Writer develops new twist on popular theme

Sunday, November 23, 2003

NAPERVILLE, Ill.-- Jonathan Stroud stands before his young bookstore audience with colored markers and big pad of paper. He wants to know what they think a traditional magician looks like.

"Tall, pointy hat," one girl says.

"Long beard," says another.

"Magic wand."

"Curly shoes."

"Right!" Stroud says, quickly adding each component to his drawing.

And that, he tells them, is exactly the sort of magician he didn't want in his new book, "The Amulet of Samarkand," the first installment in what he's calling the Bartimaeus trilogy.

Some in the book world see so much promise in the series that they've deemed it "the next Harry Potter." The first book -- recently released both in Stroud's native England and the United States -- is already being turned into a movie by Miramax Films, sister company to the Disney affiliates that are publishing the book in this country.

Stroud, a 33-year-old author who lives just outside London, is well aware of the inevitable comparisons to J.K. Rowling's wildly popular Harry Potter series. As a former children's book editor, he knew magic was a hot topic when he began writing this book.

"The problem was wanting to do something different," he says of the idea, which came to him as he walked home from work in the rain one evening more than two years ago.

Creating characters

After arriving home, he sat down and almost immediately wrote the first three chapters -- "It all just came out of nowhere."

The magicians in his story are, in fact, the bad guys.

"And they look something like this," Stroud tells the audience, flipping his paper pad to a new page and drawing another figure. The crowd of young people and parents who've gathered at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, Ill., smile and laugh.

This time, the magician is a youngish man in a business suit, carrying a brief case. His name is Simon Lovelace, and he's the book's main villain. "I suspect he has all kinds of evil traits," Stroud says with a smirk.

The protagonists are Nathaniel, a young apprentice magician who wavers between doing good and evil, and Bartimaeus, a "djinni" -- or, in the Western world, a "genie." But Bartimaeus is no eager-to-please do-gooder flowing out of a bottle.

Stroud, a tall, dark-haired chap with a friendly face, had a cheeky glint in his eye when he sat down to discuss his book in an interview with The Associated Press.

"I wanted my 'djinni' to be tougher," he says of the shape-shifting Bartimaeus, who can appear as anything, from a bird or human being to a slithering puff of smoke. Narrating some of the story himself, Bartimaeus is a cocky, larger-than-life personality whom Nathaniel conjures up in the first chapter.

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