Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Q & A with Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman is the author of the bestselling novels The Magicians and Codex. A well-known cultural commentator, he is the book critic for TIME magazine and has written for numerous other publications, including the New York Times, The Believer, The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, Salon and Wired. In 2011 Grossman won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer from the World Science Fiction Society. His latest novel, The Magician King, is out from Viking now.  

FB: Does your love of video games inform your writing?

LG: Oh sure. Games do magic very well, for example. The look and feel of magic in the Magicians books is definitely influenced by the way it looks in games -- those bright colored lights flaring around people's hands.

FB: How do you navigate the line between paying tribute to other authors and seeming derivative?

LG: My rule is, when you’re playing with something an earlier author did, you have to know why you’re doing it, and so does the reader, and it had better be a good reason. You have to be transforming it in some way, putting a new spin on it. You can’t just steal it, you have to earn it.
FB: Do you think genre fiction is reaching any new heights of cultural/critical acceptance? Do you think it’s even important that it does?

LG: I’m not going to pretend I don’t care if I got critical respect or not. Or I could, but it wouldn’t be very convincing. I think its happening incrementally, but Id like to see it happen faster. I think a great cultural rebalancing is in the offing, that really fully acknowledges the value and importance of genre fiction.

FB: Building a unique world is important for fantasy writers. George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien created elaborate maps and lore behind their worlds. What’s your world-building process?

LG: It’s a bit chaotic. I don’t start the way Tolkien did, by writing Elvish dictionaries and such. I think about the story I want to tell, and I build the world that the story needs. Then sometimes the world turns around and changes the story and so on. You push and pull from both sides till everything fits. Consistency is important. C.S. Lewis got away with being inconsistent, but we can't all be C.S. Lewis.

FB: Do you have any advice for young writers interested in writing genre fiction?

LG: Read everything. As much as with literary fiction, writing a fantasy novel (or whatever) places you within a tradition. You have to have read deep into the past of the tradition you're writing in if you want to extend it into the future.

FB: What did returning to the world of the Magicians feel like psychologically?

LG: I’m not totally sure I ever left it.

FB: Your books draw on many disparate elements from different worlds. Do you believe it is important to cross-pollinate in literature?

LG: I don't know. I think it's one of the strengths of my writing, at any rate. My parents were both English professors, before they retired, and I wound up spending time in literary academia, so I got the chance to read really extensively in the history of the novel. There's a lot of stuff that I can take from outside fantasy and bring into the genre and use there in ways that haven't necessarily been done before.

FB: What do you think of e-readers and the decline of brick and mortar bookstores?

LG: I think crotchety, skeptical thoughts. The novel was created as a medium that exists on paper. I think of it as software: books -- not phones or Kindles or whatever -- are the hardware that novels are optimized for, and that's where they're best experienced. I could go on. I tend to rant about this issue.

FB: Post-collegiate malaise is an important element of your books. How do you make such a static psychological condition interesting?

LG: Don’t knock post-collegiate malaise! It’s the stuff of great literature. Look at Ulysses. But it’s true, it’s not the most dynamic of states. There’s a reason why I only give the characters a chapter of slacking around New York City after they graduate before they get sent off to another world.

FB: How much do you outline your writing ahead of time?

LG: Oh, I outline the whole thing. But as the saying goes, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. And in this case the plan has many enemies in the form of my characters, who don’t always want to do what they’re told.

FB: What do you think of the state of genre fiction today?

LG: I'll tell you the truth, which is that I think that genre fiction is going through a great cultural renaissance, and that’s where the most exciting stuff in contemporary literature is happening. When people write the literary history of the 21st century, I think the explosion of creativity in genre literature is what they'll write about.

FB: Do you enjoy the huge successes of nerd culture or does a part of you think your once-obscure interests are being violated?

LG: Can I say both? Both.

I'd like to offer a special thank you to Hank Stephenson who helped me with the above questions. Please come to Flyleaf where Lev will be reading and signing books at 7:00 on Tuesday, 30 August. 

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