I had been invited to read at the Brooklyn Book Festival and was supposed to be signing books afterward on the North Stage. But what I was doing was popping up every few seconds so I could hear Lev Grossman, author of The Magician’s Land, speak. I had been dying to interview Grossman, and when it turned out that he would be reading on the same stage right after me, it felt like nerd destiny. Grossman, who’s also reading Monday, Oct. 13, at the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe (418 Montezuma Ave.), is one of those rare literary birds who combines fantasy and literary fiction. To someone who spent her formative years reading Piers Anthony under her high school’s display case to avoid bullies, but had later begun writing realistic, literary fiction, his work was thrilling.
As we walked to the noisy, overly crowded Starbucks, passing tents where the Book Festival was still going strong, he began talking about The Magician’s Land. It’s the last in his series that opens with The Magicians, about a boy named Quentin Coldwater who’s recruited by a Harry Potter-style school for magic. In the last book, Quentin must confront all of his demons—quite literally, in the case of his ex-girlfriend. We also discussed the surprising fact that he had started writing fantasy at all. His parents had both been English academics, and his first novel was a realistic tome that definitely didn’t include dragons, magicians and elves.
The Starbucks was full of writers. We sat and talked about what had culminated in the writing of fantasy, the primary thing being that he had become a parent. “I was experiencing a lot of unfamiliar emotions,” he said. “I was a sort of cold person ... and when I became a parent, suddenly my emotions got much bigger.”
What pushed him even further emotionally was another literary-fantasy hybrid, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. He had been reading fantasy, but until then, it had never occurred to him to write it. “Fantasy is a very emotional genre,” he explained. “The world is ending or light is dying or the elves are fading.”
But it was his frustration with his parents and what they deemed literature that had been the final factor. “[It] seemed like a very transgressive thing to me to write fantasy because I knew my parents wanted nothing to do with it. It would never impress them, might even embarrass them,” he said. “All these things came together to the point where I sat down and ... started writing about people doing magic. Which for me was a big, intense experience, and I realized most people start writing about magic when they’re writing fan fiction in 12th grade. [But] the first time I wrote a sentence where somebody cast a spell, I felt like I was breaking through, that something was getting out of me on the page that had never happened before.”
He had finally gotten to a place where he could write what was genuinely emotionally fulfilling for him. Eventually he found himself “having a conversation with C.S. Lewis,” Grossman explained, “telling him everything I ever wanted to tell him about Narnia and how much I loved it and how inadequate it had been for me as a writer to prepare me about what was difficult about my life. I had so much to say on that subject, and it came out in the form of The Magicians.”
Grossman certainly references Narnia (and Harry Potter) in ways that we might find familiar. But he makes it his own—the world of the The Magicians is unique, funny, weird and sarcastic. Plus the language is lovely; he knows how to keep a story moving, and his characters are wonderfully rich and compellingly human.
Thanks to a background in journalism, Grossman is deeply invested in story, in keeping his audience’s attention. “I feel like novelists are getting interested in the idea of storytelling again, and they have to go to the genres to get those structures,” he said. “Genre people are borrowing from the literary people as well, and genre writers are borrowing from each other. ... It’s an exciting time.”
When we finally left the Starbucks, with writers of all kinds still running through the streets and into each other, I felt exhilarated by both our conversation and the idea that writers like Grossman are bridging the gap between genre and literary fiction. Ultimately what any good story needs is a powerful storyteller. But it also needs joy, and Grossman has learned to impart that joy by bringing together everything that he is on the page and leaving nothing out.