Mrs. Houdini: An Interview with Victoria Kelly

Bas Bleu‘s October Book a Month 2018 pick, Mrs. Houdini, is eerie, haunting, melancholy, and magical—just the thing for Halloween! Author Victoria Kelly spins a gorgeous historical novel: In alternating timelines, the story follows a young Bess and Harry Houdini as their romance and careers blossom, and, after Harry’s death, traces Bess’s attempts to find her deceased husband’s promised hidden message from the “other side.” This wonderfully researched and mysterious love story is just the thing for a chilly fall evening! During a recent conversation, Victoria Kelly offered us insight into how poetry feeds her fiction (and vice versa), some fascinating tidbits uncovered during her research process, and more reading suggestions for fans of the Houdinis.

Bas Bleu: Readers unfamiliar with your work may be surprised to learn you are known primarily as a poet. What led you to you make the jump from poetry to fiction? Is there a struggle in shifting from one to the other, or do you find it helpful to write both?

Victoria Kelly: I actually was a fiction writer long before I ever published my first poem. I attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s fiction program and had been publishing short stories in literary journals since my college years. When I was in my late twenties, my husband was deployed to the Middle East for almost a year, and I was struggling with a novel I was writing. I decided to take a poetry workshop to help clear my head, and that’s what got me into poetry. But I’ve found that the two genres intersect for me all the time. I think, as a poet, I am more of a storyteller than is usual; I like to create visual scenes with poetry, and I don’t like to be too enigmatic. And as a fiction writer, I rely a lot on what I learned about poetry, when it comes down to the sentence-level writing, and trying to say things in elegant or atypical ways.

Photo credit: Anna Williams

BB: In Mrs. Houdini, Bess and Harry’s early relationship is passionate but tumultuous, to say the least. How much factual information were you able to find about their courtship, and how much did you embellish?

VK: After Harry died, Bess participated in several interviews for a biography about Houdini by a writer named Harold Kellock. She spoke extensively about their courtship, and I found that book enormously helpful in getting Bess’s views. There is debate as to the accuracy of her answers—some say she embellished the truth somewhat—but this gave me a good starting point for my research. What is known is that they knew each other for only a short time before getting married, and neither of them sought permission from their parents beforehand. In the 1890s, when they married, it was almost unheard of for a Catholic woman and a Jewish man to marry. This speaks volumes for the kind of independent woman Bess was, and the way both were willing to buck tradition for the sake of love.

BB: While researching Mrs. Houdini, was there a specific event, anecdote, or rumor about Bess and/or Harry that you found particularly intriguing or surprising?

VK: When Bess and Harry were living in Harlem, in the three-story townhome they purchased there, they would often be on different floors, going about their daily work. They used to write each other little notes and have the maid deliver them to each other on a silver tray. I like to think of this as kind of an early form of text messaging.

BB: Your story covers the infamous “false” séance with medium Arthur Ford in 1929, when the late Harry purportedly contacted Bess. At the time, the media accused Bess and Ford of staging the entire thing, causing Bess to later recant her statement that she’d received any genuine message from Harry. How much research did you do into this particular incident? What’s your opinion of how everything played out? How do you think it affected Bess’s search for her husband’s spirit?

VK: I think Bess really was deceived by Ford; I think he was handsome and charismatic, and she fell in love with him a little bit. I don’t believe she was in on any kind of plot with him. This was a woman who truly believed Harry would contact her if there was a way for the dead to reach those in the living world. So much of their marriage was built on this common belief. So I think she must have been crestfallen when she discovered that not only had Harry not truly contacted her, but also that this man whom she trusted had deceived her.

BB: Each Halloween for ten years after Houdini’s death, Bess held a séance in an attempt to reach Harry, but was ultimately unsuccessful. These séances still continue without her to this day. Have you ever attended a séance? Do you find yourself coming down on the side of skepticism or spiritualism?

VK: I have not attended a séance, but I have been to see psychics, some of whom have been fakes and some of whom were eerily accurate. I think I am a lot like Bess and Harry when it comes to spiritualism—I am a skeptic who’d like to believe there are “real” mediums, somewhere out there.

BB: We were intrigued to learn more about the Houdinis after reading your novel. Any book recommendations for those who read Mrs. Houdini and find their curiosity piqued?

VK: Rebecca Rosenberg’s The Secret Life of Mrs. London is a fascinating book about the relationship between the Houdinis and the writer Jack London and his wife. The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero, by William Kalush and Larry Sloman, was the most thorough and interesting biography I read about him. And the blog WildAboutHoudini.com is a treasure trove of surprising Houdini information, constantly updated.

BB: Which books from your childhood helped to the shape the person you are today?

VK: There are two books that really imprinted on me as a child. I love how Charlotte’s Web, which I first read in elementary school, touches on themes like friendship, time, and coming of age, but also deals with the topic of loss in such a beautiful way. I think this is such an important book for children to read. When I was older, I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. This is where I learned about the power of nostalgia in writing. That scene where Scout stands on Boo Radley’s porch at the end of book and imagines what he must have seen looking out from that house for so many years—that scene reached right to my core.

BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers? Who are your favorite authors?

VK: I could read James Salter’s books a hundred times and never get bored; his writing, especially his memoir Burning the Days, is full of the most stunning poetic prose, and his voice is like no one else’s. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse was one of the first books that introduced me to truly unique, poetic language. I’ve read The Great Gatsby dozens of times, and there is always something new to be awed by. I also love Wallace Stegner, Ann Patchett, Maile Meloy, Elizabeth Strout, and many, many others.

BB: What future projects can our readers look forward to seeing from you?

VK: In May 2019, my short story collection Homefront will be published by Engine Books, a wonderful literary press located in Indianapolis. I am also finishing revisions on a new novel about a plane crash that took place at the end of World War II.

BB: Thank you, Victoria Kelly, for chatting with us about your work…and for giving us such a wonderfully evocative read for Halloween!

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