Of literature Thomas Carlyle wrote, “All that mankind has done, thought, or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books.” No critic in American life today does more to excavate that magic within texts than Lev Grossman. A native of Lexington, Massachusetts, Grossman came from a voraciously lettered home. His father Allen Grossman has published eleven books of poetry and essays, and until 2005 taught in the English department of Johns Hopkins University. His mother Judith Grossman has published two works of fiction, taught creative writing the University of Iowa, and was chairman of liberal arts at Mount Ida College in my hometown of Newton, MA. Lev’s sister Bathsheba is a sculptor specializing in computer-aided 3D models; his twin brother Austin is a video game designer and author of the superhero novel Soon I Will Be Invincible. The pile of degrees amassed by the Grossman nuclear family could sink a small canoe.
Yet amidst his clan, Lev has garnered a unique and avid following among readers patrolling our cultural outer limits. He published his first two novels Warp and Codex in 1997 and 2004 respectively, with the latter becoming something of a hit. Yet it has been The Magicians, his 2009 novel of young spell casters grappling with their supernatural abilities and raging hormones at a school for sorcerers called Brakebills, that has jettisoned him to the New York Times bestseller list and forefront of the fantasy genre. While The Magicians is unabashedly a tale of wizards and dungeon monsters, it’s no obtuse missive scrawled onto a twenty-sided die. Grossman has penned a Narnia-style odyssey that begins in present-day Park Slope and is as accessible and topical as it is epic. His characters have read Harry Potter, and find their own sudden confrontations with the supernatural to be all the more fantastic because of it. It is both an adventure yarn and a journey into the act of reading, examining what it means to be captivated by fiction, just as the quest of its reluctant hero Quentin Coldwater beckons. It is a work of humor, veracity, and imagination, which expands our expectations for what fantasy can be, while wearing time-tested geek love on its sleeve.
This referential candor and linguistic immediacy carries over to Grossman’s daily grind. While conjuring fiction, he doubles as one of America’s premier cultural detectives, as a senior writer for TIME Magazine and author of the popular TechLand blog on TIME.com. Grossman’s August 23rd cover story profiling author Jonathan Franzen (the first novelist to make the cover since Stephen King a decade ago) has been the talk of the literary world for a solid month. Buzzing praise for Grossman’s incisive analysis of Franzen and his new novel Freedom is well deserved, spotlighting the critic’s inquisitiveness and amour for the inventive
In conversation Grossman is articulate, candid, and engaged. His enthusiasm for his likes and impassioned damning of his turn-offs is infectious. He peppers his thoughts with French phrases, obscenity, pop minutiae, and words like “exciting”, “fantastic”, “great”, and “amazing”, uttered with animation as his cognitive bells and whistles go off all at once. If Borges had grown up with Gauntlet and Zelda as his labyrinths, he might sound something like Grossman. Lev and I met last Thursday at the boozy and cavernous Berry Park on the cusp of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Over beers and foosball, Grossman held court on life as a critic in corporate America, an old school dork suspicious of nerd culture’s recent embrace by the masses, and a recently married father to a ten-week old daughter. What follows is my frank and unabridged conversation with a well-read fellow, who as both arbiter and artisan voraciously extols that which we used to call pulp fiction, and today call an empire-in-progress. Here now, the wit and wisdom of a man in the running for the title of Coolest Geek in Town.
NC: You’ve just come from California.
LG: Yeah, I just had this wandering period where I went to a conference, then I went to go talk to [cyberpunk pioneer, author of Neuromancer] William Gibson. I was supposed to come home after each stop. They kept getting longer, longer. Then I went to LA to talk to David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin about the Facebook movie they’re doing, The Social Network, which was totally great.
NC: Were you a big Gibson fan growing up?
LG: I was. That was like, primal. The circle is now closed: I’ve met William Gibson. I should commit ritual suicide, and that would be complete.
NC: When you’ve interviewed folks in the past, has anything surreal every happened in the midst of one of the conversation?
LG: I’m trying to think of what a hair-raisingly bad one. Mostly they’re just bad in ordinary ways. I interviewed Jack Nicholson; we didn’t really hit it off. Like, at all. He’s been famous for fifty years, and I wasn’t up to the level of adoration that he possibly would have been more comfortable with.
NC: Where do you write? What tools do you write with? Do you have certain methods, habits, rituals?
LG: I think everyone does, mine are just more boring than most. I write on a laptop. I have a major dependence on caffeine, so I drink a lot of espresso. It’s location independent for me. For a while I was obsessed with this particular chair in this coffee house in Park Slope. If someone was in that chair… well, fuck, that was it for that day. And this skinny guy was always in there, typing on his laptop. Everyday I’d get there and it’d be like, “Ugh, curses! He’s in the chair!” It took me a while to realize that he was Jonathan Safran Foer.
NC: Wow. Great minds… or asses, in this case.
LG: Great chairs. That kind of broke me on rituals, cause he kept fucking me on mine. He lapped me: I think he was writing Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close at the time. Really nice guy.
NC: Is the act of writing fiction for you different from writing non-fiction? Do you approach the work differently? Do you write differently?
LG: They are really different. It’s horrible to say, but for me, non-fiction… it’s a little bit automatic now. There’s none of that throat-clearing and stutter stepping involved. I’ve been writing non-fiction for forty hours a week on deadline for so long. What are those marks people make when they’re getting ready to kill themselves? Hesitation marks? People tend to take a few extra before they go in deep for the jugular. I don’t even bother with those anymore.
NC: Once it’s time to file, you’re passed out on the bathroom floor.
LG: Exactly. With fiction, it’s much more difficult. It’s more mental preparation. A solid hour of playing Scrabble on Facebook. I really have to sink my way into the trance. It happens very slowly. I wish it were otherwise.
NC: Talk about your enrollment at Harvard and later Yale. You recently wrote a bit about the experience of living both on your blog. In what ways does it compare or contrast to the Brakebills experience?
LG: There must be a connection, though it’s a measure of what a poor student I am of my own work that it did not occur to me until after I’d finished writing the book that it might it have something to with going to Harvard. I should take that out of my author bio: I feel as though it’s a fact that requires explanation and is less meaningful than it first appears to be.
NC: Or that people are interested in the novelty of this rivalry between the schools.
LG: I worry that it renders me unapproachable in some way. That it causes people to think I am a) smarter than I am, and b) more of a dick than I am.
NC: A fancypants.
LG: I mean… works for TIME, went to Harvard and Yale… how much do you want to punch that guy in the face? I want to punch him in the face. And he’s me! One of the reasons I wrote about it on the blog was to ask, “Who must these people think I am?” For better or worse, shaping some sort of authorial persona has become an important part of the writer’s job in the present era.
NC: Much of The Magicians seems to be about the fragility of adolescence colliding with adult self-determination of one’s role in the world. Do you recall early experiences from youth that made you want to be a writer, or times when you realized you were becoming one?
LG: My upbringing was slightly odd in that both of my parents were writers. To begin with, they’re both English professors. Beyond that, my father’s written, what, a dozen books of poetry? Possibly more. My mom’s written a novel and a book of stories, and a bunch of stuff that she will publish but hasn’t yet. So it was disappointingly un-rebellious to think about becoming a writer. It’s a bit of a fait accompli. It was not a foregone conclusion that I’d be a writer, but it was in the top three choices in the multiple choice question of What Was I Going to Do. That said, it took me a surprisingly long time to become a writer of any kind.
NC: What were you doing prior to writing?
LG: I had a very shitty period. I blew out my whole twenties, basically. In a stunningly unproductive way, doing really un-fun things. Like temping. And going to graduate school. And being a web producer. I couldn’t settle on a career, but I had no money, so I had to work, and I sort of roamed at random. It wasn’t until I was about thirty that I got serious about writing, and began writing things that I was really happy with.
NC: While in your twenties, were you still engaging nerd culture? Reading fantasy, science fiction, comic books, and the like?
LG: I was. I didn’t have any sense of why I was, or what they meant to me. It’s fair to say I was in some emotional denial of the strong emotional attachment I felt to these works. When I was in graduate school, it just seemed very weird that I would be in the halls of the Death Star of high culture, and that I would be there reading rebel tracts. I remember spending literally my last dollar on Ender’s Game. I was going through that period that generally all people go through where they have between zero and twenty dollars in their bank account. And I remember zeroing it out, because I had to have the paperback, not even the fucking hardcover of Ender’s Game.
NC: When did you know that you’d completed The Magicians, and what was your state of being upon completing it? Did you have an ending in mind?
LG: I did have an ending in mind. I always knew what the ending would be. It’s very true, this over-quoted quotation from somebody, that writing a novel is like driving cross country at night: you can see twenty feet ahead of you in the headlights, and you know that you’re heading for the coast, but everything else in between is totally blackness. I knew I was heading for the coast, and I completed a first draft in almost exactly a year flat.
NC: Was there a day wherein you realized that you’ve just written a novel?
LG: Sort of, and I want that to be the case. But that feeling is disrupted by my obsessive, pathological need to not take any satisfaction in anything I do. And also because my first drafts are very rough, just scratch. It’s like, you dash out these scenes, you say basically what happened, then later you layer in the thoughts and feelings of everyone who was there and the little details that they saw. It’s a slow process of accretion: I wish it was some dramatic stroke of the pen, but it isn’t really. I was making changes up until a few months before the book came out.
NC: Did you have a particular audience and/or reader in mind when writing The Magicians?
LG: Initially it was just me. I was really depressed when I started writing it, and like all depressed people I was completely self-absorbed. It was this document that I was creating to make myself feel better. Only later did other human beings enter into the equation. I think it was also [written] for myself at seventeen: at a time when my life seemed totally unsustainable, and my chances of getting into Narnia were just vanishingly small, leaving me nowhere to go. I would say those two people, Lev at thirty-five and Lev at seventeen were the only two people I had it in me to direct the book at. I think it takes a certain calmness and sense of self-worth to think about offering things to other people. [Laughs] Maybe Jonathan Safran Foer has that.
NC: Of The Magicians you told The AV Club, “it was like… I’d decided to write something in my mother tongue. I’m fluent in fantasy.” What are the calling cards of the genre for you? What is it about fantasy that you find natural, organic, comforting, if those are accurate accounts of what you feel for the form?
LG: I think that’s accurate. Like a lot of people, like maybe most people, the books that taught me to understand narrative and understand what novels were, were fantasy novels. Narnia obviously, Tolkien, T.H. White, Anne McCaffrey, Fritz Leiber, Piers Anthony. That cluster of writers… you don’t read things obsessively at a young age for years and not have them be setting down really deep grooves and neuron structures in your brain. They taught me a lot about the grammar of novels, how they’re structured, how they feel, and what they do for you. And a major thing they did for me was comfort. It’s difficult to say what fantasy is now, especially now that people are now screwing around with what it is in such interesting ways. The first and greatest standard will still be the same standard used for porn, which is that you know it when you see it. I feel I know fantasy when I see it.
NC: Which Supreme Court Justice was it that said that?
LG: I think it was in the Ulysses case. Was it the Ulysses case, or was that something completely different?
NC: I think that, like most things in life, it was either James Joyce’s or Larry Flynt’s. [Editor’s Note: it was neither. The phrase is attributed to Justice Potter Stewart, from his concurring opinion in the 1964 case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, which dealt with charges of “public display of obscene material” leveled at a Cleveland theater owner for having screened Louis Malle’s 1958 film The Lovers. – NC.]
LG: [Laughs] There’s very little in between those two. But it’s really interesting, what fantasy is, because it’s really not science fiction, and really not like science fiction. The placing of those two things in the same bookstore aisle, seems to me more and more a bizarre cultural accident, rather than on any level correct, typologically.
NC: Or just two things that happen to be bought by a number of the same people. Where for you do fantasy and science fiction diverge?
LG: Fantasy and science fiction as we know them, in the modern sense, were born in the early twentieth century in the same moment as literary modernism. They would almost have to be a response to the calamitous onset of what we think of as modernity. Urban life, mass media, mechanized warfare, electric lighting, the automobile: all those things arrived at once, more or less, in the same historical movement. People born in the late nineteenth century and growing up in the twentieth century saw their world completely transformed. So I feel these literary genres, of which I include literary modernism among them, as a reaction to that. And I think of fantasy as a way of trying to think about what was lost in that transformation, in the onset of modernity.
NC: Is it a callback to folklore in that sense?
LG: Yeah. And it’s profoundly nostalgic, of an era in which we had some organic relationship to the landscape around us, and the artifacts that we carried and worked with. Whereas science fiction was a more direct, concrete reckoning with the tools that we had built, and that were then in response rebuilding us. And you see this incredibly nostalgic strain in modernism all the time. I think it should be identified as a fantasy strain. Ten million literary scholars would probably disagree with me.
NC: You told The Village Voice last year, “There’s no fantasy in the Library of America. For some reason, they won’t touch it. But they should.” Which authors or works of fantasy in particular should academia be touching? Likewise you told The Los Angeles Times last year that you aim to treat “popular fiction with the same sort of critical tools you bring to literary fiction and see what comes out — which is often important truths.”
LG: [Laughs] God, you must have spent really horrible, grinding hours reading interviews of me. It’s funny though, I do keep an eye on academia. My wife is a professor at Princeton in the English department. I don’t see it changing. I don’t see a swelling up of interest in fantasy literature. [With pause] I’m hesitating in an effort to not say something that will cause some blogospherical explosion [Laughs]. I think in the decade we’ve just lived through, there are definitely works of fantasy that deserve to be classed as masterpieces. I think Fritz Leiber’s work is strong and interesting enough. Ursula Le Guin, I take nothing away from, but her Earthsea books are more YA, and I don’t think the Library of America does YA. It’s a serious question: if I think the academy should be doing fantasy, what fantasy should they be doing?
NC: One who gets brought up a lot of late is George R.R. Martin, particularly his Song of Ice and Fire series.
LG: Yes. TIME Magazine called him the American Tolkien.
NC: [Laughs] Did they? Some guy at TIME Magazine said that?
LG: [Laughs] Yes, that was me. I believe it. He’s a bonafide genius, that guy. That work is truly important. Should he finish it, I would guarantee him my vote for the Library of America. He’s gotta finish it, but what he’s done there is truly astounding. And I think of people like Kelly Link, who’s a fantastic writer, totally canon ready. I don’t know if they do short stories in the Library of America, but either they should, or Kelly Link should write a novel. Then we would be all set.
NC: As a critic yourself, you may resist the urge to respond in print to a review of The Magicians, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask for your comments on Michael Agger’s review of the book in the New York Times. In particular his closing missive, which reads, “Perhaps a fantasy novel meant for adults can’t help being a strange mess of effects. It’s similar to inviting everyone to a rave for your 40th-birthday party. Sounds like fun, but aren’t we a little old for this?” Similarly, on Bookforum, Matthew Shaer wrote, “Grossman has written both an adult coming-of-age tale-rife with vivid scenes of sex, drugs, and heartbreak-and a whimsical yarn about forest creatures. The subjects aren’t mutually exclusive, and yet when stirred together so haphazardly, the effect is jarring.” Why do you think certain critics found these two qualities dissonant, and why might that pairing have been more accessible or rewarding for others?
LG: Haphazard, that’s what stings! Haphazardly!
NC: For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t characterize anything in the book as such.
LG: [Laughs] Oh, don’t apologize for them! Those reviews were frustrating for me, the Times review in particular, because it was so prominent. Publishers Weekly was also a pan, but a different kind of pan: they didn’t go that route. Those critics are seeing a division where I think there is none. They’re seeing a division that exists in retail categories. But when you look at the actual reading behavior of adults, they consume young adult fantasy and grown up fiction indiscriminately. Half the people who bought Harry Potter were over eighteen. Movies like those of the Lord of the Rings are massive smash hits. That division doesn’t exist in the mind of readers, it exists in the mind of critics. And like most things that exist in the minds of critics only, it will fade away eventually. Probably sooner rather than later.
NC: As one who approaches the genre with unfair stigmas, I was surprised to find the fantastic elements carry a ring of truth. Particularly in the first hundred or so pages, the book is a straight up Brooklyn coming-of-age story, and the infusion of magic into the verite is treated with a genuine realism.
LG: Growing up, that distinction seemed very real. There was a time when fantasy seemed much more separate than it is now. You’re what, fourteen, fifteen years old?
NC: [Holding up nine fingers] I’m this many.
LG: I’m forty-one. The first half of my life happened before Harry Potter. The idea of a fantasy novel being a mass phenomenon did not exist. Rowling made visible to everyone the fact that there was a mass audience for fantasy, and an audience that intersected with the audience for serious fiction. I don’t think that was known before. It seems glaringly obvious to me now. I shouldn’t blame any critics for being slow to adjust to that reality, because it’s amazing.
NC: Much of this book, to the surprise of a wary fantasy reader like myself, is not about magic, but about what life is like as a young person in New York, and those who roam the city without that flicker of lightness. It’s perhaps also about the search for purpose and aspiration, and the fulfillment of one’s talents. I’m reminded of the schoolmaster Dean Fogg telling his prized pupils on their graduation night that he thinks they’re able to be magicians because some part of them is unhappy, and they are able to channel that pain into something powerful. Which sounds eerily like what it is to be a writer, or artist of any kind really.
LG: Yeah, very much so. I should demur, but it was really close to the surface for me. The Magicians is a thinly veiled metaphor for the writing of The Magicians. Because as I was writing it, I was feeling that I was striking a rich, hot vein that I’d never been able to find in myself before. I had written before: I had written two novels before that. But they came slowly and rather coldly. Writing The Magicians felt like doing magic: I suddenly felt that I was speaking words of power and consequence. That sounds really naff when I say it, but I really felt for the first time that I was saying things that mattered, and that’s a deeply magical, exciting feeling.
NC: You’ve talked about being particularly fond of fantasy which offered its protagonists escape from their present lives, via adventures to a new land, new role, new reality. Without being overly intrusive, what did you find dissatisfying about your life or surroundings at that time that made escape so appealing? What required a quest?
LG: [Laughs] This is like that part of The Breakfast Club where Ally Sheedy says, “My home life is dissatisfying.” I was going through a very difficult passage, personally and professionally. My career was stagnating. Also, I was going through a divorce. I was getting ready to be divorced. I was pre-divorce. I was realizing that I was in a relationship that was very wrong for me. That really sucked. It sucked doubly because we’d just had a baby. And if I was going to leave this relationship that was totally destroying my personality, it would mean moving out of the house where my young daughter lived. And that was awful, just awful. So I thought I’d write a fantasy novel. [Laughs] But the thing that made it work was that all that horrible toxic reality just kept sneaking in around the edges and bleeding into it. When Quentin goes to Brakebills, he thinks all his problems are over, and yet they’re just beginning.
NC: According to your blog you’re approaching an October deadline for a sequel to The Magicians entitled The Magician King. If you’re willing and able, what do you have in store for The Magician King, either in the way of plot, or simply to say what thematically was on your mind in penning a sequel. Are there books or other works of art that you have on your mind as you conclude? Tokens of inspiration or beauty?
LG: I have a pretty complete outline of the sequel, and I’ve got a rough cut of about three-quarters of it, a hundred thousand words, whereas The Magicians was a hundred and forty-five thousand. It’s not a coming of age story. You know, it’s horrible to invoke the genre that it actually falls into, because what I think is good about it is that it sort of annihilates that genre and what we know of it. But it’s a quest, it’s a hero’s journey, and as such it draws on some very different sources. But the touchstone is still C.S. Lewis, in particular The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Whereas The Magicians was something of an extended riff on The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, this book is about the Dawn Treader, but also about other epic journeys: very much the quest for the Holy Grail, so Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as well as T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. It very much invokes The Odyssey. A lot of Alice in Wonderland. And then a bunch of less respectable stuff.
NC: How does writing a sequel differ from writing the first?
LG: There’s a lot that feels familiar. “Oh yeah, writing a draft that sucks, I remember this now.” But I mean, I have a contract for this book! The Magicians, I spent four years on, with no assurances of any kind that anybody would ever read it. There was a stage every day of the composition process which began with, “You complete fuckhead. Why are you sitting here typing this stuff into your hard drive? No one will ever see this.” People will probably see the new book. I already got partially paid for it. And I have a deadline. I’ve never had a deadline in my life before, for fiction. This novel’s actually due, which is just crazy.
NC: There’s a turn of phrase you used in your recent profile of Jonathan Franzen for TIME, in which you say that he “punted his deadline”.
LG: Yeah. Franzen. I mean, that guy gives hope to writers everywhere, in that he writes… I mean, of that kind of prose, I’d rather read his work than anyone else’s. And yet, it seems to be no easier for him than it is for anyone else.
NC: He calls it miserable work.
LG: I didn’t even print the full-length, 5.1 channel version of that. That guy sits there, and he beats himself up, and just drags the shit out of himself. It’s really cool that he does it, ’cause it’s really hard for him.
NC: Let’s talk about that profile, if we can for a moment. In the piece, you call Franzen the “most ambitious” living American novelist. I’m wondering how you define an ambitious novelist, what you would say ambitious fiction attempts to do.
LG: What did I mean by that? I wrote it, it must have meant something.
NC: It’s an interesting word to choose. It’s not as though you said “Best American Novelist”, though the actual phrase you bestowed was “Most ambitious, and one of the best.” Ambition suggests striving for something. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that it achieves what it sets out to do, but does suggest challenging aspirations, or a desire to be great.
LG: On some level, he’s trying to break off a larger piece of the world than any other writer I can think of. When you read The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, a writer whose strengths are equal to Franzen’s, you know that the definitive book about the Jews establishing a homeland in Alaska has been written. That’s going to be the definitive account of that subject. But it somehow carves out a smaller slice of the world than what Franzen does in The Corrections or Freedom. Franzen doesn’t write domestic novels, or novels about economic catastrophe, or financial malfeasance, or sexual eccentricity. His novels are about all of those things at once.
NC: Maximalist was a term bandied about to describe him in the wake of The Corrections.
LG: Yeah, and it’s a word I hate, because it describes a lot of books I don’t like. [Laughs]
NC: And I don’t think his objective is to be the most American of Americans. James Wood had that line about hysterical realism that “knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being”. Franzen if nothing else has created some vivid characters, and consciously stays close to them in the prose.
LG: I feel a kind of egotistical performance in some of those maximalist novels that for some reason I don’t feel in his work. I feel like there’s maximalist shit in there, but it’s because he can’t help it, not because he wants to show people that he can. I eschewed the world “best” consciously, because I don’t know what that would mean now in fiction, if it ever meant anything. You’ll note that on the cover, which everyone quotes as “The Great American Novelist”, it actually reads: “Great American Novelist”.
NC: [Laughs] That does seem a distinct phrasing, and carefully chosen. How much input did you have on this cover?
LG: I didn’t write the cover line. But I was called into a meeting, where it was on display, and I said, “Yeah.” You know, “That’ll do.” [Laughs] “I approve this message.”
NC: One last thing I wanted to ask about the piece was Franzen’s reference to Kierkegaard’s idea of busyness: the possibly trivial doodads and habits that we fill our day with. Franzen cites it with regard to all of our modern technical wonders, and his aim to write a book that can compete for consumer affections with those technologies. How as both a reviewer of both books and new technologies do you reconcile these two interests? Does one habit balance out the other?
LG: I am really interested in technology, and wonder what relation it has to my interest in books. There are two things to say about it. First is that if you’re going to be a novelist with interest in contemporary life, which is the only business a novelist should be in, one has to have a pretty strong layman’s grounding in our technology, because that’s so much of what’s happening to us. It’s so important, for example, to know what an iPhone game does to someone’s brain, so that you can write a novel that stands up to that. I play a fuck ton of Fieldrunners on my iPhone. And yet I also read. Having both, I often think, “Ought I to play a game now, or ought I to read this sensitive and lyrical novel of verse?”
NC: They’re not necessarily in competition with one another.
LG: They’re completely in competition with one another! When NetHack came out for the Palm, I stopped reading for three months. And it was pretty fucking sobering. It reminded me that novels must do something that iPhone games can’t do for the brain, and that’s a serious challenge. Some of those games are extremely compelling. I had to delete NetHack eventually, because as it turns out, it’s better than any novel written! I would have never read again! [Laughs]
NC: How do you balance the roles of critic and novelist? Are there critic-fiction writer hybrids whom you admire or model yourself after?
LG: It’s a pretty narrow field. The practical answer is that it’s really hard. I’m having to take more and more time off from my job, and eventually probably will one day shift to some kind of contributing editor role. I just can’t keep up a full-time job and write novels. It’s just not possible. Walter Kirn is an ass kicking reviewer, and also writes good novels. Franzen is a great reviewer, and hardly ever does it, cause why would he? His critical prose is fantastic: he has that in common with [novelist, essayist, and longtime friend/rival of Franzen’s] David Foster Wallace. But there’s something pretty uncomfortable in balancing the roles of critic and novelist. Because to become a good novelist, you have to decide what the ultimate fucking novel is going to be. Then try to write that. When you do that, most other novels become like dross to you, and not very interesting. You cannot be that Catholic-minded reader that you should be. Those two gears are just too far apart.
NC: How often do you read for pleasure?
LG: If I look in my bag, what have I got? (While rifling through a messenger bag and removing several books from it) Cleopatra… Stephen Hawking [‘s new book The Grand Design]… [Jean-Christophe Valtat’s new novel] Aurorarama… a book about an insane 19th century French serial killer… those are all non-pleasure. It’s another reason to take a leave of absence. A lot of authors I know don’t especially try to read fiction when they’re trying to write. I’m the opposite: I have too. I constantly consume novels when I write. But I have to be careful about which ones I pick.
NC: Are you concerned they’ll influence your prose, that you risk imitating them?
LG: Oh yeah. And some of them are just awful, just terrible! I can’t write for a day after reading them. I won’t name them. There’s no possible way you could bait me into naming who I’m talking about. They get into your skin, and you have to sweat them out before you can do anything. Basically, when I’m writing, I read C.S. Lewis and I read Franzen.
NC: Then to return to Franzen briefly: what is it like for you to interview someone who you so admire, and is one of only two authors welcome when you’re writing your own fictions? It could be rewarding and/or immensely surreal.
LG: It was heavy. Completely surreal. It’s an occupational hazard. If you read that L.A. Times profile, you’ll note that shortly before finishing the first draft of The Magicians, I went to Edinburgh and sat down with J.K. Rowling. It’s profoundly odd, and a historical accident that I’m brought together with these people. [Franzen’s] work is iconic for me.
NC: The Magicians is epic in scope: without spoiling too much, it covers the entire college experience of its characters, and a good deal of post-matriculation action as well. Had you known the book would become the success that it did, would you have structured it any differently? Do you envision Quentin’s life as a series of books, like those of Narnia or Harry Potter?
LG: Maybe. The idea of doing a sequel never occurred to me until basically the book was locked; that is, the manuscript had been typeset and copy edited. I’m glad I didn’t think about it, as I would have probably done something really stupid, like saying, “Oh that’s pretty good, I’ll save that for the sequel, and just throw in some other shit here”. I’m still really leery of the word “sequel”. Novel series’ tend to be shitty, and there aren’t that many that are worth reading.
NC: Is it more of a separate entity that shares some of the characters?
LG: That’s the kind of thing I tend to say, but fuck: it’s a sequel. There’s no getting around it. The original book was partly based on a chapter and a half in A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, another iconic writer who bizarrely I have met. The protagonist is a wizard who goes to a wizard school. My original plan for the novel, which I constructed in 1996, before Harry Potter had come out, was to do half the book in this school and set it in a school of magic, which at the time seemed incredibly original. Eight years later it seemed pedestrian and cliché. So I always think [Quentin] also spends an incredible amount of time in magic school, whereas everyone else says, “Why did you just hurry him through magic school?” at a chapter a year.
NC: To return to The AV Club for a moment, you also talked about an urge for nerd culture to return back to the underground. You said, “The nerds won, and in winning, we kind of lost.”, with the idea that blockbuster comic book films and other mainstream celebrations of nerd culture are sullying that which is personal and enjoyable about being a nerd: that the subculture is in danger. This is also the subject of a time piece you wrote just under five years ago now entitled “The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth“. What is it about outsider status is vital to the kinds of fictions nerds are drawn to?
LG: It’s a good question. And I do feel uncomfortable with nerd culture having gone to being just… culture. It’s become less weird. In doing so, it’s lost some of its essential power. When there’s so many dollars out there, mathematically it’s necessarily that some people will start writing movies, et cetera, for the purpose of making money rather than doing cool shit. And you know, the cultural machinery gets all screwed up. When someone makes a big studio movie based on Dungeons and Dragons, they will put the wrong person in charge of it. Once that much money is involved, the wrong people start making the decisions. And there are rare exceptions. It’s amazing that the Lord of the Rings movies were as good as they were. It’s amazing that the first Spider-Man movie was as good as it was. Iron Man. But there are way more misses than hits. At a certain point there are so many misses that you just stop caring. I was almost heartened by the fact that Scott Pilgrim [vs. the World] flopped. When I heard they were doing I thought, “Weird Canadian graphic novel about an unemployed and not very talented indie rocker: if they take that from us, then what else do we have?” Then they gave it to Edgar wright, a genius, and made a fucking amazing movie. It’s horrible to say this, but I almost felt happy when it flopped. It felt like, “We can have it back.” If it’s a success then we don’t own it anymore. But now, the rights revert to the fans. It doesn’t go mainstream.
NC: It was amazing to read pieces about it on the web that contain such vitriol, not even so much for the film itself but to the people who might like it. I read a number of things that said this box office proved that studios shouldn’t be catering to nerds, and that this lack of returns will take nerds down a peg. Which makes me wonder, “How did they get up a peg? How did they ascend the totem pole in first place?”
LG: There’s this moment of fear where you ask, “Am I one with the Big Gulp drinking, SUV driving, Abercrombie and Fitch wearing masses?” Then it flops and you think, “Thank god. I am screwed up, and misshapen, and different after all.”
NC: Is there something rebellious or contrarian about nerdiness? Is it satisfying because it’s against the grain?
LG: Yeah. Definitely. I talked earlier about how both my parents were writers, and how that left me little to rebel against. But one thing I know for sure: they hated science fiction and comic books and fantasy. If there was any way that I did rebel it was in taking those things as my source material. My brother did the same thing. He wrote a novel about superheroes. There was a tiny little bit of “Screw you, dad!” in that. [Laughs] Not that my dad cared. But that was our rebellion, such as it was.
NC: You’ve done a little work out in the fields of late, appearing as a guest at a number of sci-fi and fantasy conventions. I’m wondering what it’s like to attend these functions not as a fan, as you may have in the past, but as one of the distinguished folks signing autographs. What has it been like to be engage your readers and devotees?
LG: I’m surprised that I’m not surprised by them. The people who are into it are just fucking great. It’s really easy to talk to them, and I’m a chronically socially anxious person. But there’s a reason they would like something I write, and that’s that we’re in a sense the same type of people. I’ve never been that involved in fantasy fandom, because it’s a social thing and I’m kind of anti-social. I read books as a way to avoid other people, not as a way to talk to them. But I’ve gone to conventions within the past couple years, and I can’t deny that I’ve had a good time. There’s a lot of drinking at those conventions, so that really helps.
NC: The scantily clad costumers perhaps don’t hurt either. Well, maybe some of them do.
LG: There was a woman who came to a reading I did in a homemade Brakebills uniform, complete with short skirt. She’d taken it a step further.
NC: It’s a visualization of what previously exists only on the page and within the imagination.
LG: It was completely awesome. The fact that she would care enough about it to go home and do sewing is deeply validating. And also kind of hot.
NC: Are there aspects of nerd culture that are newly exciting to you at the moment? Is there anything dorky that’s particularly scratching you where you itch, and maybe which still feels private and off the beaten path?
LG: Oh yeah, lots of things. Do you read web comics at all?
NC: A little bit. I’m mostly an Achewood kind of guy.
LG: Achewood is fucking unbelievable! So brilliant and weird. I put that as the #1 comic of the year a few years ago, which I think really befuddled time readers. That stuff is just radical and interesting and really powerful.
NC: I do wonder how many people are reading it, or strips like it. It feels very private, but that probably is largely because of how I’m ingesting it online, without talking about it much in the social world.
LG: He’s been doing this for seven, eight years. Web comics are exciting. There’s a lot of good fantasy being written right now. It’s a really good time to read fantasy. People are doing things in the genre that have never been done. Nerdcore hip-hop, that stuff is really exciting and funny. There’s a lot of rich, raw stuff going on. It’s a good time to be a nerd.
NC: To switch gears towards your other gig: what is the role of the book critic today, and how has it changed in the last twenty years?
LG: It’s really different. There was a time not long ago when opinions about books were a scarce commodity. Now we have an extreme surplus of opinions about books, and it’s very easy to obtain them. So if you’re in the business of supplying opinions about books, you need to get into a slightly different business. Being a critic becomes much more about supplying context for books, talking about new ways of reading, sharing ways in which it can be a rich experience. Reading James Wood’s reviews, while I rarely agree with them… watching his mind interact with a book is really exciting, and teaches me new, interesting ways to read. That’s very rewarding, and a vital thing to do. I don’t walk away from his reviews with recommendations about what to buy. It’s funny, that book [Wood’s How Fiction Works] now comes in paperback with a quote from me on the front cover. I really like his work, he’s great. Though I sometimes think I like his reviews for different reasons than he likes his reviews. I haven’t read his novel, and really want to.
NC: On Bookworm he once talked about how he was humbled as a critic by writing a novel. He talks about falling into the same tropes and bad habits he’d previously criticized others for, almost as if he was watching himself outside of himself, seeing fingers type cliché dialogue and hackneyed characters.
LG: He’s a really good guy, and so happy to slag off his own novel. The only other thing I’ll say about being a critic is that there is still one great fight for me to get into, and that is promoting the works of genre writers. Because genre writers really are today’s avant-garde, doing what’s exciting and interesting, and there are not that many critics willing to acknowledge that in mainstream publications. So if I can go into TIME Magazine and promote the work of Chris Onstad, my work is done and my life has meant something.
NC: It’s like a New Hollywood situation of the 1970s, wherein great directors young and old made their best films within the perimeters of “low-art” genres: detective and gangster stories, slapstick, sci-fi, Westerns, and so on.
LG: That feels fair to me. When you look at The Godfather, which is totally unclassifiable, in the same way that Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is unclassifiable. That’s a really good analogy. I will now steal it for a feature and make it all my own. [Laughs]
NC: Speaking of work: what does a day in the life of TIME‘s book and video game critic look like? Are you primarily writing from home? Do you have an office at TIME‘s building? Are you scribbling notes from a safe distance at local arcades? How did you get the job, and how has it evolved over time?
LG: I didn’t start writing reviews until I was twenty-nine, so I was pretty ignorant of what critics did with their time going in. I don’t read at work, I mostly do that on my own time. You’ve got weekly deadlines. I’m only embarrassed to say this because it disqualifies me from ever complaining about my work, but I really do spend a lot more time working on fiction. I go to a lot of meetings. Periodically I have to write things like picture captions. Somebody has to write the table of contents in the front every month, and occasionally it’s me. So it’s not a fantasy camp where you’re writing reviews all the time. And I write about other stuff. I do technology. I go to work at 10:30, I leave around 6:30, and in between I spend a decent amount of that time writing about books. But there’s also other stuff. When you write a piece, you have to write the headline, the subhead, picture captions. You talk to the photographer about what you think it should look like. You argue with the photo editor about what it should look like. You argue with another editor about how you don’t have enough space. You argue about whether you can say the word “Dude” in TIME Magazine. You worry about whether you can say hella cool. “Is hella a word? It’s not in the OED, but it’s part of American vernacular.” You have a lot of time consuming arguments, and they actually are that trivial. You wouldn’t believe it until you see it. There are magazines where it’s different. The New Yorker I think is different. [Laughs]
NC: You’ve been there since essentially the beginning of the online journalism boom, culture magazine startup sites, major changes to what we know as freelancing, and the blogosphere’s onset. Does it effect your work? To what degree are these changes discussed and analyzed at a major news magazine?
LG: Part of it is just stepping up your game. You suddenly realize when you read some of the book blogs on the web that you, as the book critic for a national magazine with a circulation of three point something million readers, you’re really not all that special. There are people out there who are shit hot writers, really fucking great. Do you ever read The Awl? Some of the prose on that site is really fucking good. I learn stuff from those writers all the time. Suddenly you realize that you’re really not special.
NC: You have a ten-week old daughter named Halcyon. What irreversible effects has she had on your psyche to date? Has she affected your writing?
LG: It’s funny; I started The Magicians just after my first daughter Lily was born. It gets you into almost a competition with one’s wife, who’s just a produced a child, which I cannot do. I’m like, “I can’t make a child, but at least I can make this!” [Laughs] It’s also just really emotional. All that male, stoic crap that one indulges in a lot of the time kind of goes away when a baby arrives. You get weepy and expressive and loving. It’s kind of a good time to be writing. I know it’s opened me up emotionally in this weird way. When I had Lily… I realize now there’s no way I could have written The Magicians without her. It’s dedicated to her, partly because I couldn’t have written a half-decent book before having a child. A lot of people can. Franzen doesn’t have any children. He just didn’t need to go through that. Turns out I did.
NC: What advice would you give to the aspiring novelist, and in what ways might it overlap or differ from the advice you’d give a young critic?
LG: To critics I just say to blog. If you can’t find anyone to publish your stuff, just blog. Editors are only interested in people who have an individual voice. Very few people do. It’s just vanishingly rare to find somebody with a coherent personality and a voice as a critic. Even if you’re putting it on your blog and that’s it, you can show it to an editor and they’ll hire you. There are so few people who are good at writing criticism who are good, and so many who are bad. The thing for novelists is never, ever give up. It’s such a mistake to give up. I went to Harvard. There were a lot of talented people, a lot of them with more talent than me, who never were published. And it’s because they weren’t willing to go through the ritual humiliations that writers go through. The constant rejection. Being forced to go back to your work and improve it, make it better, and learn from your mistakes. They became lawyers or doctors, producers or screenwriters, even though they did things I could do things with words that I could never do. All I tell writers is to never give up. Oh, and read everything! God, I can’t fucking stand writers who don’t read other writers. They’re not into reading, they’re more into their own stuff… it’s just not possible. You have to be fluent in what other people are doing to be doing decent work yourself.
NC: At the risk of getting maximalist in closing: while it’s tough to know what era we’re living in, are there recurring themes, modes of writing, patterns of speech that you feel are particularly indicative of our present literature? Do you have any guesses as to how history will remember the last decade or so of fiction? What would you like future generations to retain, either in themes or works?
LG: For me it all has to do with genre and narrative. I think we’re still struggling to be postmodern. At least in the realm of literature, I think we’ve yet to move past modernism. With the way in which modernists took apart narrative, disassembled it, and interrogated it, I think we’ve been struggling to put it back together. And we’re finally doing it. And the way we’re doing it, I think, is by integrating the structures of genre writing into literary fiction. When the modernists held sway, narrative went away. It went to live in genre fiction, and I think we’re re-embracing it now. That’s where the exciting stuff is happening now. That’s why I say that genre is our avant-garde: they’re doing the stuff that I find thrilling. Just looking at fantasy: Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Susannah Clarke. Look at Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I think is one of the early masterpieces of the 21st century. It’s a science fiction novel. That’s where the vital stuff’s happening: where genre and literary fiction meet. I say it over and over again, but that’s what feels true and exciting.