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5 Minutes With… Jamy Ian Swiss

Jamy Ian Swiss is one of magic’s most erudite critics. An accomplished performer and gifted scholar, Jamy’s expertise is sought after by magicians worldwide and we are so pleased to welcome him to the Fest in a rare convention appearance.


You work very few conventions. What can you tell us about your appearance at Magi-Fest?

Although I have performed and lectured at many conventions over the years, both in the U.S. and internationally, for many years now the focus of my work has been on my career as a professional performer for the public, and for corporate clients, as a platform and close-up and magician and mentalist, a public speaker, and trade show performer. Other than regular appearances at the Magic Castle (since I’ve lived in Southern California for the past eight years), I’ve been mostly away from the magic lecture and convention scene. So with a new book now coming out, along with the re-release of my two previous essay collections, I’m looking forward to being able to present my work to, I hope, a fresh and interested audience, both in the U.S. and in Europe.

Your lecture format is unusual, particularly for a convention. Can you talk about this? 

In my experience, magic conventions seem best suited to stage performances, albeit that even these are sometimes less than ideally or professionally produced. Twelve minutes of close-up magic or 60 minutes for a lecture are poorly suited to revealing what a performer or presenter truly has to offer – much like 90 seconds on a television “talent” contest. So at the encouragement of the convention producers (who are also now my new publishers), we’re going to try to create something new and, we hope, informative and above all, interesting. In the course of a 90-minute session, I will begin by performing 30 minutes of close-up magic – a much better way to give the audience some idea of what I’m about as a performer, and how I make my living. Then I will do a lecture segment of 30 minutes’ duration. Clearly 30 minutes will not be my typical three-hour lecture crammed into a smaller span of time, as many convention lectures try to be, but rather will represent a handful of selections that will be carefully presented, so as to give a fair representation, albeit in sample form, of what is available in my lecture notes, books, and video projects. And finally the session will conclude with a 30-minute on-stage interview by Joshua Jay, which will enable us to explore ideas in a fluid and flexible manner that should also expand the audience’s opportunity to get a sense of who and what I really am as a person, magician, and artist. That’s the real goal – one that the usual convention formats is not necessarily geared toward fulfilling in an ideal fashion.

You’re working on a new book – your third volume of theoretical essays – to be released at the convention. What can readers look forward to?

Readers familiar with my work will know that my previous two books are rather unusual beasts in the world of magic publishing, being as they are essentially essay collections. Shattering Illusions was based on a collection of 12 essays I originally wrote for Genii magazine; Devious Standards was a mix of essays that first appeared in an extremely limited circulation journal, ANTIMONY, along with several personal reminiscences of great magicians and friends who have departed.  Because these books are about theory, craft, and to some degree, history, I like to think they are timeless, and suitable for new audiences to continually rediscover, so I’m very pleased that these books are being reissued by Vanishing Inc., in tandem with the new book.

Preserving Mystery, my new book, is not unlike its two predecessors, however, it’s somewhat more ambitious and broader in scope, as well as containing my first newly written and published work to appear since I stopped writing book reviews at the end of 2012. There are essays about both theory and craft, and several of the craft-oriented pieces are a bit more robust than in the previous books, including a lengthy instructional piece about the French Drop, as a fundamental building block illustrating important principles of sleight-of-hand, and a detailed but extremely practical piece called the Swiss Sleight Study System, which is a systematic approach to an organized approach to the study of sleight-of-hand technique, along with a guided tour through the literature, pointing out recommended sources for specific techniques; an immensely useful tool to any serious student, that is intended to help make one’s time and efforts more efficient and productive.

And even in the memorial and profiles pieces, there is more magic included, in which for example I describe a number of never-before-published techniques and tricks of past masters, including Michael Skinner and Earl “Presto” Johnson.

And as mentioned, there are several brand new, never before published pieces (along with a number of significantly reworked pieces that have not been widely seen), including commentaries on the use of magic in fiction and film, and a piece about suiting repertoire to special circumstances. Overall, it’s an ambitious piece of work, and I’m excited about presenting it to longtime fans as well as new audiences, alike.

What else have you been up to?

I’ve spent a great deal of time and effort over the years with my involvement in the “scientific skepticism” movement, promoting critical thinking, rational inquiry, and a scientific worldview, with lectures and speeches at many conferences, including one I host every Spring in New York City, the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS). I’ve also been busy parenting (and cooking for!) twin boys, who are now 13 and in 8th grade.

In the past decade, in addition to my work as a performer, mentalist, speaker, and trade-show presenter, I’ve also made some television appearances that found particular notice from the magic community, notably two on “The Late, Late Show” (and which can be found on my YouTube channel). And speaking of television, while over the past twenty years I’ve served behind the camera as a writer, producer and magic designer for magic-related television including “Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular” and Marco Tempest’s “Virtual Magician,” most recently I am serving as a script consultant for the new series “American Gods,” based on the best-selling novel by Neil Gaiman (for which I also consulted). The new series is a big-budget production slated for airing on the Starz network in 2017, and I’m really looking forward to this, as everything they are doing looks to be exciting, creative, and indeed provocative, and will do great service to the book, for Gaiman fans and new readers and viewers alike.

You have served as a mentor for many accomplished magicians. Mentor us for a moment: what advice would you offer attendees to benefit the most from their convention experience? 

That easy: be there. 

I don’t mean to be facetious about this. Being there is the first and most important part, because despite that fact that I will be doing a live Penguin online lecture later this year, one of my greatest concerns is that increasingly magicians think they don’t need to “be there” because video downloads and online lectures are as good as being there. This is a grave misconception however that cannot escape limiting one’s experience and education.

I have vivid memories, and phenomenal experiences to draw on, from my years of growing up attending live lectures and conventions. Just as no video or television performance of magic (or music or comedy) can match the nature of the live experience – an experience that is by its nature one-of-kind, ephemeral as it is potentially indelible – no recording can match the absolutely unique dynamic of the live and in-person experience of a performance or lecture at a convention. I draw on these experiences and lessons constantly in my work, and when you are there, you are assured of experiences and memories that are forever denied to every person who wasn’t!

Beyond the fact of being there, however, is the imperative to make best use of your presence. Interact with your colleagues, of course, compare notes, discuss and ask questions and analyze what you’ve seen and experienced. But above all, seek out mentors; seek out the performers and lecturers and also attendees who have more experience and knowledge than you and your friends. Surround yourself with excellence and you will have the chance to achieve excellence.  I’m looking forward to these two conventions in particular because they have a reputation for great downtime opportunities, for a chance to meet and mix, and that is always the best of such events – partly for the fun of seeing your friends and making new ones, but also for the opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with people you can truly learn from. I’m looking forward not only to be asked – but to asking new questions myself, and getting new answers to questions I’ve been asking since I was a boy. One of the many facets of becoming in artist is that the artist never stops being a student.