The Big Idea: Holly Black
Here at the Scalzi Compound, we’re big fans of Holly Black, not just as a human being (we’re pals, she’s awesome) but because she’s consistently taking the idea of fantasy in YA and twisting it in new and fun ways. The latest twist: White Cat, which imagines a world like our own in which magic is not “magical” in the usual adjectival sense, but is something a little grittier, a little seedier, and not necessarily something you’d want to play with. To which I say: coool. Here’s Holly to break it down for you.
If you know me from my Spiderwick Chronicles or Modern Faerie Tale series, you might not guess my love for heist movies, noir and cons. From Rififi to The Sting to Ocean’s Eleven, from Hammett to Chandler to Mosley, I love it all. I love the snappy dialogue, the twists, and the intricacy of the plots.
My big idea for White Cat came from me sitting around thinking about different models for magic. I had worked out a little of the book at that point, enough that I knew I was writing about a charming young con artist named Cassel, so I wanted something appropriate to the mood of his world.
Magic in novels needs some organizing principle. There are solitary wizards who resemble hermits, magic schools and universities, wizards teaching apprentices in the model of a medieval tradesperson, councils of mages not unlike a corporate board of directors, and large baroque organizations of wizards so full of rules and ceremonies that they might be modeled on the structure of a church. None of those quite fit. Then I thought:
What if the magic in this world worked like organized crime?
From there I decided that for that to work, I needed two things (a) for everyone in the world to be aware of magic and (b) for magic to be illegal.
I would have one in a thousand people have the ability to do curse magic. That way, everyone could potentially know a worker or two, but they’d still be pretty uncommon. An average high school might have one to two workers enrolled there. A large university might have as many as a hundred, between students, faculty and other staff. Given the rate of Scalzi’s traffic to Whatever, nearly fifty of you reading this would be curse workers.
Of the total workers, most are luck workers. The rest work dreams, physical curses, emotional curses, memory, death or, very rarely, transformation. To actually curse another person, one has to have bare hand (the curse worker) to bare skin (the victim) contact. And, just to balance out the benefits of having magic, all curse work results in blowback. That is, some of the curse rebounds on the curse worker. As Cassel’s grandfather, a retired death worker with blackened and rotted fingers, tells us, “every curse works the worker.”
Curse magic was outlawed in the United States in 1929. Once it became outlawed, just like Prohibition led to the rise of the five big crime families in New York, the ban on curse magic would lead to magical power being controlled by the mob. Black market demands would keep curse work profitable and I would have the world I wanted to play in.
The hardest, but also most fun part, was expanding on how having magic around would change society.
– In a world where hands touching skin could be dangerous, people would want each other to wear gloves. Thus everyone wears gloves when they are in public. If you saw someone barehanded, it would be like they were carrying a knife; they might have a good reason, but you’d still want to cross the street. Since bare hands are seldom seen, they’ve become objects of fantasy. Magazines features fold-outs of scantily clad girls without any gloves. The ultimate sign of trust between any two people would be shaking bare hands.
– Amulets that protect against curse work (each one cracks after it wards off a curse) are sold at drug stores and bodegas, near the counter along with the mints and lighters. It’s hard to know if you’re buying a good one or a dud, especially since curse workers themselves are needed to make the amulets, and they mostly don’t identify themselves.
– Despite being illegal, people want luck workers at weddings and baptisms and for times when things aren’t going so well. So hiring curse workers for minor things occupies that gray area of illegal things that everyone does anyway, like speeding. With the help of my publisher, I even mocked up what a subway ad in this world might look like:
Being born a curse worker runs in families, but can show up in people not immediately related to curse worker too. Crime families aren’t families in the traditional sense, but made up of magical recruits initiated into “the life.”
Cassel Sharpe, our protagonist, isn’t a curse worker himself, but he comes from a family of curse workers and con artists. His grandfather and brother work for the crime families, his father was a minor-league grifter, and his mother is in jail for working some guy into signing over all his money.
Cassel is trying to stay on the straight and narrow at Wallingford Preparatory – no cons, only a little bit of forgery and some bookmaking. His memories haunt him, though, especially his memory of killing his best friend, Lila, who he loved, three years ago. He has no idea why he would have done that. When he wakes up on the roof of his dorm room with no idea how he got there, out of a dream of chasing a white cat, he begins to believe that his memories are hiding more than they’re revealing. And so Cassel begins to investigate his past and figure out who he really is and what he’s really done.