Catching up with Lee Kelly, author of A Criminal Magic (+ Giveaway!)

leekellyI’m so thrilled to have Lee Kelly on the blog, and today she answered a few of my questions about her new book, A Criminal Magic!

Also, courtesy of the nice folks at Saga Press, I have 3 copies of A Criminal Magic to give away to 3 lucky US winners!
Will you tell us about A Criminal Magic and what inspired you to write it?

A CRIMINAL MAGIC is my second novel, and takes place in an alternative Prohibition-era America, where magic instead of alcohol has been prohibited. The story follows an up-and-coming sorcerer and an undercover Prohibition agent as they become entangled in the magic underworld.

In terms of what inspired me to write it, let’s call it stress-induced brainstorming ;)! I had signed a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster for my first novel, CITY OF SAVAGES, along with an “UNTITLED BOOK TWO.” But when it came time to write my second book under contract, I couldn’t settle on a concept, and started bouncing around from idea to idea. Well, the weeks kept passing, and I was at a loss . . .so I took a step back, and tried to focus on what I really wanted to read. I remember making this laundry list of everything I loved (as a child and as an adult) – from time periods to historical events, from movies to books and TV shows. I seriously poured over that list until my brain just started making fun and outlandish connections. And the words sorcerers, magic, and Prohibition started to congeal together on the page.

I was excited by this “prohibited magic” idea, but hesitant to fully jump in, as I’d always taken great care to ground my stories in the real world (or at least, a conceivable real world). But after all was said and done, I enjoyed writing the magic elements of the book more than anything else.

What makes Joan and Alex such compelling characters? Will you tell us more about them?

Joan and Alex both start the story with a dark past and something to prove. Joan is a sorcerer who has essentially banished her magic following a family tragedy. On the first page, she’s definitely my hero – she has the insurmountable task of embracing the sorcery she loathes to win over the Shaw Gang, provide for her family, and right the past. [Bit of a spoiler: But as the story progresses and she makes more and more questionable choices, she becomes more of an antihero.]

Alex starts the novel as more of the classic antihero – he was the sorcerer behind his father’s lucrative spells scheme, and only avoided prison thanks to his father’s cover. Alex decides to further quell suspicion by hiding in the ranks of the Prohibition Unit (the federal agency tasked with enforcing the country’s ban on magic). But his superiors are on to him, and they tap him to go undercover to infiltrate the Shaws. At first, he’s just doing what he needs to survive, but over the course of the novel, the decisions he makes, and the things he sees – he starts to believe in what he’s doing, and becomes more of the story’s hero.

This transition from hero to antihero, and antihero to hero – it really propelled how I thought about both characters’ development and story arcs. And for me, their romance was the spark from them colliding in the middle.

What made you decide to set the book in the 1920s? What kind of research did you do for the book, and
what was one of the most interesting things you learned?

The Jazz Age is unquestionably one of my favorite time periods. But I think the era is really ripe for writing about magic – it was a time of exuberance, excess, recklessness – I think infusing that time period with actual magic only takes things one step further.

And yes, I did a ton of research on the Twenties: historical and fictional accounts written during that time, biographies of famous gangsters – I even splurged on a 1926 Sears Roebuck catalog for little period details. But I absolutely clocked the most research hours on the ins and outs of the bootlegging industry, as this served as my template for the magic underworld in A CRIMINAL MAGIC. And there are SO many fascinating aspects of the 1920s alcohol trade, aspects that I took and repurposed in the novel. Like the concept of “Magic Row” in the book is based on a real place called Rum Row, this stretch of water in the Atlantic Ocean behind coast guard borders where international ships would park and wait for smugglers to come and trade. The boss of the novel’s fictional Queens gang, Satra James, is based on real-life rum-runner Marie Waite (“Spanish Marie”). The exceptions to the blanket prohibition of magic in the novel mirror the real-life exceptions to the prohibition of liquor… I’m getting carried away, hopefully you get the idea :).

What supporting characters did you particularly enjoy writing about?

Absolutely the gangsters. I’ll mention my favorite two:
**Howie Matthews, Alex’s first point of contact and “door” into the Shaw Gang. He’s this young kid who pretends to think very highly of himself but deep down is extremely insecure. It was a ton of fun to write his scenes with Alex, especially considering how much Alex has riding on the relationship.
**Up-and-coming gangster Harrison Gunn, the mastermind behind the book’s “magic haven” (aka, magic speakeasy), and someone with big plans for the future of criminal magic. Gunn is cool, collected, calculating – I loved getting inside his head, and scenes with him almost wrote themselves.

What do you like to see in a good story? Is there anything that will make you put a book down, unfinished?

I’m a character-driven reader – if a character hooks me in the beginning, I’ll pretty much follow them anywhere (though if the book has a good premise or comes recommended, I’ll hang in for the long-haul too). I’ve also noticed that I’m a big fan of first-person narration – there’s something about that level of intimacy that I find irresistible as a reader.

And I don’t often set a book down, but when I do, it’s usually one written in third-person, and where I haven’t connected with someone in the story enough to want to continue with it.

It’s been a while since we caught up! Have you read any good books lately?

It has been a while; it’s nice to chat! I was just telling a friend that the past few months have been a blur, between my new baby (my second child was born in August) and the new book, and that I haven’t read nearly as much as I’d like to. But I am committed to changing that! I just started These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas — it’s a Victorian-era historical fantasy pitched as Jane Austen meets X-Men and so far it’s fabulous. And waiting on my shelf are Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky, Heidi Heilig’s debut, The Girl From Everywhere, and Burning Midnight by Will McIntosh.

What’s next for you?

Right now I’m in the very early stages of first-drafting a new YA/crossover fantasy novel with an almost all-female cast. I’m also working on a book for younger readers (middle grade audience) and am in revision stages on that with my agent.

Thanks again for having me!

Keep up with Lee: Website | Twitter

About Criminal Magic:
Magic is powerful, dangerous and addictive – and after passage of the 18th Amendment, it is finally illegal.

It’s 1926 in Washington, DC, and while Anti-Sorcery activists have achievedthe Prohibition of sorcery, the city’s magic underworld is booming.Sorcerers cast illusions to aid mobsters’ crime sprees. Smugglersfunnel magic contraband in from overseas. Gangs have established secret performance venues where patrons can lose themselves in magic, and take a mind-bending, intoxicating elixir known as the sorcerer’s shine.

Joan Kendrick, a young sorcerer from Norfolk County, Virginia accepts anoffer to work for DC’s most notorious crime syndicate, the Shaw Gang,when her family’s home is repossessed. Alex Danfrey, a first-yearFederal Prohibition Unit trainee with a complicated past and talents ofhis own, becomes tapped to go undercover and infiltrate the Shaws.

Through different paths, Joan and Alex tread deep into the violent, dangerousworld of criminal magic – and when their paths cross at the Shaws’performance venue, despite their orders, and despite themselves, Joanand Alex become enchanted with one another. But when gang alliancesbegin to shift, the two sorcerers are forced to question their ultimateallegiances and motivations. And soon, Joan and Alex find themselvespitted against each other in a treacherous, heady game of cat-and-mouse.

A CRIMINAL MAGIC casts a spell of magic, high stakes and intrigue against the backdrop of a very different Roaring Twenties.

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  1. So eager to read this one — I love everything about the premise and setting, and this interview just confirmed it for me! Thanks for the giveaway & the lovely interview.

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