I met Lisa Mannetti at one of the World Horror Conventions when we were on a panel about social media and how writers should use it — and I learned a lot from her. Since then, her writing has garnered many nominations and several awards. I wanted to hear more about her book, The Box Jumper.
Lisa Mannetti won the Bram Stoker Award twice: for her debut novel The Gentling Box and for her short story “Apocalypse Then.” She has been nominated five additional times in both the short and long fiction categories. Her story “Everybody Wins” was made into a short film called Bye Bye Sally and her novella “Dissolution” will soon be a feature-length film, also directed by Paul Leyden. The Gentling Box, “1925: A Fall River Halloween,” and The Box Jumper have been translated into Italian.
Lisa also authored The New Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, two companion novellas in her collection Deathwatch, a macabre gag book 51 Fiendish Ways to Leave your Lover, as well as nonfiction books, numerous articles and short stories in newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. Forthcoming works include several other short stories, a dark novel about the dial-painter tragedy in the post-WWI era called Radium Girl, and another dark novel titled Cultus.
Lisa lives in New York in the 100-year-old house she grew up in with two wily (mostly black) twin cats named Harry and Theo Houdini.
The Box Jumper:
One of Houdini’s premier assistants (a box jumper, to be exact) claims she has been in contact with the great magician and escape artist even after his death and knows all his secrets. But is she telling the truth?
Did something in the real world inspire your novella The Box Jumper?
Harry Houdini has fascinated me since I was a nine-year old kid and first saw a rerun of Houdini starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. I was so taken, I actually went to our local library to check out a biography and then I read it with a great deal of interest.
That said (I don’t know too many dark fiction writers who are not enthralled on some level by Houdini) there are several incidents and settings in the book based on my real life, my fears and experiences. On Saturday mornings, my mother often brought me to St. Agnes Hospital (also mentioned in the novella) where she was a nurse. I really did see a room (quite large as I recall) that had scores of empty iron lungs. Luckily by that time, polio was already becoming a disease conquered by vaccines, so there were no patients. It struck me, even at that young age, as unutterably sad that the patients’ vision would have been so limited by the size and shape of the iron lungs (like enormous fat water heaters lying horizontally) that the only way they could see a human face was by large rectangular mirrors mounted above their own heads. I remember crying about it. The stone grotto described (but gussied up for the book) is real and in fact, it’s still there. The hospital is now a medical office building. Of course, many of the landmarks and places are absolutely real—I did a lot of research to get the geography and the details right.
What is your favorite scene in the book?
When Leona Derwatt, the narrator, is hospitalized (not at St. Agnes but elsewhere), Houdini comes to visit her. She’s an unreliable narrator, so we can’t be sure that things take place just as she tells them, but according to her, Harry speaks of his love for her. I do think (even if she’s magnifying the incident) the Houdini I wrote in this long novella probably did have a serious relationship with her. (While many characters in the book are historical figures or compilations of actual historical figures, some are entirely fictional—like Leona herself.) The scene is a favorite of mine because of the tenderness Houdini displays toward her—a trait not many people got to see during his lifetime.
He also had an abiding interest in children and often went out of his way to perform free magic shows for those who were underprivileged or hospitalized. In Edinburgh, he bought 300 pairs of shoes for barefoot kids he saw wandering along the cobblestoned streets. The shoes were distributed during his shows for the children of the city.
My other favorite scene is a supernatural one in which dozens of photos of missing children suddenly rise up in the air and begin to circle like a mad carousel or the whirling spout of a tornado. It’s both terrifying and poignant.
What was your writing process like as you wrote The Box Jumper?
I did a great deal of research about Houdini, the times (1920s), magic, locations and more—all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. I worked on it fairly slowly over about a year and half, but the book had even more meaning for me because it was the last project I was able to talk to my dad about before he died. I finished it about a month and a half before Dad passed away. I was even more pleased to note that for some reason the publisher chose an artist who drew a portrait of Houdini for the cover that (although in life they had no real resemblance to one another) looks like my dad. A pure accident, but a very happy one for me.
At any rate, I had piles of books and tons of Kindle fare and while I was writing, I’d look up some specifics if I needed to double-check—but that was after the fact that I’d read every word of every book beforehand. I also watched as many films about Houdini, magic, and magicians as I could find—and there are a lot of them. I also researched mind control (again through books and films), scientific esoterica, the supernatural and paranormal, demons etc. I had a whale of a good time. I tend to write like Vonnegut (for the most part); I don’t go onto the next section till I’ve gotten down exactly what I want to say and how I want to say it. For this reason, most of my first drafts can stand “as is” when it comes time for the editing process. Well, except for a tendency to use too many commas and too many semi-colons.
What was the best thing that happened during your promotion of The Box Jumper?
There were a few amazing “best things”: A Bram Stoker Award nomination, an even more prestigious Shirley Jackson Award nomination, and winning “Novella of the Year” from THIS IS HORROR in the U.K.
What do you have planned next?
A sort of secret project I can’t really talk about, a novel I’m working on called Radium Girl. It’s about the dial painter tragedy in early 1920s. One girl in particular becomes so deformed she’s forced to work in a circus sideshow to earn money to live. I also have a few short stories and other pieces coming out sometime later this year.
Order a copy of The Box Jumper from your local bookseller or pick up a copy on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2K3gDpA.
For more information about Lisa’s upcoming work, visit her author website: www.lismannetti.com
Visit her virtual haunted house: www.thechanceryhouse.com
Watch Bye Bye Sally, starring Malin Ackerman and based on Lisa’s story “Everybody Wins” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkuvRp0KrAA&t=73s.
Awesome interview! Box Jumper is one of my favorites, too!