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Photo: © Mathieu Bourgois
Lev Grossman is the book critic for Time magazine and the author of five novels, including the international bestseller Codex and the #1 New York Times bestselling Magicians trilogy. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three children.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: So did I see that you’re doing a launch party at Greenlight Books?
Lev Grossman: Yes! It’s going to be fun. It’ll be a bit experimental. But Erin Morgenstern will be there! What’s the worst that could happen?
PRH: It could be merely awesome instead of face-meltingly awesome, that’s what.
Okay, so: I suspect that I’m not alone when I say that one of the great joys of this series (and possibly one of the great joys of any good sci-fi/fantasy series) is all the bizarre, wonderful minutiae of Fillory – the flora, fauna, populace, surrounding lands (which we see more of in The Magician’s Land), and delightful little setpieces. When you’re creating a world as extensive and detailed as Fillory, is it hard to stop yourself from getting bogged down in creating those details and keep a firm grip on the plot?
LG: I’ll tell you: flora and fauna, I love them, but they’re hard. I put a lot of thought and work into them, more than you’d think. So although Fillory feels (hopefully) like it could go on forever and ever, I don’t find myself tempted to improvise beyond what you see in the book. I’m no JRR Tolkien. There are no unused Dwarfish lexicons on my hard drive.
PRH: Ah, interesting – that segues perfectly into my second question, which was: would you ever consider publishing any supplementary material you might have about the world of Fillory as an almanac or travelogue?
LG: There isn’t much. I’ve thought of starting a wiki where other people could fill in details. And there are a few things I allude to that I did actually wish I could fill in. In the Two Moons scene in The Magicians, the talking tree lists some of the previous rulers of Fillory: the Wrought Iron Man, the Very Tallest Tree. I wish I knew more about them. But I never got a chance to tell those stories.
And I did plot out all of Christopher Plover’s books. One day maybe I’ll do something with those outlines.
PRH: I’ll keep this sufficiently spoiler-free, but the ending of The Magician’s Land, Quentin’s relationship to Fillory and to *ahem* other locations is very much analogous to the relationship between an author and his work. How much of that is you coming to terms with ending the series after the better part of a decade? And what do you hope your non-writer readers take away from it?
LG: There’s an autobiographical element to it, I suppose. Quentin has to learn to let go of things when it’s time, and so do I. But in the vaguest possible terms, The Magician’s Land is about accepting loss but also about learning to be happy in this unspeakably cruel world we inhabit. A lot of the power and the magic in the Magicians books comes directly out of personal hurt and pain. I wanted to explore the idea that there’s power and magic in love and joy too. Which, in the context of the books, isn’t quite as Pollyanna-ish as it sounds. I hope.
PRH: And speaking of Pollyanna, The Magicians trilogy is so rich in allusion and reference points to other sci-fi & fantasy works – how do you walk that thin line between homage and appropriation while still creating a fully developed, emotionally real story?
LG: When you spot an allusion/homage to another book in the Magicians trilogy — and there are a lot of them — what you’re seeing is me having a conversation. I’ve always loved the way Tom Stoppard — for example — talks back to Shakespeare in ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD. In a different way you can see Philip Pullman in conversation with C.S. Lewis in HIS DARK MATERIALS. If I echo another book in the Magicians trilogy, it’s because I felt I needed to respond to it — to say, I love it as much as it is possible for a reader to love a book, but I’ve also got a bone to pick with you.
Except for the cacodemons. Those I just stole, from Larry Niven.
PRH: If you could see one book by another author turned into a movie, what would it be? (Bonus points for casting choices.)
LG: I would say JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL, but that’s already going to be a miniseries, so maybe SWORDS AND DEVILTRY, the first of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser collections. Need somebody big and nordic for Fafhrd — a Chris Hemsworth type. And the Grey Mouser… somebody small and clever. Ben Whishaw, maybe.
PRH: Perfection. Ben Whishaw needs to be in more things. Speaking of, what are you reading right now? What are you watching right now?
LG: Reading: THE PERIPHERAL, by William Gibson. Though reading isn’t a strong enough word. Devouring, more like. And SOLDIER GIRLS, by Helen Thorpe — nonfiction about women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Watching: I just finished the latest season of ENDEAVOUR, which is a prequel series to the Inspector Morse mysteries. When it comes to TV mostly what I watch is ADVENTURE TIME.
PRH: Somehow that makes a lot of sense. I can see the Fillory-Ooo crossover fanart now.
LG: I would give anything to write a Marceline episode. Marceline and Princess Bubblegum: I ship it.
PRH: I’m including that in the interview so I can put it out into the universe, The Secret-style, because now I want that more than anything. I’m sure you’re completely sick of answering this by now, but I have to ask: do you have any plans for what comes next in your post-Fillory writing, or are you taking a bit of a break?
LG: Plans, I’ve got too many of them. I’ve been writing in the Magiciansverse for ten years now. I’m having a lot of ideas now, and getting excited about all of them, but having trouble settling on one. I can’t seem to take a break.
PRH: Back in the spring, you played Minecraft with us for Cage Match 2014, and you mentioned then that you’d just turned in the final proofs for The Magician’s Land. In the vein of learning when to let things go, are there still things you’d go back and change about the series now?
LG: Really only small things. Like when Eliot in The Magicians says “all seven of us,” or something like that, and there are actually eight of them. I mean, I could tinker with the books forever, optimizing little bits here and there. But really I love them for their imperfect selves.
PRH: Okay, last question, and it’s a tough one: If you had to pick one Magicians trilogy character to represent you in a Game of Thrones-esque trial by combat, who would you choose?
LG: Mmmmm. It would have to be Alice. There are meaner people in the trilogy, but there’s nobody tougher. If you take a look at the people who try to mess with Alice… it doesn’t end well for them.
PRH: Perfect. And this isn’t a question, but I just wanted to say that the recurring “turtles all the way down” bits in the third book had me cackling.
LG: I had to go back to that. One more time. It never gets old.
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