Joshua Jay explains how magicians think — without ruining the magic

The author of "How Magicians Think" talks to Salon about misdirection, deception, and why magic matters

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 24, 2021 10:00AM (EDT)

Magician Joshua Jay (Photo provided by Joshua Jay)
Magician Joshua Jay (Photo provided by Joshua Jay)

Joshua Jay isn't going to tell you how to saw a lady in half. He will leave it up to you to decide who the greatest magician of all time was. His new book, "How Magicians Think: Misdirection, Deception, and Why Magic Matters," isn't a how-to for aspiring prestidigitators. (If it's tips and tricks you want, you can consult his previous books.) Instead, his latest work is candid appreciation of a unique and rare human resource. Why does magic matter? Because it is a gift to be able to wonder. To marvel. And to do it together.

I am at best a casual consumer of magic. But in reading "How Magicians Think," I was swept up in Jay's passion and dedication to his craft. There's nothing quite like sharing in the enthusiasm of somebody who loves what they do, and Joshua Jay loves doing magic. In his book, he explores his own lifelong fascination with it, as well as the eternal dynamic between magician and audience. Reading it, I remembered the unparalleled pleasure of being astonished, and that surprise can actually be a joyful thing. I talked to Jay recently about his career, and why it's so fun to be fooled.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

I can't think of too many other art or entertainment forms that we have this strange relationship to as audiences. People love it, but they also deride it. What do you think it is about magic that is so polarizing?

I'm sure for somebody, it's trauma from a really bad birthday magician. But on the whole, I would say two things. One is scarcity and the other has to do with ego. The scarcity thing is that magic has always been a rare art form. Music is everywhere. It's in commercials we watch on TV, it's in films, it's in concerts. One of the opening lines in my shows is, I ask for a show of hands of who's ever seen a magician before. Most people have never seen a magician in person. It's just a rare art form. That's one thing.

And the other thing is a lot of people think that if they can't figure out a magic trick, that somehow makes them stupid. A lot of people think that if I am doing a magic trick, then I'm trying to fool you and be better than you. Actually, the reverse is true. When we're fooled by a magic trick, it's because we make the safe assumptions and our minds are working exactly as they're supposed to work.  People who design magic tricks like me, we design the tricks to play on people's assumptions. They're designed to fool people who think in a logical way, and I hope that this book goes to some distance to make it a safer place for people to watch magic and be fooled and live in that moment and love it.

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When you're in the presence of great magic, especially live, it's delightful to be fooled. You say that yourself in the book, that you enjoy it as an audience member.

That's right. One of the things I think is so true and tragic is the better I get at magic the less I'm able to see it, and I miss it. Remember, all magicians got into magic from seeing magic somewhere, somehow. I love being fooled. I love seeing magic that I don't know the solution to. But the more you learn, the more you study, the more you practice, the less that happens, which is really a shame.

You tapped into something interesting very early in the book, and that is that sense of surprise and wonder. Magic represents a very safe outlet for surprise that is actually wonderful and good. I'm wondering how you feel that fits into this moment that we're living in right now where surprises often just terrible and upsetting.

Larry Wilmore had me on his podcast the other day and he brought up exactly what you brought up. He said, when he teaches screenwriting, that there's a difference between surprise and shock.

The way he defines surprise is something that deepens, in his case, character development. But I think that we can adapt it from magic and say surprise deepens our appreciation for what we're watching. Shock does not. Shock is simply the guy that jumps out on screen or the car that comes and hits and kills the character mid scene. Magic is predicated on surprise. We have to surprise our audiences, but in a way that somehow the audience can look back and wonder how they didn't expect it.

You're also talking explicitly about suspense. You know as an audience member that you're going to build me up to something that I'm holding my breath for.

In my craft, unlike filmmaking, I have to find the intersection point of suspense and surprise, and that's very difficult. In a two hour movie, you get to alternate. You can have some surprises and lots of suspense, but in a magic show you have to have them together. That's challenging, because the nature of suspense is buildup and the nature of surprise is no buildup. How do you bridge that gap? Of course, the answer is I hope people will come to my show and see how I bridge that gap.

I'm thinking about the line in your book about how magic is not in the magician's hands, but in the audience mind. You talk a lot in the book about that collaborative relationship that the magician has to have with the audiences. You say if you're doing magic in your own home, you're just practicing.

I'm sitting in my apartment, and this is where I create all my magic. But it's always at the top of my mind that whatever I create here in these four walls is really nothing. It's just a theory. It's only when I test it out and do it on somebody that I learn, "Oh, okay, I thought everybody would look here, ut it turns out they look there. I thought everybody would respond to this, but actually what's most interesting is this other thing."  

I have a newer piece that I created during the pandemic after the book was finalized. I've been working on this piece for months and I've just slowly started tiptoeing it out into the world and using it.

So how do you know when something feels ready? Is it just gut instinct? Is it trial and error?

I wish I could tell you some great new breakthrough in the creative process, but the truth is it's always a gamble. When I get enough confidence of something, I will try it in a low stakes performance. It could for friends over dinner. It could be for family. It could be in a weak position in the show, near the front or the back of the show, so it kind of blends in the middle and you just have to try. It's a leap of faith. I would say a little more than half the time, whatever the new idea is, comes right back out because it's not showing the potential it needs.

Then once in a while it will show the potential, and once in a great while a brand new idea will hit hard, nd that's what we all dream about. And you can improve it, but if it's already in a good place when you try it, hopefully you're going to make it better from there. It takes months and months for a trick to be worked into a show and can take just as many months to find its place. What's so fascinating to me, and this is why magic is endlessly complex, is that sometimes the difference between a great trick and an average trick is just its placement in the show. A. trick might not hit very hard in the third position, but in the fifth position sandwiched by just exactly what it needs to be sandwiched by, it really fits in and reaches its full potential. It's just like a complex puzzle a lot of the time.

What you're talking about is timing. We are such a deeply, deeply distracted culture. We reward that kind of itchiness. Have you felt that that has an impact on the way in which audiences can understand magic, because it requires patience?

That is exactly right. It does require a lot from the audience and it requires a great attitude from the audience. You don't always have that. People don't realize that as a magician, I consider what I'm doing important. For a lot of people, they will never graduate beyond; magic is a distraction, magic is a trifling matter, it is not important, it is not a form of self expression. If somebody has made up their mind about that, can you imagine how hard it is to perform for them? If they're never going to be open enough to see magic for what I think it is, it's not easy to break their assumptions down.

You're doing it for that number of people who love to feel, "Oh my God, you got me. You blew my mind."

Exactly it. I don't want this to come across as too negative because it also has to be said, there are a lot of audiences who are really open-minded and that's so wonderful when that happens.

Our idea of magic is so different now, when you do have your Derren Browns, your David Blaines — people who are expanding what it means to do magic. What does it mean to you as an individual to do magic?

Well, magic is the way I see the world. That's not some corny expression. I'm serious about that. I mean it. So when I'm sharing a trick with somebody, even if it's in a coffee shop or in a formal show, this is my way of expressing myself and it's everything to me. Truly, every performance I give feels very important to me because I'm not spending two minutes, five minutes, one hour, with my audience. I'm giving them the best of the fruits of all my labors up to that point. It's everything I can give of myself in developing that trick to them in that moment.

The book is so comprehensive and so ambitious in its scope. You take on so many different preconception about magic and your own personal experience of it. What do you want somebody like me who is a very casual consumer audience member to come away from it understanding?

Let me tell you this story, which I think answers that question. I asked a friend of mine, Joe Posnanski, a bestselling author and a great sports writer, "I can't get the manuscript sort of where I need it to be, do you have any advice?" He said, "Spend some time thinking about how to distill your entire book down to one core sentence. When you've got that sentence, write it down on little piece of paper and tape it to your monitor. That way that sentence is staring you in the face every time you sit down to write. Every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence, has to serve that core value you've created."

That ended up being my north star. So to answer your question, I'll tell you what that sentence was. I wrote down on that little piece of paper, I wanted to deepen people's appreciation for magic and magicians. That's what I hope people come away with. I know they're not going remember the specifics about Houdini and what a great marketer he was or what an unusual person David Blaine is or what the names were of the famous magicians that I talk about. But I hope that people like yourself who aren't magicians, but have what you described as an average interest in magic, come away surprised and delighted by the length magicians go to, to be great. And the artistry behind magic that maybe people didn't realize was there.

It also gave me a deepened respect for mystery. A magician's relationship with the audience and the audience's relationship with the magician has to be, I trust you. I trust you to tell me this story and I trust you to not tell me everything That's the fun.

I'm so glad you said that, because living in mystery is something that is rare and so important. Probably never been more important than in this moment. Absolutely.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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David Blaine Derren Brown How Magicians Think Interview Joshua Jay Magic Psychology