Our three-part talk with The Magicians author Lev Grossman concludes with a look at the future of comics, the experience of surviving Comic-Con, a literary debt to Larry Niven, and what fans might see in a sequel to his book.
Newsarama: Lev, when you look at the ongoing narrative in superhero comics, the dynamic was for some time, “We have a renewable audience that will read these books for five years, maybe 10, and then they’ll get bored and leave, while a new, younger audience will take over.” And now it’s more like people keep reading these books, but there’s a question of whether the new audience is coming in, or if the books are understandable to people who haven’t been reading all this time.
Lev Grossman: I think people in my generation – I’m 40 – we did this funny thing where we didn’t give up comics. We refused to let them go as we aged out of their traditional demographic.
And it was sort of great that we did that, because we realized their value went beyond that of children’s literature. But at the same time, it induced a kind of schizophrenia in comics – now they’re plagued by all kinds of age groups and demographics.
Nrama: You really are seeing children’s and young adult literature becoming a driving force in the publishing industry, and I’m curious as to how you think that’s going to play out over the long term – you’ve got Harry Potter fans moving on to teen books and…(through clenched teeth) Twilight.
Grossman: (laughs) I can hear the sneer and contempt in your voice.
Nrama: Yeah, I don’t really try to hide it. But do you feel the generation that’s grown up reading these books is going to transition to more adult books, and keep buying en masse as they get older? People who started reading Harry Potter at age 8 or 9 when the books first came out are going to be college-aged now.
Grossman: The whole project of The Magicians was premised, to some extent, that readers who grew up reading Harry Potter would be looking for something with the same kind of dynamic narrative in a magical universe, but with kind of rougher edges and more adult stuff left in.
As I said in that Wall Street Journal piece, I do think there’s a revolution in fiction is happening right now, and one of the fronts of that revolution is in the YA world. Whether you consider it bad or good, it’s a fact you have to grapple with that Stephenie Meyer sold 16 million books in the first quarter of this year. It’s just ridiculous to ignore it.
Nrama: An odd digression: When I went to Borders to buy your book, it was in the SF/Fantasy section right by the YA section, which was almost pure black with the covers from all the Twilight knock-offs. I mean, it looked like the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Grossman: Well, you can just smell the desperation coming off all those folks. And publishing executives wonder why people don’t read – they’ll repackage dreck in covers that make them look like Twilight, and people read them and don’t want to read anything else. It’s very depressing.
Nrama: Now, you coined a phrase that wound up being pretty widespread a while back: “The geeks have inherited the Earth.” But you also went to Comic-Con this summer, and it sounded like a pretty depressing experience for you (link: http://nerdworld.blogs.time.com/2009/07/23/fear-and-loathing-at-san-diego-comic-con/)…
It’s interesting, because you’ll have people who say they love Wonder Woman or Iron Man, but they’ve never read a comic with the characters. It’s interesting to see how something like The Dark Knight can be hugely popular with a larger, archetypical Batman, but the actual comics don’t necessarily translate into a larger audience.
Grossman: I think we’re at a very uneasy juncture. So much money gets attached to a franchise like Iron Man, and it gets sort of slowed down, it can’t be as weird as it once one. I think the Iron Man movies have a lot of integrity to them, but they might be the exception.
My theory is that Iron Man is ceasing to be a part of nerd culture, and the hardcore are moving on to weirder pastures.
Nrama: They’re going to discover black tar heroin nerdity at some point.
Grossman: (laughs) Exactly! They’re going to move on to the harder, lethal stuff.
Nrama: I’m not sure what’s going to happen with Comic-Con. I haven’t been since 2007, but as early as 2003, it seemed like it was going to turn into Altamont, with someone getting trampled to death, or a massive riot breaking out.
Grossman: It’s pure luck that that hasn’t happened already. I think I sustained some eardrum damage when Johnny Depp jumped out in the Alice in Wonderland presentation. A Hell’s Angel didn’t actually stab me, but it felt that way.
Nrama: (laughs) I heard there were near-riots when 800 people got shut out of the Watchmen panel in 2008. There was apparently a near-gang war between superhero fans and Twilight fans this year…
Grossman: It’s coming. The end-war is coming. And I profoundly hope I’m not there for that. I don’t ever want to go back to Comic-Con, actually. I don’t think there’s anything there for me.
Nrama: I think it’s a warning sign that comic book creators are having trouble getting into the parties for films based on characters they worked on.
Grossman: It is a real warning sign. I was only invited to one glitzy part at Comic-Con, which was the Entertainment Weekly party, which is on the roof of some glitzy hotel, and I turned up, and someone had already come in as me.
The pressures and the weirdness of Comic-Con have gone so far that there’s an imposter Lev Grossman walking around. I mean, my God! Sometimes even I don’t want to be me. It’s depressing to think that someone would want my identity.
Nrama: A few Magicians-specific questions before we go. First: If you had a demon tattooed on your back, would you fight him if given the chance?
Grossman: (laughs) It’s very important that I stole that idea from one of Larry Niven’s Warlock stories. The demon leaped out and died in a paragraph, and I felt I could stretch it out for a bit longer.
I think Niven is underrated in general, but he’s completely underrated as a fantasist. I love those stories! Some are Checkovian, just these sad, elegiac tales.
I saw Niven at WorldCon in Montreal this year, and after spending the whole con gathering up my courage, I went up to him at a bar in two in the morning, and said, “You don’t know me, but I stole this thing of yours, and I’m sorry.” And then I ran away.
Newsarama note: The next few questions address the ending of The Magicians, so steer clear if you haven’t read the book yet.
Nrama: (laughs) Okay, one more question, very specific to the ending of The Magicians
Grossman: Fire away.
Nrama: Why’d you kill Alice? That pissed me off! I get why it worked in the narrative, but I wanted her and Quentin to just work it out.
Grossman: (laughs) You know, she wasn’t supposed to die. Janet was supposed to die. But my editor and her boss, the head of Viking, came down on me and said, “We’re not having it. Alice has to die.”
I caved, probably because people didn’t like Janet that much. She’s my favorite character, but when she died, people’s reaction was just, “Thank God that’s over.”
Nrama: Well, once she and Quentin get it on, you kind of hate that character…you throw Quentin a bone with Julia, there’s a sense some stuff has gone one with her.
Grossman: Yeah, “Julia: The Lost Years.” That’ll be The Magicians: Vol.17. Part of the thing with Alice was the married couple problem, the Vision and Scarlet Witch problem. If you start the sequel and Quentin and Alice are a married couple, it’s too dreary. Maybe it’s better to have her out of the way so he can play the field.
Nrama: Part of me hopes a sequel involves Alice coming back from niffen-hood…
Grossman: Well, the problem with Alice is she’s neither alive nor dead, so she can’t pass through. She will return, but it’ll be a while before she knows anything resembling peace. So if she does come back, she’s going to be pretty damaged.
Nrama: …I’m sort of relieved to hear that.
END OF SPOILERS
Any last things you’d like to say to our readers?
Grossman: The thing I struggle with is that it’s an uneasy mix being a fantasy author and an employee of Time magazine, because Time is so much a part of the “straight” world – it’s the world that exists in opposition to fandom.
I think people are surprised when they meet me because I don’t wear a bow tie and I didn’t row crew in college or whatever. I think people have very weird ideas about me because I work for Time, and I just want to say: I was hired by Time as a web developer. And over a period of five years I moved over to write for the magazine.
But as much as a freak I am regarded as when I go to a science fiction convention, I am regarded as much more of a freak at Time magazine. No one thinks I’m normal here! (laughs) If people are in danger of thinking I’m normal, that I am normal elsewhere, then let me assure you: I’m not normal anywhere. Trust me.
The Magicians is in bookstores now.
Zack Smith (email@example.com) is a regular contributor to Newsarama