Lev Grossman on 'The Magician's Land': 'It felt like a world ending'
The Magician's Land
Lev Grossman’s Magicians fantasy trilogy comes to a close this week with The Magician’s Land (out Tuesday). In the books, Quentin Coldwater is whisked off to Brakebills, a wizarding college. Once he graduates, he and his friends are dumped into the real world and struggle to find meaning in a place where not everything is easy and normal. Subverting conventions of fantasy series like The Chronicles of Narnia, Quentin discover Fillory, a Narnia-esque world where he and his friends are crowned as royalty, but then become disenchanted once again.
The Magician’s Land brings the story to its culmination. EW spoke to novelist and Time book critic Lev Grossman about The Magician’s Land, what else he’s working on, and more.
This interview contains some spoilers, and has been condensed and edited.
EW: What got me into the Magicians series in the first place is the ‘Harry Potter for adults’ tagline. But I think as the story has gone on, you’re drawing more from the Narnia books than from the Harry Potter books. Was that transition intentional?
LEV GROSSMAN: The first half of The Magicians is obviously, among other things, kind of glossing on Harry Potter. But in a way, if it’s influenced by something, if it’s a response to something, it’s much more a response to C.S. Lewis, which makes sense. I’m a big Harry Potter fan; I love Harry Potter. One of the reasons I wrote this is because I was in between Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince and I needed something to get me through the way. But I’m old. I first read Harry Potter when I was probably 30. Whereas C.S. Lewis is really in my bones. That’s, like, genetically coded in my cells because I read it so early. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was probably one of the first chapter books I ever read, and it kind of imprinted itself on me.
One of the interesting things about Quentin is how he interacts with authority. At school, he was a sort of rebellious figure. And later on, he deals with the gods of Fillory. In The Magician’s Land, he goes back to Brakebills to become a teacher. Why did you decide to put him on the other side of things?
It’s interesting, isn’t it? I wanted to get back to Brakebills because it’s a lot of fun to write about Brakebills. The series is so identified with Brakebills, but really you only spend the first half of The Magicians there, and that’s the end, and it’s hardly in The Magician King at all. So I knew I wanted to go back there. In order for him to finish growing up, I felt like Quentin had to go back and become one of these authority figures that he had hated when he was younger, and understand who it was that he hated, and what these people were actually about.
It’s funny, Quentin has a kind of rebellious streak, but as you’ll notice, he’s relatively obedient to authority. He goes to school, and he can be pissed off at the professors, but he works incredibly hard. He still wants the grades. So he has this sort of weird thing where he’s angry but also craving the approval of authorities. Again, which is something he has to work out a bit in The Magician’s Land, which is the reason I brought in his father, because Quentin is obviously a guy with some psychological stuff to work out, and that stuff all started out in his family, which is something which I hadn’t talked about so much.
One of the engines that drives the book as a whole is Quentin going back to places that he’s been to before. When you go back someplace where you haven’t been for a few years, you feel so conscious of how you’ve changed, and whoever you were when you were there last. And I wanted Quentin to be conscious of that, and the reader, too, to sense how much has changed. And in some ways, he faces up to people that he couldn’t face up to the first time he met them.
One thing you’ve talked about before is taking care to write this book as an ending to a trilogy. Revisiting the places he’s been and noticing how he’s changed is a part of that conclusion process, the growing up part. I think another thing you deal with, even within the text, is wish fulfillment, how one wants something to happen in a fantasy series, or a fantasy world, like Fillory itself, and how you as an author might want to deny or give into those conventions.
It’s something that was happening throughout the series. I didn’t want the series to be sort of anti-fantasy, like something terrible has to happen and everything has to become mediocre and boring. I wrote this series because I love fantasy. It’s kind of a critique of fantasy on one level, but more importantly, it’s a fantasy novel and it’s supposed to give you what you want from fantasy novels. So I had to figure out a way to end things that was not entirely conventional, but still satisfying.
I kind of saw Fillory as a place where, because of what happens to it in the book, you can deal with the expectations of what might be a happily-ever-after kind of ending, versus refusing to give it to fans.
Yeah, the whole point of the books is trying to write one of these books like these books I grew up on, that I love, like C.S. Lewis and Rowling, but also Ursula Le Guin and Philip Pullman, but somehow inflected by the realities if an adult life, and shedding any sort of fairy tale dewiness.
Right, Quentin isn’t a “chosen one.”
It was important that when Quentin realizes who he is, he doesn’t go, “Oh, I’m a special boy. My parents were secretly kings and queens.” And that’s something I take a hatchet to pretty early on. Quentin is not going to be secretly anybody’s special child. He is who he always thought he was, which is nobody special.
Or, if he is someone special, it’s because he makes it that way.
Because he makes it that way, right. He doesn’t inherit anything.
This new book dips into the apocalypse genre, with Fillory. Why did you decide to go there, and did you think about how that narrative plays into the genre as a whole?
The big influence on me from an apocalyptic point of view—and this is the most pretentious thing I will ever hope to say in an interview—the thing I really was responding to was the apocalypse narrative in “The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot, which in turn comes up a lot out of The Golden Bough, which was a turn-of-the-century work of anthropology. It was a cross-cultural survey of mythology and anthropology. The guy who wrote it, James Frazer, kind of came up with this master narrative. The world’s ending, and the world’s dying, and then coming back to life. And when Eliot wrote about it, he wasn’t thinking the world was actually ending, but he felt like the culture and civilization he was in was dying, and it had to be restored somehow. And I thought a lot about that, too. Obviously, literally, Fillory is dying in the books, but I felt kind of the dying feeling of the world that we’re in, and what it would mean to bring it back to life.
In addition to feeling that about the world at large, did that feeling come from writing the end of this series that has occupied your life for so long?
Yeah, there’s something there. I was very aware that this little universe was coming to an end. There was something very compelling about tearing it down.
And saving it.
And then saving it. But, you know, it did feel like a world ending, in a very real way.
Well, one think we can look forward to about The Magicians is that SyFy is working on a TV adaptation. You know, when the Harry Potter books ended, there was a sense of an ending, but not that it was completely over. We had more more to look forward to, at least for awhile.
I feel bad about not writing this characters anymore, so it’s very soothing and consoling that the cycle’s going to start again in a different medium, even though I’m not writing it myself.
Are you involved at all with the TV series?
When the writers finish a draft of a script, I read the draft, and then I give them notes on it. They are in no way held to listen to me. I think I have a title and it’s something like “creative consultant.” So I have no real power, but I read the drafts and I respond to them. But I don’t write anything, I don’t write dialogue, nothing. Not a single word of it is mine.
How do you feel about that?
I feel good. But it’s definitely an adjustment. Every novelist has a little bit of control freak in them. It’s a control freak’s medium. Because when you’re writing a novel, you get to do it all. You write the dialogue, and you play all the parts, and you dress the set, you do the costumes. So handing it off to other people is a weird kind of out-of-body experience. But it’s also a relief, and it’s amazingly interesting to see what other people do with the same raw materials, stuff I never would have thought of. There’s a lot to enjoy, and I’m trying to enjoy that part. But it’s tough to let go.
In The Magicians Land, you introduce Plum, who has a certain stability that the other women in the series don’t have.
A certain stability? Like mental stability?
Plum’s in there partly because I wanted to have an undergraduate through whose eyes we could see Brakebills a little bit. But I wanted a character who was high-functioning. Most other characters whose point of view we see have major disorders of one sort or another. Plum has a dark side, she’s got her secret that she’s hiding. But she’s very high-functioning, she’s very engaged with the world, she’s got a great sense of humor, a great sense of joy, and a can-do attitude. She doesn’t mope. That’s not who she is. I strongly, in the earlier books, identified magical ability and power with a sense of pain, that it was something that broken people can do. And I wanted to see what kind of power a happy magician would have, or a stable magician would have. She’s there because—it wasn’t feasible, narratively speaking, to give him a child, but I wanted someone where he was in a kind of mentor relationship with, that he felt responsible for, which was a new kind of relationship for him, but I felt it was a good one. At the same time, he needed someone who could stand up to him and give him s–t. I wanted him to have a strong bond with a woman that he had no romantic tie to, a totally platonic bond, which he has, but not enough of.
You occupy these two worlds, as a critic and as a novelist. What’s that like?
It’s a balancing act, and not one I do, I think, particularly gracefully. I always wanted to write fiction, that was all I ever wanted to do. And my career as a critic took off before my career as a fiction writer did. So a lot of people see me as a critic first, but I think of myself as a novelist who occasionally writes book reviews. I don’t know, I mean, there’s no particular reason why someone can’t do both. Certainly, the early history of the novel, like in the eighteenth century, everyone did everything. There wasn’t this kind of artificial separation between critics and fiction writers. I do, on the occasions when I socialize with my novelist peers, I sometimes feel conscious if I’ve reviewed any of them. I get the sense that they’re saying, “Well, you’re just one of us. What gives you the right to judge me?” And I think, “Nothing.” I have no right at all. So it’s an uncomfortable balancing act that I haven’t really figured out how to do.
I would never review a friend’s book, but that doesn’t come up very often, because I don’t have many friends who write books. People imagine the separation between critics and writers as some kind of absolute church-state thing. Everybody ends up meeting everybody. It’s very gray. You won’t find a critic who’s absolutely pure and doesn’t know any authors. That doesn’t exist. It’s not a hermetic seal. One just tries to do one’s best.
I started writing at Publishers Weekly, that was where I published my first reviews. And at the time, I was a web developer, and I just wanted to put my foot in the literary world somehow, and that was how I did it, and then it kind of escalated.
What’s next for you?
I haven’t talked about it much. Obviously, the TV show, I’m going to be involved in that in a consulting way. So that will be going on. But what I really want to do is write more books. I wrote about half of a novel while I was working on The Magician’s Land, which I’m now starting to go back to and rewrite, and move along a little bit. But I have a lot of ideas. I’ve been working in the Magicians-verse exclusively for ten years. I haven’t written a word of fiction set outside it. So I’m very ready to get back into world-building, and to strike out some fresh directions. I have four or five files on my computer, all of which represent different novels that I might bite next, and I keep sort of hopping from one to the other, and figuring out which next one I’ll go to.
As a fiction writer, do you see yourself as exclusively a novelist, or would you write short stories out of these ideas?
I don’t tend to write short stories. Why that is, I have no idea. But I’m not very good at them. Before I wrote my first novel, I must have written 100, 150 short stories, none of which were ever published. I began to realize that I just don’t work very well in that kind of confined space. I really need that big canvas of the novel to open up. I have written short things, but really there’s exactly one true short story in the Magicians universe [“The Girl in the Mirror”] for an anthology [Dangerous Women]. And some excerpts were anthologized, but they weren’t short stories, they were really just chapters. I probably won’t write more short fiction. It just doesn’t interest me that much. That’s my problem, not short fiction’s problem.
What’s your next novel about?
I can’t say. I haven’t even talked to my agent about it. I’d better pitch it to her before I get into it. But it’s not literary fiction. It’s not fantasy, either, but it’s not reality. It’s about impossible things happening, but I don’t think I can go any further than that.