Author Interview: Lev Grossman

I absolutely loved Lev Grossman’s novels The Magicians and The Magician King. I’ve written an article and a couple of reviews about them (here, here and here), and at a certain point I started to worry that maybe I was over-analyzing and seeing things in the books that the author didn’t intend to put in there. So I’m beyond thrilled that Lev agreed to this interview, allowing me to run a few ideas and questions by him!

Be warned: this discussion presumes you’ve read both novels. There will be spoilers.

And a second warning: this ended up being a long interview. You may want to grab a snack before you start reading!

Far Beyond Reality: Lev, I know you recently put the hammer down and even took leave from Time Magazine to focus on writing the third Magicians book, so I appreciate that you’re taking the time to do this interview. How is work on the new novel progressing?

Lev Grossman: At the risk of provoking the wrath of the notoriously wrathful novel-writing deities … it’s going well. I spent a lot of time walking around thinking about the outline for this book — mainly because I didn’t have much time to do more than that for a couple of months — and as a result I feel more sure-footed this time. I know a lot about the mood and the shape of the book. There’s less guesswork than there has been in the past.

And plus we’re in the endgame now. There aren’t a thousand different directions this thing could be branching off in. In The Magician King Quentin went flying out over the horizon. Anything could have happened. But now the lines are converging instead of diverging. A finite and ever-dwindling number of things can happen at this point. All the threads have to be tied up. Everything must go.

FBR: Speaking of the number of things that could happen at any point, how much of The Magician King did you have planned out when you were writing The Magicians? I’m specifically curious about Julia’s plot line and her path to mastering magic, which I thought was one of the strongest parts of the second novel but happened more or less at the same time as the events in The Magicians?

Lev Grossman: I didn’t plan any of it. At all. When I was writing The Magicians I didn’t have a publisher, and I didn’t know if anybody would ever buy it. Thinking about a sequel seemed like a guaranteed jinx.

Though now that I’ve said that, I was surprised at how naturally the sequel flowed out of the first book. I don’t think I would’ve gone ahead with it if it hadn’t. I guess it’s a measure of how fractal stories are — the same way you can zoom in on the Mandelbrot set forever, if you focus in on one seemingly minor element in a story, like the Julia thread, it expands, and you find the same complexity there as you did in the main plotlines. You can go down and down forever. Or at least as far as a sequel, anyway.

FBR: That’s interesting. Those two plot lines fit together so perfectly that I assumed you’d created them at the same time. For a while I even thought that you’d shown Julia with all her new powers in the final scene of The Magicians specifically to set up her plot line for the sequel. How about the new details we learn in The Magician King about the nature of the Neitherlands? Are they something you’d planned out from the beginning? Is the vague similarity between the Welters board and the Neitherlands a coincidence? And are we going to learn more about the Neitherlands in the third book?

Lev Grossman: Oh, the Neitherlands will come up. It’s too useful not to. In a lot of ways it’s a gloss on the Wood Between the Worlds in The Magician’s Nephew, and I don’t know how CS Lewis got away from having the Wood dominate the whole rest of the series after he introduced it (except that he didn’t feel like it, and Lewis, in his wonderful way, never let his worldbuilding get in the way of doing whatever he felt like it).

But I don’t want to spend too much time with the gods in the third book. I won’t let these books get stuck going up and up the power chain, to the point where all that’s left is vast armies and titanic beings swapping blasts of infinite power. As Penny points out, the deeper you go, the less interesting that stuff is. It’s the human scale stuff, the human stakes, that are interesting.

FBR: I’m so glad you mentioned C.S. Lewis, because now I don’t have to try and find a segue into one of the topics I’m most curious about. It’s obvious that both novels are full of references to Narnia and other fantasy classics. To ease us into this, can you start off by talking a bit about your early reading experiences, how you discovered fantasy, and the effect that the genre had on you at the time?

Lev Grossman: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the first chapter-book I can remember reading. Everybody reads it, I know, but it had a weirdly personal feeling for me and my siblings, partly because my mother was in the Blitz, and got sent to the countryside, just like the Pevensie kids (though unlike them she was sent back to the city by her hosts for naughtiness). Then later she went to Oxford and met C.S. Lewis there.

But when we got older, my parents made it clear that fantasy wasn’t considered respectable reading material. They were both university English professors (Brandeis, Smith, UC Irvine, and lastly Johns Hopkins), and as such they were high priests of the literary canon, my father especially, who is maybe one of the most terrifying literary academics ever. Ask any of his students, they’ll back me up.

But it was too late! Despite the parental scorn — and of course partly because of it — I became obsessed with fantasy and its allied genres and media: science fiction, comic books and video games.

But especially fantasy: Lewis, Tolkien, TH White, Fritz Lieber, Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, the late Anne McCaffrey. I was a moody child. I didn’t like reality much; I liked the idea that there might be an alternative. I didn’t believe in it — I wasn’t delusional. But I liked it.

FBR: The parallels with Quentin, who also “didn’t like reality much” and found comfort in his Fillory books, are obvious, but presumably unlike you, Quentin discovers that magic and Fillory are real. The shocker is that they’re completely different from what he expected: real magic is very different from fiction, one of the Chatwins is a monster, some of the inhabitants of Fillory are at best obnoxious. At one point, Quentin says: “I got my heart’s desire […] and there my troubles began.” The Magicians feels like one big commentary on escapism, on losing that ability to find refuge in fiction. To what extent is escapism a theme in the books?

Lev Grossman: Oh, it’s definitely part of it. Escapism is such a huge part of our lives, not just in fantasy, or even just in books, but all around us every day — on TV, in movies, in magazine ads. We’re crowded in by all these idealized worlds, full of beaches and parties with beautiful people drinking beer at them and so on. To the point where you’re forced to ask yourself, why don’t I look like that? Why isn’t my life like that? How do I negotiate between my reality and these worlds, which are so very alluring, and which look so extremely real?

Personally I’ve had a long love affair with escapism, but I wanted to write about both its pleasures and its dangers, the way it can suck the life out of your real, primary life. I think writing The Magicians was in part a way for me to deal with and accept the fact that I am never, ever going to get to go to Narnia. Or Hogwarts. Which by the way, I was always struck by how little Harry Potter was interested in that sort of thing — he never reads novels or anything like that.  But I think a real boy who lived through what Harry lived through would have read the Narnia books about a thousand times, which is why I wanted Quentin to start out as a fantasy fan.

I’ve come across reviews of The Magicians that treat it as a criticism of escapism and people who like escapist fiction. But I don’t think that’s right at all. I love escapism. I wanted The Magicians to be about escapist fiction, while at the same time being a work of escapist fiction itself.

FBR: I don’t see the books as a criticism of escapism at all, but I can somewhat understand the reaction because they do use Narnia and to a lesser extent Harry Potter — two of the most beloved examples of YA escapist fantasy ever — as building blocks for a story in which someone’s escapist dreams completely fall apart. Some people felt that you weren’t just mocking escapism but also these and other books and authors. Did you expect that reaction at all, and do you wish to offer a rebuttal?

Lev Grossman: I didn’t expect that reaction. Which just goes to show how naive I was as a writer. Readers find so much stuff in the books that I never anticipated, both good and bad. And that seems fine to me, I think that’s just how reading works.

Though I’ll admit that it bothers me personally when people assume, based on that, that I hate Harry Potter or fantasy or whatever. I love Harry Potter. If you’ve been to more Harry Potter conventions than I have, then you can tell me how I feel about Harry Potter.

No rebuttal. The books are the rebuttal.

FBR: Before I read the novels, I only knew you as Time Magazine’s literary critic, and I’m sure other people were in the same situation. Do you think that may have colored perceptions? Maybe in future editions the author photo should be one of you in full Dumbledore cosplay regalia?

Lev Grossman: Oh, sure. It’s been a big problem for me. Or at least it feels like one. People have all kinds of ideas about who I am — like I’m this 60-something bow-tied Ivy-educated condescending asshole who’s making fun of fantasy fans. I don’t blame them, I’d probably think that too. But it changes the way they read the books, which is a shame.

That’s partly why I started a blog, so people could get a look at who I am outside of Time. If you meet me you it’s pretty obvious that I’m just another nerdy guy with self-esteem problems like everybody else. But most people haven’t met me.

FBR: Speaking of nerdy guys with self-esteem issues: Harry Potter understandably came up in many reviews, but how about The Neverending Story’s Bastian Balthasar Bux? He found out Fantastica was real, became its ruler, and (in the second half of the novel, which didn’t make it into the movie adaptation) discovered it wasn’t so much fun to be in charge after all. Would you consider that novel an influence, and are there any others you want to mention aside from the obvious ones?

Lev Grossman: Embarrassingly enough TNS wasn’t part of my childhood nerd canon. I’ve never even read it. Same with Edward Eager, who I get asked about a lot. Though I’ve since made my daughter read him and report back.

I’m surprised more people don’t mention The Phantom Tollbooth — another fantasy classic that features an obvious juvenile depression case. From a style point of view, I studied Neal Stephenson and Jonathan Franzen very, very closely; they’re not as far apart as you’d think. What else? There are a lot of non-fantasy influences. A lot of people (including Donna Tartt) have spotted the obvious debts to The Secret History. Not so many pick up on everything I stole from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, including the book’s entire structure.

FBR: The interview answer that launched a thousand grad papers! Aside from influences on your novels, are there any recent or forthcoming SF and fantasy novels you’d like to recommend to your fans?

Lev Grossman: Oh God, it seems like there’s so much good stuff going on right now. Off the top of my head: Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon is a marvelously deft and smart and self-aware transposition of mid-20th-century swashbuckling swords-and-sworcery to an Islamic context. If you can get ahold of it, read Catherynne Valente’s collected stories, Ventriloquism (I wrote an introduction to it), and you’ll see that there is nothing she can’t do with words: it’s like each story in there could launch its own independent aesthetic movement. If you like my stuff in particular, I cannot recommend highly or urgently enough Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes, which is a profoundly intelligent and moving work of trench-level epic fantasy, man vs man slugging it out with broadswords in the mud and wondering what the hell they’re doing it for.

FBR: What’s a typical “day in the office” like for you? If there is such a thing as a typical day, of course, but at least the closest equivalent you can think of. Any daily routines, writing habits, things you absolutely need or can’t abide while you’re working?

Lev Grossman: Well, my days come in two distinct flavors, depending on whether I’m working at Time or working on fiction. When I’m at Time, my typical day at the office is pretty much a typical day at the office. When I’m doing fiction, it’s even less interesting. If I’m working on a novel, I do that and nothing else, or as little else as possible. I’m a terrible multi-tasker. Once the kids are awake and fed and processed, and coffee has been made or otherwise obtained, I’ll hole up in my study for as much free time as I can block out. Eight hours, ten hours — I’m a binger. It takes me an hour or so to get up to speed, but once I’m in it, once I’m fully engaged with whatever fictional world I’m writing about, and whatever voice I’m writing about it in, I’ll stay dialled in and writing till real life intrudes again.

God knows, that’s not the only way to write. A lot of people chip away at it, doing 30 minutes a day or so. I would do that if I could. But it never worked for me.

FBR: Speaking of the writing process, you recently wrote on your blog “But for some reason you have to do it wrong in every possible way before it finally comes out right,” specifically referring to plotting. What are some of the major changes you made along the way between first draft and final product? Anything that would surprise your readers?

Lev Grossman: There’s actually a lot of things that would probably surprise readers. And maybe depress them. My early drafts are really, really weird and bad — it’s that thing about making sausages, they’re yummy, but you don’t want to see where they come from. For example: in early versions of The Magicians (spoilers), the Beast was a one-off. He turned up but never came back. I hadn’t figured out who he was yet. Likewise I hadn’t figured out who should die at the end — my first thought was Janet, and I had a big Janet-death-scene in there for quite a few drafts. If you look really closely you can still see her death foreshadowed in a couple of early scenes, but happily for her it hasn’t come. Yet.

FBR: That “yet” sounds ominous. Can you give us any hints of what to expect in the novel you’re writing now?

Lev Grossman: I could. I shouldn’t. But I will say a couple of things. This is the third and — as far as I know — last book in the series, so I’ll be closing all the remaining unclosed loops, or at least al the ones I can think of. The book will begin back at Brakebills, from a point of view we haven’t seen before. It will be a grander and a bit more joyful sort of a book than the last one. If The Magician King used The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as a point of reference, the touchstones for the new book will be The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle. I guess one could point out that those are the books that recounted the birth of Narnia and the destruction of Narnia. I wouldn’t, mind you. But one could.

FBR: I can’t wait to get my hands on it! Final question: what are your plans after this novel? Can we expect more fantasy from you in the future?

Lev Grossman: I have an idea for a post-Magicians novel. Possibly a series. I’m not sure what to call it — we’re definitely not in reality, but I’m not sure if fantasy is the right word for it either. I work on it whenever I lose momentum on the new Magicians book — I’ve written, I don’t know, 15,000 words? I learned so much from writing The Magicians books, it’s incredibly fun to be able to use all that to build a new world and a new story from the ground up. And make all-new mistakes instead of the same old ones.

Thanks to Lev Grossman for his patience during this long interview!

Buy Lev Grossman’s novels:

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11 Responses to Author Interview: Lev Grossman

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  6. Brooks says:

    This is such a great interview and full of so much new information! Who knew that Franzen was such an influence in The Magicians? And Brideshead Revisited? I also get the feeling that Lev and I share an affection for The Magician’s Nephew…

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