Nora’s life is not quite going as planned. The man of her dreams is getting married, but not to her; her academic career has stalled; and there’s a mouse in her kitchen… Getting away for the weekend for a friend’s wedding seems like perfect timing, especially when she stumbles across the unfeasibly glamorous Ilissa, who immediately takes Nora under her wing.
Through Ilissa, Nora is introduced to a whole new world – a world of unbelievable decadence and riches where time is meaningless and everyone is beautiful. And Nora herself feels different: more attractive; more talented; more popular….Yet something doesn’t quite ring true: Was she really talking to Oscar Wilde at Ilissa’s party last night? Or transported from New York to Paris in the blink of an eye?
It is only after Ilissa’s son, Raclin, asks Nora to marry him that the truth about her new friends becomes apparent. By then, though, it’s too late, and Nora may never be able to return to the world, and the life, she knew before.
If she is to escape Raclin and Ilissa’s clutches, her only real hope – and an unlikely one at that – is the magician Aruendiel. A grim, reclusive figure with a biting tongue and a shrouded past, he might just teach her what she needs to survive and perhaps even make it home: the art of real magic.
For fans of Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or Lev Grossman’s Magicians series, The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magicby Emily Croy Barker is proof that magic not only exists but—like love—can sweep you off your feet when you least expect it…
Emily Croy Barker interview with Writer’s Digest
Where are you from? Tell us a little about yourself!
I grew up in North Carolina and moved to New York after college. I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn—which is full of writers—for a while but for the past 12 years I’ve lived in Jersey City. Which is also a good place for writers—there’s a very supportive arts community and a lot going on, but not so much that you can’t get your work done. Almost all of my writing up until I started The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic was nonfiction; I’ve been a reporter and editor for more than 20 years, mostly at The American Lawyer magazine. Magicians and lawyers might seem like an odd combination, but it’s a balance that works for me.
When I’m not thinking about either magicians or lawyers, I’m usually reading, cooking (and then eating), gardening, or taking walks around the city. When I’m feeling very ambitious, I haul my bike out and go for a ride in the park.
Tell us about your book? How did it get started?
I’d actually given up on writing fiction, after an abortive attempt at a novel when I was in my 20s. But about eight years ago, one day I started daydreaming about a couple of characters who really seized my imagination. The first was a modern-day woman who stumbles into a fairy tale and doesn’t recognize it for what it is, and as a result she becomes trapped in an enchantment. The second was the magician who tries to bring her to her senses.
I could see them very clearly in my mind’s eye. I wanted to know more about them, so as I walked home from work at night or cooked dinner or rode my bike, I began to piece their story together. It was a lot of fun, and after a while I thought, wow, I’d better start writing this down or I’ll forget it.
How do you create your characters?
I try to picture them as specifically as possible—imagining at least a couple of defining characteristics that help fix them in my mind. I try out various names until I find one that fits. I imagine some backstory for each character but not too much, because I want them to stay slightly mysterious to me. Some of their quirks will only emerge when I start writing and they begin to engage with other characters.
Sometimes I borrow traits from people I know in real life—anything from hair color to a sense of humor—but I don’t try to model a character precisely on a real person. The idea of writing a roman à clef doesn’t interest me. I’d rather make things up.
What inspires and what got your started in writing?
I love telling stories. Starting in childhood, I wrote short stories and poems for school and for fun. My mother was a newspaper columnist and always talked about how important it is to have a good lede, so I guess early on I imbibed the notion that writing is a kind of performance and you have to grab and keep the reader’s attention. I enjoyed that, and I seemed to have a knack for it. As an adult, I went into journalism because it seemed like the surest way to earn a living telling stories. (There’s no absolutely sure-fire way, but working for a publication helps.) I started writing fiction because I had a story that I simply had to tell.
Where do you write? Is there something you need in order to write (music, drinks?)
I find it easier to concentrate in a quiet, uncluttered room. My desk tends to fill up with odds and ends, so lately I’ve been taking my laptop to the dining room table. The window overlooks the backyards of the houses behind my apartment building and the street beyond; I like knowing that the view is there, even when I’m staring at the screen.
I don’t listen to music when I write, since I need to hear the sentences I’m writing in my head. My downstairs neighbor plays the flute, but I can usually tune him out. I often brew a big pot of herbal tea and after an hour or two I notice that it’s almost gone.
If you have a cat who likes to sit on laps, that’s really ideal. Much of the writing of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic was done under feline supervision. Good company, and it helps keep you in your chair.
How do you get your ideas for writing?
I try to let the characters show me what’s going to happen next. What is Nora feeling right now, what would she like to say to Aruendiel, what does she actually say to him, and how does he respond? I think about this stuff when I’m taking walks or staring out the window of a moving train, and gradually it becomes clearer in my head.
To be honest, I’m not sure where the big ideas come from—characters, the overall shape of the story. I can look back now and see things that I took from my own life, unconsciously. My character Nora has a brother who died young, which shapes her feelings about death and plays a role in the plot. Only after I finished writing the novel did I see the parallel with my mother, who also lost her brother in an accident when he was young (although not as young as Nora’s brother).
What do you like to read?
Novels! I’m looking over my bookshelves right now, and here are some favorites, in no particular order: Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, Ursula LeGuin, Kate Atkinson, Marisha Pessl, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Robert Graves, Mary McCarthy, Kelly Link, Philip K. Dick, Nick Hornby, A.S. Byatt, Haruki Murakami, Larry McMurtry, Ross MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, Charlotte Brontë, Tolstoy, Dickens, Barbara Vine, Henry James, Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and John LeCarré. These are the writers that I turn to over and over again.
What would your advice to be for authors or aspiring in regards to writing?
Write for yourself first. Write the novel you always wanted to read.
Anything else you’d like to share?
As we editors like to say: Everyone needs an editor. I was lucky to have two amazing editors, Pamela Dorman and Beena Kamlani, and a brilliant agent, Emma Sweeney, to help me whip my novel into shape. And before that, a lot of friends read the book and gave me very constructive feedback. You have to remember that not everyone will like your novel—but that the most valuable comments you get will be negative. Yes, it’s really nice to hear that you nailed that particular scene, but it’s way more useful to know that the next scene isn’t working at all. At least that’s what I tell myself when I get notes back.