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Author Lev Grossman is not having a fun quarantine. Grossman loves his three kids, but what a handful they've been for the last year — and what an impact they've had on his writing schedule. "I haven't had 20 minutes to myself since last February," he tells SYFY WIRE. "It's impossible for me to get more than 10 feet away from another human being." As if to demonstrate the problem, his 8-year-old son joined our phone conversation, looking for a little attention. When he was gone again, Grossman asks, "Would you like to help babysit?"
So now we know why it's taking the man who gave us The Magicians — which was adapted into an original SYFY series that ran for five seasons — a little longer than expected to deliver his next fantasy novel. Not that he's been slacking off. He did recently publish a children's book, and he wrote the screenplay for the new movie version of one of his short stories, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things. (Check out our interview with him about that here.)
"It's actually been super satisfying to have those come out," Grossman says. But he's been working for a long stretch "without really publishing anything." So it seemed like a good time to get an update. And as it turns out, the current political climate has affected two of his upcoming projects — a book about the fall of King Arthur and a TV space opera.
Your son sounds adorable. But I imagine the situation is not conducive to writing.
Oh, it's the worst. I think it was Joyce Carol Oates who said that the important thing about writing isn't talent, but not being interrupted. She put it better than that, but she's not being attacked by an 8-year-old right now.
Writing, you have to string those nice chains of thought, and as soon as you're interrupted, you have to start over again, and again, and again.
I almost hesitate to ask about a project you were working on pre-pandemic: Your Arthurian novel, The Bright Sword. In 2020, you projected it would come out in 2021, "come hell or high water or the actual return of actual King Arthur."
Hell or high water would have been fine, but the pandemic? I didn't plan on that. I mean, I work on it every day, but I only have about two hours of work time a day. I just chip, chip, chip away at it in tiny bits. So it's not going to come out this year. Hopefully next year.
You're not necessarily a huge political writer, but you're dealing with a failing or fallen empire, the ending of a kingdom. Have any of the events of the last year, or even the last few months, changed any of your thinking about how you want power reflected in this world?
Definitely. I think for a very long time, I imagined myself as an apolitical writer, but there really isn't any such thing. I think it's partly because I had a lot of illusions about America. And I sort of thought, "Well, fantasy is all about monarchies, fascism, all that kind of thing. We don't have that here, in this country, because we are an incredibly progressive democracy!" But of course, all that stuff has burst out everywhere in the past few years. So suddenly I felt like it became really important to have that stuff be in the fiction that I was writing. And it's very much in King Arthur.
King Arthur is a populist myth. I mean the historical King Arthur, to the extent that there maybe was one, it was his whole goal in life to keep the Saxons out. That was his thing. He was the warlord who built the wall, basically, to keep the nasty Saxons out, to keep Britain for the British. Look at it from that skewed angle, and King Arthur looks like a President Trump figure. So you have to integrate that into your sense of who he is. All those things just started pushing into my fiction, because they had to, if I was going to be writing in any way that felt honest. It's amazing how the King Arthur myth comes alive in different ways. All these issues of immigration, refugees, populism, fascism came up, just dealing with the crimes of the past.
It's like if you had one of those blacklight pictures, where you would put them under a black light and suddenly you see the fluorescence that you couldn't see before. If this was a cheesy black light velvet painting from the 1970s, suddenly all this stuff is illuminated. I started to see the story in ways that I never had before, and in ways I hadn't seen other people write about it. It's one of the reasons why the King Arthur book takes so long because I had to learn to write about nations and how they rise and fall. It was really new and challenging.
What about The Heavens?
The same is true, of course, of The Heavens, which is more of a science fiction story, but inside science fiction stories, you can really get into technology, power, what imperial politics really feel like, what late capitalism feels like. So suddenly that stuff is bursting out everywhere.
Is this as genre-heavy or have as intensive world-building as The Magicians? What's it been like creating your first TV show?
I've never made a TV show before. It really began with The Magicians being adapted, looking over everybody's shoulder while they did that. If you're a writer, it's hard to watch that being done and not think, "Well, what would happen if I try that?" It's a good pilot, I think. And now we're just figuring out how to actually do it. Where to shoot it. How to shoot it. Who's going to be in it. That kind of thing. Will it happen this year? That's a long shot.
If The Heavens gets on TV, which I am really hopeful that it will, it's a very world-building show. It's like my Star Wars, a sci-fi fantasy, so it has a really massive mythology associated with it. It's been very fun to do that.
Whenever you build a world, you end up making a lot of the rules for that world. Then five years after you've done that, you start kicking yourself for all the rules you've made up, which means you think of all the cool stuff that you can't do because it breaks the rules. [Laughs.] It's fun to make up a new world, or go to a world where you can make it your own.
Is there anything from the world of The Magicians that you'd want to revisit or continue, in graphic novel form or otherwise?
Well, it's done for now. I'm making a real point of not thinking about it. It took me five years to write the first Magicians book.
I spent a lot more time in the Magicians world than may be good for me. I needed to get out of it for a while, and my hope is that, in a few years, it'll come to me how I can come back to it, in a way that's fresh, from an interesting angle, with a story that I haven't told yet in it. But now I need to take a huge break and just be somewhere else for a while!