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Kingston and the Magician’s Lost and Found: An Interview with Three Authors at Once!

Here’s something new. I tend to do a number of interviews with authors and artists on this site but rarely, if ever, do I interview three people at once. It’s a challenge I’m willing to undertake! But am I interviewing three people or two today? The answer: yes.

Coming out tomorrow is the new middle grade fantasy novel Kingston and the Magician’s Lost and Found. It is ostensibly by Rucker Moses and Theo Gangi. Simple, right? Well, it is, until you realize that “Rucker Moses” is a pseudonym for two other fellows: Harold Hayes and Craig S. Phillips. So three dudes are all writing one MG work of fiction!

Then you get to the plot:

Kingston has just moved from the suburbs back to Echo City, Brooklyn–the last place his father was seen alive. Kingston’s father was King Preston, one of the world’s greatest magicians. Until one trick went wrong and he disappeared. Now that Kingston is back in Echo City, he’s determined to find his father.

Somehow, though, when his father disappeared, he took all of Echo City’s magic with him. Now Echo City–a ghost of its past–is living up to its name. With no magic left, the magicians have packed up and left town and those who’ve stayed behind don’t look too kindly on any who reminds them of what they once had.

When Kingston finds a magic box his father left behind as a clue, Kingston knows there’s more to his father’s disappearance than meets the eye. He’ll have to keep it a secret–that is, until he can restore magic to Echo City. With his cousin Veronica and childhood friend Too Tall Eddie, Kingston works to solve the clues, but one wrong move and his father might not be the only one who goes missing.

Interview three people at once is tricky. Fortunately, Harold Hayes took the lead and incorporated answers from Craig and Theo. Just think of them as one great big entity as you read this:

Betsy Bird: I understand that this book is a collaboration. Where did its creation start? Whose idea was it?

Harold Hayes

Harold Hayes: Craig and I were writing for some kids TV shows at the time and Kingston was a concept that we just started jamming on with another friend. This was over 10 years ago. Craig and I are world-builders. We usually approach a story from a character and the world in which they inhabit. That being said, I’m very opinionated about the type of science fiction and fantasy that I enjoy. Since Craig and I seem to share a unified creative vision, we placed one major rule on this world of magic: there will be no wands and no spells. Hence, our dive into the world of Kingston began with the idea of a kid meeting a pair of homeless magicians who were dueling in a park (they became his uncles). Once we got the idea of his Dad disappearing in a magic trick, it really took off. Please note that when we say magic trick, it’s from the practitioner of illusions and street magic perspective and not that of a wizard or witch. We sold it to a studio as a show. We wrote a pilot. They never shot it but our good friend and producer Jane Startz told us she loved the idea and challenged us to develop it as a book series. A few years and many drafts later we pitched it to Stacey Barney at Penguin Random House. She loved the world and introduced us to Theo to co-author the books with us.

BB: So how do you collaborate with someone on a novel at all? What does that process look like?

HH: It started with Theo taking the first three chapters we had written and doing a pass on them. He changed what we had written from third person to first person and it really put us in Kingston’s head and really changed the dynamic of our perspective as readers. We had been building this world for so long and Theo presented it back to us in a completely fresh way. That exercise in collaboration was how we sold the series and it’s been the foundation for our process ever since. So, when we really started digging in, we all just talk a lot. It’s usually a real front porch kind of conversation at first, just spit balling and seeing what sticks. We are in L.A. and Theo’s in New York. At the time, we were mostly talking on the phone and occasionally would visit each other in our respective cities (pre-pandemic). There were a lot of screaming kids in the background (ours), Theo stopping his dog from eating chicken bones off the sidewalk, random wandering around the city and other adventures. We also have a slack channel that we use to share ideas. When we’ve cracked the story and really get going on the writing, we break it out into sections. Craig and I are usually working on chapters ahead of Theo. So, as he catches up, he cleans them up. That way the voice of Kingston stays consistent. Usually in those months of really going at pages, we talk for many hours a day (and night). In the end, we all have to trust each other and trust that any criticism is in an effort to make the book the best it can be.

BB: Tell us a bit about your own love and connection to magic. Have you always been into it? Was it a recent interest?

Craig Phillips

HH: Well, we are not magicians and I can’t say that either Craig or I had a deep interest in magic growing up. I’m an anime geek. So naturally I am attracted to building systems of magic into storytelling. I think we really started getting into this idea when we were visualizing the concept of magic battles. We’d see these videos of kids in Japan going on stage and battling with these things called Fushigi balls (or contact juggling). It was amazing, like freestyle or dance battles. So that became an element. Then we started getting deep into magic history and wanted to ground the magic in the book with real historical characters, tricks and places. The more we developed the world the more we got into magic, talked to magicians, read about the wonderful history of magic and saw the skill and imagination it takes to be one. I think what really makes this magic interesting is that we found a way to have it grounded to some degree in a real career that real people practice in our real world.

BB: Comedian and writer Larry Wilmore has often said that he’s a big fan of magic. Heck, when he was interviewed by Stephen Colbert recently he had a poster of Herrmann the Great, in which he’s featured with his young Black assistant. Now as I understand it, you conducted extensive research of 19th and 20th century Black magicians that are referenced throughout the book. Could you tell us about a few of your favorites?

HH: There is a very specific story about that and it was almost serendipitous. As much as we were reading about magic history, we did not come across many or shall we say any black magicians that were featured in our initial research. Which is a shame, as we would learn, because there were some fascinating ones. Craig was in Leimert Park in LA and he just kind of found himself in the middle of this amazing, homegrown afrofuturism convention in the streets. This is where we found Black Herman. One of the speakers was talking about the musician Sun Ra and mentioned he was named after the world’s greatest black magician, Black Herman. We had never heard of him until that moment. That was Pandora’s Box. Black Herman and his real exploits became a large part of the lore of our whole world. He was the missing ingredient. Black Herman led us to Richard Potter, America’s first magician (not just first black magician), Henry ‘Box’ Brown (who escaped slavery by shipping himself in a box) and others. Black Herman is definitely our favorite. He was selling out shows of 4,000 plus people at Marcus Garvey’s Liberty Hall, was an icon of the Harlem Renaissance and would bury himself alive in what he called his own Private Graveyard only to emerge days later. He was a legend.

BB: What kind of research did you do? And was there anything you wish you could have included in the book that didn’t make the final cut?

Theo Gangi

HH: Well figuring out where Kingston’s Dad, Preston, disappeared was a rabbit hole of research. We went deep into researching author Michio Kaku’s takes on alternate dimensions, string theory, parallel universes and much more. We also researched a lot of Jim Steinmeyer’s books and illusion techniques.  From Jim we got an introduction into what some fringe magicians were doing during the golden age of magic and eventually started getting deep into reading about Egypt through the works of author Graham Hancock.  He posits magic was basically their version of spirituality. We went down a lot of paths to construct the world that Kingston discovers as he’s looking for his Dad. Funny thing is that we were searching and searching for the right fit for how this universe works but it was already right there in front of us: Echo City. The concept of echoes became the through line to how the Realm worked. Along with all of this, I think we also made a point to talk to our moms a lot while we were writing. The connection between King and his Mom, Nina, is as much the emotional core of the book as is his search for his father. So the best research we could do on that front was just calling our Moms. There was one major aspect to our original concept of Kingston’s world that was not realized within the book. We wanted the population of Echo City to conduct regular magic battles as a means of gaining magician street cred. We attempted to put various magic battles into the book but they did not prove to have a significant amount of payoff for the amount of visual description we would have to create for a cool factor that ultimately did not add much to the main story flow.

BB: I understand that KINGSTON is the first book in a duology. Besides the sequel, what else are you guys working on next?

HH: Well Craig and I have been developing an animated kids show with Robert Kirkman’s (creator of Walking Dead) company, Skybound, called Hourglass Moonland. The three of us are also working on our next book series. It’s a big, fantasy story about some special kids who live inside the eye of a giant storm!

Big thanks to Harold Hayes, Craig S. Phillips, and Theo Gangi for their answers and to Ashley Spruill and the folks at Penguin Young Readers for the interview.

Kingston and the Magician’s Lost and Found is out February 16th, nationwide.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.