The Art of Magic in Fiction: An Interview with Lev Grossman

The Art of Magic in Fiction: An Interview with Lev Grossman

Fantasy is a genre dominated by sword-and-sorcery epics, mysterious dragons, and tyrannical sorcerers.  Few fantasy novels have joined the ranks of ‘great’ literature, and fewer still have crossed over into the contemporary literature aisle.  The Lord of the Rings has of course become iconic, and the Harry Potter books were inexplicably popular among non-fantasy readers. But when trying to find a book to compare to Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, I came up pretty much empty-handed.

This is the trouble one has categorizing the sort of book that receives high praise from such disparate authors as Junot Diaz and George R. R. Martin.  It is a book you might read in a class on contemporary literature, but its plot is rooted squarely in the realm of the fantastical, drawing upon Narnia and other fantasy works a great deal, but tackling themes rarely found on a fantasy bookshelf.  The novel’s protagonist, Quentin, struggles not only with magic, but with loss and heartache, and the clumsy pains of young adulthood.

I had a chance to talk with Lev Grossman about The Magicians, his thoughts on magic, and whether the world he explored and created in this novel might see a second run.  Lev attended Harvard and Yale before ditching academia and remaking himself as a journalist. He’s written for a number of publications including the Village Voice and The New York Times, and was hired by Time magazine in 2002 as its book critic.  The Magicians is his third novel.

Quentin’s nagging despair over a world without magic is something I experienced a lot of as a kid and even as I grew older.  Magic is still something I have a hard time letting go of (which is probably why I read so much fantasy).  So I found myself relating to Quentin a great deal.  I wonder, how much of this story was autobiographical in nature?

There’s elements of that. It very much began as a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy-slash-thought experiment. I imagined myself as a senior in high school (only taller, and better at math) and then gave myself exactly what I thought I wanted. Actually I started writing this book at 34, and I still thought I wanted all that stuff. Not much had changed.

So after writing the book do you feel the same?  There’s a moment there where it seems Quentin is very disillusioned with the whole idea of magic, with Fillory, and so forth.  But that’s not the note the book ends on.

Not the same. Different.

I think up into my thirties I seriously, on some level, had problems with the fact that I did not live in a fantasy novel. It was an adjustment that I was still, at my advanced age, working on. And writing the book was about — as lame as this sounds — coming to a more nuanced understanding of the life I was actually living and of the life I wasn’t, e.g. that life in Fillory is not perfect, and that life on Earth is not complete shit. Quentin has a tendency to give up on things that aren’t perfect, to rip them up and throw them away. By the end of the book he’s ready to face a Fillory that incorporates the possibility of loss and sadness.

Dean Fogg has a great little soliloquy when he’s speaking to the graduating class at Brakebills. To paraphrase he’s essentially saying that perhaps magic is too much for people to bear – that it gives them too much – that part of the point of life is not getting everything we want. Magic makes too many wishes come true. That seems to be a recurring theme throughout the book and it takes shape in pretty devastating ways. Do you think this is a departure from the themes we usually find in fantasy novels or do you feel like you’re building on a larger tradition within the genre?

There’s a tradition there. I think I’m just pushing it further than other writers have.

For example: Rowling is very clear that magic isn’t the end of all of Harry Potter’s problems. He’s got plenty of new problems once he gets to Hogwarts, ie Voldemort and all that. The big difference between the Potterverse and the world of The Magicians (and, I would argue, our world) is that there’s no Voldemort there. Harry always knows what to do with his magic. He has to defeat the forces of evil. For Quentin the problem is more complicated. There is no great personification of evil in his life. He’s all powered up with no one to fight. So the story becomes less about using magic to defeat the evil one, and more about trying to figure out what the hell magic is for.

You’ve written some positive reviews of George R. R. Martin’s work. That’s epic fantasy at it’s best. Why did you decide to write this sort of book rather than tackle epic fantasy?

I love Martin, but my real passion isn’t epic fantasy. I wasn’t a Tolkien kid growing up, I was a Narnia kid. I didn’t fantasize about beating back massive orc armies with my battle axe, I fantasized about finding a little door into a secret magical realm wherein I would find fauns and such.

And I felt like there was more room for me in that other tradition, the Lewis tradition — more room to do new things. Most of the time, when writers write fantasy for adults — non-young-adult fantasy — they tend to work in the epic, Tolkien tradition. I wanted to see what you could do in the Lewis tradition, when you pushed it outside the comfort zone of the young adult aisle.

Plus the people writing epic fantasy are just too damn good. There’s no way I’m getting into the arena with George R.R. Martin. That would be suicide.

There’s definitely a paying-homage-to-Narnia feel about The Magicians. And there are a few good-natured jabs at Harry Potter as well. But at times I had the sense that there was a bit of a bitter-sweet quality to it, bordering on cynical or even a little mocking. Have you made your peace with Narnia or are you going back to Fillory? I had a competing sense that the end of the book was both a solid finale and a possible cliff-hanger.

I wrote The Magicians as a standalone. I feel like by the end of the book Quentin has made his peace with the things that bedevilled him at the book’s beginning. Or as close as he’s going to get.

But you know, once your hero has finally come of age, suddenly there’s a lot more you can do with him. And there’s a lot of Fillory we haven’t seen yet. I have an idea about where things can go from here, and we’re pretty close to making a deal with Viking for me to write it. As we used to say back in my Boston-area childhood, it’s gonna be wicked fun. (That probably qualifies as news, by the way, since we haven’t said anything about it publicly.)

That’s good to hear. I think it’s a great stand-alone novel, but there certainly is a lot more Fillory to explore. Returning to the topic of magic, I wonder which book or author you think does it the best? I think how magic is handled in a fantasy novel can make or break it. What influenced how you approached the actual magic in The Magicians?

There can be only one answer to that question: Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. From the instant the first spell is cast in that novel — when Mr. Norrell persuades the stone statuary in a cathedral to speak — all magic ever described anywhere seemed pale and inauthentic to me by comparison. I go over her writing word by word, and I still can’t see how she does it. But if there were such a thing as magic, that’s how it would be done.

I couldn’t agree more, actually. Clarke’s magic is frighteningly good.

One final question. Were you at all worried that the hardcore fantasy readership would be turned off by the more literary direction you take this book? The homage to Narnia and barbs tossed Hogwarts way notwithstanding, the die-hard fantasy crowd is a hard one to please, especially with something less grounded in standard genre fare. For instance, I think Jonathan Strange actually came under quite a bit of fire from within the traditional fantasy readership for being too slow and too much in the mold of the Victorian novel. Were you at all concerned that reviewers would just keep repeating “Harry Potter for grown-ups”?

I did worry about it. I know how hard to please they are because I’m one of them. And some of them/us did keep repeating “Harry Potter for grown-ups.” And much, much worse things than that too.

And they were right about Jonathan Strange. For all of its extravagant genius, it was too slow. I worried about the pacing of The Magicians a lot, and lashed it forward wherever I could.

I suppose I made other trade-offs that a ‘pure’ genre writer wouldn’t have had to. But in my heart of hearts, I don’t actually believe that you have to choose. You COULD write a kick-ass balls-out hardcore fantasy novel that also pleased the literary people. And vice versa: That’s the great thing about novels: you can have it all.

I can imagine the book that would do that. Maybe The Magicians isn’t it, but it’s out there somewhere. Maybe someday I’ll actually be able to write it.

Lev, thanks so much for doing this interview. I had fun, and I enjoyed The Magicians a great deal.

Awesome. It was my pleasure.

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9 thoughts on “The Art of Magic in Fiction: An Interview with Lev Grossman

  1. Nice. I’ve been looking for a new fantasy to read. Loved “Jonathan Strange,” in part because of the pacing. But I re-read “Pride and Prejudice” every year, too.

    Just finished re-reading most of Patricia McKillip’s work; another under-appreciated writer with an amazing grasp of magic.

    And I do agree — the magic just behind a door makes for a more personal experience.

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  2. Harry always knows what to do with his magic. He has to defeat the forces of evil. For Quentin the problem is more complicated. There is no great personification of evil in his life. He’s all powered up with no one to fight. So the story becomes less about using magic to defeat the evil one, and more about trying to figure out what the hell magic is for.

    That’s a very interesting point; it leaves me wondering if the temptation to demonize, to see others as a great personification of evil, arises from a desire for a less complicated world. My inclination is to say yes. The rhetoric that often accompanies such demonization, in our political arena, for example, speaks of the world in very epic fantasy terms, with more references to religion than to magic, granted, but nonetheless as a world filled with strangers, gods, and monsters and where the battle lines are clearly drawn.

    Good interview.

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  3. One thing I’ve never accepted about fans’ demands on fantasy literature, is when they insist it should “comfort” the reader, be predictable, offer only familiar stories… in short, be anything but surprising.

    I mean, if there was a world where magic works, wouldn’t the knowledge of that be fundamentally unsettling — terrifying, even? Like living in a nightmare, actually. In the real world, the common trait of cultures which truly believe in magic is that people are paranoid about becoming the victims of curses and black magic.

    “Magic makes too many wishes come true.” I agree. (Thematic similarity: Agent smith in THE MATRIX points out that The Matrix 1.0 had to be scrapped because people found it too perfect.)

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  4. E.D. Great interview. This is the kind of stuff that keeps TLoOG in my feedreader. I’ve already downloaded samples of The Magicians as well as Ms. Clark’s book to my kindle. Maybe I can knock one out during the long holiday. Thanks.

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