I write slowly, and these days I mostly write long, basically because I suck at short stories and because I’ve (mostly, temporarily) stepped back from journalism. As a result it’s totally possible for me to do an entire year of really intense work and come to the end of it having published practically nothing.
2018 was such a year!
I wrote a book review in the New York Times with a very creepy 1970’s-style sci-fi illustration. An essay of mine appeared in a wonderful book about fantasy maps. I also gave a lecture or two. But apart from that (unless I’m forgetting something, which is totally possible) I just wrote and wrote and wrote and didn’t publish anything.
I spent a lot of this year working on a novel about King Arthur called The Bright Sword. I turned in a first draft of it in January and a second draft in September, but I figure it’s going to take one more major revision before I can really say I’m in the endgame. You wouldn’t think it would take this long but Arthur is just one of those many-layered multi-chambered subjects that it’s really hard to feel like you’ve come to grips with in any kind of a satisfying way. And it’s a very old story, and I want to feel like it’s getting traction on what feels like a very new world while still remaining true to its old-ness.
Plus people have been writing about Arthur for so long, literally more than a thousand years. You look back at that huge long line of brilliant writers behind you, and they’re all looking at you, and you think jeez this had better be good.
But surely my good man you can’t sit around writing about King Arthur all day every day!
You’re right! I really can’t. I frequently burn out on projects and have to put them down for while and get some perspective. To be totally honest I haven’t even really touched The Bright Sword for a couple of months now because when I look at it all I can see is this kind of black-hole-sun thing where a manuscript should be and then I have to make a saving throw vs. madness.
So I’ve been working on other things instead. I read and commented on scripts for the Magicians show as they came in (the fourth season just wrapped a few weeks ago and will start airing in January). There’s also a deeply awesome Magicians graphic novel coming out next summer, which I didn’t write (the brilliant Lilah Sturges did), but I did look over everybody’s shoulders and make them feel uncomfortable while they worked on it.
And there are other other things too.
Up until two years ago I still had a day job as a staff writer at Time magazine, and when I left—and gave up the salary—I knew I would have to start up some non-novel projects, because it takes me so long to write novels that my family would probably run out of money in between them. And I felt burnt out on journalism. So I took up screenwriting instead.
Writing for Hollywood is one of those things novelists are not ever supposed to do ever, and I get that: it can be an incredible time- and soul-devourer. But at the same time when you’re in the business of storytelling it’s hard not to get interested in TV and movies, which are powerful and immediate in ways that are equal to — but very different from — novels. Plus scalewise they’re just incredibly dominant. I mean if you sell a million books you’re a massively successful author. If a million people watch your TV show, well, you’re 1/16th of Young Sheldon.
And kibitzing on the Magicians show, watching those guys work, made me wonder what it would feel like to tell stories that way. Writing is a lot about visualizing the book that you want to read but which hasn’t been written yet and then writing it. I started to realize there were un-made shows and movies I wanted to watch too.
(And there’s the money, right? True. Though for the time being at least I make much more from books than I do from screenwriting.)
So starting two years ago I began flying out to L.A. and talking to people. I did all the things. I lunched. I pitched. I was mentored. And slowly some projects have begun to materialize.
Annoyingly (and really there aren’t many things more annoying than when people say this) I can’t talk about them yet. They have developed to the point where I’m getting paid for them (which is a relief) but they haven’t quite developed to the point where they’ve been announced yet. But I’m super-excited about them, and hopefully it will all be out there soon.
Meanwhile I just badly miss finishing things and putting them out in the world. In most ways this was an incredibly great year: my family’s healthy, my house isn’t falling down, and I’m writing! And I love writing, I love this business of pouring all your thoughts and feelings into words. But with no one reading them it does start to feel a bit like playing Scrabble with yourself.
Which is great, don’t get me wrong. I’ve done enough of it to know! But enough is enough.
I’ll see you next year.
So I’m writing a note to let you know what I’m doing with my time. Some of you already know. But for those who don’t:
Since The Magician’s Land came out in August 2014 my one desire has been to get another book out there. To that end I wrote half of a young-adult book. I also wrote half of a middle-grade book, based on a story I’d been telling my kids at night. I also wrote a screenplay. Not very surprisingly, none of these things resulted in another book, by me, coming out.
But while I was doing these other things, a big idea for a novel came clunking down out of the vending machine of my head. It was an idea for an Arthurian novel that was not, at least on the face of it, primarily about King Arthur.
I’ve always loved Arthurian stories, but for a long time I felt like the last words had already been written on him, by, collectively, Malory, Tennyson, White, Sutcliff, Stewart, Zimmer Bradley, Cornwell and probably a few others I’m forgetting. Not much white space left on that particular map.
But in spite of that, just as a mental exercise, I sometimes thought about what sort of Arthurian novel I would write — what called to me from that world, what would feel relevant to what I and the rest of humanity are going through right now, in our lives and in our time.
It was, for a long time, a bootless errand. Until I blundered on something that felt interesting.
White’s brilliant stroke in The Once and Future King, or one of many of them, was to write the story of Arthur’s childhood. All that business about Wart as a kid in the Forest Sauvage, Merlin living backwards, changing him into animals and so on, that was all White’s invention. Nobody had ever really tried to tell that story before. I started to wonder if there was something interesting you could do with the other end of the story –the aftermath of Arthur’s death.
People had sketched in this part of the story, but not in any great detail. Almost the entire Round Table dies along with Arthur at the Battle of Camlann. A relative nobody, Sir Constantine, succeeds Arthur on the throne. Lancelot and Guinevere give themselves to God and then die. The few survivors — Lancelot’s gang — hunt down Mordred’s kids and then die or go on the Crusades and then die. Arthur either convalesces on Avalon or doesn’t. The End.
I felt like there had to be more.
What if you began the story with the death of King Arthur (kind of like A Song of Ice and Fire starts, more or less, with Robert Baratheon’s death). When the last battle has been fought, when Arthur has been spirited away to Avalon, what happens to the survivors? What transpires in the shattered, darkened chivalric world he left behind? An Arthurian world but post-apocalypse, where the center has failed to hold, and the central pillar has collapsed.
And while you’re sorting out those questions, what new light would those answers shed on what came before? Could they give us a new sense of why and how Camelot fell? Could you go back and re-interpret the story of Arthur’s life and death through that lens?
I got interested in the answers to these questions, interested enough that I wrote the first 80,000 words of a novel about them and started pitching it. Viking — the same good people who published the Magicians books — bought it. Working title is The Bright Sword.
That was in August of 2016. I’ve been writing hard ever since. I quit my job at Time to write even harder. (I was burned out at Time, after almost 20 years there, and the Magicians TV show was still bringing in money. New season starts January! Also, although I didn’t know it, Time was about to explode.)
It’s a very different challenge from the Magicians books. It’s not a series, it’s one big long thick book, significantly longer than anything I’ve written before. Most of the characters are older. It demands a huge amount of research. I’ve taken a few longsword lessons; I need to take more. I find a lot of historical fiction to be rather deadly, so I’ve been studying writers who bring a fresh, immediate, contemporary feel to it — Hilary Mantel, Neal Stephenson, Kate Atkinson. I’m also interested in what Lin-Manuel Miranda did with the Founding Fathers in Hamilton. A lot of 20th-century writers (like Cornwell and Stewart) have taken a hard-nosedly historical approach to Arthur, re-grounding him solidly in sub-Roman Britain. (Or as solidly as possible, considering how little we know about the Dark Ages.) I’m taking a more romantic, classically Arthurian approach to Arthur, more in the Malory/White/Sutcliff mode, retaining the shining armor and chivalry and medieval geopolitics and the Holy Grail. But I’m throwing some Dark-Ages historical grit into the mix too. Lots of Roman ruins. Since last fall I’ve bought a whole library of books about medieval history, arms and armor, longsword technique, medieval battle tactics, Roman Britain, Celtic paganism, medieval forestry and on and on.
One of the great things about Arthur is that there is no real canon, and everybody chooses the elements and finds the balance that let them say what they want to say. I hope I’ll find my balance. It’s a long haul — I don’t even have a publication date yet — but I’m really proud of the work I’ve done so far. My whole focus is on getting it finished and into your hands ASAP.
I’m mostly lying low this fall working on a new book, which should be announced very soon. But I’m still doing an event here and there.
My first novel Warp,
- September 20: Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY, with Dana Schwartz.
- September 21: Barnes & Noble in New York City.
- October 4: Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, MA.
Then on Friday, September 23, I’ll be taking part in a roundtable on series and serial art at Columbia with A.O. Scott (film critic for the New York Times) and Julie generic name for zithromax Snyder (who created Serial).
On October 6 I’ll turn up at New York Comic-Con as part of a panel on adapting books for the screen, which will also have Blake Crouch and Patrick Ness on it. There’s also a Magicians panel for the TV show, but that’s on Saturday, and I’ll miss it because…
…on October 8 I’ll be running a workshop in Aspen, CO as part of Aspen Words.
On October 11 I’ll be at the launch of The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook at Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn.
And then starting October 29 I’ll be the Utopiales international science fiction festival in Nantes, France. Allons-y!
They’re showing the first episode of The
For example: the characters are a few years older than in the books – they’re entering graduate school rather than college. Also in the books we don’t learn about Julia’s life and her world until the second book, but in the show she’s a major character from the start. And Janet’s name is Margo. Penny is way more badass than Penny in the books. Also there’s an extra Physical Kid whose name is Kady.
Some things from the books don’t happen, some things happen differently, and other things happen that are nowhere in the books. When you see this stuff you may find asking, why, great triple-horned god, why?
The answer to all of this is basically, because of TV. It’s a different medium, and you tell stories differently there. Not everything translates directly.
That may sound a little glib. And believe me, there were a few changes that I got hung up on along the way (I didn’t write a word of the show, but I saw and weighed in on each script, and on rough cuts of the episodes). But you know what? After a while I got over it. The people who made it are mega-fans of the books, and whatever changes they made, they did it to get as much as they could of the feel and spirit of the books on screen. They are in very, very good faith.
I’m a huge fan of the show. I get psyched every time they send me a new episode to watch. It’s dark, it’s smart, it’s weird, and it’s very funny. It’s cool to see the magic on screen. The actors are acting their hearts out.
So give it a shot. There’s really nothing else like it on TV. I’ll be watching too.
p.s. Many people have asked if the episode tonight will be online somewhere. As far as I can tell it will not, so if you don’t have cable you’re out of luck. Come to think of it I don’t have cable. Fortunately I have a copy of the show, so I’ll watch along anyway.
As I write this it’s Sunday night. I’m coming off a weekend of chasing my children around the house, and the park, and also of trying to figure out where all the ants in the house are coming from. Also I wrote about six words of my new book.
— On Tuesday, June 16, I’ll be in Portland at the incomparable Powell’s City of Books on Burnside
— On Wednesday, June 17, I’ll be in Seattle at the Elliot Bay Book Co.
— On Thursday, June 18, I’ll be at the Booksmith in San Francisco.
These are (probably) the last Magicians events I’ll ever do, as in future I’ll be promoting whatever monstrosity it is I write next, so I’d love it if you could come. Next week: Burlington, Washington DC, and then Brooklyn.
I should have done a post a while ago, obviously, when the TV show got greenlit. But I didn’t. I was distracted, by among other things the TV show being greenlit. If you post questions in the comments below I’ll try to answer them, but be warned: I will mostly fail, either because I don’t know the answers, or I can’t say.
More news: the paperback of Magician’s
I want to call out the Cambridge event in particular, because it’ll be a conversation with Gregory Maguire, who wrote Wicked, and I’m unspeakably excited about it. It’s at the Brattle Theater, by way of Harvard Bookstore. It’s also a big deal to me because I grew up around there. I hope you’ll come if you can.
If I only ever seem to post about upcoming events anymore, that’s because these days I’m pretty much only posting about upcoming events.
I’m in a weird primordial state right now where I’m super-focused on the early stages of a couple of new projects, and each one is like a tiny planet, where its surface is still molten and malleable, but it’s cooling, slowly, toward the point where it might one day support primitive life-forms.
This Wednesday I’m talking to Helen Macdonald about her book H Is for Hawk at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. It would be great if you could come. But even if you can’t: find and buy this book, it’s astonishing.
Then next Tuesday, April 14, I’ll be at a literary salon held by an organization called Pen Parentis. More importantly, Kelly Link and Marly Youmans will be there. Almost as importantly, there will be wine.
Very quick. I wouldn’t even be posting this except that a minor point came up that requires clarification. Totally technical thing.
But—having talked to a couple of people who understand the process way better than I do (which is basically not at all)—for various reasons I think it’s better not to take the whole-trilogy approach. So just in case you’re a Hugo voter and you think you might want to vote for the books, I’m suggesting that people just vote for The Magician’s Land on its own.
Though it’s probably all academic in a year stuffed full of excellent work by the likes of Jeff Vandermeer, Ann Leckie, John Scalzi, Jo Walton, William Gibson and many, many others — there’s a good list of Hugo-eligible books here. The competition’s beyond stiff. I’ve gotta stop publishing in the same year as these people.
I’m not going to publish anything at all this year, except for journalism (and blog posts). It’s a writing year for me, not a publishing year. But I do have a few public appearances coming up. On Wednesday, February 18, I’ll be doing an extremely fun event called Person Place Thing in Brooklyn, where I’ll be talking and telling stories, and there’ll be music by Mamie Minch. Then on March 9 I’ll be reading as part of the 6th anniversary of the Franklin Park Reading Series, which is a great series. Its name notwithstanding, it happens in a bar, not a park.
It was a good year.
I’m not just saying that. I wouldn’t say that about every year. 2011 for example — 2011 was no oil painting. But in 2014 a lot of good things happened to me.
And the book did well;. It got some good reviews. It went to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. That is an incredible gift for a writer. It makes you unbelievably happy, and it means you sold a lot of books, two things that are great enough all on their own, but it also becomes this precious professional asset that you can lean on forever. From now on all your books will have that fact on them. Every time someone types up your bio, that it goes in there too.
It’s a gift, and you guys gave it to me. I’ll never, ever stop being grateful for that.
I wrote a lot of journalism this year too. I wrote some cover stories for Time. This was also the year that I got serious about writing (and actually publishing) personal essays. I wrote about being a father and a writer and about my disastrous first years as a writer and about how I found my voice as a fantasy author.
And as if all that were not already more than enough, something else totally unexpected and excellent happened, which was that Syfy ordered a pilot of episode of a Magicians TV series.
What?! I know. But it’s true. They shot it in New Orleans—it “wrapped,” as we say in Hollywood, at the end of December. Sometime this spring we’ll find out whether the network wants to order a full season, but whatever happens it’s been incredibly fun and exciting. Plus they sent me a really nice Brakebills scarf for Xmas. So that’s something else I will always have.
This year has not been all good. In fact in some personal ways it’s been really strange and difficult. In June, not long before The Magician’s Land came out, my father died. It was not unexpected, but it was still shocking. One day I’ll write about that and all the feelings that came with it, but I don’t think I’m ready yet.
I don’t know much about what 2015 is going to be like. It will contain more Magicians stuff, including more about the show, and a paperback tour in June. I’m hoping to maybe see The Magician’s Land on an awards ballot somewhere. (None of the Magicians books has ever been on the ballot for any major award. Cue tiny, basically nano-scale violin in the background.)
For now I’m going to Australia, where it is summer, for the rest of the month, so my wife and I can visit her family. I’m also working hard on a new book, but I haven’t announced it yet or shown it to any publishers.
Because you know what? It is slow, slow going. It’s been ten years since I started the Magicians books, hence ten years since I tried to write something completely from scratch. I forgot how God damned hard it is.
I’m on my way back from a quick trip to New Orleans to visit the set of the Magicians
This goes partway to explaining why I’m so hungover and underslept. There were other contributing factors. But we can definitely identify that as the root cause.
[BTW I wrote this yesterday, on the plane, when it was actually true, but I’ve only got around to posting it now. Just go with it.]
Visiting the set was a pretty flat-out amazing experience, even though there isn’t anything especially going on there yet. They’ve taken over a vast production facility in an industrial area outside New Orleans: a warren of offices attached to some huge empty factory spaces. One of them looks like this:
They’re not actually shooting anything yet, but most of the cast of the show is there, living in hotels and rehearsing and generally being really talented and good-looking. They’re doing camera tests (that’s what’s happening in the picture) and trying out costumes and scouting locations and talking about special effects and things like that. The actor playing Quentin (who is amazing but who I think is still a secret so I can’t use his name) was practicing card tricks. The director, Mike Cahill, was stalking around figuring out technical stuff. Sera Gamble was supervising everything.
While I was there the actors did the first full read-through of the pilot script, at night, over pizza. This is the sort of thing you’re supposed to say, but I’m going to say it anyway because it’s true: they were amazing. (I performed the part of a Brakebills professor who hasn’t been cast yet. Crushed it.)
It was strange hanging out with people who are getting ready to tell these stories. I’m used to me doing that, and having that process take place inside my head. To have other people doing it, and to be outside it, on the periphery of it, is pretty surreal.
But surprisingly wonderfully so. I’m really impressed with the people who are doing it. They’re going to do some things with it that I cannot, cannot wait to see. More information about the show will leak out over the next few weeks, but it’s not supposed to leak from me, so I’m going to shut up now.
More news? There isn’t much more news. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of work for Time and noodling with some new projects, as one does. On December 3 I’ll be onstage with, among others, Erin Morgenstern and Chuck Wendig at a celebration of Margaret Atwood’s 75th birthday at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Margaret Atwood will also be there. Come if you can, it’ll be a night to remember.
Also, if you’re thinking of buying a book by me as a holiday present, consider ordering it from Greenlight Bookstore. It’s my neighborhood bookstore in Brooklyn, and I like to support them, and more to the point if you buy books there I can go by and sign and personalize them.