Q&A with magician and alum Joshua Jay
Every day is magical for 2005 Department of English alumnus Joshua Jay, a globally known magician and instructional magic author who has performed for the likes of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Fallon and James Corden.
With appearances in more than 100 countries, a private magic show in New York City that costs more than $100 to attend, three published books and three more on the way, you could say his career has been as captivating as his tricks.
Jay will be at Ohio State on Oct. 11, 2019, to deliver the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies Public Lecture, in which he will discuss Reginald Scott’s 16th-century The Discoverie of Witchcraft — and of course perform some illusions. We sat down with him in advance to learn more about his background, current projects and time at Ohio State.
What first drew you toward magic?
My dad — also an Ohio State graduate, class of ’72 — did a magic trick for me when I was 6 years old. And he did NOT tell me how it was done. I was instantly hooked, and spent hours reverse-engineering the card trick he showed me. And it was that process — of figuring it out — that sparked my passion.
Can you talk about your magic show “Six Impossible Things” and where it’s going in the future?
Right now, this show is my focus. It’s been both the most frustrating and rewarding endeavor of my career. "Six Impossible Things" is an immersive magic show, meaning that the 20 people who attend each show are walking through several environments, each one tailored to an original piece of magic.
We do two shows each night, and it’s the only magic show of its kind. By having such a tiny audience, it allows me to interact with everyone. Every person has magic happen in THEIR hands: standing, seated, on the floor, even one on one. The show was meant to run for just 30 performances, but we’ve been extended three times and I think they’re talking about a fourth extension.
What magicians are your biggest inspirations?
I have so many inspirations in and out of magic. In magic, I love Juan Tamariz and Tommy Wonder, two magicians most people have never heard of, but remain stunning talents I’m in awe of. And outside of magic, I have a disparate list of influences. Jim Henson, Steven Spielberg, Walt Disney, Bob Dylan and more.
How did you decide to pursue English at Ohio State?
My dad gave me the best advice before college. He told me to take classes that interested me, and not worry about what I “needed” or would look good on a resume. I took his advice to heart — perhaps too much, since at the time of graduation I had taken so many classes on film and writing that I couldn’t use half of them for credit in any way.
What’s your favorite part about performing magic?
It’s shifted over time. I used to love the obvious parts: the end of the show, meeting people afterward, the feeling of rocking a room. But it’s become much more personal and about the creation of the material itself. So now, I take a particular satisfaction in a new wrinkle or idea or concept that goes over well in a show. It may be a secret sleight that nobody sees, but I BEAM inside when a new idea serves its purpose.
What’s the most difficult trick you’ve ever performed?
I set the Guinness World Record three years ago for card tricks. The technical title is "Most Selected Cards found from a Shuffled Deck in One Minute." I trained for months to be able to do it, and I found 21 cards.
Can you give us a preview of your upcoming lecture hosted by the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies on Oct. 11?
Thompson Library has a first edition The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, which is the first magic book in the English language — first published in 1584. This is a hugely important book, and not just for magicians. It was a first in many ways (I now own a first edition as well, and it’s one of my prized possessions). I’ll be discussing this book and drawing some parallels between it and some of the material I intend to perform. As to what, specifically, I’ll perform and talk about ... a magician never reveals his secrets in advance.
How has your Ohio State English education contributed to your success?
In more ways than I can list. I majored in English, which means I have a piece of paper that says I took a particular number of classes. But more importantly, I discovered a genuine passion for writing on campus, thanks to fantastic professors like Michelle Herman and Christopher Highley and Lee Martin. My senior thesis became my first book, MAGIC: The Complete Course, and I consider myself a storyteller, so all the things I learned about crafting a narrative apply to my work now. It’s just that I express those stories through magic instead of the printed page.
What was your favorite place, class or tradition as an Ohio State student?
Off-campus it was a place called the Blue Danube, which sadly closed after something like 40 years of business. It was greasy burger joint that was open until 2 a.m. every night. And I’ve always been a night owl, so many nights you could find me reading or studying at that place. On campus I loved Mirror Lake, and I played pickup basketball games many nights at Jesse Owens North.
Can you talk a little bit about your work as an author?
Sure. I’ve written three books for the public, and have three more under contract. My first three books are all instructional for people wishing to begin in magic. The next book is for kids. It’s called Magic Mail and will come out in February. It’s a toy mailbox that a kid places on his or her nightstand. Then, each day for a month, a letter from me appears in the mailbox teaching them about wherever I’m at in the world that day.
I’ve also just finished a draft of a book, due out August 2020, that is my love letter to the world of magic. It’s all about the best magicians in the world, the psychology of magic, the history of our craft and all the things magicians don’t tell their audiences.
Can you elaborate on your experience designing on-screen illusions, such as your recent collaboration with HBO for “Game of Thrones”?
The thing is, I’m excited about ANYTHING related to magic. So when HBO called and asked if I could help them come up with illusions for commercials promoting "Game of Thrones," I jumped at the chance. In the commercial (and this was for season two, which feels like an eternity ago), I pulled a sword out of an iPad, and caused a scroll to catch fire through the screen. It came out great, which was fun.
Tips for aspiring authors, entertainers or magicians?
My only tip is to find your passion. I wake up happy and fulfilled every day because I found what I was meant to be doing. Magic just makes sense to me. It’s the lens that I see the world through. And my hope for everyone is that they find their magic, because the rest of it — the books, the TV, the touring — all fell into place when I was doing what I was meant to be doing.
Any exciting future plans?
My show reopens in NYC Oct. 24, and I’m so excited to get back into that rhythm of performing it nightly. Before that, I’ll be heading to Vegas for a week of shows, and then I'm off to the UK for a month-long tour. When I get back I have speaking engagements at Harvard and some other universities, including Ohio State! Then I’m the Artist in Residence at the University of Chicago for a week of shows, talks and workshops.