While most people watching a magician sawing a woman in half during a performance typically wonder how it’s done, Greer Macallister’s curiosity extended far beyond such a prosaic concern: instead, she wondered why she had never seen or even read of a female magician sawing a man in half. “Who would such a woman be?” she recalls wondering about five years ago, before coming up with her answer: “The Amazing Arden,” the lead character in The Magician’s Lie (Sourcebooks, Jan. 2015).

Her publisher is touting the debut novel as “Water for Elephants meets Night Circus.” As it opens in 1905, Holt, a young policeman in smalltown Iowa, is using multiple sets of handcuffs to lock “The Amazing Arden” to a chair so that he can interrogate the illusionist about the body of a man found beneath the stage after her act. Macallister explains, “She has one night to convince him that she is innocent of the crime,” prompting Arden to lead Holt through the twists and turns of her life all the way back to her early teens, when an older male cousin broke her leg so that she could not enter ballet school and become a dancer.

“The question is, do you believe the story being told?” Macallister asks. “What is the truth and what is an illusion?” The Magician’s Lie is as much about “the magic that happens in the real world as it is about the magic that happens in front of an audience,” she says. It’s also “a love story of sorts.”

Macallister says that she set The Magician’s Lie at the turn of the 20th century as “it was not impossible” during the golden age of vaudeville for a woman to gain popularity as a magician, “although it was unlikely.” In fact, she adds, while “The Amazing Arden” is a completely fictional character, because “I wanted to tell the story of a woman magician who cuts a man in half and I didn’t have a historical precedent,” a secondary character, Adelaide Herrmann, is an actual historical figure. Billing herself as the “Queen of Magic,” Herrmann was a noted magician and vaudeville performer at the time in which The Magician’s Lie is set.

While Macallister confesses that she is quite adept when it comes to writing about magic tricks, she is “terrible” when actually trying her hand at performing them. But, she points out, “Writing is a kind of magic. You’re asking your reader to believe in a world that doesn’t exist. That’s what magic is. You know while you’re reading that you’re not really in a police station in 1905, just like you know while watching a magician perform that someone isn’t really being cut in half. My goal is to have you completely swept away to that world, while telling a fascinating story.”

Speaking of being swept away into Macallister’s world, booksellers are invited to Sourcebooks’ booth (921) today, 1–2 p.m., where she will be signing galley copies.