The Rumpus Interview with Lev Grossman

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To read Lev Grossman’s Magicians series is to be transported. Grossman is a world-builder of the highest order, capable of creating and interconnecting a seemingly infinite number of landscapes, real and imagined. This is fantasy, but Grossman’s characters—magicians though they may be—are human, and the obstacles they face while navigating the thorny years of young adulthood that the trilogy spans are recognizable to anyone that has survived the experience.

The Magician’s Land marks the series’ conclusion and is easily the most ambitious of the three novels. When The Magicians begins Quentin Coldwater is seventeen, brilliant but broken and unable to abandon his love for Fillory, the enchanted land of the children’s books his peers have all outgrown. The novels track his education: the years at Brakebills, the secret college for magic, and his adventures across Fillory and other realms more real (and dangerous) than he ever imagined.

Throughout the series, Quentin and his fellow magicians grapple with the larger questions of what it means to work, love, lose the unthinkable, and create a life of meaning. In The Magician’s Land, we witness the completion of that transformation called growing-up.

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The Rumpus: I devoured The Magician’s Land with the same speed that I read the previous two books in the trilogy, but now that I’ve finished I’ve been able to revisit all three and I was hoping that we might talk a bit about the trilogy as a whole and the movement over the course of three books. I had read elsewhere that you had initially intended the first book to be a standalone. When did you know that you were writing a trilogy?

Lev Grossman: Well, it was after the first book came out. I didn’t know that I was not writing a trilogy. When I was writing The Magicians, I was at a little bit of an impasse, personally and professionally. It’s what they call a rough patch, quite a rough patch. I didn’t have a lot of confidence. I was really hoping that The Magicians would be published, but to think about more books being published after The Magicians—I just wasn’t focused on that at all. It really wasn’t until after it came out when I started to think, “What does happen next?”

Rumpus: And once you did start engaging with that question, and started working on the next book, how close were you keeping the previous book to you? Did you try to leave The Magicians in the past and move forward? Or were you really kind of toggling back and forth as you wrote?

The-Magicians-Book-Cover-e1317909429117Grossman: I don’t know if I would say “toggling.” I guess the answer is both because the second book has the Quentin strand, which is moving ahead in time, and then the Julia strand, which is exactly the same time period that The Magicians took place in, but just from a completely different point of view.

Rumpus: So that Julia strand allowed you to remain connected to the period of the first book, in a way?

Grossman: Yes, it did. It allowed me to go back over it. It allowed me to see what was happening just below the surface, just outside the walls of Brakebills. Because I was sure there was something. And obviously, based on the first book, Julia was up to something while she was offstage, and I thought it important that we find out what. When I was planning The Magician King, I actually only allotted a chapter to Julia and the rest was going to be all Quentin. But once I started writing Julia’s story, she just had so much to say. So much had happened to her. It became the whole other half of the book.

Rumpus: Well, I’m so glad that you did follow her; I love that storyline so much.

When The Magicians begins, Quentin is 17, and when the series ends he’s 30, which means that the series tracks the whole period of young adulthood, which I guess is interesting to me because I’m about the same age as these characters are when the trilogy ends. But for you, what was it about this period that you found particularly compelling as a writer and how did the trilogy format allow you to delve deep into that period?

Grossman: One of the things that drew me to that period was the fact that my life when I was that age was such a disaster. I really went from one spectacular wipeout to another, particularly when I was in my twenties. And I really felt like I had to revisit that period. I had to go back over it and try and figure out what on earth happened to me. There was a whole decade missing from my life.

I wanted to tell that story about a magician, I think, in part because I felt so lost and so rudderless in exactly the same way that fantasy heroes tend to be so focused and directed. They’ve always got the Dumbledore, or the Gandalf, to guide them and put them back on their path, tell them where to go. And I felt like there was no one in my life like that. I felt the real absence of someone like that. So I wanted to give these characters the experience of wandering around and where there ought to be a mentor showing them were to go, there’s nobody. They just have to figure it out for themselves and they make a lot of bad choices along the way.

Rumpus: There’s a real focus on education throughout the three books—not just schooling, but early life experiences, and the ways that they shape you. Quentin and his friends all arrive at magic by different paths, and in the first two books the differences seem to be a real mark of distinction. But in the third book, the path seemed to me less important and by the end it seemed much more focused on the present and the future. I wondered if you saw it that way, and if you do was that just a consequence of the maturation process that happens in those years?

Grossman: This is a really good question, although I disagree with it slightly, and I’m going to try to answer it without providing excessive amounts of personal information.

I’m a big planner, and I spent a lot of time roughing out an outline of The Magician’s Land. I must have rewritten that outline thirty or forty times and while I was doing that I began to realize that one of the things that was driving the plot was Quentin going back and revisiting people, and places, and feelings, and situations that he encountered in the first two books and had kind of been defeated by.

I wanted him to go back over some of the ground in The Magicians and The Magician King and show that where before he’d been a boy, now he was something much closer to a man. And that was one reason why I sent him back to Brakebills. I sent him back to Antarctica, I sent him back to other places I don’t want to talk about because that would sort of spoil the plot.

And you see this happening with the other characters, too. Plum, for example, has a very dark secret in her past that she has to confront, and accept, and move past. Janet is the same way. I wanted to show these characters encountering their past, coming to terms with it, accepting it. Because if you do that—once you do that—you really have the power to build the future for yourself.

Rumpus: One of the incredible things that you do with this series is that you’re not only charting Quentin’s evolution, you’re charting changes in a group dynamic. On a fantasy level I’m jealous of their magic, but in a more real way I’m jealous of their bond. Magic, and their shared love of it, is really what allows their friendships to endure. I was wondering if, as a writer, you have that kind of community yourself and if so what role does that play in your creative life?

Grossman: “I don’t” is the answer—I don’t have a community like that. I don’t want the takeaway from that to be that I don’t have any friends—I have tons of friends. I don’t have many friends who are writers. To the extent that magic is a kind of stand-in for creative work, which I think is one of the things it stands in for in the books, I don’t really have people that I share that with, which I guess is one reason I had to make up a bunch of characters that I could be friends with. Because I don’t have that community particularly around me in real life. One of the things that is fun about the book coming out is that I go to all these conferences and festivals and actually see other writers and talk to them about this bizarre occupation that we are all doing, because I don’t do that very often.

Rumpus: But your wife [Sophie Gee, novelist and professor of English at Princeton] is a writer?

Grossman: Yes, it’s true [laughs]. She is my closest writer friend, and one of my only writer friends.

Rumpus: The Magician’s Land directly addresses the idea of endings. Fillory is facing this imminent apocalypse and the characters are quite divided as to whether its death should be fought or allowed to unfold. I imagine this idea had special weight for you as you brought the trilogy to a close. I was wondering if you might talk a little bit about what it means to end a series versus what it means to end a standalone book?

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Grossman: It is a different thing. In some ways it’s easier than writing the middle book of a series in that you don’t have to leave anything standing still for the benefit of the next book. If you want to scorch the earth, you just scorch the earth—if you want to kill someone, you kill them; if you want to marry someone, you marry them. You don’t need to string things out any longer, so these themes and situations that have been hanging fire throughout the trilogy, you get to wrap them up, which is incredibly satisfying.

But it’s also a challenging thing. Closure is complicated in novels, just as it is everywhere else, because of course time doesn’t stop. The story keeps going. But you’re going to have to feel like the characters have undergone all the personal growth that they are going to have to go through. You need to feel like they’ve become fully themselves, which can be a difficult thing to convey in a book.

Rumpus: That leads me to my next question, which is contradiction in some ways of the previous. I said that The Magician’s Land was about endings, but it is just as much about beginnings. I don’t want to talk too much about the ending, which I personally found so satisfying, because I don’t want to give it away for people. But I think I can say that we see Quentin complete a personal project that, though perhaps imperfect, gives him great satisfaction.

To me, as a reader, that felt like a powerful metaphor for the work of the next stage of adulthood, or life, in which relationships remain important, but the world gets narrower and deeper, and the things you make maybe matter more.

Grossman: One of the things that you notice in the book is that there is a lot of work in it. You see a lot of people rolling up their sleeves and working hard. The first two books, you really see Quentin coming to terms with himself, coming to terms with his relationship with the world, and only once that whole epic story has unfolded can he really begin the work of his life, the work of making things, and changing the world for the better. In a funny way, the whole trilogy is about getting the characters to the point where they can start their work.

Rumpus: And is this where you leave Quentin? Do you imagine life for him after this point?

Grossman: I think he has everything he needs to go on and have a happy life. If he screws it up at this point, it’s not my fault! I’m going to let him go. I feel like he and I are finished with each other.

Rumpus: I really developed an attachment to the characters over the course of the three books, and if the popularity of your crowd-sourced trailer is any indication so did your readers. Do you feel a different level of obligation to the reader when working on a series? I’m thinking about the fact that you’re about to go on book tour: Do you feel like readers are more involved and invested in the decisions the characters make because they feel they know them and have a certain ownership?

Grossman: Yes, very much. There’s a strong sense now that authors are so accessible through social media of having shared custody of your characters—and I think there’s even a particularly strong sense of that within the fantasy genre. People feel as though because they love a character so much they own a share of them, which is something that I understand pretty well.

There is in some ways a lot more riding on it. Nobody would have been angry if I screwed up The Magicians, they just would have ignored it. Now if I’ve screwed up The Magician’s Land, there are a lot of people who will be unhappy with me, which is one reason I think I took an extra year to write it. There were two years between The Magicians and The Magician King. It took three years to do The Magician’s Land, and one of the reasons is that I had to go back over it a few times just to make sure everything was in place.

Rumpus: This is a bit of an aside, but I loved your piece on fatherhood and writing that Slate excerpted. You wrote there about how being a new parent affected your writing. I don’t know how old your children are now, but as they get older does that change? Does that exchange between the family work and the creative work change?

Grossman: A lot has changed for me in the past three years. Not least because I became a father two more times and also because my own father died. He died about a month ago, but he was in a steep decline all throughout the writing of The Magician’s Land and that was something that forced me to really figure out in a way that nothing else does what it means to be a grownup. On the one hand you’ve got these small children who are looking to you and nobody else to make sure they’re okay. And on the other hand, your father—the man that you turn to when you need help—suddenly he’s not there anymore. If you’ve been holding back on any kind of growing-up or coming of age until this point, you have to let that go, which is a powerful experience.

You see a lot of fathers and children in The Magician’s Land, a lot more than in the other books. In the other books the adults are really like the adults in the Peanuts cartoons—they speak and you can’t understand what they’re saying. Now, you actually see them onstage a little bit and you see the characters coming to terms with them.

Rumpus: A powerful way in which the generational shift and those sorts of changes really came through in the new book, for me, was in the character of Plum, a Brakebills student. Having a new generation become part of the story makes Quentin realize that he’s no longer that young person anymore. But he also sees that perhaps he’s not wiser than she is because she has some profound advice to give him at critical points.

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Grossman: It’s a funny relationship, and a new kind of relationship for Quentin. He feels a mentor’s interest in Plum, and a slightly parental interest in Plum. I wasn’t going to make Quentin an actual parent because it’s hard to see how that would actually work, but I wanted him to have a relationship that was a little bit of that kind of relationship. And one thing that you realize when you’re a parent is that your children know things you don’t. It’s always fun to watch that happen.

Rumpus: Now I don’t want to make you answer any questions about what comes next for you, but I will ask. You can either answer this in terms of what you’re working on, or something you’re reading, or looking forward to reading.

Grossman: I’m working on a new book—a couple of new books. I’ve been double tracked, and we’ll have to see which one takes launch first. But I can’t really talk about that. Then there’s this whole Magicians TV show. In a funny way it feels like I’ve gone all the way back to the beginning again and I’m involved with telling the story again in a completely new way.

Rumpus: So you will be involved in the creation of the show?

Grossman: I think the language in the contract is something like “creative consultant,” which means that if they get stuck they can call me, and we can talk about things. That’s what’s been happening over the past year, as they’ve been working on the script.

Rumpus: That’s really exciting, congratulations.

Grossman: It’s been fun. It’s their show, and I can’t stress that enough. They are its creators, and it happens to be based on my book. I don’t have any formal power in that organization—we just chat once in a while.

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Featured image by Mathieu Bourgois.


Lindsay Whalen is a writer and editor based in New York City. More from this author →