No warlocks, mudbloods, boggarts, house elves, sorting hats, phoenixes, anamagi, or magic of any kind.
There's a character in the story, "Divining," who believes in magic---sympathetic magic of a New Agey kind. Ellis Irivng, desperately and improbably combining cynicism and extreme gullibility in his search for a new job, love, happiness, and a cure for chronic anxieties of various descriptions, rejects science---"Just how is it possible that something as heavy as this multi-ton airplane can be held up by air? Science should not be trusted."---and puts his faith in seances, the I Ching, vitamins, zinc, liquified celery, sea kelp, and foot-readers (like palm readers but offering extra services to assuage the loneliness they sense while massaging your toes).
Ellis is a believer in a magic cure for being himself. He wants to change without having to work at it. The story gets under way when he signs up for a seminar with a guru who diagnoses Ellis as having been "Californicated."
This is the guru's way of saying "divorced from reality and in need of a waking-up by being thrown kicking and screaming back into real life."
But while Ellis and the other characters in Meeks' stories are in one way or another, and to varying degrees, "Californicated," even the New Yorkers among them, they and the stories that contain them are firmly rooted in this universe where the only magic available to to save any of them is the only kind available to save any of us, self-awareness and self-discipline.
Still, one of Meeks' literary role-models these days in J.K Rowling.
I caught up with Meeks by phone at his house in Los Angeles---Meeks was born in Minnesota and educated in Colorado, but he's been Californian, although not Californicated, since 1977---after he'd just come home from teaching a class in Children's Literature at the Arts Center College of Design in Pasedena. Having done my homework, I knew Meeks was teaching the course and I made him talk about it because I wanted to talk about it. I've given my list of what I think are the best American fiction of the last 25 years, but if I had to make a list of what I think are the best books from anywhere of the last 12 years or so---the decade plus since I became a father---the list would include more than a few children's books, including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
All the books I've read to and with the Mannion boys have had a significant influence for the better on my writing, I think. Commenter Cryptic Ned wrote once that my habit of writing in short paragraphs here is proof I've worked as a professional writer.
No doubt all the journalism I've done has had something to do with it.
But the short paragraphs are really a sign that I've read a lot of Beatrix Potter stories plus Graham Greene's essay on Potter.
So I have children's lit on the brain.
At most schools, courses in children's literature are designed for education majors and the focus is on teaching the books. Meeks' class is for art majors who are studying illustration, and because they need original works to illustrate, an important part of their course work is writing their own stories, which makes it into a class in creative writing.
Along with Olivia, Where the Wild Things Are, The Kingfisher Treasury of Myths and Legends, and other works, Meeks has his class reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which means he's reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, again, which is fine with him anyway, but more so these days as he's putting the finishing touches on a new novel.
Meeks admires Rowling's writing for her dialogue, the way she keeps her plots moving, doling out exposition in bits and pieces as needed, and her skill at sketching characters on the fly, drawing their portraits in short but definitive strokes without slowing down her story, actually making description a part of the action.
He highlights her character desciptions and when he's been stuck writing his own novel he's gone back to Rowling to see how she's handled similar situations and problems.
Talking about Rowling, Meeks is making the case that good writing is not a matter of stringing pretty sentences together, not that Rowling can turn out a pretty sentence. Good writing is a matter of structure, the way the elements of a story are put together, what comes next and how much, how the artistic parts, the pretty sentences and clever dialogue, move the characters and the plot forward.
Rowling knows how to put together a story.
But Meeks emphasized something else he likes about Rowling. Her sense of fun. She seems to him to be having a grand time writing her novels and she wants them to be fun to read.
This, says Meeks, is a trait and a talent she has in common with his first major literary influence, Kurt Vonnegut.
Back in his college days at the University of Denver, Meeks spent his junior year abroad in Denmark. He'd stepped on the toes of a girl at a party the year before. The girl was Danish. It was love. He went to Denmark to be with her.
When he got there he found she was living with another guy.
One day, searching the house he was staying at, the house of the parents of that girl, desperate for something to read, he came across a copy of Cat's Cradle. In English. It turned out that his hostess had an almost complete collection of Vonnegut's works to date.
What Meeks learned from Vonnegut was that writing could be fun.
Meeks describes his apprentice writer self at that time as resistant to humor.
Vonnegut gave him the freedom to be funny, even when writing about the most painful aspects of life.
End of Part One. Part Two, Who writes a gladiator movie?, follows below.