Lev Grossman is one of the most exciting new authors in modern fantasy. The Magicians (a 2009 Kitschies finalist) introduced readers to Quentin Coldwater, Brakebills and the magical kingdom of Fillory. The Magician King (2011), the sequel, is no less acclaimed or controversial; an insightful look at the "un-chosen ones" in fantasy fiction. Mr. Grossman is a journalist, a book critic and the winner of the 2011 John W. Campbell Award for best new writer.
Pornokitsch: You’ve some had pretty amazing news recently. What’s life like now that The Magicians is going to be a television series? Is the world a completely different place? Do you still go to the same restaurants?
Lev Grossman: I still go to the same restaurants. I could tell you how little money is involved with a TV deal, at least at the beginning, but it would only depress you. We’re not talking life-changing numbers here. TV deals start small, and I mean tiny, and get bigger as they go. If – and it’s still a long shot – the show actually makes it to air, then the world will start filling up with rainbows and unicorns. But that’s a long way off.
PK: How excited are you? And how involved do you get to be in the process?
LG: I’m getting more excited. I think a pretty small percentage of shows that start out in the fall actually end up getting made, but we’ve cleared a lot of hurdles already, and the tea leaves are starting to look pretty fair. There’s a hell of a lot of good reasons to make this show.
As for the process, I hover. I consult. But I’m not a TV writer. TV stories are shaped really, really differently from novel stories. I’m leaving the screenwriting to the pros.
PK: Probably prompted by an early New York Times review, The Magicians is often compared to Harry Potter, but ‘for adults’. My instinct is that this is a pretty specious comparison - one school doth not a Rowling make - but how do you feel about it?
LG: That review is not a favorite of mine. But I don’t duck the Harry Potter comparison, not at all. I’m a big Harry Potter fan. And you know, it’s not that spurious. All books are built on the foundations of other books, and I think that’s especially true in fantasy. My book looks back to Harry Potter, but Harry looks back to A Wizard of Earthsea and E. Nesbit and Narnia and probably a lot of other things. The books that are any good look forward, too, to something new. Rowling’s books do that. I hope mine do too.
PK: In 2006, you wrote of Harry Potter and Twilight that they "embed their fantasy in the modern world... containing a freestanding internal integrity that makes you feel as if you should be able to buy real estate there". Unlike the superficial school/school comparison, there’s more of a similarity here as The Magicians also mingles reality and the fantastic.
What’s the appeal for this route as a writer? Why did you choose play with the real world instead of going for a secondary world, concocted wholly from scratch?
LG: I think of myself not so much as playing with the real world as playing with that special kind of frisson a reader gets when a character crosses from a real world into an imaginary one. It’s the border that matters to me most of all -- that was always my favorite part of any fantasy novel. You see it in the Narnia books, in Alice in Wonderland, in Oz, in Xanth. Not to mention Harry Potter. I was always more drawn to those stories, as opposed to the ones where the magic world is the only world, as in Tolkien or Le Guin or George R.R Martin. Not that I don’t love those books.
There’s something very primal about that mundane/magic boundary for me, I think because I always felt that our world was so bleak and empty, there had to be something better going on somewhere else. This can’t be it.
PK: Just to beat that dead horse a little further along the trail, The Magicians is the Apocalypse of the Fantastic. You unleash realism on Fillory like the Four Horsemen. Is this it? Is this the unfond farewell to the traditions of fantasy? Don’t stodgy epics at least get a nice retirement in the Gray Havens?!
LG: I would argue – I do argue! – that unleashing the apocalypse of realism on fantasy isn’t the end of fantasy. It’s the only way forward for fantasy.
The way I think about this stuff comes from Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Moore attacks the basic conventions of the superhero story with realism of the harshest, grittiest kind. He makes his superheros cynical and impotent and alcoholic and insane and just assholes. But by doing so he didn’t destroy the superhero genre – he wrote the best damn superhero story ever written! That’s the funny thing about literature. You attack its core assumptions, and it just gets stronger. You know, like Sebastian Shaw in the X-Men.
PK: In The Magician King, Julia exposes a completely different side of her/our/your world - the gritty self-starter route. Quentin reflects a Gen Y dot-com model - smart, well-educated, go to University and then stalk off to do ‘your own thing’. Julia, excluded, bypasses the system entirely. Which reflects your own experience more?
LG: I used to wonder about this – why did I feel so connected to Julia, when in a lot of ways my story looks more like Quentin’s?
And it’s true I went to Harvard for college, so I can’t exactly call myself a self-starter. But the funny thing is, my path as a writer was a lot more like Julia’s than Quentin’s. I spent a long time wandering in the wilderness after college, just temping and dropping in and out of grad school and trying to write and getting nowhere. I was rejected from every MFA program I applied to. I watched people I knew sell their books at auction for huge sums, and win prizes, and get fellowships, while I spent my 20’s writing, probably, 100 short stories without publishing a single one. For years I felt shut out of the literary world completely. I was killing myself to get in, and I was just bouncing off it. I built up a lot of frustration during that period. I think it came out in Julia.
PK: As both a book critic (for Time, no less!) and author - how do you see the critic’s role? Has this given you any professional insight on reading between the lines of reviews? Has this tempered the way that you approach books for review?
LG: Oh, critics aren’t complicated, really. They’re just part of the cultural metabolism. A huge number of books get published, more every year, and somebody has to digest them and help readers find the good ones (or the ones they like, anyway). We’re like intestinal bacteria.
Being an author has changed the way I write reviews, though. It’s made me aware of how perishable novels are in our culture. So I don’t write bad reviews much anymore – if a book is bad, I just let it go unreviewed. It won’t need much help sinking without a trace.
PK: Again, with your many hats on, how do you see the Internet changing the role of the book critic? Everyone now has a platform to share their opinion - and with sites like Amazon, the 1-to-5 star thoughts of the hoi polloi can have immediate commercial impact. As a critic, how do you distinguish yourself in this new democracy? And as an author, where do you look for meaningful, significant feedback?
LG: It’s a tough question. Popular opinion – in the form of automatically tabulated ratings like the ones on Amazon, and recommendation engines like the one Netflix and iTunes have (which are driven by user behavior) – drives culture more and more. It’s getting louder and louder, and the voices of critics are getting softer and softer. And maybe that’s as it should be. Who am I to tell people what’s good and what’s bad? At this point I work to draw people’s attention to weird and difficult books that might not pop up in a popular vote, and to bestow the prestige of good reviews on books (like fantasy novels) that often get dismissed as merely commercial and escapist.
I do pay attention to Amazon reviews, but they’re not my primary source of feedback. It’s hard to know sometimes where they’re coming from. You don’t have any context for them. My most important source of feedback is a group of a couple of dozen beta readers who look at my early drafts. These are friends, acquaintances, sometimes fans I’ve never met who turn out to be really smart close readers, and who are willing to tell me I suck.
PK: Zoo City and The Magician King. What’s the appeal of the world’s slowest moving mammal?
LG: I love sloths. I’ve always prided myself on the dialogue I give my animals – I think it’s important to write talking animals as animals -- weird and inhuman beings – rather than people. When I needed an animal to deliver a really strange, dreamy, otherworldly perspective, I knew that a sloth was the one to do it. I mean, come on. What do they think about all day?
PK: Thank you very much for your time.
Lev Grossman's The Magician King is out now from Viking (US) and William Heinemann (UK). You can read more about Mr. Grossman's work (and the progress on The Magicians TV series) at his website and follow him on Twitter at @leverus.
Sloth illustration by J.A. Shepherd, from The Strand Magazine (June, 1894).