Lev Grossman’s ‘Magicians’ series casts spell on adult readers

GWEN IFILL: Next:  Magical fantasy isn't just for young readers. Millions of adults are avid fans of a new twist to the genre.

Jeffrey Brown is back with our book conversation.

"Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed" — first line of what has grown into a series of fantasy tale called "The Magician Trilogy."  But while filled with echoes of such classic as "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Harry Potter," these books are aimed more at an adult audience.

The final chapter, "The Magician's Land," has just been released.

Author Lev Grossman is also the book critic for "TIME" magazine and joins us now.

And welcome to you.

LEV GROSSMAN, Author, "The Magician's Land": Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it true you explicitly wanted to start with classics like "Narnia" and "Harry Potter" and kind of play with them and make them into something for adults?

LEV GROSSMAN: Well, I love those books. I have always loved them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even as a kid?

LEV GROSSMAN: Even a as child, I loved "Narnia" and then later "Harry Potter."

You know, when I was a writer in my 30s, I was still very attached to those books, but also very aware of how different my life was than the lives oft characters in those books. And I started to wonder if it would be possible to write a story like that about young people who are discovering their power they didn't know they had or finding their way into a secret world, but to write it for adults in contemporary literary language and trying to kind of use those stories to talk about the kinds of issues we struggle with as adults.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what are the main challenges that you found in that? For one thing, you have to give them, I don't know, actual — they suffer the indignities of adults, right, in the current world.

LEV GROSSMAN: Very much so.

JEFFREY BROWN: Like car payments and things like that.

LEV GROSSMAN: They don't have car payments. I don't subject them to that.


LEV GROSSMAN: But they have drinking problems.


LEV GROSSMAN: They have sex lives. They have — they get depressed.

The most important thing, I think, to me was that they — I didn't want there to be any kind of a Dumbledore in these books. I didn't want there to be the sort of avuncular adviser who when these wizards strayed off the path would say sort of say, oh, no, back over here, that's the bad guy, you go fight him.

I felt very lost in my life when I was writing these books. And I wanted to write a book about people who were lost in that way. And I didn't want them to have a Gandalf at their shoulder and saying, this is what you do. These characters, they don't know what to do. They don't know who to fight. And they don't where to go. They have to figure it out for themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: And of course there's the whole idea of magic and what that is and what that means, right, and how you make that real enough for an adult audience.

LEV GROSSMAN: Well, when you learn magic, you — obviously, you gain great power.

And I thought it was important that you have to give a lot. I didn't want this to be something that could be taught to schoolchildren in schools. I wanted it to be a little bit wilder than that and a little bit more demanding, a little bit more sort of raw.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you know where this was going from the beginning? Was it conceived as a trilogy with a beginning, middle and end?


LEV GROSSMAN: It definitely had a beginning.

Like I said, I was quite lost when I started writing this book. And I couldn't even look that far ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, explain that because I have read that you — you have talked about being depressed, in a state of depression at that time.

LEV GROSSMAN: I struggled with depression, and I felt very powerless in myself.

And I want to be almost — by writing a story about a guy who discovers that he can do magic, I was almost trying to figure out how to find my own voice as a writer and to find a sense of power as a person, because I felt so un-magical, and the world felt so un-enchanted to me. I had to find my way to a place where I felt like there was a little bit of magic in my life.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you really — you draw that direct a line between your own depression and the writing of the book?

LEV GROSSMAN: Oh, I was always struck as a kid when the Pevensies in "Narnia," when they grow up, they kind of lose magic and they lose Narnia when they get interested in adult things.

And I felt there must be some magic to being a grownup. And it would be rich and weird and complicated magic, different from the kind of magic you read about in those books, but it must be there somewhere. And I sort of tried to create it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you or do you still worry about not being taken seriously as a writer of genre fiction?

I'm thinking of you in your "TIME" magazine hat, where you're running in kind of high literary circles in some ways, certainly many of the books you come across and no doubt the authors.

LEV GROSSMAN: Yes, it's true. Fantasy doesn't get the kind of respect that literary fiction does.

But this is — we live in a culture that is so hungry for stories. People love them and people in particular I think are interested in magic. So when you write fantasy, it's true the tiny subculture that is sort of literary New York doesn't care that much, but there are so many millions of people who do.

You definitely — there's no lack of respect out there for fantasy writers. Maybe it's not that particular kind. It's not the Pulitzer kind. But it's pretty good.

JEFFREY BROWN: I talk to a lot of authors here and there's often the subject comes up of the future of the book and writing and who are we writing for kind of thing.


JEFFREY BROWN: Are you sanguine? You're doing well, so you must be feeling like somebody's out there reading, huh?

LEV GROSSMAN: I think this is a great time to be writing and to be reading novels.

I think we spent a lot of time in the shadow of modernism, of Faulkner and Wolfe and Joyce, Kafka, these writers who were very difficult, wrote these very deconstructive plots, which important I think at that time. And I still love those books very, very much.

But I think novelists are kind of rediscovering storytelling. They're rediscovering the power of plot. They're rediscovering all these things that genre writers have known for a long time, fantasy writers, science fiction writers, romance writers, that you can write these powerful stories. And there's such powerful ways of expressing yourself.

I feel like all novelists, including literary novelists, are kind of coming back to that. And it makes the novel accessible in a way that's just wonderful. I don't see a downside to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will continue this discussion online, OK?

For now, the book is "The Magician's Land."

Lev Grossman, thank you so much.

LEV GROSSMAN: Thank you.