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Novelist Lev Grossman on why James Joyce’s Dublin matches J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth

“[C.S.] Lewis was a great world builder, but he was incredibly sloppy by modern standards. Narnia was not up to code.”

Comic-Con International: San Diego - 2016
Lev Grossman hosts The Magicians Comic-Con panel in 2016.
Photo by: Evans Vestal Ward/Syfy/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Few fantasy series of the past 10 years have achieved the reach of Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy of novels, which began with The Magicians in 2009, continued with The Magician King in 2011, and concluded with The Magician’s Land in 2014. The series, which attempted to blend the fantastical elements of stories like Harry Potter and the Narnia series, garnered warm reviews (including from us), then was quickly scooped up to be adapted for TV before the full trilogy was even published.

The adaptation process took many years and several false starts, but the (excellent) TV show version of The Magicians finally debuted in December 2015 on Syfy, and it has gone on to forge its own identity — similar to the books but also separate from them. The show is currently airing its third season, and so far that season is on track to be as big a step up over The Magicians’ second season as the second season already was over the first.

That made now a great time to invite Grossman — whose books are probably more visible than ever but who also has to deal with readers who get into his work because they’re already familiar with the TV versions of his characters — on the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting.

One thing I really wanted to talk about with him was world-building, the process of taking a fantastical kingdom and making it feel real. Narnia, the fantasy world that serves as the rough template for Fillory (the fantasy kingdom of the Magicians books), can feel a little chaotic and random at times; Grossman explained to me why he thinks that’s the case, but we also discussed what it means to craft a realistic fictional world.

A portion of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Todd VanDerWerff

When you were coming up with Fillory for the Magicians books, it’s Narnia, but it’s also not Narnia. It has some Narnia things to it, but you also expanded the idea. Can you talk about your process of coming up with the rules that were going to govern that world?

Lev Grossman

I think when people talk about world building, when they think about it — and I know I’ve done this — I kind of think people have the wrong end of the stick. No one’s building worlds any more. It is rare that there’s a world so original that it has to be built from scratch.

As soon as you mention that maybe, say, there’s elves and dwarves in a world, people know a lot about that world. They know that there are deep, sylvan forests with skinny, tall good looking people in them. And there are mountains, with deep mines, with sturdy, bearded dwarves chipping away at them. Those worlds are already in our heads. They’re completely built. You can do new things with them, but you’re renovating. You’re not building from scratch. There is a pre-existing structure there.

So when I approached Fillory, in a way what I was doing was, really kind of updating Narnia. [C.S.] Lewis was a great world builder, but he was incredibly sloppy by modern standards. Narnia was not up to code. [Laughs.] He’d just slap things in there. If he wanted fauns, he’d put in fauns from Greek mythology, and then here comes Santa Claus! We’ve got Santa Claus in there too. Most people have feudal technology in Narnia. They’re fighting with swords. But Mrs. Beaver has a sewing machine, which is a nice piece of Victorian era industrial technology. It doesn’t all add up and fit together.

Part of it was just, let’s take Narnia, but let’s take it maybe a little more seriously than Lewis did. Let’s try to imagine what the politics and economy and ecology of this world would really be. What would happen if you took a group of children and just plopped them down in this country, which is in the middle of an entrenched, decades old civil war, and these kids try to intervene in it. What would happen to them? Probably complicated, not good things.

I was taking Narnia, and I was trying to look at it the way that George R. R. Martin looks at Westeros — try to make it conform to contemporary ideas of how worlds work. And what you end up with is in some ways, a more textured, darker, more complicated version of Narnia. In some ways less sublime, less beautiful, more degraded, but in some other ways, more interesting. That was my approach: Take Narnia and just kind of renovate it.

The Magicians
It’s The Magicians, in TV form.

Todd VanDerWerff

What you’re saying about the Narnia books reminds me of my experience as a kid with the Oz books, which I loved, but you could tell L. Frank Baum was just, like, “I don’t know. There’s some other shit going on over there.” He was just making stuff up as he came up with it.

A lot of these series that have had this time-honored status of becoming classics, outside of [J.R.R.] Tolkien, who very obviously sat down and came up with his world, but even something like Star Wars has this feeling of a lot of stuff being introduced, of expanding the parameters of the world every so often. Where do you think that shift comes where we want to have very carefully structured and built worlds that make sense?

Lev Grossman

Someone ought to do a dissertation where they figure out when this happened, because it is incredibly interesting. I can certainly remember reading Robert Jordan, the Wheel of Time books. This was in the early ‘90s, and there was one point at which somebody asked the hero ... “So what actually happens when you’re using magic to light a candle?” Or I think it’s extinguish a candle. And he says, “There’s this candle, there’s a lot of heat in it. So I just draw the heat out of it, and I have to put the heat somewhere, so I just put it into that mantlepiece over there, which absorbed the heat. It got a little bit hotter, but that’s all that happened. I moved the heat around.”

I remember having to put the book down and think, wow. So he just made magic obey, basically, the laws of thermodynamics. I found that incredibly fascinating. What if you moved things into slightly higher definition and forced things to be slightly more rule-based? It made the world feel slightly more real to me. Gandalf never worried about the laws of thermodynamics. Forget it! Gandalf never went to wizard school. He just was a wizard, and he just did spells when he felt like it, because he couldn’t be bothered with that stuff, which was fine back then.

I’m sure Robert Jordan was not the tipping point, but that’s when I personally tipped, and I realized, “What if you made these works look a little bit more like the real world? Would they feel realer?” And the answer for me was, they really did.

The late Ursula K. LeGuin, Earthsea was another example. The way she taught magic to her wizards on Roke and made them obey a kind of language-like system of rules was again, I suddenly realized, magic, it’s not science. It’s not physics. It’s not bound by laws in that way, but it is kind of rule-based. That felt real to me.

I’ll bet Dungeons & Dragons was a big influence there, because they took fantasy and they made up rules that it had to play by. I think that was a big influence on a lot of writers.

Todd VanDerWerff

I’ve been reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This is going to sound weird, but I’m impressed by the world-building in that book. In the little town where it takes place, you know where everything is. You know where all the people live. You know how they relate to each other, and you get all of that in the first 20 pages. It’s a model of economy. What are some examples of great literary worlds you can think of that are not necessarily fantasy, sci-fi, or horror, that are more realistically grounded?

Lev Grossman

We think of world-building as a fantasy and science fiction thing, as if other fictional worlds weren’t actually fictional and you didn’t have to build them. People build these great worlds. They look exactly like our world, so we sort of forget that they’re world-building exercises.

For me, on a par with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, is [James] Joyce’s Dublin. Joyce was not living in Dublin when he wrote Ulysses. He was in Trieste and then I think in Paris. But he was laboring over street maps. He was writing letters to people in Dublin, getting them to check facts. The way the characters knock around in Dublin like little pachinko balls, in this wonderfully synchronized dance. He’s figuring out how long it would take to walk from one place to another, even when he’s living in exile abroad. It’s a marvelous thing.

[Virginia] Woolf’s London in Mrs. Dalloway I think of in a similar way. This narrator flits from place to place in a kind of ghost-like way, all around London You can see everything fits together into this whole, wonderful living metropolis. Woolf would never have said she was a world builder, but she was a world builder, and she was a master at it.

Todd VanDerWerff

What do you think is the key to finding an interesting fictional side of a real place?

Lev Grossman

It’s paying attention to the emotional hotspots of a place, which aren’t necessarily always the places that you would think. The emotional hotspots in Manhattan or Brooklyn for me, it’s not the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. It’s these little interstitial places that look completely normal to other people, but to me have these powerful associations. It’s looking at the places that everybody else ignores and just walks by and spotting them and looking really hard at them and drawing people’s attention to them, drawing their attention to the things that are in their blindspots. That’s something I always love to find when I’m reading someone else’s work.

For much more with Grossman, including why he’s so happy that his books were published in full before they became a TV show, listen to the full episode.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.