Interview with Lev Grossman

Posted by Goodreads on August 6, 2009
TIME magazine book critic Lev Grossman's latest book, The Magicians, is the story of a callow, young magician—not to be confused with Harry Potter. Although the book has been billed as a pastiche of classics from the fantasy genre, including a twisted homage to The Chronicles of Narnia, Grossman injects unexpected realism into the world of magic—think Holden Caulfield at Hogwarts. It's a far cry from the style of his previous endeavors, Warp and Codex, but all three novels share a common theme of 20-something confusion. The Harvard grad talked with Goodreads about the malaise of young overachievers and why women in glasses will always be sexy.

Goodreads: Fantasy literature is full of young characters who discover magical worlds. Why is this classic equation continually compelling to readers?

Lev Grossman: I think everybody feels a bit out of place in life—like they've been slightly miscast or incorrectly routed. We're wired to expect the world to be brighter and more meaningful and more obviously interesting than it actually is. And when we realize that it isn't, we start looking around for the real world.

I read a lot of fantasy when I was young, but I especially loved books where kids found a way to break through into a new world, where magic was real. Like Narnia, or The Wizard of Oz, or (a particular favorite) The Phantom Tollbooth. Of course, in all these books the big lesson is that at the end of the book you have to go home again, and not complain about it. As you'll see if you read The Magicians, I have a problem with that.

GR: The Magicians seems to be half an homage and half a deconstruction of fantasy worlds that have become part of our culture—notably C.S. Lewis's Narnia is paralled by your world, Fillory. What was the original inspiration for your story and the Brakebills college of magic?

LG: A major inspiration was Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, which at the time I first started thinking about writing the book in 1996, was the major precedent for a story about the education of a magician. But by the time I started working on it in earnest in 2004, obviously Harry Potter was in full cry. I was still in love with the idea of writing about the education of a magician, but after I read Rowling I realized I wanted to push it a little further in the direction of the real world, grow it up a bit, make it more self-aware, and see what happened. I wanted to write something that was both a fantasy novel and about fantasy novels at the same time.

The other inspiration wasn't fantasy at all. It was Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. You could think of Brakebills as a combination of Le Guin's Roke and Waugh's Oxford, with maybe a little bit of Hampden College—from Donna Tartt's The Secret History—mixed in for seasoning.

GR: There is no clear villain throughout most of The Magicians—no White Witch, Voldemort, or Sauron looming over the characters' futures. Similarly, in real life, most people don't have epic good vs. evil battles to prep for. How does this reality impact your protagonist, Quentin, as he develops his magical skills?

LG: That's one of the major ways in which the universe of The Magicians is different from, say, the Potterverse. Voldemort is the ultimate evil, and as such he has a powerful organizing effect on Harry's world. You can divide most (though not all) people into good or evil. And you know what your job is: You're supposed to beat the villain.

In The Magicians there is no ultimate evil. The world is less black and white and more shades of gray. As a result the story isn't about using magic to fight evil, it's about trying to figure out what the hell magic is for. It's still an adventure, but a different kind of adventure.

GR: Like Quentin in The Magicians, Edward, the main character of your previous novel, Codex, is smart, successful, and yet miserable. (Together these books also reveal your weakness for women in "uncharacteristically hip" glasses.) Does happiness stem from external accomplishments or something internal? Is this an overarching theme that you are exploring in your writing?

LG: When I was in high school, I was obsessed with racking up grades and prizes and extracurriculars. Not that I was especially good at it, but I worked at this stuff like a demon. It took me a long time to figure out that it wasn't making me an especially happy person. That's one of the things Quentin has to figure out.

Re: Girls with glasses, what can I say? I'm busted.

GR: Goodreads, home of millions of reader reviews, hopes to coexist peacefully with professional book critics like yourself. With the book review sections of newspapers and magazines shrinking, what do you see as the future role of book critics?

LG: Short answer is, 'I don't really know.' If there is hope for the professional critic, I think it's in the idea that the critic's job isn't actually to hand out ratings and letter grades. It's not telling people what to read. Anybody can do that. More and more the job of a magazine or newspaper critic is about commentary and scholarship. Making an argument about a book, or about reading, placing it in context in the history and the culture, figuring out what it's doing and why and what that means. That still seems worth doing, and it's something you need some professional training to do.

GR: You recently blogged on Nerd World about how, thanks to the Internet, readers and authors are no longer divided. Authors read their reviews on sites like Goodreads, and authors and readers can exchange ideas...or nasty comments. Is this lack of separation positive or negative? Should writers craft their art without worrying about how it is received? And do you believe readers should remember that a nasty review could hurt the author's feelings?

LG: This isn't actually that much of a new situation. In the way early days of the novel, the turn of the 18th century, the literate population was small enough that readers and writers tended to all know each other and talk back and forth and get in each other's faces all the time. In a lot of ways we're going back to that model. But it can be pretty disoncerting, for both sides.

I think writers should worry about how their work is received. This whole Modernist make-no-compromise-with-the-public-taste business has run its course. Enough with it. Authors are entertainers, and we have a responsibility to the audience.

And yes, I do think readers should think about how an author will feel about a review. We're all up in each other's faces now, so much so that anybody who posts a review should remember that they're not just making a judgment about a work of art, they're engaging in a social interaction with the author. That being the case, I think it behooves everybody not to be rude.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

LG: As writers go, I'm a binger. I don't write every day, I carve out a 6-8 hour block, usually on a weekend and just bang away. I write best in the morning: eat breakfast, line up the espresso shots, and just go.

Which is all pretty ordinary, I think. Probably my only unusual habit is that I like to read other writers while I write. Keeps me from getting lazy. While I was writing The Magicians I kept a copy of The Corrections on one side of my desk and a stack of the Narnia books on the other.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced your writing style?

LG: There are so many. I'm a big believer in the idea that to write anything, you have to have read everything. Rowling and Lewis, obviously—I love the matter-of-fact, unfussy way Lewis describes the most fantastical things, like Lucy passing through the wardrobe. No magic sparkles or mystical glowing, just furs and branches and snow. He describes them like everyday events, so they feel as real as everyday events.

I've mentioned Donna Tartt and Jonathan Franzen and Evelyn Waugh. Fans of Brideshead will recognize its structure in The Magicians. The first half is an idyllic education, with hints of oncoming darkness. Then you move out into the real world, cue chaos and disappointment.

Oh, and of course there's Susanna Clarke. I never would have had the courage to attempt The Magicians if I hadn't first seen what she did in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

GR: What are you reading now?

LG: A rather dark, cruel fantasy novel called Best Served Cold, by a Brit named Joe Abercrombie.

GR: What's next?

LG: A sequel to The Magicians. Unless it's a huge flop. In which case, something else!

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by J.J. (new)

J.J. Rodeo None of his books are translated into Persian. what a pity.

message 2: by Riley (new)

Riley I saw the NPR article/interview with Grossman about the Magicians, and both this and that have me quite interested!

message 3: by Sari (new)

Sari This sounds like a terrific book, I can't wait to read it! I grew up loving books like the Narnia books and A Wrinkle in Time...and you're right, the best thing about the Narnia books is how they're just written as real things, without all the magic and sparkles. I think that's what made them so appealing to me when I was a kid, and to this day (over thirty years after originally reading them) I still love them.

message 4: by Jill (last edited Aug 14, 2009 06:12AM) (new)

Jill Thank you, Mr. Grossman, for this wonderful book. I just finished it two days ago and enjoy using the word "gritty" to describe it, especially as it compares to other books of the same genre but for much younger readers. I thought including doses of realism and ennui in a novel such as this was brilliant as it led me to feel totally engrossed, wondering whether or not things were going to take a turn toward more typically fantastic situations such as you described regarding 'the ultimate evil.' The metacognitive aspects of Quentin remind me fully of other brilliant teenagers and twenty-somethings I have the pleasure of knowing. And, yes, I look forward to your sequel!

message 5: by Suze (new)

Suze This is a book I'm definitely going to look for. I still love books about people going to magical places and always have--my favorite story back when my parents had to read to me was Peter Pan, and I think in the back of my mind I'm still waiting for him to show up. I've passed this on to my sons--they're great fans of both Harry Potter and the Narnia books, and I bless the internet. For years I was trying to track down a childhood favorite called The Amazing Mr. Whisper and that's the first book, the first anything I ever ordered from the Internet.
This sounds like a winner for me and my family.

message 6: by Sunday (new)

Sunday This was a lovely interview. Looking forwards to checking this book out, as well as some of Grossman's other work and critiques.

message 7: by Juditofuri (new)

Juditofuri I've just finished Lev Grossman's great book, and can't wait for a sequal. I always get my books from my local library, putting them on hold when I read a promising review. In very few cases I go out and purchase a book I have just read as it was just to good not to have a copy of my own to read again when I want. I have all the Potter books as well as Jonathan Stroud's Bartimeaus Triligy and the Golden Compass series. I even share them with my grandchildren! The Magicians is going to be a "keeper".


message 8: by Tony (new)

Tony Mac Read the Magicians a couple of years ago now and loved it, even though I'm not usually a fan of fantasy. Thought it was almost impishly close to Rowling in the begining but got away with it through sheer skill and imagination. Have only just realised through Goodreads that the sequel has already been published (perhaps not in the UK yet?) and will look out for it.

message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

I read The Magicians and The Magician King before I read The Secret History, and there were parts of The Secret History where I was almost convinced that I had read the book before - a long time ago - and then forgotten it. Then I realized that this was because of the similarities between the students in The Secret History and the students in The Magicians. Anyway, this is by no means a criticism of Grossman, I was thrilled with both books and am very happy that he drew what he did from Tartt and Waugh.

message 10: by John (new)

John You broke my heart in book 1, you proceed to trample on it in book 2, then you made it stick together again in book 3 with duct tape. It's a masterpiece, the kind of book that you rarely encounter leaving you in the end with a heavy heart and a smile on your face. It took me weeks to get over this book!

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