Lev Grossman’s 2009 novel The Magicians was a surprise smash, garnering great reviews and a stint on the New York Times bestseller list. The book, which blends famous children’s fantasy series like Harry Potter and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels with dark psychological realism, introduced a world readers might want to get lost in, except that the pressing problems of growing up and finding a purpose are still ever-present. Now, Grossman has released a sequel, The Magician King, which deepens the characters and settings of The Magicians, engaging with the idea of the quest, both in fantasy novels—where the quest is for a magical item—and in real life—where the quest can be something as mundane as finding somewhere to put down roots. Grossman, who works as the book critic for Time and frequently blogs there, recently talked with The A.V. Club about finding the story for the sequel, coming up with a new point-of-view character, and the perils of film adaptations of literary fantasies.
The A.V. Club: When you completed The Magicians, how much of the sequel was in your head?
Lev Grossman: You know, not at all, except for a lingering sense of a missed opportunity. I’ve felt as though I’ve been engaging very much with, obviously with the Narnia books, but particularly with The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. I thought, “That’s great, but what about Dawn Treader, the one where you really get them in a boat, out over the horizon, you really get to see the large-scale, magical wonders of Narnia? What about all that stuff?” I never got to do that kind of thing, those kinds of setpieces. It started with, “Wouldn’t it be great?” and then I thought, “Right, well. This is how you could do it, if you were going to do it.”
AVC: You’ve brought in a new point-of-view character. How much of Julia’s storyline, which intersects with The Magicians, did you have in mind when you were writing that book?
LG: It was almost an engineering project to retrofit that particular timeline. Because in Magician King, we go over the same period of time that happened in The Magicians, and we fit Julia’s story in there. It’s kind of like that Deep Space Nine episode where they go back to the “Troubles With Tribbles” episode, and all the Deep Space Nine guys are there in time, and they have to figure out how they would fit into something like that.
That was an interesting thing. It wasn’t meant to be a major part of this book—it was meant to be a chapter. But once Julia started telling her story, it turned out to be so much of it, and eventually, it ended up weighing about as much as Quentin’s. The book became this two-headed monster.
AVC: When you were starting to write the Quentin portions again, how had you found that he had changed, in the time between the books that isn’t accounted for?
LG: It was a relief to come back to Quentin and have this sense that he’d grown up a bit. He’s 17 when The Magicians begins, but he’s a young 17. His emotional range is not giant, and he’s full of angst about things that really relate to him and not to anybody else. He’s kind of bullshit, in a way, which I thought was appropriate and psychologically accurate for people like him, which is like the 17-year-old I used to be. But over the course of The Magicians, he gets over some of his bullshit, and it was a relief to write him and come back to him where he doesn’t have to be pounding his fist all the time and wondering if he’s gonna get to sleep with every woman he meets. That adolescent shit was kind of, “Just take it off the table, and you can find the larger emotional range for Quentin.” That was a relief, and it was good. It was a lot more fun.
AVC: When the book begins, they’re all kings and queens in Fillory. There’s very much a sense of “Is this all there is?” What informed that malaise?
LG: Both the books begin with, really, this attempt to treat with a level of adult psychological realness some of the story ideas and situations that J.K. Rowling and especially C.S. Lewis set up. I was always fascinated with the final chapter of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, where you get a glimpse of the Pevensies having grown up and literally living as kings and queens of Narnia. I think Lewis knew that would be a topic that would be difficult for him to treat, so he fast-forwards through it.
What you get in the beginning of The Magician King is a goof on the ending of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, where the characters, you actually see and get a bit of a feel for a, “Wow, we’ve been kings and queens for a while. [Sighs.] It’s a lot of booze. It’s just sitting around on soft pillows, and it was great for a while, but man, it’s kind of getting old.” And then there’s this moment where they see this adventure and go on it, and end up back in England. In Fillory, they see it and think, “Wow, are you nuts? We’re not going on that adventure. We’re going to stick around here.” But of course the adventure finds them eventually.
AVC: Rowling and Lewis are the most obvious and most-mentioned influences for these books. Are there works of fantasy that you have turned to that people don’t bring up?
LG: People don’t bring up, as much as I bring up with myself, writers like T.H. White, The Once And Future King, which was a major thing for me. It’s this majorly beautiful work where he—what he does to [Thomas] Malory is sort of what I was trying to do to Lewis. Not update it, but retell it in the form of a modern novel for adults. And he’s a major presence for me always, and especially in this book, because it’s less about coming-of-age, which you get at the beginning, in Sword In The Stone, but more about questing, and the journey of the hero, which is a big subject for T.H. White. And of course he retells the story of The Holy Grail. I was really interested in that quest, and that kind of story.
And Malory was very present for me, and also Homer. I’m not in any way some kind of classical scholar, but I’ve read my Homer, and I’m very interested in the way he tells those epic stories, and how you would stage an epic journey in the present day. So Homer and White and Malory, those guys are there. Of course, there’s always a crapload of Dungeons & Dragons, which some people get and some people don’t get. It’s fine both ways, really.
AVC: Skewing more toward the world of literary realism or modernism, who are some of the authors who influenced you in that regard?
LG: I have this theory about modernism and fantasy, which I’ll do in 30 seconds.
They came into being at the same time, which is very interesting. They were both reactions to the disasters of World War I and the electrification of cities, and urbanization, and the rise of the automobile, the end of that twilight world of the Victorians. They both are reactions to that in different ways. Modernism went very inside and delved into the interior lives of people. Fantasy externalized all that in these fantastical, magical, metaphorical landscapes. I thought, “Well, what if you did both the inside and the outside at once?” I tried to combine those foci of fantasy and modernism into one kind of writing. It sounds like I’m writing a dissertation on my own work, but, you know, you end up thinking about what you’re doing. That’s the kind of thing I thought.
So for me, massively influential are obviously James Joyce, another reinterpreter of Homer, and Virginia Woolf. My prose comes more from the Americans, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, rather obviously. The other influence is Evelyn Waugh. I don’t even know if Waugh is a modernist. He was writing at the time, but in a different mode. Brideshead Revisted is always super, super present in my work. I rely on most of my readers to never have read Brideshead Revisited, so they cannot see how much I am stealing from it. But I do urge people to go out and read it. It’s a hugely important source text for the 20th century, and is also an incredibly fun novel to read.
AVC: What about that novel speaks to you?
LG: It’s another one of these books that looks at modernity, and what we have lost by becoming modern with this immensely profound sadness. It’s about this guy, and World War II, the death of the English country-house lifestyle and the English countryside, on which so much fantasy is based. The passing away of that, and what do you find to replace it with?
I feel that’s one of the central questions of fantasy. What did we lose when we entered the 20th and 21st century, and how can we mourn what we lost, and what can we replace it with? We’re still asking those questions in an urgent way. I think that focus is something I share with Waugh. Also, Waugh is pretty funny. So I’m always trying to bite his style, because he’s just so entertaining.
AVC: This book expands the underpinnings and mythology of both the magic of this world and the magic of other worlds. How much did you know going in?
LG: A little of that theoretical groundwork gets tossed out in The Magicians. I guess I drilled into it a little bit because it’s something every fantasy writer has to gesture at. It’s great, all these cool special effects and magical stuff that’s happening, but someone in the landscape must be asking, “Why is this happening? Where is all this energy coming from?” and you don’t want to explain it completely, because then the mystery is gone, and then what are you left with? You’re left with technology and natural phenomena, and that’s no fun.
I felt like I wanted to drill into this question a little bit of where magic comes from. It’s an interesting question that has a lot of emotional resonance for me, because you think of where does the power in your life come from? Does it come from God? Did you parents give it to you? Where does it come from, and did you feel like you got as much of it as you deserved? Were you denied something? It turned out to be a really important story, and an important emotional question for me.
AVC: One of the major new characters is Poppy, and she’s a marked contrast to everyone because she has an optimistic, can-do attitude. Where did she come from?
LG: I knew there must be magicians out there who are, to use a glib expression, well-adjusted. They can’t all be as screwed up as the Brakebills crowd is. I thought they oughtta meet somebody who is a magician and is stoked about it. They like doing magic, their lives are going well. They’re not longing to go to Fillory; they’re on earth and they can do magic! Why would you want more than that? I felt it was important that they met somebody like that and be challenged by that worldview. That’s who Poppy is. Poppy’s not screwed up. I thought they should have a conversation with somebody like that and see if they could learn something from her.
AVC: She’s introduced very briefly, and she becomes a more and more major character. Did you plan that, or did you enjoy finding the character as she came in?
LG: I knew she was going to loom large eventually. And I tried various cute ways of introducing her. But I knew she would stick around, and I wanted her to be extremely irritating at first, and then gradually, hopefully, people would sort of warm to her. Which I hope most people are. There’s a little bit already of Team Poppy and Team Julia stuff in the fandom. So she has her detractors, but dammit, I support Poppy. I’m Team Poppy.
AVC: The book is based on either Quentin or Julia’s perspective, and it skips periods of time when they’re not around, or shifts our understanding of the characters if Quentin realizes something new about them. Yet there’s so much, especially in epic fantasy, where you see every little detail. How nervous were you about skipping out on stuff that Quentin wasn’t around for?
LG: For some reason I always felt comfortable in this mode. Apparently it’s the only mode I can write in, which English teachers call “close third person,” where it’s not first person, but you have a narrator who’s separate from the main character, but only knows what the main character knows. I’m not an epic-fantasy guy. I never felt that comfortable with, or connected to, Tolkien or that Peter Jackson camera that’s soaring above the battlefield and WETA has rendered 90 million orc troops who are streaming in these wonderful patterns across the screen.
I never felt comfortable with that point of view. I wanted to keep things human in scale, with that human fallibility and that human ignorance. In a way, it was a relief at least to get out of Quentin’s head, and have a second point of view in this book, so you’re not trapped in one. You can actually have a character who looks at Quentin, and see what he looks like from the outside. That was my equivalent to massive WETA-powered rendering, was being able to see Quentin from outside Quentin’s head.
AVC: When you were coming up with Julia, were there things about her that surprised you?
LG: Absolutely. I’m a planner. I’m an outliner. This is one of the rare instances where a character completely shattered the outline I had been working on and seemed to exert some weird volitional power. They were like this sort of subprogram that was running within my brain that somehow got root and took over the whole operation. It was so much anger and bitterness in that character who had been denied what Quentin had been given, who had not been allowed into the promised land of Brakebills.
She was so furious. I knew she wanted things so badly, and she was prepared to do such terrible things to get them. It turned out there was this primal story there that underlay all of what happens in the book, and it had to come out. But I knew very little about it as I was writing the book. I was giving her a chapter to do mostly exposition. The model was supposed to be where Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby tells Daisy and Gatsby’s backstory. I thought I’d give her a chapter and let her fill in a few of the blanks, and before I knew it, she had half the book.
AVC: There’s so much in her story that’s influenced by the world of technology, the world of hacking. You write a lot about that at your blog on Time.com. What about that world fascinates you?
LG: It comes a lot out of my family, my siblings. I have an older sister and a brother, both of whom, in various eccentric ways, have worked in the technology industries. Something about that personality type, the hacker-type, the engineer, I never was one, because I didn’t have the chops, but I’ve always been attracted to it, just the way these people think. I like to talk to them. They’re very direct in ways, and they’re good at problem-solving. They’re very uninterested in bullshit, and I find those things very interesting. I like writing about them.
In the back of my head, I suppose, was that Lisbeth Salander character from the Stieg Larsson books, whom I never wholly liked, and I wanted to take my own stab at a woman who was a hacker, and see if I could do my own take on it. I’m sure elements of Julia come from my sister, who now does mathematical sculpture, but was a heavy computer-science person for a long time. I drew on her, and of course, she read it and corrected all the stuff I got wrong, so that was helpful.
AVC: When you came to the point where the outline broke down—lots of writers are terrified when that happens. Was that freeing?
LG: It was good for me. It was one of those things like, “Okay here’s the plan,” and then you’re thinking [Whispers.] “Oh, this isn’t really the plan. This is the crap plan that’s supposed to fall apart.” So far, when I’m writing successfully, the plan does fall apart, and this superior plan bursts out of it and starts running the show. So you plan for failure, and that usually gets me where I want to go. For a while, I was sort of worried. It wasn’t happening for a while. Then I entered this weird fugue state and woke up a week later sitting on a pile of 30,000 words that I didn’t recognize, and I thought, “Oh, that must have been it. That must have been the new plan.”
AVC: You wrote an article a couple years ago for The Wall Street Journal about the different influences of modernism and more “plot-driven” genres, and how the walls were breaking down between those. There were some fairly angry reactions to that. Do you still see that happening?
LG: That was the end of Google alerts for me. I used to have a Google alert on my name, but that was the end. I had to cut it off. One can only be called an asshole so many times before it starts to become psychologically debilitating.
I wrote a better version of that argument in an article for The Believer, but fewer people read The Believer. I essentially believe what I said in The Wall Street Journal, though it’s a bit more nuanced. I’ve become a little more aware of how valuable genre distinctions are. It’s very important, at least to me as a writer, that there be some rules on the table when I’m writing. Rules come from genres. You’re writing in a genre, there are rules, which is great because then you can break the rules. That’s when really exciting things happen.
You don’t want to move toward some utopian literary situation where everybody’s free of all conventions. That’s ridiculous! Conventions are what you need. You have nothing to break down if you don’t have conventions. So this idea that genres are merging into something and losing their distinctions, I’m now much more excited about genre distinctions. What I still see breaking down are more the hierarchical arrangements of genres. That is, “There is literary fiction, and then there are lesser genres.” I’m much more clear on the idea that literary fiction is itself a genre. It is not above other genres. It is down there in the muck with all the other genres, and it’s doing the wonderful things that it does, but to give it a Y-axis, to make it high and low, just seems absurd. I stand by that.
AVC: Are there rules you found particularly thrilling to break in either fantasy or realistic fiction, since this is a blend of the two? And are there rules you still find unbreakable?
LG: Oh yeah, God. It’s wonderful to play around with fantasy, because there are an amazing number of as-yet-unbroken rules out there. I mean, I’m trying to think of examples that stay with me. The goofy world-building that C.S. Lewis does, where you’ve got this world where the economy and the ecology are completely not worked on at all, or the social structure. Like, what kind of state is Narnia? How does it run? Do they have a constitution? What’s the level of technology, exactly? Because Mrs. Beaver has a sewing machine, but everyone else is fighting with swords, so how is that playing out? Just rationalizing that stuff is very pleasant and enjoyable.
And doing, for lack of a better word, a little bit of the theology of it. If you have a godlike being in your universe, if you’ve endowed your universe with a god, well, how do you account for the moments when the god does nothing? When the god could have saved lives, and could have ameliorated suffering, and does not do so? There are so many moments in the Narnia books where Aslan could have stopped a battle, and could have saved the lives of people who loved him, but instead, he was busy playing peek-a-boo in the forest with Lucy. Why is that? What was Aslan thinking? I want to find the psychology of that being, and try and understand what the hell they were up to.
There’s so much stuff that’s left to be worked out and attacked, and the great thing about when you attack conventions of a genre, new conventions form, and the genre as a whole gets stronger. There was a moment when we thought Watchmen was the last superhero story that anybody would ever write, because it so thoroughly demolished the conventions that came before it, but instead, it turned out to be the greatest superhero story ever written, and everything else that came out after it was cooler because of it.
AVC: You wrote a piece recently about J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore, and how in some ways you were disappointed by the continued literalization of the Harry Potter universe. How would you deal with that if there was ever a film adaptation of this series of books? How would you keep it yours while still leaving room for this definitive version?
LG: I’m gonna try to answer this in a way that does not reveal me to be a hypocrite. As I mentioned before, I have talked to and am talking to people about doing other adaptations of The Magicians, and you take these terrible risks when you enter into these collaborations, because you don’t know these people that well. You only have their word and your table-read of them, that they will work to preserve the integrity of, if not your book, then at least whatever it is they’re making that has your book’s name attached to it. And yet it may come to a time when I take that risk. My ultimate goal is to drive people back to the books, when I think of an adaptation.
I mean, The Magicians sells well, but obviously it doesn’t sell on Harry Potter levels. I would love to have a TV show that would make people aware of it, and drive people to read the books and have that reading experience which I’m really proud of. That would be the goal, but the stars may align in such a way that I would take that risk. I certainly never blame any other writers for taking that risk. The whole Harry Potter theme park, I’m not blaming Rowling for it, but I wonder why she wanted to do that. Because, God, Hogsmeade for me is a very special, a very real-seeming place. I don’t want to see it as a place where you buy overpriced novelty wands, and gross, nutrient-free butterbeer drinks. I wonder why she wanted to do that. I do not doubt that she had good reasons for doing so, because she seems like a person of a lot of integrity, but I don’t know what they were.
AVC: A lot of people, even if they read Harry Potter or Lord Of The Rings before the movies came out, they now see Daniel Radcliffe or Elijah Wood in their heads when they re-read those books. That doesn’t concern you?
LG: No, it does. I feel as though people do this really important work when they build up out of words a fully multimedia world in their heads. Doing that work, I think itself has some value, and when that work is offered to them pre-done, pre-rendered, something gets lost, I think. I really believe that. My daughter is a Harry Potter fanatic, but she does not get to see a movie before she reads the book.
AVC: Are you hoping to write more books in this world, or are you looking for other things to do?
LG: At least one. There’s at least one more. Then we’ll see where we’re at. I’m not distracted from The Magicians, but I’m seeing something emerging that might distract me in the future. I might want to go over and look at that and see what that is.