The Magician

06.08.12

Lev Grossman’s Weird Phobia: ‘How I Write’ Interview

The Time book critic and author of The Magician King tells Noah Charney that Hugh Jackman’s Real Steel made him cry, and why he never gets writer’s block. Plus, more ‘How I Write’ interviews with David Eagleman and Jodi Picoult.

Senior Time book critic and author Lev Grossman’s latest novel, The Magician King, is now out in paperback. He discusses his strange phobia, what makes him cry, and what he and Gore Vidal have in common.

Where did you grow up?

Lexington, Mass., otherwise known as “The Birthplace of Liberty,” because the first battle of the Revolutionary War was fought there. Though that’s not where the “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired—that happened in Concord, where we won. Lexington is the battle we lost. I guess it wasn’t quite as widely audible.

Where and what did you study?

I went to college at Harvard, then did three years of graduate school at Yale. At both places I studied comparative literature. People find it odd that I went to both Harvard and Yale, and I guess it is odd, but that’s just what people did where I grew up. I came from an anxious, overly intense East Coast academic family. That was the way of our tribe.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

Supposedly I’ve got traces of an English accent, though I can’t hear it. I must have inherited it from my mother, who’s English, and then I think it was exacerbated by the fact that I live with an Australian. People tell me it sounds incredibly affected, which is probably true, but I can’t help it. George Plimpton once said something about how hardly anybody had affected accents anymore except for him and Gore Vidal. So I guess I’m keeping that flame alive. Me and Gore.

What is your favorite item of clothing?

I have an overcoat I bought in Jermyn Street in London three years ago. It has a Chesterfield collar and a stripy lining. It’s very Downton Abbey, though I insist that I got it before Downton Abbey became a thing.

Can you recommend three books to your readers?

Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

What book do you wish you had written?

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke.

Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?

That would be my wife, who’s a novelist and English professor.

What’s a work of art that inspires you?

Caspar David Friedrich’s The Great Preserve. It’s a super-pretentious answer, I know, but just Google it sometime and you’ll see what I mean. It’s pretty damn inspiring.

What’s your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins?

I start to get a feeling that there’s a book out there that I want to read but which no one has written yet. I start outlining and making notes about what the contents of that book might be like. In the process I completely ruin and bastardize that original feeling. But I get as close as I can.

What’s your writing routine?

I can’t write every day. I’m a binger. I like to go six or seven hours at a time, without a break, then go off somewhere and drink something.

Do you have any unusual rituals associated with the writing process?

I don’t know if it’s unusual to play Worms 2: Armageddon on my iPhone for an hour before writing anything. If so, then yes.

What is the view from your favorite workspace?

The charred and scattered corpses of my enemies.

Tell us something about you which is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

I studied the cello for a long time, from when I was little up through college. And I have an identical twin, Austin, who’s also a writer. I think that about does it.

What do you do when you are stuck or have writer’s block?

This is going to sound arrogant, but the truth is, I don’t really have writer’s block. I can’t afford it. I have children, and on those rare occasions when one of them isn’t crying or throwing up, and I don’t have to be at work, then I get my ass in a chair and write, no messing around. Probably I have all my writer’s block while I’m changing diapers, so I don’t notice it as much.

What’s your ideal day like?

7:30, children. 8:30, espresso. 9:00, writing. 4:00, jog. 5:00, bit more writing. 6:00, congratulatory calls from various famous writers (I let them go to voicemail). 6:30, bit more children. 7:30, cook overcomplicated dinner, drink a lot of wine. 9:00, whisky. 10:00, I don’t remember.

You do a lot of cooking?

My wife and I spend way too much time during the day ignoring each other and moving bits and pixels around with our fingers. Cooking uses all those other senses we’ve been neglecting, and plus you can talk while you’re doing it. And when you do it right, it tastes good, and either way it’s an excuse to drink a lot of wine.

Do you have any superstitions?

No. I do have a weird phobia, though: I have uncontrollable fears associated with watching or hearing other people eating. True story. I can never watch movies in the theater. Too much popcorn.

Does it make you cry?

I hardly ever cry, except for some reason while I’m watching movies on airplanes. There’s a scientific reason for it, though I forget what it is. Once, during a 24-hour flight to Australia, I broke down sobbing over Real Steel, the one about Hugh Jackman and his son building a fighting robot.

What would you do for work if you were not a writer?

I think lab rat. I started out as a biochemistry major in college. I wasn’t that great at the chemistry—I had math issues—but I really loved running experiments. I figure any job that involves so little interaction with other people can’t be that bad.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

1. Read everything. 2. Never give up.

What is your next project?

The Magician’s Land, which is the final book in the Magicians trilogy.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

“He had all the money. Seriously. All of it.”