“What if Harry Potter Were a Reader?” — SDCC Spotlight on Lev Grossman

For his Sunday morning spotlight at San Diego Comic-Con, Lev Grossman gave a talk about how he developed The Magicians, took audience questions, and also brought up Sera Gamble and John McNamara, co-creators of the forthcoming TV adaptation. And not only did we get a look at the extended trailer—we also got to see a clip from the show.

Grossman started off by talking about his childhood obsession with fantasy novels, kicked off by reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe at age 8. His English mother had, like the Pevensie children, been sent off to the countryside during the war, but allegedly did something so naughty that her host family actually sent her back to London. Fifteen years later on the way to her final exams at Oxford, she stopped off at the pub and was told by an older gentleman there that she ought to have a glass of brandy to steady her nerves. The older gentleman was C.S. Lewis, and, Grossman said, “if C.S. Lewis hands you a glass of brandy, you’re going to drink the damn brandy.” (Grossman noted that everything turned out fine and she got a first, though she claims she remembers very little of what happened after the brandy.)

Grossman’s parents were both “extremely fancy” professors of English literature. On one hand, he grew up in a household where the importance of books and writing was always recognized; however, his parents hated fantasy novels. Naturally “as with the things your parents hate,” Grossman came to love it—Tolkien, Piers Anthony (though he observed that the quality falls off drastically after Golem in the Gears), Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, Anne McCaffery, Ursula K. LeGuin.

It was the Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea—the first fantasy novel Grossman had read that was “written by someone who was American, was a woman—that started his path toward the creation of The Magicians—on re-reading it in the mid-1990s, he realized that it was the parts of the school set in the magic school on the island of Roke that had made the deepest impression on him. “Wow, this was great; I wish it had more Roke in it,” he recalled thinking. “What if I wrote a novel that was entirely set at a school for wizards?” At this, there was considerable laughter from the audience. “No, that’s crazy talk!” And then, the next year, the first Harry Potter book was published.

Grossman said that he was finally spurred to complete his “school for wizards” book by a number of factors—including the “great sense of anger and jealousy” he felt when his twin brother sent him the first five chapters of his own novel in progress. But there were also the general developments in fantasy literature in general: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the novels of Kelly Link, even George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones—but in particular Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which Grossman said was instrumental in showing him that a novel could accomplish everything that “literary fiction” was meant to do while also having magic in it.

Nonetheless, Grossman said that The Magicians was a difficult pitch to his agent in 2004, being that “peak Potter” had been achieved by then. He reshaped the story by framing it in terms of his own experience—what if Harry had been an American, “swore all the time, called his friends ‘dude'”; what if he had “things that Rowling for good and just reasons did not give Harry…drinking problems, what if he had a sex life—a beyond-snogging kind of sex life—what if he had a mild undiagnosed mood disorder?” But more than that, Grossman said, he wondered what it would be like if Harry were a reader. There is, he noted, so little in the Potterverse about reading material that it wasn’t clear that there was such a thing as literature in the Potterverse. Obviously, though, anyone who went to a magic school would be a “colossal fantasy nerd.” Grossman said that if he’d been in Harry’s position, stashed in a cupboard under the stairs, he would have been “reading and re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia over and over again.” Such a person might arrive at a magic school feeling as if they were now the hero of their favorite fantasy novel.

Of course, reality is “more poorly organized” than fiction, which is why Grossman said that he wanted to remove any kind of Dumbledore analogue, so that there was no “avuncular advisor figure” to steer the characters back on the right path. He also didn’t want a Voldemort-style Big Bad, because that sort of character means that the protagonist knows exactly what they’re going to do in their life. Whereas Grossman wanted his characters not using magic to fight evil so much as trying to figure out what it was for, and that The Magician’s Land was as close as any of them were ever going to get.

Having explained the background to his novels, Grossman opened the floor to questions. The first came from a woman in Iceland via a text she sent to a friend in the audience, asking why Janet’s storyline in The Magician’s Land involved so much sexual humiliation. There was a brief moment of awkward laughter when Grossman paused and said “Any other questions?” before going on to say that he didn’t quite see it as humiliation in that he didn’t believe Janet felt humiliated—rather, she was angry and exacted revenge on the man who mistreated her. After commenting on the importance of his characters having sexual lives and complicated sexual relationships, he said, “I’m sorry I fluffed that question so badly,” and by way of apology and thanks for the question, he gave his Comic-Con laptop bag to the questioner (specifically, to her present friend so that he could send it to her in Iceland).

The next question addressed Grossman’s process. He said that he’s “a big outliner,” who has trouble writing to a structure that he’s making up as he goes and needs something to write towards. His first drafts, he confessed, are terrible—they have virtually no dialogue and the characters have no feelings at that point either; “they just walk around.” The important work, he says, comes in revising, which includes removing “about 80% of the word ‘fuck’.” He stressed the importance of the work that you do when you’re not actually “pressing buttons” at the computer—the thinking and processing that goes on when “I’m walking around doing other things, telling my children to stop doing other things.”

When asked about Quentin’s card-trick magic, Grossman said that it was an early element of his character, inspired by The Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. He also admitted to having tried to teach himself magic, confessing to “grandiose visions” of being profiled in Vanity Fair and walking coins across his knuckles “like Val Kilmer in Real Genius” for the interviewer. Stage magic, it turns out, is really hard. In answer to a question about the idea of killing a god to create a new world, he said he’d drawn it from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, the complete edition of which had been part of his late father’s library.

The last audience question addressed the scene in The Magicians where the Beast invades the classroom and where Grossman had gotten the idea. He said part of it had come from a dream he’d once had—noting that it’s almost always a terrible idea to put your dreams in your novels—and that at one point he had thought that the idea of being trapped in a classroom with something terrible had come from Columbine, but he’d written that scene before Columbine ever happened. “I’ll ask my therapist,” he quipped, adding that this shows how little insight an author often has into their own work.

At this point Grossman brought up Sera Gamble and John McNamara to talk about the TV show. McNamara had them recommended to him by producer Michael London; when Gamble read them, she immediately called her agent and asked if she could write this. The property was already in development elsewhere, but didn’t get picked up; and once McNamara and Gamble finally got the option themselves, they wrote the scripts on spec, and it was about two years before SyFy finally picked it up.

Gamble and McNamara made one significant change: they aged the characters up to college, such that going to Brakebills is going to grad school. The reason for this was that the novels show the characters growing from 18 to their mid-thirties, and, as McNamara put it, “I don’t know an actor who’s 18 who can play mid-thirties without looking like they’re in a high school production of You Can’t Take It With You.”

After showing the trailer, Gamble and McNamara took two questions. The first was whether the show would have a narration track for the visually impaired; McNamara said that they could probably make it happen. The second asked how long the series would run; “we expect nothing,” Gamble said, but she hoped that it would be six to eight seasons. All of season one, she said, would be at Brakebills. She noted that some of the book’s events have been moved around a little, and the fact that graduate school is different from undergraduate college necessitated other changes. That said, she felt confident that there was enough story among the many characters for several seasons.

After they showed the clip of Quentin’s entrance exam, Gamble asked Grossman what it felt like to see a version of his story on screen. “It feels really great,” he said, and to describe the feeling he compared it to a moment in the Labors of Hercules, when Hercules needs Atlas’s help and offers to take Atlas’s burden of the world for a while. “Atlas, for the first time in untold millennia straightens up and says ‘oh, thank god’—it feels a little bit like that. For ten years I’ve been putting a lot of myself into making this world feel real, and now I have help.”

Karin Kross has just returned from her seventh SDCC, and she, her husband Bruce, and her friends Shellie and John are posting about SDCC at nerdpromnomnom. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.

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