Lev Grossman is the author of the best-selling Magicians trilogy–The Magicians (2009), The Magician King (2011), and the Magician’s Land (2014)—as well as Time‘s staff book critic. In early 2016, the SyFy Channel debuted The Magicians, adapted from Mr. Grossman’s work.
“The same way George RR Martin is rewriting Tolkien, I was going to re-write ‘Harry Potter.'”
Observer: People call [The Magicians trilogy] Harry Potter for adults – is that something you ascribe to? Did you pitch it that way?
Lev Grossman: No, I didn’t, because I’m not that clever. Someone way cleverer in the Viking marketing department must have spun it that way. I was cautious that I was taking this narrative that’s really central to our culture – it’s this kind of universal thing that this generation has – that, I was taking it, and I was darkening it. And I was adding a strange, gritty texture to it. I wasn’t thinking of it as Harry Potter for adults.
It’s like Nolan Narnia.
I’m the world’s only non-Nolan fan so I understand what you mean by that, but I think of it like the same way George RR Martin is rewriting Tolkien, I was going to re-write Harry Potter.
But it seems like your books are so much more informed by Narnia!
Well, Harry Potter is a little bit of a stalking horse to get to Narnia, because I read Harry Potter when I was 30 so I’m into it, but it’s not in my DNA. Narnia’s very much in my DNA, and I always knew they were going there.
Do you see yourself in Quentin? Is he a stand-in for you in some ways?
I used to be Quentin, a long time ago. I used to be that kind of… he’s sort of intellectually overdeveloped and emotionally immature. Yeah, there was a moment in my life when I was that person, and I was so obsessed with fantasy and imaginary worlds that I just couldn’t pay attention properly in my own life, what was happening in the real world. I wasn’t as tall as Quentin… that was just some wish fulfillment.
How are you at card tricks?
Yeah I’m really bad at those too. When I was working on the book I tried to learn – I thought, this will be cool, while I write this book, I’ll also become a sleight of hand magician. Except magic is really hard, and I’m really bad at it. I really couldn’t do the most basic things and I have super respect for people who can do stage magic, because I cannot, at all.
So one of the things when I was reading the trilogy, is that magic is so hard and boring that it almost doesn’t seem worth it?
Yeah, it’s really hard.
It’s kind of just like organic chemistry. Like, in real life we actually can take things and transmute and change their composition, it’s just really complicated.
It is like organic chemistry. You ever take organic chemistry?
Yeah, it was a nightmare.
I took chem – I didn’t get to organic chemistry, I took whatever’s before that. Inorganic chemistry? And I just flogged myself to get through it. I thought that I would be a biochemistry major, I think biochemistry is really interesting. I was looking for a career that had sort of minimal interaction with other humans and I thought if I could be a lab rat or something then I could just stay in the lab all the time. I loved the lab. And later in life I dated a proper lab rat, and I still thought her life was amazing. But I wasn’t that good at chemistry. I got an A- in my course. I peaked academically getting that A- freshman year; I don’t know how I did that. But I knew it was a one-off.
So why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D. in comparative literature?
Well, I never got a PhD. The honest answer is I was good at it. I think reading Mrs. Dalloway was the real turning point for me. I think reading Mrs. Dalloway was the real turning point for me. When I read Mrs. Dalloway, I thought, I can flog myself through chemistry, and I can probably understand 80% of it, but I felt like I understood how [Mrs. Dalloway] worked. I looked at it, and I felt like I could see the parts moving, and I understood the structure, and I understood the talk about it. It was the only thing I ever felt like I had a talent for – reading books and talking about them.
That’s interesting, because if you were a high school kid who got into Harvard, presumably you were very good at a lot of things.
Yeah, I was a real grinder in high school. I worked really hard. I don’t know anybody who worked as hard as I did in high school. I was obsessed. I couldn’t stand getting bad grades – I couldn’t stand it. But I wasn’t bright enough just to sail through; I had to really flog myself through it. And I think I won a writing prize my junior year of high school and it was the first time I ever felt I had a gift for anything. The rest of it, I just sort of ground my way out but we’ve gone off the topic. Reading about magic, especially Harry Potter, but even in other contexts, I never felt it was hard enough. In fact, I still don’t know why magic was hard in Harry Potter, I still don’t know why potions is hard! Potions is so easy. It’s cooking! They’re like, “This is your recipe.” I mean, I can cook, it’s not that hard. You stir counter-clockwise [he stirs clockwise] I mean, counter-clockwise. You just follow instructions. I felt like if you were going to have magic powers, you should pay for them. You should earn them. And I wanted my characters to earn them. And you know, I made them work for it.
The first book has a really interesting timeline. Did you know going in that you were going to compress, what is it, 6 years of Quentin’s life into one book?
Structurally, the model for The Magicians isn’t Harry Potter; it’s Brideshead Revisted.
I had him skip a year in the middle because [I knew] I wasn’t going to get through five years. Structurally, the model for The Magicians isn’t Harry Potter; it’s Brideshead Revisted. The movie’s not good, but the mini-series, with Jeremy Irons is fantastic. It’s super good. I got a little obsessed with Brideshead Revisted, as much as I was re-telling Harry Potter and Narnia, I was retelling Brideshead Revisited, the story of getting this idyllic, utopian education with hints of darkness and then going out in the world and being clobbered flat.
Is there Great Expectations in there?
Not consciously, not so much. I never really liked that book very much. I’m not a Dickens guy. I took a Dickens course in graduate school. I sort of respect him, but I’d never willingly read him.
How do you feel about Shakespeare?
My Shakespeare education is really bad, but I’m definitely a fan. My knowledge of Shakespeare mostly consists of reading Hamlet over and over again because it just goes all the way down. I love Shakespeare. Honestly, thematically, just the figure of the character whose mind is whirling at ten million miles per hour but is themselves not able to act, that’s very real for me. Stephen Dedalus is like that for me too.
“[Magic] involves all the senses, it involves weather, it involves things being transformed, it involves heat being transferred around; it’s really complicated and works on all these levels with all the senses on all these levels all the time.”
Who do you think is the most sympathetic character in the book?
My sympathy is always with Julia. Quentin is adolescent me; Julia is much closer to me in my twenties and thirties. I feel a lot of identification with her.
So, Eliot has one sex scene early in the first book and that aspect of his character is never brought back again…
People have asked me why doesn’t Eliot get a proper love story.
The books get a little bit overstuffed with plot, and I had trouble finding space for that arc. And if I’m honest, I think I was lacking confidence a little bit. I mean, when I wrote the magicians, it was all from Quentin’s point of view. I just picked the character who was superficially most similar to me because I didn’t have a lot of confidence as a writer at that time, and I didn’t know I could write from anybody’s point of view that was especially different from my own. Writing Julia was a big revelation for me; I’d never written from a woman’s point of view, and I found it incredibly liberating. I never go into Eliot’s love story, and also – and this is totally meaningless – but the person that he’s based on is just incapable of sustaining a relationship. I had trouble pushing Eliot past this person who I identify him very closely with. I’m hoping the TV show will fix that.
I wasn’t sure how far they were going to follow through on the promise of some of the characters. In Eliot’s case, they did a good job, they write him really well, and also the guy who plays him (Hale Appleman) is just understands him really well, and is afraid of nothing. He’s really great.
Penny is very different in the books than he is in the TV show. How did you feel about that?
Initially, I didn’t get it. At all. I didn’t get it at all. But, uh, I don’t want to sound like a polly anna, but I really love what they do with that character. He’s got a lot more layers, I think, than people realize at first sight. He’s really complicated, he plays a major, major role in the show, and he’s forceful. I think it’s good for people to give Quentin shit, and Penny, in the show, is probably a more effective foil than in the books. He’s a forceful and smart guy, and deeply wounded in his way but also super muscle-y and good-looking.
Well everyone in the show is super good-looking.
I knew they would do that. And look – the show’s more diverse than the book, which is an improvement. Again, I think looking back, I think I was shy writing characters who were different ethnicities, different racial backgrounds… It was cowardice on my part and I really like the way they fulfilled that promise in having a properly diverse school of magic. It’s one of the things they really did right.
You’ve spent a lot of time with these characters, I’m sure you’re connected to them – did turning it into a TV show feel like giving up your baby?
I found it really hard. It took me 5 years to get a Magicians show made. I was pushing and talking to people constantly from when the book came out. In 2014 they finally greenlit it, and then when they finally greenlit it, I had some panics. There were some ledges that I needed to be talked down of. I mean, being a novelist, like being a lab technician, it’s one of those careers you choose in order to avoid talking to people or dealing with their opinions. It’s a real control freak’s medium. You’re used to doing all the dialogue, all the casting, all the costumes, dressing all the sets, playing all the parts – it’s hard to give that over to a crew of TV people, like 100 TV people you’ve never met. TV isn’t just collaborative; it’s like crowd source, practically.
And it’s not just creative – there’s also a business aspect to it.
It was scary. And there were moments when I whined, moments where I lost my shit, but to the credit of everyone involved, they kept listening to me. And they didn’t shut me out of the process.
Is there anything you insisted upon in the TV series, or put your foot down on with?
I think early on we had a talk about magic, which changed the tone of the show quite a bit. Magic initially was very stage-y; there was a lot of levitating, and a lot of “Lumos” light, and flying around, and that wasn’t magic to me. It involves all the senses, it involves weather, it involves things being transformed, it involves heat being transferred around; it’s really complicated and works on all these levels with all the senses on all these levels all the time. I think they kind of course corrected after we had a sit-down about that.
Well, they did show some levitating sex.
Yeah, that’s not very important to me. I think they felt competitive with The Expanse, which has zero G sex, and we also have floating sex. Yeah, I’m trying to think. Because I got exorcised about the way Julia was written and it’s the only case where I rewrote a couple of moments for them, which they, to their credit, used. I don’t have a foot to put down; I’m a creative consultant on the show. There were things I made a stand on, and things you wouldn’t really think of, like a particular line reading.
“[Depression] is an ugly thing. And there’s a real love affair with it in culture…But when I started confronting it head-on, I felt so liberated.”
How did you feel about the choice to make Brakebills a graduate school?
Oh that didn’t bother me at all. And I think there’ll be some fan pushback on that, but it didn’t bother me. The show is so much about people in their twenties to me. My twenties were pretty catastrophic, and a lot of the books are like that: being launched into the world and having to find your way when there’s no Dumbledore to tell you what’s going on, and there’s no Voldemort you have to kill, it’s a really hard time. I had a hard time. I wasn’t worried about them aging up at all. It was something I personally forgot about after about ten minutes. And the show runners, if they want to, want to be able to take these characters up to 30, and it’s hard to find characters who can play 17 and 30. I think they had a lot of trepidation coming to be with that change.
The Magicians is often praised for its depiction of depression. Did any of that come from personal experience?
Totally. I’m super confessional about my depression – very much. It’s something that, considering how widespread it is, not enough is written about I feel like. I’ve struggled with depression – much less so now – but I did pretty seriously, for a long time, and Quentin does. The books do well among the clinically depressed, that’s a key demographic for The Magicians book. It’s something a lot of people have had experience with and people have responded to about the books. [Depression] is an ugly thing. And there’s a real love affair with it in culture; there has been for a long time. But when I started confronting it head-on, I felt so liberated.
Do you think they foreshadowed the importance of the Chatwins too much in the TV show? In the book, you don’t know that they matter at all until much later, but it’s something they reveal almost imediately in the pilot.
That’s the thing about TV: stories are structured differently on TV. Novels are all about the slow burn; you really CAN wait until 2/3 of the way through the book to reveal important things about the plot and characters. In TV, I don’t think you have that luxury; I think you need to show your hand much earlier. And that’s the way they approached the story, and I get it. They had to roll out a lot of peak reveals in the pilot so people would understand the scope of the story they were telling. And it was a shock to me initially, but I get it.
There’s a closed Facebook group of serious fans who then caved off a group just to talk about the show, which after serious debate they let me into. And it’s very interesting to see. I want to know! I like my fans, I like hanging out with them. It’s interesting to see them sort of chew over the differences. I have plausible deniability: I didn’t write any of the TV show – except a couple of lines that Julia says. But if it’s a huge success I’ll take all the credit.