Neil Patrick Harris On Magic, Writing And His New YA Novel, 'The Magic Misfits: The Minor Third'

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"The Magic Misfits - The Minor Third," by Neil Patrick Harris. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"The Magic Misfits - The Minor Third," by Neil Patrick Harris. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Neil Patrick Harris is an actor, singer, producer, writer, father, husband and … magician?

Come to find out, Harris has a couple tricks up his sleeve.

He says growing up in New Mexico, he was “smitten” by his local magic shop, Fool’s Paradise. He’d save up his allowance, head to the store, and stock up on cards and tricks.

Ever since then, he’s been going out of his way to “produce, promote, attend and shine the spotlight onto magic and magicians.”

Now, over the course of three books, Harris has been sharing his love of magic with young adult readers. The third novel in his “Magic Misfits” series hit the shelves this month.

Like the first two, “The Magic Misfits: The Minor Third” is packed with intrigue, villains, magic and friendship between rag-tag, tween-aged protagonists.

“Reading and literacy and literature and the tactile book has always been something that's been really important to me growing up,” he says, “and as a parent, even more so.”

Interview Highlights

On how writing young adult novels fits into his career

“I think because I have such weird likes that kind of run all over the place, putting together a middle grade fiction series was exactly where my brain often sits. I had just finished and was doing “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” Daniel Handler's series that he penned as Lemony Snicket and I recognized his ability to not only tell a very thrilling story but to be able to impart interesting sentence structure and a sense of humor and a vocabulary, so there was some education involved. This is sort of my take on that. I know magic. I live in a world hoping that it's immersive theater and that it's David Fincher's 'The Game' and somehow someone's going to pull me aside and say, 'Quick! We need your help. You have to unlock this door using this combination and there's a secret staircase and inside will be an envelope and it'll be marked and then more instructions to come.’ Like that's how I would love my life to live. And so this is kind of my version of that for intelligent middle grade kids.”

On celebrating diversity in his series

“While that's intentional, for those that haven't read the first two books, it's not something that I wanted to do and have it be the moral of the story. In fact what I think is nice about this reading level is that you can teach and you're teaching a group who are very anxious to be individuals and also to fit in. So it's a great duality. It's a complicated one because you don't want to be singled out because it's embarrassing because you want to fit in, but you don't want to just be one of many because you're special and unique and you want to stand out. And so magic is a great opportunity to teach a hobby that sort of is that. Magic by design is not the football player and group sports. It's a little more introspective. You have to practice and you have to study it and then you get to perform it. It's a little potentially embarrassing to be performing in front of other people but then you have potentially magical skills that people are impressed by. If you can do that and also have the individual dynamics be very unique in their own way but all of that is sort of couched in a sense of normalcy. These are the facts.

“We're not going to sit too deep in the fact that Leila, the escape artist girl, is adopted. We learn about her adoption and how she came to be through the plot of the story but it's not a story about adoption and what it means to have not had birth parents. I did a thing, since it's four books and there's four suits of a deck and I love magic, each book looks like a playing card if you look at it with a jacket on. And so the first book involves diamonds because the protagonist Carter meets this group in this town called Mineral Wells and there's a giant diamond that's on display and the carnival boss B.B. Bosso is trying to steal said diamond. And the second book and the second suit is about clubs and so it involves Leila, who is an escape artist, lives with Mr. Vernon and the magic shop owner and his husband the other Mr. Vernon and they learn that there's a larger club that Mr. Vernon was once a part of called the Emerald Ring. So the third book that's just coming out is based on hearts. Theo Stein-Meyer is a violinist and a prodigious one at that. You can also use his violin bow to make things levitate. And so he's having to follow his heart now in this book and figure out where his passions lie.”

On the secret behind card magic tricks

“Well I will say this, as a magician, longtime member of the magical groups, the Academy of Magical Arts, president of where the magic castle is for three years, I would be remiss to on National Public Radio expose how a magic trick is accomplished. But I will say that there are techniques and your listeners will probably have already sort of figured out what a key card principle would be. You don't have to necessarily know what, say, the top card of the deck is if you may have taken a peek at the bottom card and then, say, were to cut the deck. You might be able to ascertain what the card either below it or above it could potentially be. And now see, but here's the thing about magic right, so that's the explanation of the trick. But if someone were to do a trick and just say, 'Take a card, put on the top of the deck, I'm gonna cut the cards, I'm gonna flip it over and fan through them. Was this your card?' It's not an incredibly impressive trick. So part of what is fun about magic is the creation of the effect around that pretty simple idea.”

On how magic seeped into his childhood

“I grew up in a small town in New Mexico and I grew up in a time when there wasn't a lot to do but watch TV and I grew up at a time when Doug Henning was still doing yearly magic specials and David Copperfield, who would make the Statue of Liberty disappear and walk through the Great Wall of China. He would make an Orient Express train car, that's surrounded by people holding hands and covered with a cloth, levitate and then vanish. And I was riveted to the TV but I didn't quite know how to do it. I would go to the library and I would get books and read them and learn how to do card tricks and things. But the proper packet tricks and things that used props, I didn't quite understand until I got to Albuquerque and there was a magic shop called Fool's Paradise … On the ride home, I would open up the instructions and that's the only way you can learn the secret. The principles behind it are psychological in many ways and required persistence, perseverance [and] practice and I just think it's a great variety art to not lose.”

On acting and performing magic

“There's a big connection between magic and acting. And I think similarly there's magic in a lot of the things that we just do in our in our day-to-day interactions. Because if you think about it when you're watching a magician perform a trick, he's explaining the facts of what's happening, 'Pick a card you're going to put it in the deck. I'll shuffle the deck. The card is lost in the deck. I'm going to make it appear in an interesting way.' But those are facts that he's just explaining to you. Those may not be the actual facts. And so in enacting there are facts of a script but you're able to act around it and and fill it in. There are facts of things that happen and it's our job as humans to process what those facts mean to you and and embellish upon it.”

Neil Patrick Harris on the death of magician Ricky Jay in 2018. Jay was an American stage magician, and also an actor and writer. A New Yorker profile called him “perhaps the most gifted sleight of hand artist alive.” He died at the age of 72. The audio is below. 

Neil Patrick Harris discusses his new book, "The Magic Misfits: The Second Story" at Barnes & Noble Union Square. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)
Neil Patrick Harris discusses his new book, "The Magic Misfits: The Second Story" at Barnes & Noble Union Square. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Book Excerpt: "The Magic Misfits: The Minor Third"

By Neil Patrick Harris

Theo Stein-Meyer often dreamed about flying.

The dreams would begin with him lying in his bed, his parents snoring just down the hall. Then, as if by magic, he would find himself levitating several inches over his mattress. He would float over to his window, yank up the sash, then pull himself headfirst out into the night. Flying and swooping and swirling in the sky came to him as naturally as it did to his pet doves in the pen behind his house. He would simply squeeze something deep inside his mind, and his body would go.

Up! Up! Up! And farther still, up!

Directing himself through the sky, Theo felt just like he did while playing his violin—making melodies that skipped and flurried and sliced the air. Flying also reminded him of using his magic bow to make objects rise and dance in front of amazed audiences. You see, music and magic were Theo’s two great loves. And he loved life best when he could do both at the same time. On recent nights, however, his night-flying dreams had turned sinister. A shadowy figure moved through the town below Theo, a tall man in a top hat and cape, whose face was hidden in darkness. He was creeping through alleys and peering into houses. From way up high, Theo could hear him whispering secret enchantments that would make people do bad things.

The man’s name was Kalagan, and he was responsible for much of the trouble Theo and his friends had faced together. The real Kalagan was a mesmerist who had lived in Mineral Wells long ago, but his henchmen had appeared in town several times over the summer, attempting to carry out his nefarious agenda, only to be thwarted by the Magic Misfits. Theo feared that Kalagan would soon return to Mineral Wells to deal with the Misfits himself.

In the dream, Theo swooped lower in the sky to eavesdrop on Kalagan, who had moved into the dark- ness of an alley. The shadows between buildings seemed to grow darker, more dangerous, and the man’s whispering grew louder.


Kalagan was talking about Theo and his friends!

The mesmerist suddenly whipped around and reached up a hand toward the flying Theo, who shrieked as Kalagan dragged him down toward the ground.
“Must! Stop! Magic! Misfits!” the villain shouted.

Theo woke with a start, tangled in his sheets and gasping for breath. He struggled to free himself, taking deep breaths to calm down. He moved shakily to his window, where light at the line of trees near the horizon was bringing the late-summer morning to life. Was Kalagan somewhere nearby, looking back at him? Everything was quiet, but Theo knew the stillness would last only so long. (This is how the world works, after all.) But for now, he allowed it to seep into his skin and ease him back to sleep.

Later that day, Mineral Wells was wide-awake and buzzing. Cars circled the center of town, passing quaint shops and stands while drivers looked for a rare parking space. Families strolled down sidewalks, while men in suits and women in smart dresses darted in and out of the town hall and the courthouse.

The air was warm and slightly humid, but an occasional breeze kept everyone comfortable. If the residents and visitors listened closely, they could hear a melody carried by that breeze—a lively waltz played on a violin. The musician was a boy dressed in a tuxedo, who had gathered with his friends at the gazebo in the town green to practice for the upcoming Mineral Wells talent show.

Theo danced his bow across the strings. His friends Carter, Leila, Ridley, Olly, and Izzy were standing to the sides. At Theo’s feet, a teddy bear hopped and hovered as if it had been enchanted to life. When Theo sped up the waltz, the bear bounced more quickly, and when Theo slowed, the bear followed dreamily, as if listening.

As the song neared its climax, the bear began to rise up in front of Theo. One foot, two feet, three, four! And as Theo played the final note, he whipped his violin and bow to the side as he reached out to
catch the bear with his other hand. At the last moment, however, Theo’s eyes caught on a darkly dressed figure in the distance, and his fist closed on empty air. It looked just like the evil man from his dreams.



“Hey, Theo!”

Theo blinked and looked around to find his friends staring at him. He shivered, unsure if his eyes had been playing tricks on him.

“What happened?” Ridley asked, her red curls vibrating as she shook her head. “That was so good up until the end!”

“I apologize,” Theo answered, his cheeks flushing.

“My mind wandered.”

“All our minds have been doing that lately,” Leila said, walking over to squeeze Theo’s elbow in support. “My mind hasn’t only been wandering,” said Olly.

“It’s been positively exploring!”

“Hiking!” proclaimed his twin sister, Izzy. “Spelunking!”

“My mind took a steamer ship to Antarctica,” Izzy said with a grin.

“My mind became friends with polar bears!” Olly countered.

“Wrong continent,” Ridley said, cutting the twins off. She pressed a button on her wheelchair and a “wrong answer!” buzzer vibrated the gazebo. Then she smiled.

“The Magic Misfits have been through a lot,” said Carter. “It’s okay to have trouble concentrating sometimes, Theo.”

Ridley sighed. “Not concentrating isn’t going to help us win the talent show. We’ve got to stay focused. That prize money is nothing to scoff at.”

The Mineral Wells Talent Show was less than two weeks away, and many residents of the town had already signed up to show off operatic voices, hula dances, tightrope walks, gymnastic routines, monologue recitations, and more.

“Who’s scoffing?” said Carter. “It’s more money than I’ve ever seen. If we win, I’ll finally be able to pay everyone back for all their help since I came to Mineral Wells. And if there’s any money left over, I’m get- ting one of those fancy cabinets that famous magicians use to make people disappear on stage!”

“You don’t owe anybody anything,” Leila argued back at her cousin.

“Except maybe a smile now and then. If we win, I’m getting a Leila-sized water tank so I can practice holding my breath while breaking out of my straitjacket.”

“Me and Olly are gonna get a couple pairs of the shiniest golden tap shoes the world’s ever seen,” Izzy jumped in.

“Speak for yourself, sis,” Olly replied. “I’d rather buy myself some lessons in stage combat so I’ll be ready for the next time we have to fight Kalagan’s goons.”

“Why not just take real combat lessons?” asked Rid- ley, rolling her eyes. “Then you’ll be ready for fights that happen off stage too.”

Olly’s eyes lit up. “That’s a great idea!”

Ridley gave him a small nod. “With that prize money, I’d upgrade my wheelchair with the new gadgets I’ve been working on. I could even make it transform.

Excerpted from "The Magic Misfits: The Minor Third" by Neil Patrick Harris. Copyright © 2019 by Neil Patrick Harris. Republished with permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKennaSerena McMahon adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on September 23, 2019.


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