Episode 5: "A Trick is a Beautiful Lie"
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Paul Kix: Welcome to Now That's a Great Story podcast where we explore and artistic worldview through the prism of a single piece of work and show how you, too, can do great creative and artistic work. My guest today is Chris Jones, a two-time national magazine Award winner whose stories appeared in Esquire where he was a staff writer, ESPN the magazine -- where I had the great good fortune of editing him -- and in the New York Times magazine, in the Atlantic, among other titles. He has written a couple books, a couple screenplays and now, Mr. Jones, you were on this podcast. Thank you for coming on the show.
Chirs Jones: No problem. Thanks for having me, Paul.
Paul Kix: Your stuff is so good that it's kind of hard for me to choose just one story to discuss but if there is one piece that reflects your view of why you're in this business, even comments on great storytelling itself, I'm wondering if you would allow me to be so bold to say that I think it's your profile of a Teller, the master magician who is the Teller of Penn & Teller fame. I say that because I remember getting that issue of Esquire in 2012 and I was just floored when I read your story. I mean, it moved me even more than perhaps some of your more famous pieces like your profile of Roger Ebert. There is something -- and you know I almost hesitate to say this -- but there is something almost magical about that piece. So if we could, I'd like us to start kind of at the beginning of that. Can you tell me how exactly it is that you got interested in telling this particular story?
Chris Jones: The way I usually get interested in something, which is sort of -- I don’t know how to explain it. I just sort of open myself up to the world and see what passes by. At that time, I was a staff writer at Esquire. Part to fbeing a staff writer was bringing ideas to the magazine. We weren’t assigned stories that often. So I was constantly on the lookout for stories. And in this case, I had a newspaper account of a lawsuit. Teller was suing a Dutch magician for stealing one of his signature tricks. And it was just one of those things where I love exploring new little worlds and magic was not something I had really thought much about or participated in. I have to say this was the first story -- and maybe the only story I’d done -- where I met the subject without knowing whether there was a story or whether we were even going to do a story. Teller happened to be a big performing at a casino Windsor Ontario which isn’t all that far from where, and my boss wasn’t sure if there was a story there. And I talked to Teller’s guy and was, like, you know I kind of want to meet and just see if there’s something going on. And so we did. We met for lunch. At a casino. And after two hours with him, I thought, well, I’ve got to write something about this. I still didn’t know what the story would be, exactly, but I knew I wanted to write about Teller.
Paul Kix: What is it in that two hours that leads you to that conclusion?
Chris Jones: I am a huge fan of people who are obsessed with things? Especially beautiful things and, you know, Teller doesn’t speak very much during his performances. There might be the occasional sound or word, but he doesn’t speak very much. And then when I was sitting across the table from him at lunch, he speaks so beautifully and lovingingly. And he’s emotional and smart. And he speaks in these complete paragraphs. In a former life, he was a Latin teacher who was dissatisfied with the textbooks so he wrote his own textbook. This is a very smart and literate and deep thinking individual. And I was just fascinated by him. I think there’s sort of this myth about the objective journalist, but I don’t really subscribe to. I mean, I fell in love with him sitting across the table from him. This is just a guy I want to spend more time with.
Paul Kix: That’s really interesting. When you say that about objective journalism I'm wondering if we can -- before we go too much further into the story talk a little bit more... Because I come to know you pretty well over the last three or four years or at least like in so far as, you know, I know how you working in the stories stories that you're interested in. And I'm curious about this background on how you actually arrive to this point where you're telling magazine stories. I think you started in newspapers, right, In Canada.
Chris Jones: Yes. I was a sportswriter at a newspaper in Toronto.
Paul Kix: I was just going to say, what makes you want to switch over from doing that sort of storytelling into something longer?
Chris Jones: The newspaper was kind of an accident. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer or anything like that. I went to school for other things. I did a masters in urban planning. And then after I got that -- you know, I didn’t like urban planning that much, a headmaster at my school hooked me up with a job at the paper. It was just pure nepotism. I didn’t deserve that job. I didn’t have any experience. And it was kind of an accident. And while I was there, the things that I liked doing the most were features. I did beat writing. I was on the baseball beat and I covered fights. But I loved doing longer stories. And the paper’s called The National Post. At the time it was brand new and didn’t have a ton of advertising but had a lot of resources and I could write a 2000-word story about bull riding and that was the stuff that really got me going. So I knew I wanted to work at a magazine and some point and through a series of really fortunate events, I ended up at Esquire. And Esquire was the first magazine I’d ever worked for. I was so lucky to start there.
Paul Kix: That’s stunning that your very first magazine you worked for is one of the absolute best in the country.
Chris Jones: Oh, dude. It’s ridiculous. It’s insane. Yeah. And it was a group of people -- this will sound so dumb, I didn’t have anything to compare it to, so I didn’t know how other magazine’s worked, how other editors worked. I had literally only worked at the newspaper for a couple of years. I haven’t even been there that long. And then Esquire sort of took me in, I was edited by a guy named David Grainger, who is one of the legends of the business and my editor is a guy named Peter Griffin who’s one of the great editors and Espire just cared so much about doing just really good work. Like really good story telling. And it was the perfect place for someone like me to land. I guess I would have been 26 or something? I was pretty green.
Paul Kix:That’s amazing.
I started as… It was ridiculous. And I know how ridiculous it sounds. People are always asking for career advice, and I’m, like, just get stupid lucky. There’s no path. Just get struck by lighting one day and end up at Esquire. But I started as the sports columnist then moved to sort of longer pieces.
Paul Kix: Yeah, yeah. And, there's something -- I don't know who told me this, or if I read this somewhere else, but there's something about you going... just like bringing donuts until somebody talk with you do I have that right? At Esquire?
Chris Jones: Yeah, I went there cold.
Paul Kix: So set this up. So you come down to New York from Toronto, right? And..
Chris Jones: I was covered a baseball series. Blue Jays were playing the mets and all I wanted to do was -- what I didn’t know was how writers got found. Do you know what I mean? I didn’t know how you climbed the ladder or how you moved to another place. I wasn’t sure. Was it like baseball? Were there scouts? Were there people at magazines who just read stories from the hinterlands and find people or.. I didn’t know how any of it worked. I had no education in it. I was just dumb. And luckily I was dumb, because I’d decided, well, I’m going to walk in Espire and meet David Granger. Why wouldn't he want to meet me? I’m this kid baseball writer from Toronto. And I went in. I went into the office. At that point, Esquire was in this little building that you could walk into. And the security guard was, like, NO. That’s not like how that’s going to work. But a janitor that overheard this conversation, and he stopped me. And was, like, it’s not David. You want to talk to guy Andy. Andy Ward. So I called up Andy….
Paul Kix: Who’s now the…
Chris Jones: He’s at Random House.
Paul Kix: Yeah, he’s one of the high-ranking editors there. I don’t want to… so keep going. You go talk with Andy. What happens next?
Chris Jones: So I call Andy up from the lobby, and he’s, like, I’ve got a meeting right now, but if you want to come in a couple of hours, we can talk. So I left and I got donuts because I’m Canadian and Canadians bring baked goods as a sign of respect so we sat down and Andy -- for reasons I’ll never be able to explain -- I’m not sure he could explain it except that he’s a nice guy -- sat there and talked for an hour with an idiot who came in off the street with donuts. It was just a stupid -- and all I wanted from that meeting was to know whether it was possible. Could I be a magazine writer. And Andy read some of my stuff while I was sitting there. I made him read while I was sitting there. And he was, like, you know, you’re raw, but there’s something here. And maybe six months later he offered me a stab at writing a column and I got my gig.
Paul Kix: That’s fantastic.
Chris Jones: It was ridiculous.
Paul Kix: It’s such a great story.
Chris Jones: It’s dumb. Just -- Teller;s like that. Teller’s like, just, like, oh, I think there’s something… I was just blundering around like an idiot. I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it. I’ve been very lucky to live my life as an elephant where I just sort of stick my head into places and people are too nice to kick me out.
Paul Kix: There's something today that I want us to dwell on for a second more before we go into the story itself, which is you go about structuring your longer pieces in a way that I've always found really interesting, and I think it ends up saying something as well about the Teller piece. Would you mind telling the audience what it is exactly that you do when you get to the point where you're finished reporting and you think about how to structure a story?
Chris Jones: As you know, Paul, everyone does this differently. Right? There’s no… I find that young writers often talk about process. How do you...? What’s your process? And I worry, that everyone… You find a writer that you like and you think, okay, I’ve got to write the same way. And it’s just what works for you. So I, for instance, I don’t outline at all. I don’t. I just don’t. And there are writers whom I love and admire who are rigorous outliners. Robert Kerough is one of my patron saints and he outlines to an almost fanaticall degree and obviously it works for him. But -- I just don’t. I can’t do it. I can’t think of the structure of a story in the abstract. It just start writing. What I usually know -- and this is not true of Teller incidentally -- but what I usually know is the ending and I’ll write the ending first. And then I start writing.
Paul Kix: And when you writing the ending first, so you do that so you at least know where you need to end it, right?
Chris Jones:. For me, it’s like a destination. It’s like when you plug in something on a map, and you go, okay, I need to get to here. And for me the ending… You know in newspapers, you’re sort of taught how important the beginning of a story is. For me in magazine writing you kind of pressure you’ve got the reader a little bit. You don’t have to grab their attention. They’ve bought you’re magazine to read it. For me, the ending is the most important part. That’s the leaving note, and that’s when you can really make someone feel something if you’re structured the story and written the story in a way that makes that ending mean something.
Paul Kix: Yeah, and that’s.. You know, when I read your stories are any of the stories that you and I worked on together wherever one of your pieces appears it's always so strong, the ending. And it leaves such a mark that I think... I hope you appreciate this one because I mean it is a complete complement. I think like people come away from your stories in part because of this feeling that they feel at the end of it, and it stays with them in certain ways like how the Teller story stayed with me. It was something maybe a day or two later, I'm, like, oh now that's another way to imagine, you know, what exactly he means by that. And I don't know that... I don't want us to get too prescriptive here because I'm with you. When I write, I'm actually the exact opposite of you. I'm I make sure that I'm structuring you know every... I have an overall structure for a magazine piece or a book or for anything else and then I have individual -- I’ll map out individual sections or sometimes even when I was writing my book, I sometimes map out out, like, this is roughly the idea that I want to try to include in the next 300 to 500 words. So I'm probably more in the Kerough fanatical school of things. So I don't want to get prescriptive but at the same time, there is something so powerful and again almost magical about your stories because your weaving through, your weaving through, your weaving through, and then there's this sort of reveal at the end. And we can get into the ways in which your story on Teller ends up overlapping with your thoughts on storytelling itself. I actually started to try to think more and more about that too, like, okay well it's good to know where I'm starting but how am I ending it? And is that ending going to be powerful enough?
Chris Jones: For me, I don’t know how to do this… I got taught this in university by a professor who was, like, wlll, how can you write something without knowing the ending. It’s like how can you tell someone to go somewhere without knowing the destination. And it just stuck -- of it made perfect sense. If I sent you outside and go for a walk, your first question is probably, “where?” For me, there’s just giving thought to what that ending should be is really important. Because, again, it shouldn’t just be an accident. It should be just some kicker that you come up on the fly. That, for me, is sort of the most important part of the story so I just have to know what that is. Most of the time, most of the time. And then Teller -- Teller’s kind of interesting because I knew what I wanted the ending to be and it was wrong. And that’s not often -- not to sound like a.. That doesn’t sound arrogant -- it’s not often the case. Most of the time when I write the ending, that’s the ending. In Teller, it wasn’t.
Paul Kix: Yeah. So let's dig into this piece a little bit. There is that I find interesting in each of these sections. And when you open the story with the actual -- what’s going to be sort of the focal piece of this story itself, which is this trick and I'm going to post something when this episode posts. I'm going to post something as well as you can see this trick but can you just describe it for the audience as well in terms of what Teller does with it?
Chris Jones: Sure. So the original trick is called Shadows. Teller invented it when he was 18. It’s a trick he has done for -- I believe he just turned 70, so 50 years he’s been doing this trick. And Teller’s tricks are very simple and beautiful and there isn’t a lot of bombast to them. Like a lot of magic. If you think of David Copperfield for instance, there’s smoke and there’s lights and there’s effects. And Teller is a very stripped-down performer. Which for me makes his magic both more beautiful because there’s this restraint to it, but also more dangerous because you’re distracted by anything. When you’re watching Teller perform Shadows, you are staring at that situation. And he still destroys you. It’s incredible. The effect of Shadows in a theater… As I describe it? It’s not going to do justice to it. But basically the trick is there is a rose in a vase on a table. A spotlight is shining down on it which creates a shadow on an easel behind the table. And Teller comes and with a big knife he starts cutting the shadow of the rose. On the paper on the easel. And the corresponding part of the rose on the table will fall off. So he cuts off a leaf on the paper, and on the real rose, the leaf will fall off. He cuts off another petal and that falls off. And eventually he cuts the rose so it’s just the stem. And then the second part of his trick is he “accidentally” cuts himself with the knife. He puts his hand up in the air in front of the light and it makes a big shadow of his hand on the easel. And a trickle of blood starts coming out of the shadow of his hand on the easel which he then smears across the paper. And it's maybe three minutes long. Totally silent. The theater is totally silent. Except for people crying. Like you can hear people sobbing in the dark. And it’s just this beautiful trick about cause and effect. What if you could wound something through its shadow? What if the shadow was part of you? And not just this representation of you? And it’s stunning. I studied magic a whole lot during this story. I still have no idea how Teller does that trick. And in some ways the method doesn’t matter. The trick is just beautiful.
Paul Kix: It is. It’s one of the -- I’m so glad you said that about the idea of Shadows because it's so deeply poetic and metaphoric and one of the-- you know, most of the time when I see magic I just am thinking how I that's pretty cool I wonder how they actually pulled that off. This one actually elevates it to too art is it. When you see this trick for the first time, does the writer in you say, okay, now I have to do this story because -- at least for me -- I've never seen a trick like that until I watched on YouTube. And again I'm going to post this on Paulkix.com so you can see it for yourself so you get a sense for it because I think -- I love the way you describe it, but I think you almost need to see it for yourself.
Chris Jones: There’s no way to describe it in a way that makes sense. It’s nothing like the effect. It’s one of the places where words actually fail. There’s no description of Shadows that actually does justice to it. And watching it -- not to sound like a… But watching it on video versus seeing in person is a whole other… It’s like the difference between watching someone walk on the moon and actually being on the moon. In the theater there’s just a crackle that runs through the audience that is really hard to describe. And the first time, I knew -- but the time I saw the trick in person, I knew I was doing the story. I’d flown to Vegas and was watching their performance. But the first time I saw it, I was sort of obsessed with the method. And then as you see it more, or as I saw it more -- I kind of forgot about that, and I was just… I looked so forward to that trick every night because I knew the feeling was coming. It was so..... Because that was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.
Paul Kix: So Teller sues this guy and part of the suit is because there's a lot of there's a lot of thievery going on right now in… well, back then in 2012 in the magic community, right? And he sues this guy in part because sort of something that you've already alluded to: the idea that the method is one thing and this Bakardy guy is trying to take it like trying to figure out how to do this for himself. But it's more the execution that Teller has and the response that the audience has, right, that's that's really the heart of the of the of the lawsuit.
Chris Jones: The value of the trick is not the method. I don’t think -- I’m almost positive that Bakardy -- the other magician was not using Teller’s method. And Teller has changed the method for Shadows over the years.
Paul Kix: Two or three times, right?
Chris Jones: Yeah, this is his third iteration. And what Bakardy is doing is Bakardy is doing this trick on a video. A very sort of, like -- it’s like, Penn describes it. He said if you’d seen Barkardy’s method before you’d seen Tellers? You’d be, like, oh, that’s pretty good. But the way Penn described it was like watching the Byrds do Tambourine Man and Bob Dylan. Teller is Bob Dylan’s version. It’s a much lesser version. It’s just -- it doesn't have the vase, he cuts… It’s basically in Bacardi’s version in the video, he does the cutting of the rose’s shadow and then the rose falls apart. That’s about it. And then the next step is Bakardy was selling the secret. I think it was $3000 and he would tell you how to do it. And the problem in magic, is that tricks get diluted when -- I mean someone was the first person to saw a woman in half. And then once a thousand people do that, or a thousand people pull a rabbit out of a hat, you’re like, we’ll that’s oh, that’s hacky bullshit. And Teller wasn’t so much worried about the secret, he was more worried about this thing that he had created being ruined.
Paul Kix: The story, you end up exploring a little bit about his personality and that’s where I was equally captivated as the trick itself because as you said a minute ago, you know, this is a guy who when he speaks -- I didn't imagine this until you said -- it's like he actually has a very authoritative voice. He speaks in full paragraphs. This is a deep, deep thinking guy and he enjoys tricks that sometimes take a long time to come to fruition. So there was a moment -- before we get to the end, there was this penultimate moment or maybe something that occurs about two-thirds of the way through -- and I'm wondering if you can... Because I think it ends up saying something about storytelling itself. Can you talk about that short story and what Teller did color in 1997?
Chris Jones:Yeah, and this was a part I really debated about putting in the story in the magazine article because I didn't want to ruin it, but I thought it said so much about who Teller was. So Teller gave me one of my favorite quotes. In fact my favorite quote that any subject has ever given me. I’m actually scrolling through the story because I want to get the wording exactly right. “Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.” And that says everything about Teller. Like he will invest years into a trick. And the story that you're talking about really illustrates that. When Teller was in high school, he had a teacher that he really loved. Rosey was this teacher who was this very diabolical looking person. I’ve seen pictures of him with this black goatee. Just very flamboyant and sinister seeming. And he read this story during a snow day when not many kids were in class. But a young Teller is in class and the story is called Enoch Soames. And it’s about a guy named Enoch Soames who’s a writer who makes a deal with the devil. He’s allowed to travel forward in time a hundred years to the reading room at the British library so he can see what a success he’s become. He’s allowed to go into the British library and walk around and bask in his glory and then goes back and he becomes a success. The problem is when Enoch goes forward to June 3, 1997, which is the time when he’s allowed to advance to 100 years later, he’s nobody. The only reference he can find of himself is he appears in a short story about himself called Enoch Soames. So the day June 3, 1997, is, like, 30 years or whatever after Teller first hears this story, he goes to the reading room of the library in London on the off chance that anyone else loved this short story so much that they showed up at the same -- at the time when he’s supposed to appear out of the stacks. And there’s about a dozen people in the round reading room that day who loved this story so much that they showed up at this particular time 2:10 pm on June 3, 1997. Which is when Enoch Somes is supposed to appear. And sure enough, this guy comes out of the stacks dressed like Enoch Somes from the book, from the short story, like a ghost and looks around the shelves and is very confused why he’s not a super-duper writer and he talks to the staff and, like, where is the Enoch Somes section? And the twelve people in the room that day, a woman named Sally from Malibu who’s crying watching this. There’s a picture. There is one photograph of this apparition. And there’s Teller standing there with this big smile on his face. And, of course, now we know that Teller set the whole thing up. He set the whole thing up on the very off change that anyone else would be standing in that room.
Paul Kix: I’m just floored by that.
Chris Jones: It’s amazing. It’s amazing. It makes me choke up just talking about it. I didn’t want to ruin it for twelve people. Twelve people who showed up that day must have just shit. Like when this guy comes out of the shelves, it must have been, like, oh my God! In the short story, it’s such a specific time like 2:10 pm that he pops out. And there he was. And it’s like what is happening? And here’s Teller who’s nursed this idea since high school and performed one of the greatest tricks of all time for an audience of twelve. It’s incredible to me. When -- I really wrestled putting this in, but to me it says so much about who he is.
Paul Kix: Okay, so I want to explore that for just a little bit before we get to the last third of the piece, because for me, that is, like, wow, what dedication… again, this is above craft.
Chris Jones: It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. Dedication and love
Paul Kix: It’s pure love. It’s just love of humanity really. Like can I give them..
Chris Jones: His hope is amazing. Amazing. It’s one of the greatest things that anyone’s ever done. It’s amazing. And he didn’t know if anyone was going to be there.
Paul Kix: That’s the thing I can’t get over!
Chris Jones: There’s no video! There’s no.. It’s just for those twelve people.
Paul Kix: And just on the oft chance that somebody would be as moved as he was or remember the story in the way that he did. Just in the oft chance.
Chris Jones: Just in the oft chance. And it’s this story by Max Beerbohm. I’ve never heard of it. When Teller is telling me about it, I’m learning about this story. I’d never heard of the short story by Max Beerbohm called Enoch Soames. I don’t think it’s a particularly famous short story. It’s just -- but it obviously caused a certain amount of people who were willing to fly to London....
Paul Kix: Yeah, what about Sally from Malibu? She goes there just for this?
Chris Jones: Sally from Malibu! And God love those twelve people! I mean, fucking Teller doing it, which is amazing, but God love those people for showing up! Let’s fly to London and standing in the.. It’s one of those amazing, like, the next year or something, I’m going to get the details a little off because I’m not positive on it, but I tried to go to the round room at the British Museum, and it had been renovated. Gutted. The year after this. In 1998. Everything changed. The trick just got in under the wire. And it's just one of those perfect, God. It’s so perfect. It’s so perfect. And the picture… I’m so glad. After I wrote the story -- I didn't even see the picture of Enoch Soames until after -- I wrote the story and then someone contact me. One of the twelve people contacted me and sent me a picture, and the guy, he’s perfect. And he’s exactly the way he is in the short story. With His gray cloak and his hat, like. Oh, God. It’s amazing.
Paul Kix: So why, okay, this is perfect...
Chris Jones: I didn’t want to wreck it. I didn’t want to wreck it.
Paul Kix: So let’s go to you don’t want to wreck it. What is it about it that you’re thinking, I don’t want to wreck?
Chris Jones: Because if you know the secret, it kind of sucks. It’s better to think Enoch Soames is a ghost. It’s better for those twelve people to go, I have no idea what happened that day, but it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. And I didn’t want to be the guy that went, oh, I know what happened. I don’t know if you noticed, but the little guy smiling over in the corner.
Paul Kix: World’s famous magician.
Chris Jones: But he played a trick. World famous magician who just happened to be there at the same time, and you know that’s, that’s how I started justifying it in my head. Those people obviously don’t think they saw a ghost. But the whole part of the story, like, one of the hinges in the whole story is this idea that the best magic -- what you see, you know intellectually is not real, like when they saw Enoch Soames come out of the stacks, they know he’s not a ghost. They know he’s not a character in a short story who’s been transported into the future. They know that’s not how life works. But they want to believe it. And it’s the same thing with Shadows. When you watch Shadows, you go, “I know that if cut the shadow, it’s not going to hurt the rose. But there’s something beautiful about thinking that might, and so the best magic stokes this battle between your brain and your heart. And great magic makes you want your heart to win. And I'm built that way. I’m a guy. I’m a believer in heart. I am as earnest and corny as a human being can possibly be. And so for me, it was like, am I trodding on something beautiful by including this. But I felt that it was so essential to Teller’s character that I had to include it. I felt bad for the twelve people. It was one of those things were I debated to really put it in or not. But this says everything about him.
Paul Kix: This is one of the central tensions of the piece. So now let's move to the final third of the story and to the extent that you recall it, what are you hoping to accomplish as you move your way to that close?
Chris Jones: My original intention? Was…
Paul Kix: Yeah, let’s go original versus what ends up happening. So go ahead..
Chris Jones: Okay. I got very stuck on the idea… as I go on this journey in magic, I talk trick inventors and trick builders and I did my usual obsession and I start practicing magic. And God love Esquire where they were, like, yeah just disappear for two months, become a magic nerd. It was just one of those things. And I became obsessed with the idea that a trick is a beautiful lie. I became obsessed with this idea, that it’s not true but it’s beautiful for not being true in some ways, and I -- with Teller’s permission -- I wrote an ending to the story that was not true about Shadows. I explained Shadows: Teller’s Dad was an artist, and an inventor with whom Teller was very close and I had this idea that the Dad had left the easel that Teller used in Shadows and that it’s actual magic. That the Dad had infused this thing, and this is the one portal we get to Shadows being part of the thing that makes the shadow. And I wrote it and I sent it into my editor and my editor goes, you know, the ending, like, is that true? And I had this ethical thing where I’m going, okay, do I have to let me editor in on the secret? A magician never reveals his secrets. Peter obviously felt something reading the ending. However, my job is to tell the truth. The first law of journalism was Thou Shalt Not Lie. So I had this thing where I was, like, Peter, no it’s not true. I have Teller’s permission. Teller and I came up with this but it’s not true. And there was this long pause. Well, silence. And then he goes, I don’t think we can do that. And I kind of went, ugh. And I -- it was one of the few cases where I had this ending in mind and had it in the whole time I’m writing the story, and I couldn’t use it.
Paul Kix: So how often -- before we go to the actual ending -- how often… I don't remember ever happening when you worked together. I remember that great story about this kid who threw through 770 pitches in a week and loving that ending. So I I mean at least in my own encounters with you I'm like oh God, that ending is beautiful. How often in your time in any magazine has any editor ever said will you reconsider the ending?
Chris Jones: A couple of times but that might be it. This is certainly the one that stands out. There’s another one… Was there another one? This is the one that jumps out at me as the ending that didn’t land.
Paul Kix: So this ending doesn't land so what happens to you, Chris Jones the writer who thinks about his endings first and then writes towards that. What happens to you? Do you have some sort of existential crisis?
Chris Jones: Yeah. Sheer panic. Like, just, oh no. And I had written a story in a way that had gotten me to that ending. That’s why I included all that stuff about how tricks are made, and the structure of a trick and which just happens to be the structure of a good story and the ending is both surprising and inevitable. It makes perfect sense but it also shocks you. And I’m going well that’s my ending. That was the beautiful lie. That was the whole point. And then two somewhat fortuitous things happened. I smoked a lot of dope because I was stressed out of my mind. And Bob Sheffler, Esquire’s lead fact checker, gave me a phone call and added very much to my panic. Because he goes, so everything about Bakardy, about the Dutch magician, he’s, like, where do you get this information? I was, like, I got it from Teller. And he goes, where’s the Youtube video? It’s taken down now but I still need to see it. Well, have you managed to talk to Bakardy? And I was, like, well, I got an email back from him, saying he didn’t want to talk about it right now. But I would understand why.
Paul Kix: Yeah, just dwell on that. Because you actually dwell on it a little bit in the story. It says, again, it’s somewhat…
Chris Jones: I tried to talk to Bakardy. I was unsuccessful talking in to Bakardyi. There was an email. I got him an email saying he wouldn’t talk to me. “Not now, but soon you’ll see why,” kind of thing.
Paul Kix: And what do you think when you see, “soon you’ll see why?” In the reporting process and in the writing process, what’s your…
Chris Jones: When I was reporting, I was, like, oh, I wonder what he’s up to? But I didn’t think much of it. In fact, in my head, Bakardy’s kind of hack. So I’m going, he’s a thief. So I don’t think much of him. Well, I don’t know what he’s up to, but it's no good. But I could find any reference to him. It wasn’t his real name. He had another name, and I couldn’t find that guy. He allegedly was performing at a hotel in the Canary Islands, but I could find no record of a performance. I called the hotel, they didn’t know what I was talking about. The only time he comes up in magic forums is as the subject of Teller’s lawsuit. So Bob goes through all these questions, and he’s, like, who’s your source for this? Teller. Who’s your source for this? Teller. Where’d this come from? It came from the legal filing that Teller made. And Bob goes, so Teller is your source for all of this? And I just went, oh shit.
Paul Kix: Yeah.
Chris Jones: It was… Bob… I had that conversation with Bob. Now I’m panic times panic. Now I’m multiply panicked. And I smoked a joint because I’m stressed out of my mind, and I’m sitting there in my house and I go, oh my God, it’s Enoch Soames. It’s a trick. And I just went oh my God. And so I wrote this new ending where I was, like, I got the beautiful lie. I didn’t have to do it. Teller did it. And I just fit. It made the story into its own trick. It was one of those… at the time when I wrote that, I really didn’t know. I was like… in fact, when I wrote it, I thought it was a trick.
Paul Kix: When you wrote the ending, you thought it was a trick?
Chris Jones: When I wrote the ending, I thought the whole story was a trick. I thought Teller had tricked me. And in an amazing way. I was, like, that is an incredible trick. And I wrote about… Penn and Teller have this trick called Honor System. It’s an escape. Teller’s locked into this clear plastic box, and then that’s put into another box, and what Penn says to the audience, “So Teller’s going to escape this box. If you want to know how, just keep your eyes open. If you don't want to know how, close your eyes. And a very small percentage of people close their eyes. Everyone wants to know how he does the trick, and so it’s very simple. It’s a blunt instrument of a trick. The box is rigged. It’s elegantly riggeded, but it’s rigged. It’s a rigged box. So you watch it and go, “oh. Well, geez.” If you keep your eyes closed, Teller’s done something amazing. And so for me, like, I was, like, man, if this whole lawsuit is a trick, to make magic beautiful again; to stop people from stealing and if it’s art. Wow, that’s a trick. That’s amazing.
Paul Kix: Do you mind? Do you have the story in front of you? Do you mind reading the last paragraph? I think probably the last couple of paragrah’s right? Just of kind of where you’re explaining it in full.
Chris Jones: Yeah, so we get to the end where I’ve done all this… copy, not copy, but I go from -- I’m sort of weaving back and forth between the actual lawsuit which is sort of throughout the piece and magic, what magic means, the Enoch Soames story and things like that. And no one -- the other thing that was weird about the story, not weird, but no one had ever sued about magic theft, so there’s no case precedent. I really didn’t know how this was going to resolve itself. There’s no answer. And that’s hard. Normally, a story supposed to give an answer. But luckily, I’m writing a story about magic, where the answer kind of a sin. Giving the answers sort of wrong. So...
For now, the fate of Teller's lawsuit, and of Bakardy himself, remains a mystery. The strange thing is, most of the evidence of Bakardy — the stills from his disappeared YouTube video and long-gone online advertisements, his aliases and nationality and birth date — survives only as legal exhibits in Teller's filing. Bakardy's name doesn't come up in magic forums except in reference to the lawsuit, and there are no ready accounts of anyone actually having seen him perform in those distant spots on a map. He has no known current address or phone, and anybody could be behind an e-mail. No one has any idea where he is. It's as though he's disappeared off the face of the earth, almost like poor Enoch Soames after he made his deal with the devil.
Is it possible that something beautiful, something implausible and yet logical, will emerge out of what appears to be a perfectly ordinary copyright suit? Could Teller's lawsuit be part of some incredible trick — that Gerard Bakardy is a stooge or an actor or never existed in the first place? ("The better than in Las Vegas trick..." "Not now. Soon you'll see why.") Even for someone as devoted as Teller, even for someone so good at long cons and keeping secrets, that would be an almost impossible trick. That would be the trick of a lifetime. That would be the sort of magic that would make you want to close your eyes.
Paul Kix: It’s just stunning. Even now. Even now, man, I’m still getting chills.
Chris Jones: It’s just one of those super lucky, super, super lucky -- just Bob calling, and going, you recognize who your source is for everything. And Peter not going for the beautiful lie ending, and the way I’d structured the piece to get to that moment, it works even better to get to this moment, and that’s an accident. It just worked out.
Paul Kix: There’s a couple of things I want to dwell on before we let you go. One of them is when I read this story, you and I talked about this a little bit in the last week or so, but when I read the story the first time I'm like, oh, Chris is actually revealing a little bit about storytelling itself here and I want to quote something from earlier in the piece.
“...tricks should have little plots with a twist at the end that's both implausible and yet logical. You shouldn't see the punchline coming, but when you do see it, it makes sense. The secret to a great trick isn't really its method; the method behind most tricks is ugly and disappointing, something blunt and mechanical… The value of a trick lies mostly in how much it stokes that battle between your head and your heart (Paul interjects: Which you talked about earlier), and how badly it makes you want for your heart to win.”
So for me, “tricks should have little plots with a twist at the end that's both implausible and yet logical,” and that seems to me Chris to be every story you've written. Every story should have little twist and the ending should be both implausible and yet logical. Is that fair?
Chris Jones: Yeah, it should be surprising but make sense. You can’t have an ending that makes no sense. You can’t have an ending that just comes out of nowhere. It’s like when people start tuning out of a tv show is when the characters start doing things that don’t make any sense.
Paul Kix: Yeah.
Chris Jones: I know this character, and that character wouldn’t do that. And that’s when you lose tv viewers. And in this instance by total accident, I got to an ending that’s surprising -- oh my God, the whole thing’s a trick? But when you know Teller, it makes perfect sense that the whole things a trick. He’s amazing. He spent 30 years doing a trick for 12 people. Of course it makes sense! Like I say, when I did this ending, I was 90-percent sure I’d been fooled. And so the story itself meets that standard of a great magic trick, where the ending is surprising, shocking, beautiful, but logical. It makes sense. And that’s nothing for me. I’m not heaping praise on myself. That’s… I got… it’s just one of those things, where it’s just, sorry for the language, it was fucking magic.
Paul Kix: Yeah.
Chris Jones: It was one of those things where it just… this is by far my favorite story that I did.
Paul Kix: Really? I’m so…
Chris Jones: Oh my God. By a long way, because it makes me believe in things I want to believe in. It makes me.. It.. For me, everything good about storytelling, my job, and life and the beauty of just being open and things falling into place and you meet a guy like Teller and he changes the way you look at the world. For me, it’s by far my favorite story. And the ending for me is one of those examples where I just go, man, did that just land itself? It’s magic. I’m so grateful for it. The story feels like such a blessing to me. It makes me so happy to think about.
Paul Kix: It’s so great for me to hear you say that because (a) for the purpose of this podcast itself, part of the goal is to try to figure out, all right, is there a single piece of work that ends up reflecting in some way the author’s or artist’s worldview? And this one does.
Chris Jones: Yeah. This is the one. For me, this is the one. And I take shit all the time for the way I think about the world. I’m a magical thinker and journalist should be magical thinkers. That’s a sin. You’re not allowed to think that way in my business and sometimes I just like to believe in things. I don’t know… You know, my elder son, Charlie is autistic. And if Charlie reads something -- not if he gets told something -- if he reads something in a book, it’s true. He can’t distinguish between real and make believe. So Charlie believes in dragons. Charlie believes in fairies. Charlie believes in Santa and the Easter Bunny. He believe in elves in the forest. He believes in Orks. He believes in everything he’s ever read. And sometimes I worry about him because I go, geez, that’s so… Man is you can’t distinguish between reality and make believe, that’s going to hold you back your whole life. People are going to take advantage of you. People are going to lie to you, and you’re going to believe them and that’s gullible, right? That’s a bad thing. But then I think what a magical world Charlie lives in! Where he thinks there’s dragons might come out of the sky at any minute, you know what I mean? There’s something for me about his belief that I find really beautiful. And I’m a little bit like that. I kind of want to believe in magic. And the story lets me kind of believe in it. And that’s why it’s so important to me. It was like the one shot I have at living in exactly the world I want to live in.
Paul Kix:Chris I want to thank you for so so much for coming on. I'm going to post something else on my website Paulkix.com which is actually a lecture that Chris gave in Romania? Where was this?
Chris Jones: Bucharest!
Paul Kix: About about the seven principles of magic and they are palm, ditch, steal, load, simulation, misdirection, and switch. And it's not really pushing the metaphors here too much but Chris then goes on and explains how those are actually tied in with great storytelling himself so are you go ahead and this check that out a Paulkix.com. I am again the deputy editor at ESPN the magazine who is also the author of The Saboteur so go buy that if you haven't yet. I know that Chris is but what 10 copies now? Twenty? It’s probably fair to say 20.
Chris Jones: Fifty!
Paul Kix: Fifty copies at least. All right. Chris, thank you again for coming on the show. It’s been a real treat.