Keith Hawk (KH) John Granger (JG) Lev Grossman (LG) Jessica Jordan (JJ) Jonathan Brown (JB)
[Show music begins]
Eric: Hey! Josée! Wait up!
Josée: Oh hi, Eric! I'm sorry, I really can't talk right now. I'm running late.
Eric: Late? Late for what?
Josée: Oh, it's because I have to go meet Keith and John Granger. I'm actually going to listen to a Harry Potter literature lesson at MuggleNet Academia.
Eric: Oh cool, that sounds awesome. Can I come with?
Josée: Yes, of course you can. Just come with me.
Eric: Okay. Let's go!
[Show music continues]
[2013 MuggleNet Fandom Calendar promo begins]
Ron: Hey, Harry. Working on that Potions essay for Monday?
Harry: Uhh, it's due Friday, Ron.
Ron: What? No, you're pulling my leg.
Seamus: Hey, Harry. Doing that essay quite early, aren't you?
Ron: See? It's not due until next Monday. Right, Seamus?
Seamus: Erm, I thought it wasn't due until the Monday after next.
Parvati: Well, I already did mine because it's due Thursday.
Ron: What are you talking about, Parvati?
[Harry, Parvati, Ron, and Seamus argue]
Hermione: What is going on here? I'm trying to do my Charms homework.
Ron: Hermione, when's that Potions essay due?
[Harry, Parvati, Ron, and Seamus argue]
Hermione: Hold on! Let me check my calendar from MuggleNet. It has all kinds of important dates, such as future conventions, birthdays, and important events in the wizarding world.
Ron: Yeah, but what about homework?
Hermione: Ahh, here we are. Yes, I thought so. That essay is due... tomorrow.
[Harry, Parvati, Ron, and Seamus groan]
Michael: Start 2013 off right with the new MuggleNet Fandom calendar. Each month features photos and drawings from various corners of the Harry Potter fan base, as well as historical dates from all seven Harry Potter novels and Harry Potter birthdays for characters, actors, and your favorite MuggleNet staff members. Visit MuggleNet.com to preview the calendar and get your own copy today.
[2013 MuggleNet Fandom Calendar promo ends]
KH: Happy New Year from MuggleNet Academia! This is Lesson 16. We are going to have a special show today. It's going to be incredible. John, how are you this new year?
JG: Very good! It's kind of cold here in Oklahoma City. We got down into the twenties and we had some snow here.
KH: Oh, stop.
JG: It doesn't often do that here in the center of the heartland, the navel of the nation. But it's been cold, St. Nicolas came, all the kids are happy. How about things in Allentown? How are things out there?
KH: It's cold here, too. It's really brisk today, but I'm not going to complain because Josée said this morning it was minus twelve in Canada.
KH: So I said, "All right, you keep that up there and I'll keep my cold here."
KH: So, everything is good here. [laughs]
KH: It's a pleasant day, there's snow on the ground, we had a great holiday season as well, and I'm excited to be back on the radio.
JG: Yeah. And we have an exciting guest tonight, right? This is a big night for us.
KH: It's going to be great. Let me just... before we bring on our special guest and our student guests, I wanted to say that the MuggleNet staff have just finished our 2012 year in review video and timeline. Be sure to check that out. It was a great video by Laura Reilly, one of our video experts on the staff, and our timeline that was done by Kat Miller and the interns. They put together all the news posts, all the major news throughout the year, into one grouping. It's a really nice thing to go back and look at what happened this past year, but we have to look forward to 2013. And I'll tell you, John, 2013 is going to be a year to remember in this fandom. MISTI-Con is around the corner. So is the Quidditch World Cup. And then we have LeakyCon Portland, LeakyCon London, we have Camp 9 3/4. The year just keeps on growing in the Harry Potter fandom, you know what I mean?
JG: Yeah. It seems odd. It's been more than five years, almost six years now, since the last book came out, and we're seeing more functions, a new generation of Harry Potter fans, people that came to the books after the last movies were out. This is a... and yet it's growing. Growing in depth as well as reach. I'm surprised. I'm delighted!
KH: Yeah, absolutely. You still have your basic of fans that have gone and waited at the midnight releases for all the books and those that have gone onto college, most of them. Still keeping... several of our guests here have done that. But it keeps on growing, like you said. The new groupings of people that are coming up and getting indoctrinated into these fandoms like this. It just goes crazy.
JG: I'm not sure I want to use the word indoctrinated, Keith. You're scaring me. Now seriously, we have a guest tonight who is a writer and a critic, and he's largely, I think, at the lead of the new wave of writers that are in dialogue with their experience inside Harry Potter as well as fantasy literature in general. And so, I'm excited about his being here because I know we're going to talk about this next generation and how this shared text experience they have had has been so formative that really a large part of their lives is going to be how they digest this experience, this giant event of Harry Potter. And we're part of that. MuggleNet Academia, you know... 2012 was a big year because it was... we did fifteen shows in a year, and our audience has really grown and grown as people really want the bar set higher for this conversation. I don't know if the MuggleNet review included us, Keith, but it ought to! It ought to!
KH: It did have us. It had us on the video and in the MuggleNet timeline. And also, you can find out when we started MuggleNet Academia on our 2013 MuggleNet Fandom Calendar. That is still up for sale. Grab it before the year gets too far in. There is all kinds of great information available, and all the dates. Each month covers a different aspect of the fandom: Quidditch, crafts, costuming, everything. Wizard rock, it's all in there. In fact, did you know today is the anniversary of MuggleNet Fan Fiction Audiofictions podcast? They are four years old today.
KH: Do you want to hear some great fan fictions? Check out the Audiofictions. They have... they do the voices in Harry, Ron, and Hermione and all the other different characters when they're reading their stories. It's actually quite a fun thing to do. And if you have heard our MuggleNet Fandom Calendar promotion or the podcast promotion, it was done by the Audiofictions staff. So, that's... but these kinds of events that you see on the calendar, like on the sixth! I think... what's... the sixth is on Monday, right John?
JG: No, seventh. Seventh on Monday. Orthodox [unintelligible].
KH: All right, so the sixth is Sunday.
KH: Okay, so the sixth is on Sunday...
JG: Sixth is on Sunday.
KH: Harry... yup! Harry started learning the Patronus Charm with Professor Lupin on January 6th. Did you know that?
JG: I didn't know that. I didn't know that. That's...
KH: If you had the MuggleNet calendar, you would know that.
JG: That's Epiphany on the Western calendar, right? That's actually an interesting fact that the Patronus Charm happens there. I'll have to run through the symbolism of that. Phew, oh my goodness.
KH: What would be your Patronus, John?
JG: I don't know. I'm afraid it would be a donkey.
JG: It seems really kind of embarrassing. Everyone has these fascinating Patronuses, you know? A phoenix, or a griffin, or a stag. I'm afraid mine would be something Simeon, like a monkey or a rat. I don't know. I'm kind of afraid of the Patronus Charm. How about you? What would be your Patronus?
KH: I think mine is pretty obvious, don't you think? It would be a hawk.
JG: Oh! Come on.
JG: Okay, there it is, man.
KH: One other announcement. It's sad to say this, but Micah Tannenbaum has left the MuggleNet staff after serving seven years to the fandom. Definitely one of my best friends. I've known him since 2005, that's when we first met, when they first started MuggleCast. And he's been a friend for a long time even though we didn't personally know each other that well until I started actually working on MuggleNet. We're sad to say goodbye to Micah, but we wish him well on his endeavors with the NBA...
JG: I was going to say, the NBA.
KH: ...and his other websites. Yup. So take care, Micah, and thanks for all you did.
JG: Yeah, he was a big part of the start of this show. So thanks, Micah, for all that. If you're listening in, Micah.
KH: Yeah, he definitely was. As far as this show goes, I do want to read a couple of reviews that we had. We had one on iTunes recently that came across, and I really like this one. It was from zpplnchick and it says:
"A great combo and something that I hadn't realized I'd been missing! As a huge fan of 'Harry Potter' and a graduating senior in college, it combines two very vital aspects of 'me' and I am just soaking it in with glee. So much better than I thought it would be - if you are like me, absolutely in love with 'Harry Potter' and want to explore it further in depth, then please check this out. You won't regret it."
Thank you, zpplnchick. That was a nice little review there.
JG: zpplnchick. I love that.
KH: I love the usernames that you have. Now, we also had one on Academia from DreamingDragon. It says:
"Your last show was really interesting. I enjoyed it very much, and look forward to the next show. Having two guest students was different, but a nice different, and I look forward to that happening more. By the way, I love the new artwork for the show. The library is always the best place after all."
And it's true. I enjoyed the two students and we're going to do it again today. So John, why don't you kick this show off and introduce our special guest?
JG: Wow, okay. Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, The Magician King, and The Codex, which he doesn't like to talk about much but we'll get to that in the show. Lev Grossman is the book editor at TIME Magazine in his day life, when he's not writing spectacular novels. And he has been a part of the Harry Potter fandom now for at least five years and beyond that - he reads the books and follows the fandom - he's interviewed Joanne Rowling himself, and I hope we'll talk about that tonight as well. Where do I start about how important Lev Grossman is, I think, in terms of letters today? The first thing I would say is that Lev is not copycatting Joanne Rowling when he writes books about magicians and wizards, in that his books... unlike the copycats that came out after the Lord of the Rings spectaculars and such and the Twilight knockoff fanpire books, as they call them now, what Mr. Grossman is after is a discussion inside story of what these books mean in terms of the reader and in terms of literature in general. Which is a phenomenal quest, really, [laughs] to see what books are about. He represents both polls of the literary world, not only in being a critic and a writer but also in being representative of the literary fiction world and the fantasy fiction world. We were joking before we came on the air that his books are the Monster Book of Monsters in that in combining these two things, he sets off both camps. I mean, the literary novelists are going to turn up their nose at this comic fantasy piece, and the people that are involved in the fantasy world are wondering what he's really after here with these literary ironic asides about fantasy fiction. I'm thrilled that he's agreed to come on our show because I know he's a big fan of the Harry Potter books and of Casual Vacancy. So, we've got a ton of things to talk about tonight about his works, where Harry Potter fits in those things, and what it means in terms of the literary scene as it exists today at the dawn of the 21st century. I guess twelve years in, we're not really the dawn of the 21st century anymore, but... and literally speaking, we're in the post-Harry Potter world, [laughs] which took us right into 2007. I hope you're not blushing, Lev, but I do think that you're one of the most important writers and critics on the scene today, and I'm thrilled that you've agreed to come on MuggleNet Academia to talk with us.
LG: Blushing doesn't even begin to cover it. I'm just on fire with embarrassment.
LG: But I'll soldier on as best I can. This is my favorite kind of conversation to have, so I'm really looking forward to it.
JG: All right. And Keith, you've managed to find... at the drop of a hat, you found two student guests that love Lev's works almost as much as I do.
KH: Well, it wasn't really at a drop of a hat.
KH: These two have been... at the beginning of MuggleNet Academia, they sent in their requests to be on the show. It's just a matter of finding the right students for the right show. So, I will introduce our two students today. Jessica Jordan from Wesleyan College. Say hello, Jessica.
JJ: Hello, I'm Jessica Jordan. I'm a senior at Wesleyan University. I'm a triple major in English, Theater, and Classical Civilization, and I'm excited to be here.
JG: Wow, a triple major!
KH: A triple major. Wow!
JG: My goodness. I was in Classics, I thought that was enough. English and Theater on top of that. My goodness.
KH: And on top of that, she interns the news at MuggleNet. So...
JG: Oh. Well, that's only a sixteen-hour-a-day job, though.
JG: That shouldn't be that bad.
KH: Yeah. [laughs] Wow. Well, congratulations and welcome to the show, Jessica.
JJ: Thank you.
KH: And also joining us all the way across the pond - it is two o'clock in the morning when we're recording - we have Jon Brown. Hello, Jon.
JB: Hi there. Thanks for having me. I'm a recent graduate from the University of Southampton in the UK, where I studied English. I'm a big fan of The Magicians, and obviously Harry Potter, so I'm really excited to talk about the two.
JG: All right!
KH: Awesome. And what are your future plans, Jon?
JB: I'm going to study at the University of Edinburgh, which obviously is quite exciting because it's the home of JK Rowling...
JB: ...and it's where the Harry Potter novels were written.
KH: Now, are you going to go over and knock on her door and say, "I just had to say hi"?
JB: It's going to be very difficult not to.
[JG and KH laugh]
JB: If you hear about someone sort of being dragged away from her gates, you know who it is.
JG: Well, Lev has been there and so he'll tell you what to feed the Dobermans when they come out of the gates for you or whatever.
[JB and LG laugh]
KH: He wasn't at her new house, though.
LG: No, no, I was at the old house and wasn't let to come up into the actual house. I was sort of taken to the writing studio, which is the size of my house.
[JG and KH laugh]
LG: The actual house is five times the size of a normal house.
JG: That's right. It's like Gulf and Western's bathrooms are nicer than most people's homes. Anyway...
KH: Well, here's the funny thing: I wonder if people who interview JK Rowling in her house today - if Lev or if John, or if you and I were lucky enough to be invited to interview her at her house - I wonder if we'd be escorted to the Hogwarts treehouse that she had built for her kids.
JG: I'm thinking no.
JG: I'm thinking that nobody...
KH: I bet you that's where we'd be. We wouldn't be in the main house, we'd be in the Hogwarts treehouse.
JG: No. Nothing to do with her kids ever, ever becomes public.
JG: And God bless her for that. She's really kept her kids out of any kind of public thing. I don't think she even wants the rumors of what that treehouse might look like actually to get into the public domain. But yeah, seriously, I was in St. Andrew's and had to come through Edinburgh or whatever and thought, "Maybe I should just drop by and say hi, right?" I've written seven or eight books on this subject or whatever, and thought, "Nah." [laughs] "Not happening."
KH: Yup. Probably not a good idea.
JG: But we're going to talk to Lev about his experiences there in the presence. There's a rumor, Lev, that she actually asked to have your children. Is that true?
LG:[laughs] That was an expression that she used, yes. It was only in my response to saying... she is very... one of the surprising things about meeting her is how self-critical she is about her own work and how hard she sort of pushes herself and how deeply she takes criticism. She was talking about how she felt as though Order of the Phoenix was too long. I of course stepped in, slightly out of gallantry but mostly out of the fact that I love Order of the Phoenix - it's my favorite of the books - and said, "I wouldn't wish it a single word shorter." And she said, in response, "I would have your children."
KH: I am so happy to hear you say that because it is also my favorite book, I've said that on the show. I mean, I love Deathly Hallows. I think it's like 1A and 1B for me.
KH: But Order of the Phoenix, to me, is just the perfect book.
JG: Oh, you're both incredible masochists, obviously, or whatever. You like to carry around giant books that depress the hell out of most readers. I mean, you're... oh well. I love you both, but really...
KH: Well, I see it just the opposite. I see it as a... somebody who was going through a really, really rough time. I think we've all been in that situation, where we're just inwardly burning up and we want to break through. And then in the end, you have this nice fight in the Department of Mysteries. I just love the whole transition on how the whole thing goes. Plus, you know who I'm in love with. I'm in love with Luna Lovegood and that was her big...
JG: Oh, okay.
KH: ...big show.
[Show music begins]
KH: So, I thought it was just the perfect book all the way around.
JG: Hey, we're jumping into the show, Keith. We're jumping into the show.
KH: Not really. No, we're still in the introduction here, but that's good.
JG: All right, all right.
KH: So, here we go. Are we ready to kick off the show?
JG: I'd say so.
KH: All right. From MuggleNet.com, my name is Keith Hawk.
JG: I'm John Granger, the Hogwarts Professor and author of The Deathly Hallows Lectures.
LG: I'm Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians and The Magician King, and book critic at TIME Magazine.
JJ: I'm Jessica Jordan, student at Wesleyan University and MuggleNet news intern.
JB: And I'm Jonathon Brown, recent English graduate from the University of Southampton and future University of Edinburgh student.
[Show music continues]
[MuggleNet Podcasts promo begins]
Harry:[yawns] Good morning, you two. What are you up to?
Ron: Hey, Harry. Hermione and I found this wireless sitting here in the common room.
Hermione: We can't decide what to listen to, though.
Harry: Well, have you two heard of Alohomora!? They always come up with interesting new ideas and theories about the wizarding world, and invite their listeners to participate in the discussion, on and off the air. They even talk about things we do here at Hogwarts, like magical creatures, wizarding history, Divination...
Harry: Yes, me... I mean, what? No! No, no, no, they don't talk about me. A lot.
Hermione: Well, I've really been enjoying MuggleNet Academia. The show goes into an in-depth analysis of the wizarding world and what impact it has made on Muggle culture. They invite guest speakers and students on every episode to discuss classic and modern works of Muggle literature, and further examine why the wizarding world, as Muggles know it, has made such an impact on them.
Ron: Well, we have the day off, so I want to listen to Audiofictions. The MerMuggle Readers tell new stories written by Muggles. I love hearing what the Muggles think about us! Not only that, but listeners can request which stories they'd like to hear, and participate in contests to have their own stories read. I've even heard a few stories about the three of us.
Hermione: Well, these all are great suggestions, but which one should we listen to?
Harry: Chosen One gets first dibs!
Ron: Hey, I found the wireless! I get to choose!
Hermione: You two have homework to do! I'm done, so we should listen to my show!
[Harry, Hermione, and Ron bicker]
Neville: Good morning, you three. Err, what are you doing with my wireless?
Ron: Neville? This is your wireless?
Neville: Yes, I've been looking for it everywhere. I don't want to miss MuggleCast. They're always up on the latest wizarding news.
Harry: Oh. Well, we were hoping to listen to Alohomora!
Hermione: MuggleNet Academia!
Neville: Oh, sorry. But you three know you can just download those shows to listen to whenever you want, right? Anyway, thanks for finding my wireless!
Michael: The magic lives on with MuggleNet's new podcast family.
Caleb, Kat, and Noah: Open the Dumbledore with Alohomora!
Carole, Jessie, and Michael: Live beyond the books with Audiofictions.
Eric: Get the latest news and excitement from MuggleCast.
Michael: Find every member of the MuggleNet podcast family on iTunes to subscribe and download the latest episodes today. With hundreds of episodes available, the choice is up to you.
Ginny: Hey, you three. Mum just sent her old wireless over to me. Isn't it great?
Harry, Hermione, and Ron: Ginny!
[Ginny, Harry, Hermione, and Ron bicker]
[MuggleNet Podcasts promo ends]
KH: All right, welcome back to MuggleNet Academia Lesson 16. We are joined by special guest Lev Grossman. This one is the literary wizard behind The Magicians talks about Harry Potter. Best selling author and noted literary critic Lev Grossman sits down with John, Jessica, Jon Brown, and I for a talk about the elephant still in the library living room: the Harry Potter books of Joanne Rowling. Mr. Grossman will share his own encounter with the books as well as a few notes from his 2005 TIME interview with the author, how his own view of what was possible in writing and what questions should be asked were affected by that reading, and how Rowling's Hogwarts saga has altered the expectations of readers and the ambitions of other writers. He will answer questions about the remarkable literary fantasies, The Magicians and The Magician King, to include an explanation of how Lev's magical Brakebills College resembles and differs with Hogwarts - and the idea that the magic of Lev's world within a world is something of a parable about writers - to include a mage who seems a picture of Rowling the outlier. Lev will share his enthusiasm about The Casual Vacancy and the MuggleNet Academia group will be discussing how Rowling's "political fable" echoes Grossman's cross genre artistry in the black comedy and implicit criticism of how we imagine the world. One of America's leading novelists and top drawer literary critic will talk about the books and writers that remade our ideas of what reading was about. So, grab a Butterbeer, a Firewhiskey...
KH: ...as this will be a show you will not want to miss!
KH: Let me start off the show by asking our college students, when was the first time you read the Harry Potter series and when was the first time you read The Magicians or The Magician King? Jessica, why don't we start off with you?
JJ: Okay. Well, I read Harry Potter for the first time in the fourth grade. It's actually kind of a funny story because my older sister had told me I wasn't allowed to read it because she loved it and she wanted to keep it for herself, so I had to...
JJ: ...read it in the closet to keep her from finding out.
JG: Was the closet under the stairs? This is great.
[JJ and LG laugh]
JJ: Yeah, I was like, "Man, I can totally relate to this kid."
[JG and KH laugh]
JJ: And then I first read The Magicians, I guess, it was probably the year it came out. Another one of my sisters, not the same one, had given it to me as a Christmas gift, and she was like, "This is an awesome book, you should read it." And I read it and it was amazing. And then I read The Magician King when it came out, and they both... they're really wonderful books, and really different and great.
KH: Great. Jon, what about you? When did you start Harry Potter and when did you read the first book, The Magicians?
JB:Harry Potter was an awfully long time ago. It was just after the second book had come out, so I think it was the summer of 1998.
JB: And my mother used the first two books to pacify me on a very long drive...
JB: ...as we were going on holiday. She obviously chose well...
JB: ...because I'm still reading them fourteen years later.
JG: It's been a long drive, Jon.
JB: Oh, yeah. But I was hooked straightaway and never really looked back.
KH: And how about The Magicians?
JB:The Magicians I think, yeah, the year it came out. And I actually had to read it really quickly because I was on my way back to university, and then I reread it again recently when I was told about the show. I think I enjoyed it even more the second time around, which is, obviously, often the case. And yeah, I particularly enjoyed the little... the thinking about it in relation to Harry Potter a bit more in this.
KH: Great, and that's what we are going to be discussing on this show. So, let me ask Lev, then. Tell us the story of your first encounter with Harry Potter and the Boy Who Lived. Is it true that you were planning a magical school adventure novel at the same time? And were you disappointed or were you more delighted when the story came out of Harry Potter?
LG: Well, I had first started noodling with the idea of writing a novel about the education of a magician in... it was '96, and it was because I had just read... I had just reread A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, which is one of the great novels of magical education. It features this incredibly wonderful magical college on this island called Roke. And I remember reading it and thinking, "Gosh, this is my favorite bit, but it only goes on for about a chapter and a half. What if one were to write a whole novel set at this school for magic?" I then wrote a chapter from this book, and then I spectacularly failed to monetize this billion dollar idea because I put it in a drawer...
[JG and LG laugh]
LG: ...for the following eight years. And it's funny, if I had any sense at all, the... Rowling's work would have just completely squashed this project completely. But the truth was, it was reading Harry Potter that brought me back to this idea of writing a novel about a magician going to school. In a funny way, I think it actually helped me to have somebody to write, kind of, against or in response to. When I first thought about it, I thought, "Well, this position is taking the human being who writes about magicians going to school - that slot is filled."
LG: But at the same time, reading Harry Potter... one of the things I think I share with a lot of Harry Potter fans is the desire to kind of talk back to the book, to respond to it, and to take the story and to kind of remake it in a way that maybe even more closely resembles your own life, and that's what I began doing. Partly, really, as a fan fiction type exercise, but then, over the years, it grew into something much more than that.
JG: Oh, I'll say. I'm going to jump off my first thought of what to ask you, Lev, to jump onto that thought, and ask you about... obviously Harry Potter is, as you said, something of an antipode to what you were doing, something you were writing in response to. But there are other influences inside the book, more... I'd say most obviously The Chronicles of Narnia books of CS Lewis and then the Merlin books of TH White because there are elements inside the books...
JG: ...that give it, much more, the feel of those books. Especially the idea of the Pevensie children and the Physical Five inside The Magicians. Talk about influence for a little while here. In a way you're answering these things, but you're also... the character inside the book, Quentin, is... how much is Quentin really Lev Grossman experiencing inside these books because of his trying to digest his own reading as a child? How much is Quentin's experience Lev Grossman's experience as a writer?
LG: Well, that's definitely one of the core, I don't know, devices of The Magicians books, is that the main character is both living the story of a magician but he also is a fan.
LG: He is also someone who reads the stories about magicians, he's very conversant with that kind of fiction. It's something that Rowling chose to leave alone. Harry is not himself a big reader of fiction, and of course as a fantasy writer, [laughs] when you spot something that Rowling has not already claimed for her own...
LG: ...you immediately... you fall upon it, [laughs] I don't know, like a loose ball.
JG: That's right.
LG: And it was something she left alone, so I thought, well, let's play with this extra dimension. Let's give it an extra kind of fictional dimension and say what if this guy... when if he came to a school for magic, having already read Harry Potter? You would have so many expectations about what things would be like, and what your own life would be like, and who you were, and those expectations would almost certainly be totally confounded by your actual experience. So, you have this character Quentin who has read Harry Potter, he's read a number of fantasy novels - it's sort of all he does - and he thinks that he will be a hero, a fantasy hero, like the characters in the books he reads. And of course, he is not. [laughs] He is far less heroic in any conventional sense than he kind of wants to be, and he has this experience of comparing fiction to reality, and he learns some very hard lessons about how they're different.
JG: Now, I'm afraid that listeners are going to hear this and think, "Oh, this is some remarkably abstract metafiction piece about a reader entering into his own books or whatever." As a reader, let me say that's not the case. The books actually feel, in a way, much more realistic than Rowling's books do because Quentin, like us, has entered into this thing, so we imagine ourselves much more able to understand what Quentin is experiencing because he's much more like us [laughs] in having been shaped by Lewis, White, Rowling, Le Guin, other people. I felt much closer to Quentin in many ways than I did to Harry Potter. It's easier for me to say, "Oh yeah, that's what I would do here." I wonder, though...
LG: Well, one of the big... sorry, just to jump in for a sec - one of the big inspirations for The Magicians was obviously Harry Potter but also Watchmen, the Alan Moore comic, which features these guys who are superheroes and they're superheroes because they really want to be superheroes. They have this idea of what a superhero is like and what it's like to be one, and they're trying to live that out and they're failing terribly. And of course, Watchmen is this story about superheroes, but it's also the greatest superhero story ever written, and I sort of... that was one of my big inspirations. I wanted this to be a fantasy novel first and then a story about fantasy novels second.
JG:[laughs] And I should say, it succeeds, which I wonder if people haven't read this book, the two or three out there that haven't read this book, they need to know that almost everything that Lev writes is brilliantly funny and still exciting. It's funny and exciting, sometimes in a very dark way, but the excitement part of it is you almost never know where he's going. Sometimes Harry Potter, for example, follows a fairly static formula. As I've discussed in my books, there's a ten-step formula that she does in every single book. We start out on Privet Drive, we go to Hogwarts on a magical escape, we've got a mystery... and it goes through to the denouement with Dumbledore, the turn to King's Cross, et cetera. But that never happens in a Lev Grossman piece. [laughs] You think he's going to do something, he goes out into the woods to start a magical adventure, and he bawks. He says, "No, I'm not going through that gate."
JG: What? Wait a minute! You can't do that! But that, in a way, is... oh well. It turns you back on yourself as a reader to say, "Oh, what is he trying to say here?" It's a wonderful experience.
LG: Well, it's one of the funny things writing fantasy and yet also moving as I do, sort of partly in a world of literary writers. All the literary writers look at you and they make these tragic faces and they think, "Isn't it terrible the way you're trapped by the conventions of your genre?"
LG: But the truth is if you have conventions, if there are rules, then the great thing about writing fantasy is that you break the rules. If readers come to your book with expectations, you can do the opposite thing and they're unbelievably shocked and excited. And I think that's one of the things that literary writers miss about writing fantasy, is how exciting and sort of subversive it is in that way.
JG: This is great. I want to come back to this later in the show, but right now I'm going to... there are people out there that are saying, wait a minute John, this guy has talked, he has been in the presence, that Lev Grossman [in] his position at TIME Magazine was privileged or burdened - I'm not sure how we really want to put this - in 2005 to interview Joanne Rowling. But you went to Joanne Rowling's place there, in Scotland, and spoke with her. I've already mentioned in the introduction that she asked to have your children. [laughs] What else did she share there that you couldn't fit into that interview in 2005?
LG:[laughs] Well, there's a lot. One of the things about speaking with Jo Rowling is that it's one of those experiences in your life that is not anticlimatic. It is... she is a genius and you feel that when you are in her presence, which is amazing. I spoke to her for two hours and left there with sort of 12,000 words of interview.
LG: Only a tiny bit of which I was able to fit into the piece, which was an unspeakably terrible piece which I wrote in... I must have had two days to write it.
JG:[laughs] Oh, geez.
LG: And I don't know what I spent... I must have spent forty-seven of those hours doing something unrelated because it's such a disappointing piece and... anyway, I just always have to say that because I was so unhappy with it later. Anyway, but it was a fantastic conversation. Just so interesting and it covered the characters very specifically and also the fantasy tradition in general. And her craft as a writer - that's one of the things that I didn't expect, is how self-critical she is, how closely she goes over her own technique, the way she composes her books, which changed from book to book. It was just one of the more exciting conversations I've ever had in my life or probably ever will.
KH: But the one thing about that interview though that you wrote, was that you were having a pretty rough time in your life just as that was approaching and you went through some turmoil, like many people do. They have a rough... just a rough go at it and she inspired you...
LG: It was amazing! This was a year into my working on The Magicians, when I still had pretty much no hope of getting it published, and it's neither here nor there, but I was just in the worst possible part of a divorce and just not my... I was off the ball. And still, it was this amazing conversation which was... in some ways it really... it inspired me in a lot of ways to get my stuff together.
KH: Well when I read that piece that you went through that divorce, I knew exactly where you were, having been there myself. I knew the emotional turmoil that it is and I wish I had somebody like JK Rowling to pick me up like that. I mean, it just sounds just remarkable. And congratulations on what she did for you. It's just remarkable.
JG: I want to say that... just the idea of Lev Grossman and Joanne Rowling playing conversational racquetball with the ideas of what it's like to be a writer and questions about the books and such. What I would have given to be a bug on the wall, seriously. And Lev, you're as self-deprecating and self-critical as she is, but seriously two of the finest writers of the time sitting down to talk books. Such a shame that this didn't come out as a small pamphlet - 12,000 words is a pretty good sized pamphlet. Someday I hope you get the releases to publish this thing.
LG: I do, too. I mean, TIME Magazine owns it, but I hope one day... and I'd want to seek Rowling's permission as well, but it was a great conversation and I hope one day to publish it.
JG: Well, let's hope that Time Warner's stock continues to collapse...
JG: ...and they'll be pressed for funds or whatever.
JG: Anyway, you burst onto the Harry Potter scene and the New York Times Bestseller list with the novel The Magicians. We're sort of marching towards that in this conversation about your interview. And in that story, as we've touched on, you tell the story of Quentin Coldwater and his adventures in and beyond a magical college called Brakebills. It's rife with Narnia, The Once and Future King, and Hogwarts saga influences, almost all of which are your responses to these classics rather than knock-offs or rip-offs. That was the delightful part for me, is this is not in any sense a "I want to try and do Joanne Rowling one better" or whatever. This a "I'm doing what she's doing and, to put a small spin on it, this is a conversation with those books rather than just 'another.'" Tell us something about your relationship with Lewis and White and Rowling, as a reader of their works, and your choice to refashion this magical education in a literary novel - I'm especially interested in the latter part - because TH White is obviously taking the Merlin saga and giving us a modernist turn or whatever.
JG: A sort of ironic and self-aware turn or whatever. Is that something what you're doing here with Hogwarts? I mean, I know Rowling is also a postmodern novelist, but it's not a literary sense of that at all.
LG: Well, when I began writing The Magicians the first thing I became aware of is that it was the book that I had been spending my whole life getting ready to write. Lots of people I think have had this experience of beginning to write something and have it just pour out of you with so much pleasure and energy. It just wasn't like anything else I'd ever done. And I very much thought of it kind of in response to Lewis and Rowling and TH White, also probably to some extent to Gary Gygax since I was a huge Dragons & Dungeons fan.
[JG and LG laugh]
LG: He's the missing fourth sort of face there. And suddenly, this idea... and I'm a big fan of these works like, for example, Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea, Michael Cunningham The Hours...
LG: Books that talk back to other books, and I found that incredibly energizing. Also Pullman, His Dark Materials books, the way he responds to Lewis was very inspiring to me. Suddenly, this idea that I could take a story that was out there in the culture and kind of refashion it with my own feelings, bringing my own experiences to it. Moving it to America, for example, which is something that at that point was relatively rare in this kind of fantasy. Bringing to it a kind of literary language that Rowling eschewed - we see now from Casual Vacancy that she has it at her disposal. But I was sort of a student of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Hemingway. I wanted to see what happened if you wrote about magic the way, say, Hemingway would write about bull fighting.
LG: What would happen if you used that kind of adult language and describe what it was like to cast a spell, to go through a portal into another world. How would that feel? What kind of feelings would you have? What if sex were part of the mix, and alcohol and complicated difficult adult relationships? Things like that. What if all of those things were thrown into this kind of rich stew? What kind of a book would you get? Would it be even possible to write such a book? I didn't know, but that's what I was trying to do.
JG: Wow. And I want to jump on the Pullman thing because Pullman goes after Lewis. They call him "the un-Lewis"...
JG: ...or like I said "the un-man" in the United Kingdom or whatever because he's really... as a public atheist and an angry atheist, he's after Lewis as what he feels is a proselytizing dogmatic didactic writer. Your take on Lewis is very different than that. I mean, yes, you don't come in as a literary novelist - which is really a post Christian genre - to talk about imaginative fiction which is explicitly a romantic celebration of a transpersonal faculty - sort of the Christ within or the Logos within. I mean, for you to come at it and allow it to have its own integrity and not to try to turn it on its head. To have Quentin really have these experiences inside the imaginative fiction, though he struggles with them in his own experiences being very different. That was, I thought, a much more mature and challenging conversation with the Lewis legacy and really the whole romantic fantasy tradition. When you said that Pullman was an influence, were you thinking along those lines? I remember once Phil Nel at Kansas State saying that Philip Pullman was the gold standard in children's literature for elevated language - magisterial prose and such.
JG: Were you trying to match his artistry and yet... I don't want to say moderate, but I think also elevate the engagement with these books?
LG: Well, it's interesting. I met Pullman once and I thought, thinking to myself, "He can't hate Lewis as much as everybody says he hates Lewis or as much as he sounds like he hates Lewis...
LG: "...when he writes about Lewis." But he truly does.
LG: He truly does. And he turned every shade of fuchsia you could imagine when ranting about Lewis. My feelings about Lewis are obviously more... I wouldn't say more complex, but there's a lot more love for Lewis in me. I think of his contribution to modern literature... I mean, it was the kind of... one of the real great... I don't know how to describe it. Just like Los Alamos or Trinity Test moments of modern literature when he created Narnia and this idea, this story, about people passing from world to world. I mean, he just invented that in so many ways, and it's such a powerful idea which resonates through so much of our culture. The idea that one man did this is just amazing. And I feel a lot of longing for Narnia. Really you mentioned the word ironic before, there's no irony in Quentin's love for Fillory. He longs to be there so badly and I, in some ways, felt like I had to come to terms with my own longing for Narnia and my love of it and the fact that I would never probably ever get to go to Narnia in real life. One of the things I was trying to do with The Magicians was to kind of exercise or come to terms with it because it was something that ate up so much of my sort of emotional life.
JG: This is astonishing, Lev, because in that 2005 article which I pillared you for already online...
[JG and LG laugh]
JG: ...you called Lewis a Death Eater, in effect said that if Lewis were inside a Joanne Rowling novel he would be a Death Eater. And in your books, you've got the Fillory books by Christopher Plover and the five children heroes, your transparency for Lewis's Narnia. Christopher Plover doesn't turn out to be a very nice guy. You're digesting this experience and it's clear that you know Lewis very well. Imaginative intimacy I guess is the phrase I'm looking for, is that you know him that well and yet on some level there's a sense where you want to dissociate yourself from Lewis. You're not like, as you said, Philip Pullman who is over the top in his wanting to rescue the world from Lewis's madness or whatever [laughs] because he happens to believe in God.
JG: But you seem also to be struggling with the genre itself which is so implicitly theistic, if not outright Christian.
LG: I had to... I was struggling, really, fighting my way to kind of an understanding of Lewis that didn't seem to, I don't know, empty out this world of meaning. I think as a kid, I was so obsessed with Narnia and... to put it very crudely, it just seemed like everything was going on there, that's where the party was...
LG: ...and my own life seemed so empty of meaning. On an existential acadian level, it seemed so not worth living compared to this imaginative world that Lewis created. I had to sort of tear it down a little bit - Narnia that is - and I had to tear it down a little bit to kind of build my own life up and say, well even if my life... I can't go to Hogwarts, I can't go to Narnia, so what kind of worth can I find in my own life?
JG: What's fascinating to me is you have found the worth in your life, obviously, in writing. The magic that Keith and Jon, all of us here, are engaged in is the magic of literature and our own experiences transcending self, world, et cetera, inside a book. Be it a literary novel or be it a fantasy piece, but the fantasy piece really seems to go there most easily.
JG: This is a question I want to throw out to the whole group here. I'm afraid this is turning into my fangirling Lev here, but [laughs] when we enter The Magicians I'm wondering if we're entering into Lev Grossman's parable about writing as magic. That all the characters in here are readers and writers in a way as much as they are magicians. That really what this is about is our own experiences in allegorical form as magic, and be it that these people are the writers, they're in the special thing... they actually make the stories or whatever, and the rest of us are readers. But Lev is talking about the reading and writing experience as magic, something which is not matter and energy, mundane, egotistical, our own little private selfish world traps; something that gets us out of that into the fabric of reality, the place behind the walls, the world with wealth, the place in the woods. Lev, Jon, help me out here. Is that possible? Are you writing, really, about writing?
JB: I sort of read it as readers who become writers. Because I think... obviously the reading experience is mirrored in the character's discovery of these new worlds. There's the intial excitement and sort of sense of wonder, and then hopefully subsequent feelings of belonging. And then that's part of the power of this sort of imaginative literature, this ability to discover. But then we find out, as Harry does, as Quentin does, that magic doesn't necessarily make your world better, and it's more about the internal journey. So you find yourself going along on this journey, but it's mirroring now something that's happening inside as well, and I think this is the sort of... our chemical relationship that you discussed, John, in your lectures, where there's an internal journey that's being traveled that's perhaps the most important of all.
LG: Okay, I'm lowering my hand here [laughs] because Jon has completely answered the question.
JB: Sorry, was that a bit...
JG: That was wonderful!
LG: No, no, it was great!
JG: That was great. I'd applaud here, but...
LG: That was good. That was wonderful. I'm not going to add anything to that.
JG: I mean, seriously, all I can do is try to restate what you have just said, Jon, and I'll fumble and bumble and I hope Keith will edit this so I just repeat what you've said. These people... this portal fantasy, where we go through a gate and enter the thing - well, that's us. That's us as readers entering into these worlds that someone else has created. And then we get there and there's Lev's experience, where Lev says, "Gosh, now my world is empty because I found something bigger." But Ralph Wood at Baylor has said, look, fantasy fiction is not about escaping from the world. It's about entering into the world in a way we discover, as readers, the magic of our own world as we take the lenses of our transformed vision from our experience inside books, and then we come back. But the writer takes one extra level. The writer begins to - by inspiration, by a grace filled imagination, whatever you want to call it - create another story, another sub-creation, which provides a portal for other people to enter into this. And I feel, Lev, and I'm going to talk about The Magician King in just a second about... Magicians seems largely the Lev Grossman story. You went to the best possible schools, you studied the best books - I mean these are largely Ivy League, Wesleyan type experiences [laughs] that people have, the literary novel type of experiences you're talking about. And yet it's all coming to terms with this magical experience you had as a child, which is more profound, and yet here you are, writing these books, this magic. When you get to Magician King, we get another character here, who is the woman who is not - forgive me, here - Julia Wicker, the magician who is not accepted into Brakebills, okay, but she pursues her magical education with hedge witches, a secret society of sorts. I confess to wondering if this was not your own transparency for Joanne Rowling, okay, a woman who was not accepted, as you were, into Ivy League colleges and graduate schools, or even the UK Oxbridge equivalence, but whose literary magic is mysteriously different - in many ways, more grounded, however unconventional - than the pack of big name writers today. Is Julia a conscious or unconscious Rowling allegorical figure? I mean, is the magic of your books, really, again, a transparency for writing fiction?
LG: This is where it becomes painfully apparent that authors are not necessarily the best readers of their own work.
LG: That's a remarkable idea. A very illuminating idea to me. I have to be honest, I have often wondered who Julia is because... as a writer, she's a little bit of a rogue operator. I never quite know when she is going to turn up in my books, and I certainly didn't know that she was going to narrate half of...
LG: ...The Magician King and her story would have become so much a part of it. That's a wonderful idea. It's a wonderful idea. I mean, she certainly draws on many of my experiences, which are probably not quite as privileged as my five line bio would tend to suggest. [laughs] And I spend a lot of time myself feeling locked out of Brakebills and Hogwarts and the halls of sort of the literary establishment. But so did Rowling, in very real ways. Much realer than the ways I experienced.
JG: Oh, yeah...
LG: It's a wonderful, illuminating idea. And I'm going to close there because...
LG: ...I need to spend several months thinking about it.
JG:[laughs] Lev, I...
KH: Well, that's the show then. Thank you!
JG: Lev, that's the kindest brush-off I've gotten ever in an interview. This is great.
LG: Oh, it's not a brush-off. It's a wonderful idea because she is somebody who takes the other path. She began, for me, with Dudley Dursley. I always thought about Dudley and his life, as someone who knew that Hogwarts was real but who would never be allowed to go in. And I know this is incorrect reading, but I always felt a funny sort of pang of sympathy for Dudley, which is actually an idea that I mentioned to Rowling in my one conversation with her, and I recall her response word-for-word because it consisted of only two words, and the words were, "Oh, please."
[JG and LG laugh]
LG: So, obviously, that's not a reading that she would endorse, but I always felt sorry for Dudley because he knew the magic was real but he could never do it.
KH: That's the same way we all read these fantasy novels, all the ones that we're talking about, and we live these lives in the books, and we would like to know that they're actually real. I mean, I would love to know that Hogwarts is real and that this stuff actually happens. And so many kids, they keep on saying, "I wish it was my eleventh birthday and I was getting my letter to Hogwarts." And the same with The Magicians, getting the letter to go to Brakebills, et cetera. And I just wonder, from the students, do you wish... knowing the novels the way you do - The Magicians, Merlin, Harry Potter, Lewis and Narnia, and everything else - knowing what fantasy lives are like and the magician lives are like, if you got that letter, would you accept it? Would you go forward and learn from the schools, to learn the magic? Or would you say, "Wait a minute, I think I'm going to back off on this"?
JB: Yeah, I think fourteen years after reading about it, I'd turn it down. Not for me.
JG: I'm astonished!
JJ: I think if it came up I would absolutely take that acceptance letter to Hogwarts, but after reading The Magicians and some other fantasy books, I'm pretty sure that I'd be the one that got killed by a dragon or something.
JJ: I don't think I'd make it very far. [laughs]
JG: Oh, this is great. I'm sorry, I read these books, relatively speaking, as an old man, and I come out of the books every time totally identified with Harry. I'm ready to do the hard, difficult thing. I'm convinced that... I don't care if I die, I'm going to face the Dark Lord and his minions, and miraculously I'm going to survive and live to see another day.
[JJ and LG laugh]
KH: You do live in a world of fantasy!
JG: That's right! Well, I think that's one of the great benefits of reading the stories again and again. It gives you kind of a booster shot, like, hey, I can do the hard, right thing. I can't imagine myself as the guy who becomes the girl who died in the toilet. I don't think I ever think of myself as Moaning Myrtle or whatever.
[JJ and LG laugh]
KH: Yeah, I don't know if I would actually accept it either. I think I'm with Jon on that one, and say, I love this story...
JB: Oh, I was being sarcastic.
JG: Oh, okay. Phew! There you go, Jon.
KH: Oh, were you? I'm being serious about it. I don't know that I could accept it. I think I'd rather just stay a Muggle, a stupid little plain old Muggle, and stay away from that world. Knowing about it is one thing, living in it I think is a totally different situation.
LG: But if there was some sort of adult education branch of Hogwarts, like continuing education...
[JG and JJ laugh]
[JG and LG laugh]
LG: I just feel like, I'm 43, but maybe it's not too late.
JG: Yeah, I'm with Lev. I'm on board, man.
KH: I'd end up falling on my wand and poking my eye out, okay?
JG: Oh, okay. All right. Blowing off a buttock, right? I mean, oh my goodness.
JG: Gosh. [laughs] Well, this has gone in a different direction than I expected. I want to come back, Lev, to a book that - maybe this is sort of the same thing - a book that you don't like to talk about. We've had conversations about this when we get together at conventions or whatever. But your first big bestseller is a book called Codex, which I'm still disappointed it hasn't become a movie yet because it's a thriller. And it's a thriller about books, specifically about really the immersion experience of story, okay? And it's about a mysterious book and a super-engaging video game. Tell us about your experience at the Yale library and in an office of game-players that led to this tale about a lost-but-found manuscript and MOMUS the video game, and how your thoughts about what story and books and games does to a reader changed since Pottermania enveloped the world of readers.
LG: Well, Codex was a book... it came out in 2004; it was a long, hard slog to write it. It took me six years to write it, which... and it was hard work, kind of breaking rocks. Not like writing The Magicians at all. But it was very heartfelt, and it's about the pleasure of reading, and really the pleasures of getting lost in a fiction, whether it be a literary fiction, textual fiction, or whether it be a video game, a virtual fiction, because I'm a heavy gamer. I used to be heavier, but still pretty hardcore about it. And I was looking for a way to write about the experience of gaming and getting lost in a game, because I didn't see anybody else writing about it, and I felt like that was something that ought to be in some novel somewhere. And of course, it was in Snow Crash, but maybe if we had another book that was a bit like Snow Crash except not quite as good...
LG: ...that would be good too. So, I wrote that. [laughs] And I think it went very well. I'm very proud of it. But the truth is I hadn't hit on the master metaphor for what I was writing about, and that was magic. That was the story that needed to be told in a fantasy world because I feel like only in fantasy, only in a world that has magic in it, that's the closest you can get to describing the power of reading, and what that kind of does to you and does for you. I needed magic in my world in order to properly write about the experience of reading.
JG: Well, I think you're right. That metaphor raises the experience because when you enter into it, we're recognizing that magic intuitively or imaginatively, as readers, so it's a mirror effect as you enter into The Magicians, which takes the experience in another dimension than you get in Codex. But Codex is such a roller coaster ride that I really want to recommend to readers, who probably, if they know you, know you for Magicians and Magician King. Codex is definitely worth checking out. I want to go... we're taking to you as Lev Grossman wearing the novelist hat here, and novelist and even your Harry Potter fan hat. But I think, really, most of your readers - you may have millions of more readers who first knew you or still know you primarily as TIME Magazine's book editor.
JG: And you've written in TIME about the new world - and I'm kind of... I'm putting that in scare quotes there - the new world of fan fiction, or at least its explosion since Harry Potter readers took to writing their own stories, and Keith was talking about MuggleNet's audio fan fiction podcast or whatever. In some respects, your own books can be pigeonholed as fan fic, however sophisticated. I know that the CS Lewis estate, for one, didn't care for the Fillory images at all, right? Is this just to say that all books written by those who read widely and deeply is also fan fiction? I mean, Rowling has said that her work is a compost pile of everything she's ever read. Is that true of your work too?
LG: I think it's true of every writer worth his or her salt. It's one of the most interesting things that's happening right now, is this phenomenon of fan fiction. And maybe one of the most important, I think, in literature. I mean, if you think about the wide view, the long view of the history of literature, so much of it is essentially fan fiction. I mean, if you look at The Aeneid, well, here's a guy who took a character from Homer...
LG: ...and figured out what happened afterwards. This idea that we have in the modern world that stories are the possession of one person, the person who thought them up - that did not exist for most of the history of storytelling. The idea was that you told a story, you were temporarily the curator of it, and then whoever told it next got to do what they wanted to do with it, and that was the end. This idea of copyright and intellectual property, it didn't exist, partly because you didn't have writers who were making their living off of controlling the intellectual property that they created. Now we have a very different world, but I somehow feel like we're sort of slowly moving back to that older model. And I see on the one hand, fan fiction is this huge movement and it's only getting bigger and bigger and bigger, but there's this countermovement from the other world, from the literary world, which starts, interestingly enough, more or less the same time that fan fiction does. It was the year - I'm going to get it wrong - '68, '69, a year in the late sixties, when Star Trek fan fiction first started getting going. That same year, you have the premiere of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead...
LG: ...which is sort of a fan fiction take on Hamlet. You have Wide Sargasso Sea published in the same year, Jean Rhys working with Jane Eyre. And then more and more. You have Michael Cunningham, like I mentioned before. March, which won the Pulitzer Prize, which is based on a character from Louisa May Alcott. I mean, just on and on you have people in the high culture world working with pre-existing stories. Most of them are clever enough, unlike me, to work with stories that are in the public domain...
LG: ...so you don't get into hideous copyright wrangles. But that just goes to show how far our legal system is lagging behind the cultural realm. I think it's so interesting watching readers take back their right to tell the stories and retell the stories and alter the stories that they've read and loved. It's just... it's so fascinating. And that's all I'm doing in The Magicians. There's nothing else to call it. It is a kind of high culture or, I don't know, high arc version of fan fiction. And if you look for the dividing line between what I do and what people do on FanFiction.net or wherever, there is no dividing line. It's all a blur.
KH: Well, the nice thing about this fan fiction and where it's gone is if you look at the NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month that takes place every November - this started back in, what, 1999? And they had just a few participants. But now, in 2010, 2012, they are hitting two, three, four, five hundred thousand entries and what's happening is this is basically just a person, a normal person who has no real major shot at getting seen by a publisher, writing their novel, and it's generally a fanfic piece and it's a fifty thousand word novel that they have to create in this one month. So, I think the fan fiction has really dominated... when you talk about Harry Potter fan fiction, how it's grown, and then you have this National Novel Writing Month take over, I think writing is becoming a nice thing to bring back into the culture these days.
LG: Rowling has done so much of that. I mean, first of all creating a world so rich that people just felt compelled to tell their own stories in it with those characters that she created and with new characters, and then getting out of their way and not making a big stink about it. It's just... there's no way to overstate how important that has been for literary culture.
JG: What do you mean it has been important for literary culture? That people are engaged as writers? Or that...
LG: Yes, exactly. People talk about Rowling turning non-readers into readers, but she also turns readers into writers on a huge scale. That's so important. It's so wonderful. I feel like it's not talked about enough.
JG: That's fascinating because I... forgive me for being... I live under the stairs or whatever. In fact, I have never heard that really discussed, outside of your one article on fan fiction in TIME, that she takes readers and they are so engaged with the story that... they've been accepted at Brakebills, they're going to work magic of their own.
LG: Exactly. I hear stories about... I hear the story told alternatively about The Sex Pistols and The velvet Underground. You would say... they tell their story of their early tours and, like, ten people would come to a show. But then four of those people would then leave and start a band.
LG: They turned non-musicians into musicians. And it's the same with Rowling. It's just like punk. There's not even a real difference.
JG: Wow, that's fascinating. It's like Jimi Hendrix hears Bob Dylan sing and says, "I can do that!"
[JG and LG laugh]
JG: Maybe that's slightly different, though. Because Rowling does it so well, very few people confuse fan fiction with Rowling's work.
LG: It's true, but Rowling does it in a way... she does it incredibly well, but somehow it's in a way that welcomes other people to do it. When you read Jonathan Franzen... I love Jonathan Franzen, but when I read Jonathan Franzen I don't say, "I could do that!"
LG: I say, "I want to break my computer so I never, ever trespass upon this sacred territory."
LG: Rowling is different. She's a great artist, but you have a different relationship with her work.
JG: I think that we experience the magic of literature inside her books and it so takes over our world. Much as the Fillory books do Quentin that when he gets the invitation it's a surprise, but in a way it's not. He recognizes he's been waiting for it all this time, the same way that people as they've been transformed inside the imaginative world of the Hogwarts saga they then respond to any kind of inspiration they have to write themselves. Oh, well. I don't... for example, people... we have an ongoing thing here, Lev, [laughs] at MuggleNet Academia, where I say kind things about Twilight and everybody starts to groan.
JG: Go ahead, everybody groan here.
KH: Oh, you've got to be kidding me. [laughs]
JG: There you go, there goes the groan thing. But in a way, I'm confident that Stephenie Meyer, as far removed from Harry Potter in a way as her books are, I doubt she takes up pen after she has that inspiring dream about a vampire in a perfectly round meadow. I doubt she goes to her computer the next morning and starts to write. Except that she's heard the Cinderella story of Joanne Rowling and experienced those books profoundly herself, and decides that, yeah, she can do this. And as I've written in my book, a large part of the magic of her works is the alchemy that she... the literary alchemy tools that she... that Rowling has reinvented and reanimated in our time. The soul triptych, the ring composition - all those things. She takes those things and she uses them to make Twilight jump up. And Lev, you've been... forgive me for using this kind of language, but you've been crucified for saying that it's not honest for literary critics to diss Twilight without first asking themselves, why are these books selling as well as they are? I want to ask you about whether you still feel that way, if you still feel that we have to look at popular literature more seriously, because you know that many literary critics don't share your high regard for Lewis, White, Rowling, and certainly Meyer.
LG: To jump in, first of all, I groaned earlier just because you told me to.
LG: But actually, I quite enjoy the Twilight books, so I don't really have a problem with them. But yeah, I stand by... John said... alluding to a piece I wrote in, of all places, The Wall Street Journal, about how difficulty is no longer a criterion for literary greatness. Great books can be easy to read, it's not really a problem, which is how things used to be when, for example, Dickens was writing, or Jane Austen. I think that it is intellectually lazy - I think that's what I said - for critics to dismiss Stephenie Meyer's work just because millions of people read it. I think that it is more... I guess I could say honest?
JG: Yeah. [laughs]
LG: It is more honest or more rigorous to ask yourself, what are those books doing for those millions of people? It's all very well and good to write endless essays about books that sell four thousand, five thousand copies...
LG: ...which is something that people do all the time in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, and wherever else. Are these people not curious what is happening when millions of people open these books and read them? Is it intellectually honest or rigorous to dismiss that and say nothing of importance is happening? I don't believe that. I don't think that's true. I think those books are important. And what those people are doing is important, and you can't throw away their passion and engagement with those books, and just say it's worthless and meaningless. It's absurd!
KH: Yeah, but then you're talking about millions of people who also like Fifty Shades of Grey and that's just porn.
JG: No, no, hold on, hold on!
JG:Fifty Shades of Grey - this leads right into our conversation. I have not read the books and I don't want to say yay or nay what they are - I have heard that they've got bonded scenes and all this and that - but it starts off as a straight fan fiction piece. I mean, it starts off as a Twilight fan fiction piece, pure and simple. And then she recasts it as another book which has different named characters and this kind of thing. What's your response to that, Lev? I mean, Rowling made this great joke about the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey and said, "Think of how many books I could have sold if Harry had been a little more creative with his wand."
JG: That's a joke on many levels, like how many more books could Rowling possibly have sold, period? What do you think of Fifty Shades of Grey as a Twilight fan fiction? I can see Twilight as a Harry Potter fan fiction. I mean, we've got three characters, one who is the human mind on legs, and one who is the heart, who calls herself the heart all the time, and one who is just the body, the guy without the shirt, right? Jacob. You see, we've got Ron and Hermione, we've got Jacob and all these people. I can see Twilight as Harry Potter fan fiction. Is Fifty Shades of Grey something we should dismiss because, as Keith said, it's, quote, just porn? Or is the porn part of it an aspect of fan fiction begging to be exploited?
LG: I went to Rowling's event where she was talking about Casual Vacancy in New York, and her line about Fifty Shades of Grey was, "The difference between that stuff and Casual Vacancy is in my book, people have sex but nobody enjoys it."
JG: That's right!
[JG and JJ laugh]
KH: That was awesome being there. That was so funny. I think the whole crowd was just dying.
LG: That was a great one. I'm going to cop out of this question, by the way, because I haven't read Fifty Shades of Grey.
LG: I'm in no position to talk about it or dismiss it or not dismiss it. But I do think there is such a thing as a book that is both popular and uninteresting, but I... one just doesn't like to jump to conclusions about it.
JG: I hear you. But you give us a great segue into Casual Vacancy. All right. I don't know if we've all read Casual Vacancy. I know Keith and I have.
KH: And I loved it. Absolutely loved the book.
JG: I've talked about it at great length at Hogwarts Professor. Lev, you loved Casual Vacancy.
LG: I really did.
JG: I got to confess that as I read your review, I thought, "Of course he loves it." [laughs] Here's Lev, literary novelist, attempting to align that genre with fantasy fiction. How couldn't he be thrilled by the world's most successful fantasy writer attempting a literary novel with an allegorical punch? Is that fair or not fair? Certainly, I mean, most other reviewers were not nearly as enamored as you were with Rowling's first post-Potter effort.
LG: Very true. I was astounded by the negative reviews. It was interesting because usually when you have a literary novel coming out, the critics... advanced copies have been knocking around for a couple of months, so the critics being the horrible cabal of...
LG: ...inbred insiders that we are, everybody knows what everybody else thinks of it. I had no idea what anybody else thought of it and I simply assumed while I was reading it that everybody else was experiencing a great book the way I was, and I was astounded when the knives came out and people...
JG: Long knives.
LG: ...didn't like that book.
JG: Long, sharp, pointy instruments. [laughs]
LG: Yes, very long and pointy and barbed. That said, when I published my review immediately there was a long string of comments saying, "What a Harry Potter fanboy. Of course he liked it." I think everybody is kind of overestimating me and underestimating the schadenfreude I would have felt watching the world's most successful novelist...
LG: ...try to write a literary novel and fail. I'm not that good of a person. I wasn't expecting her to succeed and I was rooting for her because I'm essentially a good person, but I think I would have said so if I thought she failed. I was astounded, the extent to which she succeeded which was a very great extent and also the way in which she succeeded. The way she writes adolescent boys in that book...
JG: You'd think she was one, right?
LG: ...is so different from Harry Potter and yet so rich and full and powerful.
KH: We are entering the part of the show in which we discuss The Casual Vacancy. If you have not finished the book and would not like to be spoiled regarding the contents of the book, please skip to the end of the audio broadcast.
I think a lot of people who didn't like it were just trying to compare it, one to the other, and I don't think you can do that. I mean, the comparison comes in her structure - was the same in Harry Potter that it was in The Casual Vacancy. Her detail in the structure, I should say, in how she structured the whole book. She made it into a ring composition. It was a well laid out book, it was well told, and I really did enjoy the book from top to bottom.
LG: I think there was an element of snobbism in the critical reaction to it. I think that a lot of critics just weren't willing to put themselves out there and say, "Yeah, the Harry Potter lady wrote a great literary novel." I think a lot of people just stuck in their throats and they just couldn't say it, but I think it's true.
JG: Well, I...
JB: There's a very strong political aspect to it as well in the UK.
JG: There you go. That's right. Jon, please...
KH: Well, what are they saying over in the UK about The Casual Vacancy?
JB: Well, just because it causes kind of a left-right divide, which is perhaps simplistic but also I think fairly true in this case. So it's interesting, hearing...
KH: Yeah, but after all, it is your political environment over there.
JB: Well, we have a conservative government but we've got both conservative and sort of more liberal media, and I think the liberal responses were certainly far more positive because it's very critical, I think. I haven't read the book so I don't want to jump to conclusions, but from what I read on both sides, it seems to be very critical of conservative mindsets.
JG: Absolutely. [laughs]
JB: So, it's interesting hearing Americans talk about it just because obviously you're not quite as immersed in that discourse as we are over here.
JG: Oh no, we don't have a left-right divide in our country, Jon.
JB: Oh no, I meant specifically British politics.
JJ: That's true.
KH: What did you think of it, Jessica?
JJ: I really loved it. I think just the characterization that she accomplishes in one novel, just the amount that I cared about what happened to each person and how real they were. But also I think another achievement of the book is, like John was saying, even though it's not British politics, a lot of what she was writing about is still really relevant for issues that we face here in the States and local issues and different people's opinions about how things should be handled and how people should act. It's just really insightful and remarkable that she manages to address it so that it's applicable in more than one country and more than one political system.
JG: That goes to what I was thinking too, Jessica, in that it's... Lev keeps talking about it as a literary novel and as if that's... she totally removed it from her Harry Potter magic. Two things on that count. One, my daughter who has been on this show as a student guest or whatever - one of her friends who is as anamored with Harry Potter as she is said that she got halfway through the book and finally said she couldn't take it anymore, put it down, and hasn't even been able to enjoy Harry Potter since reading Casual Vacancy. [laughs]
JG: It's as if her whole idea of this exploded. And that's not... judging from other responses I've seen at The Hog's Head and at Hogwarts Professor, that's not a very unusual response. I want to... Lev's calling it a literary novel because... I don't think so. I mean, it has a lot of literary novel...
JG: Certainly it doesn't have a magical backdrop like the way Harry Potter does, but it seems so much more allegorical than say the Franzen novels you mentioned or an AS Byatt piece or whatever. These books, these characters, are meant to be... if not allegorical stick figures, at least something typological, something borderline allegorical. If you can't see the Uncle Sam equivalent... basically Howard is John Bull and you're getting a picture of the United Kingdom inside this storyframe about this small town - it's really an allegorical picture of the UK at large, hence Jon's observing that the UK is kind of exploding, because to them it's a transparency. [laughs] It's not something that they have to really reach to experience.
JG: While for the rest of us in the States, we can experience these characters as people and think, "Oh, this character is this and that." I mean, the Sikhs inside the story are the religious figures because she doesn't want to have the Christian... she wants the spiritual people to be outliers, as it were. It's... I've talked at Hogwarts Professor about how Rowling's own life is immersed inside this book, almost every character is some picture of either her personal life as a child or her experience meeting the Prime Minister, when her husband is a second tier physician or whatever. There's all sorts of that going on, but I don't think, Lev, that you can call it a literary novel if you say the literary novel is so realist that it doesn't really have an allegorical function. And Rowling... the magic of both books, I think, is in the symbolism and the allegorical experience as you enter into the book. I think the reason it fails is that we don't get the engagement because we have so many narrators. We don't identify with any character inside the books. Even the lead - the poor young adolescent woman - we don't identify with her in any sense, any of the depth we do with Harry Potter throughout his books. Am I off base with this?
JJ: Well, I thought that some identification is possible, not necessarily because when you read Harry Potter you think, "Oh, I could be like Harry or Hermione because they're these likable good people," and in The Casual Vacancy obviously the characters are considerably more flawed and you can't always identify with every single one of them. But I think for me, something that really worked is that there were aspects in each of them that I could identify with and sometimes I could recognize other people that I knew in them. So, even if it wasn't me, I could think like, "Oh, that person is like my uncle or something," and then that added a level of realness to it.
JG: Here's the punch, Jessica, I think, is that in Harry Potter we meet the boy underneath the stairs and we identify... Jessica...
JG: ...you were reading the book inside a closet! I mean, how could you not identify with that guy inside the closet?
[JJ and LG laugh]
JG: And he has won your heart from the start. All the characters that we despise in Casual Vacancy - other than the John Bull figure and his family who you're meant to despise from beginning to end - the ones we come to see the extra dimension to - the mother who's on drugs and stuff - when we find out her backstory, all of a sudden we have this "wow, oh my gosh, how could I possibly have despised her the way that I did?" And when we find out in the end that the male hero... Peanut would have died, except for the intervention of the girl who is destroyed in the end. We don't have as much sympathy for her as we would have had if we had learned that in the very beginning. Rowling's trying to give us a gut-punch with that at the end. She's going to level us with that finish about how this girl led the crew team to this victory or whatever. We're on the ground, wincing, about the fact that we didn't sympathize more with this heroic figure the way that Barry Fairbrother does. I mean, that's... she's turning it on its head. We're getting the good side of the people that we should have seen at the beginning at the very end. It's meant to give us this morality tale experience where, "Oh my gosh, I've judged this person." That's why you have the Good Samaritan format of the ending where the child is passed by by two people and the third person, the Sikh woman - who is self-destructive, an absolute basket case - she jumps in the water to save the child, she's the Good Samaritan. And we're supposed to have the same experience we would inside that gospel parable. And I did. I was doing the, "Would I have stopped to help that child? I don't know. Should I have?" The message is very clear: You'd better jump in the water to save that kid. And, Lev, is that the substance of a literary novel? That seems much more of an allegorical morality piece than, to me, a straight literary thing. Or am I misunderstanding literary novels?
LG: I'm pummelled into submission by that monologue, John.
LG: I do think that it is certainly possible for a novel to be both allegorical and literary. I'm also very conscious of the way in which my experience reading the book diverged from yours. I powerfully identified with Krystal really throughout the book and I didn't see her as a stick figure or sticky in any way. I was amazed the different ways that different people perceived her, all of which were actually essentially true to who she was. The way in which she shifted the point of view kaleidoscopically and continuously created these multifaceted pictures of these people, which made them seem more real to me and less allegorical. My experience with the book was very different from yours, and I'd like to think about what you said and come back to it.
JG: Again, I don't think you're wrong there, Lev. I mean, you're right. In fact, I think I was trying to say what you just said. I wish I had said it that way. This shifting point of view brings us to the point where we finally understand these characters that we have at least thought we understood. Every time we get a new picture, we find out that we're wrong.
JG: It's the post-modern piece. I would say, though, that she's much more still like Tolkien than she is like AS Byatt. Basically, we're getting... we talked about this in our brief correspondence, where Tolkien is saying, "Look, there's no real confusion here about right and wrong. What's confusing is when you know the right thing, do you do it or not? Do you make the hard choice?"
JG: And she's very clear all along that Barry knows the right thing and he died for it, and everybody else is struggling to pick up where he left off and they can't do it. That's not... the literary novel thing is: "I can't figure out what the right thing to do is. Is there any kind of right and wrong at all? I'm going to stare at my navel and think about it some more." That's very different. This is a morality piece. She called it a "political fairy tale" and, by gosh, it comes with a heck of an Aesop finish, I think. And I don't mean this, she gives a dedactic, "gosh, you should be nicer to people," but you've entered into the book enough that you're hurt, really, when you read about Krystal's triumph because you didn't know that from the beginning, you didn't understand why Barry would go, almost abandon his own family, to help this young woman. I wasn't there at the start and as much as I grew to appreciate her and feel her agony through these things, I never was there until the end and I thought, "Gosh, I didn't know this person at all." I just thought of her as this pathetic young woman trying to get... I thought she was sort of a Dickensian orphan or whatever, it was just painful reading. And then you saw that there was a heroic aspect to her at the end. It left me broken, and I think that's what she wanted. Harry Potter left you elevated and wanting... having experienced this world between the worlds or whatever. This book left you broken, realizing how far you are from that.
LG: Yeah. Well, that was very powerful to me. I agree with your summation. It did what literary books do for me, which is to make me question everything I thought I knew, really. You look at Krystal and who she is, then you look at her mom and who she is and you think you know her, and then Rowling rolls you back in time and you see how she became who she was and you realize that the world is just this endless chain of people being damaged and damaging other people in turn. I don't know. I'm still not done thinking about the book.
KH: I guess now is as good a time as any to say if anybody out there has not read The Casual Vacancy, spoiler alert!
JG: I'm with you on that. And if you haven't read The Casual Vacancy, please get off your duff, go get the book and read it.
KH: No, the book has been out long enough that people have to have finished it. We don't need to do a spoiler alert on it. I do hear a lot of people saying that they still have not finished the book and I'm like, "This is JK Rowling's work!"
KH: And as much of a fan of Harry Potter that people are, they are obviously a fan of JK Rowling. They call her The Queen. They follow her around...
KH: ...they look forward to a tweet from her and what she's going to do next, or any kind of interview and they're all over the news. When we post news on MuggleNet about JK Rowling, it's a high commented, high traffic news item. And so here is this book that came out months and months ago, and people still haven't finished it. It just baffles me that people can't get through it. They seem to get stuck in that first part of the book with all the different characters and they're maybe realizing that it's not Harry Potter. And there's, "Oh, there's cursing involved, too. Oh my!" But again, by the time you get through the book, you are just blown away with a great book. And I wish people would end up finishing this book and maybe if they listen to this show, they'll regrab that book and get back into it and just finish it up because it is really just a great read.
JG: I think, too... I want to go back to the first question. I asked Lev about this because I think Lev loves this book because I think - [laughs] though I'm curious if Lev will deny this - Lev's books, because they are about imaginative literature, are more allegorical than Lev wants to allow. He's talking about the power of imaginative fiction, he's writing fantasy fiction inside a literary framework so it's much more reflective. It's much more realistic, if you will. But its power is so much as we identify... these characters become transparencies to some greater experience, that there's something behind the wall there. If you go up into the attic and crawl into that space, there's something... there's a "there" there that we didn't expect. And that Rowling's literary novel, that Lev liked it so much is because it differs from most literary novels in having that extra dimension that invites readers. So I want to invite the readers, not only to go out and read The Casual Vacancy. I think if they want to understand their experience of Harry Potter better, they need to enter into Lev Grossman's Magicians and Magician King because here we see a book critic, a man who thinks seriously about books and who writes at a very high level, talking about our experience as readers not only of Rowling, but of fantasy literature in general. And reading even... a greater picture of what reading really means to us and what it gives to us as people. Anyway, sorry to wave the pom poms here, Lev, but I think your work is really important for Harry Potter readers to understand what they're about. And they may argue with your book. They may say, "That's not what I'm getting out of this." But I think it's a very important statement of what it meant to you as an American, a 20th century American, who as an adult read these books and who is still coming to terms with Narnia. How do you process that? I know a lot of Lewis fans did not like The Magicians because they don't like the picture of Christopher Plover and of Narnia and Fillory. But the ending of that, that elevated scene at the end when he decides that he is a magician and he can't turn away from that. That, to me, was an adult saying that he still not only believes in Fillory, but that it's an important aspect of who he is that he can never really be fully human until he understands that. I think Harry Potter fans will have that same moment of reflection at the end of Magicians and Magician King as they had at the end of Harry Potter, and maybe The Casual Vacancy, of having to reflect on what it means to read, what experience that they just had. Anyway, forgive me for ranting. Keith was encouraging people to read The Casual Vacancy. I want to say that they need to experience Lev's book as well to understand what Rowling was after, I think, in using literary novel genre elements to say some of the same things she was saying in Harry Potter. End rant. I want to ask all the guests the question that Keith and I always ask here at the end of the show, is how is your world different? I want to talk to you especially, Lev. As a writer, a reader, a literary critic, because of the Harry Potter event, can you imagine what you'd be like if unchanged by this series? Or can you describe ways that you have changed because of entering Harry's world? Thoughts that you've explored, people you've met, places you've gone? I mean, besides this wonderful show you're on. [laughs] Can you think of what your life would be like if you hadn't entered into Harry Potter or Narnia or any of those things?
LG:[laughs] It's a grim picture. Honestly, it is.
LG: I can't imagine my life without Harry Potter. I spent so much of my life as a fantasy reader, but as a fantasy reader... I guess a closeted fantasy reader. When I was a kid, there was such a stigma associated with fantasy as a genre. And you read it, but you didn't talk about it and you just kept it stuffed under your bed. And Harry Potter ended all that. And that had a huge... it was a big thing for the world, but it was a big thing for me too. I mean, I spent time as a graduate student studying modernism and all the time I was just obsessed with Rowling and Le Guin and Pullman and George RR Martin, and those two halves of my life were completely separate and never the twain would meet. Having read... there's a good reason I didn't write this book before Rowling wrote her books, because I couldn't have. Reading Rowling, I was able to bring those two sides of my life and my reading life and my personal life together and make something out of them. That never would have happened without Rowling, and that's just an amazing thing to think about.
KH: How about you, Jessica and Jon? How has the world of Harry Potter changed your life or shaped your life?
JJ: Well, my life is... it's very different because of Harry Potter, obviously because of many experiences that I've had, lots of memories of reading the books and making friends through the magic of them, but I think also just in the fact that I read them so young. I was recently reading a collection of the writings of the children's author, Diana Wynne Jones, and she was writing that authors of books for children have a responsibility to write worthwhile novels because their readers are so impressionable, not just in terms of learning morality from books, although I think certainly that comes across sometimes too, but just in the early formation of ideas about what makes a wise person or what makes a good person - these really fundamental ways of viewing the world that are hard to identify and define. It's hard for me to pinpoint, "Oh, Dumbledore totally shaped the way that I [laughs] see what a good professor would be." But I think that it has affected me deeply in all kinds of ways similar to that.
KH: And Jon?
JB: I think it was really the approach to criticism because I was already a fairly avid reader as a child, so The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, all that sort of stuff. And then Harry Potter came along and a few years later - it must have been about ten years ago - I began reading some of the MuggleNet editorials, and it was that introduction to criticism - and I think that's been the case for a lot of people my age - that Harry Potter was sort of a gateway to a more proactive form of reading, that perhaps... we certainly wouldn't have come upon so soon if it wasn't for Harry Potter. And that's been... I can't really measure the impact that's had. It's been incredibly profound. And it shapes... I don't simply read now. It's affected my whole way of approaching literature and has for as long as I can remember, really.
JG: I think that's another dimension to what Lev was saying earlier about Rowling making readers into writers, is that the conversation has been so intense about these books - certainly during the great interlibrim where we were waiting for things. She's made readers that loved reading into very serious readers that are open to reading books at depth and to conversing about them. I don't know about you, Lev. I didn't feel closeted as a child reading fantasy because I had very intelligent friends that loved comic books, and that's obviously parable-type stories and typological or whatever. But that... [laughs] despite the big-breasted women in tight suits or whatever...
[JG and LG laugh]
JG: ...it does have virtues that are relatively transparent, certain morality tales in every thirty-five cent Marvel comic book. Well, I'm curious if Jessica and Jon have read an author named Veronica Roth, that I know Lev has met because I was there when he met her [laughs] in Orlando or whatever.
LG: And I've read her.
JG: She's written the Divergent books and her experience was very much like Lev's. She was at Northwestern and she was reading the Dorita and company, the angry algerians, about what a book is really supposed to be about and such, [laughs] and her whole life was about reading Harry Potter and other books that she really loved. And so when she wasn't writing the post-structuralist critique of books that nobody else has ever read or ever will read, she was writing this really engaging, thrilling book about five personality factors laid out in terms of these factions and such in a post-apocalyptic world around Chicago. She did what... basically Lev had these two lives while he was in graduate school. She was an undergraduate, decided "forget this, I'm going to write this story." And I think the difference, Lev, between your experience and hers is that she lived in a world post-Harry Potter.
JG: Might you have, while you were in graduate school, said, "Well, I want to write this book. I'm going to follow this path because it's legitimate. I've seen serious people and a whole world turn on the discussion of these books. It's not just something I need to be embarrassed about."?
LG: I started to write that book in grad school and I stopped. And there were models for me - people like Donna Tartt, for example, or John le Carré - who wrote books that were sort of in between genres or were genre works that were written in this really thoughtful, stylistically-crafty way. But it wasn't enough. I needed somebody bigger than that and more powerful, and it was Rowling. It was also Susanna Clarke, who wrote Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
JG: Oh, yeah!
LG: Her and Rowling really were the ones who cut me loose and said, "Yeah, it's time to do this."
JG: Well, Keith, this show has been as good as I hoped it was. I'm sorry if I talked too much, but I've been on fire.
KH: No, this is exactly what I was hoping for, too. I wanted to hear from Lev's point of view. The thing that amazes me most about the Rowling series is how it shapes our lives, how it affected Jessica with how she views things, and John. And Lev, when he met her, was going through this horrible divorce and was just at a low point in his life and to be honest with you, I started reading the books the same time as I went through my divorce.
LG: Really? Wow.
KH: And it was so... when I was reading your piece on your interview, I was like, "Lev, I totally relate to where you are. And I just... I understand what you're going through." And I was on a one-on-one level with you there, so sometime when we meet we're just going to have to catch up on this.
KH: But Lev, thank you so much for being a part of this show. It's been a great experience. I hope you enjoyed yourself. Jessica, Jon, same thing. I hope you enjoyed yourselves. Do you guys have any questions for Lev at all?
JJ: I actually have a question.
KH: Go ahead!
JJ: It's sort of specific, but one thing that really stands out to me about The Magicians books is just how visceral a lot of it is. A lot of your scenes are just so dark and gut-wrenching, and it's great but it's also... like at the end of The Magician King, I was like, "Oh man, my life is horrible."
JJ: But of course, my life isn't horrible. Quentin's life is horrible. [laughs] And I was wondering about a particular scene - at the part in The Magicians where Penny gets his hands bitten off is just such a...
JJ: Woah, that is a scene. And I was just wondering in particular what the inspiration was or what it was like to write that scene.
LG: Yeah, it's funny. I'm not a... I don't think of myself as a horror writer - or I'm certainly not a horror reader - but there's always a few moments in my books that kind of descend into horror. And... gosh, I'm not being very eloquent about... I feel like books are about big emotions. There's no point in writing them if they're about small emotions. We get enough of that in our daily lives. When I write about... when I write books, what I try to cram into them is just how intense and how painful and ecstatic it is to be alive in the world. And yeah, sometimes that goes to some really dark places, and gosh, that was one of them.
[JG and LG laugh]
LG: That was a difficult scene. There's only two or three of those in the books. But they get really visceral I guess just because that's what life is really like. We have these... it's not even especially heightened. I mean, it's true, you don't often see people's hands getting bitten off...
[JG and JJ laugh]
LG: ...by a living god or something like that, but life is that intense. Terrible things happen to people all the time, and if you're not writing about those then what are you doing?
JJ: Right. Well, thank you. That's a good answer. [laughs]
KH: Jon, do you have anything to add?
JB: I have a sort of curiosity about something we were kind of talking about earlier, obviously pretty important: the influence of Harry Potter. And one of the things I really enjoyed in The Magicians are those couple of casual references to Harry Potter: talk about Thestrals, Hermione's teeth. And I was wondering, because these really... although they are sort of fleeting, they really help negotiate the sort of anxiety of influence of being post-Potter or whatever. And I was wondering how much you deliberated over those ostensibly very casual throwaway references? But they're so effective in dealing with Harry Potter.
LG: You would not believe how much I deliberated over those references. And in the earlier drafts of the books, there were a lot more of those references, which I really... it's funny, people cite them as sort of post-modern or meta-fictional. I just thought that was realism.
JG: Yes, yes, yes. [laughs]
LG: I thought if there was a real college for magic in upstate New York, everybody who was at those colleges would have read Harry Potter many times over, and they would have a lot of conversations about how their lives were similar to Harry's and how they were different. So, I just thought it was realistic, and in fact I think in real life people would probably talk about Harry Potter a lot more than that. Early people who read the drafts sat me down and were just like, "This is... it's cute, it's just jokey, all these references, you've got to take them out." I took almost all of them out, but I fought to have just one or two of them in there. Because I thought it was real. I thought that's how things would actually happen.
JG: Wow, I think you're absolutely right, Lev, to insist that they had to be in there, or it would have been sort of the shadow of the elephant in the room there. [laughs] As it was, it was discrete enough where you thought, "Okay, so these people are real. They are living in the time that I'm living in." [laughs] It would have been incomprehensible that people would be in a magical college and not talk about Hermione. She's smart, she's this way, and she's Hermione.
LG: Just as I think probably people at Hogwarts would actually talk a lot about Narnia and stuff like that. Obviously, they're doing it off stage because Rowling didn't want to go there, but I think if you're thinking about truly how things would really work, that's probably how they would work.
JG: Well, this was one of the frustrating things, is that all of her allusions are in people's names or in scenes. We get a lot of Dante, [laughs] we get a lot of Novakoff, we get a lot of Colette.
JG: But they are not direct references. While, as you say, if this were really the story, Hermione, you have to assume, would have Narnia memorized...
JG: ...and would be constantly making references to that.
KH: Yeah, but you also have to look at... in the Deathly Hallows book when we're talking about Tales of Beedle the Bard, and Ron is throwing out Babbitty Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump...
LG: Very true. Very true.
KH: ...and Hermione is like, "Umm, what the heck?" And she says that we grew up on Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and Cinderella, and Ron is like, "What the heck is that?" So, there is a difference in the world. I think what you are saying is the Muggle-borns or maybe even the half-bloods would have a knowledge of the Narnia series or the Tolkien series or something like that. But for the purebloods, I don't know that they would.
LG: Yeah, that's interesting. Very interesting.
JG: Yeah, I hadn't thought of that, Keith. Part of me wants to disagree. I think in the magical world, people like Dumbledore would be fascinated by people talking about magic in the Muggle world.
KH: Well, we're talking about a whole different level with Dumbledore because he read the Muggle newspapers.
JG: That's right, that's right. It's something... Rowling's books are not meant to be realistic, except in so much as we can enter into them. I think they're so profoundly allegorical and anagogical that the realism only gets us into the story so that we're in deep enough to experience the transparencies and their supernatural reference. But still, that's not what Lev is after, per se. I mean, Lev is actually after a much more realistic flavor, and so he's going to have his characters at least making Harry Potter allusions, and because Fillory is largely a stand-in for the Narnia experience, we get it in spades because they're talking about that at great depth and length. Jon, I'm sorry. Here I'm talking and you asked Lev the question. Does that get at your answer to your question?
JB: Yeah, that was really interesting to listen to. Thank you. That was something I was very curious about.
KH: Well again, thank you, Jon. Thank you, Jessica. Lev, it's been a real honor to have you on the show. I hope you enjoyed being on the show with us as much as we've had having you on it.
LG: Thank you guys for having me on it. It's been incredible, it's been really wonderful.
KH: And I just want to make one announcement before we kick off, and that is MISTI-Con. If you still have not registered, make sure you do.
KH: We should be having a special announcement on the keynote speakers hopefully in the very near future, and I think you will enjoy who they might be. That should be coming up hopefully soon. But it's going to be a great time, so if you have the opportunity to head over to Laconia, New Hampshire, it is Hogwarts away from Hogwarts. They will be setting up the Margate Hotel and Resort as if you are in the Hogwarts era. I mean, the whole saga will be there. You'll see Death Eaters walking around, and you'll see Potter and Tonks and Hermiones walking around, and we're going to just have a blast of a time.
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KH: So, go to MISTI-Con and register today. I think that's going to do it for the show, John, so let's finish it off. From MuggleNet.com, my name is Keith Hawk.
JG: I'm John Granger, the Hogwarts Professor and author of The Deathly Hallows Lectures.
LG: I'm Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians and The Magician King and book critic at TIME Magazine.
JJ: I'm Jessica Jordan, senior at Wesleyan University and MuggleNet news intern.
JB: And I'm Jonathan Brown, recent graduate from the University of Southampton.