1. What made you want to write a novel featuring Houdini and Rasputin?
When I was researching an earlier book, I learned that Houdini had visited Russia in 1903 and performed for Tsar Nicholas II. It turns out that even before falling under Rasputin’s spell, the Tsar was influenced by a long series of “spiritual advisors”—including one who hypnotized him. Believing that Houdini actually had supernatural powers, the Tsar offered the magician the job of court mystic. In reality, the escape artist politely turned him down. But it got me wondering what would have happened if Houdini and Rasputin, who arrived in the capital St. Petersburg that very same year, had butted heads.
2. What type of research did you do for Houdini vs Rasputin?
I read a half-dozen biographies of Rasputin, including one written by his daughter Maria. Another book, The Rasputin File, was based on the findings of a Soviet government investigation conducted shortly after the revolution, in which Rasputin’s followers were grilled at length. Books such as Nicholas and Alexandra gave me insight into court life. To help me imagine Houdini as a real-life action hero, I screened each of the silent film serials he starred in. I also watched films about Rasputin, including one in which Christopher Lee did a smashing job of conveying the mystic’s charisma and sexual magnetism. Of course, the Internet was a constant companion as I returned to it again and again for details about locations, vehicles, train routes, etc.
3. How does your background in film and cartoons affect the way you write fiction?
I write very visually. I really don’t consider a scene complete unless I—and the reader—can visualize it from beginning to end.
4. What’s the greatest moment in your writing career?
The publication of this book. It is my strongest work. I brought everything to it that I learned from my previous efforts about structure, dramatic conflict and incorporating facts into fiction.
5. What is your favorite historical fiction novel?
The King Must Die, a retelling of the myth of Theseus and the minotaur by Mary Renault.
6. If you could pick one other author to collaborate with on a novel or story, living or dead, who would it be?
Milton Davis is a writer of black speculative fiction, including Changa’s Safari, which features a swashbuckling, Sinbad-like African sea merchant. As the author of an adventure story The Blood of Titans set in ancient Africa, it’s a book I wish I’d written myself.
7. What drew you toward Rasputin and how would someone like him operate if were alive today?
What fascinates me about Rasputin is that he truly did have a spiritual side, almost as powerful as his lusting, bestial side. He is one of the great villains of history, whose misdeeds contributed to the destruction of the Russian empire, but a complex villain. It isn’t hard to see Rasputin in modern figures like Charles Manson, who use their personal magnetism to gather around them a circle of fanatical female followers. Today, with social media, he might quickly develop a huge following.
8. Of all the jobs you have held, what is the strangest and/or most interesting?
For nine years, I was a writer for Weekly World News, a tabloid that churned out fake news before it was fashionable. My gig amounted to writing weird, blackly funny tales all day, on subjects ranging from space aliens to Batboy to “Gay Skeletons Found in Titanic Life Ring.”
9. What is your favorite medium to use to tell a story?
It was cartooning that got me started in creating fiction, and my heart belongs to that medium. I am currently working on a graphic novel about vampires in a women’s prison, titled Night Cage.
10. If you could invite five people (living or dead; real or fictional) to a dinner party, who would you invite?
Jesus, Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, Orson Welles and Mark Twain