Delilah S. Dawson is the New York Times bestselling writer of Star Wars: Phasma, Galaxy’s Edge: Black Spire, Inquisitor: Rise of the Red Blade, The Disney Mirrorverse: Pure of Heart, Bloom, The Violence, the Blud series, Servants of the Storm, the HIT series, Wake of Vultures and the Shadow series (as Lila Bowen), and a variety of short stories in anthologies. Her comics credits include Ladycastle, Sparrowhawk, Star Pig, Firefly: The Sting, The X-Files Case Files: Florida Man, Adventure Time comics #66-69, Rick and Morty Presents: Pickle Rick, Disney Descendants Fright at the Museum, and Jim Henson's Labyrinth. She lives in north Atlanta with her family. Her latest novel is Midnight at the Houdini, and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for Midnight at the Houdini?
At the beginning of the pandemic, I needed an escape. I wanted to write a magical book that felt like an endless labyrinth of pretty things to explore. I missed travel and hotels and speakeasies and adventures like Sleep No More, the immersive theater experience in New York, so I put them all in a book. And then all I had to do was come up with a plot!
Are Anna, Max, Phoebe, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
The Houdini was the first character that appeared, and I needed a protagonist who would be uniquely challenged by all that the hotel has to offer. That’s Anna, a highly strung, organized, ambitious young woman who likes planning ahead and doesn’t know how to deal with magic and whimsy. Then I created Max, who’s timeless and unique and… pretty much based on the perfect guy I was always hoping to meet in high school. Phoebe is loosely inspired by Mrs. Havisham as seen in the 1998 film Great Expectations.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
The book changed a great deal because I was more twitterpated with the hotel than with the plot. The first version had almost no stakes and no threat of violence. In subsequent drafts, I added danger and tightened up the magic system. It’s so much easier when the plot arrives as part of the book idea!
I did lose one scene, in which Max and Anna go to a gorgeous old theater in the Houdini and watch one of my favorite movies from when I was a kid—On the Town. I went through a phase in middle school where I got really into old musicals and music, and I love the kind of old theater that has red velvet chairs and gold ropes, like the Fox Theatre in Atlanta or the Tampa Theatre. Alas, even though this scene mirrored one from The Tempest and was thus book-appropriate, it was cut because we needed more action and less smooching while sharing popcorn.
Is The Houdini inspired by a real hotel? If so, what is it, and where is it located?
The Houdini is inspired by the platonic ideal of an old hotel that lives in my head. I am mesmerized by endless rows of doors, by old elevators, by wallpaper with birds, by weird hotel lamps, by plush lobby furniture, and by heavy brass keys. I was inspired by hotels in New York, Portland, DC, and Houston and the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, NC, taking little vignettes that have stuck with me over the years. The Houdini is what I wish every hotel was!
How familiar were you with stage magic and magicians prior to writing Midnight at the Houdini? Did you have to do a bit of research? If so, how long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write the novel?
I like to keep my childlike wonder, so I never ask for the magician’s secrets. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe! And since the bulk of the book was written during the most sequestered and strict parts of the pandemic, it’s not like I could travel around, see shows, and talk to magicians, which is my usual sort of research. Instead, I ordered some interesting books on the history of magic and dove right in, focusing on tricks like the Mechanical Turk, the Juvenile Artist, and the Orange Tree Illusion.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?
When Anna and Max go to the restaurant, I did a deep dive into what was actually on a fine dining menu in the 1920s and 1930s, and it was soooo different from today! That’s why Max almost orders the pigeon.
Do you have a favorite stage magician?
I wouldn’t want to play favorites, but I can tell you that going to the Magic Castle is 100% on my bucket list!
Do you have a favorite novel, graphic novel, television, or motion picture about magic and/or magicians?
In the novel, you compare Phoebe to a Disney villain. Do you have a favorite villain from a Disney film? If so, who is it?
Oh, yes, I’m a big Disney fan! I love Ursula’s style, and I also enjoy Uma and Harry in Disney Descendants 2. The campier, the better!
You’ve done a lot of different types of work (graphic novels, novels, short stories, to name a few). Is there a format that you prefer over the others?
I prefer whichever format is required to tell the story! Ladycastle and Sparrowhawk really needed the visuals, and I’m so grateful I got to work with such talented artists to bring those worlds to life. Most of the time, novels are my main medium because it’s just me and the page having a love affair—with a lot fewer emails.
Is there something you haven’t done yet but are hoping to have the opportunity to try?
I’ve written a few screenplays and would really love to see something I’ve written on the big screen—or little screen. Any screen!
What’s currently on your nightstand?
A kombucha (Humm Magical Lemon Cupcake, Unicorn Edition!) and a big stack of books including What An Owl Knows, The Little Stranger, Heroes Die, Month to Month Gardening in Georgia, Daphne, and Twin Peaks: A Novel.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
Most influential: Richard Adams, Charlaine Harris, Diana Gabaldon, Jean Auel, and Stephen King.
Most favorite: Kevin Hearne, Chuck Wendig, Cherie Priest, Leanna Renee Hieber, and Alex White, because they are all very good friends. J
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Watership Down by Richard Adams. My dad wouldn’t let me rent the movie in 2nd grade, so I tried to check it out of the library, but the librarian said I was too young, so I ‘borrowed’ it (and returned it, I promise!). It’s still my favorite book.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
My mom strictly forbade me from reading Pet Sematary and IT in 5th grade, so you can guess how that went. She also gave me Clan of the Cave Bear and then mentioned it had a sequel… but she wasn’t aware that the sequels were all quite steamy. I bought Valley of Horses in a used bookstore in 7th grade and blushed really, really hard before hiding it behind my math textbook.
Is there a book you've faked reading?
I have ADHD, and life is too short to read books that bore you, so I’m unashamed to DNF a book if we’re not vibing.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati. It had a glowing blurb by Diana Gabaldon when I was really into Outlander in 2001, so I snatched it off the shelf at B&N. I’ve since read every book Sara Donati has written and loved them all.
Is there a book that changed your life?
The first book I ever wrote is the one that changed my life the most. It was awful and began with a sentence about diarrhea, but once I’d written one book, I realized I could write infinite books—and also that I’d finally found what I was meant to do.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Story Genius by Lisa Cron was a game changer for my writing life. I recommend it to anyone writing their first book or their fiftieth book. It really helps to nail down a solid plot that’s perfectly tied into character arc. I use it every time I get a new idea.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
I really enjoyed Don’t Worry Darling. It was a good reminder that we can write bizarre, twisted, stylized stories that don’t quite fit in any genre… and also a good reminder that publicity is super weird and often completely out of the creator’s hands. The visuals definitely stuck with me.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
For the ideal day, I’d be in NYC with my husband. We’d wake up and eat breakfast at Modern Bread and Bagel because they have the best gluten-free bagels on the planet. Once breakfast was settled, we’d go horseback riding in Prospect Park, then we’d see Sleep No More at 3 p.m. and The Magician at 7 p.m. and do a late dinner at Beetle House—a Tim Burton—themed restaurant. It would be exhausting but so much fun!
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?
‘Would you like this ancient taxidermy moose head I found in my grandfather’s attic?’ The Lost Boys gave me false expectations. I’ve been looking for free weird taxidermy ever since.
What are you working on now?
A secret project that I can’t tell anyone about! And getting the word out about Bloom, my cottagecore horror novella that’s out October 3.