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Through the Lands of Fantasy: A Conversation with Lev Grossman, Author of The Magicians

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Two points became evident within 60 seconds of speaking with Lev Grossman. One — the man is nice. I mean really, comfortably, gently, and humbly nice. Or, he’s very good at being nice professionally; either way, to an interviewer with a serious case of the jitters, nice was a welcome relief. The jitters derived in part from the second thing I noticed about Lev Grossman: if being the Book Critic for Time magazine and the (now twice) New York Times bestselling author of The Magicians weren’t enough, Grossman is smart. Smart comes in two flavors: the arrogant, unapproachable smart that is put on like armor, and the entertaining, incandescent smart that is worn like a skin and makes the listener want to stay in the room forever. Lev Grossman wears the latter form of smart and wears it well; Grossman chooses his words with a precision that reveals a mind constantly digging for truth.

Background research on Grossman turned up reams of essays and blog posts on (surprise!) books and writing. One of his most frequently lauded novels is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Since Grossman’s praise of the book had sucked me into shoving aside my own stacks of review material in favor of Clarke’s novel, it seemed only fair to ask what he was reading these days. “Well, I’m the book critic for Time so most of my reading is for that. But I’m traveling on tour now, and in my bag… let’s see… I’ve got a book by Andrea Levy called The Long Song. That’s not my usual sort of grazing territory, but I was won at auction.” Before I could blink at the connection, he went on, “the prize was a thing where I’d go to someone’s book club and talk about the book they’re reading with them; the club that won me is reading The Long Song.” “For comfort reading, I’ve got Medium Raw. I’ve also got a Swords and Dark Magic Anthology. I tried to get into the anthology, but I didn’t have enough swords. I had enough magic, but not enough swords. I guess next time I need to read the title more carefully.” Grossman did sound truly disappointed at the paucity of his fictional armory. “I like to keep an eye on people whose writing I admire.”

Discussion of reading led to the connection and conflict between Grossman’s two jobs. What is it like for you to sit on both sides of the literary criticism aisle: as a reviewer and as a novelist – particularly on such a large scale for both?

It’s uncomfortable, definitely uncomfortable. It’s not as natural a fit as I thought it was going to be. When I go to a conference and sit on a panel with other authors, I feel like I can see thought balloons over their heads that go, “why do you think you can write about [a book] and have it be put in Time?” My thought balloon goes, “I don’t know. I needed a job.”
I meant to be a writer of fiction; that was always my love and passion…To the outside world, I look like a critic turned novelist, but I feel that it’s the other way around. Most authors write reviews to some extent. But, because it says ‘Critic’ on my business card, to them I’m another animal entirely, and they’re suspicious of that animal.
(Pause) As would I be.

When not in the hallowed space at the front of the store, The Magicians leads a dual life from one bookstore to the next – sometimes residing with fantasy, sometimes with literature. The split life of this novel relates directly to its creator’s crusade against the cultural ostracism of genre fiction from the realm of literature. Though the literary critic for a bastion of mainstream intellectual thought, Lev Grossman rails against the view of popular fiction as lowbrow or unworthy to be classed with literary fiction. “It shows how bizarrely inverted our literary culture has become that this is controversial…There’s been such a stigma with popular fiction that it wasn’t appropriate at Time, before I came to work there, to review the type of book that readers of Time actually read.” Though Grossman’s careful, modulated voice never raises, indignation laces his words. “Fiction that emphasized plot fell into disrepute… we’re finally seeing a reversal of that trend.” Grossman cites authors such as Clarke and Neil Gaiman as leading this reversal. “They write novels that confound attempts to classify them. Seeing them do that made me feel that I could and should write The Magicians.

 

Critic he may be, but Grossman is a fervent and creative advocate for narrative. In his essay “The Death of a Civil Servant,” The Believer Magazine, May 2010, Grossman not only explores the life of B.J. Dutton, a friend to Leonard Woolf, but ties that exploration into the roots of fantasy and modernism. In the essay, Grossman takes a stance that runs seemingly perpendicular to standard literary thought. “We think of fantasy and modernism as worlds apart,” says Grossman in his essay, “but somehow they always end up in the same place. They are perfectly symmetrical. Fantasy is a prelude to the apocalypse. Modernism is the epilogue.”

I enjoyed your essay in The Believer on Leonard Woolf and B.J. Dutton. Beyond the content of the essay itself, the tag list fascinated me; it’s not often that you can find “Death-Proof Elves” next to Missionary Ladies.” And it’s even less expected to have a piece about two Edwardian civil servants turn into a treatise on fantasy and modernism. Does your mind do this sort of cross-referencing frequently?

“The folks at The Believer were responsible for the tags, and I did think they did a great job. As for the essay itself, although you had two apparently disparate things, fantasy and modernist literature, it seemed to me that they were connected at the root. But, I’m telling it backwards – I really wanted to find B.J. Dutton, to learn what had happened to him. My mom had mentioned him years ago…” Not only did Grossman discover B.J. Dutton, he also unveiled the link between two seemingly contradictory literary forms. “Fantasy and modernism are the great loves of my life; that can’t be for completely unrelated reasons.”

Lev Grossman is indeed a lover of fantasy, but, despite his self-identification as a “happy fantasy geek,” his love is not blind. In The Magicians Grossman twists and pulls at the elements of fantasy, examining the genre with a masterful sophistication. Yet, when asked about this manipulation of the pieces of fantasy, he confesses, “One of my fears was that The Magicians would be read as an attack on fantasy, but it wasn’t at all.” No, fantasy geek Grossman may be, but he has a scholar’s love of the genre, with a deep appreciation for exploration beneath the surface traditions. Claiming that his favorite books are those that closely analyze the conventions of the genre, he cites The Watchmen by Alan Moore. “It stared really hard at what it would mean for people to put on costumes and beat up muggers and what kind of people would do that…” Grossman does his own staring at the meaning of conventions beloved of even such fantasy icons as C.S. Lewis. “…With the talking animals, I wanted to look at, to literally look at what it would be like to talk to an animal, to have a conversation with a bear, and what if that bear was drunk? What would that really look like?”

What it looks like is Fillory, a magical land that has the feel of Lewis’ Narnia, but is somehow a deeper, richer, and slightly edgier place. While I’ve read The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe many times, I’ve only read through the full Chronicles of Narnia once, and that as an adult. I grew irritated after the first few books with Lewis’ refusal to let the Pevensie children return to Narnia as they aged. While Grossman lays out compelling arguments in The Magicians why long-term residence in a magical land might not be good for humans, I wondered if he had experienced any of my difficulties with Lewis’ novels. “Of course. That never sat right with me, even when I was a child. Just the fact that they had to return from Narnia at the end of the adventures with no proper justification, I felt that it was a whitewash … For them to be forced to return home to their everyday lives, when they had been kings and queens, knowing that Narnia was out there, I felt that they must have been damaged by that.” “But these were questions that Lewis never went into, questions left for us to answer.”

These questions have clearly haunted Grossman into adulthood. Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist of The Magicians, bears some striking similarities to his creator. One of the first things that struck me upon reading The Magicians was that, contrary to established fantasy norms, Grossman had produced a lead character with a stable, functional family; Quentin is not an orphan, he is not separated from his parents by war, curse, or abduction. He is simply a deeply unhappy teenager. “That stuff is just autobiographical. My parents were, and still are, together. We’re an academic family. We were solidly in the middle class. I was raised in a very nice suburb… Lexington, MA. But, I came out all screwed up. It took me a long time to figure out that I was having trouble. Nobody beat me; I had no trauma lurking in my past … that would have made my problems easier to explain.” Grossman’s own struggles gave birth to a character very realistic in his humanity. “I thought it was good to have a character who was screwed up, but not for any of those pat reasons we get in fiction. A character who comes from a stable house but who is a complete basket case.” The creation of Quentin allowed Grossman to look at some of the questions raised by the Chronicles of Narnia and other fantasy novels of his youth.

“It was a sort of thought experiment – what would have happened to me if I’d gotten what I wanted at the age of 17, which was to go to Narnia? How would it have played out?” Grossman began writing The Magicians in 2005 and now feels that he was still working through some of the fantasies left over from adolescence. “At 35, I hadn’t worked it out. I hadn’t yet gotten over my bitterness that I hadn’t been plucked out of my boring, humdrum world and chosen to be a king.”

Even for Quentin, plucked from his “boring, humdrum world,” life is not all grandeur and glory. Upon graduation, the students of the magic college of Brakebills are tattooed with a pentagram which contains a magical demon. Grossman calls the cacodemons, “a steal from Larry Niven. One of his characters has a pentagram tattooed on his back and inside is a demon.” Quentin’s demon is, well, somewhat less than terrifying. What was with poor Quentin’s cacodemon? “[Laugh] I don’t know. I think he just got a runty one. If Dean Fogg is pulling cacodemons out of hell, he’s bound to get a bum steer. I guess if you’re wondering if something is a deeper clue, it’s not … Well, now that I’ve said that … Well, in this case, it’s not.”
Despite the slip in the preceding paragraph, Grossman isn’t letting too much out about the forthcoming sequel, The Magician King. “I’m really in the thick of it right now. With the tour, I have a lot of time in hotels … All I can tell you for sure is that it starts about three years after The Magicians. Quentin is in it, but it has a lot about Julia.” “I like that she arrived at the end, but it raised the questions: what has she been doing, and how has she learned magic outside of the official aegis of Brakebills?”

Though Quentin may be modeled most closely after the author, as he demonstrates with his previews of the sequel, Grossman does not neglect his other characters. In fact, his favorite character is not the one most would expect. When asked if he had a favorite character, he answered, “I do, but she’s everyone else’s least favorite, and that’s Janet. I’m immoderately fond of Janet. I thought about killing her off, but early readers weren’t as sad about her dying as I was. It just wasn’t tragic enough…” He describes Janet as “a very unhappy person. Unlike Quentin, she’s not a sulker; she yells at people.” Grossman paused and commented that he is, in this as in other things, more like Quentin, but for a part of him, Janet’s outbursts are “wish fulfillment.”

I asked Grossman, now that he has exorcised the demons of childhood fantasy with his own fictional land, what his “magic land” of adulthood would look like. “Oh, there’s nothing there that isn’t going to be embarrassing. The thing about fantasies is that they’re so boring. I guess that everyone would buy The Magicians and love it, that it would never get a negative review on Amazon, that writing the sequel would be easy.” I pointed out that The Magicians is sitting on the NYT bestseller list for the second time. “Yeah. Yeah, it’s dangerously close to coming true.”

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About Christy Corp-Minamiji