A Conversation with Gabriel Urza

BENJAMIN KESSLER: Did you do any magic as a child?

GABRIEL URZA: In my entire life I’ve only possessed three magic tricks. My main one was the standard rubber thumb, but the skin color was always off so it never looked quite right. I used to make it look like I was putting out my mom’s cigarettes in my palm, hiding the ashes in the tip. I think that trick is still legitimately used, just in more impressive ways. There’s some magic tricks which just require no skill, they’re just gimmicks. As an eight or nine-year-old those were the ones I was most interested in.

I was never really wanted to do the work to become a magician, I just wanted to be magic. I had a stripper deck, trick playing cards, essentially, with deckled edges and specific details on the card backs. But I was also so bad that every time that someone pulled a card out I would have to stare at the markings and then reference the color sheet.

BK: It was unsubtle.

GU: Very.

BK: Were you the kind of kid who went around a parent’s party and showed off your tricks?

GU: I was a complete introvert. The idea of actually performing for anyone to me was absurd. I would show it to my parents, but the idea that I would show it to say, a stranger, was always totally off the table. That would have been a nightmare. I actually might have had nightmares about that. That’s essentially where my interest in actual magic ended.

BK: Because of performance anxiety?

GU: Partially. I think I ultimately knew that magic would be just for me. At nine years old I didn’t really want to do the work. What’s the payoff if it’s never going to be seen? Nowadays I’m uninterested in the gimmicks or tricks of magic. I’m drawn in more by the performers and the obsessiveness the craft requires.

BK: Obsession is an apt word choice. The two main characters in The White Death are driven by obsession.

GU: I’ve thought a lot about who my alter-egos are in the book, and I think it’s the narrator, who is obsessed with the idea of obsession.

BK: The narrator seems so preoccupied with the idea of the “black box,” a process where we see the inputs and outputs but are unaware of the inner workings. For the audience, magic is a black box. We watch a card get chosen from the deck and see it found again without any idea of what goes on in between. Throughout the story the narrator attempts to demystify the black boxes that exist in the story: The Great Bendini himself and the struggle of parenthood.

GU: I think that’s why the narrator becomes so occupied with The Great Bendini in the first place. He’s trying to understand his own life and the way that it’s all of a sudden changed. He’s trying to understand the magic trick. There’s a part in the book where the narrator receives this trick-opening box. I always thought that the narrator was upset for receiving it. It’s unclear who it comes from, but it’s assumed that it came through The Great Bendini whether by proxy or not. What’s so upsetting about the box, to him at least, is that it’s not a magic trick at all. There’s no illusion, there’s just whatever is inside. The whole edifice of the box makes him think not only about the Great Bendini but also his own son.

BK: It’s dangerous thinking. It’s obsession over the craft of magic that leads to The Great Bendini’s premature death. He starts with fake thumb tricks and card tricks until he finds himself replicating the old masters with death-defiance and escape routines. Is the narrator reading Bendini’s life as a cautionary tale or is he, without knowing it, falling into the same obsessive trap?

GU: I think it’s both. You can admire someone that’s self-destructive. That’s what’s happening here. The narrator’s made a conscious decision not to live that life and there’s a certain loss that comes along with that. He doesn’t expose himself to the dangers of that obsession but he also doesn’t get the rewards from it.

BK: The narrator, an academic studying anthropology, brings something unique to the form of the book, with half the story told through a series of footnotes. When I was reading these footnotes I almost saw it as the narrator pulling a story out of a hat. Within The Great Bendini’s story is couched the narrator’s. They are twinned. Is there anything to be said about the fact that in order to be able to access his own story, the narrator has to go first through The Great Bendini’s?

GU: It’s a question of safety. This is something I’ve actually been talking a lot about with my therapist lately, the idea that labeling things makes them safer, but also strips them of their authenticity. The idea of academic language, of an academic form like footnotes, makes trying to describe something that is unquantifiable, like The Great Bendini, feel somehow safer, like something that is possible of being studied. If it can be studied it can be controlled, or so the narrator believes.

BK: So much of this book is about the illusion of control. It reads almost like an interrogation of what it means to be tormented by the idea of what we have authority over.

GU: That’s something I really liked about the academic form, how much the narrator fails in terms of trying to keep The Great Bendini’s story something rational and intellectual. I like that sort of pushing against the boundaries of the form, breaking through the fencing a little bit. It’s like if you hear a classically-trained musician play something. The form and control is what’s beautiful about it, but sometimes when you hear somebody playing outside of the notes it feels like you are getting greater access to them as a person.

BK: The form seems to be the only way in which the narrator truly feels comfortable.

GU: I imagine the narrator starting this entire project because he wanted an answer to all these questions we’re asking about control and obsession. He starts to waver outside the bounds of the form because he realizes there simply aren’t answers. The narrator says that the way he interprets The Great Bendini’s life varies from day to day. For him I think that’s probably unsettling. He started the project thinking he would figure something out, but the answer that he found is that he would never know the answer. Throughout it all he finds himself asking the same questions about his own son, and finding that he can’t know the answers about what his life will be like.

BK: Another black box. You relinquish the safety of knowing.

GU: That unknowing exists on both sides of life for this narrator. He’s thinking about what existed before his son was born and what will continue to exist after he dies.

BK: This story takes place in unfamiliar territory considering that it’s about professional magic: the West. Why set it there?

GU: I tend to write about the West a lot, it’s what I know. Magic is kind of antiquated, as a craft, and so normally-perceived as east coast. It seems almost vaudevillian. So much of the writing that includes magic takes place on the Atlantic. I wanted this book to be a magic story that we didn’t know. I like the idea of this kid in the 1990’s watching Who’s the Boss and practicing magic tricks somewhere in his mom’s Northern California living room. It feels more authentic to what I know, but it also automatically makes this magician someone that I don’t know. You can do a lot more with him all of a sudden.

BK: So much of our conception of performance magic is tophat and tails. It defamiliarizes that trope to put the magician through puberty.

GU: Making him more three-dimensional made me more interested to write about him. There’s a part where The Great Bendini is practicing escape tricks and he handcuffs himself to a ping pong table. That felt good to me, in a weird way.

BK: It feels genuine. Even though he’s a prodigy, he’s still a kid.

GU: Exactly. I also like the idea of giving this supernatural presence acne. It’s so unmysterious and terrestrial.

BK: Lots of people would argue that magic loses its power when the curtain is pulled and the mechanics are shown. Throughout The White Death, the narrator is trying to figure out all that he can. He wants to demystify, but fails. What does that do to him?

GU: I’d like to think the narrator’s made more complicated by not learning the magic trick, so to speak. It’s so satisfying to think that you might know how a trick works, but be missing that one linkage to truly figure it out. The impossibility of a magic trick is the most satisfying part.

BK: Is there something to be said about withholding that one piece from the reader as well?

GU: There’s something important about keeping pieces of a narrative unarticulated form yourself as a writer, actually. Once you understand a story too well it becomes less interesting. The stories I like best are the one’s asking questions, where I can see that the writer is interrogating something and they don’t get an answer. Answers don’t always exist. They’re different for every person. The idea of writer as knowledge provider is one that I resist.

BK: The answer doesn’t always matter, either. There’s something to be said about foregoing the epiphany at the end of a story.

GU: Epiphanies are normally so moralistic. As soon as I feel I am being moralized to, or am moralizing to somebody, I immediately check out. Amoral stories are always so much more interesting.


Gabriel Urza is the author of the novella The White Death: An Illusion (Novella, 2019) and the novel All That Followed (Henry Holt & Co., 2015). His work has appeared in The New York Times, Guernica, The Guardian, Salon, Politico, and elsewhere. He teaches in the MFA program at Portland State University.

Benjamin Kessler’s writing has appeared in Entropy, Hobart, What are Birds?, and Superstition Review, among others. He is the former Co-Editor-in-Chief of Portland Review. He lives, writes, and raises a hedgehog in Portland, Oregon.

At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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