Lev Grossman’s Magicians books are the kind of books you obsess over if you are also prone to obsessing over how unfair it is that Susan gets kicked out of Narnia because she likes lipstick, while simultaneously fantasizing about meeting a faun under a lamppost.
They’re the kind of books you love if you’re still waiting for your Hogwarts owl but also would really enjoy a good conversation over whether Snape can strictly be said to be redeemed at the end of the Harry Potter, given his years of bullying blameless children under his care. They’re books that shamelessly revel in the pleasure of classic fantasy worlds, and that are also committed to examining the philosophical underpinnings that invisibly hold up those worlds.
Grossman’s books are the source materials for SyFy’s series The Magicians, highly acclaimed by none other than Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff and now beginning its third season — which means that Grossman is in the unusual position of being someone who both reimagines a source material and then sees his his own source material reimagined by someone else.
I spoke with Grossman over the telephone to discuss what it’s like to be both the remixer and the remixed, whether there’s such a thing as a totally original story, and Western literature’s long history of reimagining and retelling. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You’re someone who does a lot of remixing in your storytelling and is now watching your own stories get remixed. What’s it like having been on both sides of the process?
Well, the kind of remixing I did, The Magicians, and the kind of remixing it’s undergone on TV are not exactly the same kind of remixing. They’re not perfectly analogous.
I would say that I do very much think of The Magicians as a remixing kind of book. I was very conscious of that when I was writing it. In fact, I found it really energizing to imagine myself taking other people’s work, C.S. Lewis’s or J.K. Rowling’s, and — I don’t know if remix is actually the word I’d use, but recasting it, retelling it, in a way that was both an homage and a kind of critique at the same time.
I was conscious that I was doing something that gets done a lot in fanfiction. And then there’s a longer tradition of it; I also had in mind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, or Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, high-culture works that take another story and remix it, retell it, reimagine it. I was very aware of all that stuff.
I was aware I was doing something that legally was kind of a gray area right now in the culture that we write in, which was interesting. But I found it just incredibly energizing.
There’s a book called The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom. He has this theory that the way in which artists and creators come into their own is through this act of remixing, which he sees as quite an aggressive act. I think he describes it almost in terms of an Oedipal struggle.
I thought that was very true. I realized that through this kind of imaginary exchange, which was both aggressive and loving at the same time, that was how I was figuring out who I was as a writer. Which is paradoxical! Because we often think of working with someone else’s material as unoriginal and derivative, but at the same it was through taking control of someone else’s work that I came to understand what my own voice was.
Since then, I’ve seen The Magicians remixed in different ways. I’ve seen it be an influence on other books, I’ve seen fanfiction based on it, and of course there’s the TV show based on it. I’d love to able to say it was a completely joyful and unproblematic process watching The Magicians be adapted — and it was joyful and exciting and thrilling. But it definitely took some getting used to.
I realized that when you write novels, you have a lot of control over what’s going on. It’s not a collaborative art form. It’s one of those art forms where you get to do it all. You write all the dialogue; you point the camera where you want to; you dress the set; you do the costumes. So really, it’s a one-person act.
And when it came to collaborating, to passing this story that I’d written on to other creators, it was definitely unnerving. It provoked a lot of feelings. It was exciting and thrilling and stimulating, but it was also a real gut-check feeling where I had to tell myself, “It’s time to let go, and to let other people find different kinds of meanings in this story, which you’re used to thinking of as your own.”
Switching gears a little, tell me about the King Arthur project you’re working on.
That’s another kind of remixing project. King Arthur is that story: People get excited and yet also their hearts sink slightly when you bring up King Arthur, because it is a story that’s been told and retold for literally more than a thousand years. When you take it up, you’re really conscious that you are treading ground that has been trod a lot by other people. Really, you’re saying, “This tradition stretches back a thousand years, and I am now going to add another link to the chain.”
I really had to ask myself, and I asked myself this question many times over the years, “Do I bring enough to this? Do I have anything to add to this that makes my telling of King Arthur different and worthwhile?” For a long time the answer was no.
I think one of the great things about the Arthur story is that it has a way of adapting itself to different historical moments. It becomes about different things. For T.H. White it was about World War II; for Marion Zimmer Bradley it was about feminism and paganism. It becomes about the world you’re telling it in. I became curious about, if I told the King Arthur story now, what would it be about? What would it tell me about the moment we’re living in? And I realized I wanted to find out.
So far, you’ve been playing around with Harry Potter and Narnia and the Arthurian legend cycle. Are those the three big texts for you? Is there another story you’d be interested in playing around with?
Oh, there’s so many. As it turns out, the way I write is very old-fashioned and kind of unfashionable. There was a time in the history of Western culture when originality was not particularly prized. In classical stories and medieval stories, it’s not about making something new. It’s about taking over a story from someone else and turning it around, and curating it with the knowledge that you didn’t create it and you’re going to let it go when you’re done with it.
For some reason, I seem to be attracted to that mode of writing. I feel that the idea that it’s possible to tell a completely new, original story just doesn’t seem quite true to me.
When you think that way, you just think of the incredible mass of stories we live in, and we see them all the time. They’re always flitting by them on TV and advertisements, everywhere. I’m always looking at them and seeing exciting possibilities in them.
One I always think about is the story of Theseus and the minotaur, and you know, Daedalus and Icarus, those stories are all bound together, and Ariadne. I find myself turning those stories in my head a lot right now, and wondering, if you told it now, how would it be shaped? And what would it mean? I feel sure that it would mean something, only I haven’t figured out what yet.