Jun 5 2012 11:00am

Lev Grossman Explains Why No One Reads Books in Narnia

This past Tuesday, I had the good fortune of being in conversation with Lev Grossman in at Word Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York for the paperback launch of his novel, The Magician King. If anyone ever has a chance to catch Lev speaking or reading live and in person, I can’t recommend the experience enough. He’s a smart guy who wears his geek credentials on his sleeve like it’s never been out of style. Grossman is in some ways what a young geek ought to always aspire to be: casually cool, but successful at geekery. When asked later in the evening about being a book reviewer for a living; Grossman joked, “I would be unemployable otherwise.”  Below are a few more highlights from our conversation, including why Lev thinks Harry Potter wasn’t his hero.

Because the Magicians books contain so many references to existing literature (fantasy or otherwise) I really wanted to see what Grossman thought about the analogs between magic and the creative act of being a writer. In the first novel, when Quentin and his buddies are about to graduate from Brakebills, Dean Fogg reveals to them that the ability to do magic is closely related to their emotional instability. To put it another way; sad people are magical, which to me, means creative. I asked Lev if he felt there was a connection between being depressed and being creative.

“Magic means a lot of different things [in literature] but one thing I think it stands in for is the creative process. And that thing that people do when they’re sort of reaching inside their chests, which is the sensation I have when I’m writing. I think it’s a good stand-in; I’m not sure people become writers because they’re broken or depressed. I was seriously depressed when I wrote The Magicians. I’m not depressed at all anymore…I’ve had so much therapy and medication now. I began to worry if I would write anymore if I wasn’t miserable.”

Obviously, Lev was still able to write, and one of the more interesting distinctions from The Magicians to The Magician King was the re-introduction of the character Julia and the exploration of her backstory. I told Lev that in many ways I feel like Julia, a hedge witch who maybe didn’t pursue the “normal” path. It seems that Julia and Quentin both represent very different ways to achieve creative or professional success, so I wondered what the connection was between the two characters and which one Lev related to more. Futher, I wanted to know if the characters from these books are not only analogs for artists, but also analogs for geeks specifically.

“Quentin is an incredibly nerdy, but he just happens to be nerdy. Not everyone he meets at Brakebills is as far-gone as he is…Now. I love Harry Potter. I love it. But I didn’t feel like he was necessarily my hero, particularly. Because he’s not a reader. I don’t think he’s read a novel in his life. One of the layers I want to add on to that basic narrative was what if someone entered that world, having read the fictional version of it and then being forced to compare it to real life, and then finding the fiction so much more compelling. But in many ways Julia is much more that person. You know, Quentin would like to see himself as an outsider, but in many ways he’s the consummate insider. He’s the guy who got in. He’s the .001% And then it’s not good enough for him to be Brakebills, and then Fillory. So he can’t really claim outsider status. At least not anymore.”

We then switched over to talking about Julia more specifically.

“Julia’s story took me by surprise a little bit. I took the Quentin route, in some ways. I went to an expensive college. I went to an expensive grad school. I got the degrees and stuff like that. I took that very Quentiny path. So when I started writing the Julia stuff, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was after. I really felt like I was writing about somebody else. I was just going to write a chapter, because obviously she’d been up to something in between The Magicians and The Magician King, but we didn’t know exactly what. But when I started writing her story, suddenly all this stuff came boiling up and I was reminded that I [felt] like I wasted my entire life between 21 and 34. I completely forgot that I spent 10 years temping. I couldn’t get anything published. I forgot I was incredibly pissed about that…I watched other people I knew getting successful and I was thinking nothing was happening for me. And I’d forgotten how intensely I had that feeling of being left behind and left out. Which I feel everyone does at some point.”

After a bit, I was really itching to figure out which fantasy world Lev Grossman would want to live in, and if he did live there could a fantasy author function inside of a fantasy world? Do people write fantasy novels in Narnia?

“That would be over. The first 35 years of my life if you could hop through that credenza and it’s Narnia, but you could never come back, I’d do it in a second. Though you would have to re-train, become a farmer or something. It’s hard to know what the Narnia economy is based on. Narnia would be the one I would go to then. But not anymore…But I don’t know if art would be necessary. There is no fiction in Narnia. There are no novels in Narnia. I think it’s a world so complete, why would you ever want to escape into something else? Imagine a world where you didn’t want to read anymore. How great would that be? And you didn’t need books. Because everything was so full and real. Your life would be sort of that interesting.”

After that, I pointed out that Narnia itself may be the reason you never need to read anymore, thus responsible for illteracy rates and that we should all Occupy Narnia.

Lev Grossman’s The Magician King is out in paperback from Penguin now, and you can read an excerpt from it here on Tor.com.

(Quotes fro Lev Grossman taken from audio recording of a live interview with Ryan Britt which took place on 5-29-12 at Word Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY)

Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He mantains he is a hedge witch.

1. tree_and_leaf
There are books in Narnia, though I'll grant that Tumnus' collection (the only instance, apart from the cookbook in the giant's castle in "The Silver Chair") all seem to be history or philosophy. But there seems to be a fairly lively oral culture of story-telling, which fulfils at least some of the same functions.
2. saezutte
Great interview and I definitely want to pick up Mr. Grossman's books now, but I have to say: I would never want to live in a world I perceived as so real and perfect and complete that I didn't want to read. I know the idea is that it's real in a way I can't imagine, so I wouldn't need fiction if I were there (not-coincidentally similar to the Christian ideal of Heaven), but I like this world as is, full of holes and imperfections that we humans need to fill in on our own, not a world where the meaning of perfection is handed to us easily.

If I could step into any fantasy world, I'd step into the worlds of the His Dark Materials trilogy, and in the end, I'd step right back into mine as those characters did and set out creating the Republic of Heaven right where I am.
Ryan Britt
3. ryancbritt

Lev talked a little bit about a conversation he had with Pullman once. I think a lot of this stuff comes from those books!
4. KateNotZeta
I'm sure Doctor Cornelius had books to teach Caspian from.

Of course there aren't many books in Narnia - the trees are people and you have to try and engage an animal in conversation before you know it's safe to kill it, so paper and parchment are both pretty hard to come by. Then, once you have got your book out, there can't be much of a readership for it. Fauns and centaurs are OK, but dryads aren't likely to be too keen on paper and naiads will soak any book through. That leaves you with dwarfs, marshwiggles and the occasional human.

I guess you have to go to Archenland or Calormen!
5. Mary Vernage
Several books are mentioned by name as being on Mr. Tumnus' bookshelves. Caspian had lessons. Narnia was not an illiterate kingdom.
6. Ape of Zarathustra
If Narnia -- and I assume Fillory -- are special in such a way that even living as a farmer is so "full and real" that you wouldn't even enjoy reading a book in a long winter night, how on earth did Quentin ever get bored from being king of such a world?

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