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What Makes a Trilogy Tick? An Interview With Lev Grossman

What Makes a Trilogy Tick? An Interview With Lev Grossman

By Ryan Britt

BN.com

To celebrate Barnes & Noble's Get Pop Cultured, MindHut writer Ryan Britt sat down with Lev Grossman, author of the Magician series, to talk about his upcoming book, Magician's Land, and what exactly makes a sci-fi or fantasy trilogy work.

In 2009, a boy went to school in secret to learn magic. While there, he fell in love, grew into an adult, and became the magician he always wanted to be. Next, he had his dreams crushed as he realized his childhood heroes were actually monsters living in a deranged version of the best and most magical place of all. The story of Quentin Coldwater has been posited by critics and fans over and over again as a grown-up Harry Potter, or what Hogwarts would be like if it were a real-life college. But Lev Grossman’s slick Magicians novels are so much more than pastiches of other fantasy literature and lore. With the trilogy of The Magicians concluding in the impending release of The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman is sending Quentin off not only in magical style, but with also heart and realism.

I sat down with Lev recently in Brooklyn to discuss his books, but more specifically the notions of  what makes a trilogy a trilogy and how this one compares to others. If you’re a writer, a magician, or just a person trying to think about big life choices, check out the wisdom from Master Mage Lev.

(Light Spoilers for The Magicians, and The Magician King)

(This interview was conducted on June 26th, 2014)

Ryan Britt

Let’s start off by talking about Julia and revisionism. Something you said to me years ago was that Julia’s story wasn't something you initially had planned, would you say that’s still true?

Lev Grossman

Yeah, that’s definitely true. Somewhere there’s an outline with one roman numeral for Julia and like twenty for Quentin.

RB

So, what I wondered—because Julia’s backstory in The Magician King pretty much redefines your fictional universe;  is this something that always happens in trilogies? That the “rules” change? In a big fantasy series in general—isn't there always a sense or revisionism? Like in the classic Star Wars trilogy, there seems to be this moment, where the narrative is suddenly saying, “Well, actually…” Do you think the “changing of the rules” has to happen for a trilogy to work?

LG

Well, yeah. Yes. That wasn't Julia’s backstory, Julia didn't have a backstory. I knew she was up to something, but I didn't know what.  It’s weird. You write a book, you build a universe for the book to happen in and you think “Great! That is a totally universe that I made!” And then, the book comes out, and you rest for a little bit and you think “Oh my God! There’s gigantic holes in that universe!” Then you suddenly realize, that’s where your next book is going to fit in. Looking at the Magicians universe I thought: right, we've basically got wizards and muggles. But then I thought, nah, it can’t be that simple; there must be some vast grey area between wizards and muggles where people just practice magic in this rather low-scale, uninformed, semi-mystical, totally incompetent way that they just made up by themselves. There’s got to be a lot of people just doing that. And that's where the Julia stuff came back in.

RB

In Harry Potter, I don’t think any of us really might have seen the idea of the horcruxes being telegraphed out the way they were. I’m not sure everybody saw that coming. Do you think it’s important with your books that not only are the narrative rules changed, but like you said, the rules of magic are changed, too. So, is there something inherent to writing about these complicated magic systems that makes you have to change the rules, in order to keep the story exciting?

LG

There is for me, but Rowling might be a bad example; she’s got this steel-trap mind, she planned everything out seven books in advance before she wrote word one. But for me, it’s important to surprise myself. When Quentin discovers the safe houses [in The Magician King] his shock was my own. It gives the work a freshness and immediacy when it sneaks up on its own author. That was an essential part of it for me. And fortunately, due to just the general level of complexity that novels entail, there wound up being contradictions and blank spaces. And thank God for them, because that’s where the later books come from. I hadn't even planned on writing a trilogy when I wrote The Magicians. The Magicians was just going to stand alone.

RB

Now, that we’re coming up on the last one [The Magician’s Land] is there a desire to completely abandon this world? Because your characters can kind of access every other world—in a way—could the Magicians subsume everything you do?

LG

(Laughs) I should just write a whole series of unrelated novels and at the end somebody just finds a button and it’s like “oh right!”

RB

But could there have been more than these three?

LB

My feeling of closure is total. I haven’t had the slightest stirring at all. That door seems completely shut to me. Maybe I’ll feel different in like twenty years. And it’s funny, because I feel like there are writers who can’t leave their worlds alone. I feel very capable of leaving this world alone.

RB

In science fiction and fantasy, what  is your favorite trilogy and why?

LG

That’s a question I've never considered before. There’s a good answer. Hmmm. My first two answers are The EarthSea Trilogy [by Ursula LeGuin] and The Hitchhikers Guide Trilogy[by Douglas Adams] both of which ended up being more than three-book trilogies. [Laughs.] Maybe the First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie?

RB

In movie trilogies, there’s this notion of a beginning, middle and end, and the second chapter is the darkest. Was that what was going on with The Magician King?

LG

Yes, it was obviously my The Empire Strikes Back, and the only reason I didn't cut off Quentin’s hand was that it had already been done before.

RB

Where do you think that comes from?

LG

I don’t know? It’s probably some profound mythological structure wandering around in our psyches somewhere. But I don’t know…It’s certainly very helpful dramatically to take away everything away from a character which then forces him to figure out who he is without any of the things through which he used to define himself. I think that’s very important. And that’s what I was attempting in Magician King.

RB

So, if the middle installment of any series is the darkest, is there any danger with the concluding chapter being too sunny? Like a Return of the Jedi situation? Is that something you worried about with The Magician’s Land?

LG

YES. That is an extreme peril. Anytime you’re trying to achieve closure or God-forbid, write about a happy person, you’re in grave danger, and suddenly you’re up on a tight rope. It’s tricky. Happiness and closure are somehow uninteresting. It’s hard to find the texture and richness in happiness.

RB

Is there a temptation to cram in the greatest hits of The Magicians into the last book?

LG

Temptation is the wrong word. But that’s something I wanted to do. But I wouldn't call it a temptation. In Magician’s Land, I’m taking Quentin back to many of the places he’d been before as a way of showing how much he’d changed. And having him take the tests he’d taken in the early books, but this time he was going to pass. And not on purpose, I realized he is making a little bit of a grand tour. He goes back to Brakebills, back to Antarctica, he meets people he knew before, and he’s not the same. And think it’s important for people to feel like he’s not the same.

RB

How much of this is autobiographical? Do you think other fantasy authors put their own life experiences into their work?

LG

They must. And fantasy and science fiction writers are given a free pass with this. People usually don’t try to read their life through their work. Just because people assume—correctly or incorrectly—that I [Lev Grossman] can’t do magic, there must be the wide gulf between the stories I’m telling and what has happened to me in real life, whereas in reality the separation is paper-thin. I think that’s one reason I couldn't plan out the trilogy in advance. I didn't know what was going to happen to me. And that, whatever it was, was going to go into the books. But it hadn't happened yet. Which is why it was hard to end the trilogy, because my life goes on and on.

RB

Do you think big fans of the books will surprised by this last book? Shocked?

LG

I hope they’re shocked! In the last Twilight book, everything was different. Another great 4-book trilogy, I might add. In The Last Battle [By C.S.Lewis] everything similarly changes. So yes. Let’s burn this joint down. I want my readers to be satisfied, but at the same time, I did feel compelled to break all the things that seemed so important before. I hope everyone is surprised.

RB

Will the next book or books be fantasy?

LG

Well, they’re definitely not reality. They’re definitely reality PLUS. I don’t know what to call them, yet!

Tags: sci fi, barnes and noble, interviews, books-and-comics, get-pop-cultured, lev grossman, trilogies

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About the Author
Ryan Britt

Ryan Britt's writing has appeared with The New York Times, Omni Reboot, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Crossed Genres, Story Magazine, The MindHut and elsewhere. He's performed stories on stage with The Moth, The Liar Show, and is the curator of two reading series; Lust for Genre and The HiFi Reading Series. He teaches at The Gotham Writers' Workshop and lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ryancbritt.

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