Lev Grossman graduated from Harvard College in 1991 with a degree in Literature. He also attended a Ph. D program at Yale University for three years. Grossman is a New York Times national and international best-selling author. His first novel, Warp, was published in 1997. His second novel, Codex, became an international bestseller. The Magicians, the first book of a trilogy, was a New York Times Best Seller, won the 2010 Alex Award, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His follow-up, The Magician King, was an Editor’s Choice pick for The New York Times. The third installment of the trilogy, The Magician’s Land, is set for release by Viking on August 5, 2014.
Grossman is Senior Writer and book critic for Time. He has interviewed Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Salmon Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, Joan Didion, Jonathan Franzen, J.K. Rowling, and Johnny Cash. Grossman has also written for The New York Times, Salon.com, Entertainment Weekly, TimeOut New York, The Village Voice, and The Wall Street Journal.
Lev Grossman has served as a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle and as the chair of the Fiction Awards Panel. He attended Antioch University of Los Angeles as a guest artist and lecturer during the MFA Creative Writing Winter/Spring Residency, 2013.
Lev lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, Sophie Gee, and three children, Lily, Benedict, and Halcyon.
David A. Napier interviewed Lev Grossman online via Skype on April 24, 2014.
David A. Napier: You live in a creaky old house in Brooklyn, New York. Does historic architecture inspire or influence your writing? Do you have a favorite place where you choose to write?
Lev Grossman: My house is certainly very old. I wouldn’t actually call it historic, but technically, it is historical. Actually, old places are really important to me. Especially as a fantasy writer, I think fantasy is a lot about history, and it’s a lot about deep time, and it’s a lot about feeling as though the place you’re in has a rich history that’s gone back a long ways. In Tolkien, they’re always walking around, and you get a real sense they’re passing places with history. There are these old barrows and these places that have names you don’t even know where they come from. And the characters don’t even know the names mean either. You get a sense that this place has been inhabited thousands of thousands of years. So, I like old places and I feel drawn to them. And that’s probably the reason why I bought the house that I live in. I guess my favorite place to write would be, probably is my house, it’s certainly one of my favorite places to write. I find that I have less and less choice about where I write these days. So I try not to get too attached to any one place.
DN: What inspires you to write magical fantasy fiction?
LG: I feel like novels tend to have many multiple sources of inspiration, which kind of combine to get you over the bar to actually sit down and write them. Certainly, like a lot of people, I was infatuated with fantasy fiction when I was little. In particular, the Narnia books, but also Tolkien, TH White, Anne McCaffrey, Fritz Leiber, Piers Anthony. I read, you know, whatever I could find. This was back before the real heyday of mainstream fantasy, before Harry Potter and all that stuff. So you kind of had to dig a little to find that stuff. But I definitely dug. And I kept on, I remained a fantasy reader even as I grew up, which isn’t true of everybody. But when I started writing The Magicians, well, I had a long history of being a fantasy reader. Interesting things were happening with fantasy at that time. You were having people like Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, who were doing things with fantasy that nobody had ever done before. George R. R. Martin. I mean people were really expanding what you could do with fantasy. I suddenly thought, wow, this is exciting. I’ve got to get in on this. The background reading. And then in a funny way writing fantasy was a reaction against my education. My upbringing in a family as the son of two English professors who were very committed to literary fiction and the most strict, rigorous sense of the word, I thought it would piss them off a little if I wrote fantasy. I don’t think I was entirely wrong about that. So, you know, it came from a lot of places.
DN: In one of your blog posts, you mentioned taking a break from writing fiction for a while. Was this a sudden impulsive thought, or an idea that may soon become reality?
LG: Oh, I never take a break for very long. Sometimes I say I’m going to take a break in order partly not to jinx myself. I think it’s a bad idea to say, alright, now I’m going to write a whole ton of fiction. But I’ve already started a couple of other novels since I finished the last one. You know, it gets pretty compulsive after a while, so you can’t really stop.
I am less interested in impressing people and more interested in communicating with people.
DN: Faulkner learned his craft while working in a post office in Oxford, Mississippi. You switch hats between book critic for Time magazine and fiction novelist. Does multi-tasking help or hinder your creativity?
LG: An example that I always think of is Kafka, who was a lawyer by training, but I think he worked at something like an insurance adjustor, and it involved him reading a lot of grisly accident reports sort of disastrous industrial accidents that required a lot of insurance payouts. And I’m pretty sure that made its way into his fiction. With Time, it’s less the connection, it’s less direct, and it’s certainly very good. It trains you to write as opposed to sitting around thinking about writing. You know, when you have a weekly magazine job, you really can’t sit around and wait for the muse to come and inspire you. They give you a page, you fill it with words, it’s going to be shipped out on Wednesday and they’re going to print three million copies. You can’t mess around. And I think some of that, I don’t want to say perfectionism, but learning to skip the kind of the contemplative, meditative, waiting for inspiration to strike stage, has been a real help for my fiction. And my fiction has probably gotten more accessible over the years, and writing for a popular audience like Time’s audience has definitely influenced me. I’ve become very interested as a novelist, I’m interested in people reading, writing stuff that people read. I am less interested in impressing people and more interested in communicating with people.
DN: You mentioned Kafka and several other authors. Do you have a favorite fictional quote?
LG: “There is plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us.” – Franz Kafka.
DN: In storytelling, how do you best describe things that don’t exist?
LG: I always maintain that describing things that don’t exist is not a particular problem of the fantasy writer but a general problem of the fiction writer, because none of this stuff exists. Mrs. Dalloway doesn’t exist. You know, none of this stuff exists. But when it comes to writing things that really don’t exist, I don’t know, I think I have one of these unhealthy escapist imaginations. My therapist once told me he thought I would stop writing fantasy once my treatment was completed. And we’re still arguing that one out. It’s very easy for me. I have a very active imagination. It’s very easy for me to slip out of this world and into different worlds that don’t exist. I think I’ve been doing it since a very young age. It’s very easy. And those worlds seem very real to me. You sort of go in your mind, you sort of think about it, add little touches, you know. Someone’s casting a spell and there’s smoke coming out of his fingertips…what sort of sounds does it make? You think about these things happening and you demand the same level of detail that reality has, and sure enough, those details kind of appear. When you say to yourself, what does it sound like when a hippogriff lands on your lawn? What sort of sounds does it make? You think about it, and you think, oh, right, that’s what it sounds like, and you do your best to describe it. The details kind of come when you ask for them.
DN: So does it strictly come from your internal imagination, or do you use the external environment? Do you walk the streets of New York? Go to an amusement park? Go someplace where you have a connection, an ah-ha moment, where you say to yourself, I can use that in my work.
LG: I wish I could come up with a specific example because I know what you’re talking about. It’s not something I go out and look for, but every once in a while, you’re walking down the street and you see something real and you think, oh, that’s it, I can use that. I am seeing a little aspect of this unreal thing that I’m trying to describe and, you know, maybe it’s, I don’t know, I’m struggling to think of a good example, but you see a texter, or you hear a sound, or you smell something, and you think, right, I’m going to take that and match that up with this thing that isn’t real, and it’ll feel more real.
DN: What advice can you offer to emerging writers who strive to publish in today’s marketplace?
LG: It’s a challenging one. Well, it’s both more and less challenging than the one I entered. And God knows it took me long enough to get published myself, so I’m familiar with the struggle. The first step for me in getting published was getting an agent. And that solves about 70 percent of your problems. The skill of writing and the skill of getting published are not always united in the same person. It’s very good to be able to find somebody on your behalf. If you’re trying to get yourself published, it’s like trying to defend yourself in court. Never a good idea if you could avoid it. You are somebody who could do it, and knows what you’re doing. Yeah, that’s probably the first thing I’d do, because it’s very hard to find an agent. But if you could do that, that’s sort of your first option. Of course, there are a lot of other options to getting published. I see people break out, having begun telling their stories as podcasts, a lot of self-published authors are breaking out these days and selling a lot of copies, so, of course, that’s very increasingly a viable channel. And then, it poses different problems. It’s easy to self-publish. It’s hard to get your work discovered in the marketplace of self-published work. So it creates a different problem for you. The last thing I’d say is, you look at people who write the kind of work that you feel you’re writing, and you look and see who’s publishing them, who’s representing them, what editors buy that kind of work, what publishers put it out. You look at someone else, see how they did it, and see who’s mining the same veins you are.
DN: When I fly on airplanes, I often peruse the aisles and calculate how many passengers read paper books versus e-books. Do you have any personal preferences in terms of how you like to read? Any thoughts on reading hard copy versus e-reader?
LG: I’m about as reactionary as they come. I don’t read e-books. I don’t read things on screen. It’s not the same experience as reading things on paper.
DN: Why not? Why isn’t it the same experience for you?
LG: That’s a good question. It’s a hard thing to put into words. Partly, I am fond of typography. And good typography basically doesn’t exist in the world of e-readers. When you’re reading a paper book, each page has been laid out specifically in that way by a typographer who knew what they were doing. I find that the rhythm of turning pages is part of it for me. The sense of solidity. I don’t like the fact that words on a screen disappear when you turn off the device or throw away the file. I like the fact that when I close a book those words still exist, and I can put it on my shelf and have a kind of visual reference: here’s this thing that I read. I like the fact that I can look around my study and see all these books that I’ve read. I think it’s a different experience from opening up a Kindle and looking at the menu of books that are there. I’ll be able to pass these books to my children. It’s just incredibly important to me. I’ve already started doing that. My library is migrating upstairs into my oldest daughter’s library. These are things that paper books do for me that e-readers don’t. That said, you know, people buy my books as e-books, and I take the money, so obviously they have a great deal of value. But they don’t have the same kind of value to me as paper books.
DN: What techniques do you employ to drop readers into the fictive dream?
LG: It’s a good way of putting it because that is the goal. It’s my goal. I think of it as trying to remove barriers, remove barriers to entry. I get rid of anything that will stop the reader from sliding down into this imaginative world that you’re trying to create for them. So I tend to think of it in negative terms, what’s not there. Pacing is very important to me, especially at the beginning of the book. I don’t mess around. I try to get things going as soon as possible, and am very economical. Humor is very important. Vocabulary. I don’t set about beating people over the heads with long words until twenty or thirty pages in where hopefully they’re already stuck. Making characters likable. If you can show a character who suffers misfortune in a stoic way early on, I feel as though the reader is very rapidly on their side. I didn’t do that in The Magicians, but it’s a trick I’ve learned since then. It’s terribly important, though. There are some sentences that you cannot quantify, there’s something unexplained about them that the reader wants to solve. You know those sentences when you see them, but it’s tough to reverse engineer them. The openings, I rewrite the openings a hundred times. It’s the most important.
If you look at the opening of The Magician King, you’ll see that the opening paragraph is, sentence-for-sentence, lifted almost entirely from the greatest opening passage that I could think of which is the opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. If you were to compare those two paragraphs, I literally typed out the first paragraph of The Big Sleep, I wanted to do something similar. And I never came up with anything better. The Chandler paragraph ends, “I was everything a private detective should be. I was calling on a million dollars.” And it became, “He was everything the king of Fillory should be. He was hunting a magic rabbit.” I’ve employed the cheapest tricks imaginable.
DN: Most successful writers develop a toolbox of craft techniques to help them write. Do you have any specific tools that help you?
LG: Yeah, I suppose I must. I outline a lot. I am a big believer in outlining. I’m not a big believer in sticking to your outline, but having an outline in place when you begin writing, I find, is invaluable in helping you to face the void. It doesn’t seem quite so empty when you have an idea, which may be a delusional one, but at least you have an idea of where you’re going. Some days, what I’m writing seems so terrible to me that I’ll just decide, I’m not even going to revise what I am writing, I’m going to write the most terrible thing I can imagine, I’m just going to write the stupidest thing I can think of next and just go with that, and I’ll fix it later, but just getting my fingers moving, getting the words on the page, even if they’re terrible, might lead to something good. I spend a lot of time trying to find ways to come at my writing as if I were seeing it for the first time. I use software called Scrivener. I don’t know if you know of it?
DN: I’ve heard of it.
LG: I resisted it for many years because of the complicated learning curve, but it’s software created for novelists with the idea of writing long narratives. It’s optimized for that. And when I used it, I realized that Microsoft is a tool for writing business letters, and I was using the wrong tool this whole time. Scrivener, it’s pretty useful, and I recommend it to everybody.
DN: Have you ever considered using software like Dragon, to record your voice and have it type for you?
LG: I’ve never tried it. As you may have noticed, when I speak I hesitate a lot. I’m a much more fluent communicator when I am writing. I think writing would become even harder for me if I had to say it aloud. At this point, I function better with the keyboard than I do with my actual mouth. Likewise, writing things longhand, I know lots of people who write first drafts that way. I can’t do it.
DN: At what point in your writing process do you know how a story will end?
LG: I know before I start. If I am considering writing something, I’ll never start a story or a novel unless I know how it’s going to end. That’s the most important and maybe the only requirement. I have to write towards a goal, otherwise, I can’t improvise one. I have to know from the start.
DN: Do you believe it’s important to teach what you know? If so, how so?
LG: I only teach once or twice a year. It’s funny. Both of my parents are teachers, but I don’t teach very much. How would you teach what you don’t know?
DN: I meant the importance of passing your knowledge on to other people.
LG: I don’t have much experience at being a writing student. I didn’t go to an MFA program, but not for the lack of trying. I didn’t get in to any of them when I applied. The idea of teaching writing is still one that I am learning to understand and trying to figure out what aspects of it can be taught. I don’t actually believe that you can teach somebody to write. Everybody has to teach themselves to write. But it’s possible that you can teach people to teach themselves how to write. I think that might be teachable.
DN: When you’re writing, do words come easily to you, or do you struggle with wordsmithing? Are you in the trenches constructing sentences and they’re just a blur, not making sense, or do words come naturally to you?
LG: On the level of sentences, on the level of putting words together and putting them on a page, that stuff flows quite easily for me. I don’t meet a lot of resistance. And that partly comes from being a professional journalist and literally doing this day in, day out. And sometimes it’s nonfiction and sometimes it’s fiction, but at this point, matching words to ideas and words to things isn’t where the challenge is. The challenge lies elsewhere. It lies in knowing the characters, accessing the deep feelings, and knowing what this sort of compelling vision is. That’s the hard stuff for me. And that is as hard today as when I started out. But actual composition is not the hardest part for me.
DN: Are you a fan of “how-to” craft books on the topic of creative writing?
LG: I don’t know. I’ve never looked at one. I’ve often thought that I probably should, and I never have. I don’t even know what the good ones are, but I should look at them because I am very much of believer in learning that way. And I’m sure I have stuff to learn from them.
DN: The craft books I’ve read discuss the importance of the narrative, finding a balance between characters, dialog, description, how to develop themes and motifs. Some of that must come naturally to you. Or is it a skill you’ve acquired through trial and error?
LG: I wasn’t born with any writing talent whatsoever. When I was in high school and college, I wasn’t a particularly distinguished writer, so everything I’ve learned comes from repetition. You’re reminding me, though. About six months ago, somebody sent me a link to a short article by Chuck Palahniuk, the guy who wrote Fight Club. He wrote this short essay, which was basically, I have one writing tip for you and it’s going to make you a 20% better writer. I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right. So, I should probably read more stuff like that.
I’ve always had a problem of convincing fantasy readers to read this thing that’s probably a little more literary than they’re used to, and convincing the literary readers to read something that’s kind of in a genre that they wouldn’t normally pick up. I’m always fighting that battle on two fronts.
DN: What big obstacles did you encounter with respect to creative writing? Did you overcome them? Or do they still gnaw at you?
LG: Some I learned to avoid after a while. I have no particular gift for short stories. You tend to start out writing short stories, and one thing I had to overcome was I don’t have a good feel for them as a writer or a reader. And I spent years trying to write short stories. I only started finding my voice when I switched to trying to write a novel. That was a big challenge for me. What else, other than lack of self-esteem and all that other stuff. My parents are both writers. It took me a long time to find the confidence to forge my own voice because I felt so overshadowed by theirs. I never really found my voice as a writer until I started writing fantasy. But I write fantasy in a more literary way than most fantasy writers do. And so I’ve always had a problem of convincing fantasy readers to read this thing that’s probably a little more literary than they’re used to, and convincing the literary readers to read something that’s kind of in a genre that they wouldn’t normally pick up. I’m always fighting that battle on two fronts.
DN: The Magician’s Land is the third book of a trilogy set for release in August 2014. Do you feel exuberant or relieved?
LG: [Laughs] I don’t think those are mutually exclusive. I would definitely say two of the things I feel are exuberance and relief. It’s good to feel you’re on the downslope, feeling a certain kind of heavy lifting is done. Relief? Yeah, I feel a lot of relief these days. Writing novels is one of these things where gratification is very much delayed. You get up, you write a bit of your novel, and no one is applauding you or congratulating you. It takes two or three years usually before anybody says, “Hey that was pretty good that thing you did.” Sometimes it’s hard to keep going. So it’s wonderful to finish something and have people read it and react to it, because I haven’t done that since 2011, and I missed it, a lot.
DN: What does keep you going?
LG: It’s easier now than it used to be. With The Magicians, after it came out people wanted the next one, and I thought, oh, great, people actually want this. I don’t know what kept me going. Codex took six years. The Magicians took five years. It was nothing healthy. It was compulsion. It was an appetite for total neglect. It was hard to keep going. That was the hardest part about it. People often ask me, “Oh, when you were writing The Magicians had you already planned out a whole trilogy?” I didn’t even think The Magicians would be published, so I never bothered to plan out any books after that. I would sit down to write and think, you idiot, why are you spending years of your life doing this when it probably won’t be published? Keeping going was very hard. I’m proud of anybody who keeps going and finishes a novel. Whether or not it gets published—that was a hard thing they did.
DN: True. Are you sure The Magician’s Land is the third book, or will there be a fourth one? What would they call that, a quadroset? I don’t even know the term for a fourth.
LG: Oh, I don’t know. [Laughs] It’s like when Douglas Adams ended up writing six books in his Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy. He just kept calling it a trilogy. He would say here’s the fifth book in the trilogy. I don’t expect another Magician’s book to happen ever. I feel I got out everything I had to say that I could say in that way. Although, I think of Ursula Le Guin who wrote the Earthsea trilogy, which was a big influence on me, and then twenty years later, she went back and wrote a fourth book. And I feel like if Ursula Le Guin does it, then it’s okay: I can do it, too. So perhaps we’ll have this conversation again in 2034. And we’ll have the fourth book in the trilogy.