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L.A. Times Festival Of Books: An Interview With "The Magicians" Author Lev Grossman

Katie Buenneke |
April 18, 2012 | 8:51 p.m. PDT

Theater Editor

 Mathieu Bourgois
Mathieu Bourgois
The Harry Potter generation has grown up. As J.K. Rowling's series has spawned a new set of literati, teenaged and twenty-something bibliophiles have searched far and wide for more books to satiate their thirst for literature. Some have turned to "The Hunger Games," some to John Green's young adult literature, and some have found solace in the world of Brakebills and Fillory described in Lev Grossman's "The Magicians."

"The Magicians," and its sequel, "The Magician King," follow Quentin Coldwater, a dissatisfied high schooler caught in the interminable cycle of preparation for whatever is coming next: the SATs, college, etc. After a college interview goes terribly awry, Quentin discovers that magic is real, and that he can attend an institution of higher learning to study it, Brakebills. Hoping to find a place where he'll actually fit in and feel comfortable, Quentin begins to discover himself and his own power at Brakebills—and, upon graduation, learns of the true depth of the magical universe.

As a book and technology critic for Time Magazine, and the son of two English professors, Grossman is no stranger to the wonderful intricacies of the English language and the power of the imagination. He grew up reading series like "The Lord of the Rings," "Earthsea," and, most importantly, "The Chronicles of Narnia."

Grossman, who will be appearing twice at the Festival of Books this weekend, gave Neon Tommy an exclusive interview.

How do you think your journalistic background has helped you as a writer?
Having a day-job as a journalist, with weekly deadlines, taught me not to sit around waiting for my muse and just get my ass in the chair and start typing — an essential skill for a novelist.
Both you and John Green, whom you will be interviewing at the Festival, seem to write for the Harry Potter generation. What is it about that group of young people that is so compelling to you?
When I was a kid, there were either a lot fewer fantasy readers around, or maybe -- because we didn't have the Internet -- we just weren't aware of each other. Either way, thanks to Harry Potter now there's 10s of millions of us, all passionate readers who are into having stories told to them, and who have a whole shared set of cultural reference points. Who could resist writing for them? Not me.

Fillory has distinct traces of Narnia to it. What fictional worlds were important to you growing up?
Narnia was the big one, but there were a lot of them. Xanth, Nehwon, Pern, Earthsea, Ringworld, Middle Earth … I was promiscuous. Any world but this one.

What made you want to put the entire Brakebills experience through the epilogue to the first Fillory adventure in one book, instead of more?
I wanted to show magicians making the awkward transition from school out into the world. The Harry Potter books end when he graduates, more or less. I wanted to push past that, and write about the horrible process of figuring out what to do with your life, and look at the difference between innocence and experience. I always thought of Brakebills less as Hogwarts than as the Oxford of Brideshead Revisited: when you leave, the world plays havoc with all your hopes and dreams.

Do you ever worry that your characters may alienate readers, or do you just write them as they are and let them do what they want?
I actually worry about it now more than I used to. Having characters feel psychologically real is paramount -- but that doesn't matter much if nobody reads your books, and they won't read them if they don't want to spend 400 pages hanging out with your characters.

What inspires you to write?

While your books are obviously critically acclaimed, have you ever encountered readers who are upset that you have ruined their childhood fantasies?
Not as much as you'd think. I think readers sense that I'm a fan of the same things they are, and those readers know that I'm not really the villain here. It's life that ruins your childhood fantasies. My books are about dealing with that.

The Magicians is a book that, much like The Hunger Games, seems to beg for a movie adaptation, albeit one that would cost a lot of money. Would you like to see your books adapted for the big screen, or would you prefer for them to live solely in the imaginations of readers?
I would love to see them adapted for the big screen really, really well. But having had a lot of conversations with a lot of people in Hollywood, I have discovered that there are depths to which even I won't stoop. We'll do it when we find the right partners, and I think that's still very possible. There have been some good conversations too.

When you create a world like that of Brakebills, it's easy for the reader to fill in the gaps with details from his or her real life. In a more fantastic world like Fillory, though, everything is more foreign to the reader. Where do the ideas for the details of Fillory come from?
Truly, I don't know. I learn about Fillory pretty much the same way the characters do. I discover it as I go along. I wish I could explain it better than that. Oh, and some of the details come from conversations with my daughter Lily, who's 7 and way smarter than me.

Why do you think Quentin has so much trouble finding fulfillment in his life?
Quentin is depressed. He feels miserable in this world, and he's convinced that somewhere out there is a  perfect world that will change all that. He has trouble dealing with the fact that wherever you go, even in Fillory, life is a rich mixture of wonderful and awful. Things are never going to be perfect. But he's learning.

There's certainly a sense of poetic justice to everything that happens in the world of The Magicians. Do you believe that a similar poetic justice exists in life?
No. I believe that the world is harshly random. Actually I'm not sure I agree that there's poetic justice in "The Magicians." But maybe I should take another look.

While most books are, understandably, written for an intelligent audience, the language of The Magicians seems to cater specifically to young, possibly disaffected, intellectuals, with a mix of words straight out of an SAT study guide and colloquialisms both familiar and invented. What made you want to tell the story using that vocabulary?
I had tried writing books for other people. I wasn't that great at it. In The Magicians I gave up and just wrote the book I wanted to read, and I guess I must have a large vocabulary. I grew up with two English professors as parents, who beat me with tire irons in the backyard whenever I used a word under three syllables. That might have been a factor.

And, of course, the big question: what's next for you?
Old age and death. But before that I'll write a third Magicians book.

Be sure to catch Lev Grossman interviewing John Green on Saturday morning at 10:30 in Bovard Auditorium, or talking about building a world on Sunday morning at 10 in the Davidson Continuing Education Center.

Find more coverage of the Festival of Books here.

Reach Katie here or follow her on Twitter @kelisabethb.


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