The City of Dark Magic (Penguin Books, November 27, 2012) by Magnus Flyte is one of those rare cases when the behind-the-scenes story behind a great novel is almost as intriguing as what is found on its pages. Called "an exuberant, surprising gem" by Kirkus Reviews, Flyte's comical, rollicking and sexy thriller was quickly swept up by Carolyn Carlson at Penguin Books, in a spirit she describes as "the excitement that an editor reserves for a Very Rare Find." The story begins when a young music scholar named Sarah Weston gets an unexpected invitation in the mail with a lucrative offer she can't refuse. Off she goes to Prague to do research for a historic noble family's private museum with no idea just how dangerous and weird her life is about to become.
Without another kind of life-changing invitation, the pseudonymous Magnus Flyte would hardly be around to raise any eyebrows. The fact that his name adorns the cover of a first edition of ninety thousand books seems almost as mystical, alchemical and whimsical as the book's plotline.
Magnus came forth out of the sort of dare we might make after a second or third glass of wine at dinner that begins with "wouldn't it be fun to..." Most such ideas usually vaporize by the next morning, but this time would prove one of the rare exceptions. Christina Lynch, a former Milan correspondent for W Magazine and a television writer with some cable dramas to her credit, was hosting Meg Howrey at her home nestled in the bucolic foothills near Sequoia National Park. Meg is the author of two novels (The Cranes Dance and Blind Sight) and was a Joffrey II dancer in her past. The two had met several months earlier at a writer's retreat and immediately became a mutual admiration society, delighting in each other's prose and constructive criticisms.
On a hike along a creek during her visit, Meg proposed the idea. "Maybe we should write a book together, you know, one of those books that people enjoy reading." Both were in the middle of other projects, and both had ample excuses to shelve the idea to let-me-think-about-it purgatory.
A couple of days later, a somewhat pleasantly shocked Meg received the proposed first chapter in her inbox. "The kismet moment was that I got an e-mail from my stepmother who lives in Prague that same day we took the hike," explains Chris. "She told me about her new job at the Lobkowicz Palace Museum, and it sounded fascinating. For years she had been bugging me: 'Why don't you write something about Prague.' It was something that I resisted because foreign settings were dead on arrival for American television programmers. But I looked up the Lobkowicz family online and shared it right away with Meg. It was a rich background, and the story began to quickly unspool from there."
Coming from the world of television, Chris was no stranger to collaboration, used to the ego-crushing process of sitting in a room with a handful of writers dissecting ideas. For Meg, it would be a new experience but one that she welcomed. Their shared motivation and intention was to simply "have fun," with no other expectation than to make each other laugh and not pondering with any seriousness that their e-mails back and forth would ever find their way into a printed book.
Along with that first volley, Chris sent along a list of rules for each chapter they had briefly discussed. The gist was that each segment had to be in the range between three and fourteen pages. Each had to contain something funny, something historical, something mysterious, something sexy, and end with a cliffhanger. The most important rule of all was that there was to be no going back and rewriting until the whole story was complete -- this to remedy every writer's neurotic obsession to tediously rewrite.
"To my amazed delight, Meg took the bait and fired back chapter two," explains Chris. "We went on to alternate chapters in a sort of relay for fourteen months, working off a very vague one-page outline scribbled on a legal pad." In the middle of the project, the two went off on a scouting trip to Prague, including a visit to the real Lobkowicz Palace Museum.
"No matter what I was doing when the email from Meg dinged, I dropped what I was doing and read the new chapter, laughing, moaning and sometimes tearing my hair out. She never failed to amaze, stun, delight and blow me away."
Meg counters, "I said to Chris at one time, 'Most people draw a rabbit out of a hat -- you draw giraffes.' From the beginning it was pretty crazy, but that was the fun of it. I'm a more conservative writer than Chris, so part of it for me was loosening up and going with it (and often wondering where the hell that came from). Once I called her to warn her before sending off a chapter, 'You may want to drive down here and kill me after you've read this.'"
Although they had a rough idea where the plot was going and where they wanted to take the characters, the most fun and the biggest surprises came in the details. "My best example is how I introduced a cat in chapter three for no other reason than it was a funny line for one of the characters to say," recalls Meg. "I had no further thought about that cat. Then, fifteen chapters later, Chris has the cat do something very important. She knew that it had been a throwaway line for me because she knows me so well and its reappearance would make me laugh."
Only when they got about two hundred pages into the process did things become a bit serious. "Chris is the optimist and I'm the pessimist," Meg explains, "She thought, 'Maybe we have something here,' and I'd say, 'This will never sell.' It was still an exercise to amuse each other, but we worked hard at making it the best it could be." Only when they completed the first draft did they go ahead and do the rewrite, deleting about a fifth of the manuscript in the process.
For those of us who Magnus Flyte might inspire to follow in his wake, Chris offers the following advice: "First thing, make sure the person you're partnering with has a similar work ethic, someone who takes the project seriously and who will do the work. A lot of people say, 'I'd love to write something,' but they really mean for a half hour one time and not daily for fourteen months. Also pick someone whose sensibility is similar to yours if you don't want the book to sound like it's written by two people." This was proved out by the ease both had in almost effortlessly blending into the shared voice of Magnus Flyte in those first few chapters. In fact, by the time they got through the final rewrite, it was hard for them to remember who wrote what.
"Because we were writing for one reader, each other, you have to pick a reader that you want to entertain. I was always excited to hear what Meg thought about what I had sent her and vice versa. We never talked about what was going to come next, so it was always a big surprise." Chris underscores how important it is that Meg and she have a similar sense of humor. "Our strengths have matched each other well."
About taking on the name Magnus Flyte, Chris explains, "We read somewhere that while women buy books by men, men don't buy books by women, and especially not by two women. We have no idea whether it's true or not, but we decided not to take the risk of alienating fifty percent of readers, plus we liked the idea of creating a slightly outrageous person who would write these books." "Magnus" was taken from the name of a usurping Roman Senator, and "Flyte" was an ode to the surname of the character Sebastian from Brideshead Revisited -- symbolism that may not escape the reader's detection.
Meg and Chris are presently at work on a sequel that moves Sarah to Vienna (and where the aforementioned cat makes its appearances). Is the process different? "It actually feels a little better than the first time," Meg explains. "At a certain point in the first book, we thought, 'This is a mess -- how are we going to work through this?' This time, there's a little more planning with having a deadline, so it's not a total surprise. I'm actually enjoying the second round more. We're letting ourselves take more risks."
Should we look for a continuing series of books by Magnus Flyte? "We'll have to cross that one," Meg laughs. "We're not even sure what's going to happen at the end of the book we're writing now. Neither of us would want to write only Magnus Flyte books for the rest of our careers. So, we may never get to volume twenty The City of Boiled Prawns."
Whether we're reading The City of Dark Magic on our way from JFK to Heathrow or while nursing a bad cold, the authors hope that we'll be in on the joke and along for the wickedly wild ride.