Set Visit Report: MuggleNet Meets “The Magicians” – The Lev Grossman Interview!

You’ve read about the amazing sets we saw in Vancouver and seen our interviews with the cast of the show, and now we’ve got our big finale: an interview with the author himself, Lev Grossman! Here at MuggleNet we’re big fans of Grossman’s Magicians trilogy – not surprising given that it’s about what happens to adults when they discover a Hogwarts-like alternative to college –  so we’re especially excited for the opportunity to speak to the creator of the world we’re about to see adapted for television. As Harry Potter fans know, no one can quite put to rest fans’ concerns about a beloved book being adapted to a new medium quite like the author, so let’s get to it!

There will be spoilers for the pilot episode of The Magicians in this post!
Lev Grossman - December 31, 2015

Transcribed by Rachael Dechert, Alexandra Maher, and Tracey Wong.

MuggleNet: Watching the pilot, the one thing that really struck me was the shift in the narrative structure of Quentin’s arc.

Lev Grossman: Yeah.

MN: Quentin sort of has a whole complex about not being Frodo or Harry or any of those people, and he does have special abilities, but he’s never quite the “Chosen One.” And in the pilot, obviously, there’s a little bit more geared toward him being “the one”. When the Beast comes out, he’s like, “I’ve found you, Quentin,” and the faculty of Brakebills is already watching him in particular at the beginning. I was wondering how you thought that might shift his story a little bit or why you thought it might be necessary for the story to be told on television.

Lev: That’s an interesting question because it is fundamental to the books that it worked against that conventional story about the “Chosen One.” I wanted everybody in the books to feel very unchosen; I wanted them to have to find their own paths the way people have to in real life. And I deliberately avoided ever saying things like destiny or fate or anything like that. I deliberately wanted to push back at that. And the risk when you go on TV is that… TV has a conventionalizing effect. You tend to see when you’re overturning clichés on paper, sometimes the clichés get turned back around into how they were when you go on TV. So I noticed that, too, when I saw the pilot. They’re setting something up.  This is a theme that they dive into. But they’re creating certain expectations, which they’re going to do interesting things with.

MN: So you feel like it fits with the story that the show is telling as far as Quentin’s character goes?

Lev: Yes. But it fits with the tone of the book, too, in that it is playing with that trope. You can’t tell yet… you can’t really tell in the pilot, but it will pay off.

MN: Follow-up: So canon has become a really big issue in fandom these days because books are being adapted into everything – comic books, television shows, movies, and everything – so how do you feel about the changes and how now there is going to be pretty much two separate canons in your world.

Lev: It was difficult at first. If you were asking me this two years ago when I first saw the pilot script… I had trouble understanding that TV is a different medium – you tell stories in different ways than you do on the page – and I pushed back on a lot of changes. Having watched them now make the show and seen what goes into telling a story on TV, I understand much better why they made the changes they did and why they work. And there are a lot of changes. People who are serious fans of the books […] can just check them off as you watch because there are plenty of them. But the weird thing is, the people who made this show are superfans of the book, and they know what they’re doing. The changes they made, they’re made for good reasons. You’re telling a story on TV. When you’re telling a novel, you can have this wonderful long arc that just goes on and on and on, and things start at the beginning, and they pay off way toward the end of the book. It doesn’t work that way on TV. You’ve got to tell everything upfront, everybody knows everything upfront, and then you’re telling these little mini-stories that also fit together into this one-season-long arc. It’s shaped completely differently. The Magicians world is really complicated, and when it came to selling it to TV, I was super psyched because it meant you could just hit the pause button sometimes and stop on a particular aspect of the world and dive into it and really look at it in a way that… you just don’t have that much time in a book – you really have to keep the pace cracking along. And it took me a moment to figure out that that’s what they were doing, and they have to make up new canon to do that because they are sort of looking into little nooks and crannies of the world that I didn’t have time to look into. What they’ve done works very well, and it includes changing a character. Penny is very different from the Penny in the books. There’s a new character, Kady, who changes the group dynamic of the Physical Kids. There are changes that, if you’re a superfan of the book, will feel significant. There is an enormous amount that is the same. The tone is the same. The themes are the same. The humor is the same. The edginess is the same. But there are many, many details that are different. And I expect people who are superfans of the book will notice, and it will take a little bit for them to sort of understand why there is a different TV canon and let it sink in because that was my process – I had to do that.

MN: So you mentioned earlier that you’ve come to love some of the changes that they made –  you wish you’d written some of them. Is there one in particular that you just adore? Or that you hate, if that’s easier.

Lev: I’m trying to think of what a good example is. A lot of it is individual lines. The show is extremely funny, and I like to think that there are witty bits in the book that are good, but these guys… there’s a whole roomful of writers trying out lines on each other.  And some of the mouthier characters like Penny and Janet – sorry, Margot [Janet’s name has been changed to Margot for the show] – they’re really funny. They take the humor to places that I just couldn’t get to because I’m not that kind of writer. It was very fun to see that. And then another thing they do, a major thing, is that they run Quentin and Julia’s storylines in parallel. In the books, Julia’s storyline waits until The Magician King to start out. And it’s very interesting watching them told in parallel because they are wonderful kind of counterweights to each other that kind of chime and echo each other as they’re going forward simultaneously. I didn’t do it that way in the books, partly because I hadn’t figured out who Julia really was until the second book. But looking at it, I wonder if I would have done it that way if I’d had Julia’s storyline ready to go.

MN: Because we are MuggleNet, I’ve been thinking about it, and I think there’s a lot of crossover between the people who love Harry Potter and people who love The Magicians. The people who loved Harry Potter as those books were coming out are also now coming of an age with Quentin when he starts out in the first Magicians book and discovers that there really is magic in the world, just as he read about in Harry Potter and Narnia and of course, Fillory. So I think there are really some interesting crossovers that are happening there, and I wondered if you would speak to them a little bit.

Lev: Yeah. This is something that was very on my mind when I was writing the books. I started writing The Magicians in 2004, so Half-Blood Prince hadn’t even come out at that point. So I was writing them as the Potter books were coming out, and my expectation was that the books would stop at graduation. And I had very much on my mind, what would the later life of Harry Potter look like? We hear a lot about wizards as teenagers. We hear a lot about wizards when they’re old and have big, long beards. What is it like to be a wizard in your twenties? With all that power and your whole life ahead of you and just try[ing] to figure out what you’re going to do with it. What is magic for, for you? I feel like that is probably a difficult, weird, lost, wandering period in the lives of people like this. And I want to tell that story because I think a lot of people struggle with that kind of thing in their twenties – finding their path, understanding who they are and what they want and what they’re here for. And I thought a lot about just filling in maybe a little bit about what the later lives of Hogwarts graduates would be like because I knew Rowling wasn’t going to tell that story. That wasn’t her subject, but it was something that I thought about. It was something that I thought about a lot. Harry Potter ends here – is there a story I can tell that looks more like my life and says something about the kinds of problems I’m struggling with now that I’m older?

MN: Do you see yourself in any of these characters?

Lev: Oh, yes. Well, to some extent. Obviously, they came out of me. Quentin is a pretty accurate depiction of what I was like when I was 17 – a big fanboy, intellectually overdeveloped, emotionally very stupid, socially not all there, really overinvested in worlds that aren’t real. There’s a lot of Quentin in me, and there’s a lot of Julia in me. Julia is probably the character I feel closest to in the books. She’s somebody who is managing an enormous amount of anger. Her story is about the person who was left behind, who didn’t get in and tried to make things happen for herself and at great personal cost. It was a story for personal reasons that I really felt was mine. But there are lots of them. Janet is sort of like who I aspire to be, if I just didn’t self-edit quite so much. That’s what I would sound like. But Quentin is really… that’s the one [who is] the most of me. And the way Jason plays Quentin on screen, I’ve never seen a character quite like that on screen before, and I found myself all over again and saying, “Wow. Yeah, that is what it was like for me.” It was nice to see.

MN: Are you going to make a cameo anywhere? Pull a Peter Jackson?

Lev: I don’t know if I… yes.

MN: Oh! Okay.

Lev: I’ve shot it already.

MN: Oh. Cool, fabulous.

Lev: It’s not in the pilot, but keep an eye out for it.

MN: Do you clearly look like you, or do you look like someone else?

Lev: Oh, no, I look all too much like myself.

Our interview with Lev concludes our coverage of our trip to the set of The Magicians! Thank you to Lev, the cast and crew, and everyone at Syfy who made this trip possible.

Stay tuned for our review of the first episode very soon, and be sure to tune in to watch the first episode on January 25!