Head to head

Christopher Owens interviews fantasy author Lev Grossman
Art | 24 September 2014
This article is part of Takeovers

Christopher Owens with his Lev Grossman collection. Photo by Hannah Hunt. 

In anticipation of his second solo album release next week, we’ve invited singer-songwriter and Girls founder Christopher Owens to take over HERO online. Over the coming days, watch out for exclusive content and insights into the San Francisco based musician’s influences, experiences and obsessions…

“When I finished Codex I tweeted to Lev Grossman: “Just finished Codex – brilliant, I loved it, thank you so much,” said Owens recently of finishing the first book by his favourite fantasy author. “A couple of days later I looked at the tweet again and it had one favourite. It was Lev Grossman. So that was cool…”

Alongside 1997’s Codex, Grossman is the bestselling author of The Magicians, The Magician’s Land and The Magician King – today’s trilogy answer to the likes of Narnia and Harry Potter. It’s a status that has magnetised the author a serious cult following, Chris included.

In the thick of Owens’ HERO take over, we arrive at the ultimate brain intersection: a head to head between Christopher Owens and Lev Grossman.

We hooked the two up on email and left them to let the ideas fly. This is what happened…

Christopher Owens: In the last pages of The Magician’s Land, Quentin makes some beautiful statements on the purpose of magic and being a magician. “The world was fucking awful… wretched… desolate… meaningless… heartless… But he was a magician, and to be a magician was to be a secret spring, a moving oasis. Magic was wild feelings, the kind that escaped out of you and into the world and changed things.” How much of this do you feel summarises how you actually felt about writing these books? You did in fact create something magical. Is this your closing statement on the experience of writing this story?
Lev Grossman: Maybe more a closing statement about just being in the world. I mean, yeah; doing magic and writing novels are very closely associated in my mind. But I was also trying to talk more broadly about how to feel like the world means something, and is beautiful, even when it’s easy prove to yourself that it’s meaningless and ugly. Writing fiction is one of the ways I do that. But it’s not the only way.

CO: That’s even better. I’ve always felt someone like Charlie Chaplin produced some real magic out of the mundane, or the tragic, even. Those silent films, and his song… “Smile, though your heart is aching. Smile, even though it’s breaking…” So much of the romance in The Chronicles Of Narnia is in knowing the real world that the children are escaping from. While there isn’t an official world war on now, there is much pain and strife in the world. Was this part of the motivation to write fantasy? Did you have a ‘now more than ever’ sentiment?
LG: I don’t know if it’s more than ever. There was a hell of a lot of pain and strife back then. But I definitely feel like one of the reasons Lewis’s work resonates so much for me is that there are parallels between our moment and his moment. He’d watched his world get transformed by technology—electric light, the automobile, mechanised warfare, and he felt thoroughly alienated from it. We’ve seen transformations that are almost as radical. It’s a different kind of transformation, but the alienation remains the same.

CO: That’s very, very interesting. Do you think children appreciate fantasy from a natural and more innocent place than us adults? Adults may have to be more romantically inclined or less guarded emotionally to appreciate it fully. Maybe for adults it breaks our hearts… In the best of ways.
LG: My shrink told me the other day that all adults who read Harry Potter are mentally ill. Which is not something I agree with, though that may be because I’m mentally ill too. I definitely think fantasy trafficks in a lot of really powerful, pure, un-ironic feelings – longing, rage, fear, awe – it really asks you to put yourself on the line, as a writer and as a reader. I found that easy to do as a kid, and then hard as a teenager-slash-early-adult, when I was too self-conscious and insecure. But now that I’m more or less grown up I’m getting to the place where I can read like a child again.

CO: Comparing your approach to fantasy to others, contemporaries included, yours is much more modern – in setting and in the style of writing. But Fillory is not, as is usual in fantasy these magical lands seem to be set in nature, and to have a real reverence for nature – animals, etc… Is this because the opposite would approach sci-fi?
LG: I played a lot with fantasy tropes and conventions in the Magicians books, but one of the things I didn’t want to mess with was that basic longing for a world in which technology is absent, and we felt more connected to the environment around us. That longing is so much at the core of fantasy, and of what makes it important. In a way fantasy is as much about technology as science fiction (which I’m a big fan of too) is. But the way it talks about technology is by removing it, and looking at the space it leaves behind.

CO: This is something that is very present in music these days. We’re all pressing vinyl, playing with a lot of nostalgic sounds and vintage gear. I can absolutely understand the idea of longing for something we feel we might be losing. Are there any oldies you listen to to take you back? Or classical music perhaps?
LG: Part of the problem with classical music for me is that it’s all caught up with thwarted attempts to learn the cello, which mostly happened when I was a teenager and ultra-depressed anyway, so it picked up a lot of bad associations that aren’t really its fault. The Beatles are about as nostalgic as I get. Though I do get extremely nostalgic about them. Them and The Smiths. And ABBA. I never really listened to them before, but my wife is Australian, so she’s obsessed with them. It’s impossible to feel shitty when you’re listening to ABBA.

CO: I found the scene of Quentin mending Fillory to be very beautiful and moving. I felt a little like the joke was on me for buying into the idea that mending was a lame discipline. Do you feel that Genesis chapter one could be the genesis of the fantasy story?
LG: It’s a funny way to put it, but yeah, there’s something to that. If you go all the way up the power scale, that’s where you get to – I think it’s Pouncy in The Magician King who says that any sufficiently powerful magic is indistinguishable from the miraculous. I wasn’t raised in any religion, particularly, and I’ve never been a religious person. But if you write about magic, eventually you’re going to wind up writing about the divine.

Map of Fillory, from ‘The Magicians’

CO: I’m not religious either, but the King James version of The Bible was what I was taught to read from. My mind can’t help going there. But people can be quick to call things like Harry PotterLord Of The Rings etc. an ‘opiate of the masses’ – while I welcome the entertainment or distraction from everyday reality in your (and these other) books… I would make a strong argument that they are very empowering; motivating, morally sound works.
LG: I’m pretty convinced that ‘escapist’ fiction, books that take you out of reality into somewhere different, can also take you somewhere where the moral challenges of the real world get restaged in ways that help you understand them better. The question of whether they’re fantasy or not is kind of moot. By today’s definition Shakespeare wrote fantasy. Ditto Milton, Dante, Homer. It’s all fantasy if you go back far enough.

CO: I had an education closer to Julia’s, but I know you went to school. At school were you ever part of a close group, like the Physical Kids?
LG: Not really. A little bit. But the Physical Kids were a wish-fulfilment fantasy for me. It’s what I wanted school to be like – I imagined it being like the college in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I had friends, but my friends didn’t necessarily like each other.

CO: I think I spent the entirety of my 20s trying to live out a wish-fulfilment fantasy. LOL. Things I’d seen in the movies etc… Things I missed out on in my teens.
LG: Same. Except I think that was my 30s. Maybe I’m still doing it.

Alice in ‘The Magicians’. Artwork by Christopher Sly

CO: I also related to Alice’s reluctance to dealing with her body after being made human again. I used to sort of self-medicate, numb myself. When I stopped that it took a while to be comfortable in my own skin again. Anyway, it’s great how these unreal scenarios can compare to very real human conditions, and how we’ll all relate to these characters in different ways. How much of yourself is in each of these characters? Martin Chatwin for example. Is it like Tennessee Williams where he’s both Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois – and Stella for that matter.
LG: There’s a lot of me in Quentin, but the one I really feel close to is Julia. Which is weird because in a lot of ways my life looks a lot more Quentin-like: going to fancy schools and all that. But after college I spent a long time on the outside looking in, just living in shitty apartments, drinking too much and trying to make things happen that really weren’t happening. I wrote fiction for 15 years before I hit on The Magicians. Then it took me five years to finish that.

CO: Wow, cool. I didn’t expect that. I know what finding a voice later in life is like. But Codex was published in 1997, no? It’s a knock-out of a novel. How long did you work on that one? I’m guessing you were in your 20s?
LG: I must have started Codex when I was almost 30, though it was based on stuff I did in my 20s – working in libraries mostly. It took me six years to write. I don’t know how it works in music, but in the books world it’s pretty hard to come back from a flop, and my first novel was a major flop, so I had to make sure Codex was good and ready when I turned it in, otherwise nobody would publish it. And I’m proud of it, but it was really tough to write – it didn’t flow naturally the way the Magicians stuff did. I had to kind of grind it out.

CO: The Door In The Page by Rupert Chatwin. As in Codex, there are books within the books. When you are writing these parts (the parts when these other ‘actual’ books are read by your characters) does it feel different? Is the process different? Is it liberating? More whimsical? Less pressure…
LG: It’s pretty liberating. I mean, you have to watch yourself – like in the Rupert Chatwin sections, I usually write in a pretty casual contemporary style, so I had to go through and weed out anachronisms. I tried to model Rupert’s style on Evelyn Waugh’s letters. But writing in a different voice like that makes me weirdly uninhibited, like putting on a mask – I can say anything and it doesn’t matter.

Cover, ‘Codex’ by Lev Grossman

CO: I got that feeling reading those parts. Sometimes I’ll get an idea for a song and sit down to write it as if I was Randy Newman or Johnny Mercer. It’s almost like there’s a path there to follow. Definitely liberating for me.

One of the things I love very much that you do is show your influences, reference them openly and borrow from them. This is something I like to do with song writing as well. I’ve said to people before that I’m not really trying to do anything new so much as just be part of something I really love. Is this a sentiment you can relate to?
LG: Definitely. Everybody’s plundering from somebody else, all the time. I like to admit it – pull back the veil a little. Before The Magicians was published there were some lawyers muttering about  all the allusions to Narnia, but then you go back and look how much Lewis borrowed! He stole from everybody. He had fun with it. It’s just how his mind worked, and it didn’t stop him from being totally original.

CO: And now you’re part of that legacy!
LG: I believe in that thing that Harold Bloom says, about creativity being partly a kind of Oedipal struggle with your artistic parents. That energises me a lot. I like to think of myself as talking back at Lewis and Rowling and all the rest of them. It’s not like I think they can hear me, but it keeps me going.

CO: It’s reaffirming for me to see in someone else’s work. I imagine this goes on with painters, programmers, fashion designers, architects, chefs, film makers. Everyone. People who don’t have role models scare me.
LG: Me too.

CO: I know that your twin brother Austin is a game designer, how much did that influence the plot in Codex? Was it like having an expert at your fingertips? And, are you familiar with the musician Momus?
LG: I didn’t talk to my brother too much about the game stuff in Codex. I was worried he would tell me everything I was writing was wrong. Mostly I did my research there by wasting months of my life playing Quake at LAN parties. I did run across Momus, the real Momus, to the point where I’m aware of him, but I haven’t listened to his stuff. I backed away. It seemed important somehow that I not.

CO: Fair enough. People have said I remind them of Elvis Costello, but I had never heard his music… so I refuse to listen to him now. The black page in the Codex is one of my favourite things, it just has an impact. Does that come from something or did you dream it up?
LG: I wish I could say I dreamed it up. But it’s a steal – there’s a black page in TRISTRAM SHANDY. I may not be original, but I steal from the best. And anyway it’s pretty hard to come up with anything that Laurence Sterne hasn’t done first.

The black page from a 1972 edition of ‘The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’ by Laurence Sterne

CO: I was thrilled to see that the trilogy will be made into a TV show in the near future. Congratulations! How hands on will you be with that? Will you write the adaptation? Will you be involved in the casting? Anything you can tell us at this early stage?
LG: I sat in on some of the auditions, which is kind of a power trip: imagine being a nerd and watching one good-looking person after another come through the room, and you sit there judging them all in silence. But officially I think my title is ‘creative consultant’ – which means that I look over a lot of people’s shoulders and talk a lot but nobody has to do anything I say. Though if it’s a huge success I plan to take all the credit.

CO: I like that. I hope it surpasses your expectations. I’m very grateful that you’ve taken the time to talk to me. I’ve given your books to my closest friends. I feel like I’ve conjured up my first magic spell with this interview, I’ve willed it into being 🙂 Thank you for this.
LG: Thank you too. It’s actually pretty rare that I get to talk to an artist outside the books world. It’s refreshing. I should do it more often.

Christopher Owens’ new solo album, A New Testament, is out Monday, 29th September on Turnstile Music. Follow Owens on TwitterFacebook and find tour updates at his website.

Stay tuned for more Christopher Owens-curated content in the coming days. 


Read Next