Lev Grossman interview – June 2009
Lev Grossman, the son of two English professors, grew up in a suburb of Boston. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in literature and went on to the Ph.D. program in comparative literature at Yale. He worked for a string of dot-coms while writing freelance articles about books, technology and culture in general for numerous magazines, newspapers and websites until he was hired by Time in 2002. His first fantasy novel, The Magicians, was published on May 21, 2009 and Lev kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review the following month.
The Magicians has been available online and through bookstores for a few weeks now. What has the reception been like from readers and critics?
So far so good. You think of the publication of a novel as an instantaneous event, whereas in fact it is an excruciatingly prolonged, gradual process. Like one of those super-slo-mo videos of a balloon popping that reveal it to be, on a micro-level, a long, drawn-out catastrophe.
Fortunately the reception so far has been very very positive. I think the mainstream press in the UK aren’t quite sure whether this is a fantasy novel – and hence to them radioactive and virtually unreviewable – or a literary novel, so fair game. But I understand they’re coming around. The Guardian, at any rate. And the f/sf press have been amazing – there’s a great review coming out in SFX.
The book won’t be published in the U.S. until August — it was delayed here, long boring story — but there have been trade reviews and reviews on blogs and sites like Goodreads.com, and they’ve mostly been very very good. Really gratifying. Only a few complaints, and those were that it was too much like Harry Potter, which is a complaint I’ll take any day.
Many readers will believe that your fictional world of Fillory is based on CS Lewis’s Narnia. Was this intentional?
Of course! Very much so. Though “based on” … not exactly the words I would use. I think there’s a level on which The Magicians is reacting to C.S. Lewis’s work, honoring it but also critiquing it — like Pullman did in the His Dark Materials trilogy.
Fantasy novels share so much DNA with each other anyway, because the convention of the genre are so firmly established, that you’re almost always reworking an idea somebody worked before you. As C.S. Lewis well knew — he was an incorrigible borrower. No one remembers it now, but you couldn’t be a fantasy fan then and read The Magicians Nephew and not think, oh, right, this is all based on William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World …
Those who read the Narnia books as youngsters find them magical and charming. Those who return to them as adults, hoping for the same nostalgia-fuelled experience often find aspects of racism, misogyny and religion that they missed first time around. Passages in The Magicians have Quentin taking issue with the Fillory books, finding holes in the narrative, and realising that the magic had dimmed. Are these experiences in anyway related and did you read the Narnia books as a child, then as an adult, and have similar feelings?
Like a lot of readers, I went through three well-defined phases with Narnia. Childlike Wonder, when I was around 8. Oedipal Rage, when I was in my 20’s, and thought Aslan was a heartless irresponsible god who is always off playing peek-a-boo with Lucy when he should be saving his worshippers. And now — in my late 30s, after huge tranches of therapy — I’ve arrived at something in between. I realize my differences with Lewis and Narnia are never going away. But they don’t eclipse my love of the books, and my ongoing amazement at how great they are. I think Quentin’s still stuck in phase 2.
How important was the time that you spent at Harvard and Yale in creating a realistic and accurate Brakebills academy (a school that housed only the most gifted)?
You know, I didn’t think about this until I was several drafts into The Magicians. But of course, obviously, the Brakebills parts are connected to the experience of going to Harvard, both of them being hyper-exclusive educational institutions. (Though there’s no way I would have gotten into Brakebills.) When I was in high school, lacking any other sources of self-esteem, I was completely mental about getting into a good college. Which I finally did, and of course it wasn’t everything I hoped for when I finally got there. I think Brakebills isn’t based so much on what Harvard was like as what I dreamed it was going to be like before I actually went there. Even now, that’s a very vivid dream to me.
The Beast is a nightmare character that enters the story and destroys the docile life that the students are enjoying. A branch, hovering in front of its face, keeps its identity hidden. Is there any special significance in the use of a branch? It is certainly a unique disguise, most fantasy authors are happy to settle for a hooded robe.
The origins of the Beast are quite obscure to me. He was the very first of the novel’s characters to arrive — he showed up in 1996, about 8 years before anybody else — and he stays almost to the end. The branch … it is odd, isn’t it? At the time I worried that it was too much like that Magritte painting. You know, the one of the man with the apple in front of his face. But once the image of this face obscured by a leafy branch arrived, it refused to leave. Like a bad house guest.
Sexual tension is a constant throughout The Magicians and anybody who is, or has been a teenager will fully identify with the feelings, thoughts and behaviour of the characters. How did you manage to recreate this period in both boys and girls life so accurately?
Because I never left it? I’m 39, and I hope to any day now. In all seriousness, middle age is turning out to be very disappointingly like adolescence in that respect.
I will just add that one of the things I loved about Pullman’s books is that he didn’t shy away from sex, and he has no patience with Lewis’s kind of fetishization of childhood innocence. When you hit puberty you don’t lose your powers — like Susan does in The Last Battle — you’re just starting to get them. Except when you get them, they’re too much — they’re amazing, and incredible, but they’re also crazy and out of control and damaging.
Fantasy Film time! Hollywood wants to make your book into a film and says that you can pick any actors you wish to play the roles of Quentin, Eliot and Alice. Who would you pick, bearing in mind that money and availability is no object?
Can time and space be no object too? This is one of my favorite games, but I’m so not up on the current crop of teen actors, which is what you’d really need, so I’m going to draw freely from other filmic periods.
For Quentin, I’m thinking a mid-1990’s Peter Sarsgaard. Or maybe Giovanni Ribisi. Or Edward Norton. You know, one of those actors who can project a really active intelligence, and isn’t too pretty.
For Eliot you’d need somebody rather tall and pretty, then give him some prosthetic make-up to rough him up. And you’d need somebody who can play haughty and really mean it. Early Jeremy Irons? Or Rupert Everett? John Malkovich? Or wait, got it! Withnail-era Richard E. Grant.
And for Alice, no question: Ghost World-era Thora Birch.
If pushed, what would you say is the best fantasy book you have ever read?
What a hideous question. Honest answer? T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.
Have you ever read an author and thought – “One day I want to be able to write as well as that”? If so, who was it?
Are you kidding? That happens to me every day. Most often with Jonathan Franzen. Except I know that day will never come.
What does the remainder of 2009 hold for Lev Grossman and will there be a sequel to The Magicians?
The remainder of 2009 looks a lot like the part of 2009 that already happened. Except: I’ll be going to every con I can get invited to, and I’ll be touring, giving readings and talks and such, in August and September. After that the remainder of 2009 holds writing the sequel to The Magicians.