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INTERVIEW: Lev Grossman on THE MAGICIAN’S LAND

The third and final installment in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy, The Magician’s Land, is out this week, to the thrill and devastation of readers who hoped it might never come to an end.

After being expelled from the magical land of Fillory, Quentin returns home to Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic. There, he meets Plum, a magician with a dark secret of her own, and together they’re inevitably drawn into a quest that consumes Eliot, Janet, Julia, Alice, and everyone Quentin’s met along the way.

Grossman shared some insight on what went into The Magicians, what makes magic, and what comes next.

Nerdist: This installment felt bigger, more global, more urgent than the previous two. Did something change in the writing of it, or is that inevitable?

Lev Grossman: It’s the natural progression of trilogies. The scope is constantly widening and the stakes are –hopefully – rising. I would guess that on some level, the widening scope the multiple points of view… in a funny way it reflects Quentin growing up. When we meet him he is very depressed. I have a lot of experience with depression myself, and you get really self-obsessed. Your world really shrinks to you in your bedroom. You’re so consumed, you don’t have any resources to think about other people. [In The Magician’s Land] Quentin is not depressed anymore. As a result his world and the range of things he can feel and do increase vastly.

N: Yeah, the places you can go within the story increase exponentially once you have more people telling it.

LG: I enjoyed that a lot. It was a big moment for me in the second book when Julia arrived and we started seeing through her eyes. It was unplanned, I didn’t realize that second book was half Julia’s until I started writing it. [In The Magician’s Land], in a general way, I knew I needed the camera to go places that Quentin was not. I knew Plum was a major character. It was important to me to have a magician who was not depressed… Quentin and Julia are both coping with major mood disorders. Plum certainly has a dark side and a dark secret, but she’s extroverted, high functioning, basically really happy. She’s engaged in the world, she has a can-do attitude. I was focused in the first and the second book on magic that came from pain, from people who were hurting or who felt broken. I wanted to see, “what kind of magic would a person do if they didn’t feel that way?” That’s Plum.

N: Where does the infrastructure for your magic come from? Your magic gets advanced but, in order to be advanced, there needs to be a strong foundation underneath. What’s that foundation?

LG: I’ve spent my whole life reading fantasy novels. A lot of it comes from Dungeons and Dragons, putting together a magic system that feels real, that feels like you can actually practice it. The Dungeons and Dragons guys were the first ones who really thought about it in a practical way: what would you need to do this? How long would you have to wait between spells? What material would you need? Do you need to wave your hands, do you need to say words? What exactly happens here?

A major influence comes from my early years as a cellist. I studied cello pretty seriously for about a dozen years. That experience of trying to make this beautiful, ideal thing using only wood, and horsehair, and your own extremely fallible fingers was a major influence on the way I imagine magic. And when you’re playing you know when it’s going well, and you know when it’s flowing and you know when you’ve lost it. I found it physically very rigorous, often painful. A lot of that went into the magic in the magicians. I’ve gotten a couple of emails from cellists.

So its D&D and cello playing basically.

N: Everyone of course asks about your favorite fantasy books, but what are some of your literary influences? Not to say that The Magicians isn’t a literary pursuit.

LG: I have a lot of them. If there’s anything that makes my fantasy writing different, it’s probably how much I’ve read outside the genre. My parents were English professors. I studied English in college and then grad school. I have a lot of influences outside fantasy. Evelyn Waugh – the structure of The Magicians is drawn almost entirely from Brideshead Revisited. Brakebills has a lot more in common with Oxford in the 1920s than it does with Hogwarts. Line for line the way that I write, a lot of it comes from Jonathan Franzen. For whatever reason I write in that same close third person mode that he likes…

Neal Stephenson – he’s looked at primarily as a science fiction writer. Virginia Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway, I don’t think there was a better novel written in the twentieth century. It’s not obvious how that influence would go, but I reread Mrs. Dalloway regularly.

N: Ok and of course, what are your Fantasy influences?

LG: The [C.S.] Lewis and the Rowling are the ones that I wear on my sleeve, but it’s something of a misdirection because I see myself more of a disciple of T.H. White who wrote The Once and Future King… I learned practically everything from him. He’s much more my fantasy mentor than Lewis and Rowling. This looks much more like The Once and Future King than it does Narnia or Harry Potter. That said: Susannah Clark, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. That book came out in spring 2004. I think I started The Magicians about a month after it came out. I read it and I though “Jesus Christ, I don’t know what she’s doing but I’ve got to get in on it because its so beautiful and its so genius.”

Ursula le Guin – The Wizard of Earthsea. That was the story of a wizard’s education before there was Harry Potter. That’s what started me thinking about writing about a magician learning his craft.

Fritz Leiber – does anybody read Fritz Leiber anymore? I don’t even know if they do. He wrote these books, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. They’re very grown up, very kind of literary, written in a very hyper-sophisticated way.

N: What was your Fillory?

LG: As a child, it was all about Narnia. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the book that taught me what books are for. That was the first book that I got lost in, that made me understand that these pages with words on them could become your whole world and could become more vivid than the world around you.

Everything else is a pretty distant second.

Now my daughter’s 10 and I tried to make her read the Narnia books. I kind of overplayed my hand. I told her, “this is the greatest thing ever, daddy loves them.” And to this day, she still hasn’t read them.

Children are contrary in that way.

N: What are your kids reading the way you read Narnia?

LG: Harry Potter, definitely. Lily’s read the whole series straight through four or five times. She’s very attached to Rick Riordan, the Percy Jackson books. I see her getting lost in those books, and I know its having the same effect on her that Narnia had on me. I still want her to read the Narnia books, I can’t quite accept those aren’t Narnia. I guess it’s good that she’s reading. Kids read with so much emotion, so much investment. I can see that she’s bringing to those books every scarp of emotion she has.

I got really invested in Harry Potter, but not until I was in my 30s. It’s just a powerful story, about a kid coming of age. I think I’ve come of age several times in the course of my life. I feel very close to Harry and what he went through, even though my life doesn’t look objectively very much like his.

N: Who of your contemporaries engenders the kind of visceral reactions that we’re having to your work?

LG: Definitely Susannah Clark, definitely Erin Morgenstern. George R. R. Martin- he started publishing A Song of Ice and Fire in I think 1990? I had been reading it for 8 years before I started The Magicians. The crazy, weird, brilliant things he does in the epic fantasy tradition — I immediately thought I should do something like this ,but I can’t do this. So I went to the other side, into the C. S. Lewis, through the wardrobe side of the tradition.

Joe Abercrombie- he’s more well-known in England. He writes very brilliant, strange, complicated, morally compromised fantasy in the epic mode. I read everything he writes without exception.

Kelly Link… She writes short stories- Magic for Beginners. All fantasy novelists read her and think, “How is she doing this? Because its unbelievably great.” It’s just so great.

Neil Gaiman- I follow Neil very closely. American Gods was another big influence- as another book that negotiates between “Old World” and America. I felt like I was taking this very English form and trying to retell it about Americans on American soil. That’s what he’s doing in American Gods.

N: Any non-literary influences?

LG: a book that made a very intense impression on me was a book about Columbine by Dave Cullen. It takes you minute by minute through what happened in that school. That made a powerful impression on me. There’s a couple of scenes –one at the end of The Magician King — where people are trapped in a room with something unspeakable. I thought a lot about what it would be like to be in that school and being hunted.

N: What would have been your discipline?

LG: I’m sure it’s something unimpressive, something very small. If I have one skill, which is debatable, it’s pushing words around in a very careful way. If I had a discipline it would be something very small, like telling bugs what to do or building things out of Legos. Lego-based magic… Don’t count bug magic out.

I want it to be calling down lightning or something big, but that’s just not really me.

N: Now what?

LG: I started half a novel while working on The Magician’s Land. I’ve been in the Magicians universe for slightly over 10 years. I’m really ready to strike out in other directions. I’m very conscious that I haven’t taken a shot at epic fantasy. I’ve gone down the C.S. Lewis path, but I’ve never done anything on a Tolkien scale. I’ve got a lot of ideas, not a lot of words on the page, but I’ve got a lot of ideas.

Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land is available now wherever fine books are sold. You can read my review of it, as well.

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