Q&A with Foyles

Buy How To Forget at FoylesThe lovely people at Foyles have uploaded an interview with me here.  They have a great site and it’s a great shop to go and buy How To Forget – I’ve stolen the entire interview below:

Marius Brill attended St John’s College, Oxford, after a career as a doorman, journalist and prize-winning playwright at the Soho Theatre. The script of his film, Diary of a Surreal Killer, was nominated for a BAFTA Carl Foreman award. He also wrote the acclaimed BBC Radio 4 comedy series, sLaughter in the Dark..

His first novel, Making Love: A Conspiracy of the Heart, was published in 2003. An ingenious comic thriller told by a distressed library book that has fallen in love with its reader, it was described by Time Out as “‘a smorgasbord of romantic romp, pseudo-scholarship, urban melodrama and metafictional mystery”.


His new novel is How to Forget: A Book of Laughter and Regretting. Magicov the Magnificent earns his living entertaining the geriatrics in a care home; he is envious of his audience, as they have mastered a trick that eludes him: how to forget. For Peter, as he is known without his costume, cannot forget the shameful moment an eight-year-old wrecked his life. Peter has also fallen for Kate, a veteran con artist on the run from the FBI, but trust between two such masters of illusion is in short supply.

Peter’s desire to escape his past makes him the perfect subject for renowned brain-scientist Dr Chris Tavasligh, whose latest experiment promises to wipe memories forever and replace them with new ones. Is this the only option Peter has left? And if so, who will he become?

How to Forget combines the plot of a thriller with the wonder of magic and the sharpest of humour to tell a story that you’ll certainly never forget. In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Marius talks about his own dabblings in the world of conjuring, the prevalence of goatee beards in the Magic Circle and rats on acid.


Questions & Answers

Why did you decide to structure the novel around the notes and letters of neuropsychologist Dr Tavasligh?

Narrators need to be memorable; the thing about inquisitive neuroscientists is you just can’t get them out of your head. Literally as well as, um, literature-ally. Tavasligh explores the reader’s head as much as the characters. I love elements of meta-fiction: moments that don’t just include the audience empathetically, but emphatically. Like Tristram Shandy leaving a page blank for the reader to draw his or her own impression of one of the characters, or the Sid James wink, when he’s about to get lucky in a Carry On and he doesn’t just wink at the camera, he winks at you, and at that moment you’re there with him, he’s your mate. It’s definitely part of the comic arsenal. I don’t want a reader to have to suspend their disbelief totally, to forget who they are as they read, but to come with me, sentient and aware. Even Tavasligh’s name is based on the first character in The Taming of the Shrew who ends up watching the entire play with the audience, one of the world’s earliest meta-fictive characters.

Peter/Mr Magicov’s life was ruined by an unfortunate incident at a children’s birthday party. Did any of what he endured come from your own memories of childhood parties?

Magic didn’t really figure in my childhood. I never had a kindly relative, a crazy uncle or the like, to take coins out of my ears. My uncle was mad but in a depressive sit in a corner, never speak, truly disturbed kind of way, which was not really the same thing.

The interest in conjuring started very suddenly about ten years ago when, as financially embarrassed as I still seem to be, my about-to-be-four-year-old son demanded a magician for his party like his friends had. We really do do strange and terrible things in order not to disappoint our progeny. After enquiring about prices from Mr Noodles et al, I declared, foolishly, that I would do the show myself. So, with reference to a few ropey books from the library, a facility for basic woodwork to construct my grand illusion, a little – no, a lot of – practice palming things and misdirecting – I did the show and, well, it went down a storm. Unlike the birthday cake which went the other way with my performance nausea.

Unfortunately it (the show, not the vomiting) was witnessed by other skint parents of our acquaintance who recognised a cheap opportunity when they saw one. For several years a very modest income from a dozen or so kids’ magic shows was made. I never got a stage name, just George’s Dad doing some magic – but it kept the little darlings occupied and the cash helped. I’m sure all my fear and loathing of kids’ shows is captured in the book.

You go into quite a lot of detail about some of the scams that con artist Kate has pulled off in the past. Were any based on real-life examples?

When I was a journalist I spent some time investigating grifters and confidence tricksters. I lived in New York with a three-card-monte crew. It was a pretty low-rent operation, a team of card sharks tempting passers-by to ‘Find the Lady’, a queen flung down with a couple of deuces on a cardboard box. The ‘game’ is of course not a ‘game’ in any way we understand – that chance or skill might decide a winner – more like a dance, a series of moves designed to entice and fleece.

Even if you could second guess the misdirection, even if you did find the lady when the big money was on it, someone would suddenly shout ‘cops’. Then half the supposed audience and the cardman would disappear in all directions smashing the box dramatically to visually threaten what might happen if you give chase and confuse your attention. In a moment everything would be gone, cards, punters, thrower and, of course, your money. It was all temporary, too unglamorous, the gang members all had stories of long cons and short cons and maybe they were true, maybe not, it’s not like they were trustworthy sources. They were all story tellers and many of Kate’s stories were theirs. They even took me for at least two hundred dollars so fair’s square.

Peter explains to Kate that all magic tricks are based on six basic illusions: the vanish, materialisation, passing through a solid object, the restoration, telekinesis and defying gravity. Does this really cover everything?

It’s an argument that magicians have had for centuries and I’m sure the argument will rumble on, but there are only so many physical laws that you can visibly break. Robert-Houdin stated there were six branches of magic, Devant contended that there were seven, S H Sharpe insisted there were nineteen distinct conjuring feats. In Magic In Theory, Professor Richard Wiseman and Peter Lamont argue that there are eight physical magic effects but include incredible feats like the endurance performances of David Blaine buried, boxed or frozen. To me, although they are impossible without using trickery to achieve, they’re not ‘magic’ as such. Mentalists like Derren Brown have three non-physical tricks which are, at core, either prediction, revelation or influence.

But working magicians all seem to agree that the success of an effect is not which one of the small number of wonders the magician achieves, nor the method by which it is achieved, but the effectiveness of the story that is woven around the phenomenon. You can either make a coin just appear or you can wrench a piece of eight out of history and the very hands of Blackbeard through warping the time space continuum.

Is the famous TV illusionist Titus Black, against whom Peter is determined to exact his revenge, based on any real-life magician?

Some readers have pointed out a passing resemblance to our own Derren Brown and the American mentalist Max Maven. I admit that some of Titus’ effects, and the methods he uses to achieve them, may appear similar, but unlike Brown or Maven, Titus Black is thoroughly detestable, immoral and, quite crucially, possesses no goatee. I hasten to point out that all my characters are completely fictitious and any resemblance to real people living or dead is purely coincidental.

Comedy on the page is notoriously tricky to pull off, perhaps because it lacks the comic intonations joke told aloud. Is there anyone you rely on for an objective opinion on which comic lines work best?

An old comedian once told me that ‘Jokes are really like mooses: you can only try them out once on anybody.’ As soon as you start asking someone, is it funnier this way or that way, it’s down to their opinion not their actual reaction so ‘objective opinion’ is just a contradiction in ter… oh, no, that’s ridiculous: not mooses, I’m sorry, not mooses, nooses, I meant nooses. I meant you can only try nooses once. How do you try a moose out? How would that even work? Sorry.

The point is sometimes a joke works straight off and you know it and sometimes, as you can see in the previous example, it doesn’t. But then I’d spend ages working out loud through all the possible cadences and vocabulary shifts until I can read the line out in a swathe of ridiculous voices and no matter how I try to trip it up, always hit the punch-line. It’s very careful work, like writing poetry. But without the genius. Or the rhetorical devices. Or the rhyming. Or the thought. Or the feelings.

Dr Tavasligh has been working on a device that wipes the memory, allowing new, false memories to be implanted in their place. Do you think that neuroscientists are getting anywhere near being able to develop this technology?

In short – yes. But at five foot nine-ish it’s not like I enjoy being short, so here are some real world examples of advances published in the last couple of months, mainly dealing with rats on acid:

In Israel, Rami Yaka of Hebrew University’s Institute of Drug Research “got a pack of rats hooked on cocaine over a two-week period, and then managed to wipe their memories of their high, meaning that they no longer hankered after the drug. The rats lived in a cage that contained one chamber with a supply of saline solution and another with a supply of cocaine. During the fortnight that Dr Yaka spent offering the drugs, they were drawn to the cocaine chamber. He then gave half of the druggie rats a peptide – a compound of amino acids – called ZIP. He injected it directly into a part of the brain that controls pleasure and reward. The injected rats were no longer drawn to the chamber of the cage where cocaine had been, while the non-injected rats were.”

Using an electronic system that duplicates the neural signals associated with memory, scientists managed to replicate the brain function in rats associated with long-term learned behaviour, even when the rats had been drugged to forget. “Flip the switch on, and the rats remember. Flip it off, and the rats forget,” said Theodore Berger of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, lead author of an article published in theJournal of Neural Engineering.

Scientists at SUNY Downstate Medical Center have discovered a molecular mechanism that maintains memories in the brain. In an article in Science magazine, they demonstrate that by inhibiting the molecule they can erase long-term memories, much as you might erase a computer disc. An enzyme molecule called “protein kinase M zeta” preserves long-term memories through persistent strengthening of synaptic connections between neurons. This is analogous to the mechanism storing information as 0s and 1s in a computer’s hard disk. By inhibiting the enzyme, scientists were able to erase a memory that had been stored for one day, or even one month. This function in memory storage is specific to protein kinase M zeta, because inhibiting related molecules did not disrupt memory.

I really don’t think it is any longer about ‘if’ we will discover the proteins and manufacture the chemicals to control, erase or enhance memory, just ‘when’.

As well as magic, you seem to have an interest in the operations of the intelligence services; they appear in both this book and your first one, Making Love: A Conspiracy of the Heart. Does the clandestine nature of what they do make them an attractive area for a fiction writer?

Although I don’t see the FBI, who figure in How To Forget, as an intelligence service as such, there is something about the investigative authorities that sometime use clandestine methods to operate, that seem to work well in fiction. Fiction can often explore and guess at methods which documentary fact could never find or, if it did, may well be prevented from revealing. In terms of plotting it also ups the risk for criminals. Police follow procedures, but spies and maverick investigators are harder to predict. It’s one of those wonderful validations of the power of story that it must now be impossible for anyone to join the intelligence services without having Bond somewhere in the back of their mind.

You know a few magic tricks yourself [Marius came in before publication and fooled us all with a vanishing coin]. But can you saw a lady in half (and put her back together again)?

To research the book and gain confidence from other magicians I had to perfect a few tricks myself. But I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with sawing a woman in half, even if I knew which half I’d keep.

Magicians will tell you that misogyny in magic is over, that the days of glamorous assistants, often wives, being boxed up and then sawn in half, zigzagged, drilled, run through with swords or just vanished in outfits providing less cover than a cocktail umbrella in a thunder storm are a thing of the past. But they’re not. Ladies who can bend themselves into tiny spaces and fleshly distract audiences will always have a place in this sort of spectacle.

Just, statistically, look at the membership of a body like the Magic Circle, or even try to name more than one female magician. They don’t even have the dignity of a feminisation of the word like ‘actress’ that they could proudly reject. Magicianess? Witch? There is something about magic, conjuring, and the puzzle it presents, and the power over physics that it pretends to have, that attracts men more than women. It seems to attract, especially, shy young men, who want to feel empowered as they go through adolescence, who need props to help them through their insecurities, something they can pull from their pocket to amaze a girl with – without being done for flashing. And then many magicians just never grow up.

Can you tell us anything about what you might be writing next?

I’ve written about the madness of the heart in my first book, the vulnerability of the head in my second, now I want to tackle the soul. It’s my trilogy. At the moment all I can say is it is based on ‘grace’ and how that works evolutionarily in a world where success is most often to the graceless. So – with that in mind – I would like to thank you for your questions. Thank you for helping me think even harder about what the hell I’m trying to do and say. Thank you for reading the book, thank anybody who has read this far. Thank goodness and thank G_d it’s over.

via Marius Brill on his new novel, How to Forget.

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