Archive for August, 2014
You’re in Los Angeles. You’re on book tour. You’re in a cab – you just got off the flight from Houston. It’s hot, though not as hot as Houston was. Your cab driver is from Ghana. His name is Willie. He used to be on their Olympic track team, now he’s moonlighting as an actor in LA. He was on The X-Files. He gives you his card.
(Later you look him up on IMDB. He was in season 4, “Teliko.”)
You check your phone. You missed a call from your publisher. You put your phone back in your bag.
It’s Wednesday, two in the afternoon pacific time, which is a special time of the week in the books industry. Civilians see the New York Times bestseller list on the weekend, but the Times privately circulates the list to the book industry on Wednesday afternoons at five o’clock Eastern time (in other words, now). At that moment, once a week, all authors and editors everywhere quietly bow their heads and mutter a prayer to the Retail Gods and wait for whatever judgement has been placed upon them.
You’re waiting too, because your book just got published last week. But you’re pretending to yourself that you’re not waiting. You’re so cool you’re not even checking your voicemail.
Now you stop narrating in the second person.
I had pretty good reasons to think that I’d be somewhere on the list. The Magicians and The Magician King both “hit the list,” as they say in the parlance. And believe me when I say that I was over the moon when that happened. Up till that point I had never been anywhere near the Times list, and not for lack of trying. I’ve been at this a while. So I remember the moments when I got those calls: once in LA, once in St. Louis. There’s a ritual: the whole team at Viking gathers around a speakerphone — my publicist (Lindsay), my editor (Allison), my editor’s boss (Clare).
Those times I wasn’t at the top of the list. More towards the middle part. Middle-to-lower. But still, a lot changed for me when that happened.
That was three years ago. I don’t dwell on sales numbers too much — I cash the checks, but I don’t do the math, because that way madness lies (and also unlike most of my characters I’m not that good at math). Trilogies — anecdotally speaking — tend to either fade away or gather momentum as they go. I had reason to hope, just based on the volume of fan mail I get, that the Magicians books have been building, so based on that I figured I might hit #5. If I had to guess — and I couldn’t stop myself from guessing — that’s what I would have guessed.
But really: I was good with whatever. I was in my little internal Zen garden. Making the list was a dream come true, and the rest was just a popularity contest, and I was over that. That was junior high stuff.
The phone rang again. I let it go. I could catch up with that stuff later. Willie and I were talking about the Magicians TV show. But after a while we ran out of things to talk about. There was a pause. So I checked my voice mail. Here was the message:
“Lev it’s Allison and Clare and Lindsay YOU’RE NUMBER ONE!!! YOU’RE NOT PICKING UP YOUR PHONE WHICH IS REALLY ANNOYING!!! YOU’RE NUMBER ONE NUMBER ONE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER NUMBER ONE … !!!”
I didn’t listen to the rest. Just then a text message arrived:
Lev!!!!! It’s allison! Check your voicemail! You are #1!!!!!!!!!! #! New York Times Bestseller !!!!!!!!!!!!! Congratulations !!!!!!!!!!!
Was I zen about it? I was not zen. Not even a little. I may have punched the air. I may have cried a little bit. I think maybe Willie cried a bit. Fuck yes it was a popularity contest, and I was queen of the God damned prom.
This didn’t happen overnight: I started writing fiction freshman year of college, but when The Magicians was published? I was 40. I am now 45. I’ve been at this every day, just trying to be myself on the page as honestly as I can, for a quarter of a century. When I got that message I felt like Julia when she finally does her first magic spell, after being shut out of Brakebills and wandering in the wilderness for years. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t fucking believe it. I waved my hands and said the words and it worked.
It wasn’t just me. It was you too. There is no medium in the world as collaborative as writing is. You don’t get anywhere as a writer without having great readers, who put time and money and thought and tears into making your words mean things. Maybe it’s a polllyanna-ish thing to say but it is also the stone cold truth. Any writer will tell you the same.
I put my head in my hands. I looked out the window for a while. I didn’t want to share the news quite yet – I wanted it to myself for a second. Then I looked at my phone: the New York Times had tweeted it, and social media was starting to blow up. E-mails started packing into my in-box. I looked out the window a bit more. People will tell you that they love LA, or they hate LA, and they may or may not mean it, but let me tell you: at that moment, I fucking loved LA.
The cab arrived. I paid Willie. We hugged it out. I was at the Paramount lot, where I was about to sit in on auditions for the Magicians TV show, which is another completely incredible story which I’ll write about at some point. Paramount security had no idea who I was, so I had to stand around in the parking lot waiting to be rescued by a production assistant, but I didn’t care, not in the slightest. My phone was at 3%, so I just had time to call my wife and tell her the news before it died. I didn’t care about that either.
Soon time would pass, everything would die down, life would go on, everything would go back to normal. Little things would start to bug me again. I would have seasonal affective disorder. I would doubt myself, and others, and the world. The usual.
But not for a while.
A couple of weeks ago I blogged about this beautiful Magicians print by Jillian Nickell.
I’m a little bit obsessed with it. So much so that I made Jillian talk to me about how she created it. The conversation went as follows:
How do you get started on a project like this? Do you reread the books? Just start sketching and free-associating?
I actually had just recently re-read the first two books, I went on an overseas trip and took them with me on the plane. So when I started to work on the poster, a lot of the elements were still fresh in my mind. I wrote down a long list of details, story lines , and characters that could potentially go into the poster, and then I just started making rough sketches. Almost always before I start any project, I will do a really rough “sketch” in Photoshop outlining the basic shapes, composition, and values but very little specific small details. It helps me get the big decisions out of the way before getting very detailed.
It was especially helpful for this project because there are just so many things that I wanted to add to the poster that just would not all fit. Since it’s a poster for all three books, I had to try to pick and choose parts from all three to try and get them to fit together in a way that makes sense.
I didn’t expect you to focus so much on the characters’ faces — I thought it would be mostly clock-trees and talking sloths and that sort of thing. Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised. How did you go about figuring out so precisely how they looked?
I definitely wanted the focus of the poster to be on Quentin, since the whole book series is told mostly through his point of view. It made sense to have the other kings and queens there as well, who are incredibly important to the story. I really wanted to draw Quentin with his white hair, which is such a striking image to me. I gave him a white fur-lined cape, which matched the hair and also just felt like it fit his character.
I had read an interview with you which described how you imagined some of them looking, and I had my own ideas of how they should look, so I tried to blend those two ideas together. I always imagined Julia with freckles and long dark hair, and Elliot with slightly wavy hair. There were also some very specific descriptions of character’s styles, such as Janet’s haircut. And Alice, obviously, as a niffin, is blue and glowing. I wanted her to feel as though she’s radiating magic, and I think the glow helps achieve that.
Both Quentin and Julia have a somewhat sad/serious expressions – considering what happens to both of them throughout the series this made sense. I feel like Janet and Elliot have sort of this sarcastic, jokey front they put on for everyone else, but are really trying to cover up some emotional scars that come out later on in the books. I wanted their expressions to convey a bit of this as well.
I think they did.
I went with a grayscale palette for most of the drawing for a few reasons. It gives a cooler feel which I especially wanted to play up, with the scene from Antarctica in front. Whitespire is, obviously, white. The whole background needed to be a starry night scene, since night almost always feels more enchanted. The white hair, the foxes, the sky, the castle…There was a lot of grey, black and white that needed to happen.
Also, it allows the gold and blue to pop even more. I chose to add the electric blue originally for Alice, but added more since that color just feels like buzzing energy.
Gold also feels very magic. In the books you’ve got gold keys, gold crowns, gold coins, gold hands (or at least, that’s how I pictured those things). It worked so well to have that gold glow effect in the windows of the neitherlands, the gold glowing clock faces, or the glowing blue and gold orbs. Really, anything that helps hint at an undercurrent of magic that’s always there and often visible or just below the surface.
The funny thing is, now your images are reshaping the way I picture the Magicians world — it’s a feedback loop. Looking over your work, it seems like you’re drawn to magical or at any rate other-worldly subjects in general. What do you like about them?
I always wanted magic to be real, I guess, and illustrating those things out is one way of making it so. Also, I’m always drawn to images that transport you to another place, and make you not want to leave. My favorite picture books as a little kid had scenes in them that took you somewhere else and made the world seem enchanted, and I still love that feeling.
I published a book! On Tuesday. I haven’t had time to blog since then.
We had a fantastic launch event in Brooklyn, in which I talked a lot and we drank wine and there was an epic Magicians trivia showdown. The winner won one of these.
Also some of my author friends acted out a scene from the books. Erin Morgenstern played Quentin. [>drops mic<] If you live in: Minneapolis, Houston, LA, San Francisco, Chapel Hill, or Atlanta, check the Events Page, because I’m coming to your city in the next couple of weeks.
Publishing a book is by definition something only writers experience, but even writers, or anyway this writer, lack the words to express what it’s really like. You feel proud, and vulnerable, and exhilarated, and satisfied, and ecstatic, and a tiny bit sad that this thing you made is now going out into the world, where its fortunes, like the fortunes of everything and everybody everywhere, are beyond your control. But it’s amazing and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
It’s been made easier this time by the fact that the reviews have been good. In fact they’re the best reviews I’ve ever gotten—I think now that people have seen the full arc of the trilogy, it’s easier to get the point of it all. The New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, LA Times, New York Times (again!), Miami Herald … I don’t actually read the reviews, you understand, but people tell me they’re good and send me tiny snippets of them, which is all I really want to see. Here’s a good snippet from the New York Times:
If the Narnia books were like catnip for a certain kind of kid, these books are like crack for a certain kind of adult. By the end, after some truly wondrous scenes that have to do with the dawn (and the end) of existence, ricocheting back and forth between the extraordinary and the quotidian, you feel that breathless, stay-up-all-night, thrumming excitement that you, too, experienced as a child, and that you felt all over again when you first opened up “The Magicians” and fell headlong into Mr. Grossman’s world.
I’ve given a lot of interviews too, including this one about my influences (which I especially like), and this one about how great C.S. Lewis is (worth a click for the beautiful illustration), and this one on NPR, which I gave from Comic-Con. And this is my account of hitting rock bottom in my first attempts to write a novel.
Must run. More nice things to come, including a small-but-interesting announcement.
One: it’s happening. Tomorrow. Tuesday. I’m excited.
Two: you can order signed copies. A lot of indie bookstores will do this for you, but if you’re in New York I’m going to recommend Greenlight, which is my local neighborhood bookstore, and they’ve been very supportive of the books. Order from them and I’ll just wander over to the store and personalize it for you.
Three: there is now such a thing as a boxed set of the Magicians trilogy. It looks like this:
I’ve got one sitting on my dining room table. It’s a good-looking item.
Four: don’t forget about this incredible Magicians print by Jillian Nickell.
Four: If you’re in Brooklyn, or within striking distance of it, come out to the launch event tomorrow night (Tuesday) in Fort Greene. There will be trivia, prizes, reading, signing, and (I think) wine. There will be hella special guests: Margaret Stohl, Erin Morgenstern, Lauren Oliver, Michelle Hodkin and my very own twin brother, Austin Grossman. Don’t miss it.
Or if you do miss it, you can come see me Wednesday night at the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side.
And if you’re in Boston, the wretched hive of villainy that spawned me, come out to Brookline! I’ll be there on Thursday night at the Brookline Booksmith.
Don’t screw me on this one, Boston. I come from you.