“Hello,” he said, not missing a beat. “Glad you could make it. Alice, I understand you burned our door in half.” “Quentin helped.” – Lev Grossman, The Magicians.
So as well as being my first interview on here, this is pretty special for me for other reasons. Lev Grossman has been my favourite writer since I first picked up ‘The Magicians’ shortly after it was released, and so the interview is hugely exciting and I’m very happy to get it out there.
First things first: This guy is amazing, and his work is completely worth reading. ‘The Magicians’ is the first in a series of three. ‘The Magician King’, the second book, has already been released, and ‘The Magician’s Land’, the final book in the trilogy, is due out on 5TH AUGUST. If you haven’t already, just read them. Buy them. Borrow them from a library. His books can be found in most retailers, so there really is no excuse… (I’ve even been nice and put Amazon links at the bottom of this page!)
But why, you ask?… I know that what spoke to me the most about ‘The Magicians’ was that it was fantasy and offered that same wonder I’d come to expect from the genre, and yet it was hugely REAL. The characters, as they grow up from wide-eyed new student to disenchanted graduate, and then to further their lives in the world, experience so many of the problems that real adults and young adults face.
“He wasn’t in a safe little story where wrongs were automatically righted; he was still in the real world, where bad bitter things happened for no reason, and people paid for things that weren’t their fault.” – Lev Grossman, The Magicians
I could go on for hours about these books (and seriously, if you give me any kind of prompting, I will…), but the simple fact is that they should be read. Life philosophies, depth, passion, and a tale that takes influences from all across the board and turns them into something new and unique. Lev Grossman once said about fanfiction that it is almost a form of literary criticism, pointing out gaps in the original tale. His work does exactly the same, and the way it fills them… well, I’m impressed anyway!
And now I’m done blathering on, here is the man himself answering some of the questions I had to ask.
1) You’ve cited many influences for the novels, and you reference a lot of different things within them: gaming references, books, classical references. So, this sounds like it’s going to be the tried-and-tested normal first question: where did ‘The Magicians’ come from? … But I guess what I’m actually asking is: what was it about these works that inspired you?
There’s a lot of ways I could frame that answer. I guess one of them was that I felt that I wanted to talk back to some of these writers: to CS Lewis, in particular, but also JK Rowling and TH White and any number of others. I felt like I wanted to talk to them about how much their work said about my life, and also about how much it didn’t say—about what was missing. The Magicians was my way of having that conversation.
2) When you first started writing the first book, The Magicians, were there any major changes to the plot that particularly stand out to you? Was there anything you look back on now and would have kept in, or done differently?
There were plot changes. I’m not sure how specific to be in my answers, since it’s a somewhat spoiler-y topic, but it took me a couple of tries before I hit on the Beast’s real identity. And I changed my mind twice about which of the main characters should die at the end. And there was a scene with a dragon that I had to cut. Fortunately I was able to work that back into The Magician King.
3) In The Magicians and The Magician King, there seems to be a huge sense that the fantasy world poses the same problems as the real life one. As this was one of the things I really loved about the novels, I have to ask: why was it that you do this?
It was out of a complicated mixture of love and frustration. I’ve always loved the Narnia books, and the books that came after in that tradition: Pern, Xanth, Earthsea, His Dark Materials, Harry Potter. But the older I got the more keenly aware I felt that as much as I loved them, they didn’t speak directly to the hardest parts of my adult life, the ones I needed books to help me with. So I wrote the books I felt I needed.
4) One idea within The Magician King that really caught my attention was Free Trader Beowulf – not just the magic user group, but the support forum too. I actually deal daily with a lot of people with depression, and have regularly wished for something exactly like that. Magic aside, do you think something like that would be possible to create?
I wonder. There have been times in my life when I could have used Free Trader Beowulf. Would it work? It would take someone very good at that particular kind of social engineering. I bet someone could do it. But I never could.
5) I also have to admit – I love the Physical Kids. The way they grew up throughout the first novel, and even throughout the second, mirrors a lot of people’s experiences as they leave education and move out into the real world. Was this dissatisfaction and aimlessness something you felt, or were you one of the lucky people who already seem to have a set path?
I didn’t have a set path. Very much didn’t. My entire 20s are a trackless waste of pathless wandering. That was a hard time in my life. I wouldn’t relive it for anything.
6) This one’s a question that a friend reminded me of. We both fell instantly in love with Eliot, and want to know – is he based on a real person? His character seems so complex that it’s impressive either way.
Eliot is an amalgam of two people. One is my roommate in college, who was a very dear friend, and whom I fell for in kind of the same way Quentin falls for Eliot. The other, strange to say, is the adolescent John Lennon, who was by all accounts a very funny, very wounded, very angry person. I was reading a biography of him at the time and I thought: yes. He needs to be in the book.
7) Most writers put themselves into their characters, to an extent. Out of your own characters, were there any in particular that you felt you identify with more than others? Were there any that you found yourself particularly liking or disliking as you wrote them?
At first I identified most with Quentin, who is essentially the same person I was at 17 (except taller and better at math). Then it became Julia. She’s more like who I am now.
The character I like the most is probably Janet. She’s who I aspire to be.
8) If there was something you want people to get from the books above anything else, what would it be?
It’s spelled out, more or less, in the last chapter of The Magician’s Land, but put crudely: the world is grotesquely awful place, but you can love it. It’s not easy but it can be done.
9) I’m almost done, but here are some practical writing questions. You work for Time, you have a family, and you have your own life outside of writing. Do you think that makes it harder for you than for say, someone who can devote their full time to writing a novel? Is there anything you found helped you to engage with your writing?
Balancing them is hard. If I had made different choices in my life – if I didn’t have a family, if I didn’t live in New York, if I hadn’t made a bad marriage early on– I could write fiction all the time, which is what I truly want. Sometimes, often, I dream of being to write fiction full-time. But I also know that my fiction might not be as interesting if I hadn’t done all those things.
Certainly having a job helps me to engage intensely with my writing. When you know that eight hours of your day will be spent at work, and two hours with your kids, you come to that one hour you can spend on fiction with a lot of emotion. It gives you a certain urgency.
10) Finally, The Magician’s Land is in the works, so to speak. Due out on August 5th this year. Once that’s over, what’s your plan? Is it time to focus on your work at Time and some rest, or are there other stories that don’t want to stay quiet?
More stories. I’m about halfway through a new novel. I’m not one of these writers who gets a good idea every day, I get one maybe every couple of years, but I’ve been working on the Magicians books since—according to the original Word file—June 19, 2004. So I’ve got a few good ones cued up.
I think a lot of that says it all, and more than I ever could. Thank you to Lev Grossman for agreeing to this, and even more for writing the novels in the first place. Lev Grossman uses several works I love as sources of inspiration for his writing. On the subject of inspiration, I am proud to say that his work, and his attitude to writing, too, is one of mine.
Lev Grossman’s site is right here: http://levgrossman.com/
The Amazon listing for The Magicians: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Magicians-Lev-Grossman-ebook/dp/B0031RS98E/ref=la_B001HD42SA_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1399089756&sr=1-2
… And the pre-order for The Magician’s Land: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Magicians-Land-Trilogy/dp/0670015679/ref=la_B001HD42SA_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1399089756&sr=1-5