Creating The Magicians: An Interview with Lev Grossman

The Magicians first hit shelves in 2009 and has soared in popularity since then. The story follows Quentin Coldwater, who gets accepted into a magic college, only to become disenchanted when it’s far from the perfect life he imagined. Lev Grossman has written two sequels, The Magician King and The Magician’s Land. He has also written a thriller novel, Codex, as well as articles for Time and The Wall Street Journal.

Q: You wrote outside the fantasy genre for quite a while before you wrote The Magicians. Are there other genres you’ve thought about giving a try?

A: Science fiction. I’ve read at least as much SF as I have fantasy if not more. But I can’t figure out where my place would be in that genre. When I think about fantasy, my mind is full of ideas for new books that haven’t been written yet, that I want to read. But when I think about SF, all I can think about is how great Iain Banks was. I’m worried I would just end up writing bad Iain Banks fan fiction.

Q: A lot of modern high fantasy has a dark edge to it, but the world of Fillory leans more on the whimsical side. What were your thoughts while you were creating Fillory? Do you feel like there’s still a place for whimsical high fantasy in the current market?

A: That was one of the questions on my mind when I started writing. I’ve always been pulled more strongly towards the non-epic side of the genre, the Lewis/Pullman/Rowling side, which is more whimsical. Plus anything I could ever want to say in epic fantasy, George R. R. Martin had already said. But Pullman and Rowling are doing pretty well for themselves, I figured the marketplace could support one more.

Q: Quentin experiences some pretty traumatizing stuff in The Magicians. Were those scenes especially difficult to write?

And Quentin doesn’t even get the worst of it. I don’t think of myself as a horror writer, or for that matter a horror reader, but there’s always a scene or two in my books that tips over into horror. I write those scenes in a state of icy detachment, almost automatically, and with very little effort. But I find it almost impossible to reread them once they’re done.

Q: If you could travel inside the world of any fantasy novel, which world would you want to visit and why? Which one would you never want to visit?

A: It’s a good question. I was going to say Narnia, but I wonder if after a while it might start to seem a bit chaste and nurserylike there. Westeros, Nehwon… far too rough. Earthsea, perhaps a little too rural. Xanth would probably be good fun, but embarrassingly I would really have to say it’s probably Fillory; I guess I tailored it to my own needs. But Fillory after The Magician King and before Magician’s Land. You wouldn’t want to catch it on a bad day.

I would never want to visit Westeros. I wouldn’t last 5 minutes.

Q: How did it feel when you first sold the rights for The Magicians TV adaptation? Have your feelings changed as the show’s production has progressed?

A: It was a strange experience. It felt great, in that I needed the money, and like a lot of writers I sort of embarrassingly craved the approval of Hollywood. But it was scary too. It was hard to give up control. I panicked a few times along the way.

But now that the series has been picked up, and I’m seeing the various season and episode outlines, I’m just looking forward to it. It’s not my show, I’m really just cheerleading from the sidelines, but it’s definitely a show I want to watch.

Q: Any advice for us fantasy fans who are still trying to explain to our “normal” family and friends just what makes the genre so appealing?

A: I just stress to people that if you look at the history of literature, fantasy just isn’t that weird, in the long view. Since the 18th century the West has been kind of obsessed with realism, but if you go back before that everything was fantasy. That’s just what literature was. Shakespeare wrote about magic and fairies and witches and monsters. So did Milton, Spenser, Dante, Homer … if anything fantasy is a return to the norm.

Q: What’s one question you think would be really fun to answer, but that will probably never come up in an interview?

A: I often get asked about my influences, but people rarely ask about non-book influences. But there are a lot of them. Dungeons and Dragons, obviously, but also video games like Quake and Myth and Halo, and recently the iPhone game Monument Valley. The Bourne movies. The painter Caspar David Friedrich. A band called Metric, to whose music I wrote most of the Magicians trilogy. They all feed into my writing, the same way books do.

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