While many thrillers are set in the real world, and books with magic are fantasy tales, these are mere guidelines, not steadfast rules. Hence we have Zach Fehst’s American Magic (hardcover, Kindle), a magic-infused thriller that’s set in the “real” world. In the following email interview, Fehst talks about what inspired and influenced his new novel, as well as how the magic works in it and why it works the way it does.
Photo Credit: Heather Demetrios
To start, what is American Magic about?
An elusive figure releases actual magic spells onto the dark web. This is our real world, not a fantasy world. The intelligence agencies catch on pretty quickly to the threat this might pose, and try to contain the spread of this knowledge. Despite their best efforts, bad actors get ahold of it and soon things escalate until civilization as we know it is on the brink of collapse. Into the mix come an ex-CIA agent named Ben Zolstra, and a magically powerful young woman named Ella Mack, who race across the globe to identify the source of these devastating leaks and hopefully find a way to reverse the chaos that has been unleashed.
Where did you get the idea for American Magic and how did it evolve, if at all, as you wrote it?
It started as a “what if?” What if magic were real, and suddenly accessible to everyone? How would the world we live in be affected and/or threatened? I started thinking about it as a kind of new technology, like how Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic. Like all technologies, how could magic be put to good or bad use? Things unfolded from there.
It says right on the cover that American Magic is “a thriller,” but there’s magic involved, which makes me think this is a fantasy thriller. Is that accurate, or are there other genres that either describe this story better or are at work in it?
I heard someone use the term urban fantasy to describe it, which fits somewhat. I think in most ways, especially regarding the plot and the characters, it has the DNA of a thriller. Except in this case, the big threat is not a nuke or an assassination plot, but this dangerous new “technology” called magic.
Now, when it comes to stories about magic, there are many different ways it can work. How does the magic in American Magic work?
It was important to me to establish rules about the magic very early on in the writing process. Often, when I read other stories with magical elements, the rules seem frustratingly arbitrary. Why can a person conjure this thing, but not that thing? Why can they do this but not that? So I tried to avoid that by clearly keeping the performance of magic tied to specific incantations, all of which are tightly guarded secrets, and many of which have been lost to time. I tried not to cheat.
Are there any writers or stories that had a particularly big influence American Magic?
I read lots of thrillers growing up, and I tried to channel into my book what I first loved about the stories of genre heavyweights like Robert Ludlum, Clive Cussler, and Dan Brown. Their books read like gangbusters. I hope American Magic feels like going on an adventure with a team of characters you’re excited to hang out with.
What about non-literary influences: movies, TV shows, video games. Did any of those have a big influence on American Magic?
I studied film and television at the University of Southern California, so I’m always thinking in film terms when I write. I’m imagining camera moves, wide shots, close ups. When I revise I imagine I’m cutting a scene together, deliberately gauging the pacing for maximum impact. I don’t know about specific non-literary influences, though I will say I often wrote with the Bourne Identity film soundtrack playing in the background.
As you know, thrillers and books about magic are sometimes stand-alone novels, and other times are parts of a series. What is American Magic?
It’s a stand-alone novel and tells a complete story, but I enjoyed this world and these characters so much that I’d love to write a sequel if anyone wants to read it. I can imagine some interesting places to go next.
Earlier I asked if American Magic had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in making American Magic into a movie, show, or game?
I’ve heard some noises about developing it into a movie or TV show, but it’s pretty difficult to know how serious that is, especially before we see if the book is a success. Obviously, it would be a dream come true to see the story have another life in any of the formats you mention.
If American Magic was to be adapted into a movie or TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?
I couldn’t honestly say. I love seeing what people who sometimes seem to be unexpected or unusual casting choices bring to their roles. I think Tom Cruise is terrific as Jack Reacher, for example, but I know there are lots of fans of Lee Child’s books who don’t like the famously diminutive actor playing this big bruiser of a character. It works for me, though.
Lastly, if someone enjoys American Magic, what thrilling fantasy tale of someone else’s would you suggest they check out and why that?
Shameless plug alert, but my wife, Heather Demetrios, wrote a series called the Dark Caravan Cycle. It’s a trilogy, and it’s fascinating because it escalates from a very intimate-scale urban fantasy in book one, Exquisite Captive, to this epic high fantasy finale in book three, Freedom’s Slave. The escalation from one to the other is seamless and believable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done before.