at Kepler's Books
On August 5th, the final book in Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, The Magician’s Land, hit bookstore shelves. One week later, it was at the top of the New York Times Bestsellers List. The author, naturally, was thrilled.
“I was in Los Angeles,” he explained to a good-sized crowd of us last Friday night at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Calif., “and when I saw the incoming call on my cell, I told myself that I was going to be very Zen about this. It didn’t really matter where I landed on that list. So I didn’t answer. I waited and finally listened to the voicemail, and I was like YES! Life IS like high school and right now I’m the PROM QUEEN!”**
** I didn’t record the talk so this is a paraphrase, but I assure you it’s accurate.
Grossman was in Southern California to attend auditions for an upcoming Magicians TV show, and before leaving the state he came up north to discuss his work. He began the evening just talking about the decade-long journey from the first day he sat down to write The Magicians (June 19th, 2004), which was published in 2009, to his current book tour. He then read an excerpt from the new book and answered questions from the audience.
When he began writing The Magicians, Grossman explained, he was in a dark place. His career felt stagnated in the midst of a midlife depression, and he found himself remembering children’s fantasy favorites like The Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter series and thinking that while the books teach readers a lot, they don’t do much to address many adult problems. Taxes, for one. The Magicians became something of a dialogue, a way of interacting and playing with those ideas that formed such a core of his childhood imagination. In fact, Grossman admitted later in the Q&A session, his characters originally traveled to Narnia and met Aslan, but after some consideration of intellectual property laws Fillory was created instead – a decision that all agree was for the best.
Magic in Magicians isn’t much like that at Hogwarts, where the power to cast spells is the result of winning the genetic lottery: a child is born with wizarding blood that determines his magical abilities. It’s an aptitude for learning and a determination to practice, practice, practice that makes a witch or wizard successful. Grossman compared it to learning to play a musical instrument, and said that his own experience of trying to play the cello after many years had influenced how he described magic at Brakebills, the magical college that his hero Quentin and his friends attend in the first book. He explained that he hadn’t liked that “English, aristocratic” approach to magic, and indeed, a Puritan work ethic does seem more suitable to an Americanized form of magic.
A member of the audience asked Grossman about a continuity error regarding Quentin’s magical abilities, the power level of which differs dramatically between The Magicians and the trilogy’s middle book, The Magician King, he replied that the first book had been conceived as a standalone, and when he realized that he had more to say about Quentin’s adventures he had to bring his hero back to a level more appropriate to the story – a move that didn’t work quite as well as he’d hoped.
When asked what his advice would be to aspiring writers, Grossman was encouraging. He recalled that when he was in school, there were other students “marked for greatness” who were thought to be truly gifted with words, but they never published and as far as he knows they aren’t writers today. He was not one of those kids, but thanks to persistence, persistence and persistence he found success first as a journalist and now as a novelist.