The Twisted Path of the Ming Vase

A few years ago, I attended the wedding of a wealthy friend.  It was held at her father’s house in Woodland Hills, a sprawling home with an elegant backyard worthy of a Julia Roberts romantic comedy.  During the reception, I wandered the grounds at my leisure.  It was lovely.  They had spared no expense, and it was like a labyrinth of beauty.  Finally, in a room that they probably called the primary living room foyer, I came upon a white and blue vase with Chinese markings that was the size of a 50-inch plasma television.  The bride’s sister told me it was a Ming vase.

“Oh, my father’s wife bought it for $40,000,” she said.

It would probably be $500,000 now, since the market seems to have appreciated, as reported in this television segment, below.


“He doesn’t know anything about vases or China, but he had the extra money and his wife begged, so he bought it,” she said.

Lately, I’ve been reading about those famous Ming vases.  They were manufactured in Jingdezhen, in the approximate center of China.  Jingdezhen was blessed with the special clays required for the manufacture of porcelain.  It also had dense forest with lumber necessary for running kilns, as well as the Yangzi River, which allowed for easy transport of fragile items, rather than horsecarts.  By the 16th century, Jingdezhen was turning out hundreds of thousands of porcelains, from small plates and bowls to huge ones, like the one I’d seen, which were used in sacrificial ceremonies.

It’s amazing how the period Ming vases have made their way through the world.  After manufacture, they were sold, then kept or displayed or used, and then, decades later, passed down to the children after the owners’ deaths, then kept or displayed or used some more for decades, perhaps sold, perhaps stolen, perhaps being destroyed in or surviving war.  Many vases each century are broken, and the surviving number gets smaller and smaller.  Those pieces that have survived today go for exorbitant prices, though, such as the price paid by my friend’s father.

A year after the wedding, I asked the bride about that Ming vase, and she told me something that made my heart sink.

“Oh, somebody got drunk and knocked it over,” she said, laughing.  “Really, though, I don’t feel sorry for my Dad.  If you’re going to display something like that during a wedding, you’re asking for it, don’t you think?”

That was one of the more interesting stories I’ve heard, so I worked into the plot of my novel, What Happens to Us, available on Kindle for only $3.99, at  I believe novels should be a collection of the most interesting things that have ever happened to people.  I don’t like to bore readers, don’t like it at all.  Give the book a try.  I guarantee you won’t be bored.

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I Feel Them Still


In writing this novel, I sometimes drew from and embellished on astonishing real-life events.  The above passage was spun off the story of a man named Walter Irving Scott, a Rhode Island magician who stunned the magic world in 1930 with his offbeat methods that fooled even the greats of magic.  He taught many of his most secret moves to a street magician named Gazzo, but in 1994, Gazzo had a stroke and lost all the moves that he had learned with his left hand.  Since Scott died in 1995, those moves were lost forever.

In addition, I’ve mixed in some details from the life of Dai Vernon, generally considered to be the best technical magician of the 20th century.  In fact, the magic world has many fascinating stories that the wider world has not been exposed to, and which will make for excellent reading in my future work.

In my early years as a writer, most of what I wrote was pure fiction, perhaps because I had lived so little of life.  I didn’t have a terribly eventful early life like Mary Karr or Ernest Hemingway.  In addition, I was a bit ashamed of my mundane suburban upbringing.  I didn’t feel that what I had experienced was literary enough.

Today, however, what I write is a somewhat equal combination of fiction, real life, and historical anecdotes.  By now, many extraordinary things have happened to me and I’m not ashamed to talk about them.  Now, I realize that my one childhood encounter with my Uncle John, who was a gambling cheat, is worth writing about.  Now, I’m discovering parts of my childhood that people want to read about.  Childhood memories are a bit like lost fingers, I guess.  I feel them still.

Feeling Matters

When I was at UCLA, I auditioned for and got into an Advanced Piano class.  This was the highest level of piano performance study in the Music Department, and I was honored to  have been accepted.

It was a salon, held from 2 – 5 pm once a week.  Students wandered in, waited their turn while others played, and then when it was their turn, played the piece they were working on, received criticism, and then left.  It was taught by Joanna Harris, who was the wife of the great American composer Roy Harris.  Joanna was by that time white-haired, flamboyantly dressed, and thought of herself as absolutely gorgeous despite her age, which was probably 75.  She would listen, critique, rhapsodize, and essay on her students’ musical assets and shortcomings.

David Groves with beard in twenties

The students were possessed of a wealth of musical talent, I must say.  Advanced piano students are truly la creme de la creme.  The best and the worst by far, however, was a man named Howard.

Howard was Nerdus Maximus.  He had unfashionable curly hair, a big, block-like head, and an ability to block out everyone else’s conversations except his own.  He never listened.  He would barrel into the salon, sit down, and play the most extraordinarily difficult musical pieces.  They required incredibly fast and nimble fingers and contained extraordinarily complicated passages, but as a kind of display of skill, Howard would play them faster than they were meant to be played.  I remember labyrinthine pieces by Liszt that nobody else could play.  I remember them being banged out like mathematics.  And once he hit the last note, Howard would lean back on the piano bench with a smug grin on his face and wait for his praise.

A drawing of Orlando Alexander Groves

But Joanna didn’t play along.  To her, the nerd had no clothes, and she would criticize Howard mercilessly.  She would rant at him.  She would pick apart his performance measure by measure, and then send him on his way.

Once, after Howard had left the salon, Joanna held forth on him to the rest of the class.

“He comes in here and plays these incredibly difficult pieces,” she said.  “Well, of course he can play these pieces because he practices eight hours a day.  The problem is that he has no soul.  He has no feeling.  He doesn’t do justice to any of those pieces, and it’s really just such a shame.”

It was amazing to hear a professor criticizing a student so severely, not for his skill but for his very soul, and it seemed like she had stepped over some sort of line.  On the other hand, it also seemed that she had expressed some universal truth that I could not have received except at an extraordinary university like UCLA.  I was extraordinarily grateful that I had been in that room at the moment, and in fact, most of what I remember from that salon were those words.  It was an important truth: Feeling matters.  Sometimes, it’s the only thing that matters.


I quit piano playing in my sophomore year and pursued writing with a vengeance.  Strangely, I discovered that feeling is important in writing,, as well, in pretty much the same way.  I’ve read authors who have no soul, for sure.  That’s one of my problems with The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, by Michael Chabon.  It’s the way I feel about Anagrams, by Lorrie Moore.  Writing isn’t some intellectual game that one plays in order to show off how attractive their cerebrum is.  It’s the mother’s milk on which starved people suckle.  It’s truth for searchers.  It becomes the fabric of our lives.

Fifteen years after that original piano salon, I was in a party store in Santa Monica buying glitter for my New Year’s Eve party.  My roommate had suggested that, to make things more festive, we should buy bags of glitter and toss them onto the carpet.  It turned out to be a great and a poor idea at the same time.  It was great because it made the place look like a funhouse.  It was poor because in the three years I lived there, I could never completely vacuum it up.  I was always finding little bits of glitter in some corner or other.

Anyway, that December 20, I had in my basket that glitter, plus paper streamers, paper cups, paper plates, paper flatware, and the like.  Suddenly, I realized that I knew the curly hair in front of me.  It was none other than Howard.

I tapped him on the shoulder.

“Are you Howard?” I said.


“I recognize you.  We were in Joanna Harris’s class together back at UCLA.”

“Yes, I was in that class.”

After all these years, there was still no warmth in his voice.  He didn’t ask what I was now doing because he didn’t care.  However, I asked him what he was doing.

“Do you still play?”

“Oh no, I haven’t played in years,” he said.  “I’m a surgeon now.”

Hearing that, it all came together for me, and in the days and weeks afterwards, it helped me explain the world.  He wasn’t able to channel deep feeling through his fingers, but in surgery, that frigidity was an advantage.  His soul was cold and calculating.  It recognized nothing but complex patterns.  Although he would never have been able to move the hearts of an audience, he was at last able to do something that fitted his skills perfectly.

In writing my new novel, What Happens to Us, I incorporated that thought into one of the characters, Cat.Facebook page sample 7 12 13

Who Sez He’s a Dog?

In a previous post, this reader called my character Dante “a dog.”


Some people are so eager to point fingers.  How can one be unfaithful to someone who’s never been your girlfriend?  Someone you’ve never kissed?  Someone with whom you simply have an unspoken attraction?

Once, a woman showed me a book she had bought.  It was called Men Are Pigs and Deserve to DieI thumbed through it and discovered that it was a spoof of feminist books.  The author, Sonya Steinem (a sure giveaway that it was satire), wrote page after page of humorous invective pretending that men were the root of all evil.  But the woman who showed it to me thought it was serious.  As hard as I tried, I couldn’t convince her it was satire.

See for yourself.  Download the novel onto your Kindle for only $3.99 here:

What Dog Hath Wrought


The woman who texted this to me had just found me on Facebook.  In high school, we had worked on the newspaper together.  In the years since, she had become very religious.

This text is a testament to how different readers read a novel differently.  When I was writing the novel, I never thought of Dante as “a dog,” but in all ways a nice guy.  However, he does fall in love with the protagonist and then not act on it.  While he’s living with her in exile, he ends up getting a girlfriend and spending nights at her place.  He’s unfaithful to a woman he’s not involved with.  He’s sleeping with another woman whom he’s not married to.  Does that make him a dog?


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Beverly in Movieland

A well-known author/blogger just blogged about my new novel, What Happens to Us.  Quite pleased, in fact, exzeedinglee pleeeeezd.

I’ve read Beverly Gray’s blog a few times and she’s really quite the excellent writer. She recently published a highly regarded biography of Roger Corman, for whom she worked for a decade.  Now, as a result of her frank biography, it seems that he hates her.  So much for honesty.

Take a look.

I Look at the World through Word-Colored Glasses

I’m not that good at math.  I majored in physics for a quarter at UCLA, and it was a disaster.  Somehow, I just don’t think that way.  I also don’t think like a bureaucrat or a bean counter.  But words, now there’s my territory.  Words, I like to say, are the sea in which I swim.  I think not in images or numbers or feelings, as some people do, but strictly in words.  During down times, words twist and turn in my head, re-forming themselves this way and that.  I look at the world through word-colored glasses.

Word colored glasses smallerThat became clear to me as early as junior high school, when I was a star student in Mrs. Robinson’s Spanish class.  I ripped through the assignments so quickly that she put me on an independent study program.  That freed me up to write, at my request, short stories in Spanish.  I remember writing a story about a nuclear war between the Land of the Pickles and the Land of the Meatballs.  The pickles were the first to strike.  They dropped radioactive pickle juice onto the meatballs.

By high school, I was spending most of my time working on the newspaper.  By my sophomore year, the newspaper advisor offered me the position of editor-in-chief.

Desmond Buzzell, my high school journalism advisor

Desmond Buzzell, my high school journalism advisor

“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I’d have to order around the seniors.  They wouldn’t do what I said.”

“Of course they would.  You’d be the boss.”

But I couldn’t see it, so instead, I convinced him to make me the sports editor instead.  By the end of that year, I was winning awards for my sports column.  By junior year, I finally accepted the editor-in-chief position and was spending the summer at a highly competitive journalism camp and winning more awards.

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In college, I switched from journalism to literature, and began thinking about words in deeper ways.  Journalism consisted of quickly dashed-off flotsam about fleeting events, but literature consisted of deeply considered words about eternal subjects, topics that had occupied the minds of Socrates, Lao Tsu, and Dante.  I began to admire those who let their deep thoughts determine the words, and the words determine the form, such as Joyce, Tolstoy, and Didion, rather than deadline writers who settle for any sentences that piece themselves together before the 2 pm deadline.

I dove into great literature.  I was amazed at how Virginia Woolf’s meandering sentences could skillfully mimic actual thinking.  It seemed extraordinary that the lack of a simple period had such profound perceptual consequences.  Of couorse, that same lack of periods has through the years scared many people away from her prose.  To others, it has opened a door into the richest veins of the mind.  Without the imprisoning chains of those tiny little dots, Woolf was freer than any person alive at that time.  Her sentences had set her free.

I became obsessed with Hemingway’s spare language, a type of language that seemed less like prose and more like the building blocks of something deeper.  Using Hemingway’s model, I stripped down my own language to its own building blocks so that I could see it better.  It was like taking apart a car engine.  My father had done that in his own day, but I was doing it with language.  Once the engine is in pieces, you can then understand it fully, and in time, rebuild it in a different way to fit your own tastes.

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I began identifying the characteristics of famous writers, from the caricatured prose of Dickens to the self-devouring poetry of Hopkins to the conversational poetry of Whitman to the ego-made-incarnate prose of Roth, to many others.

In my twenties, I realized with some astonishment that one could consciously choose the way that one processes the world.  I can’t adequately express how revolutionary a concept that is, even today.  One could focus on details and minutiae all the time, thus engaging the left brain.  Or one could see the world through large concepts and artistic structures, thus engaging the right brain.  If one took the former option, the side effects seemed to be that one missed the big picture, didn’t connect with flow, and blocked one’s creative output.  If one took the latter option, the side effects seemed to be that one made more mistakes in grammar, spelling, and fact.

It was an easy choice.  I chose to think like an artist.  I suspect that’s why Claire often complains that my side of the bedroom is so messy.

But there was no other possible choice.  At the time, I was working as a freelance proofreader, checking book galleys for spelling and typing mistakes, and later, as a freelance copy editor, checking for grammatical and compositional errors.  Doing that kind of work for six to seven hours a day was grueling, and at the end of the day, I did not feel like doing my own writing.  My head was filled with other people’s words throughout the evening, and I needed a few hours to empty it before I wrote my own stuff.  By the time my head was emptied, it was time to fill it up with words again.  I never wrote anything creative.  It was an endless cycle of emptiness.

When I became a freelance writer, my inner life became much richer, to be sure.  Still, there were limitations.  Writing health articles for magazines like American Health, McCall’s, Psychology Today, and others was moderately rewarding, in the same way that it’s rewarding to date a woman whom only your mother finds attractive.  It wasn’t really what I wanted to do.  I wanted to write fiction all the time, but I was working so hard making ends meet that I just couldn’t find the time to finish anything.

David Groves with beard in twenties

All this time, increasingly, language was my life.  Foreigners were astonished that I could pronounce foreign words correctly upon hearing them once.  I never misspelled words.  My mind could tag-team with my fingers to achieve a 105 wpm typing speed.  While spending idle time–in a car, for example, or at a concert–my mind often drifted to words.  Often, my mind would latch onto a word or phrase–for example, ubiquitous–and type it over and over again on my thigh, counting the number of letters typed with each hand, subtracting one from another, and playing games with those numbers.  All my girlfriends knew the feel, while lying in bed with me during a romantic moment, of my fingers typing out words on their backs or arms.

I was seeing a therapist during that time, and I remember a session I had with her.  I had opened the door and walked into that session as I had done many times before, but this time, I smiled.

I was amused by something I hadn’t noticed before.  While walking through the door into her office, it struck me as extraordinary that the brain could execute an action so mundane as opening a door, which involved turning the knob, pushing it while walking through, and then pushing it back with the other hand at just the right moment to send the door closing at just the right speed, catch it with that original hand behind my back–behind my back!–and then gently close the door shut.  It was such a complex series of motor skills, and yet the mind perceived it as a single action.  It seemed like some neurological miracle.

“So what’s going on this week?” Honora asked.

“Well, I’m having trouble finding the time to write my novel.”

“Maybe you have nothing to say.”

Well, okay, therapists are paid to think the unthinkable.  She didn’t mean anything bad by it, but it irked me all the same.  Here was something I wanted to do more than anything–write my novel–and yet I could never find the time to do it.  And she was blaming me for it?

“I do have something to say,” I said with seething calmness.  “I have a lot to say.”

“Like what?”

“Well, it’s not like I’m a survivor of some holocaust or I’m a McMartin kid or anything,” I said.  “But you know how I opened that door?  It struck me as so amazingly complex, like something that…revealed the extraordinary complexity of the brain, and yet, we never talk about it.  I want to write about the things we never talk about.”

It made me think about a line from Tender Is the Night by Fitzgerald, which goes something like this:

“He went to the mail desk first.  As the woman who served him pushed up with her bosom a piece of paper that had nearly escaped the desk, he thought how differently women use their bodies from men.”


It took me seven years to finish writing my first novel, ten years to finish my second, and six years to finish my third.  By the time I got to the third one, I had learned so much about writing and life that I would often finish at the end of the day with tears in my eyes, knowing that I had packed as much wisdom into it as I had ever seen in any piece of writing.

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But it didn’t always come easy.  My best passages often took 80 to 100 drafts before they were finished.  But when they were finished, they were so tightly and intricately woven together that it became nearly impossible for the reader to pull them apart and see where the passage originated or where one thought blended into another.  Eighty drafts tend to blend together like layers of soil, moisture, and time on an archaeological dig.

Now that the novel is published, it’s so layered that I could talk about it for years.  Every corner of it is a little universe.  Every plot twist has a complex history.  I was pleased when a reader told me she had read it a second time, because it bears rereading.  Give it a try.  Its roots, as you can well imagine, go deep.  And when you read it, wear your word-colored glasses.

What Happens to Us

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It Was His Favorite Relationship with the World


They have a word for it in the intelligence community.  SIGINT is intelligence that is gathered from signals, such as telephone calls, Internet messages, overheard conversations, and the like.  COMINT is intelligence that is gathered from communication between people.  LOVEINT is different, though.  That’s when someone with access to intelligence gathers information on a spouse, girlfriend/boyfriend, or other love interest.  It’s alarmingly common, and profiled here.  That’s what my book is about.

To download my novel, What Happens to Us, on your Kindle for $.99, for as long as the sale lasts, go here:

You Didn’t Hear Anything

Writing a novel is truly a journey of discovery.  And in the writing of my most recent novel, I came to realize that I had something to say about the entire espionage apparatus in this country that I hadn’t heard talked about before.  I wrote it, then rewrote it, then rewrote it again about 80 times.  I vacillated between obscurity and obviousness, iconography and narrative, Carl Jung’s symbols and Hemingway’s iceberg theory.

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In the story, Cat and Dante are hiding from a man who works in government surveillance who is trying to kill her.  They have gone off the grid and taken up residence in the tunnels beneath an upstate New York university.


Chapter 18

After a bad night’s sleep, Cat went to bed the next evening at 11.  A couple hours later, Cat felt Dante squeeze her foot three times to wake her up, as he sometimes did when she had something scheduled.  When she turned her head and looked, no one was there.

Above ground, all was quiet.  One campus policeman was watching television 1,000 yards away while another slept two rooms away in a lounge.  Finally, Cat took a walk through the tunnels to clear her head.  During the day, there were always little noises—clicks inside electrical boxes, the rush of water through pipes—but at night, it all went quiet.  Cat made herself a cup of chamomile, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, and walked blindly through the tunnels.  Holding her cup of tea, she savored the timeless quality of the night, thinking about nothing in particular except perhaps the hopeless pursuit of sleep, when she turned a corner that she had turned a thousand times before.  She stopped short and dropped her cup; it shattered on the concrete walkway.

Sitting next to the opening in the ancient brick wall was now a red chair.  It had never been there before.  After the cup shattered on the concrete, she realized that there was a small possibility that Dante had put it there, but somehow, she sensed that he hadn’t, and in fact, when she asked him the next morning, he said he had spent the night at his microbiologist girlfriend’s place.  It changed everything in the tunnel.  Cautiously, she approached it with little steps, glancing around to see if she was being watched.  Finally, she reached it and placed a hand on it.  It was a wooden straight-backed chair that looked like it had been painted over several times, the final red coat popping red in a way that made it seem like a dream chair.

Suddenly, Cat heard a quiet noise inside the brick enclosure, a place that should not be emitting any noise at all, and smelled a familiar odor.  It was a living odor, though, not something that was long dead.  Cautiously, she stepped up on the chair and reached herself up to peer inside.  She could see only shadows, and at first, nothing was moving.  There seemed to be places in the dark where someone could stand, although the rest of it was piled high with skulls and skeletal remains.  Then suddenly she saw movement.  The idea that someone might be inside there was inconceivable.

“Hello?” she said.

Suddenly, Cat heard a frightening noise in the other direction, like something tall and heavy falling to the ground, and yanked her head around in alarm.  She didn’t say anything, and something came into her head but it was a thought, nothing more: What’s that?

“It’s nothing.”

The sound of his voice shook her deeply and she nearly fell off the chair.  Cat hadn’t heard that voice since he had passed away eleven years earlier.

“What are you….?”

“You didn’t hear anything.”

“I did hear it.”

“You’re always making things up.”

Normally, Cat would be fleeing, but there was something impossible about it all that made her screw up her courage and tell herself that it wasn’t happening, that perhaps the conversation existed only inside her head, although she couldn’t for the life of her see how.  She knew she was awake.  She knew there was no one in the tomb.  Perhaps it was a trick, like hanging a spoon on your nose.  She heard the noise behind her again.

“Why are you running?” he said.  “If you’re running, you must be guilty.”

“My God, I don’t have a life anymore.  I have someone else’s.  Some girl who looks like me and talks like me but isn’t me.”

“You should have had my father.  He hit my cat in the head with a rake.  It crawled under the house and wailed all night till it died.  Would you rather I had done that to your cat?”

“God I feel like that cat.”

“Oh stop feeling sorry for yourself.  You’re not that important.”

There was a slight rattling of bones and skulls and she saw the silhouette moving to the right, the glow of a cigarette moving with it, and so realized that familiar smell, for in her mind, the smell of burning tobacco had always been inextricably tied to the idea of father.  In life, her father had had bags under his eyes, but they had derived more from overwork and smoking and bad thoughts than from genuine aging.  He was disappointed at what he hadn’t accomplished in his life but had buried the disappointment in the backyard.  It had taken a huge amount of digging.  His harangues often boiled down to digging.  He had beefs.  He had blamed immigrants and welfare mothers.  That was also digging.  He had lived with his wife in a vodka bottle.  That was some serious digging.  Everyone was his enemy.

“All I want is not to be chased anymore.”

The falling sound echoed again.  She turned around, trying to locate where the sound was coming from.  Was it above ground?  Was it part of the machinery in the physical plant?  Was it in her head?  She turned and faced him.

“Tell me what it is.”

“You don’t know?”


He turned in profile, the bones clacking again, and she could feel his intensity like a plate that was too hot to touch.  A stepdaughter is like a gift that a stray dog leaves on your lawn.  She didn’t hear those words, exactly, but that was the feeling.

“It’s the sound of your body hitting the asphalt, dear, when that man who borrowed my gun shoots you dead.”

She was a patsy.  She dropped the rifle.  It wasn’t hers.  There was a man with a rifle on the grassy knoll, but that would be dismissed as mere conspiracy.  Nobody would ever know the truth.

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Look at Their Eyes

I didn’t plan to become a professional magician.  The art of magic seduced me.

In 1990, I was at a crossroads in my life.  With my journalism credentials, I knew I could become a corporate writer and make a steady income.  Or I could become a magician, a path that carried with it the risks of the artistic life.  I decided to pursue both and see which one triumphed.

But passion, like the salmon, makes it own way.  For every one hour that I spent pursuing corporate writing, I spent 40 or more pursuing magic.

In short order, I became obsessed with learning the deepest secrets.  I would study magic all the time.  Magical ideas were constantly churning in my head.  I had to make a pact with myself not to read magic fewer than two hours before bedtime.  If I did, I would have insomnia thinking about magical means and methods.

Formal promo shotBut for me, it wasn’t just about the trick; it was also about how deception, subterfuge, and illusion reflected themselves in my life.  Appropriateness was a shell game.  Certain people were living sleights.  It was all about psychology, upbringing, presentation, charisma, and the way we make our way in the world.  I learned so many truths from the study of magic, much in the way that Robert Pirsig contemplated the universe that lay within motorcycle engines.

My current show, The Jungle Show, is replete with this type of material:

“People wonder why I use the term, skeptic,” I say in the middle of my show.  “Let me tell you a little bit about the entomology of that word.  You know what entomology is.  It’s the study of things that bug me.”

So when I started writing my newest novel, What Happens to Us, in 2007, I knew that my passion for magic had to be part of it.  My character Dante is the embodiment of that.  Even his name echoes the history of magic in more ways than one.


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