Yesterday afternoon, Flyleaf Books let me know that I’d have the honor of introducing Lev Grossman at his reading. I put together some thoughts (ok, a lot of thoughts) and cut things down to an appropriate slice of time, and then realized… the introduction was sounding a lot like it was about me: my response to the book, my happiness that his tour included a stop in the area, my fondness for Grossman’s criticism and writing not just in his novels but in his essays and reviews and (particularly!) interviews.
And so I scrapped the whole thing and just read what I’d already written for the introduction to the Bull Spec #6 feature on him. Which was good, because after getting to meet and talk to Grossman back stage before the event, my literally fanboyish levels of squee were pegging the Scalzometer:
- We’d talked about our appreciation of Neal Stephenson
- He’d referred to William Gibson as “Bill”
- “Lev” asked me my opinion on whether he should take on a sekrit projekt
- I’d just met Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians
And so anything more personal I was going to say was likely to emerge as squeaks, alongside my jumping up and down in sheer joy and excitement.
Let me go back.
In early September of 2009 I saw The Magicians in the new science fiction and fantasy releases section of the Barnes & Noble of Brier Creek. One look at the title and the cover:
And I knew I had to pick it up. So I did. And, gently, put it back on the shelf. I don’t remember the jacket copy on the hardcover, but apparently it didn’t sell me on a hardcover purchase. So I bought a mass market paperback that is still sitting, unread, on my shelf. (Someday, Greg van Eekhout‘s Norse Code, I will read you. Some day…)
By April of 2010 I started hearing more and more about this book. Some people — who clearly have no taste — hated it. Others loved it and it was showing up on year’s best lists in both fantasy and “mainstream” fiction. And so, as the trade paperback was coming out and Grossman was touring in support of his NY Times bestselling book, I wrote him about coming to the local area. “I go where they send me,” he wrote back.
He wrote back.
But he didn’t come. (I hadn’t yet figured out how these things worked. It actually turns out to be simple: when you know a publisher is planning a book tour, get your local bookstores to write them, promise, and beg. And plead. And beg some more.) But he wrote back!
In September 2010 he signed a copy of the trade paperback for a breast cancer charity auction on eBay — I had gone there looking to bid on Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind if I recall, but that auction was much, much too dear — and I won. (I might have been the only bidder. It’s been a while.) The book came, complete with a photo of Grossman, a wonderful personalized signature (“You rock! Thanks for helping to fight breast cancer!”) and…
… I still didn’t read it. Hey, the stack is long, the stack is tall, and after all he hadn’t come here on tour, the clear bastard.
But I was becoming a bit of a Grossman fan for other reasons. Following his articles in Time, the NY Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Diving into the backlog of his online articles and reading his thoughts on Twilight, Harry Potter, and George R. R. Martin. On Neil Gaiman, David Foster Wallace, BitTorrent, Jonathan Franzen, Napster, Facebook, Aubrey de Grey’s beard (if only I could tell you…), Ray Kurzweil, …
And via his online openness, funny remarks here and there (like never wanting to tweet again now that he’d been re-tweeted by @GreatDismal) and the shared human experience that is being a dad.
And in November 2010, after finally hearing too many great things about the book, I discovered and listened to a sample of the audiobook from Audible.com.
I was hooked.
Mark Bramhall brought The Magicians to life for me. I loved it. Loved it. I raved about it to everyone who would listen. I convinced my wife to listen to the audiobook and she really liked it. We talked about a fantasy novel. The book also helped me grow up in a way that was a bit long overdue: I wasn’t about to open a door and find my way into a magical world any time soon. Or be plucked from the street and inserted into a secret NASA field team for a Mars mission. Or study really hard and become a karate master. (This is something I should have been able to give up having read Stephenson’s Snow Crash but which lingered on. OK, it still lingers on. A bit.)
In March 2011, after a few more rounds of corresponding with Grossman (including getting a very nice quote from him for my article on Lou Anders in Bull Spec #4 and what seemed like very nice yet transparent lies about actually liking the magazine — sure, Lev, sure it’s on your nightstand) something unexpected and ridiculous happened.
I had known Grossman was working on a sequel — and he’d just written me to ask if I’d take a look at a draft of it as a beta reader.
Of course I said no immediately.
(Are you kidding? I said yes and dropped everything else I was doing. In case you were wondering why issue #5 was a little later than “quarterly” can be stretched to allow…)
I read the new book, The Magician King, looking, digging, clawing for flaws and faults. There weren’t many. I was blown away, like so many would be when the book came out, by “the Julia chapters”. I fell hard for new characters and remembered how much I loved the others. Quentin was more mature — like me he’d grown up a bit in the three years since The Magicians — and yet Quentin was still missing something, the kind of something that only taking on an honest to goodness quest can provide. (Or so Quentin thought.)
And some OMFG “no it didn’t” things happened in the book. And then the book ripped out my heart and stomped on it a bit. But I was reading so critically and narrowly — herein I refer to a scene in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five about being locked in place on a train, looking through a long, stationary tube — that I didn’t know it yet. I told Grossman that while I loved The Magicians, that it was a great book, that The Magician King was merely only very, very good. But that he’d tried, and done well, and not to feel too bad about that. (Yes. Yes I did say that.)
Anyway, in the course of giving chapter by chapter feedback, poking at lines, we struck up another conversation about book tours. And now I knew how these things worked, so I started at the top: with the book’s publicist at Penguin. I pitched the local area hard. I praised our support of author visits past, with the numbers and newspaper articles to back them up. I promised things I hoped I could deliver.
(Side note: In May I was interviewing Kij Johnson for the SFWA blog (sorry, Kij, I haven’t yet transcribed that one…) and was carrying my ARC/galley (I still don’t know the difference) of The Magician King and she literally grabbed it. I told her she could keep it if she wrote me a review. She did. It’s wonderful.)
Somewhere along the line, Grossman sent an updated copy, some technical term for whatever stage it was in the process but it was a fully laid out PDF updated even from the ARC. I read some key scenes again (the end, oh, my goodness, the end) and starting getting a suspicion that, hey, there is some terrible beauty here that I’d missed by reading from a height of one micrometer.
And then on May 19 Flyleaf Books was able to announce that yes, Grossman’s upcoming tour would be including a stop here! This led to a lot of work, actually. Writing newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV outlets. Writing them again. Putting together flyers and putting them up wherever I could, whenever I had time. (“Daddy, you’re always doing flyers,” my son has begun to recognize.)
Blogging, posting, tweeting, inviting, begging, pleading. Reminding. Bothering. Pestering. Flyering again.
And interviewing Grossman for Bull Spec #6, which he turned in for me with literally hours to spare before I had to print it. (Not his fault, I only sent it to him with days to spare. Thanks again, Lev.) Not just turning in a boring, ho-hum, things I’d read before — and I’d been reading his interviews, from Locus to Slice and many more — but personal, funny, interesting things.
When his book launch was approaching, I sent him some copies of Bull Spec #6 to hand out. I sent him a bunch more for WorldCon. (Where he won a tiara, mind you.) I sent more to a few other of the bookstores along his tour.
(Meanwhile, the audiobook for The Magician King came out as well, and once again Bramhall pulled me back into Fillory, into Brakebills, and along Julia’s path from high school to Free Trader Beowulf and beyond. This time, at least a few feet above the terrain of the page, I held onto every word, every phrase. I remembered what a funny book this was. I remembered what a touching book this was. And then I stood, leaning over my kitchen counter, and listened to the ending again. And another time, just to make sure. And I felt a bit like Quentin; the quest over, wanting it back but understanding that you can’t have it back once it’s gone. And being both incredibly satisfied, as I had been with the ending of the first book, and longing, longing for the next words to keep coming.)
Somewhere along the way, he found time not only for that kind of nonsense (handing around copies, etc.) but also to remind me that, hey, he was coming into town and did I need anything? When he’d already turned in some more interviews for local media (the Independent Weekly, the Flyleaf Books blog) and was all set to go on WUNC’s The State of Things as well. He’d given the Raleigh-Durham area plenty of his time and attention.
Now it was time to find out if we would return the favor. And we did. 150 people came and listened attentively and asked great questions, clearly having connected with the books in a significant way.
And then Grossman signed a lot, lot, LOT of books. And then signed some more:
And then we went out for drinks, and had just a wonderful time. It was absolutely amazing to meet someone who had become one of my literary and journalistic heroes (though I think he’d have a few things to say about heroism, in fact he’s said some of them in The Magician King) and whose work I had come to love, and find out that, actually, he’s a wonderful, sincere, funny, kind, brilliant, funny, very human person.
And now all he has to do is stick the landing on a third book, and I won’t have to hate him. No pressure, Lev. No pressure. And I’ll understand if you don’t let me read this one early. But be prepared to be begged.