) observer?

RJ: [Pause. Then, very quickly] Well, some of each.

BLVR: I think of Dai Ver­non essen­tially going on var­i­ous quests. He spent a lot of his life seek­ing out mas­ter manip­u­la­tors, gamblers.

RJ: Gam­blers. absolutely.

BLVR: Now, I’m assum­ing Dai was an upright fellow.

RJ: He was.

BLVR: yet he sought these peo­ple out—most famously, per­haps, when he trav­eled to Kansas City in search of Allen Kennedy, cre­ator of the so-called “cen­ter deal.” Have you embarked on these kinds of quests? Pur­sued these kinds of relationships?

RJ: Absolutely, sure.

BLVR: Can you talk about it?

RJ: Prob­a­bly not. [Laughs] Well, I can talk about when it didn’t work. When I learned a great les­son. When I was sup­posed to meet the Yel­low Kid, for instance — the Yel­low Kid Weil, the great con­fi­dence man. I finally got some­body I knew who could intro­duce me to him. I was in Chicago, and I was sup­posed to meet the Yel­low Kid. I already had a plane to come back on. This guy said, “He can meet you now.” But it just became too dif­fi­cult: I was packed, I was ready to go to the air­port. We all decided, this is crazy, we’ll see him the next time I’m in town. But the Yel­low Kid was one hun­dred years old! [Laughs] He died a few weeks later. So, for me, this expe­ri­ence prompted a phi­los­o­phy of life, which is “Never turn down a chance to meet a one-hundred-year-old man.” The appli­ca­tion of that obvi­ously goes beyond being one hun­dred. It is “avail your­self of those opportunities.”

BLVR: What hap­pens when you go on one of these quests?

RJ: Well, they’re all dif­fer­ent. They depend on the indi­vid­ual rela­tion­ship. But some­times it is an inter­est­ing thing — you show some­thing to show you know some­thing. You very care­fully don’t come on like you know some­thing. You gauge each sit­u­a­tion dif­fer­ently, based on the indi­vid­ual, their sit­u­a­tion, and who it is that’s intro­duced you. They’re lit­tle exer­cises in psychology.

BLVR: Can you give me an example?

RJ: It’s hard.

BLVR: You haven’t done this recently?

RJ: Have I? No. Recently? … Actu­ally, I did do it recently. A mutual friend brought a gam­bler and asked me if I’d like to meet this “some­body.” Yes, this was quite recently, seven or eight weeks ago. This was some­body I’d heard of — and he’d heard of me. A card player. Our mutual friend was nice enough to get us together. The per­son was kind enough to show me some things. He knew some­thing about my work, because some of my work is avail­able, of course, so he was kind enough to do some­thing for me. It’s a very excit­ing time — you pay very care­ful atten­tion and ask some really seri­ous ques­tions. Part of it was also the mutual friends that we knew — so he knew that this was real. There’s this amaz­ing thing of test­ing and mak­ing sure in these sit­u­a­tions. The inter­est in “Did you know so– and-so,” and “yeah, I do.” It’s almost like two hard­ened crim­i­nals talk­ing and say­ing, “Were you in the joint dur­ing such-and-such?” and “Who did you know?” It’s that kind of thing. To make sure con­fi­dences will be kept. The amaz­ing thing is, since I saw this guy, he is now in jail.

BLVR: Because of what he does professionally?

RJ: [Pause] He did some­thing ille­gal. He didn’t go out and shoot some­body. He did some­thing with cards and — look, do I like this guy? Yeah. I absolutely do.

BLVR: You’ve often said that keep­ing secrets is a cen­tral part of what you do. But here you’re talk­ing about an inter­ac­tion where secrets are shared. You’re really putting your­self out there — you’re giv­ing mate­r­ial away.

RJ: But that’s mak­ing a deci­sion. [He stops and leaves to go to the bath­room. When he returns, there is a long pause. He stut­ters.] What were you ask­ing again?

BLVR: You were about to say, that’s mak­ing a decision —

RJ: Oh. For whom I choose to teach some­thing, expose some­thing. I don’t like the idea of pub­lish­ing books of tricks. I’m happy to share my mate­r­ial with peo­ple who I think can han­dle it well. I’m not a believer in giv­ing up meth­ods that any­one can do, because most of the peo­ple who do them will do them badly. I’m a believer in Sturgeon’s Law: 90 per­cent of every­body who does every­thing is incompetent.

BLVR: But the mate­r­ial that you do keep secret will dis­ap­pear after you’re gone. Is this a tra­di­tion among magicians?

RJ: I would always say I’m more com­fort­able with that, with Char­lie Miller tak­ing his secrets to the grave, than hav­ing every­one butcher it.

BLVR: You once said that as an art, the con­fi­dence game is a kind of per­for­mance for an audience —

RJ: — of one. I was very proud of that.

BLVR: That seems to say a lot about you. Your inter­est is in the art of it.

RJ: I’d say that’s true. Yes, I’m inter­ested in the art. And in the devel­op­ment of the con­fi­dence game as well, which is a sub­ject not easy to find good mate­r­ial on.

BLVR: And it is an art, isn’t it?

RJ: I think so. You see accounts every­where of crim­i­nals say­ing to con men, “You’re so smart, why didn’t you use your skills for good?” and most con­fi­dence men are, of course, think­ing, I don’t want to be seri­ous. I want to go out and take down a score. That’s what I do.


BLVR: Your new book, Cel­e­bra­tions of Curi­ous Char­ac­ters, seems to present a very pow­er­ful con­tra­dic­tion in your work. On the one hand, there’s this real fealty to the facts, to his­tor­i­cal truth, to exam­in­ing for­got­ten or obscure enter­tain­ers and artists. On the other hand, there’s the pre­sen­ta­tion of con­tem­po­rary, real-life expe­ri­ences, either yours or oth­ers’. But how do we know what is true and what isn’t? Is it just a writerly con­ceit? The tale of an eccen­tric his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter is woven into a story from Ricky Jay’s life to cre­ate an effect? To reveal a nugget about exis­tence? To enter­tain? To cre­ate a won­der­ful illu­sion? Some of these sto­ries are cer­tainly true. But are they all true? Did, say, a screw­driver really fall from the rafters dur­ing the shoot­ing of a Bob Dylan video and lodge directly into your hand?

RJ: [Silence]

BLVR: Have I got this entirely wrong?

RJ: No, no, no. This is inter­est­ing to me on many lev­els. You are the first non­par­ti­san reader of the book that I know of, so that’s inter­est­ing. but I’m hear­ing feed­back from you that’s fas­ci­nat­ing. and I like what I’m hear­ing. I like what you’re telling me it’s mak­ing you think about. [Long pause] Well, I’ll tell you: the sto­ries are real. But I’m reluc­tant to tell you that. I love the idea that you’re not sure whether the screw­driver in the guy’s tool belt fell on my hand or not. and yet it never occurred to me for a sec­ond to make that up. That was a really trau­matic expe­ri­ence in my life. but the video [“Twee­dle Dee & Twee­dle Dum”] with Dylan is real. He sent me the gold record [begins to laugh], or was it a Pur­ple Heart [laughs]? It was a really trau­matic event. But the sec­ond you ques­tion it, I kind of love the idea that you think it might be fic­tional. even though that’s not what I’m try­ing to do at all. It’s kind of like going to the Museum of Juras­sic Tech­nol­ogy. It’s so won­der­ful. but that’s what it makes a lot of peo­ple do, it makes peo­ple won­der, Is what I’m see­ing real or not?

If I had to pick a sin­gle word to say what my inter­est is, it’s decep­tion. In per­form­ing magic, you have the most hon­est form of decep­tion there could be, because you’re say­ing to some­one, “I am going to deceive you.” And you do. So someone’s who’s will­ing to do that is hon­est. And so when I’m telling you a story, that’s really my story; I’m telling you that story hon­estly — in the same way. and yet I enjoy the fact that you ques­tion it. but I hope it doesn’t make me seem less of a writer to say, I didn’t antic­i­pate you ques­tion­ing that.

BLVR: Per­haps I’m being naive. When I’m read­ing what is osten­si­bly non­fic­tion, and I encounter a first-person nar­ra­tor who claims he’s the author, I tend to take him at face value.

RJ: Ah! So here’s an inter­est­ing thing. When I say to you, “If you hear me say some­thing on stage, it may be part of a con­struct, much more than in a book.” Gosh, I don’t know — this all implies that there is some planned way that I approach things. And that’s just not the case. each of the pieces in this book were approached as indi­vid­ual pieces. Rather than: if I write so many pieces with me as a char­ac­ter, and then tell sto­ries that are a lit­tle dif­fi­cult to believe, can I leave the impres­sion for a reader that maybe I made this up? It doesn’t exist on that level for me. But that’s one of the fas­ci­nat­ing things about works of art, that peo­ple bring to it mate­r­ial from their own expe­ri­ence. If you’d never read Sebald or if you hadn’t read Borges, if you hadn’t read peo­ple who play with that line, you might never have thought that. It makes me think of Car­los Cas­taneda, actu­ally. That with all his books, there was that big ques­tion: did he make up Don Juan? Is Don Juan real or not? I remem­ber when peo­ple ini­tially talked about that, I remem­ber say­ing, “I don’t care. It doesn’t mat­ter to me.” He’s either writ­ing won­der­ful fic­tion or he’s pre­sent­ing research. On the other hand, if I were an aca­d­e­mic, par­tic­u­larly in anthro­pol­ogy, I could have seri­ous prob­lems with him mak­ing this up and then get­ting other peo­ple believ­ing it was real. But as a reader, it couldn’t mat­ter to me less — because he’s writ­ten some­thing that’s really appeal­ing to read, par­tic­u­larly in the days when I was read­ing that. So I get it. I get it to go both ways: I get want­ing to ana­lyze it, and I get not want­ing to ana­lyze it.


BLVR: So much of your archival work is soli­tary, schol­arly work. But when I think of many of the obscure or eccen­tric char­ac­ters in your books — from Max Malini to Matthew Buchinger to Toby the Sapi­ent Pig — one thing is clear: you really want to share. It’s part mis­sion, part recla­ma­tion project, and it’s lonely work. But it cul­mi­nates in the impulse to say, “Hey, take a look at this!”

RJ: When you talk about shar­ing, on that level it’s true. That’s what enter­tain­ers do. My cri­te­ria as an enter­tainer, when I’m pre­sent­ing a piece, or when I’m writ­ing, is basi­cally “I like this.” I’m show­ing you what excites me, hop­ing it will excite you. I sup­pose that’s pretty self­ish in a way, but I can’t imag­ine it going any other way. In the panoply of magic, I know hun­dreds of effects — but I’m only going to do the ones that seem appro­pri­ate and right because they make me feel good, and I think they’ll make you feel good.

BLVR: But it isn’t easy — turn­ing pure his­tor­i­cal research into enter­tain­ing history.

RJ: But it’s a crime to be a his­to­rian who bores you to tears. I just find it awful. I really find it a crime. The peo­ple who should be admired — peo­ple like Richard Altick [The Shows of Lon­don], Roy Porter [a his­to­rian of med­i­cine], Anthony Grafton. I don’t think I’ve thought of them as mod­els, but these are peo­ple whose work I’ve enor­mously admired. They write beau­ti­fully. Being read­able is essen­tial: try­ing to write well, and not mask­ing it in academese.

BLVR: The changes in book pro­duc­tion have been pro­found. You’ve spent most of your life cap­ti­vated by long-lost enter­tain­ments. We’re liv­ing in a strange time.

RJ: I think one of the things I find so strange about it is the con­cept that of all this infor­ma­tion that we’re talk­ing about here — all of this is now googleable. That’s really strange. And I won­der if that’s going to make it less impor­tant to peo­ple. It’s clear to me that this access to infor­ma­tion is both good and bad. But is it bad in the sense that it winds up mak­ing you have less respect for the infor­ma­tion you’ve been able to gather? It makes me ques­tion what a kid who grows up now is like, hav­ing the abil­ity to get every sin­gle ques­tion they want answered instantly. What’s that going to do to the next gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers, film­mak­ers, or magi­cians? I’m not sure.

BLVR: I’m look­ing at your hands. These are extremely impor­tant instruments.

RJ: You either do the Glenn Gould rit­ual [laughs] and refuse to shake hands with peo­ple, or you’re com­pletely fool­ish and do mar­tial arts and break bricks with them, which I actu­ally did at one point in my life, because I was a com­plete moron.

BLVR: You did that?

RJ: I did.

BLVR: And now you’re in L.A., where they’re nice and warm all the time.

RJ: I’m feel­ing maybe the twinges of some arthri­tis. I don’t know. but when a screw­driver drops on it, it’s really scary.

BLVR: So that’s true.

RJ: Yeah.

BLVR: I can call Bob Dylan and ask him?

RJ: Sure. I’ll give you the name of the guy who runs his company.