Joseph Gangemi Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Joseph Gangemi

Joseph Gangemi

An interview with Joseph Gangemi

Joseph Gangemi discusses the story behind his first book, Inamorata, set in 1922 Philadelphia when spiritualism and in particular parlor séances were the fashion and Scientific American offered $5,000 for conclusive evidence of psychic manifestations.

"A few years ago, while browsing in the gift shop of Philadelphia's White Dog Café, I came across Peter Washington's book MADAME BLAVATSKY'S BABOON: A HISTORY OF THE MYSTICS, MEDIUMS, AND MISFITS WHO BROUGHT SPIRITUALISM TO AMERICA (Schocken, 1993). What was one of the city's premiere restaurants doing selling books on the occult? Turns out the White Dog occupies an old row house that was home at one time to the colorful Madame Blavatsky (1831 - 1891)... Russian emigré, rumored spy, and founder of the occult religion Theosophy.

As a fan of obscure history I bought the book, and over the next few days delighted in Washington's cast of colorful Victorian oddballs. I had recently sold an original screenplay set at the turn of the century, and I was casting about, in the daydreamy, directionless way I do between projects, for good topics for a follow-up period piece. I began toying with the idea of a fictionalized retelling of the life of 20th Century occult guru Krisnamurti, and was just starting to dig a little deeper into the history of Spiritualism when I came across a footnote that stopped me in my tracks.

Apparently, surprisingly, parlor séances -- which I'd always dismissed as a uniquely Victorian fad -- had enjoyed an upsurge in popularity during the Roaring Twenties, most likely in response to the staggering human losses of the Great War.

This struck me as storytelling gold -- Gatsby with ghosts! And it only got better: delving deeper into the era I learned of Scientific American's $5,000 offer in 1922 for conclusive evidence of psychic manifestations, and the subsequent contentious and highly-publicized investigations. Wasting no time I ordered a copy of Massimo Polidoro's fine book FINAL SEANCE: THE STRANGE FRIENDSHIP OF HOUDINI AND CONAN DOYLE (Prometheus Books, 2001), and learned how the Scientific American committee had proceeded to easily debunk one bogus medium after another... that is, until it encountered Boston socialite Mina Crandon, aka "Margery." What ensued was a contest of wills between the very clever Mrs. Crandon and the very determined Harry Houdini, the most prominent member of the Scientific American's investigating committee. Houdini was the committee's secret weapon, bringing to the Crandon séances both a master magician's knowledge of stagecraft and trickery, along with an agnostic's firebrand zeal for debunking charlatans. (A zeal that belied a deep desire to be proven wrong; like many a skeptical inquirer, Houdini was desperate for proof of a spirit realm.)

The battle of wills between Margery and Houdini would continue for many months, and end ultimately in a draw -- though Houdini, it must be said, made a compelling case against Margery, who was most likely a bored socialite with a very busy extra-curricular love life. At least one member of the Scientific American committee would later admit in his memoirs that he had been engaged at the time of the investigations in a torrid affair with Mrs. Crandon, and there has been speculation that he wasn't alone.

I have no opinion on that subject, having made the creative decision upon finishing Polidoro's book (and one other long out-of-print title, Margery, by Thomas Tietze) to read no further, though nearly everyone involved in the affair eventually published their side of the story. Why? First, because I knew I wanted to heavily fictionalize the episode, changing all the character's names and relocating it from Boston -- a city I knew only superficially, having lived there for a year in the mid-90s -- to Philadelphia, my old stomping grounds. Also, I knew I wanted to sideline Houdini in favor of a narrator of my own creation. (As a rule I don't especially like fiction that employs real historical figures in key roles; cameos are fine, but when they linger onstage too long I begin to notice the prosthetic noses and appliqué muttonchops.)

Finally, and most importantly, I knew that in order for my young narrator Martin Finch -- and by extension, myself -- to fall in love with Margery, she would need to be a far more complicated, sympathetic heroine than her more calculating real-world analogue seems by all accounts to have been. A woman, in other words, capable of our pity, since it is Martin's propensity to empathize which ultimately undoes him.

Once these creative decisions were made, I proceeded with the less exciting but equally necessary drudge work: outlining. For better or worse I am an outliner (worse, Stephen King would say, and does, in his otherwise inspirational ON WRITING). I could say I've been forced to learn how to outline by my "day job" of screenwriting, but the truth is I would probably outline even if I'd never written a screenplay; it just suits my cautious, risk-averse side. That's not to say there isn't room for spontaneity in writing. In fact, I find that the more outlining I do up front, the more spontaneous I can be at my laptop. It's a little like driving cross country: unless you have unlimited time to make the journey, you'd be foolish to set out without having at least glanced at an atlas. But you'd also be equally foolish to stay exclusively on the interstates, missing scenic detours and crazy roadside attractions. Or here's another metaphor: often, what we most admire in jazz are the improvisational solos, yet these would be impossible without a sure grasp -- and many hours spent mastering -- the melody.

My outline finished, I started work on chapter one of "The Sensitives" (the working title) in October of 2001, and after a month had written and discarded a hundred pages and three separate openings, all in the third person. Luckily, on November first I hit on Finch's "voice" -- quite unexpectedly, as I didn't often write in the first person -- and was off to the races. Within six months I had a first draft, and by the summer of 2002 my literary agent Theresa was making the rounds of publishing houses with what we'd decided was the more evocatively titled Inamorata. Two nerve-wracking weeks later we sold the book to editor Katherine Court at Viking. The only bad news: Viking's fiction list for 2003 was already full, and so the book wouldn't come out until February of 2004, more than eighteen months after acceptance. Eager as I was at the time to see my book in print, in hindsight I'm glad I had those extra six months. I used them to expand the novel by nearly twelve thousand words, adding the opening hypnosis scene, the visit to Wanamaker's department store, and Finch's trip to Kirkbride Mental Hospital, as well as adding a filigree of 1920s period detail. My editor Katherine had wisely pointed out that readers of historical fiction enjoy luxuriating in such details, and so my screenwriter's instinct to strip all description to the bone was actually limiting me as a novelist. Further taking this advice to heart, I hired Vickie Tamboer, a designer friend I'd met while working on a film in Amsterdam, to be my "costume consultant" and create a wardrobe for my characters. Vickie delivered in spades, and I have her to thank for Mina's glamorous wardrobe. Also, as it turns out, for Mina's face, as it was Vickie who found the haunting portrait of the Unknown Flapper now gracing the book's dustjacket."

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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