The Magician’s Last Act: Lev Grossman on The Magician’s Land

Lev Grossman, credit Mathieu Bourgois

The adventures of Quentin Coldwater—a magician whose supernatural powers can’t help him avoid the awkwardness of his late teens and twenties—are drawing to a close. Lev Grossman conjured up Coldwater and his comrades in 2009 with the best-selling fantasy novel The Magicians, an answer to the fantasy worlds of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series that complicated the idea of magic as a solution to the traumas, failures, and growing pains of young adulthood.

In August, Grossman publishes the finale to the trilogy, The Magician’s Land, a novel as hotly anticipated by the Comic-Con set, where Grossman recently went to promote the new installment, as the New York literary world. In advance of the book’s launch at St. Joseph’s College on August 5, Grossman spoke to Brooklyn Magazine about the end of the trilogy, genre, and disappointment.

Brooklyn Magazine: Did you have the third book in your head when you started The Magicians? How did you plot out the series?

Lev Grossman: This is a question that I don’t really have an answer to. When I was working on The Magicians I hadn’t made up my mind if there were going to be any more. I was writing it during a dark period for me. I was very stuck personally and professionally. My self-confidence was at sort of a low ebb that I didn’t think it would be published at all. I was completely prepared to leave it as a stand-alone. It was only after it came out that I started thinking what would come next. As I was writing the second, I knew there would be a third, and I figured it would take care of itself. I’m actually surprised to the extent that this didn’t get me into trouble.

BK Mag: So does that leave Quentin Coldwater in a place where there could be a follow-up?

Grossman: I think it’s the end for Quentin. You know, it took me five years to write when I started it back in 2004. I was at a very different period in my life. I was struggling with problems I was working out in the book. I feel now very far away from that person. I’ve come to the end of that arc for Quentin and also for me.  Maybe when I’m 70 I can write about some 70-year-old magician

It’s funny thinking about the novels being autobiographical because, of course, magic isn’t real. But there are elements of the books that are very much about my own experience. It’s very much about coming to terms with the fact that you’re not the chosen one.

BK Mag: One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the Magicians books is that they interact with other fantasy literature. They don’t just exist in a separate sphere, the characters are aware of Tolkien and Lewis and Rowling. Why did you decide to do that?

Grossman:  Initially it was just a question of realism. When I started writing The Magicians. I was really into the idea of figuring out what happens in the middle of a magicians’ life. You know, Harry Potter ends and then there’s this huge gap time gap before the epilogue. What happens between the age of 18 to 35? There’s a whole different set of questions when you go into your 20s. The Magicians books are about filling in those blanks.

It’s funny because my own 20s were such a wipeout. They were such a string of serial failures. I would read the Harry Potter books and Narnia books when I was in my 30s and even though I felt very connected to those characters, I was aware that the people in them were living lives nothing like mind. The Magicians began as a thought experiment: What would a magician look like if he had my life? If you were going to a school for magic, wouldn’t you be keenly aware of the ways that your life didn’t live up to books about that experience? I mean Harry Potter lived years in that tiny room and he didn’t read any fantasy novels before he went to Hogwarts. I understand why Rowling would leave that out, but imagine how different his experience would have been if he spent all that time reading the Narnia books.

BK Mag: In recent years there’s been much ado about the way that genre interacts with literary criticism. As a book critic yourself, how did those considerations play out writing The Magicians?

Grossman: The Magicians is a fantasy novel that invokes all the expectations of a genre book but aims to fulfill those of a literary work. Going in, you think you already know the story of what happens, right? It’s about a boy who goes to a magical school, this secret magical world. But it’s structured like a literary novel. I was more interested in defeating those expectations, but it only works because the tension between genre and literary fiction exists.

It’s not unique in that respect. John le Carré did that in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in 1963, Neil Gaiman does that, and Donna Tartt does that. And I do believe that genre books are very different. The only place where I stop is the claim that literary fiction is more important or meaningful. That I don’t agree with. Critics love to dismiss books like Twilight as trash, but millions of people read Twilight. They must be getting something out of it.

BK Mag: Any update on the upcoming Magicians Syfy series?

Grossman: They have a pilot. I’m extremely hopeful that it will go to series. I have a title! I think it’s like ‘creative consultant.’ I talk to the people who work on it once in a while. I’ll react to it. But not one word of it is written by me. I’m not making any decisions. It’s very much their show.

BK Mag: In The Magician’s Land, Quentin finally figures out his magical discipline. What would yours be?

Grossman: I know I would want something really big and dramatic, probably involving fire or fireballs. But actually it would probably be something small and meticulous and nerdy. Like building complicated things out of Legos. I would want it to epic, but I’m worried it wouldn’t be.

BK Mag: Now that The Magicians is done, what’s up next?

Grossman: I’m working on a new book. You sort of forget every time that no one knows how to write novels and you have to figure it out. I’m not done writing novels. I can’t seem to stop.

Follow Margaret Eby on twitter @margareteby.

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