Q&A with Lev Grossman
So back in August 2010 I had an online book group that decided to read The Magicians by Lev Grossman. It was our first book together and I thought, Aw what the heck, I’ll send Grossman an email and see if he’ll take some questions from the group.
And then he emailed me back.
Since then I’ve corresponded with a small handful of authors and Lev Grossman is by far the one who is the most fun and enthusiastic. I wouldn’t expect someone who’s also a writer for Time Magazine and recently did their cover story on Jonathan Franzen to get so chatty with little old me but I’m hugely grateful.
I asked for permission to re-post our group’s Q&A. Questions were submitted by various readers. Only formatting has been changed to make it easier to read and the order of questions has been altered to make them more streamlined. Notes from myself will be identified. I will also move the spoiler-ish questions to the bottom and give you fair warning.
Q: The Magicians both pays homage to the fantasy genre and breaks out of it. Were you worried about alienating fantasy readers?
A: Alienating isn’t quite the right word. Hardcore fantasy fans are hard to alienate. They’re actually incredibly adventurous readers when it comes to crossing genre lines — you see a lot more fantasy fans reading literary fiction than literary readers reading fantasy, for example.
But I definitely wanted to please them. After all I am a fantasy reader! And I did worry about it. But the funny thing about literature — I find — is that you can do several different things at the same time in it. You can break out of a genre, but still satisfy readers of that genre, all at the same time. It’s not always an either-or situation.
Q: How do you see the relationship between your work and those like the Narnia books that you refer to indirectly in the book?
A: The phase ‘loyal opposition’ comes to mind. I’m a Narnia fan first, and a critic of Narnia second. (Unlike say Philip Pullman, who plays on the Narnia books in his work but genuinely loathes them.) There are things that trouble me about the Narnia books — Lewis’s sentimental obsession with childhood innocence, his fear of adult sexuality, the fact that Aslan sometimes lets the people of Narnia suffer when he could be helping them. But the Narnia books are like a family member: they drive me crazy, and piss me off, but I never stop loving them.
Q: Quentin always seems to think he’ll be happier somewhere else. Were you trying to show the adolescent mind with his feelings or simply a more general grass-is-always-greener idea?
A: It’s a bit of both. Quentin is first and foremost a portrait of an adolescent. But there are people who have trouble getting past that adolescent idea that they were meant for something better, and they could be living a different, more heroic, more meaningful life in some other perfect world. I will say that at 35 writing from Quentin’s point of view wasn’t a huge stretch for me.
Q: How much character detail in personality and behavior was edited out of your earlier drafts?
A: That stuff wasn’t edited out, it was edited IN. My early drafts were mostly about getting the plot and the setting right. Fleshing out the characters came later.
Q: Did the inevitable comparison to Rowling, Lewis, etc. influence your writing, and if so, how?
A: I tried not to obsess about it, but as I said, they were a constant presence for me. I felt like I was sort of writing around them, in their shadow. Their work is so big and so definitive, as a writer you have to look for some ground they haven’t covered, that you can claim for their own.
Q: Did you want to make Quentin a likable protagonist? How did you want the reader to relate to him?
A: I wanted to make Quentin a real protagonist — a realistic portrait of a very bright but somewhat emotionally underdeveloped 17-year-old. At the time I didn’t think very much about how likable he was or wasn’t. Which I think was the right decision, or at least the honest one.
I do notice, though, that when people don’t like the book, the reason is usually because they don’t like Quentin. Which is something to think about as I write the sequel.
SPOILERS AHEAD, Y’ALL!
Q: The schooling period of The Magicians flies by compared to other books like the Harry Potter series and Ender’s Game. Did you feel like this was something that had already been well-explored? Did you feel like the post-school period of these stories was often ignored and gave you more interesting material to work with?
A: It’s an interesting question. When I started The Magicians, in 1996, my model wasn’t Harry Potter, it was Ursula Leguin. The hero of A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged, spends a chapter and a half at a school for magic. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to stretch that out for half a book? Little did I know. So in that sense I felt like I was giving a LOT of space to Quentin’s education.
But the answer is still yes. I think the later lives of boy wizards is an under-explored topic, and I needed to give it some space. That’s where the opportunities were, not so much in Quentin’s education. (By the way the structure of The Magicians is borrowed from Brideshead, Revisited: the first half is education, the second half is real-world experience.) I submit as Exhibit A the epilogue to Deathly Hallows, wherein Rowling shows us Harry in later life. I love Rowling’s work, but I don’t think that epilogue is a success. Where is the ennui, the depression, the search for meaning, the sense of belatedness due a man who saved the world when he was 18 and had to live the rest of his life in his own shadow? Harry Potter could learn a lot from Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom.
Q: What steps did you take to make your book a riff off of the worlds of Harry Potter/Narnia and not a carbon copy?
A: Many many tiny steps. I wanted to allude to the books, but not copy or even directly satirize them. (I didn’t want The Magicians to be just a parody.) I wanted to tell the same kind of story as those books, the story of a young man who discovers his own power, and who finds a secret world, but tell it in my own way.
So there were a couple of moments when I wanted to ‘announce’ that my rules were fundamentally different from Rowling’s or Lewis’s. Like when Quentin walks in on Eliot going down on another student. Or when they go to Fillory and meet a talking bear, and the talking bear turns out to be drunk and kind of a bore. My hope was that those moments would force readers to really feel that they were in a different kind of book from Harry Potter/Narnia.
A lot of the revision process was getting the distance just right between my book and those other books. Or trying to. I may have sailed a little close to the wind with welters.
Q: What was the purpose of Julia in the story? What does she represent?
A: Julia is in some ways very central to the story, even though she doesn’t get much stage time. Like Quentin, she’s a way of working through the hopeless longing that fantasy worlds provoke in readers. Nobody who reads Harry Potter is really satisfied being a Muggle.
Everybody’s very sympathetic about the Muggles, and tolerant of them, but deep down we prefer wizards — given the choice we’d never want to BE a Muggle.
So Julia is kind of a play on Dudley Dursley, Harry’s Muggle stepbrother, who knows Harry’s true identity. But unlike Dudley, Julia isn’t scared of Quentin. She’s desperately, soul-eatingly jealous of him. To me that seems like a more psychologically realistic reaction.
By the way, Julia’s story — what happened to her while Quentin was at Brakebills — is a major part of the sequel.
Q: At the end of the book, does Quentin actually get what he wants by being with Janet as King and Queen? [Note from Jess: This was actually my typo. The original question was JULIA, not Janet, thus the fact that this question makes no sense.]
A: I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Quentin’s not in love with Janet. (And Janet is CERTAINLY not in love with Quentin.) I think Quentin becomes a grown-up at the end of the book, and re-embraces life. But I don’t see the ending as a romantic one. If they really do take the thrones of Fillory I have a feeling their partnership will be a platonic one.
Q: We all are in awe of The Beast. Such a terrifying monster. Can you tell us about your inspiration for him and all those creepy little details?
A: The Beast was the very first character to arrive. Then he wouldn’t leave. I wrote the chapter in which he appears in 1996. I didn’t start the rest of the novel till 2004. I know very little about his origins. He’s probably some nightmarish caricature of my father, or some other Oedipal phantom from deep in my subconscious. But you’d have to ask my therapist.
In the book he works a bit as Quentin’s Shadow — he’s a dark parody of Quentin: the boy who wanted to go to Fillory and never come back.
Q: Will we see more of Penny? We are all curious about the inner workings of his head, it’s like he’s never able to totally pull out of an alternate reality.
A: I did my best to kill Penny off, but I didn’t quite get there. His story isn’t over.
Q: What about Quentin cheating on Alice? Was it just a symptom of growing pains or are we allowed to hate him for it? (Because we all do a little.)
A: Even I hate him for it, a bit. But like a lot of people he had a big college romance and then wasn’t quite sure what to do with it when college was over. He started feeling trapped. But instead of being a man about it and talking to Alice, he did the worst possible thing instead. Jerk.
Q: Why was it important for you to bring Emily Greenstreet back at the end of the book? Was this a critique on fantasy in general?
A: I don’t see Emily as a critique, exactly. Although I think what she says has a lot of validity. She’s more of Quentin’s double. Like him she made a terrible mistake, and left the magical world as a result of it. Quentin does the same thing, or tries to. But he can’t stay out there in the real world, he has to go back. I felt like Emily’s presence makes Quentin’s decision at the end a little clearer, because he’s so clearly not ready to join her in the ‘real’ world.
Also, on a pragmatic level, I was looking for ways to connect the beginning of the book to the end, and she seemed like a dangling thread that needed tying up.
A: How to answer this without getting too spoiler-y? What I want to tackle is a different kind of story. I’ve done the coming-of-age story in The Magicians. So I’m interested in the quest now, the hero’s journey. That means tackling a different Narnia book — The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, rather than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — but yes, also invoking some other well-known fantasy worlds. The world of The Odyssey for example, and the world of King Arthur.
If you want to hear more from Lev Grossman, check out his blog. The Magicians is on sale in bookstores everywhere. The sequel, The Magician King, will be released in summer of 2011.