Interview with Lev Grossman

This week we caught up with Lev Grossman, author of the Magicians trilogy and many other great works to ask about his future projects, go in-depth on the books, and find out what is Magic in his life.

You’re a family guy, a full-time journalist and you have a tv show. Do you have a slot for fiction on your schedule? How do you maintain your connection to fiction and fantasy?

I quit my job! So at least I’m not a full-time journalist anymore. Though I was for almost 20 years, give or take. But I quit to focus full-time on my own writing. I still do other projects besides writing novels though — lately I’ve been dabbling in writing for TV and movies, but nothing that’s been announced yet.

It’s still hard sometimes keeping a connection to the fictional worlds I’m trying to nurse into being — life intrudes a lot. But there’s a true thing people say about writing, which is that some people can’t not do it. They can’t help it. So even when I’m walking around, doing errands, getting the car fixed, taking the cat to the vet and so on I’m thinking through stories and characters and sometimes just individual sentences, turning them over in my head. It never stops. I can’t turn it off.

How has your scholarship affected your fiction and fantasy? Besides the obvious connection to the Narnia books, we can find shades of Nabakov in Eliot’s character for instance. What classical literature influences you?

I feel like the main thing that gives my writing a distinctive texture is all the reading I’ve done. I come from a literary family — my parents were both English professors — and I spent three years in grad school studying comparative literature. So I spent a _lot_ of time reading books I probably otherwise never would’ve gotten to, which means there’s a lot of odd influences acting on my writing. The Modernists especially — Woolf, Kafka, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Proust, Eliot. Then there’s a lot of more random ones: Evelyn Waugh was a big influence on The Magicians, as was Tom Stoppard (he gets a shout-out in book three), but also Milton, Dante, Homer, Chaucer, Thomas Wyatt, Edward Lear … it’s all in there.

The emotionally complex characters continue to draw us back to re-read the magicians trilogy. One of my favorite scenes is when Quentin and Eliot steal a canoe early on and struggle to navigate it. Throughout the works there is the feeling that each character has a different emotional world that they are struggling to express or even understand. This emotional navigation becomes more dire than any of the magical plots, and its failures have greater consequences. How do you develop a character’s inner life?

I love that scene with Q and E in the boat. It’s the one scene I was sorry they never got to in the TV show.

I’ve always been fascinated with the literary-historical fact that the Modernists — who were great architects of their characters’ rich inner worlds — and the founding writers of modern fantasy — who were great architects of the amazing outer worlds around their characters — were writing at more or less the same time. And one of the ways I thought about The Magicians was as an attempt to create a hybrid of those two ways of writing: to pair the rich world-building of, say, C.S. Lewis with the complex character-building of, say, Woolf or Joyce. Not that I’m 1/1000th the writer that either of them is. But it was a thought I had.

As to how you develop a character … people make a mystery out of it, but seriously it’s just play-acting. You’re doing a puppet-show in  your head, playing all the parts, pretending to be other people. You make a little model of a character in your head and then you wind them up and set them going and see what they do.

In your writing we see reversals and subversions of fantasy structures. Julia’s story asks, “what is it like to be excluded from magic?” This ends up being a pointed question, since every reader is also excluded from magic. How do you build the fantasy framework for your world?

Everybody, but everybody, knows what magic should feel like. I don’t know why but humans everywhere have always felt something missing from the world. So you look around you and try to see the negative shape of the thing that should be there, feel it with your fingertips… and that thing is magic. It’s not so much building or framing as it is feeling for the edge of that missing thing.

Reading the Magicians prompted me to re-read the Chronicles of Narnia and I was honestly floored. For instance, in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe I was shocked to find how effortlessly they enter the magical world in just the two opening paragraphs. Does C.S. Lewis influence you stylistically and do you have the same kind of obsession with the books that Q has with the Fillory novels?

The first-edition set of the seven books of the Chronicles of Narnia

The Narnia books really do hold up, not only as stories but models of novelistic craftsmanship too. They’ve definitely influenced me — there’s something about the way Lewis describes magic, in this very matter-of-fact way, no smoke and mirrors, just simple concrete sensory impressions, that makes it feel utterly real. I’ve often wondered how he learned to do that — I don’t see anybody before him writing about magic that way, including Tolkien. Lewis describes magic in much the same way Hemingway would describe a chair.

I don’t know if I’m quite as much of a fanboy as Quentin is. But I’m pretty close. I have a first edition of The Magician’s Nephew, and I’m pretty sure that if my house burned down I would rescue that right after my children.

Does magic have a place in ordinary day to day life? What is magic in your life?

I don’t want to sound glib in the way I answer this (and it’s a good question that I’ve never really been asked before), but the best way I can put it is that in my life magic is the things that make me feel powerful, and that make me feel awe. Writing — creating — is one of those things. Another one is being a father to my children.

And then of course there’s wine. Wine is magic too.

What future projects do we have to look forward to?

Oh man. There’s maybe seven or eight things in the pipeline, in various states of completion, a few of which have been announced but most have not. And I don’t say this to sound all woo-woo and mysterious, I just literally legally can’t say anything about them. Also, in the case of the screen projects, some of them might die before they come out. That happens a lot.

The Bright Sword is Lev’s upcoming project retelling the King Arthur story.

But I can talk about The Bright Sword, which is a retelling of the King Arthur story. I’ve actually written a few drafts of it, but it still has a ways to go. I think/hope it’ll be out in 2020. (I’ve written a longish post on my blog about it, so if you’re curious you can check that out.) And then there’s The Magicians: Alice’s Story, which is a graphic novel that retells the story of The Magicians from Alice’s POV. I didn’t write it, or draw it, so I think I can say that it’s effing amazing. That will be out this summer.

I’ll announce more soon. Unless they die, and then I won’t.

Check out Lev’s blog here:

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