Tue
Nov 29 2011 12:00pm
What Fantasy Does Best: Lev Grossman Talks with Peter Orullian

Lev Grossman is many things: a Harvard grad, Time Magazine book reviewer, and a New York Times bestselling writer. (You may have also enjoyed some of Grossman’s work here on Tor.com.)

He has, in my opinion, the quintessential “dry wit.” Plus, he’s a cool guy. That sounds kinda lame, but I’m leaving it in, because not everyone is cool. Lev is.

I met Lev at a lunch with Terry Brooks when Lev was on tour. As we chatted, he learned that in addition to being a writer myself, I work in the video games industry. He happened to be moderating a panel that evening at PAX Prime in Seattle on books and video gaming (or somesuch topic). He looked at me and said, “You should be on this panel.” And so it was. Thus, Lev is cool.

He also agreed to a leisurely email exchange on topics of my choosing. More coolness. The result of that back-and-forth you’ll find below. Hope you dig.

Peter Orullian: Thanks, Lev, for some of your time to banter on books and such. As a way of beginning, give us a portrait of the writer as a young man. Was this your calling? Did you fall into it because you of too many table top RPGs? Was there an early epiphany, and then a measured ascent to your current state of awesome?

Lev Grossman: It was overdetermined. You know, like the French Revolution. My parents are both English professors. My dad wrote about a dozen books of poetry — he even won a MacArthur prize — and my mom wrote a novel. In the pull-down menu of acceptable career choices, “writer” was prominently featured.

“Fantasy writer” was not on that menu however. As far as my parents are concerned that’s an act of treason. My parents gave me C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and T.H. White, but I think I was supposed to grow out of them. Which makes me think of that famous China Miéville line — when people ask me how I got into fantasy, I ask them, how did you get out of it?

PO: With that kind of pedigree, I can almost understand why some readers suggest your style is “literary fantasy.” I don’t personally get too hung up on sub-genres, particularly because, as a marketing professional myself, I know these are often abused to sell books. Still, it can prove to be interesting fodder for con-parties; so, other than “kick-ass-fantasy-book” how might you classify your work in the pantheon of sub-genres?

LG: This is a really good question. I can tell because I don’t have a good answer, though I’m sure someone’s thought of one. If I had one I would definitely abuse it to sell books! I envy the followers of Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, etc. who can simply call their stuff “epic fantasy.” There must be a word for followers of C.S. Lewis who trade in slightly quieter, more close-focus, more character-driven stuff, that crosses between the mundane and the magical. I reject “urban fantasy,” which sounds like a line of Diesel jeans, and which anyway has already been cheapened beyond repair. My wife suggests “wardrobe fantasy.”

And then of course there’s slipstream. I’ve always liked that term. It’s worn well, even though Sterling coined it 20-something years ago. But if it were going to catch on I suppose it would probably already have caught on.

PO: So, on the jeans front, thanks for the idea. I’ll call down on our friends at Diesel, cut you in for half. And “wardrobe fantasy” has a nice ring. But let me shift gears on you. There’s this notion of “semantic contagion” proposed by Ian Hacking, which suggests that some ideas should not be shared, that doing so increases the incidence of their adoption. By way of example, there’s a disorder known as apotemnophilia, where an otherwise rational person wishes to have a healthy limb amputated. If the theory holds, the idea of elective amputation might never have spread if someone hadn’t written about it. So, my question has to do with self-censorship, or self-editing. Meaning, are there things you choose not to write about, because you don’t want to endorse or encourage a kind of behavior or thinking? I don’t mean to get all heavy on you, but, you know, a guy wants to know.

LG: Oh, I don’t worry about that kind of thing. If I did I’d never get anything done. I should be so lucky as to come up with a contagious idea! And you know, even if I did, I doubt it would be anything truly malevolent. I’m too boring a person for that. It would be something like, what if we all deliberately buttoned our shirts wrong?

PO: Okay, heavy discussion averted. Let’s talk about fiction as autobiography. David Morrell’s got an interesting take on this. It’s not the whole “fiction as a thinly veiled diary” sort of thing. Rather, do you ever look back at fiction your wrote some time ago and see how the world or your own ideals or thoughts underpinned the work? Or do you feel it’s confabulation through-and-through?

LG: It’s definitely not a through-and-through confabulation. My life and my work definitely have a strong connection, but it’s a bit of a weird one. My work isn’t about my past, it’s about my future.

Let me explain.

I plotted out The Magicians in 2004. It took me five years to write it. At the end of those five years I was talking to my shrink about the book, explaining what happens in it and so on, and he looked sort of gobsmacked. He walked me through the whole story, showing how it was a tightly structured allegory of all the stuff I’d been doing during those five years — basically I’d written out a program for the next five years of my life, in a metaphorical language, then written the story as a novel.

So fiction for me — it turns out — is a way of experimenting with my life before I actually do it. You could call it preemptive autobiography. Have you ever found anything like that in your own work?

PO: You know, I have. Without going into a lot of detail, in the first few years after my daughter was born, I sold several short stories to anthologies. When I look back now, it seems glaringly obvious that the feelings of a new dad — insecurity, questions of mortality, new hope, and (ahem) dad characters — were making their way into my work. It all happened rather organically, subconsciously, and it isn’t necessary for a reader to be a dad to enjoy the stories. Coincidence? I think not. In any case, there you go.

Now, Lev: Theme. Beyond the always hysterical “Red Ryder BB Gun with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time” what-I-want-for-Christmas theme that Ralphie wrote . . . what are your thoughts? I mean, does this even occur to you in relation to your own work? Do you plan it? Do you find it bubbling up as you write? Is it hogwash? Do tell.

LG: In the early stages I consider it absolute death to even think thematic questions. I try not to even frame them. When the book is still molten and pliable, I let it take whatever shape it wants to take. That’s yer unconscious talkin’, son, and you don’t want to be interruptin’! If I think about theme in those early months, I’ll get the urge to shape the story to fit the theme, and for me, that’s turning the process inside-out. You get something formally correct but programmatic and dead. The theme should emerge from the story, not the other way round.

For best results, I plot the story out, then I write it, and then — ONLY THEN — will I think about what it might, in its heart of hearts, actually be about. I’ll wait until its cooled and mostly hardened.

Even then I’m not always the best person to figure this out, by the way. Sometimes I have to ask beta readers, and they’ll explain it to me. Then I’ll feed that back into the way the story’s written, tweak it, use it to organize things a little better, help the characters understand what they’re going through more clearly.

But I don’t push this stuff too hard. The idea that the meaning of a story is expressible in a couple of tidy sentences is largely a myth of the high school English class anyway. I think the best stories have a meaning that is — like the contents of some ancient, foul, accursed grimoire — unspeakable.

PO: We’re soul mates, then, when it comes to theme and fiction. What about worldbuilding? Are you, as George R.R. Martin says, an architect or a gardener? In other words, is everything carefully plotted out and constructed in advance of the fingers-on-keyboard time? Or do you set to typing and the story grows as you go?

LG: I’m sure nobody is pure architect or pure gardener, but if pressed I would say I’m more on the gardening side. I start with the story. The story needs a certain world to happen in — it needs magic, it needs a different gravitational constant, it needs unproblematic time travel, and so on. Stories have certain requirements, which you as the worldbuilder dutifully fulfill.

But the funny thing is, at that point the process starts to feed back into itself. As you’re detailing your world, filling it out, those details affect the story that’s happening in it, and the story adjusts. Then the world alters further to accommodate that changed story. The cycle runs a theoretically infinite number of times. Repeat until clinically insane.

PO: I’ve heard some writers describe that last bit as their “feedback loop.” Whatever name one uses, I find it a gratifying part of the process. Now, about the fantasy genre. I have a question or two about its strengths, but before pre-disposing you: What do you think fantasy does particularly well — maybe better — than other fiction genres?

LG: Interesting question. I think about this a lot.

In The Magician’s Book, her book about C.S. Lewis, Laura Miller talks about the sense of longing that both Lewis and Tolkien felt for a vanished English past which perhaps never existed. A past in which the land was green, and life was simple, and people felt connected to the world around them in a way that we — living as we do in urban and suburban technopoli, using technology we don’t understand — rarely do.

Fantasy does that well: longing.

And it’s a powerful tool for describing psychological conflicts, too. This is the genre that unlocks the door to the cage of the unconscious, so that psychological monsters can come out into the real world and be real monsters.

PO: I like that. Tell me more about those psychological monsters. Are they incarnations of the writer’s own inner junk? Societal issues, like say Dracula to Victorian prudery? Are we giving form to the “demons” of our fantasy races/characters? All/none of the above?

LG: For me, it’s all about the inner junk. When someone reads one of my novels, they’re looking at the raw — or only slightly cooked — code of my unconscious. I’m sure that gets wrapped around some stuff from outside, social issues and whatnot, and if that stuff gets in there, that’s fine with me. But it’s never the point.

By the way, it’s not like I think my unconscious is so fascinating that everybody should go out and read about it. But I find that our unconsciouses (unconsciousi?) tend to converge, the deeper down you go. People recognize some of my monsters, because they’ve got the same ones.

PO: Okay, let’s flip it. What do you think our genre could do better? Either because we as writers need to stretch, or perhaps because the genre has limitations. Either/or.

LG: I think our project, collectively, as fantasy writers, is to question fantasy’s basic assumptions. We need to find its blind spots and attack everything that’s sacred to it. The coming of age story. The fatherly mentor. The faithful comic sidekick. The easy moral choices. The more we chip away at the foundations the genre rests on, the stronger it will become. There’s no end to where we can take it. Fantasy may have limitations as a genre, but whenever I’ve thought I’ve found them in the past, somebody has always come along and blown right past them.

PO: Let’s shift gears agin. I’m a musician, so no interview of mine passes without me exposing your music side — or lack thereof. So, tell me, are you in the listen-to-music-while-writing camp, or does the very notion baffle you? And part two: In either case, does music have any influence/place in your writerly life?

LG: I oscillate wildly (Smiths reference!) between writing with and writing without music. I like to go without when I can, just because sometimes you get bad interactions between the words of the song and the words you’re trying to get down on page. But other times, when my lizard-brain isn’t secreting the right neurochemicals, music can induce them and get them flowing. A lot of The Magician King was written to songs by the Canadian band Metric.

Generally speaking my relationship with music is intense but vexed. I spent 13 or 14 years seriously studying the cello, but more or less dropped it after college and began noodling on guitar. I have thwarted dreams of being a rock star. I like performing — I’m hammy at readings, I emote a lot. What I really want when I’m writing is a bunch of people watching the words arrive on a big screen and applauding at the parts they like and nodding their heads. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

PO: Performance writing. I think that would be stellar. Poets could be the opening act, penning limericks to warm up the crowd. But I digress. When you’re not writing to music, what are you listening to mostly? Is there a favorite artist and/or genre that occupies your playlist most of the time?

LG: Oh, I have weird eclectic taste, largely because I’m too lazy to actively seek out new music. I hesitate to say “alternative rock,” because it has all kinds of weird associations and make me sound, well, like I’m 42. Which I am. I like anything with good lyrics, basically. And I have a special interest in nerd rock and nerdcore — MC Frontalot, Nerf Herder, mc chris.

PO: I hear you on the “eclectic” thing. A lot of folks assume I’m a metal-head. There’s plenty of heavy stuff I like, plenty I don’t. But barring most country, which I haven’t quite gotten into, I listen to progressive rock, jazz, standards, new wave, punk, classic rock, and on and on. Which brings me to: What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?

LG: I did assume you were a metal-head! I have a secret Alice in Chains habit, but I don’t even know if they’re metal or not.

Best concert ever? I don’t go to a ton of live music, but I’m going to say The Shins in 2007 in San Francisco. They did Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” as an encore. I don’t even know how to explain how good it was. (It sounded like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hf4fQAuDviw) What was yours?

PO: People debate about whether or not AIC is metal; things is: It doesn’t matter; the music is fantastic. I’m a huge fan, myself. As for my own best concert? It was probably the double bill of Queensryche and Dream Theater. Fans had been wanting to see this tour for a long time. The two heavyweights of progressive metal finally did it. James LaBrie and Geoff Tate are two of the best voices in contemporary music. It was superior musicianship on display. Also, it rocked!

And you know, here’s the irony: They also did a Pink Floyd cover. And it’s likewise on Youtube—sounded like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqmRBhsNdyo.

Let’s finish this way: What can we look forward to in the future from Lev Grossman? Give us a look at the road ahead.

LG: The road ahead: sadly predictable! I’m writing a third and (probably) final Magicians novel. That’s priority number one. I also have a hard-to-classify post-Magicians project that I’m finding really interesting, annoyingly interesting. But Magicians first.

PO: Well, cool. Thanks, Lev, for the time. It’s been cool peeking inside your mind. And folks, it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Get yourselves to a bookstore (yes, those bricks-and-mortar things), and pick up some of Lev’s work. It’s that good.


Peter Orullian is the author of the recently released epic fantasy novel The Unremembered, the first in the Vault of Heaven series. You can find his interview series with popular fantasy authors of the day both here on Tor.com and at his site.

3 comments
Evan Langlinais
1. Skwid
Woo, Nerdcore!

Lev, if you read these: Have you seen Front live? He puts on a great show.

Also, have you heard Dr. Awkward? His "Unlimited" album from last year is really, really excellent.
Johnny B. Goode
2. Johnny B. Goode
AiC! Queensryche! Dream Theater! Nerf Hearder (Buffy! Oh, I know you know what I'm talkin about...)!

It seems that good (great even) musical taste goes hand in hand with being a fantasy writer/fan? I've a feeling that somewhere out there there's a book entitled 'So you want to be a great fantasy author, eh?' - the first chapter starts with a list of bands and opening command: "Start listening to these. No really, do it."

Anyway, thanks for a fun interview!
Johnny B. Goode
3. Luke Piper
Thank you for the interview Peter and Lev. I love hearing about how successful authors as both your selves live the writing life. It's a reassurance to see the things that work working for me also.

Keep at the labor of love.

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