This is the second part of an interview with Lev Grossman, author, most recently, of The Magicians, which is out in paperback. You can read part I here.
Jake Seliger: Just like in some ways The Magicians feels much realer than most other novels because it actually incorporates sex, and there are all these funny, dirty phrases—the kinds of things that buddies and I have talked about and that you hear around. Janet says, “I’m freezing my tits off,” at one point, and it’s like, “I know girls who talk like that.” But girls in fantasy novels never talk like that.
Lev Grossman: The first time I wrote the word “fuck” I could hear tens of thousands of elementary library sales just vanishing into mist. But that was the book I wanted to write.
JS: That’s a very good reason for writing it, because trying to write to the market seems like a fool’s errand in many respects.
LG: Yeah, I mean, I was happy to go on that errand, and I probably would have, but for some reason—I just couldn’t do it.
JS: Which in some ways is good, because maybe that’s what helped make the truer book that became what it is.
LG: I think that’s probably true, yeah. It’s a rare example of my not selling out in my life.
JS: Why a rare example?
LG: I’ve historically been drawn to large, powerful institutions like Harvard. I went to Yale. I joined Time Incorporated. These huge, monolithic institutions. I tend to embed myself in them. It seems very safe.
JS: I remember I read that people apparently thought that you could be a very buttoned up type, based on where you’ve gone to school, which I found interesting. I went to Clark University in Massachusetts, and in high school I was the co-editor of the newspaper, and one of the girls who was co-editor the year before me went to Harvard. I went to visit her, and I learned something very useful about the Harvard mystique: when Harvard kids are drunk or puking in the toilet or whatever, they look and act remarkably like everyone else.
LG: Yeah, they do that sober too. It’s a much less magical place than you would expect.
JS: I’m not sure I would expect it to be magical. Did you expect it to be?
LG: Yeah, but that’s because I was an idiot.
JS: That’s funny too, because I spent almost no time thinking about college when I was in high school, and I didn’t get particularly wonderful grades, and the future was just sort of like a gray mist that was out there.
LG: I was like this disgusting, grade-grubbing, Gollum-like creature who only thought about college. Colleges, of course, where I wouldn’t have any problems any more.
JS: I feel like I met you.
LG: Yes, you probably met me, and didn’t especially like me. I was so obsessed with that, and I didn’t think there would be any problems after that.
JS: We think there aren’t going to be any problems after moment X, and then there are. Quentin finds this out when he’s working—there are always these moments where magic is depicted as being really hard. Early on, The Magicians says, “Magic, Quentin discovered, wasn’t romantic at all. It was grim and repetitive and deceptive. And he worked his ass off and became very good at it.” It seems like this description can apply to a lot of life. The magic is really hard. It seems like accomplishing anything is really hard.
LG: It’s Quentin’s one gift, basically. He’s a real wonk. He works hard.
JS: I’m surprised he picks up magic tricks, as opposed to something like computer programming or math, which seems like they get analogized to magic—math seems analogous to math in the novel.
LG: My sister’s a mathematician, or she was, and my talent for math is just average. It seemed very magical, what she did, and it still kind of does.
JS: Computer programmers adopted the word “wizard” from fantasy novels. It’s in the Jargon File. If you’re a wizard, you’re a master because you can make the computer do something that it shouldn’t be able to do.
LG: It’s true. There aren’t many computers in The Magicians.
JS: It seems like you always need a way to have electricity not work [in fantasy novels]. When I was working on A Glimmer in the Dark, conveniently if you used the power, it would shut off electricity—because that often time makes for more satisfying drama. And for sword fights!
LG: It’s an absolutely essential cheat, and that was one of the big cheats in this book. I wanted Brakebills to look like a nineteenth-century country house, and I didn’t care what I had to do to make that happen. There’s no good reason.
JS: If you have the Internet, some of the romance of old books and that kind of thing—or having to memorize old spells—goes down. Because if you have a massive spell database, you would just read that. There’s no app for spells in The Magicians. The girl I’m dating is in med school, and she wants to get an iPhone because she needs an app that lists symptoms of diseases and stuff like that, so she queries “funny knee, runny nose, kidney problem, what does that mean?”
LG: There’s a series of fantasy novels, that I haven’t read, set in a world where electricity and magic are not incompatible, and, in fact, it is possible to do magic by running an app. Computers basically, when they execute code, they are capable of casting spells. That struck me as a really fascinating idea. And I was pissed that I didn’t think of it.
JS: It is a fascinating idea, but it also seems like one that can easily go wrong. Good fantasy often requires limits and places where power stops, so you don’t get into a God complex where you have a character who becomes God.
LG: I looked at that, when I read the premise, I thought, “My God, who the hell is going to take that on as their world?” I didn’t even know how you would start hashing out the rules.
JS: The Magicians feels so rules-based: there are limits, there are things that are unknown. That’s part of what’s so satisfying. It’s not like you’re constantly running up against a barrier and then you knock it right down.
LG: The question of the world being rule-governed is one that was really paramount to me. And I felt like I was negotiating between—something very weird happened, when you move from C.S. Lewis, to le Guin, to Rowling. In C.S. Lewis, magic is essentially miraculous. There are people who do magic, but they’re all evil, mainly Jadis, and the Magician, in The Magician’s Nephew.
JS: In Tolkien, Galadriel says to Sam, you use the same word—magic—to describe the deceits of the enemy as what I do. [Her actual quote is regarding the Mirror of Galadriel: “For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel” (Fellowship II, vii, 377).] For her it’s just something she does, not magic per se.
LG: Which is closer to my view. And then you move to le Guin, where magic literally is a language, and then to Rowling, where magic borders on the technological. It’s so completely rule governed that if you swish and you flick and you say, whatever you say.
JS: It seems very easy.
LG: It seems very easy, yes.
JS: And you’re reacting against that here with the rhetoric of magic being difficult, and the practice and the practice and the practice.
LG: Again, something that Rowling wasn’t interested in but I was. I wanted to know why magic was hard, and why some people could do it and some people couldn’t do it.
JS: There’s that speech that I believe Eliot gives toward the beginning
[Here’s the speech: “The reasons why most people can’t do magic? Well […] One, it’s very hard, and they’re not smart enough. Two, it’s very hard, and they’re not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to do it right. Three, they lack the guidance and mentorship provided by the dedicated and startlingly charismatic faculty of the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. And four, they lack the tough, starchy moral fiber necessary to wield awesome magical energies calmly and responsibly. And five […] some people have all that stuff and they still can’t do it. Nobody knows why. They say the words, wave their arms, and nothing happens. Poor bastards. But that’s not us. We’re the lucky ones. We have it, whatever it is.”]
and then he gives five reasons, and the fifth reason is that some people just can’t do it for reasons that aren’t apparent. And there’s that aspect of mystery again.
LG: I couldn’t tie off all the threads.
JS: You shouldn’t tie off all the threads.
LG: Then magic ceases to be magical. It becomes mundane. It becomes thermodynamics. Or the magical equivalent thereof.
JS: They go to Fillory, and they find—at least Alice and a few others—can still manage to do magic, although the Circumstances and I believe some other things have changed. So they still manage to translate, and perform some bad-ass magic, for lack of a better term.
LG: They really have to recalibrate for Fillory, and they do so at different rates.
JS: Quentin at a lesser rate, it seems. But he manages to cast Magic Missiles. The Magic Missiles seem to be more devastating than they are in Dungeons and Dragons.
LG: They are effective. I think, yes, they are effective. Either those monsters are really, really low level. It’s a what—D4 damage? Something quite low. Quentin, he figures it out during his weird mourning period with the Centaurs. He gets quite leveled up during that period.
JS: We have to go back to that terminology of leveling up.
LG: It turns out, there really isn’t a better way of talking about it.
JS: Even though it feels much more organic than that in the novel, because they’re learning and what not. Although it’d be funny if they had a stat ring or something like that, because then of course everyone at Brakebills would do it, and they would start comparing whose is bigger.
LG: Oh, completely. The metrics aren’t quite that precise. They have a general idea, who is strong and who is weak.
JS: And then they’re always comparing each other, like people in actual classes. Who’s the smartest, who’s the most knowledgable, who’s the most capable, who gets laid the most?
LG: But then, you know, look at Josh, who’s sort of flukey. He has a lot of juice, or whatever you want to call it, it’s just he can’t deploy it reliably.
JS: Which is somewhat problematic […] As far as the actual moving to Fillory, Anaïs, she really gets off on the bloodlust aspect, the killing aspect, in an almost psychopathic way. Can you speak more to that, or is she just an unappealing character and that’s who she is?
LG: She represented a personality type that we hadn’t seen up to that point. Which is somebody who doesn’t have this American sentimental attitude toward violent conflict. Maybe it’s a European thing, coming out of a culture that remembers what it’s like to have wars on its own soil. Maybe she’s just sociopathic. I think she probably is.
JS: She mixes that up with sex too. There’s that line where someone says, did you see her looking over Dint’s shoulder? She was pressing her tit into it.
LG: She just has empathy problems, basically. She’s one of those people.
JS: She’s almost encouraged to have empathy problems because in the labyrinth there just seem to be monsters.
LG: I cut out a sustained ethical argument about whether they could kill the monsters or not. Just to keep the tedious—
JS: What made it tedious?
LG: Fantasy and morality—it’s hard to represent morality in a nuanced way in the context of the fantasy genre. Things rapidly trend toward a black and white. I was having trouble hanging onto the shades of gray.
JS: You did a very good job of hanging onto shades of gray. That’s part of what is satisfying.
LG: That was one of my goals. I feel like if there isn’t a powerful, single antagonist, like Voldemort, who magnetizes everything into poles, well, I wondered what it would be like. If you remove that term from the equation, suddenly, everything becomes more complex.
JS: And here it does so effectively. Martin seems to be driven mostly by power for its own sake. Or he’s moved beyond human morality and has become the monster or the Beast.
LG: As you might notice, Martin is connected emotionally to Quentin, and on some level, is a frightening vision of the person Quentin could’ve become. Somebody who’s obsessed with Fillory and remaining there and then not returning to Earth. It’s not worlds away from Quentin. Martin just made some very dark transactions in order to stay there.
JS: So we’re going back to the idea that there is some aspect of forbidden knowledge, or places that people shouldn’t go.
JS: You say yeah, but in a way that makes you sound very unconvinced. Like there’s something more there.
LG: I’m trying to hold onto my status as the fantasy writer who’s into shades of gray. Martin is a very difficult character because I’m not happy often with the way fantasy novels portray evil. I don’t find—as much as I like Harry Potter—Voldemort to be an especially compelling villain. I think the White Witch actually really is. So it troubled me a lot, the question of Martin’s evil. A lot of, sort of, bad DNA in the fantasy genre.
JS: Bad DNA. You’ve used that term of “fantasy DNA” before. I think it was in another interview that you said, “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.” But it seems to me that you could take out fantasy and insert all genres, or all models. In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, I think it’s Adso who realizes that books talk to other books. And he realizes intertextuality. So why limit that comment to fantasy novels? And also, why DNA? Why that metaphor?
LG: That’s a good question. I think I’ve always been concerned with DNA because I have an identical twin, who, in theory, I share 100% of DNA with. Well, I stick to my guns about fantasy. Genres are by their nature conventional, that’s what makes them genres. But I stick to my guns with the idea that there is a higher degree of continuity between fantasy novels than between most other novels within a genre. I see more biodiversity—I don’t say this as a bad thing, fantasy is the genre that I love—but strictly in terms of raw biodiversity, I feel like I see more of that in science fiction, or comics, or detective fiction. Not that I’ve made a thorough survey of detective fiction. I don’t read it very much.
JS: It’s hard to read all genres, because there are so many books out there.
LG: There are so many things that are just really rock solid fantasy. Think of a dragon, a sword, magic castles, knights. The building blocks—it’s very easy to point to them.
JS: And if you can point to them, the novelist should be taking them away, or doing something weird or unusual with them. Which you’ve accomplished and is part of what I was shooting for in A Glimmer in the Dark.
LG: I would never presume to say what novelists should do. But that’s what I wanted to do. What happened to A Glimmer in the Dark by the way?
JS: I think I finished submitting it to agents in December, and a bunch of them took either partials or fulls. And then all of them eventually declined, for various kinds of reasons. Which to me always makes me slightly crazy, because I’ve been a wannabe novelist type for a while, and I’ve gotten in a cycle, where starting with the novel I wrote before Glimmer, I started getting a lot of bites. The first two novels I wrote that were actually feature complete and proper lengths and what not—now I realize weren’t actually very good. Although I thought they were better at the time. And then finally I wrote one called A Winter-Seeming Summer’s Night, which steals a line from the John Donne Poem: “So, lovers dream a rich and long delight, / But get a winter-seeming summer’s night.” It’s about two journalists at the University of Washington who investigate a maybe rape in the Greek system. Finally I figured out how plotting works, especially, and how character works, and with that I finally started getting requests for partials and fulls, and then I’d get back these rejections. One would say, “too much research.” Another would say, “Research is great but characters are dead.” All kinds of stuff. And with Glimmer I’ve gotten a lot of the same kinds of things. I got a lot of generic—well, not generic exactly, but ones that basically said, “I don’t like it, try someone else.”
LG: As irrational and non-meritocratic as the publishing system is—
JS: Writers are irrational as well, because if I was rational, I would stop writing.
LG: Well, the agent part of it is, I feel, the least well-organized, and it’s absurd how that works. It’s very difficult to crack that.
JS: After I got all these eventual rejections and what not, I was bitching and moaning and telling my girlfriend I was going to stop writing fiction and focus on academic or other things for a while because I was an idiot, which I am. Robertson Davies has this great line where he says [quoted in the Guardian], “Robertson Davies, the great Canadian novelist, once observed: ‘There is absolutely no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.’ ” So I was bitching and telling her, I’m not going to do it anymore. Then we went to Seattle together and were sitting in French restaurant called Voila. I’m from Seattle, so she’d just met a lot of my friends. I looked at her and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if you wrote a novel with a guy and a girl and they were thinking about getting married and the guy decided to make a game of it and poll all his friends?” This is not autobiographical. Should I get married or should I do? So I started writing Asking Alice […]
LG: That’s great.
JS: It’s a little bit like—I’ve been watching The Pacific on HBO, and they hit the beaches and get machine gunned. That’s a little bit how I feel. I take two steps on the beach and get machine gunned. I think this will be more of the same.
LG: I don’t know.
JS: There’s no answer to it. It’s very random and chaotic.
LG: I have to say, my first novel, Warp, was a complete failure. It only had representation because a woman I went to Yale with dropped out around the same time. I didn’t get a very successful agent except by accident.
Warp was a disaster. Codex, it took us a year and a half to sell it. It got 20-something rejections.
JS: So the rejection never stops.
LG: No. That was a cruel period. At a certain point you just have to ignore the data.
JS: Grad school is the same too, which everyone warns you about before you go to grad school. But you went and dropped out, if I recall. Were you ever a Derrida reader?
LG: Oh sure, yeah, I went to college in the late 80s, when he was all the rage.
JS: Did you ever read his essay “The Law of Genre?”
JS: What you were saying about genre earlier reminded me of it, because he says the law of genre is that genres are not to be broken, but we must break the law. I wish I could give a better account of it.
I was reading Codex on the way over here, and with Edward you see a lot of the same stuff Quentin’s going through.
LG: I suppose it’s inevitable.
JS: I don’t know if I’m like the fiftieth asshole to say, “Hey, I see your earlier book has some of the same themes as your later book.”
LG: I haven’t read Codex since it came out. My memory’s a bit fuzzy.
JS: Also, you have this question of childishness in Codex, and people are always accusing each other of that in The Magicians. […] It does seem dangerous to extend childhood unnecessary or unnaturally. That’s one of the things John Barth writes about: the dangers of trying to extend innocence past where it belongs. The Sot-Weed Factor is phenomenal.
LG: When I read Lost in the Funhouse when I was a freshman in college, I thought, my God, that person has said everything that I ever wanted to say in fiction, there’s no point in me going on.
JS: Funny how that can happen.
LG: And then I never connected with a book of his the same way.
JS: Did you try The Sot-Weed Factor?
LG: I did. He wrote a lot after that. […]
JS: Is there anything else you’d like to add or you’d like people to know?
LG: No one ever says anything in response to that, do they?
JS: Yeah! They say all kinds of stuff. [Here I tell a long story about working on my high school paper where this question saved my ass because I was interviewing someone who’d won a big jazz award, except I didn’t know why I was interviewing him. I learned some useful lessons in high school.]
LG: Once I interviewed Jack Nicholson, he was doing the press for—not As Good as It Gets. He was doing the press for a terrible movie. Something’s Gotta Give. Horrible movie. He had this interview or whatever, and the phone rang. The message was, this is Jack Nicholson, there’s something very important I forgot to mention. I called him back, left a message, but I never found out what it was.
JS: Bummer. […]
LG: I’m a big panicker. I never come up with anything good on the fly.
That’s the end of the interview, with a whimper, not a bang. Although Grossman did mention that, in this blog post, he stole the concept of Fuck-You Money from Cryptonomicon; I responded that that’s an excellent place to steal from.
A few other thoughts: I mentioned that “I remember I read that people apparently thought that you could be a very buttoned up type, based on where you’ve gone to school.” In person, Grossman’s not; if he was once, he’s shed that identity.
Grossman said, “I would never presume to say what novelists should do.” But I would stick to my assertion and would presume to say what novelists should do: something that isn’t already being done. Something that tries to break formulas to the extent possible. Something, in short, novel. I like quoting Milan Kundera’s assertion in The Curtain:
Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.
I think Kundera is a bit overwrought, but his point is taken: aspiring to be average, to merely use what’s been given to you—why bother?
Regarding Asking Alice: If you’re curious, as of this writing, the agent mentioned to Grossman said no, as did a bunch of others, and I think two agents have fulls or partials right now. I’m working on a new novel called One Step Into the Labyrinth, which I’m about 70,000 words into, and which is done in the style of Carlos Ruiz Zafón and set in an imaginary version of Seattle.