Exclusive: Time Magazine’s Lev Grossman on His New Book, The Magicians

Time Magazine’s book critic Lev Grossman’s new novel The Magicians is an urban fantasy that you don’t have to feel sheepish about reading on the train. His hero Quentin Coldwater is similar to Harry Potter in that he’s attending a school that teaches magic, but this story is more adult than J.K. Rowling’s series — think sex, drugs, and the streets on New York City. Flavorpill caught up with Grossman (who’s currently on tour promoting his book) over email to talk about why his hero is a Brooklynite, which he’d rather visit: Fillory (his fictional world) or Narnia, and what his plans are for a film adaptation (we’re looking at you Neill Blomkamp).

Flavorpill: Did you set out to write an urban fantasy? Do you think urbanites need fantasy novels more?

Lev Grossman: I’ve never been exactly sure what “urban fantasy” is. I think The Magicians is an urban fantasy. I hope it is. A lot of the feel of it came out of my seeing Highlander when I was 17 — drawn swords and magic in a parking garage. If that isn’t urban and fantastic I don’t know what is.

I do think people in cities need fantasy more. I have a pet theory about this, which is that the modern fantasy tradition started out as a response to the mass urbanization of the early 20th century. Cars replaced horses. Electric light replaced gaslight. Everything, at least in cities, abruptly became crap. A longing for something that was not crap sprang up, and expressed itself in the form of fantasy. I think that longing is still very much alive.

FP: You’ve said you began writing the book at Yale. Was Quentin always a Brooklynite? If so, why?

LG: Quentin began life — I’ve never actually told anybody this — as a native of Fillory, not Earth. But that was at the very VERY beginning. By 2004 he’d become a Brooklynite. I wanted one of those stories where people cross over from our world to a magical world. I suppose I used Brooklyn because it seems very real, realer than most places. Brooklyn, where I was living, seemed like the kind of place a depressed person would want to escape from. I did, at the time anyway.

FP: Junot Diaz called your hero a “slacker Park Slope Harry Potter.” Do you think Quentin would get along with Harry?

LG: You know, as much as I personally like both Quentin and Harry, I doubt they’d like each other very much. For all the tragedy he’s gone through Harry is, at heart, a winner. He’s popular. He’s handsome. He’s good at sports. Quentin isn’t. He’s more on the Snape end of things. I think of him as one of those introverted marginal characters who spends most of his time skulking around the Ravenclaw common room.

FP: Would you rather be a Chatwin and visit Fillory or a Pevensie and visit Narnia?

LG: Oh, Pevensie all the way. The Pevensies had a much better time than the Chatwins did. Well, until they all died in a train accident. Hm. I guess it’s a toss-up.

FP: Would you enjoy seeing this novel turned into a film, creatively?

It might not surprise you to know that I have a pretty active fantasy life. And in that fantasy life, people pay huge truckloads of cash to turn The Magicians into a movie. And  money aside, there are sequences that I would kill to see on the big screen. The scenes in the Neitherlands. And there’s a scene where they’re doing magic outside, at dusk, and violet light is flaring around their hands…

But I would hate for it to get turned into a bad movie. I’d love to see what Matthew Vaughn would do  with it — he made Layer Cake and Stardust, and he’s working on Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass. And I was mighty impressed with what Neill Blomkamp did in District 9. Neill, if you’re reading this, have your people call my people!

FP: C.S. Lewis was accused of everything from sexism to racism to paganism in the Narnia series. Did you feel any added pressure to make sure your tale was politically correct?

LG: Oh, I felt the opposite pressure! Well, I definitely didn’t want to be sexist or racist. But I made it as pagan as possible.

FP: I’ve read that you’re working on a sequel. How did you know as a writer that there was more story that needed to be told?

LG: I hate the phrase coming-of-age, which has been applied to The Magicians, but Quentin has definitely dealt with a lot of issues by the end of the book. He’s a much richer person. I’m not going to give him up now! He’s just getting interesting.

And we’ve seen so little of Fillory. There’s so much more  of it out there. Not to mention the Neitherlands. I’ll know when I’m done. Not yet.

FP: In a recent review of Inglorious Basterds Jeffrey Wells said: “There’s no such thing as pure off-the-ground fantasy. All movies are tethered to some kind of world view that takes stock of the way things are outside the realm of make-believe.” Applying that to the literary world, do you agree or disagree?

LG: Oh, sure. Not much to argue with there. C.S. Lewis certainly had a world-view when he wrote Narnia, he’s notorious for it at this point. And it’s no accident that both he and Tolkien were footsoldiers in World War I. That war has sent echoes through every fantasy world created ever since then.

In high school they taught us  that The Wizard of Oz was all about the gold standard. Though that may say more about high school than it does about Oz. I think whenever you go into a fantasy world, you re-encounter the real world there. You just don’t recognize it at first.

FP: Last year you wrote in an article for Time, “There’s no literary term for the quality Twilight and
Harry Potter (and The Lord of the Rings) share, but you know it when you see it: their worlds have a freestanding internal integrity that makes you feel as if you should be able to buy real estate there.” Was this something that you felt it was important to achieve with The Magicians?

LG: That was part of the fun of it. The funny thing is, Lewis was notoriously sloppy as a world-builder. He liked to drag in whatever was handy — nymphs, fauns, wizards, Father Christmas, whatever — without much regard to internal consistency. For Christ’s sake, Mrs. Beaver has a sewing machine! It drove Tolkien crazy. Part of the joke of The Magicians is that I’m taking a Narnia-style fantasy world and forcing it to behave consistently. It turns out that you have to bend it and distort it and break it to make it fit.

Though you don’t want everything to be TOO consistent. If everything’s bound by rules and regulations, and you know exactly what’s going to happen next, where does the magic go?