Interview by Stephen Theaker Lev Grossman is the book critic of Time magazine. He has interviewed Bill Gates, he was flown to Japan to cover the launch of the Wii, and his brother, Austin, wrote Soon I Will Be Invincible. Lev's third novel, The Magicians, is out now in trade paperback and will be out in paperback in October. He very kindly agreed to answer some of my rambling questions.
Hi Lev. If it suits you, what I’d like to do is exchange questions and answers over the next week or so, while I’m in the process of reading The Magicians. Before I start to read it, is there anything I should know? Is it the sequel to another book, for example, or is it intended to be the first in a series?
The Magicians isn’t the sequel to anything. For the full surround-sound, 3D, smell-o-vision effect it helps to have read Harry Potter, Narnia and the Once and Future King, and to have misspent eight years or so playing Dungeons & Dragons. But those things are by no means necessary.
You mention Harry Potter there, as did SFX in their review of The Magicians, who said, ‘Forget Hogwarts’. The publicity for your book calls it ‘an adult treatment of the Harry Potter story’. Is it just that the overall plot is vaguely similar, or are there deeper similarities? For me the greatest strengths of the Potter books are the clockwork plotting, and the combination of traditional cosy English literature with modern values of tolerance and equality. Are those things I should expect to find in your book?
I started thinking about this book in 1996, before Harry Potter, when the most famous story about the education of a young magician was Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. That had changed, obviously, by the time I came back to it in 2004. Which was both good and bad for The Magicians.
If I could emulate Rowling’s clockwork plotting I would. What you’ll find in The Magicians is as close to that as I can get – nobody else can do what Rowling does with plots. What you will not find is cosiness. Or not as much of it – you can’t have a magic school without a little cosiness. But the aim of The Magicians is to strip away some of the cosiness you see in fantasy novels like Harry Potter, and to inject into the story of a young magician some of the harsh modern realities that Rowling chooses not to write about. It’s really geared toward people who grew up reading Harry Potter and are looking for something with a little less of a YA feel. More of an A feel. Sharper edges.
That makes The Magicians sound like an after-school special or something. It’s not. But there’s real beer in it, not just butterbeer. And things go way beyond snogging.
I’m about fifty pages in now. I like that you didn’t hang around in the real world too long.
Yes, it takes Lewis all of about six pages to get Lucy out of Earth and into Narnia in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. That was the standard I was trying to live up to in getting Quentin to Fillory.
Quentin’s a big fan of the Fillory and Further books by Christopher Plover, an analogue for the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis. If the Narnia books had been in the public domain, would you have used those instead, or was it important to create your own world from the ground up?
Initially I had actually planned to use Narnia whole and mostly intact in The Magicians, the way Oz figures in Wicked. Complete with Aslan and all the rest of it. But I quickly realized that, although I had a decent shot at a fair use defence, those kinds of copyright hijinks would probably scare publishers off. And besides, building my own world was just too much fun. Like running a D&D campaign. No way was I going to pass that up. Though even late in the process I had a lovely scene set in The Wood Between the Worlds …
American writers tend to be more influenced by Oz than Narnia, in books like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, J.M. DeMatteis’ Abadazad, Heinlein’s ‘The Number of the Beast’ and so on. Conversely, apart from the first in the series, the Oz books have only ever been intermittently available in Britain, so our writers are more likely to have spent their childhoods reading C.S. Lewis and Enid Blyton. Did you read both Oz and Narnia as a child, and if you did, why did Narnia win out as the greater influence on The Magicians?
I did read both Oz and Narnia as a child. But there was never any question which fantasy was paramount in my imagination. Oz always seemed strange and chaotic to me – I never quite understood what the rules were, they seemed to change every few minutes, and I found that unsettling. Whereas Narnia I recognized immediately. It may also be partly because my mother is English. Rural England just seemed like more of a compelling destination than Kansas.
I’m well into the book now, and enjoying it very much. I’d like to ask about the key scene in the book so far: the intrusion in the classroom. It’s extremely memorable, but so simple in its basics: not being able to move while something slightly odd is happening. You could have gone for fire and brimstone, but your approach was so much more effective and terrifying. Something about it made me wonder whether that scene had its origin in a recurring nightmare.
It’s difficult to say where that scene came from. But it’s notable for being one of the first scenes I wrote, and I wrote it eight years before I really began the rest of the novel in earnest. Something about this very ordinary-looking man, in a grey suit, who is also obscenely powerful and slightly not-human… I don’t know where he came from. I’m not sure I want to know. That’s when the bottom falls out of Quentin’s world.
Your previous novels – Warp and Codex – weren’t fantasy, but do you think they’d be interesting for British fantasy readers? And will your next project be something we should look out for?
I don’t know whether Warp and Codex would work for fantasy readers. They have some of the same themes and preoccupations as Magicians – naturally, since the same person wrote them – in particular an obsession with books and other forms of escapism. And with nerdy people. But if people are looking for a good strong fantasy fix, with magic and all the rest of it, The Magicians is the one.
And yes – the next book will be a sequel to The Magicians. So very much fantasy.
You caused a bit of a fuss with your article on Salon.com, where you talked about writing fake reviews for your first novel on Amazon. The best way to go about promoting yourself online is obviously a big issue for a lot of writers: have your experiences left you with any advice for them? And, as a highly respected book reviewer yourself, how far does an author’s reputation, online or offline, affect your reading of their books?
God, that Salon article is an object lesson in how long something can hang around online. It’s one of the first pieces of journalism I ever did, something like a dozen years ago. I was very inexperienced. Suffice to say I would never do a stunt like that now. I wish they’d take it down.
But to answer your question: I try to draw my own conclusions about authors and books. But one is inevitably influenced by all the ratings and reviews that are out there online.
As for how to get publicity online, I advise people to look at two authors who do it well: Neil Gaiman and Patrick Rothfuss. I would watch them, and do what they do.
Finally, you grew up near Boston: is it really as beautiful as it looks on the telly? If programmes like Fringe and Dawson’s Creek have done it justice (even if they’re mostly filmed elsewhere), I’d be willing to put up with all the monsters and teenage angst for the sake of how it looks in winter…
Bah. Because I spent my childhood there, and not overwhelmingly happily, Boston has very few charms for me. Henry James grew up in Boston and Cambridge, and he has a great quote in one his letters about his fear that they will stretch out their ‘strange inevitable tentacles’ and drag him back there and devour him. Like some horrible kraken. I know the feeling.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman is out now from William Heinemann. See www.rbooks.co.uk. Lev’s previous books Codex (a bibliographical thriller) and Warp (a fictional memoir) are also available.