The Big Idea: David Liss
Many years ago, television interviewer Barbara Walters rather infamously asked Katharine Hepburn, “If you could be a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” I don’t know whether author David Liss remembers that particular media moment, but in The Peculiarities, at least, he presents us with at least one character who might have an answer for Walters.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by historical magic, by which I mean magic as it was performed by real people who believed that their practices had an impact on the world around them. That, more than anything else, was the origin of The Peculiarities, a novel set during the late Victorian occult revival. In particular, I wanted to write about the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the hugely influential organization of turn-of-the-century London magicians who played a major role in transmitting ideas about ceremonial magic into the popular imagination.
I wanted to write about real magic with its limited goals and affects, but I also wanted to write about a character undergoing a bizarre physical transformation. In this case, my self-centered and somewhat acerbic protagonist is, as the novel opens, turning into a tree. Obviously that’s not particularly realistic and out of the range of what historical magicians could accomplish, but I didn’t want that to stop me. Some of my favorite projects began when I forced together two ideas that don’t necessarily go together. In making them mesh, I come up with something that has its own internal logic.
With this book, I first wanted to get a handle on how magic should work. When I started out, all I knew for sure what that I often dislike how magic and the occult are frequently represented in popular culture. I wanted to do something different and also something more logical.
What if, I asked myself, Golden Dawn magic had been demonstrably effective? The concept appealed to me in large part because Golden Dawn magic was generally subtler than most fantastical magical practices. Many of their rituals were spiritual and meditative. Their spells were meant to nudge real world outcomes rather than affect massive change. Spells to generate wealth, for example, might be expected to produce some minor windfall or business opportunity, not turn a pauper into a millionaire. At the more extreme range were practices like divination, astral projection or demonic summoning, the results of which were often impressionistic and subjective.
If this kind of magic could be practiced effectively, how would that change the world? How would the knowledge of accurate tarot card readings or provable astral voyages change society?
This question led me to an interesting problem: if these magical practices worked, then they had always worked, so why would people just now be discovering them? I’ve always pushed back against fictional depictions of occult secret histories and hidden societies. If there had always been vampires or werewolves or sorcerers, then why was their existence a secret? Try imagining a world in which the existence of left-handed people has been kept a secret, but they’re out there, and they have their own agenda. It makes no sense. If magic, in whatever shape, were real and something people could learn, then lots of people would learn it. Golden Dawn magic was relatively low impact – we’re not talking about shooting lightning bolts out of fingertips or dragon-riding – but even so. Maybe these are skills that relatively few people could master, but that’s true of playing the violin, and the idea that violins might have been kept hidden from the bulk of humanity seems pretty silly.
As I toyed with all of this, it occurred to me that certain things had indeed changed about magic in the second half of the 19th century. Until this point, it had been a traditional practice for magicians to hide their secrets, either by teaching only selected initiates or, if they chose to write down their practices, to bury nuggets of wisdom behind veils of impenetrable writing. The 19th century, however, saw the emergence of popularizers of magic like Eliphas Levi, whose books attempted to present the basic information of western hermetics in clear and readable prose. Indeed, what was original about the Golden Dawn was neither its beliefs nor its practices, but rather its method of systemic instruction which made ancient magical ideas accessible to any dedicated student.
This, it occurred to me, was what changed – not the efficacy of magic but the accessibility. This concept led me to the big leap that allowed the book to take shape. I’d begun by thinking what effect magic might have on behaviors, but now I turned it around. What effect might behaviors have on magic? What if, in other words, unprecedented numbers of people practicing traditional magic made that traditional magic stronger and more effective?
The end result was a novel in which magic demonstrably works and is changing society, but it is also a new development, and so not accepted by everyone. I’ve always loved to write about moments of major historical reorientations. It just so happens that this one centers around a main character who is metamorphosing into a tree.