Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Conversation with Lev Grossman

photo: Sophie Gee
 The Magician King, Lev Grossman's new novel, continues the refreshingly sharp and unabashedly magical story that began in The Magicians two years ago. These books have often been labeled as "fantasy for grown-ups," and while the description is technically appropriate, the faint condescension is not. Grossman revels in the familiar tropes of fantasy literature and applies them with the full expectation that they can tell a story with all the sophistication, depth, and rigor of less fantastical stripes of fiction. Don't read this because it's "fantasy for grown-ups." Read it because it's a thrill ride of an adventure, a gracefully written novel, and a book that plumbs both the nasty and fine parts of being human.

In The Magician King, Quentin and his friends have become kings and queens of the strange and beautiful land of Fillory. When Quentin and Julia set out on a quest, they find themselves thrown back into the mundane world of Massachusetts and the dark and unpredictable magic of Julia's past.

Lev will be visiting Kepler's on Wednesday, the 24th (tomorrow!), at 7:00 PM. For more information, please follow this link.

Megan Kurashige: When did you know that the ending of The Magicians was not the end of this story? Was there a particular image, or idea, or storyline that proved irresistible and propelled you into The Magician King?

Lev Grossman: When I wrote The Magicians it was as a standalone. I never thought about a sequel at all. I was just hoping I could get the thing published! So I didn’t start thinking about a sequel until after it was already in bookstores. And then when I did… the thing I kept thinking about was the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Pevensies are all grown up, kings and queens of Narnia, and you just see them for a page or two before they get shunted back to England.

And I thought two things. One, what was it really like, ruling Narnia? What if that was the start of a book, not the end? And two, what if the Pevensies didn’t investigate the lamppost? What if they said, ‘we’ve got a good thing going on – why throw it away on some stupid streetlight? Back to the castle for more feasts and wenches!’

MK: I read a fantastic piece you wrote for the Fantasy Matters website in which you describe the metaphorical “bins” you set up when starting the novel, one for mood and one for plot. This is particularly fascinating to me since the two books felt so different to me as a reader. Can you describe for us how you wanted The Magician King to feel compared to how you wanted The Magicians to feel?

LG: The Magician King is more of a straightforward adventure than The Magicians. The Magicians happens over the course of years, and it jumps around in time. The main plot of The Magician King unfolds in about three weeks. So I wanted a more propulsive, more hard-boiled feel. A little less C.S. Lewis and a little more Raymond Chandler. I watched Ronin a couple of times, and The Bourne Identity, to get myself in the mood.

Also, I wanted The Magician King to be less angsty. No one’s coming of age here, that’s already happened. These people are in their 20s, so no more of Quentin’s painful self-consciousness. I wanted him to have some fun. And kick some ass.

These books seem to take great delight in playing with the conventions and love affairs of both the fantasy and “conventional” genres. Were there any books that provided particular succor or inspiration while you were writing The Magician King?

LG: I love books that question the basic conventions of the genre they’re in. Like Watchmen: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were the first people to write a superhero story that asked, why would somebody put on tights and go beat up muggers? What kind of person would do that? And by doing that they produced the greatest superhero story ever written.

Neuromancer is like that for me. And, in a different way, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. They demolish their genres and, in the process, make them stronger than they ever were.

MK: This novel splits the story between Quentin, the main character from the first book, and Julia, a minor character from the first book. How did the story become so much Julia’s? What was it like to look both backwards and forwards at this world and see events from an entirely different point of view?

LG: Julia was only supposed to be a chapter. I wondered what she’d been up to while The Magicians was going on, and I figured it would take about ten pages for her to tell us. But she just exploded. She was so angry and so bitter, and had been through so much. She hijacked the book, and her story grew until it was the same size as Quentin's. The book turned into a duet, not a solo.

MK: The magic in these books is pungent and aggressively striking to imagine (a friend of mine says she feels like she’s seeing the “best Tarantino movie ever” when she reads about your magic). How did the shape and look and sound of your magic, both the magic that’s wielded by characters and the magic that exists in the world, make its way into the books?

I wish I had a good answer for you. Every time I’ve ever read a book with magic in it, I’ve always thought, I like this, but they’re not doing it quite right, and one day I'll write a book where they do it my way! I suppose my magic was influenced a lot by the old Dr. Strange comics: lots of arcane hand positions and bolts of light. But I think a lot of the time when people write about magic they under-describe it. They cover only one or two of the senses. They don’t tell us what it feels like – do your fingers get hot when you cast a spell? If you closed your eyes, what would magic sound like? Would it spit and snap like a green log burning? What would the air smell like, after a spell had been cast?

MK: The fact that this novel has a theme song is excessively awesome. Did you listen to any music while writing The Magician King? Do you have any treasures from a writer playlist that you would like to point us to?

LG: "Fantasies" and "Grow Up and Blow Away" by Metric. "Gimme Fiction" by Spoon.

Hm, those albums titles are almost too appropriate.

MK: How can stories change the world?

LG: The funny thing is, I think they can. The world is all made of stories: they’re not just things in books, they’re how we organize what we know and experience, and give it meaning. So the stories people tell about the world change it. Historians, journalists, politicians -- they write the past and present, and they change the future.

My stories don’t change the world though. They just make people feel better, sometimes.
Lev Grossman is the author of the bestselling novels The Magicians and Codex. A well-known cultural commentator, he is the book critic for TIME magazine and has written for numerous other publications, including the New York Times, The Believer, The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, Salon and Wired. In 2011 Grossman won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer from the World Science Fiction Society. His latest novel, The Magician King, is out from Viking now.

You can visit Lev online at his website or follow him on Twitter.


Amanda Grace said...

I am currently reading The Magicians and like it. The sequel sounds intriguing. Thanks for the interview. Lev Grossman sounds like a neat guy.

Kepler's Books said...

Hi, Amanda! You should definitely give The Magician King a try once you're done with the first book. Personally, I enjoyed it even more. Lev is very neat. So excited that he'll be at Kepler's tomorrow! :-)