In “A Pickpocket’s Tale,” in the Jan. 7 issue of The New Yorker, Adam Green told the engrossing story of professional thief Apollo Robbins, who has plucked personal items from celebrities, the master magician Penn Jillette and Secret Service agents, among many hundreds of befuddled others. Robbins is so good (“the Mozart of pickpockets,” Green called him the other day on Twitter), neuroscientists and the military are studying his methods, “for what they reveal about the nature of human attention.”

Green studied English literature, “without much distinction,” he says, at Harvard, where he was an editor of The Harvard Lampoon. He was a staff writer for Saturday Night Live and a screenwriter before giving up show business “for the lucrative field of print journalism.” He is the theater critic for Vogue and a regular contributor to The New Yorker. Green wouldn’t tell us how one pickpocket target’s driver’s license ended up in a sealed bag of M&M’s (and he knows; he knows!) but he did tell us how he found the Robbins story:

As an adolescent, I was a magic geek – I hung around at Tannen’s magic store in Times Square after school, practiced card tricks obsessively at night under the covers by flashlight, and performed shows at kids’ birthday parties on the weekends. I never went on to become a famous, or particularly accomplished, magician, but over the years, I’ve kept an oar in those waters. In fact, the first piece I wrote for The New Yorker was a Talk of the Town story about the funeral of a great sleight-of-hand man named Frank Garcia, who had taught me the niceties of a card move called “The Glide” one afternoon at Tannen’s when I was 13 or so. But the idea of a story about Apollo Robbins came from Ace Greenberg, the former chairman of Bear Stearns, a serious magic aficionado who hosts a monthly gathering at his apartment for the best magicians in New York and those who happen to be in town. Robbins attended one of these evenings, during which he delighted Greenberg by stealing (and returning) his Patek Philippe watch. Greenberg mentioned Robbins to my editor at The New Yorker, Susan Morrison, who thought it sounded up my alley. When I called Greenberg, he said, “I’m telling you, this kid is something else.” He was right.

“How’d you find that story?” seeks to demystify one of the hardest parts of storytelling: finding a great idea. If you’re wondering how a certain writer landed a narrative, e-mail us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org, and we’ll try to get you an answer. 

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