An Interview with Lev Grossman, Author and Critic
By Marla E. Schwartz
There’s no question that Miami Book Fair International is a dazzling example of the bountiful literary talent that exists in our world. It’s a place where authors nurture one another as well as their readers and a place where everyone can become acquainted with one another. It’s a magical experience that offers people a place to become one with the written word. This is why it was a distinct pleasure to have the versatile, infinitely creative, and much admired Lev Grossman, a senior writer, book critic and technology writer for Time Magazine and novelist presenting his fourth novel, THE MAGICIAN KING, a New York Times bestseller and the winner of the John W. Campbell Award, which is a sequel to his critically acclaimed book THE MAGICIANS, also a Times bestseller at MBFI in November 2011.
In THE MAGICIANS, Quentin Coldwater, a student at a secret wizard college in upstate New York, becomes obsessed with a series of books set in the magical land of Fillory. He discovers that this place is real and through a course of adventures suffers a great loss, almost dies and his friends suffer greatly. But in the end things turn around and Quentin and three of his friends become the Kings and Queens of the land.
THE MAGICIAN KING takes place two years later and we find Quentin (one of the Kings) and his friend Julia sailing to an island located in eastern Fillory where they discover a magical key that sends them back to earth and sets them on a new course where they must find a way to save this magical place.
“I wanted to write a novel that brought in some of the realities of adult life, the emotional complications, all the sex that you know is definitely going on at Hogwarts, that’s what I wanted to write about,” Grossman said during his book introduction at the fair. “But I wanted to tell the kind of story about a young person who was realizing he had powers he never knew he had as he was finding his way into a secret world that nobody else knew existed – so the book I wrote was THE MAGICIANS.”
An hour before his presentation we met and he answered a few questions about his work for us.
AroundWellington.com: Is Quentin’s journey anything at all like the journey of your life? Do you relate to him at all?
Lev Grossman: He certainly started out a lot like I started out. Quentin, in high school, at the very beginning of THE MAGICIANS is a lot like I was; I had problems with depression, I was anxious, I was very into reading but I wasn’t as tall as he was and I sucked at math and he was very good in math. But in other respects, the kind of journey I ended up going on is much more like Julia’s in THE MAGICIAN KING. I spent a long time without a career, temping and trying to get things together and I had a hard time in my twenties just finding my way and I really identify with Julia in the way she feels like everyone is off doing amazing things and she felt like she was left behind somehow. It was a difficult period. It took me a long time to be a part of a network of people and it felt like it was all happening on some planet far away and I didn’t know how I was going to get there.
AW: Do you still feel that way?
LG: No. Not at all. Things have gotten so much better. If you had told me at twenty-eight how things were going to go well for me. That I’d be married with a family and I’d have a job I liked and published books I would’ve never believed it.
AW: Are you writing a trilogy?
LG: There will be a third. I mean, nobody has sent out a press release (he laughs) about it, but I’m working hard on it.
AW: Do you have a title for it yet?
LG: I don’t.
AW: When do you come up with the titles?
LG: The truth is, since you asked, the title comes almost the first thing. I’m almost superstitious about it. I’ve never changed a title of a book from that first moment. So I haven’t told anybody about it. But I do have one. The title is like a seed and everything coalesces around it. So I’m in the coalescing phase.
AW: Ah, the fun phase.
LG: Yes. And believe me, there are some phases later that you don’t want to hear about.
AW: You can tell me later, off the record.
AW: I really enjoy your work in Time Magazine very much.
AW: You’re welcome. I really enjoyed your interviews with Jonathan Franzen and Mark Zuckerberg, for example. Most people cannot seem to figure out how to traverse both professions of being a book critic and a novelist, was that a difficult transition for you?
LG: I had always wanted to be a novelist and writing criticism was something I began to do in order to support myself while I was trying to become a novelist.
AW: And that’s a good job.
LG: Yah, I know. And that comes more easily to me than writing fiction. I found my voice as a critic much faster than I found my voice as a writer of fiction; which is odd, I guess –for most people it works the other way. Now that the fiction has finally started to get going I find myself feeling odd being a critic by day and a novelist by night.
AW: How do you find the time?
LG: It’s difficult. I’ve been taking leaves of absence from TIME more and more. THE MAGICIANS was fine. I could take as much time as I wanted to write it, which ended up being five years. But with THE MAGICIAN KING, I thought I should do this quick before everybody has completely forgotten about THE MAGICIANS. It’s getting more difficult to balance the two.
AW: Because you’re one of the preeminent book critics in the country, in fact, The New York Times called you “one of this country’s smartest and most reliable critics”, do you have difficulty reading reviews of your work? I know you’re probably been asked this many times.
LG: Not many times, actually. And I don’t know if I’ve ever answered honestly, but the truth is I have a lot of trouble with it. You would think in a way just because I’ve written a lot of book reviews that the process would sort of be demystified for me, that I wouldn’t take it so seriously because I know it’s one person’s views. But I have trouble reading reviews of my work and I sort of look at them out of the corner of my eye and skim them real quick to see if they’re good or bad.
AW: I’d think if the review is bad, it must be heart-breaking.
LG: Strangely, it’s just as hard to take when it’s good.
LG: Well, it’s slightly easier to take. A person I know who lives in Australia reviewed THE MAGICIANS for the Sydney Morning Herald and sent me a copy of it and I told him that I just couldn’t read it. But he said, ‘no, no, it’s good. It’s a good review.’ But I still couldn’t read it. I still haven’t read it. It’s hard to say why this is so except for the fact that writing is so personal and on some level it’s hard for me to believe that the stuff that was so personal to me and was on my hard drive for so long time as a secret, has gone out into the world and now people can read it whenever they want.
AW: I’m curious how the germ of the idea for writing THE MAGICIANS came about for you?
LG: I took my first stab at it in 1996 and then I put it away. I’ve always been a huge fantasy fan, but – it’s hard to explain this – but my parents (Allen and Judith Grossman) are both English professors – or they were before the retired, and they didn’t like fantasy or science fiction. They like the Western canon. My dad’s a big Wordsworth and Blake scholar, Dante … we were meant to read the classics. And it’s really hard to convey this but fantasy for me was so frowned upon and so shameful so I had to really come to a reckoning with myself to accept this is the genre I love and I had to stand up and say this is my voice.
AW: How do they feel about it now?
LG: I don’t think my dad has ever read any of my books. My mom has been very supportive.
AW: It’s interesting that you were born to parents who have a love for literature and you have a love for literature but in a different genre.
LG: It’s a funny thing. People often say how lucky for you to be born into this family that valued books so much. And I was. I am lucky and the house was full of books and that was a wonderful thing. But in a house where everybody is a reader and a writer and their voices are very loud sometimes it’s quite hard to find your own voice.
AW: Is THE MAGICIANS is going to be on television?
LG: Yes. It’s very interesting for someone from the books world watching the seers of the TV world. It’s been optioned and is in pre-production. And I almost don’t want to jinx it because so many shows start out and they don’t ever get on air, but it’s really exciting so far.
AW: Is someone else adapting the book?
LG: Yes, I’m not doing the writing. They got the guys (Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz) who wrote THOR and X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. We looked for a long time for the right people to do it. It takes a lot of work to change something that has the structure of a novel and change it into a TV show where you’re doing twenty episodes a season. (He knocks on wood.) I’m so excited about it.
AW: If people want to learn about your work, should they go to levgrossman.com?
LG: Yes. I have a blog there and I have a twitter account that’s called LEVERUS (@leverus), which is hard to explain except that it’s a joke on Severus from Harry Potter. I’m pretty active on twitter. I like it a lot. I’m on Facebook, but I sort of neglect it a bit.
AW: Thank you so much. I’m very happy to have met you.
LG: It’s been a real pleasure. I enjoyed talking to you. That was very fun.
Grossman’s work has also been published in the TIMES, the VILLAGE VOICE, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, SALON, LINGUA FRANCA and THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. He also frequently appears as a guest on NPR. You can also read his work Wednesdays at entertainment.time.com. If you go to the link you can subscribe to his RSS feed.