James Hall on Writing Magic City

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I’d always loved Cassius Clay. He was from Kentucky as I was and he was brash and charismatic and liked to spout doggerel. He smiled into the camera lights and made funny faces. He was a brave kid, spunky and funny and quick as lightning.

So in a period of nostalgia, as I was looking through old newspapers from the year that I first came to South Florida (1964) and I discovered that Cassius had been here then too, training for his championship fight with Sonny Liston, I said bingo. I started pouring over everything I could find about that period in Miami—1963-1965, and after a short while I knew I had to find some way to set a large portion of the novel during that era.

So much was going on in Miami and across the country in the early 60’s. But the thing that really brought it all together for me was Operation Northwoods. I got a whiff of it when reading about the Cuban immigration that was occurring in the early sixties. Then I started digging and found the document itself, revealed in a Freedom of Information search. It was a secret plan drawn up by the Joint Chief’s of Staff that had eerie echoes to the misinformation campaign leading up to the Iraq invasion. It was, in short, a plan to provoke a war with Cuba.

I realized that I wanted to write about this aspect of “how Miami got to be Miami.” And in doing that I wanted to write about politics and about Cassius Clay—a man who became a symbol of anti-war sentiments years later when he refused to go to Vietnam. So then the problem was simple. Fuse the story of Cassius Clay’s fight for the heavyweight championship with some fictional event right out of Operation Northwoods. Voila: I invented a photograph that created that fusion and I was off to the races.

And once again, poor old Thorn jumps (literally) right into the middle of it.