Sunday, July 19, 2009

Read this book: The Magicians by Lev Grossman



Let's begin with what I said about Lev Grossman's first novel Codex, in my A Reading Life column in The Boston Globe: "Fabulously entertaining. By turns fascinating, compellling and deliciously disturbing. It's an intelligent thriller that is truly just that: intelligently thrilling. His second novel, The Magicians, is even better--the kind of book you really want all your friends to read, but you don't want to let your copy out of your hands.

Many thanks to Lev for answering my questions.



I raved about your first novel Codex in the Boston Globe, and for me, part of the pleasure of the book was that you turned a genre into something eerie and literate and wonderfully new. I think you’ve done it again with The Magicians, which takes all the usual tropes about magic and turns them on their head. So, where did this novel come from? What sparked it?

Well -- to extend the sparking metaphor, probably past where you intended -- the tinder had been dry for some time. I’d written a few sketchy sequences of it back in 1996 -- back when the major precedent for a novel about the education of a wizard was Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, not Harry Potter. But I began it in earnest in 2004, spurred in part by reading an early draft of my brother Austin’s novel, Soon I will Be Invincible, and also by reading Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, an amazingly accomplished work of literary fantasy. I’ve been an obsessive fantasy fan all my life. I knew I wanted to do something with that, to write fantasy, but I just couldn’t find a way into it. I couldn’t find the wardrobe. Those two books showed it to me.

Also, I was getting divorced. And all kinds of surprising things shake loose during a divorce.

I’d say this novel was the anti-Harry Potter, and all the more interesting for it. Magic here is dark, terrifying, deliciously disturbing and often causes more problems than it solves. The characters here are magicians because they want to “break the world that has tried to break them.” While kids may be entranced by all the presto chango that goes on in the Potter books, the magic you’re looking at in this book has more to do with how do we make love happen (and not disappear), how do we get to feel normal and not disappointed, and how do we make sense of all the worlds we live in—or want to live in? Alice says that “you have to find something to really care about to avoid running off the rails” because “real life is so much harder than magic.” So, can you talk about your personal worldview in the light of the novel?

I’m a massive Harry Potter fan. Another reason I started this book is that we were in the two-year trough between Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I wanted something to read -- something that was like HP, but also not. So I began noodling with something in a similar vein, which became The Magicians.

But Rowling’s books, for all their brilliance, are YA. And reading them as an A(dult), you feel aware that some things are more complex for grownups than they are for teenagers. So one of the ways in which I modified Rowling’s story, to more closely fit my personal worldview, was to subtract Voldermort from the world. In Harry's world, in most cases -- setting Snape aside -- you know who’s evil, and who’s good, and what magic is for. Magic is for fighting the evil people. In the world of The Magicians, there is no obvious paramount evil -- no Big Bad, as Joss Whedon would say. The whole world is shades of grey, and you spend a lot of time flailing around in a state of confusion, making very bad educated guesses as to what to do next. So the adventure becomes less about using magic to defeat the villain, and more about just figuring out what the hell magic is for. Which is a very different kind of adventure.

The Magicians has this wonderful dark heart, yet it is also, in parts, hilarious (I am partial to the bear who liked peach schnapps and I also loved the Dickensonian use of names—like Quentin Coldwater) What was it like writing this book? How did you keep all the many myriad plates spinning in the air so effortlessly? Did you map it all out? Did anything surprise you in the writing?

That bear is one of my favorite characters. He's actually partly a steal from Douglas Adams. One of the characters in the Hitchhiker’s trilogy learns to communicate with birds, but it turns out that all they talk about is wind shear and seeds and berries and such, and it’s very dull. I feel sure that most bears are bores at heart too.

Composing The Magicians took about 4 years, and if it ever looks effortless, that effect was created very very effortfully. Before I wrote it I carefully plotted out an outline, which I followed meticulously, point for point, and the resulting draft was an absolute shambles. I spent about three years surgically rewiring it, and adding more elements at the same time, to fix the damage my neat but terrible outline had done.

There were definitely bits in the writing that surprised me. But they’re the bits that are supposed to surprise YOU. So I’m not going to say what they are. Though generally speaking I never knew what Josh was going to say before he said it.

You have a great blog, Nerdworld and Coldwater is definitely a nerd—I know authors hate this questions, but I’m going to ask anyway: How much of him is you?Y

It’s bits and pieces. I had to have a little fun with him, so there are differences. For example, Quentin is tall; I am small-to-medium-sized. Quentin has all his hair; I don't. Quentin is a genius; I used to think I was a genius when I was in junior high. Quentin has a dangerous iron-skinned demon; I used to have a cat named Mittens who scratched people. ETC.

On the other hand it’s pretty safe to assume that all the bad bits of Quentin are me.

You’re Time Magazine’s book critic. How different does it feel being at the authors’ table right now, waiting for the critics to weigh in, rather than being the critic making the authors tremble?

It feels very different. As a critic I championed my right to present my random subjective opinion about books as if it had some lasting, universal, objective validity. Now I am at the mercy of the random subjective viewpoints of others, and I hate it. It’s cause for reflection to say the least.

So what are you working on next?

The short answer would be a sequel. I guess I’m still working on what the long answer would be.

What question should I be absolutely appalled that I didn’t ask?

Appalled? Never. But let me try to think of something. Somebody once asked me who I would cast as the main characters in The Magicians if they made it as a movie. Answer; Quentin = Withnail-era Richard E. Grant. Alice = Ghost World-era Thora Birch.

Oh, and I always get asked about my fantasy influences, but I like to talk about my non-fantasy ones too, which are just as important. Among them are Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections -- I often try (and fail) to imitate his style -- and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History -- you might think of Brakebills as a hybrid of Hogwarts and Tartt’s Hampden College. And above all Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the 20th century’s great novel of innocence and experience, hope and disillusionment. I borrowed heavily from Waugh. So heavily that maybe it’s just as well you didn’t ask that question.

-

7 comments:

Clea Simon said...

I loved Codex so I'm thrilled to read about this. To be honest, I think I'll like it even better. It sounds richer in some way - I love the sound of the bear and the Dickension names. Sounds like you had to go through some rough times to get to this book, Lev, but as I writer I'm grateful that you shared some of the process. And as a reader, I'm psyched about the book!

Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

what a fascinating interview which woke from my summer lull and made me want to run out and buy the book.

Jeff Lyons said...

C:

I'm a Harry Potter fan, but only for the movies. I can't get through the books. Lev, your comment about at the end of the day Rowling is writing YA stuff is the point. I just can't get through YA books. But, they translate so well to the screen! That's why I was excited to hear about this next book of yours; finally, an adult book on magick! Like Leora, it made me want to run out and buy it... which I will do!!! And thanx for sharing some of your process. Misery loves company.

Jeff Lyons said...

C:

I'm a Harry Potter fan, but only for the movies. I can't get through the books. Lev, your comment about at the end of the day Rowling is writing YA stuff is the point. I just can't get through YA books. But, they translate so well to the screen! That's why I was excited to hear about this next book of yours; finally, an adult book on magick! Like Leora, it made me want to run out and buy it... which I will do!!! And thanx for sharing some of your process. Misery loves company.

Jessica Keener said...

Great interview.
I saw Brideshead Revisited about 30 years ago on public tv--a long series with Jeremy Irons, but haven't yet read the book. Now I must. I adored that story. It was gorgeous and painful and full of every conflicting emotion.

Jessica

mandingo said...

I loved this interview! I love this blog! I think I will stay and play awhile! I am sure people come for a while, kick the tyres, then saunter away, but this one is a real find, and a definite keeper! (You see people's links, and say, 'ok', I'll get around to it...perhaps)...but yours? What quality!! And congratulations indeed on "Breathe"! We ALL need to breathe, and if your blog is anything to go by, we all need "Breathe"!! Well done!!

Clea Simon said...

I cannot WAIT to read "Breathe"!