Author’s Introduction to the 2015 Digital Rerelease of The Magic Touch
When The Magic Touch was first published in 1994 and I heard from readers charmed by the novel, they always asked, "Where did you get that idea?" Many years after The Magic Touch went out of print, readers familiar only with my later, thoughtful, disability-oriented books would occasionally learn I'd once written an irreverent, comic, linguistically exuberant, fictional biography of a magical sexual healer determined to vanquish evil from the world. Inevitably, they would ask the same question but with a different emphasis: "Where did you get that idea?"
I was never surprised at their stunned reaction. Most of us assume that writers have a certain consistency, producing work in similar styles about similar content from youth to the end of their careers. But there are also writers who initially pursue styles and themes they later trade for others.
That's what I would say to those readers. I would also explain that, for all its seeming differences from my later work, The Magic Touch had much in common with the books they knew, Riding The Bus With My Sister and The Story of Beautiful Girl : a compassionate heart, the belief that every individual has unique and important gifts, a questioning attitude about the way the world is supposed to work, spiritual undertones, themes of redemption and forgiveness, and the hope that each one of us can improve the lives of others.
Plus, the sex scenes weren't all that plentiful, or even explicit.
"But," they'd repeat, "where did you get that idea?"
So here's the story—which, as it turns out, goes beyond the genesis of an idea.
The Magic Touch began as a temp job. I had just finished the revisions for my first book, a collection of stories titled Little Nightmares, Little Dreams, and was waiting the many months it would take for the publisher to complete the production process. Having just spent a year living frugally on grant money, my modest advance, and the generosity of my live-in boyfriend, I needed to replenish our bank account. I also needed to return to society after so much writing solitude. And, if I was lucky, new writing ideas would materialize before long, allowing a return to my writing desk.
The temp position was in a large engineering firm in Philadelphia. The time was the fall of 1989. I was a quick typist, and in fact had temped at the same engineering firm before, on a different floor in a different department. This time, instead of being seated in an obscure dead end of a cubicle labyrinth, I was placed in the center of a vast room. Radiating out from my area was only one other secretary and, behind metal cubicle walls, probably seventy engineers. My duties involved typing documents stuffed with words I didn't know and numbers and symbols that had no meaning to me. The department was working on a project involving a power plant, but for all I understood, we could have been building a space station.
Yet I thoroughly enjoyed the job. While I relished my time alone during the writing process, I was, and remain, an extrovert at heart. That was a good thing, because the engineers, lifelong employees who were droll, idiosyncratic, middle-aged, male, and almost certainly bored to tears by one another, continuously swooped down upon my desk, one following the next, eager to entertain the office newcomer. Make that the thirty-year-old, female, book-writing office newcomer, who they mistakenly perceived as being a much freer spirit than I'll ever be. They didn't, however, underestimate my desire for company or humor; while I typed furiously, and laughed at their jokes, I learned about their quirky hobbies, their rarely admitted aspirations, and, sometimes, their secret disappointments. Most days I felt buoyant, knowing my listening was beneficial to all. At the same time, the job gave me a glimpse into the unnourished hopes and strata of sorrow that can lie beneath humanity's surface.
One day, it finally dawned on me that some of the engineers were flirting with this temp. They'd been so casual, so unthreatening, so married that I hadn't quite grasped what was going on. Not that it would have mattered; I loved my boyfriend (who, many years later, would become my husband) and had zero interest. I found the engineers endearing, but not in that way.
However, the mysterious alchemy that transforms a minor realization into an imaginative idea had begun. I thought, What if there were a fictional character who could, through the act of making love, magically remove her partner's sorrow and revive long-lost hope? In other words, a magical sexual healer?
The idea wasn’t quite as out of left field as it might seem. Some of the stories in Little Nightmares, Little Dreams had crossed over from realism to magical realism; others focused on young female protagonists who expressed their tangled emotions through their sexuality. It took only an autumn of typing about pipe fittings and cooling towers, listening to anecdotes about ham radio sets and basement building projects, and wishing for fresh material for a new story, to prompt me to find a way to finally blend the two.
With this magical-sexual idea in mind, I decided it was time to return to writer hibernation. In the interest of removing familiar distractions, I reached out to friends who lived in other places, asking if they'd recommend their town for a self-styled writing retreat. One, who lived in Durham, North Carolina, not only praised the meditative attractions of her town and its renowned college, Duke University, she offered to let me stay in her apartment. So in January of 1990, I bid a permanent farewell to the engineers and a month-long goodbye to my boyfriend, and moved briefly to Durham.
Every morning, over a period that quickly exceeded one month and ultimately lasted for six, I walked to Duke's west campus, waited outside the front door of the library until a security guard unlocked it for the day, and hunkered down at a carrel tucked at the far end of a dark, windowless floor that was absent any other human presence and crammed to the rafters with books. Carrying no more than a notebook and pen, I wrote every day until my hand hurt too much to continue, which usually amounted to about ten pages and ended in late afternoon. I had no obligations except a continuing education class in creative writing, which I took for the added pressure of a recurring, if ungraded, deadline.
I had no particular plan before I started, other than that I'd follow, in a general way, the narrative line of the mythic hero archetype, which I'd read about not in books by Joseph Campbell, with whom the hero's journey is now most closely associated, but a man named Lord Raglan, whose book The Hero preceded Campbell's writings by several years. I'd found his work in my local library some years before, and, while marveling at the pattern he described, had noticed the lack of female heroes. I would create a female hero, I decided, incorporating my magical-sexual idea, but without resorting to writing that approached the pornographic.
Then I started to write, and, rather quickly, more ideas presented themselves. This was a fictional biography, I saw, written by a biographer whose identity would remain unknown until the end of the book. The text would be interspersed with scraps of interviews, plays, advertisements, jump-rope songs, etc. that commented on the character's future fame. In keeping with the pattern of the hero archetype, she had a miraculous birth; in her case, her mother had been dead two days when my protagonist was born—the first line of my first chapter. (It was preceded by a prologue and author's note, the former stark, almost noir-ish, in tone, the latter playful; both were part of the fictional biography.) She was raised by her grandmother, who ran an orphanage where all were encouraged to discover their special gifts. I wove in elements of Faust, Rocky and Bullwinkle, the Aenid, Smith Corona typewriters, the Bible, 1950s cars, Don Quixote, Bazooka Bubble Gum—and much else I had once studied or enjoyed.
The six months passed in blissful productivity. By the time I went home, I had a full draft.
Unfortunately, I also had a draft that, once typed, ran over nine hundred pages—entirely too long for its subject matter, much less most readers, including, though I didn't admit it to myself, me. The plot meandered; there was no antagonist; themes skittered about willy-nilly; and the humorous tone which permeated the first chapter petered out by the fourth, leading to a book with an over-the-top concept that took itself too seriously. To make matters even worse, I reread the book only a couple of times, treating revision as no more than a final dusting.
Still euphoric from my six months of writing in the library, I failed to see these shortcomings. Nor, it seems, did the friends who read it, my boyfriend, and my then-agent, who had nothing but praise when I sent her the manuscript several months later. But the editors to whom she submitted it did. They did not say as much; the misgivings they expressed were vague, though apparently substantial. My agent even set up meetings where I sat with some of these editors in their offices to hear their ideas for revision. I remember none of these ideas, only that I had few answers for their many questions. And I remember that, despite all these efforts, no one made an offer to acquire my book.
I went into a tailspin. How could this have happened? The writing of the book had seemed so otherworldly, so effortless, so meant to be, it had seemed inevitable the finished work would be a sensation, praised and loved by all. Had the universe let me down? Was I really so incapable of seeing the truth of my own work? Was I really so incompetent as a writer?
In despair, I pushed the manuscript to the far end of the desk. Then, sinking into feelings of failure and shame, convinced that my budding career had come to an end, I went to bed. For the next four months, I rose only for long walks listening to audio books, meals with my compassionate boyfriend, and sessions with a therapist who didn't quite know what to do with me. I told myself I could go back to the temp job—we were getting by without the money, but it would certainly help if I were earning a check again—but I couldn't imagine facing people who still thought of me as a happy-go-lucky artist. The emotional hole into which I’d fallen was simply too dark and too deep.
Finally an incentive to pull myself together, even if just for a weekend, presented itself: my college reunion. I wouldn’t have to travel very far, as my alma mater, Bryn Mawr College, was only two commuter train lines away from where we lived. I would also have the chance to spend time with friends who'd endured their own trials since our graduation ten years before. But most of all, I wanted to visit my favorite teacher: the anthropologist Phil Kilbride, with whom I'd taken several classes when I'd majored in that field. He was still quite active on campus, and I thought it very likely that, if I arrived on Friday afternoon before reunion festivities were underway and made a beeline for his office—the same old cluttered, sunny, book-lined office where we'd met when I took an independent study with him—he would be sitting at his big wooden desk, smoking his ever-present pipe, eager to converse.
Despite feeling defeated and weary, I managed to dress respectably and get to campus. As I approached his office, I could smell the smoke from his pipe, and just the scent of it and the knowledge that he was there allowed me to let down my guard.
Mr. Kilbride greeted me with a joyful hello and bid me to take a seat. We chatted about his recent trips to Africa. He told me he'd liked my book of short stories. Then he asked, "And how's that sex book coming along?"
I hadn't remembered that, at some point, I'd mentioned it to him. My distress flooded back and I blushed. But, recognizing that he'd phrased the question in a way that lightened the tone, I forced myself to tell him about all that had come to pass.
To my surprise, he responded with a laugh. Then he said words to this effect: "Don't you think that everyone who tries to achieve something great has times when they fail? I've failed on more than one occasion. Every famous person you can think of has failed at some point in their lives. You might not know it—most people don't talk about it—but I promise it's true. The higher we aspire, the more often and more spectacularly we fail. What separates out those who continue from those who stop is the ability to learn how to cope with failure. You can let this experience put an end to everything you want to achieve. Or you can use it to teach yourself whatever you as an individual need to do to press on."
Then he sat back with an encouraging smile, and I began to recast my emotional journey as not a private misery, but as something more universal. Probably, I started to consider, it is not uncommon for people who fall into a state of rapture while they're creating to delude themselves about the quality of the finished work. They too might also dismiss—indeed, if they were honest, fear — the need for further revision. But I could choose not to be one of them. I could choose not to see this as a message from the universe, or a definitive declaration of my competence. I could choose to see it only as a signal that I had stopped my work too soon.
I went home after my reunion and sat down at my writing desk. Then I asked myself what the core of the story was. The answer was the original magical-sexual idea that had ignited my imagination. I also asked myself what had worked in my draft. The answer was the miracle birth, comic tone, and playful language in the first chapter; the overall arc of the hero pattern, as reconceived for a woman; the format of the fictional biography and found texts; the literary and pop culture references; and the absence of graphic sex scenes—but that was all. Then I decided to blow up everything else about my book. As I later termed it, I took the TNT approach to revision. And, working forward, word by word, sitting alone in my study for the next two years, I completely rewrote the book—deciding, on a daily basis, that I would have fun, and do my best to ensure that the reader did so, too.
Over those two years, I felt that, despite having written all my life, I taught myself how to write for the first time. This didn't only mean learning the craft in a deeper way, sometimes going against what my writing teachers had taught. It also meant confronting what I now understood to be the many emotional obstacles to every aspect of the creative process. Ultimately these two categories of lessons grew into two writing books: The Writer’s Writing Guide, which addresses craft, and which I never published but used when I taught writing; and The Writer’s Survival Guide, which addresses the emotional side of the experience. It was originally published in 1997 and is now out as an e-book.
When I finished writing The Magic Touch, my agent sold it promptly to a major publisher. It came out in 1994 to rave reviews, was selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers program, and captivated readers who, to this day, swoon when they speak of it. No longer taking myself so seriously, and continuing the trend I'd begun with the last book, I gave my readings in costume: a dress made out of a flag, commemorating a reading that fell on Flag Day; a dress made out of candy, that the audience ate at the end of the night; a dress made out of oversized pages of the book. I also hired an artist friend to build a talking car, which came with me to bookstores, where, working with actors, I turned my readings into something I called literary performance art.
In some ways, The Magic Touch is a book very much of its time. It's full of allusions to popular culture of the mid- to late-twentieth century. Here and there it reveals that its author was a few years shy of developing a more enlightened understanding of disability. I would also handle some characters differently now, toning down the more cartoonish portrayals and particularly absurd names, and choosing not to make one of the bad guys a man with dwarfism. I might also rethink opening the novel with a fictional prologue so uncharacteristic in tone from the rest of the book.
Having said that, readers of the book have pointed out over the years that in some ways The Magic Touch has proved to be prescient. Young female heroines are increasingly common in twenty-first century books and movies. The antagonist in my book is intimately associated with a dark, sinister collective known as the Matrix, which I created years before the release of the Matrix movies. The nefarious use of screens as a means of clandestine observation portends both the internet, still in its fledging stages and unknown to me when I wrote the book, and the NSA surveillance programs that we now know to have been widespread.
Unfortunately, the story of The Magic Touch ended more quickly than I would have liked. After an early surge of readers, sales faded, much as they had for my first book, and, as I knew by then, much as they do for most books. A year after The Magic Touch was published, it went out of print. I cannot say this rapid demise was easy for me. However, by the time the book had vanished from the stores, I had more pressing things on my mind: my boyfriend and I had broken up, I had moved into a friend's attic, I was broke, and I was desperately in need of a real job. What transpired after that is a tale for another day, and indeed a tale I tell in later books. http://rachelsimon.com/htl_synopsis_v2.php
But another thing had happened by that time as well. I knew that The Magic Touch, though short-lived, had not lived for naught. It had marked many transformations for me, as a person and a writer. It had also taken many readers under its spell, some of whom still prize it above all of my other books. And it stood as a testament to the small moments—the joking conversation at the office, the impromptu visit to an old teacher—and how much of a difference they can make.
It gives me great pleasure to put out The Magic Touch as an e-book, and to extend its life a little longer. I wish my wise, twinkle-in-his-eye teacher, Phil Kilbride, had had the same opportunity, but in 2012 he passed away unexpectedly from a sudden illness. This new edition of my rather tame "sex book" is dedicated, with gratitude, to him. http://news.brynmawr.edu/2012/09/19/bryn-mawr-mourns-the-passing-of-esteemed-professor-of-anthropology-philip-kilbride/