Lev Grossman on ‘The Magicians’ Trilogy, VIDA, and 5 Books Everyone Needs to Read


Last night, Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians and The Magician King, and the book critic for Time, participated in the first-ever AMA (that’s Ask Me Anything, for the uninitiated) over in Reddit’s books subreddit. Since we’re fans of his, and always have our ears open for authors we like saying interesting stuff, we moseyed on over to see what we could learn. We suggest checking out the whole thing, but if you’re pressed for time, we’ve collected some of the most interesting bits after the jump.

On becoming a successful writer, and his first novel, Warp:

“I was a very late bloomer as a writer (this is assuming I have actually bloomed at this point). When the galleys for The Magicians came in they’d accidentally left Warp off the also-by-this-author page, and I let the mistake stand. I don’t think I had the craft to write a novel when I wrote Warp — and I didn’t have my shit together, emotions-wise, either, in the way you have to to write a good novel.

“So I avoid Warp a)because I worry that it’s really, really terrible, and b) it reminds me of kind of a dark period for me, which the 1990s pretty much were.

“The reason it’s hard to find is, they didn’t print very many copies. And most of them are in my basement.”

On character creation:

“Usually — when things go well — I can kind of write my characters into existence. I nail down some basic facts about them, and then I start feeding them lines. After a while the character gets real enough to me that they start feeding me lines instead.

“But when all else fails, I rip off someone I know.”

On Quentin Coldwater:

“When I created Quentin I was really just trying to write an honest portrait of the depressed, withdrawn, emotionally hopeless fanboy I was when I was 17. Except taller. And better at math. I wanted him to be real. I didn’t think much about making him likeable.”

On the arctic fox sex in The Magicians:

“Re: foxes, they just seemed funnier than wolves somehow, and less overdone. I felt like I could OWN foxes. Or fox sex anyway.”

On blending fantasy and realism:

“Probably the hardest part is trying to find interesting ways to tweak or spin or add texture to familiar tropes. I am, first and foremost, a massive fantasy nerd, but I love to subvert or play with the conventions and the cliches of the genre. So for example: talking animals. I knew I wanted talking animals in The Magicians, but I never thought CS Lewis’s talking animals were … bestial enough. I wanted to try to think harder than he had about what it would actuallly be like to be a bear, or a sloth, or a bird. Maybe you’d be a crashing bore, or a pedant, or a drunk, or all three. Probably you wouldn’t talk like a human, your personality would warped by your bear-ness or sloth-ness … I like to find ways to push things further. And if I can’t think of a way to make something realer or stranger or just different, I won’t put it in the book.”

On which author’s work he’d most like to finish, if they died in the middle of their masterpiece:

“I’m going to say Flaubert. I mean, since we’re doing time travel, we can also pretend that my French doesn’t suck. What a fucking master of prose and structure that guy was. To get to build something on his foundation, that would be The Greatest.”

On his biggest concern about the future of publishing:

“My biggest concern is probably discoverability. Libraries and bookstores are the killer apps (<–cliche) for that. There’s never been a better way for people to find new books than physical, meatspace browsing. The online marketplace has nothing as good. Maybe something as good will evolve; in fact it probably will. But for now, I have concerns.”

On the morality of criticism:

“The one iron rule I have as a critic is never lie. Never pretend to enjoy something because you think you should have — because it was fancy, or politically correct, or somebody important wrote it, or everybody else liked it, or your wife is friends with the author’s daughter, etc. And vice versa, you have to cop to loving something even if you ‘shouldn’t’ because it’s trashy or impolitic. It would have been a lot simpler for me to pan THE CASUAL VACANCY like everybody else, but the truth is I loved it.”

On his “Top 5 Must Read Books or Otherwise Live Only Half a Life?”:


On the literary authors he’d like to see tackle genre, and vice versa:

“literary –> genre: I want to see Jonathan Franzen’s big SF novel. The guy is a truly great observer of modern life. I’d love to see him prognosticate a bit. Also, he is just a prose master.

“genre –> literary: Kelly Link.”

On the literary book he’d recommend to fantasy readers, and vice versa:

“Oh that’s interesting. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is the fantasy book I recommend to literary people. I think the literary fiction I’d recommend to genre people might be … mmmm … maybe Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro? Technically it’s SF but it does things only a literary writer would think to do …”

On the upcoming book everyone should read:

“I cannot mention it enough: Kate Atkinson, Life After Life. That book crushed me, in the best way possible.”

On the contemporary authors that should be getting more attention:

“Oh, definitely. Catherynne Valente. Kelly Link. Joe Abercrombie. Kate Atkinson is big but should be bigger. In YA, Elizabeth Wein (Code Name Verity) and Michelle Hodkin (Mara Dyer). I’m probably forgetting a lot … I may have to come back and add to this.”

On the VIDA count:

“I should have a longer, more considered response to this, because no question, there’s a serious systemic problem. I haven’t read Ervin’s piece, but I will, because as a straight white male, I recognize that I actively have to find ways to help. I review books by women, I promote the careers of women who are great critics, and there are lots of them… that’s all I’ve figured out so far. (I don’t think VIDA tracks Time‘s stats, but they’re better than some, anyway.)”