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08.10.11

'Harry Potter' for Grown-Ups

Lev Grossman talks about his latest novel, 'The Magician King'—and why Brooklyn exists in his fantasy world. Jane Ciabattari also asks if he’s leaving criticism, as others have reported.

Lev Grossman’s The Magician King is a fresh take on the fantasy-quest novel—dark, austere, featuring characters with considerable psychological complexity, a collection of idiosyncratic talking animals (a sloth who knows the path to the underworld, a dragon in the Grand Canal), and splendid set pieces in Venice, Provence, Cornwall, and Brooklyn. It’s the sequel to The Magicians, Grossman’s bestselling 2009 Harry Potter–style novel for grown-ups. The publication of The Magician King is cleverly timed to scoop up fantasy fans in the wake of the record-breaking film finale of the Harry Potter juggernaut. 

Grossman is Time magazine’s longtime book critic. (Word of him stopping criticism is greatly exaggerated: “Absolutely not leaving criticism!” he says.) He grew up as the son of two English professors in Lexington, Mass., and studied at Harvard and Yale. The Narnia books were an obvious influence.

“I first read them when I was 7 or 8, and I feel like I’ve had one foot in Narnia ever since. The Magician King is connected to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by a whole web of allusions. I always loved that Narnia wasn’t under attack in that book—no one was usurping it or destroying it or tainting it with evil. For once the characters could just get on a magic boat and explore. It was the Star Trek of the Narnia books.”

What else? “Anne McCaffrey. Piers Anthony. T. H. White’s The Once and Future King was very, very important to me. The Magician King came out of my thinking about the knightly quests those characters went on, and what a quest would look like now. What would you look for? What would the challenges be? I thought they might feel a little bit more hard-boiled. Sir Lancelot as Philip Marlowe, private eye.”

Both novels make regular references to Harry Potter and Hogwarts (as well as other literary predecessors). Is he a fan? “Oh, it’s definitely a homage,” he says. “I’m nothing if not a Harry Potter fan. The characters are, too—one of my rules for the Magician books is that everything that exists in our world has to exist in theirs, and that includes Harry Potter. It just makes sense that the characters would have read Rowling. I always wondered why Rowling didn’t do that sort of thing. Like Hermione wouldn’t have read the Narnia books 10,000 times! But she never talks about it.”

Did writing this book give him sequel anxiety? “Sequel anxiety—that sounds like something there should be posters about in the subway. I have a lot of anxiety issues, but that wasn't one of them. It didn’t work like that for me. There was so much I had to leave out of The Magicians, I was just relieved to get it all down.”

The Magicians follows a group of nerdy friends through five years of training at the secret Brakebills school for magic up the Hudson. The friends, including Quentin Coldwater, whose portal to Brakebills is in a community garden in Park Slope, are fans of the Fillory books (not unlike the Narnia series).

The Magician King opens with Quentin and friends living as kings and queens of Fillory. Bored with royal life, Quentin embarks on a sea adventure with his Brooklyn friend Julia, who failed the entrance exam for Brakebills. Her journey through the dangerous world of "hedge witchery"—the underground magic movement, with its safe houses, chat rooms, and sometimes terrifying secret rituals—creates a powerful counterpoint to Quentin’s story.

The Magician King includes a storm scene modeled on the last scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. What process renders the material into Lev Grossman style? “There’s an idealized, picturesque quality to the Narnia books—everything’s just a tiny bit glittery and pretty,” he says. “I guess if I’m going to borrow something from the Narnia books and render it into Lev Grossman style, the first thing I’ll do is mar it a little bit. Scratch it up, the way you’d antique something. Scuff it up, patinate it, so that it feels more physically, viscerally real, and a little less perfect. Drag it out of that Platonic fantasy realm. Then I’ll add in some of the details Lewis might have left out. If someone's casting a spell, what exactly are they doing with their hands? What does magic sound like? Does it buzz, or sputter, or spit? What does it smell like?”

On his quest, Quentin faces many grim moments and difficult decisions that render The Magician King a coming-of-age story for grown-ups. “I don’t think I really came of age till I was about 35, in the sense that I really started to understand who I was and what I was and wasn’t capable of,” Grossman says. “What Quentin has to learn—and not just learn but really understand and accept—is that in the real world, when you go on a quest, it’s not like the quest for the Holy Grail. You don’t always figure out what you’re looking for till you’ve already found it. And finding it isn’t simple. It’s not like a story, where if you keep going long enough and kill enough monsters you’ll eventually end up with a big pile of gold. The challenges aren’t obvious. Life is hard in ways that you don’t expect.”

While working on The Magician King and holding down his day job, Grossman bought a house, got married, and had a second daughter. He also popped up on panels and made appearances from Manhattan to San Diego, always self-deprecating, witty, and wicked smart.

“My wife [Sophie Gee] is a novelist too, and she’s working on a new book, and I’m not going to start anything till she’s finished with hers. I’m going to cook some meals and change some diapers. It’s her turn.”

What books does he read to his daughters? “My older daughter is 7, and we’re on our second pass through the Harry Potter books. I can’t tell her what to read anymore—if she doesn’t want to hear a book, it literally cannot be read to her. I’ve already blown it by trying to make her read the Narnia books. Now she won't touch them. She doesn’t like anything that’s too parentally approved. The younger daughter is only 1. She’s only interested in one book, and that’s Where’s the Green Sheep? by Mem Fox. Would you like to hear it? As it happens, I know it by heart.”

As for a third Magicians book, sounds like we won’t see it any time soon. “I’m thinking about the third Magicians book. But my wife [Sophie Gee] is a novelist too, and she’s working on a new book, and I’m not going to start anything till she’s finished with hers. I’m going to cook some meals and change some diapers. It’s her turn.”