When he’s not reviewing books for Time Magazine or blogging at Techland, Lev Grossman is busy penning the sequel to New York Times bestselling novel, The Magicians (The Magician King, coming in 2011). The tale of a dispossessed young man entering the world of wizards—imagine Holden Caulfield enrolling at Hogwarts—The Magicians explored conventions of magic and fantasy in literature, including a fair dose of D&D references. We spoke with Lev Grossman about The Magicians, its sequel, and his own gaming influences.
Wizards of the Coast: There are quite a few Dungeons & Dragons references in The Magicians—from the oblique (Bigby, illusionists, the guides in the end carrying material components and drawing maps on graph paper), to the overt (prismatic spray, magic missile, and fireball spells).
At one point, a character even remarks that there was real practical magic knowledge in those D&D books. Was this you marveling at the game’s comprehensive magic system? Or perhaps gently poking fun of those sensationalizing critics who once suggested the game could be used to cast actual spells?
Les Grossman: Bigby! I was waiting for somebody to point that out. Those crushing, grasping hands … they haunt me.
It’s really more of the first thing than the second one. One of the things I wanted to do in The Magicians was to make a very practical magic system. A lot of times when I read fantasy novels I find myself asking quibbling questions about how magic gets done. Swish and flick is all well and good, but I want details! How do you actually, physically do this stuff? Where do you put your hands? What does it feel like when you do it? When you study magic, what exactly are you learning?
Of course a lot of other writers do this too. Look at Patrick Rothfuss’s magic system in the Kingkiller Chronicles. But the first time I ever saw it done, and maybe the best, was in D&D. You knew what you needed to cast a spell, you knew how far it went and how long it lasted. There was no mystical mumbo jumbo, no vaseline on the lens. That for me was the starting point of the whole post-Tolkien, post-Lewis magical imagination. And I wanted to give credit where credit was due.
Wizards of the Coast: You’ve mentioned playing D&D yourself back in the day—what can you tell us about some of those old gaming sessions: any particularly memorable adventures or characters of yours, and any that might have influenced your storytelling?
LG: I started playing when I was about eight. This is the late 1970’s, people, so we’re talking Keep on the Borderlands, Village of Hommlet, that kind of thing. Our early games were pretty sloppy. We were just trying to tell a fun story together, and the DM was pretty much collaborating with the players to get them through it.
Later on we got more rigorous. The older we got, the deeper we got into the rule set and proper character generation and world-building and campaign-running. I was too much of an introvert to run a game myself—I just didn’t like talking that much—but I spent hours and hours rolling up characters and outfitting them, and mapping out huge modules on graph paper that nobody ever played. (This is in tandem with my twin brother, Austin, who is also a novelist.) My longest-running character was a bard named Palaeologos.
What else? We were always drawn to the weird, fringe stuff like Barrier Peaks and Queen of the Demonweb Pits, and the more arcane weapons. I have spent literally hours of my life just contemplating the meaning of the Bohemian Ear-Spoon.
It was all an excellent introduction to the art and practice of storytelling. It forced you to learn the art of the telling detail: the word or the ornament or the factoid that made everything around it suddenly feel real and snap into focus. It wasn’t enough to tell people that there was an orc at a table in a 20’ by 20’ room, you had to tell them what expression was on the face carved on the horn of Karkanon Ale, toxic to humans and halflings, that the orc in the 20’ by 20’ room was about to take a sip from just as you burst in.
Wizards of the Coast: Considering your book, The Magicians, can we presume you preferred playing magic-users?
LG: Sadly not. The shameful truth is that I rarely had the patience to build up a proper magic-user. They were so damn vulnerable at low level, with their puny hit dice, vainly chucking their darts. My default character was a fighter-thief.
Wizards of the Coast: Do you feel there’s an intrinsic connection between magic and games? Even at Brakebills Academy, the students play welters, a game devised to test, or at least implement, their magical skills.
LG: Oh, yes, absolutely. A game is a little alternate reality all its own, a separate interpretive frame split off from reality, in which you can use words to make things happen. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.
Wizards of the Coast: Outside of D&D, were there archetypes for wizards and magic you wanted to explore in The Magicians? Any one magical figure you’d point to in legend or literature and say, now that’s what a true wizard should be? Or did you prefer to survey the field when creating Brakebills, its faculty, and student body?
LG: A lot of the point of The Magicians was tearing down archetypes, rather than exploring them. So I didn’t want wise, mysterious wizards full of fatherly wisdom. No Gandalf, no Dumbledore. I didn’t want anybody who knew all the answers, or even most of them. The wizard I most looked to in literature was probably the Warlock from Larry Niven’s Not Long Before the End. He’s human. He makes mistakes. He lets you watch his hands while he casts spells.
Wizards of the Coast: As part of the fantasy field, The Magicians courts certain comparative elements to Harry Potter (and even a gentle ribbing at one point, that real wizards don’t rely on the crutch of wands)—albeit with a complete scholastic career condensed into a single novel, as opposed to a novel/year at Hogwarts. Was The Magicians meant as a reaction to the magic of, say, Harry Potter (that good magic conquers all, eventually), or did you simply look to other fantasy as comparative works to analyze within the genre?
LG: I think it’s fair to say that The Magicians was partly a reaction to Harry Potter. Though everybody’s working both with and against their predecessors in whatever genre they’re writing in. Especially in fantasy, that most networked and allusive of genres. You can do the negotiating backstage or onstage. I did mine onstage, with Rowling, but also (especially) with Lewis. And with Gygax/Arneson too.
Though the original idea came in 1996, before Harry Potter, when I reread A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, in which the hero spends a couple of chapters at a college for magic. So initially I was reacting to Earthsea, and I thought I was expanding the magical curriculum by giving it 2/3 of the book. Little did I know.
Wizards of the Coast: Ultimately, Quentin realizes that the basis for magic power is largely fueled by his own unhappiness. Why such a despairing view; is this true for all magicians, or simply for Quentin, an already depressed young man (as even his last name is Coldwater)?
LG: I present that idea as a theory in The Magicians, that magic is a special gift to the unhappy. I don’t know how true it is. But it seems natural to me that the strongest sorcerers would be those whose desire to remake the world was strongest. And who wants that more than those who cannot accept the world as it is? Like the depressed, and the pissed off. Like Quentin.
Wizards of the Coast: The book explores the disappointment in one’s childhood dreams vs. the reality of adulthood, as Quentin himself discovers when he reaches Fillory. Do you feel this is a universal disappointment, or simply a challenge faced by a depressed character?
LG: I think there must be ways to go from childhood to adulthood without watching your dreams shrivel up into little crumbs and then die. It’s not a trick that I managed, or Quentin for that matter, but I believe it can be done.
And you know, in the end, I did want to get away from that slightly creepy C.S. Lewis-type obsession with childhood and innocence. I did want to explore the idea that magic doesn’t end when you leave childhood and hit puberty, that adulthood can be the beginning of a new and different kind of magic.
Wizards of the Coast: At the end of The Magicians, Quentin is joined once more by his surviving classmates; while he struggles with forgiveness up to that point, is there a chance for true fulfillment for him in The Magician King? What else might you tell us about the forthcoming sequel—who, for instance is this titular King? And what lies in store with Quentin and the return of his childhood friend, Julia?
The Magician King is written. It’s not done—as in finished, polished, fully wired and plumbed—but it’s written. So I basically know everything that happens in it. But how much to reveal? Quentin’s high school crush Julia does play a big role. Part of the story of The Magician King goes back over the same time period as The Magicians, but from Julia’s point of view. And Julia doesn’t get to go to Brakebills. It’s the school of hard knocks for her. She levels up, same as Quentin, but she does it the hard way.
Bart Carroll has been a part of Wizards of the Coast since 2004, and a D&D player since 1980 (and has fond memories of coloring the illustrations in his 1st Edition Monster Manual). He currently works as producer for the D&D website. You can find him on Twitter (@bart_carroll).