Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Unexpected Fantastic: An Interview with Harry Bolles

The MagiciansMy favorite line in The Magicians by Lev Grossman is: "Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed." This is followed, a few paragraphs later, by: "It was a very small trick, a basic one-handed sleight with a nickel. He did it in his coat pocket where nobody could see. He did it again, then he did it backward." It is such an utterly perfect and beautiful introduction to a character, and one that predisposed me to liking him because, if there's one thing that I have always loved, it's watching magic tricks.

A bit less than a year ago, I went out to dinner to celebrate the birthday of a very dear friend. It was an excellent dinner, in one of those dimly lit, but extravagantly delicious San Francisco restaurants, and while we sat at our large, basement table, one of our mutual friends reached into his pockets and produced some playing cards and a tiny pouch of coins. He did some magic tricks, beautifully astonishing things with coins and cards. With competence and speed, Harry made the coins vanish and the cards switch places, and it was a quietly perfect extravagance in the midst of cocktail detritus and rumpled napkins.

When I asked Harry whether he would answer a few questions about magic for Fantasy Matters, he kindly sent these wonderful answers.

Harry is Harry Bolles. As well as being an amateur magician, he is a musician (I have heard him play the ukelele and sing, charmingly), a teacher, and someone with the skills to make and repair those mysterious chambers that are stringed instruments. If you would like to visit him online, you should check out his YouTube channel and watch him in ukelele-playing action.

Harry BollesCan you introduce yourself to our readers? Tell us a little bit about where you live and what you do.

I’m Harry Bolles, I live in Oakland, and have for about six years. Before that, I lived in Oberlin, OH, but I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. I am a musician and teacher, and I build and repair stringed instruments at Fifth String instruments in Berkeley. I have been an amateur magician seriously for three years.

What is the first magic trick you can remember seeing?

I saw David Copperfield on TV vanish an airplane. I think I was pretty impressed, but my uncle told me that they just moved it when the camera was off. That was the end of my innocence...

How did you start learning magic? How did you go from being an enthusiast to actively learning how magic is done? What made you want to learn the practicalities of making something magical happen?

When I was a boy, I had very generous parents who gifted me over the years with something like five different magic sets and even a few magic books. I was really excited by the idea of performing and showing off, but not at all excited about practicing, so I didn’t get very far. Later, I learned a card trick or two at summer camp, and learned how fun it was to perform magic, but also to keep a secret. Everybody knows you’re not supposed to give away the secrets, so if you have a firm policy it adds credibility. I have always been someone whose interests quickly become consuming obsessions, so when I found real magic books as an adult, it very quickly became all I wanted to do. My years of practicing stringed instruments gave me a head start not only with finger strength and independence, but also because I knew how to practice minutiae to serve a larger performance.

The other thing is that I am a show off and always have been. Magic fell very neatly into place in my life. It was something to constantly fidget with and also focused my craving to collect things (like endless magic books). It appeals to all my compulsions simultaneously.

I know (well, I assume… I hope!) that there are all kinds of exciting magical paraphernalia. Can you tell me about your favorite pieces? Do you have any funny or quirky or odd or wonderful stories that go along with them?

To tell the truth, I try to resist paraphernalia as much as I can... aside from being very expensive, I am, at this stage, the sort of magician who likes to be ready at a moment’s notice to astonish. Even at a basic level this means that I have with me at all times at least one deck of cards and two little purses with my coins that are not for spending...also usually other loose coins and maybe some little rubber balls. A lot of stuff for my pants pockets. I do have some favorite props that I can’t take everywhere, including a set of nested brass boxes that I can make your signed quarter appear in. It’s so fun to watch someone open box after box, getting smaller and smaller, and then, finding their little coin at the end. Also, one corner of my room is dedicated to my seven-foot-tall drinking straw. I don’t get to use that as often as I’d like.

How has your experience of magic as a spectator changed? Do you still feel that wonderful shock of impossibility when you see magic performed, or do you see it in a more analytical way?

I wish I had seen more magic before I became so interested in magic! I had no idea what an incredibly vast world and rich history there was to this art. I am lucky because I am still fooled all the time. I see amazing magic where all I can think is, “hmm I think he must do something then.” But that is no better than any spectator would do, because, of course, the best magicians give no indication of anything. It is a wonderful feeling to marvel and sometimes I laugh with surprise. I do have enough technical facility to see through a lot of stuff, but it doesn’t mean I can reproduce it. Just that I know what to look for.

What is the most astonishing magic trick you’ve seen?

Well, that is a very difficult question. I would say that they are somewhat categorized, as perhaps you like one song because it seems so hard to play and another because you can’t help dancing. I can swoon over the beauty of one coin vanishing, but I also love very sleight-heavy card cheating demonstrations. That said, this performance tickles my fancy in a few different ways and he is an amusing character:

What is your favorite trick to perform?

My favorite is a little coin trick. I have my four half dollars and they travel invisibly from one hand to the other, with the last going into some lucky participant’s closed hand. This is, of course, a classic plot in coin magic and I know a few ways to do it, but this one was taught to me by its creator and is a beautiful example.

Do you have any favorite representations of magic in fiction (movies, books, etc.)?

Actually a formative moment for me was a sequence in The Sting where Paul Newman shows off his card handling skills to Robert Redford. I was very enamored by his authority over the cards, and his effortless control. Even though this wasn’t “magic” in it’s presentation, it was a lovely sequence of manipulation and implied thousands of hours practicing. I remember practicing shuffling for a long time with that in mind. I liked that bit in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods where the main character is sort of constantly fiddling with a silver dollar, rolling it on his knuckles and making it vanish. The character spent his time in prison learning sleight of hand, which is what I would do.

Has your experience of magic, your enthusiasm and acquisition of skills, changed the way you see the “normal” world at all?

Oh it certainly has. There is always an opportunity to do magic, with borrowed quarters or dollar bills or bottle caps or what have you. Further, everyone has a different reaction to things, and it very often accesses some aspect of a person’s personality that is usually not shown when they are astonished. People laugh or gape or even get mad, but I don’t know what it’s going to be usually. So it’s always interesting to share that moment with friends and strangers.