LeakyCon Exclusive Interviews Continue with “TIME” Book Critic and Author Lev Grossman
by Caleb Graves · Published · Updated
Continuing with our round of interviews from LeakyCon in Chicago, we sat down with TIME book critic and author Lev Grossman. Grossman has long written about the Harry Potter series for TIME, but he is also a fan himself. The interview features a discussion about the endurance of the series, his experience at conventions, and his own book series.
The Magicians and The Magician King are the first two books in Grossman’s trilogy, with the final book still to come. This series also features a magical school, called Brakebills, which is in some ways similar to Hogwarts but also very unique. It’s a great read for Potter fans out there. You can read reviews of many books, including those by Lev Grossman, over on our blog, and you can watch the full conversation in the video below.
Transcribed by Marissa Osman
Caleb Graves: I know you attended Ascendio this year and [now] you're here at LeakyCon. I'm curious [about] what brings you to these Harry Potter conventions? What makes you love them so much?
Lev Grossman: I feel very connected to Harry Potter fans, partly in the most obvious way possible, which is that I really love Harry Potter and that story. There is something about it that makes you want to talk about it and never stop. You never quite get to the bottom of it. It's also a chance for me to see other writers.
Caleb: Yeah! I saw your session with John yesterday. It was great hearing the back and forth between you two. That's not something that fans get to see a lot between authors.
Lev: I will go wherever John Green is.
Lev: He happened to be here, so I also came here. I often feel very isolated from other writers and fans in general. I don't have a lot of contact with them in New York where I live. It's nice to come here and binge.
Caleb: Of course. You mention your daughter a lot [and] I'm interested - she's a fan like you - is that something you introduced to her [or] is that something she happened upon on her own?
Lev: I made the mistake of first trying to get her interested in Narnia, which made her automatically not interested in Narnia. So when it came to Harry Potter I just backed off and let it work its magic, which it did to a level of obsession that I never anticipated. She was Luna last year for Halloween. She's read all the books - I think - three times. She's seen all the movies except for the last two, which I think she's afraid of, possibly for good reason.
Caleb: You mentioned yesterday that she's eight, so I think that's so interesting [that] you're getting to see this younger generation. I was in fifth grade when I first started reading it and now I've seen this younger generation start to get into the books. It's really interesting.
Lev: It's incredible. I've wondered, as one does: Is this something that is in this generation now and is a phenomenon, but that's it? Or will it perpetuate itself over time? It's perpetuating itself over time. It's just incredible. I brought her to Ascendio, and that was her first contact with fandom in general, which I don't think she knew existed.
Caleb: Did she like it?
Lev: It somewhat blew her mind just being able to walk around and see a dude dressed up as Gilderoy Lockhart. I don't even know if she clearly distinguished him from actual Gilderoy Lockhart. It was really intense and exciting her for. It was cool.
Caleb: That makes me think [about how] I was going back to one of the articles that you have [in] TIME where you talked about [how] the main theme of this series is the overwhelming importance of continuing to love in the face of death. Do you think that theme is what makes it last so well for audiences to come?
Lev: For my daughter? Not really. That's in there, and I'm sure - on some level of her incredibly complex eight-year-old brain - it's operating. But for her, it's a fantasy of power. Not in an evil, bad way, although she's very interested in Slytherin. I think she feels quite powerless. She knows that she will eventually grow up and discover that she can do things, but as a child, she is powerless and very dependent on other people. I think she loves to explore the idea that she will become strong and powerful and able to change the world because she can't yet.
Caleb: That's great. Another article I read recently was your first response to Pottermore. I know you've navigated it a little bit. I think you have the feelings that most fans do, that we're thriving on this new content from J.K. Rowling, but some of the other stuff [is] maybe as great as we would have anticipated.
Lev: I don't know what they could have done better, honestly. It's a beautiful site, [but] it's not really for me. I want to scour it and devour all the new content but the social networking stuff I don't really need - the gaming stuff, especially - I just want the words.
Caleb: She always said she would write an encyclopedia after that series, but now, apparently, she's saying she's not going to; she's going to keep it all online. Would you have preferred the physical copy of the information?
Lev: I'm a very "books" person. As far as storing and accessing information, I like to do that with paper more than with computers. That's what I want to see. I am not totally despairing. It might happen one day.
[Caleb and Lev talk over one another expressing their agreement.]
Caleb: Moving into The Magicians, I actually started reading [it] back in the day when Borders was still in existence, God rest its soul. But I remember walking in when I was in college and seeing this huge display [reading] "Potter is over," and something about "Potter fans, what are you looking for next that's the adult [version of] Harry Potter?" And The Magicians was plastered over it and I was like, "Wow! I've got to get this." I had not really heard about it until then, until after Potter was over, so it was interesting to hear you talk yesterday [about] when you actually started writing it. I feel like you are so uniquely positioned because you've critiqued it for TIME, you're a fan, and now you wrote a book and you're still writing in this post-Potter world that's similar, but you've also taken it in a completely original direction. So I'm just curious [about] what it was like to dive into that genre after having critiqued Harry Potter yourself.
Lev: The time line of it feels very different to me because I was working on The Magicians for a long time - since 2004. I guess [it would have been] in between Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince. So I've been thinking about Harry in terms of fiction - and writing this fiction, which I felt was responding to Harry Potter - for a long time. And that's how I experienced the series. A lot of it [was a] - in my head and on my hard drive and nowhere else - dialogue with the books and with J.K. Rowling. It's weird because then it appears, and it's just like, "Right! This guy just decided to do this." But it's always been in a very "fanfiction-y" way. I'm far from alone in wanting to respond to Harry Potter with a fiction of my own. It's not really different from fanfiction. Harry Potter poses some ideas and you want to speak back and give your own spin on it.
Caleb: How did you feel about the publisher's choice to pitch it as the adult Harry Potter [or] Harry Potter for adults? How did you feel about that sort of marketing?
Lev: I don't know. I did want Harry Potter fans to read it. I felt like it was aimed at people who knew the books. When you're writing you're always thinking, "Well, what are the people I'm writing for? What have they read?" And I was thinking about writing for people who read Harry Potter and Narnia.
Caleb: And of course you throw some Harry Potter references in there, which was interesting when I ran across it because it made me feel that your books were that much more real because it was commentary on the fiction of Harry Potter, which was really intriguing.
Lev: I didn't want to go too far with that. In the original drafts, they spent hours sitting around and talking about Harry Potter. My rule for myself was that everything that exists in the real world should exist in this world. So we're going to have Xboxes, we're going to have sex, we're going to have drugs, we're going to have Harry Potter. I figure people who went to a magic school would probably have read Harry Potter, and they would think about how their experiences were different from the books. You could go way too far with that, which I did, and then I threw away 98% of it. But there [are] still a few references in there just so we know that everybody's read it. Because they would have; that's how it would have played out in real life.
Caleb: I read The Magicians after it had come out and I read The Magician King as soon as it came out. The two books, while connected, it was such a unique route that you took [in the second book], going back [to] Julia's background and also [keeping] with the current story. What made you take that route?
Lev: A lot of things. It's funny, actually. Julia began as a weird riff on Dudley Dursley. I have a strange feeling of sympathy for Dudley Dursley, which I know is wrong because he is a loud and bad person.
Caleb: It's funny you mention that. At MuggleNet, we started a new podcast called Alohomora! and we're rereading the whole entire Harry Potter series. In one of the first few episodes, we took a long time thinking about, "Has Dudley met too much judgment?" For the Dursleys, we have just always assumed them [to be] those first bad guys, those first antagonists of Harry Potter. So I don't think [having] a little sympathy [for] him is all that wrong.
Lev: I started thinking about what it would feel like to be left behind, to know that Hogwarts was real and that you knew someone who got to go there but you didn't get to go there yourself. I posited, as a thought experiment, what would that be like for me? It would be devastating. It causes Julia to really run off the rails, become really depressed, [and not be able to] get past it. I really wanted to play out that idea and that experience that we all have of being shut out, of being on the outside of something and looking at it [and] being able to see it. She knows magic is going on all around her but she can't do it or touch it and it's very painful for her. I don't think Dudley really went through that. I actually met Rowling because I interviewed her for TIME, and I put this to her. I did my little riff about the differences because I'm incredibly self-indulgent, and her response consisted of two words: Oh, please. Which I still remember; they're still echoing in my head, "Oh, please." But I wanted to play that and see what that would feel like, and it was very tough for [Julia].
Caleb: When you first created Quentin- he's a really interesting character; I don't know if I've [ever] read a character quite like him. He's somewhat dark, and he definitely has a lot of issues. You say you devised Julia somewhat after Dudley, so did you do that with Quentin for anyone from the Potter series? He's so original I almost can't guess what you did.
Lev: Quentin is me when I was 17, which means an emotionally stunted, self-obsessed fanboy, all of whose emotions get channeled into books and who is just not really emotionally up to dealing with reality or even other people. It's hard to say that; it's a harsh verdict of my former self.
Caleb: I think that's why so many people identify with him and didn't maybe necessarily expect to. When first reading it, I didn't. And then I was like, "Wow. This is a good character that I really can identify with."
Lev: Quentin is a guy who's struggling with depression and he self-medicates through obsessive reading. I think that is a person that a lot of people outside fandom, but especially inside fandom, will recognize.
Caleb: So The Magician's Land is going to be the last book, you're not going to pull more after that, are you?
Lev: I don't think so. I'm not a planner like Rowling. I wrote the first book, came up with the idea for the second book [and then] came up with the third book. But we've reached the end of it. I'm not going to swear a mighty blood oath that I shall not, [laughs] 20 years from now, when my kids are going to college and I need to pay for it, I may have had another idea by then. But for now, I had three ideas, [ and] three books, that seems like enough.
Caleb: When I am on the internet and trying to see what people are talking about, the thing they are hoping for the most is that we will somehow see a return of Alice in the last book. Can you speak anything to that rumor?
Lev: I'm trying to not give away any tells right now. [laughs]
Caleb: I feel like I would be doing a disservice if I didn't bring it up. [laughs]
Lev: I think it is generally the case, [that] when an author wishes to kill a character, they will kill them all the way. And if they don't kill them all the way, if they're still moving around, that's probably for a reason. I don't think I can say anymore than that.
Caleb: Alright. Last question: You've written about Harry Potter for a long time, can you remember the first time you critiqued it? Would it have been for TIME?
Lev: That's a good question. It would have been Goblet of Fire. There was a thing that used to happen, which is that the books would come out on a Friday, and TIME would go to press on a Saturday at 5:00 p.m. So I would have to get in line for the book, buy it at midnight on Friday, not sleep - I would stay up all night - read the book in one sitting, and then write a review of it to get to press by 5:00 p.m. on Saturday. So as you can imagine, I don't remember it very well. I remember I did that with each book, and sometimes I came up with something that I was really proud of; more often I felt like, "Wow, this is rushed and I haven't slept and I'm not doing it justice." I was really proud of the thing I wrote for Deathly Hallows, but it wasn't always the ideal conditions under which to write.
Caleb: Well, I think fans can appreciate that you were there with them reading in the wee hours of the morning.
Lev: It was a great experience, actually. I don't think I would change it but sometimes it went better than others.
Caleb: Thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate it. Thank you very much.
Lev: Thank you.