Debut novelist Emanuel Bergmann shares a look behind his sweet and dazzling first book, The Trick, a Holocaust tale with a touch of magic.
I like to think of my novel as a comedy about divorce and the Holocaust. (And stage magic!) Divorce is something I’m very familiar with—I was one of those kids who, at an early age, got to experience their parents’ separation. It left a deep impression. Many years later, after my own marriage had failed, I started writing it all down.
At the time, I hadn’t planned on writing a book. I just wanted to get some thoughts on paper. I had gone to see a circus show for the first time in 30 years, and that triggered one of the key scenes of the book. Suddenly, it all came together.
My ex-wife was a magician’s assistant, and so I decided to set The Trick in the world of stage magic. It’s a world I knew very well; I had spent many, many hours backstage at magic shows, and I felt that magicians were generally portrayed inaccurately in literature and cinema. More often than not, they are depicted as dark, brooding, handsome men. But in my experience, they were—by and large—needy and narcissistic.
That insight led to my main character, Moshe Goldenhirsch, aka the Great Zabbatini, a middling and highly egotistical stage magician. I decided to make him an immigrant, a German Jew who came to America during the dark years of the Shoah. This is another topic close to my heart. In fact, I’ve been known to be able to turn any perfectly normal and pleasant dinner conversation into a lengthy discourse on Holocaust minutiae. But it’s not my fault! I grew up Jewish in postwar Germany. My grandmother was a survivor of the Shoah, and she raised me with constant tales of atrocities. The moral always seemed to be: One day your friends at school will turn you over to the Nazis, so you better eat your spinach, young man!
It’s one of the reasons I came to America—I didn’t want to live like that anymore, one of the last Jews of Germany. But coming here had its own challenges. I was 19 or 20 years old when I arrived in Los Angeles, and I had no friends or family there. The character of the Great Zabbatini allowed me to put it all into words. He’s a lonely man, a stranger in a strange land, a refugee. But he’s also a selfish man, and his only passion is his art, stage magic. One day, he’s approached by a young boy, Max Cohn, whose parents are about to get divorced. Max is convinced that only magic can save his family . . .
After I wrote the first draft of the manuscript, I was surprised how personal the story had become. None of the events in the book are autobiographical, but the emotional foundation is deeply personal. When I wrote it, I didn’t think it would ever be published. There was no plan. But then I decided to send it out—who knew, maybe someone would like it? But no one liked it. After dozens of rejections, I finally gave up on it. The manuscript went into my drawer. Years later, through a series of coincidences, the book landed on the desk of an editor who did like it. To my surprise, seven years after I had written the manuscript, I suddenly received an email from a publisher in Germany expressing interest in it. I ignored the email. I thought it was some kind of prank. But they kept at it. And now, I am grateful that there’s an actual book that people can hold in their hand and flip through, and even read, if they like.