Lev Grossman was recently in the Carolinas for a stop on his tour for The Magician’s Land, which debuted on the NY Times bestseller list at #1. At a “standing room only” event at Flyleaf Books, he talked about The Magicians and The Magician King, read from The Magician’s Land, and engaged in a lively Q&A session with the audience. Since, he has also just appeared at The Bookmarks Festival of Books and Authors in Winston-Salem; previously, he was a guest of the North Carolina Literary Festival in April, as well as previous book tour stops (for The Magician King in August 2011 at Flyleaf Books, and for The Magicians paperback release in June 2010 at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville). From the road, he took the time for an email interview, after which I’ve included my review of The Magician’s Land.
Q: You’ve been to North Carolina quite a few times in the past few years. Any particularly fond memories of your readings or other events?
Really my fondest memory is of going out for BBQ after a reading with a bunch of boisterous nerds. In New York City one is always haunted by the sense that one’s BBQ is not truly authentic … now I know that this is true.
Q: In a recent appearance on NPR’s Ask Me Another you mentioned almost in passing that after 10 years writing these characters, you’re ready to move on. Any hints yet about what you might be moving on to?
I shouldn’t talk about it. I have to sit down with my agent and tell her about it first. I can tell you that I’ve rewritten the first chapter of this book more times than I’ve ever rewritten anything in my life. Writing — it doesn’t get any easier.
Q: With paperback tours, hardcover tours, convention and festival appearances, does it feel like you’ve been touring about The Magicians for 10 years, too?
Touring, no. For the first five years the Magicians was my secret. Sometimes it seemed like a wonderful secret, sometimes it seemed more like a shameful one, but for half the lifetime of these characters, they existed only on my hard drive, as my private hallucination. It still surprises me sometimes that other people know about them.
Q: Any updates on the SyFy pilot casting to pass along?
Probably if I had any I couldn’t tell you anyway. But I don’t have any. Filming was going to be in October, but it’s been pushed back to December, so there’s breathing room. I think a few decisions have been made, but they’re not rushing it any more than they have to.
Q: Have you been to George R.R. Martin’s Jean Cocteau Theater in Sante Fe before? [Grossman will be there October 13.]
Never been. I’ve never even been to Santa Fe before. I’m seeing this as a career peak though. It’s all downhill after you’ve played the Cocteau Theater.
Q: If you’re allowed to say, I will now ask for some early non-spoilery thoughts on William Gibson’s The Peripheral… which, again, I still can’t believe I let you put back into your satchel without at least a serious bribe offer.
It’s a strange book, as one would expect, with magnificent things in it that only the master could have written. Drones, weaponized baby carriages, crazy scary nanotechnology, Also, and most important, as I may have mentioned, one of the main characters is named Lev.
Q: What else should I be reading this fall?
I never like to use the word ‘should’ where reading is concerned, but Tana French is always good. She’s got a new book. And really there’s never a bad time to reread Mrs. Dalloway. If people should read anything, they should read that.
[Review of The Magician’s Land first published in The AudioBookaneers, with large portions based on a speech at the NC Lit Fest.]
In the fantasy worlds of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, magic is hard. There is more, much more to it, than waving a wand and saying a few words in a modified Latin. And yet, as his characters come to find, magic is the easy part. Finding answers to your questions doesn’t make things more simple either. Both magic and answers have a cost — a high one, one you’re not sure is worth it, for all the good they do you. And when — if — you get to the “happily ever after part” you may not recognize it or appreciate it, may not have the sense to “close the book, put it down, walk away.”
Counting Codex, his internationally best-selling 2004 technothriller of a lost medieval manuscript, and the just-released The Magician’s Land — and by the way yes, it’s brilliant, but I’ll get to that later — I’ve read “all” 4 of his novels. (Hey, if he doesn’t count his first novel Warp why should I? Warp is to Lev Grossman as The Big U is to Neal Stephenson: no longer on the “also by this author” list in the first pages of his books, and by far — by far — the most valuable books they’ve published from a collector’s point of view. Oh how I regret not coming upon Lev’s writing until The Magicians — I wish I had bought a few boxes of Warp because that would be my kids’ college fund right there.)
Back to his books. They’re about finding the point of magic and technology or even wealth and power. They’re about characters trying to make sense of the nonsensical, brutal, uncaring world and its systems; characters breaking, characters surviving, re-building themselves from the pieces and carrying on, whether for love, for the next adventure, for those who have been left behind, for those who didn’t make it, or perhaps even to save the world or something yet more precious, magic itself.
Having grown up as a twin daydreaming of being an only child, Grossman wrote Quentin, the protagonist of The Magicians, as an only child; having aged into a still young man with the final realization that Narnia was not in fact lurking in a wardrobe and, some years later, that his letter from Hogwarts was not coming by owl any time soon, he wrote of Brakebills and Fillory, but with an adult complexity and discovering — as in so many things both real and in his fiction — that becoming a magician and traveling to a world behind the walls are not at all as advertised. Wherever you go, there you are.
He has a knack for writing just what I — and thousands of others — have needed to read. As Proust wrote, “The reader’s recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book’s truth.” He also has an anthropologist’s grasp of the evolving technology of reading, from stone tablets to scrolls to books to ebooks; technology and literature are the yin-yang of his journalistic DNA’s double helix. In cover stories for TIME he has covered technology from advanced anti-aging research to BitCoin to quantum computing to the Oculus Rift, an upstart Virtual Reality company recently purchased by Facebook where, one day soon, you may see a popup ad for The Magicians and later find yourself walking through and looking around a dryad-populated wood while flipping through a virtualpaperback. From his pulpit as the book editor of TIME magazine, he is one of the more public champions of the return of plot to literature, of genre fiction as worthwhile of creation and consideration.
Given that public stance, and two best-selling books so far in The Magicians trilogy, there was no shortage of expectations for The Magician’s Land. Let me tell you: he stuck the landing. The Magician’s Land is the sequel I thought I was waiting for last time around, but Quentin wasn’t ready; despite everything he’d fought for and gained and lost in The Magicians he still had some growing up to do in The Magician King where, along the way, the losses piled up until, at the end, at the moment of triumph, Grossman left us (and Quentin) with almost literally nothing. The hero pays the price. It’s a gut-punch of an ending, but it did, actually, leave us with one thing: we knew it could’t really end like this. Or at least we hoped it wouldn’t.
Chronologically, The Magician’s Land picks up right where The Magician King left off. Quentin, alone in the windswept streets of a post-apocalyptic Neitherlands, deposited at last outside his parents’ suburban home, instead returns to the only home he has left: Brakebills, the college of magic where everything started. Welcomed back by Dean Fogg, Quentin accepts a position as an adjunct professor, and things are actually going pretty well for him until, suddenly, they aren’t, and after dealing with the aftermath of personal loss (in a way made all-the-more poignant by the recent death of Grossman’s father, poet and professor Allen Grossman) and returning to Brakebills, shockingly, can-it-really-be-no-effing-way things really, really aren’t.
Structurally, that’s where The Magician’s Land kicks off: Quentin, fired, friendless, jobless, walking out of the rain into a strip-mall bookstore and a recruitment meeting for a magical heist. A rag-tag crew assembles: we’ve got “Stoppard”, the self-taught tech-wizard (literally) with a knack for devices; we’ve got “Betty”, an all-aggro badass from the Safe House scene; we’ve got “Pushkar”, an expert in all things transport; we’ve got Quentin; and we’ve got Plum, another Brakebills exile with secrets of her own. (It’s through a series of chapters from Plum’s eyes that we get a fantastic look at Quentin as Brakebills professor, as co-conspirator, as confident and competent in a way that we don’t experience much in Quentin’s own point of view.)
Meanwhile, in Fillory… High King Elliot deals with an invading army from the north (“The Duel” from Shawn Speakman’s Unfettered anthology) before learning from the ram’s mouth himself, Ember, that Fillory is dying. Again. But, like, for real this time. After an all-too-brief pow-wow with fellow King Josh and Queen Poppy, Elliot and Janet set off into Fillory to see what can be seen. As Quentin has, Elliot and Janet have both grown over the course of the books as well, both as people and wizards but also in their love and attachment to Fillory itself. Through their ongoing quest, we see sides of each that we’ve not seen in these books: honest, open, vulnerable.
Both in our world and in Fillory, quests do what quests do: put the right people together at the right place and time, across interesting terrain with fascinating side characters. But where these books have shined and where this book really shines is in the emotional payoff, the point of self-realization and reflection that, having taken a trilogy to get here, must be worth the journey, must be worth being earned. Grossman delivers with The Magician’s Land, and while I’m sad to see this series end, if this is all we ever see of Fillory, we sure got an awful lot. Humor, heart, pain, loss, joy, action, misery, and yes, of course, magic.
And those payoff lines — what is magic for, and especially where Quentin reflects on what his 17-year-old self had right and wrong — are really darned good stuff: the old magic, the story as metaphor for itself, the “this is why we read books!” feeling. Nearly every moment that could have been easy instead becomes harder and more complicated, reality seeping in. The sweeping, visual awesomeness of some scenes — massive battles and cosmic-scale world-building galore. I’m going to have these three books my whole life, and I’ll fight the bastard who says they aren’t right there with The Canon, old or new. I know they’re three of my favorite books, ever. For whatever that’s worth.
More: NY Times (by Edan Lepucki); io9 (a “Biography of Christopher Plover”); Slate; NY Times Book Review; Vulture; The AV Club (Grossman “lists his 5 favorite magic portals”);BuzzFeed; The Atlantic [interview]; NPR; The Nerdist; reddit; events; and the fantastic book trailer starring both fans and authors (Neil Gaiman, Pat Rothfuss, Gregory Maguire, Peter Straub, Terry Brooks, Charles Stross, Rainbow Rowell, Erin Morgenstern, …)