Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.
Lev Grossman’s third novel, The Magicians has hit the bestseller list and earned rave reviews since its release in late August. It’s the tale of Quentin Coldwater, a young, smart fan of a series of fantasy novels about a realm called Fillory, which he longs to escape to.
But Quentin gets the next best thing when he finds himself accepted to Breakbills, a school of magic where he not only learns incredible secrets, but also finds the love and friendship he’s been looking for. After school, though, Quentin and friends find themselves without direction…until they gain the opportunity to access a mystic realm, with terrible secrets they may not escape.
Grossman’s well versed in fan culture, as a book critic and contributor to the Nerd World for Time magazine (he also wrote the much-quoted “The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth” essay). So we decided to take the opportunity to call him up to talk about his book, comics, and genre material in general.
What followed was a rollicking conversation that covered a wide variety of topics, from the evolution of fan culture to the influence of comics in other media. Occasionally, we also talked about his book.
In part one of our three-part interview, Grossman discusses what didn’t make it into his novel, comics he read growing up, the end of Harry Potter, how his brother’s book helped inspire this one, getting comic books in Time magazine, and more.
Newsarama: Lev, the book’s been doing very well – that’s got to be exciting for you.
Lev Grossman: Yes, really exciting. It’s certainly performing above expectations. You work on something like this for five years, and when it comes out, you find out if you wasted five years or not. I’m starting to feel like I didn’t. [laughs]
Nrama: I understand there were a few sections of the book you had to cut down – the dungeon crawl sequence was longer, for example. How long was the book before you edited it?
Grossman: Well, when it exists on your hard drive in the form of a Word file, it’s hard to say how many pages. The final draft was about 145,000 words, and I think in the final six months, it probably shed 20,000 words. So imagine about 50 pages more.
There was a period when I went through that painful phrase of “well, if I can cut it, I should cut it.” And I did take a lot of stuff out.
Nrama: Anything you might consider repurposing as a stand-alone novella or part of a sequel? I got the impression you had a sequel in mind from the ending…
Grossman: Yeah, I originally intended it as a standalone book. But I’ve gotten preoccupied by an idea that would involve some of the same characters in the same world…I don’t know why I’m avoiding calling it a sequel. Yeah, it’s a sequel. [laughs]
There’s a mention of dragons in the book, and they never come on stage, and the conversation they have about dragons is supposed to be foreshadowing an event later on…
Nrama: Right, the dragons in the rivers around the world.
Grossman: Right. Unbelievably enough, at one point in the novel, Eliot and Quentin take a road trip to London, and they attempt to talk to the dragon in the Thames, and Eliot is not permitted to talk to the dragon, but Quentin is. And they have a chat, in the mud at the bottom of the Thames.
I was proud of it – I thought I did a good job capturing the voice of an immortal, near omniscient dragon, but I couldn’t really justify it in terms of advancing the story. So I cut it. I did manage to sort of cannibalize some of the dragon’s best lines, though, so I can’t use that chunk without modifying it.
Nrama: Dragons seem to be one of those things in fantasy that a lot of writers have talked to – especially those who work in live-action media – really want to do. “Man, if I could just have a big fight with a dragon…!”
Grossman: Yeah, I thought of it as this funny sort of play of the Anne McCaffrey dragon idea. Quentin goes in and thinks – dragons are choosy about who they talk to, and Quentin is very excited about talking to one – he naively thinks they’re going to be friends, and he’s going to fly around on the dragon and they’ll vanquish evil together. And instead, the dragon turns out to be very contemptuous of him, and Quentin’s feelings get a little bit bruised.
Nrama: Quentin gets bruised quite a bit in the book.
Grossman: Yes. Not that he doesn’t deserve it.
Nrama: Well, the book is very much about having that idealized version of fantasy, and experiencing, like you said, that bruising. That’s been the subject of a lot of literary novels in the past decade – what Jonathan Lethem did in The Fortress of Solitude and Omega the Unknown, or Junot Diaz did in Oscar Wao, or even what Michael Chabon did to an extent in Kavalier & Clay.
Something I’m curious about – particularly given your work as a book critic – is that one of the great tropes in literary fiction has always been self-hatred. You’ve had the self-hating Lost Generation, self-hating WASPs, self-hating Jews, self-hating Ivy League yuppies who do lots of coke…do you feel the self-hating fanboy has become a major trope in literary fiction?
Grossman: Well, maybe not “self-hating.” I don’t know if that’s the trope I would use. There’s certainly a trope where an author enjoy exploring how a young man’s expectations are shaped by genre fiction, and then they encounter the reality of life and feel unprepared for that encounter.
I feel like that’s what a lot of Kavalier & Clay was about, and Fortress of Solitude, and as well. These are characters who’ve taken comic books and fantasy as a guide for dealing with the harsh realities of adult life, and of course, the guide doesn’t prove to be particularly practical at all.
Newsarama Note: The next few paragraphs discuss the end of the Harry Potter series; spoilers for those who’ve somehow managed to avoid hearing about it.
Nrama: The most interesting comment I heard on the ending of Harry Potter was from a friend who had recently gone through a divorce and was quite depressed, and noted that they thought the most unrealistic part of the series wasn’t the magic, but the idea that everyone’s still married to the person they dated in high school.
Grossman: (laughs) I loved Harry Potter, but that epilogue was such an astounding failure of imagination on Rowling’s part! And in a way, it throws the entirety of all seven novels into doubt retroactively.
I felt the problem she failed to solve was the question of, “here’s a young man who can do magic, who has defeated the enemy of humanity when her was 18 – what’s the rest of his life look like?” And the best she can imagine is that he marries his high school sweetheart and puts on a big gut and lives in the suburbs. What a disaster!
Nrama: You ever see the end of Paul Chadwick’s Concrete: Fragile Creature? There’s a Masters of the Universe-type film-within-the-book that has a similar ending, with the fantasy characters stuck paying bills and dealing with kids years later.
Grossman: Yeah, it’s just not that easy to give up the life of fighting evil. There has to be some better fate for Harry Potter than what he gets. I think that’s something of the message of The Magicians – you’re not going to go to Narnia, but there has to be something better than that bourgeois suburban mediocrity that seems like the only alternative.
It’s a rich subject. It reminds me of Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” as well, where at the end we find out Superman faked his death to become a suburban house-husband, and you just smack your forehead and go, “God, who would do that?”
HARRY POTTER SPOILERS END
Nrama: It always seems like in these fantasy stories, your choices are a life of unending conflict, or as you put it, bourgeois boredom. It’s not much of a choice, is it?
Grossman: Nope. But it’s a powerfully undistributed middle there. If I had one goal with The Magicians, it was to write a novel where the protagonist discovers a magical other world, and at the end of the book, he can go back if he wants.
But this scheme, where if you’re expelled from Narnia or the Phantom Tollbooth, or Wonderland or Oz at the end of the book, and you like it – it just seemed to me like the most profoundly psychologically unsound idea that was ever put to paper. If you got put into Narnia and then kicked out, you’d spend the rest of your life trying to claw your way back in!
Nrama: Did you ever read that Salman Rushdie essay on the film of The Wizard of Oz (“Out of Kansas”), where he makes the point that there’s little reason why Dorothy should want to go to that horrible, sepia-toned Kansas?
Grossman: No! But I agree, I find it appalling. Even as a child, I found it terribly offensive.
Nrama: I sort of had an opposite reaction as a kid to stuff like that – for example, I saw you were a fan of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. And I remember watching that when I was younger and thinking how horrible it would be to be trapped in this land full of monsters and Venger, the Force of Evil, trying to zap you all the time, and your parents don’t know where you are. It seemed like you’d be living in a state of total anxiety. But then you get older and you think, “Man, it’d be cool to meet Venger…”
Grossman: Yeah. But as you get older, that’s what you have to find – that balance between constant anxiety and suburban complacency.
Nrama: I think that’s life – that’s the question everyone asks in life, and it’s what gives the book’s story some power.
Grossman: Yeah, exactly.
Nrama: Now, we’ve talked to Austin in the past – and you’ve said elsewhere that Soon I Will Be Invincible helped inspire this book…?
Grossman: Well, as they say in high-school history classes, there were multiple causes. A bunch of things happened in that year, 2004, and certainly a big part of it was reading the five nascent chapters of Soon I Will Be Invincible.
But that manuscript hit me like a ton of bricks. I saw my brother had metabolized the rich loam of our childhoods – okay, I don’t know if you can metabolize loam, that’s probably a bad metaphor. But he’d taken it, and he’d transmuted it into something astounding.
I’d never really understood that you could use that stuff the way he had, and as soon as I’d seen what he’d done, I knew I had to do it too. And the other thing was that I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, which like Soon I Will Be Invincible is an astounding novel, and does things with this kind of genre fiction raw material that I had previously not thought possible.
Nrama: You’d been a big fan of genre fiction growing up – were you into comics as well?
Grossman: I was, though it was a difficult time. I was a Marvel kid – everyone in our neighborhood was a Marvel kid, it was just what we read. We had a kind of bigoted approach to getting into comics. [laughs]
We were going through a grim period – we were reading the X-Men, and then the Dark Phoenix Saga came up, and that was a real blow. And then we had to slog our way through the Brood War, which doesn’t get talked about very much, but there were these incredibly nasty aliens, and this saccharine stuff with Kitty Pryde meeting a dragon, and this random stuff like the Starjammers showing up and Professor Xavier having an affair with a space princess…just an odd transitional period.
But I was definitely into comics – loved Dr. Strange and the Silver Surfer as well. But it wasn’t a golden age that we were living through. I felt it was a transitional period.
Nrama: Well, there was all this independent stuff, but I was so young I only discovered it retroactively – American Flagg, or Nexus, or Grendel…I wasn’t aware of it at the time.
Grossman: We were obsessed with the Flaming Carrot. You ever read that one?
Nrama: Yeah! Bob Burden.
Grossman: We took those comics, and just read them to shreds. They were just so genius.
Nrama: I wasn’t a fan of the Mystery Men film, though. It had its moments, but it wasn’t Flaming Carrot.
Grossman: No, that wasn’t a success. I’m content with Flaming Carrot remaining on the page. It’d be great to see him transposed onto the page, but I’d be comfortable if they didn’t try that.
Nrama: Did you stay with graphic novels as you got older? I’d imagine, as a book critic, you’ve had to review quite a few of them…
Grossman: Yeah, I fight to review them. I mean, of course reading Watchmen in high school, that was 1987, was just seismic for me. I bought comics in college, but I didn’t have enough money to keep up with them in any meaningful way.
But it was such an exciting time – Maus came out, and things just started crashing down the pike. And I keep reading them – Fun Home was a big book for me. But, you know, superhero books don’t often get in Time.
Nrama: Are there a few you’d have liked to have gotten in Time?
Grossman: I did League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and I thought that was a big win, getting that in the pages of Time. Were there any near-misses? I can’t remember. I did a think-piece on Superman, but mostly superhero stuff doesn’t get into Time.
Nrama: Do you read any stuff on a weekly basis?
Grossman: Not really. I tend to read stuff when it gets collected, not when it’s first printed.
Nrama: I imagine it’s a different experience – the industry seems to be moving toward that.
Grossman: Yeah. I don’t know how to explain it. The comic book, as a unit – even as a child, I knew that it was rapidly used up. It was like a Dum-Dum pop after 20 minutes. When you get to the staples, you know you’re halfway done, and when it’s through, you’re hungry for more. So I prefer to read them when the whole arc or cycle gets completed.
Next: Grossman on Grant Morrison, fan fiction, Narnia, the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, George R.R. Martin and more.
The Magicians is in bookstores now
Lead Image courtesy of Elena Siebert
Zack Smith (email@example.com) is a regular contributor to Newsarama.