The unassuming creator of one of our favorite fantasy worlds chats with Nerdeek about the show, his books, and what we can look forward to next
While many of us were first introduced to the wonderful world of The Magicians through the Syfy show, the trilogy upon which the series is based has been casting a spell on readers since 2009. Written by award-winning journalist and author Lev Grossman, The Magicians follows a young man by the name of Quentin Coldwater as he discovers magic is real and finds himself accepted to Brakebills College of Magical Pedagogy. Upon beginning his academic career as a magician, he becomes acquainted with several of the other students, including the naturally gifted Alice, his roommate Penny, and upper classmates Eliot and Janet (known as Margo to TV fans). Grasping magic is no easy task, however, and things are further complicated by the arrival of a malevolent magician known only as The Beast. Once the newly minted magicians complete their schooling, they discover that Fillory is real, but so are the dangers that hide within it.
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We had a chance to sit down for a few minutes at Comicpalooza to chat with the famed author on his books, the show, and upcoming projects. We even got him to answer a few of our burning (but silly) questions! Check out the video and transcript of the interview below:
Going into the season two finale, we knew we had just gotten a renewal for the show from Syfy for season three. Did you feel really excited about that? Was there any doubt?
Yes. sort of. I certainly was super excited about it. I love the show and making the show, and it’s just like a super big adventure. There was something weird that happened with the renewal where it came late. They renewed The Expanse, and I was like – I look at The Expanse and think, okay, we’re like siblings. Mommy and daddy love The Expanse, um, when are they going to renew us? It was like a month before the renewal came down. Some weird negotiation must’ve been happening, but on a level of power that is way above the one where I exist.
Well, we’re just glad that there is a season three. We’re very every excited, especially after that season finale. It was quite shocking. Obviously, you probably know where it’s going, but the rest of us don’t!
I know a certain amount about where it’s going. I have seen the season 3 document, which is a document of about 10 pages of densely written notes about what’s going to happen. So, uh, I know some things.
Are we in for some good surprises?
Yeah. I mean, the show departs significantly from the books, to the extent that I’m often quite surprised by revelations from the show. That continues to be the case for season three.
Well, leading from that, we know a lot of authors dream of seeing their stories come to life on the big or small screen. Was there anything in particular that you were pretty firm about that they could not change, or you wanted to make sure was well represented?
Yeah, yeah, there were a few different things. One of the points of The Magicians, is that when I was in high school, I was obsessed with Watchmen – I read Watchmen in high school. The way that it went at the superhero genre and tipped over some sacred canons that made it feel super real. I always wanted that for The Magicians. I wanted The Magicians to be like that, and, you know, there’s a tendency for networks to push for things to be conventional, and I was really hoping that those unconventional aspects of The Magicians would stay in place. And I think they largely have. Things I was keeping an eye on where I wanted people to swear. I don’t think there was enough swearing in fantasy – check! They are so foul mouthed on the show – it’s even worse than the books. That was something. What else? I wanted Eliot to…I don’t know what Eliot’s sexuality is, but he’s not straight. He’s something more complicated than that. No one ever says he’s gay, but he’s just – his sexuality is much broader and more fluid than that. I worried they would make him straight, and they didn’t do that, and in fact, there are more gay characters in the show than in the books. So, that was big for me. I didn’t want Quentin to be a conventional hero. I really wanted them to pursue this idea and stick with this idea, which is kind of hard to work out ‘cause storytelling tends to cut to other way. This idea that Quentin is not the chosen one, he’s not marked out by fate or destiny for some great heroic role. Stories want to go that direction, that’s how the conventional architecture always go. So, I wanted to make sure that theme was part of it, and by the end of the first season, you can seer see they really embrace it.
Was there anything that John (McNamara) and Sera (Gamble) did that you were really excited about?
Um, yeah, a lot of things. They did some things with Julia that I thought was really exciting. Julia was a character that I didn’t really focus on until the second book. I really didn’t figure her out and get her story straight. Because they had the benefit of the second book to work with, they simply ran Julia and Quentin’s stories side-by-side, which chronically is how they work. I really was happy to see that – I’m glad they didn’t wait – they just went straight at that story. The cast of The Magicians is super diverse, much more diverse than the books – I always thought that was a failing of the books – and I was really happy to see the show cast a lot of people who aren’t white. That was a good thing. I was excited about that. John and Sera are extremely funny – funnier than me. Some of the lines they came up with, some of the places they push the characters to – places I never got, and I always just have a great sort of excitement whenever I see that.
Speaking of Quentin, one of the things that set your story apart from many of the others that we hear is that you’ve got a main character who has really crippling depression and a lot of anxiety, and that’s not something you commonly see. Was this something that was a conscious decision on your part?
Yeah, it was definitely an unconscious decision. It only dawned on me consciously kind of midway through the writing, but depression is something that I struggle with a lot. At first I started writing Quentin, and it was like, he’s just an ordinary guy, and halfway through the writing it was like “no, actually he’s super depressed, that’s because I’m super depressed and I just think that’s normal.” These things that you just figure out over time. I feel like a lot of fantasy is about depression. A lot of fantasy is about living in a world that you feel like it’s disenchanted, or you could feel that it’s disconnected from you. Either because it’s what’s in the book or it’s about enchanted worlds. It’s about worlds that have some organic connection to life and some force that’s greater than you and it soothes that sense that’s it’s missing in the real world. So much of fantasy is about depression…I was really happy to have a depressed character that works specifically on those problems. And that’s something I hear about back a lot.
Is there one particular fan response that really stuck with you?
I got a letter once from a woman whose sister had died, she killed herself, and she’d left behind a copy of The Magicians with some notes in it. I don’t want to get too much further than that, but it’s the kind of the story that you never ever forget – it’s a powerful moment. Often I hear people say that “oh, I gave this to my spouse or girlfriend or parents as a way to help them understand how I feel.” Those stories always stay with me.
Well, let’s talk a little bit about something more fun. We know that you’ve created this wonderfully rich environment and universe in your books. Is there an author whose world you would really want to visit?
Yeah, definitely, most of them, I would say. The answer’s quite boring. I’m obviously a huge fan of Watchmen – I don’t want to go where the Watchman verse. I’m often drawn to the dark and gritty worlds, where I would never set foot and if I did I would live for about 11 seconds. Where do I want to go? I want to go to Narnia. I think I would enjoy myself virtually in Narnia. I think I would have a very good time as a kind of visiting adjunct at Hogwarts, I think that would be a good role for me.
Which topic or subject would you teach at Hogwarts?
I think charms always drew me. Illusions. Not the really hardcore stuff, but I think I would have a lot of fun.
We know that you were a journalist before you transitioned into writing novels, and you just recently quit your job. What has been the best advice and the worst advice you’ve gotten during this transition?
As a writer? Uh, I think “write every day” is one of the worst. I think every writer starting out, unless they have a trust fund, is working and or taking care of children. When someone tells you to write every day, for me I look back at them and say “what are you kidding? Do you remember, have you ever had a job? Do you remember what that was like?” If I miss a day, I’m not going to feel bad about it. I always want to write and whenever I have a chance, I’m gonna write, but if I miss a day I’m not going to beat myself up about it. It’s a pet peeve of mine, that particular advice. My brother had a writing teacher who told him something that he passed on to me – this is coming in the favorites department – “the great thing about writing is you only have to play to your strengths. Do the things you do well, and then leave the other stuff out. If you’re working on a scene and it’s death, and you’re grinding and your fingers have gone numb, and you don’t know what’s going, often times it’s something that’s skippable. Summarize things and move on to where you feel like you know where you are and what you’re doing. I’ve often given myself permission to stop and say “wait, I’m bad at this. I love it when other people do it, but I can’t do it, and I’m going to move on to something that I can do and actually works.”
We know that you probably have some great interviews in your journalistic past, but was there one that was such a great standout or was your favorite?
Probably the best interview I ever did was J.K. Rowling. It did not result in my writing a great piece about that interview. My piece on the J.K. Rowling interview was so bad that it was famous for being bad, but the actual interview was so good…she was so good, I felt so good talking to her. It was one of the interviews I enjoyed the most…the interviews where the person says the smartest things…that’s the one that leaps out at me.
Of all the characters you created in The Magicians, is there one that you feel you’re the most like?
I’m the most like Julia. That was something I knew while I was writing. There was a time in my life where I was a lot like Quentin – that was about twenty years ago. Present me is a lot closer to Julia.
How about one that you would love to be like?
Oh, my hero is Janet. Janet is my hero. She is comfortable with her own aggression in a way that I long to be. She doesn’t pull punches, because why would you?
In your own world, if you were assigned to a Brakebills discipline, which one would it be?
I think it would be something…something like persnickety. I don’t see myself standing on a mountaintop calling down lightning. I’m more kind of the minor mending world…I would go with minor mending. Quentin and I could be in the same club there. Fiddling with something small I think is where my discipline would lie.
If you could create a crossover between The Magicians and another show, which would you choose?
Uh, it’s between Adventure Time and Doctor Who…um, definitely Doctor Who. I’ve worked it out in my mind, and Doctor Who. I would like to hear the Doctor straighten out my characters on a few things. He always knows what’s what, and he has a good way of putting it. I think my characters would benefit a lot from seeing the Doctor.
We know you watch the show and you’ve had a chance to watch season two. Which one was your favorite episode and why?
It’s between two. They have the magicians rob a bank in episode seven. I have a particular soft spot for heists, and I think they did it well. That was a highlight for me. But there’s another moment for me – I’m not going to be able to call out the episode number- but it’s where Quentin and Penny, they go and find the questing beast and they kind of try to get a good wish out of her but they don’t get what they want, and Quentin finally says “look, just send me home.” He’s sort of in full Fillorian archer regalia, and the questing beast sends him to Manhattan, and he shows up and he’s just given up, and he takes his bow and his quiver of arrows and just chucks it in the trash and walks away. That happens in the books too, and it’s always been one of my favorite moments. It’s one of those things they got just right on the screen.
If you had a choice between one of these, would you be a magician, magical creature, god, or a niffin?
Did you say god? Yeah, that one, that’s what I would be. No question about that.
Would you be a naughty god?
I like to think that I would be a benevolent deity, but until you experience omnipotence, you really never know where it’s going to take you.
We know there are a lot of fans who are aspiring writers. From you personally, what would be the best advice you could give?
I like to remind people who are working on their own stuff that there’s a lot of time. There are a lot of twenty something wunderkids out there, and I’m not one of them. I didn’t start…start writing The Magicians – write the first line of it – until I was thirty five, and it was published when I was forty. That was the year I turned forty, and that was my first successful book that did well and I felt like I said what I wanted to say. And I was forty years old. I just tell people never give up, never give up. If you want it, never give up. I wrote for twenty years before The Magicians came out, and it took that long for me to drill down and strip all the junk away and to find my voice. If you really want it, it’s there for you. Just don’t give up.
Well, we know about The Magicians, but what’s your next big exciting project?
I’ve got a couple…a couple of unannounced ones, which I still can’t announce. The big one is a book about King Arthur. I was obsessed with The Once and Future King and Mallory when I was younger, and also I’m obsessed with them now, and I had an idea for I could do my own take on the story. It’s a big, ambitious project which I’m about halfway through. That’s the big one that’s coming up. I don’t think I’m going to get it out next year…it’s probably for 2019.
Anything you want to leave us with?
I’m going to go back to never give up, in case between when I said that and now you’ve given up, get back on that horse, don’t give up.