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Lev Grossman: A 'Magician' Grows Up

Lev Grossman's bestselling <em>Magicians</em> series was inspired by the long wait between books five and six of the <em>Harry Potter </em>series.
Mathieu Bourgois
Lev Grossman's bestselling Magicians series was inspired by the long wait between books five and six of the Harry Potter series.

The final book in Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy comes out this week — The Magician's Land. It's a literary fantasy, inspired by Narnia and Harry Potter, that tells the story of what happens to brilliant young wizards when they grow up and have to deal with the world.

Grossman was promoting the novel at this year's San Diego Comic-Con, and as I discovered, he's a fantastic — and slightly terrifying — person to see Comic-Con with. He has no problem taking unspoken insecurities and dragging them out into the light.

"When you're walking around Comic-Con, you're constantly gauging your own cultural literacy, and I frequently come up short," he says, as we spot a particularly inscrutable costume. "Like in the case of that, appears to be a radish, with blue tentacles and a stripey hat? I got nothing."

I have to admit, I didn't know either. But despite Grossman's self-deprecating manner, he's really not lacking in cultural literacy. "I grew up in a house full of books. +1 to nerdiness already," he jokes. "My parents were both English professors. And they were great champions of the canon, and high works of Western civilization, also Eastern civilization. So in order to irritate them, I became a devotee of all things nerdy and unrespectable, like video games, science fiction, and fantasy. And it worked; they were irritated by that."

But Grossman says that high-low cultural divide just isn't valid. And he's spun his youthful quest to irritate his parents into a profitable adulthood. He's a book critic — and as he puts it, a sort of office geek — at Time Magazine. And he's just released the last volume in his bestselling Magicians trilogy.

It's the story of high schooler Quentin Coldwater, who discovers not only that he has magical powers a la Harry Potter, but that Fillory, the magical land he loved to read about as a child is in fact real. There are no wholesome mugs of Butterbeer here, though: Quentin and his pals curse, drink and screw up their lives — they're much more like people you might actually know than lofty fantasy heroes.

Grossman says the series was inspired by the wait between books five and six of Harry Potter. "It was a long wait, and I started thinking, both about how passionately I felt connected to this character, and yet also how different my life was from his. And I started thinking about how could I tell a story like that, but tell it in an adult way, with sort of all the adult realities people are dealing with when they're in their 20s and 30s."

We know Harry Potter comes out all right in the end, Grossman says, because we see him in an epilogue dropping his own kids off at Hogwarts. But how does he get there? "What is it like when he doesn't have Dumbledore anymore to give him friendly advice — he doesn't have Voldemort anymore, to have big spectacular battles with. It's a very different kind of story, very different kind of fight. It's a struggle to figure out what magic is for, when it's not obvious."

That story, about the struggle that talented kids go through when they grow up — well, it sounded a little autobiographical to me. And Grossman says that yes, there is a little bit of himself in Quentin Coldwater.

"My 20s were — they weren't even a spectacular failure — they were like an unspectacular failure," he says ruefully. "I started and flopped out of so many careers. I had such a hard time figuring out who I was and where I was going that when I turned 30, one of the things I started doing was thinking about how to tell the story about this horrible, difficult time I'd been through, and tell it through the lens of fantasy."

It's a great time to be writing fantasy — or reading it — Grossman says, because the genre is evolving at a fearsome rate, and people are doing things with it that haven't been done before. He points particularly to Susanna Clarke's 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. "I think the style owed a lot to Jane Austen. It was very beautiful, very lyrical, very very funny, and very real, and you felt yourself reading it, and you felt yourself being moved in ways that you were accustomed to be moved by literary fiction. She was showing that fantasy could do all that stuff. There really are no limits."

But one of the things fantasy does best is give misfit kids — and adults alike — a home inside its pages. Which might account for maybe the most surprising thing about Lev Grossman: Like me, he used to love Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern books. And I have to say, I don't usually run into guys that will cop to Pern fandom. They're really quintessential teen-girl fantasy novels.

"But The White Dragon was a book about me," Grossman says. "The hero of The White Dragon was more like me than anybody I had ever seen in fiction before, and it just blew me away." So, does Lev Grossman have a little white dragon stashed away somewhere? "You may not know that about me but yeah, he's got his own house now, works in the health care industry. He's doing well, he's doing nice. We stay in touch."

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Petra Mayer
Petra Mayer died on November 13, 2021. She has been remembered by friends and colleagues, including all of us at NPR. The Petra Mayer Memorial Fund for Internships has been created in her honor.