The book's main character, Martin Strauss, reflects on a life
in which he believes he killed the Hungarian-American escape
Both Houdini, who died suddenly in 1926 of a ruptured appendix
after being punched repeatedly in the stomach, and Strauss
narrate parts of the tale in which fact and fiction intermingle
and memories cannot be trusted.
Galloway, 38, gained fame for his 2008 bestseller, "The Cellist
of Sarajevo," set during that city’s siege in the mid-1990s. The
award-winning book caused a stir when Vedran Smailović, a
cellist whose story inspired the title, said he was not
contacted about it and should have been compensated for the use
of his image.
"The Confabulist," like "The Cellist," mingles history with
Galloway talked to Reuters about writing "The Confabulist,"
meeting Smailović, and the ways in which lives are shaped by
events that may never have happened.
Q: How did you arrive at that intersection of magic and
A: Magic has always felt to me like a bit of a metaphor
for life. We like to think our brains are tape recorders, and
that when you’re looking for a memory, you’re going back into
the record and finding that bit. But that is not how brains
work. Your memory is really some guy making stuff up. I
discovered as an adult that I had whole chunks of memories of
things that didn’t happen.
I have a memory of an encounter with an uncle, a really fond
memory, but I discovered later in life this uncle died before I
was born. The more I looked into what psychologists and doctors
know about how the human memory works, the more I became
convinced that our brains are magicians pulling magic tricks on
us all the time.
Q: Do you think confabulations impact our lives just as
much as real memories?
A: Absolutely. There’s a question you get as a novelist a
lot. Someone will take a particular detail of a book and ask,
“Did that really happen?” And there’s often a profound
disappointment when you say “No, I made it up,” as if it’s now
of less value. We explore reality through imagining things. I
think it would be wrong not to do that. If you don’t do it,
you’re cutting off an enormous method we’ve developed to
understand the world.
[to top of second column]
Q: Were you always interested in Harry Houdini?
A: My interest in Houdini came out of deciding to write the
book. I knew some basic stuff about him, but I wasn’t an expert.
Q: "The Confabulist" deals with the competing world views of
rationalism and spiritualism. Where do you think the book comes out
on that question?
A: Houdini wasn’t a believer in spiritualism. He was a
skeptic. I think the tension between the empirical rationalism that
Houdini so loved and the hocus pocus of spiritualism are metaphors
for the idea that truth is neither fact nor fiction. It can be both
Q: In "The Cellist of Sarajevo," you drew the ire of Vedran
Smailović, a real-life Sarajevo cellist. Does an author have any
responsibility to make clear which parts of a novel are historically
accurate or not?
A: I don’t think the novelist has any responsibility within
the context of a book to clarify that. One of the differences
between fiction and creative nonfiction is that in fiction, you have
the suspension of disbelief, whereas in creative nonfiction you
don’t. ... I think it’s pretty clear that I am asking for suspension
of disbelief and getting it from the reader.
Q: You met with Smailović – did you clear the air?
A: We ultimately agreed to disagree. His beef was that I referenced
his story. The book is not about the cellist. He is just an image
within it. But he felt that I should have paid him for doing that.
(Reporting by Nicholas P. Brown; Editing by Jill Serjeant and
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