Author Lev Grossman is more time traveler than magician as of late.
The creator of The Magicians trilogy of novels that concluded in with 2014's The Magician's Land is revisiting his world with tonight's second season premiere of the Syfy series based on his books, which merges some events from the timelines of the first two entries, The Magicians (2009) and The Magician King (2011). Oh, and Grossman is also traveling to the fifth century via his research into King Arthur for his next novel, The Bright Sword.
I caught up with the author in between his journeys through medieval Arthurian reading and TV's Fillory to chat about what it's like for him to see his story enter the next on-screen chapter.
In the following interview, Lev Grossman speaks to the second season of The Magicians and where the action picks up in relation to his books. He also discusses the nature of magic, and who should or shouldn't have it. Finally, Grossman offers some updates on The Bright Sword and how Merlin's magic differs from the kids at Brakebills.
Season 1 condensed a lot of the first novel and took elements from the second novel, so where would you place events at the top of Season 2?
It's not an exact science, and as you say, plot elements of the first and second books have been blended together. In some ways we're looking at the beginning of book 2: the main characters are about to start dealing with the realities of running their own Narnia-esque magical kingdom, which is something C.S. Lewis never got into in any detail, and which is going to turn out to be a lot harder than it looks. In other ways we're still towards the end of book 1 -- still wrestling with the Beast in all his awfulness.
Obviously TV demands changes and adaptations, but talk about being a creator who has a show based on his work, but with these changes in place. Is it exciting, as if you're seeing these characters and places in a new light? Or is it more surreal?
It's a challenge at first -- novelists tend to be a bit tyrannical, since they work alone. Creative collaboration is something I hadn't had much experience with. It was an adjustment. But [executive producers Sera Gamble and John McNamara] and the cast have managed to translate the characters onto the screen with amazing fidelity and they've taken them to places I never, ever could have gotten them to on my own. I love watching it.
Can you speak to some of the elements from the book that you're excited for readers see brought to the screen in this season?
I don't want to get too specific, but there are some pretty stunning magical spectacles that I've had in my head for a long time that are going to be up on screen. There's going to be some amazing FX. There's also the arrival of the Questing Beast, one of my favorite creations from the books, in the form of the White Lady.
How do you prefer to watch the show? Is it as a fan? As a creator?
Oh, I watch as a fan, week by week. They send me the episodes early and I watch them as soon as I can. I send them feedback, but in a fannish way.
Are adults or children -- from the Narnia or Potter books -- to be trusted more with magic? The wants/desires of the former are more complicated, and potentially more destructive, while the latter perhaps lacks the wisdom to be given such power.
Lewis and [J.K.] Rowling are pretty quick to hand out magical powers to children, which I've always thought would only end badly. A bit like giving guns to toddlers. Lewis seemed to think their innocence would protect them, but when have children ever been that innocent? I can only imagine magic in the hands of adults. Though God knows that comes with its own problems.
And on that note, do you think you should be trusted with magic? Who do you know, or what public person, do you think could be bestowed with that ability?
I would be a terrible magician. Poor impulse control, and too fond of a drink. But then again really sane, responsible people don't tend to have the obsessive drive you need to become magician in the first place. It's a Catch-22. I can think of some public people I'd like to use magic on...
Will you provide an update on your post-King Arthur novel, The Bright Sword? Have you completed it, and can you share the release date?
No release date, though I'm hoping for 2018. I'm in the absolute thick of it right now -- deep into the writing, but not so deep that I can see how it all ends yet.
What has been the most challenging aspect of tackling this legend, but also separating it from real history? Do you get lost in the weeds and have to pull yourself out so you can focus on your story and your particular corner of this world?
Getting lost in the weeds is, for me, unfortunately, a major part of the creative process. The difficulty with Arthur, or one of them, is grounding the story in a sense of historical reality, even though its historical basis is more or less nonexistent. Ultimately the Arthurian world is a fantasy -- it's what medieval writers imagined the very end of the classical period would have been like, which was something they knew very little about, so they made most of it up. There's no actual there there. But it all has to feel very real.
Is the post-Arthurian world a magical one? What role does magic play here, or are you setting it aside?
Magic is much rarer in Arthur's world than it is in the world of The Magicians. There are only a few high-level practitioners. Oddly enough, in most versions of the legend, Merlin gets 86-ed by his beautiful apprentice Nimue fairly early on -- before the Quest for the Holy Grail, and long before Arthur's death. He's still alive, but imprisoned underground. The Bright Sword is set mostly after Arthur's death, so Merlin is alive but out of action and the magical scene is dominated by two strong women: Nimue and Morgan le Fay.
But God, the Christian God, is of course a strong supernatural presence, too, and the fairies are active as well. It's complicated.
I'm fascinated about this notion of these characters having to step up after the death of a savior. It strikes me as very much like the disciples after Jesus died. Everything changed with this leader, and now he’s gone. Is this an apt comparison?
It's a good question. In some ways Arthur is a type of Jesus, but with some very different inflections. Arthur is a big Oedipal story: He was abandoned by his father and then killed by his own bastard son. And it's more of a tragedy -- Arthur's death is, in Malory's phrase, "sans guerdon." Without reward or redemption.
Can you tease out a character in The Bright Sword you're excited for readers to meet, and why?
I don't like to play favorites, but I'm very fond of Sir Palomides, the Muslim knight. He's always been an outsider in the Arthurian mythology. How did he come to be in Britain? What's his backstory? Why does he hunt the Questing Beast, even though it's been foretold that somebody else will catch it? How does he feel about being an ethnic outsider? He's a displaced person. It's a rich story, and as is so often the case with Arthurian myths, it has a lot of contemporary resonances.
If your own personal Narnia or Fillory existed, how would you access it? As a kid, were you checking the back walls of closets or opening up grandfather clocks?
Oh, I'm a classisist. I'd check the wardrobes first.
Finally, any tips for a magician who develops carpal tunnel from too many repetitive spell actions?
Magic is an unforgiving discipline. That said, Penny found some workarounds, and his issues went pretty far beyond carpal tunnel.