A self-identified ectomorph, Lev Grossman has been both a champion and a critic of so-called nerd culture as a contributor to Time’s Nerd World blog. (He’s also Time’s senior writer and book and videogame critic.) But he’s put himself in the geek spotlight with his new novel, The Magicians, which just hit #9 on the New York Times fiction bestseller list. In a world much like our own—except that C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books have been replaced by a similar series called Fillory, written by a cryptic figure named Christopher Plover—a promising young wizard named Quentin is whisked away to an exclusive university of magic. But the real danger comes not from sinister villains, but from the students’ own neuroses, hormones, and budding sense of omnipotence. Post-graduation, things get crazier for Quentin and his friends as they try to figure out their place in the world—not to mention their place in a not-so-fictional land they once read about as little kids.
If the story sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Grossman has openly, unabashedly fused his childhood loves of role-playing games, comic books, and fantasy series like Narnia and Harry Potter. That said, Grossman’s original idea for the story of a school for wizards came to him in 1996, when he was a student at Yale, before the world knew the name Harry Potter. After shelving the idea and writing his 1997 debut, the dork-centric Warp, Grossman dove into literary fiction with the bibliophile thriller Codex, which became a bestseller in 2004. Prior to a live appearance during his recent national book tour, Grossman sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about nerd cred, the pitfalls of escapism, and the apocalypse that was this year’s Comic-Con.
The A.V. Club: What sparked The Magicians?
Lev Grossman: Are we being honest? Is this an honest interview? [Laughs.] It was in 2004, and I’d been working on a relatively conventional, literary novel for a year and a half. My brother Austin sent me the manuscript of his book Soon I Will Be Invincible. I had been the writer in the family for a little while. He designed videogames; that was his thing. And then he was like, “Oh, by the way, I’ve been working on this novel. Let me send you the first five chapters.” I was like, “Aw, that’s cute, man. That’s awesome. I’ll take a look at it.” Then I read it. It was really fucking good. It was about superheroes and all this totally awesome shit that he and I were into when we were kids. That’s when I suddenly realized, “What the fuck am I doing? I’m writing some kind of sensitive, conventional, The Corrections-esque novel about the way we live now. I should be writing about magic or robots or some shit. Why don’t I try doing the awesome shit?” So I chucked what I had and started over with The Magicians.
AVC: What exactly was the awesome shit you and your brother were into while growing up?
LG: He and I were both heavily into fantasy books and Dungeons & Dragons and videogames and comic books.
AVC: Did you drift away from that as an adult? Was this a rediscovery?
LG: I’ve read that stuff my whole life. I never stopped. I probably didn’t read as much of it during college, because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing in college. But I always loved it—I just didn’t take it seriously. Suddenly I realized that this was my cultural DNA, not The Corrections, but all this nerdy stuff. I always discounted it, though, and never took it seriously as subject matter for fiction. When I read my brother’s book, it really kicked me in the ass. Another thing happened, too—I read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I think will subsequently be recognized as one of the first great novels of the 21st century. It’s this beautiful novel about wizards written in this kind of Regency, Jane Austen-esque prose. I realized I’d been going about writing fiction all wrong. And when I started writing [The Magicians], it was like nothing else. It was like I’d been writing in a foreign language my whole life, and I’d decided to write something in my mother tongue. It all just came barfing out. It was a kind of writing I’d never done before.
AVC: Was that different from your process of writing Codex?
LG: There are only clichés to describe [the writing of The Magicians]. It was quicker, and it was more organic. Codex was a literary thriller, which I love. And yet I just wasn’t fluent in that idiom the way I’m fluent in fantasy. Codex, I had to piece together out of little bits very consciously, building up this whole puzzle out of little fragments. The Magicians wasn’t like that. I was aware of its natural shape all at once, in one piece, in my head. It felt to me like a single arc, which is how a novel should probably feel. But I’d never felt that before when writing one.
AVC: Beside the fact that it feels like your mother tongue, do you feel an emotional affinity for fantasy?
LG: Let me just call my therapist. [Laughs.] Actually, I’ve talked about this a lot in therapy. That was another thing that happened in 2004: I went to therapy for the first time. I guess I figured out that it was about escape for me. I loved fantasy, but I particularly loved the stories in which somebody got out of where they were and into somewhere better—as in the Chronicles Of Narnia, The Wizard Of Oz, The Phantom Tollbooth, the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon on Saturday morning in the ’80s. I didn’t literally believe that would happen to me, but on some level I did believe that was going to happen, which was tremendously consoling as a little kid. As I grew older, though, that belief became a massive hindrance. I wasn’t really paying attention to anything that was going on around me. And that ultimately led to me being kind of miserable. I think The Magicians was me coming to terms with that, which I had not done at the advanced age of 35 when I started writing it.
AVC: That idea is explored in the book: the dark side of growing up a geek.
LG: Quentin, the hero of The Magicians, is 17 when the book starts, but I was actively dealing with a lot of the same issues he was while I was writing it. I kind of mapped out the course of my 12-step recovery from fantasy addiction over the course of the book. [Laughs.] Which, I hasten to add, doesn’t end in a rejection of fantasy. Not to be spoiler-y, but I always hated those fantasy books where, at the end, all the kids had to go home. At the end of a Narnia book, you always got shown the door. Same with The Wizard Of Oz and The Phantom Tollbooth. You get kicked out of your magic land. It’s like, “By the way, here’s your next surprise: You get to go home!” And the kids are all like, “Yay, we get to go home!” I never bought that. Did anybody buy that?
AVC: There are a lot of big bangs and pure fanboy candy sprinkled throughout The Magicians. Did you feel you had to curb your more literary instincts while writing the book?
LG: I don’t know that I had to curb a lot of literary instincts. I think I’d been putting on a lot of literary instincts for a long time. It was kind of a relief to shed a few of them. I certainly had to curb some fanboy instincts. There’s a sequence in the book that’s kind of a dungeon crawl, where the characters are fighting their way through this underground realm.
AVC: The Dungeons & Dragons-like part.
LG: Right. That used to be, like, eight times as long. [Laughs.] It was just wandering monster after wandering monster. I finally cut it and cut it and cut it until the length made sense. There was also a whole chapter about a dragon that I cut out. I didn’t cut it out; my editor did. I was like, “What makes you think the novel is going to be better with less dragons in it?” I guess it didn’t advance the plot or some other thing. [Laughs.] And there are, for want of a better word, some literary aspects of the book. I mean, I was talking bad about The Corrections earlier, and I don’t know why. I love The Corrections. I was definitely trying to bite that style that [Jonathan Franzen] has, the way he uses words and the way he depicts consciousness in that close, third-person way that he does. Nobody actually does it better than him. I guess I wasn’t trying to curb any instincts at all. No curbing of instincts.
AVC: Speaking of D&D, did you draw that map of Fillory that appears in the book?
LG: [Laughs.] I was going to. I tried to. Those maps that Tolkien drew, and the maps of Narnia in those books, those aren’t very professional. They should look a little wiggly and a little smudgy and a little amateur-y. So I drew it, and it seriously looked like a 4-year-old had done it. It was amateur-er than I’d hoped. I couldn’t even show it to anybody. It was shameful. So I got this friend of mine to draw it, and we worked on it together.
AVC: What made you decide to put that map in The Magicians? The book is straddling the line between literary fiction and fantasy, but it seems to push the balance toward the latter.
LG: I really wanted the map, although I didn’t know what I was going to do with it at first. It’s actually really big in full color, quite large. I’d wanted to print out posters of it initially, but that proved too expensive. So then I showed it to my editor, and she liked it and decided to put it on the endpapers. Which I think is a good place for it.
AVC: It also emphasizes your whole book-within-a-book motif.
LG: Yeah. I think it cues people a little bit about what they’re about to read. The Magicians is a very weird book, generically speaking. The publisher bought it as a literary novel. They weren’t interested in getting into publishing fantasy, whereas I always thought of it as a fantasy novel. It was very important to me that there was something on there to mark it as a work of fantasy and not just some literary mandarin’s take on what fantasy is, or what it means.
AVC: In 2005, you wrote an article for Time titled “The Geek Shall Inherit The Earth.” In the piece, you touch on the nobility of the nerd and the co-opting of nerd culture. How do you feel about that with four years’ hindsight, a gig blogging about that culture for a mainstream magazine, and a fantasy novel under your belt?
LG: I feel really weird about it. Really conflicted. I was at [San Diego] Comic-Con this year, and it was my first time. It was fucking Ragnarok. It’s horrible. You go, and you’re thinking, “Yeah, this is the apotheosis of nerd culture.” But what you have is goon squads of studio flacks frog-marching tens of thousands of total douchebags into huge exhibition halls to watch, you know, Iron Man 8 and yell about how great it is. It’s really sad-making and alienating. I used to be part of a subculture that felt like a community. You felt like you were invested in it for some reason other than that it’s cool or that it’s making somebody somewhere billions of dollars. But that isn’t the case anymore. The nerds won, and in winning, we kind of lost. I feel like there needs to be some kind of nerd splinter groups, a hardcore, fundamentalist retrenchment that can reclaim some kind of identity for nerds. [Laughs.] I really miss that. And I recognize that I’m probably part of the problem. I write for Time, the squarest magazine in the entire world. And I write about wizard rock for them. I love my job, but I wonder if I’m doing damage. I don’t know.
AVC: Are you similarly conflicted about how you want The Magicians to be received, and by whom?
LG: My overriding concern while writing this book was that fantasy fandom not perceive this book as coming from an outsider. I recognize that on paper, you can’t really tell that I’m a fan or a nerd. I work at Time, and then there are the schools I went to, which I need to get taken out of my fucking bio. [Grossman has literary degrees from both Harvard and Yale. —ed.] I was really concerned about that. That’s why I spent a lot of time over the past year at conventions, just talking to people and introducing myself. The mainstream readers can take care of themselves. They always have. But I wanted to make myself known to fandom so they could sniff me and get a sense of where I’m coming from. It would be possible to read this novel as a critique of the genre by some random dude. I didn’t want that.
AVC: At first glance, The Magicians could be seen as a totally ironic look at fantasy. And then some of your characters reference things like Harry Potter and Oz by name. Did you have any internal debate about including those references?
LG: Oh, yeah. I even had external debates about it. [Laughs.] But here’s what I’ve always thought: It’s very weird that Harry Potter isn’t a fantasy reader. Here he is growing up in a closet, surrounded by an abusive stepfamily. I would think he’d be obsessed with and read nothing but fantasy. I did, and I didn’t even have an abusive stepfamily. When he gets to Hogwarts, it’s as if he’s never read a fantasy novel in his life. It’s obviously something that J.K. Rowling opted out of and chose not to deal with. But I thought it would be interesting if everyone who goes to my magic school has spent their whole life playing Gauntlet and Dungeons & Dragons and reading Narnia and Harry Potter. They would see everything through that lens and compare everything to what they’ve read about in books. I wasn’t making a big metafictional point; I just think that’s how it would happen. And I wanted to cue people that Harry Potter was part of this universe, yet I didn’t want to get super-overbearing about it. I also didn’t want to get into an intellectual-property lawsuit. [Laughs.] There’s just a couple winky-wink moments that hope aren’t too cute. There was a lot of debate within myself and with other people about how far to go with that. I didn’t want to seem like I was making fun of Harry Potter. I love Harry Potter. I just felt that my characters would make fun of Harry Potter.
AVC: Or make fun of themselves by doing so.
LG: Yeah. It would just be part of their idiom, how they talked. I wanted to go much further with it, but I realized I was getting too cute and meta. So I pared it down to a couple of references.
AVC: At the same time, the books that seem to have the biggest influence on The Magicians, the Narnia series, aren’t referenced at all. It’s as if they don’t exist in Quentin’s world, and Fillory is the surrogate Narnia. Why did you treat Narnia differently than, say, Harry Potter?
LG: It just wasn’t working. I used to have Narnia referenced by name in the book, but it was fighting with the Fillory stuff. It wasn’t sitting well with it. It’s because Fillory is so close to Narnia. So I took it out.
AVC: Are you comfortable with that omission?
LG: I wanted Quentin’s world to be exactly our world. I didn’t want to change anything, but I had to delete C.S. Lewis from the universe, from the Quentin-verse. I was just running into some fourth-wall problems. And literary-history-wise, it just didn’t quite make sense to have Fillory and Narnia coexist. C.S. Lewis wouldn’t have written Narnia the way he did if Christopher Plover had written Fillory the way he had. Somehow the equations didn’t balance. Seems like a glaring omission to me, but I couldn’t think of any other way to handle that stuff.
AVC: Early in The Magicians, Quentin realizes that the Fillory books are really about the act of reading—the gateways to Fillory are the same as the covers of the books that can transport children to other, more exciting places. But by the end of your book, that kind of escapism is shown to have horrific consequences. Were you afraid The Magicians might come across as too cynical?
LG: It’s sort of a balancing act. The book should be a fantasy novel and a deconstruction of fantasy novels at the same time. Which I think is actually possible in fiction—it’s just a delicate operation. But yeah, it was of the utmost concern to me that I not pathologize escapism as some neurotic strategy. It’s much more than that. Escapism has value, even if I don’t know what its value is, exactly. Maybe it’s just part of some healthy way that we deal with the world. I didn’t want this book to say, “Set aside your childish fantasy world and live in the real world, because the real world has its own magic.” The real world is horrible. And horribly, we need them both. [Laughs.] This wasn’t an attempt to grow up and put fantasy and escapism behind me. I need them. I’m not ready to give them up. And for some reason, I don’t think I have to.