While I’m very cognizant and familiar with the process of a willful protagonist wresting control of a narrative (this happened to me with an earlier unpublished coming-of-age novel I wrote (among my five other unpublished novels) when I was in my 20s. Believe it or not, I really had somewhat of a handle on Will from the start, though Will didn’t have a handle on himself from the start, and I guess that was sort of the point.
I had a wonderful teacher once, the novelist Ann Patchett. I asked her about the research she did for The Magician’s Assistant, and she told me to choose the single best book on the given subject and study it obsessively. Writers are always tempted to track down dozens of books to help give our make-believe stories that tang of authenticity, but often the problem with too much research is a writing style that seems too researched, dry and musty and eager for a history teacher’s gold star of approval.
I retain a weird affection for Elliott, the phantom phone-caller, who was really the result of a happy accident. In my original inception of the book, Harry was going to receive a phone call at the very end from an old friend who hadn’t heard of Anna’s death. This caller’s open and heartfelt grief at the news was meant to be Harry’s last straw, and to contrast with Harry’s emotional constipation. But mid-way, I decided to have Harry change his phone number, so that wasn’t going to work any more. And I thought, what if someone called looking for the previous owner of the new number?