It's All Part of the Process

By Matt Baker - Thursday, May 9, 2019

My new book, The Buena Vista Shuffle Club, features more than 100 pages devoted to effects with a memorized deck, but it also has mentalism, coin magic, and much more. Simon Aronson and Caleb Wiles talk about some of their favorite effects from the book in this video trailer which Vanishing Inc. put together.

In this post, I’d like to focus not on the effects themselves but on how I arrived at the stylistic framework of the book. You see, The Buena Vista Shuffle Club is not written like a typical magic text: sprinkled throughout the book are “jam sessions” between a fictitious group of magicians who analyze and deconstruct the effects in the book. Bernie, Dev, and Ray, who together comprise the "Buena Vista Shuffle Club”, offer presentational tweaks, criticisms, handling variations, and alternate methods. They also tell jokes, mercilessly tease one another, and wax philosophical.

close up of a riffle shuffle with a deck of cards

A number of people have asked me how I came up with the idea for the fictitious jam sessions, and what inspired me to write the book in this non-traditional way. Well, it all started with my attempts to write some theoretical essays to accompany the tricks in the book à la Stephen Minch and Tommy Wonder's “Books of Wonder” (arguably the finest magic books ever written). Suffice it to say that I failed rather spectacularly. I was simply not able to find the proper tone or convey any ideas of real substance without sounding didactic and “professorial” (with an emphasis on that word’s negative connotations).

So I threw my essays away, went back to the drawing board, and asked myself some simple questions. What is it that I’m actually trying to accomplish? Why am I not content just publishing a collection of tricks with original methods, plots, and presentations? What is it about creating new magic tricks that brings me such satisfaction, and how I can convey this passion to my readers?

It was the last of these questions which got me thinking in a new way. One of the things I love most about magic is sessioning with really good magicians. And over the years, my routines have been immeasurably strengthened through sessions with friends like Simon Aronson, Rich Aviles, Caleb Wiles, Tyler Wilson, and many others. They are knowledgeable and creative magicians who are funny, generous, thoughtful, and unflinchingly honest. So I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have a group of guys like that as characters in the book? That way, instead of just offering endnotes with alternate handlings and presentations, I could breathe life into these ideas through dialogues between characters, each with their own distinct personalities…. And thus was born the Buena Vista Shuffle Club.

(For the record, the characters are all “guys” because the magicians I hang out with tend to be nearly all men, which makes it much easier for me to write in the voice of male characters than female ones. But I do hope that the traditional male domination of the field of close-up magic comes to an end soon — we are way behind the curve!)

Anyway, I soon realized that this new conceit — a series of dialogues between fictitious magicians — enabled me to synergistically accomplish several other things at the same time:

I could slip some of that elusive “theory” into the book without coming across as overly didactic.
It gave me a way to pepper the book with humor (hey, it’s the characters being risqué, not me) and incorporate some of the good-natured ribbing that I love dishing out (and sometimes even receiving). It provided a structure through which I could share some of my “one degree” tweaks on existing routines that I love (such as Simon Aronson’s “Histed Heisted” and Pit Hartling’s “Chaos”). By themselves, these variations did not seem original enough to publish as full-fledged routines in the book, but by presenting them as ideas from Bernie, Dev, and Ray I was able to share some of these thoughts without claiming excessive originality on my part.

Last, but not least, it gave the book a “presentational hook” which in retrospect was a good marketing move! It has allowed the book to stand out among the crowded field of excellent magic books out there. I’m certainly not the first to experiment with the format of a magic book in this way John Bannon’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and Josh Jay’s “Session” come to mind, for example), but after many cycles of drafts, edits, critiques, and rewrites, I ended up with something that I think is both original and distinctly personal. So I was quite happy when Josh Jay sent me the following feedback on an early draft of the book:

"I also have to compliment you: many have tried to vary the typical magic book format (including me) and we’ve all been criticized for doing so, the complaint being that the format variation doesn’t enhance the reading experience. Your conversational approach after each trick REALLY worked for me. I felt drawn into the conversational flow, and the casual nature of discussing the trick afterward. If you would have explained to me this concept, I would probably have told you it sounded flimsy, but it really works great."

So, there you have it: a peek into the origins of the Buena Vista Shuffle Club. I hope this stimulates and inspires YOU to come up with even more ways to stretch the boundaries of what's possible within the limitless expanse between the front and back covers of a magic book.

Photo: Johnny Blood - Flickr

Reader comments:


Thursday, 09 May 2019 14:14 PM - Reply to this comment

Could 'Little bunny's card trick' be done with the method for 'Shuffle-board' in the 'Buena Vista shuffle club'?


Friday, 10 May 2019 20:41 PM - Reply to this comment

Thanks for your insight into the creation of the structure of your book. I felt like I was wearing some "X-Ray specs." Proud to have you as a friend. - Dan G.

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