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Lev Grossman Chats with Books & Bars

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Caution: Spoiler Alert – if you haven’t read the book, beware!

Recently (July 13, 2010), Lev Grossman paid a Skype visit to the largest book club in Minneapolis, Books & Bars, to talk about his book The Magicians. This book club meets in a theater located in the Bryant-Lake Bowl – yep, a bowling alley — cozied right up next to the end of the lanes.

So this might have been a slightly different crowd for Lev. Fortified by $2 glasses of Surly Furious beer (one of the sponsors, along with the venue and Magers & Quinn Booksellers), the first thing asked of him was what he was drinking. Turned out it was a gin and tonic type concoction. And there was a funny story behind that – new refrigerator with ice maker but apparently new ice is toxic, and he had no limes, so this was a flat, warm gin and tonic. But Lev took it like a trooper and managed to down a couple in the course of the discussion.

And what a discussion it was. To start, Books & Bars moderator Jeff Kamin (see his Q&A here for more on him and his view of Books & Bars) asked Lev why this genre? “My mother tongue as a reader [has been fantasy], and I realized I wanted to be part of that. I grew up reading fantasy. And when Ursula Le Guin said [of The Magicians], ‘It’s pretty good,’ coming from her, that’s pretty good.”

Then followed up by asking if Lev agreed with the assessment that had been thrown out by various literati – that The Magicians was “Harry Potter for adults.”

Lev’s response: “I don’t shy away from it. I really wanted to tell that kind of story, but in a way that was framed for adults, including things that adults know. As a fantasy fan within the fantasy universe, I was always very obsessed with that side of things, basically the C.S. Lewis side of things. Not so much the epic Tolkien huge continental war side of things, I was more interested in kids discovering their power, discovering secret worlds. And most people who write fantasy for adults, they work the Tolkien side of the street.

“Would it be possible to write that kind of story – like that kind of story, like C.S. Lewis told – for adults? Put in all the stuff that they leave out. All the sex, all the violence, all the horror… and drinking and sex and all that stuff? The book I read that launched me was Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Having read that, I thought that I had to sort of try and do that. It just seemed so urgent that somebody try to do that and I wanted to read that book so badly.”

About The Magicians, Lev says: “What would really happen if a young man went to a college for magic and upon graduating found out there was no Voldemort, no Sauron? There was no primary antagonist in the universe to have him go off and fight. It seemed really honest to send him to New York and have him proceed to screw around and waste his energy and his power and his magic. Drinking and going to dinner parties. Because I feel like that’s what would happen. And I wanted it to be a bit of a shock, but not gratuitously so.

“By the way, the New York section used to be like five times as long, it turned into this epic sort of pub crawl, and eventually I just kind of cut it down to one dinner party.

“I don’t think there is a moral center, a grounding. Novels aren’t about moral centers, they’re more about disturbing the idea of moral centers.

“The ending is really about psychological health, or willingness to confront, the fact that there are no easy moral answers, but that’s as much as I’m willing to cop to.

Moderator Jeff asked him if it were true that Lev’s mom thinks Quentin commits suicide? “That’s not disturbing to me at all, that doesn’t make me uncomfortable, that my mother assumed that this character that represents me…

“It’s not what actually happens.”

After a few questions from the moderator to warm things up, the floor was opened for questions for Lev. Jeff walked around with a mic and took questions from the crowd.

One audience member, Andrew, said that he was waiting for the answer to “the obvious cliffhanger of the book,” what Quentin’s discipline was. Does Lev know? If not, okay, but otherwise, “Come on, help a brother out.”

“Listen,” Lev replied, “you guys have been a great audience…

“Readers like closure and writers hate closure. I learned a hard lesson about how much ambiguity readers are willing to tolerate.”

There will be a sequel. In fact, the title to the sequel had been solidified so far in advance, so that once Lev realized he wanted to change it, he couldn’t. He had to go with the pre-pub advertising. Damn that full page ad in the back of the paperback version!

About criticism, Jeff asked, “I would like an honest answer – do you read your reviews on Amazon? Has your writing changed at all based on reviews?”

“You know, it’s funny,” Lev said, “my therapist asked me the same question. Is he there?” He  quoted some of his reviews, apparently from memory, one stating that he should not be allowed to touch a keyboard again — that one’s on Barnes and Noble.com.

“I’ve read as many of the Amazon reviews as I could stand, and took as much of that constructive criticism as I could take from them. For example, I’m interested in the problem of Quentin’s likeability. Did anyone out there think that Quentin was too much of a twat?” Big applause on that one.

Jeff asked, “Too much of a twat, or just the right amount of twatness?” This triggered a pretty funny discussion, as you might imagine.

When asked “Why did Alice die?” simply put, “Novels are really crass and calculating, it turns out.”

And Martin? “I wanted to leave him out of the book as much as possible, so I could leave the characters dangle – So I could have the characters deal with good and evil.

“Julia is a major part of the second book – perhaps I’ve said too much.

“The one I was after was Lewis, not Rowling. Fillory and Narnia are not anti-thetical.”

And then Lev signed off. We had him about ten minutes over our hour, so who could complain? He was witty, self-deprecating and not at all pompous. After the screen went black, the discussion was opened up to the floor. Moderator Jeff walked around with the microphone, this time taking comments.

The audience was very split on who liked and didn’t like the book. A vote was taken on whether or not Quentin was a “twat” – many agreed he was soft, indecisive, not happy and a whiner. One commenter seemed to praise Lev’s tactics, “The less a writer insists on the significance of what’s happening, the better; and the more he insists, the more you go, “no!”

This meeting was packed, by the way. Books & Bars generally gets about 75 at a meeting, and the room comfortably holds 85. This meeting was packed to the fire code restriction of 98. Many were there for the first time. And for a beautiful Tuesday evening in July, that’s a feat. Said one newcomer, Sarah, “I have two other clubs but I really like the forum aspect. There’s an intimacy and an anonymity. I’ll be back.”

Now we will have to wait for the sequel, which is going to be called The Magician King. It should appear sometime in 2011, as Lev says, “With any luck.”

Note: This is not a complete transcript, nor is it meant to be. It is merely meant to give you highlights of the chat. You can view a video of the chat in three parts on the Moustacherobots channel of YouTube. And anyone is welcome to come on in to a Books & Bars meeting, on the second Tuesday of most months, without any prior warning. Check the website for current reads and any anomalies; check here for a profile of Books & Bars if you want to know more about it, and here for a Q&A with the moderator, Jeff Kamin.

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