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.
The Magician’s Land came out. We made a video about it, with some of my writer-heroes in it:
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 in the country.
It’s amazing here. We got stressed out in Brooklyn, so we rented this old house a couple of hours outside New York City. Nothing fancy, but it has a pool, and when you sit on the front porch you can see about five miles of woods and meadows and exactly one other house.
It’s beautiful. It’s enough to make you feel like all of human civilization was a bad idea. Like, the trees got it right the first time.
Halcyon found a frog in the pool this morning, drunk on chlorine, and we rescued it and it hopped away. You should have seen her face: I don’t think Halcyon realized frogs were real — I think she had them grouped with hippogriffs in the mythical category.
Part of the time here I’ll spend working on a long piece for Time. But most of August will be consecrated to fiction. I’ve been frustrated lately, and to be honest kind of take ativan for depressed, trying to make time for novels and do my job and promote my books and so on. I think the balance got a little out of whack. Time to whack it back into balance. So this is the next couple of weeks.
Then I’ll be doing the third and final leg of the Magician King paperback tour: a reading at Boswell Books in Milwaukee on August 7, then another reading in Winnetka, IL, on August 8, then Leakycon, which will include an on-stage conversation with one of my very favorite contemporary writers, John Green.
I’m sorry I haven’t been blogging here as much lately. Partly it’s the business/depression, partly it’s that my vital blogging fluids are being diverted to Time‘s entertainment blog, where I’ve been writing a weekly books column. In the past few weeks — for example — I did a piece on the hallucinatory effects of reading children’s books aloud that I think came out well, and one on reading and walking at the same time. You can tour my rare-and-not-so-rare book collection. And here’s my response to a New Yorker piece about literary fiction and genre fiction.
And so on. For tomorrow I’m doing a piece tentatively titled “On Hating Books.” The column’s a lot of work, but I’m enjoying it. Feel like I’m exploring my critical voice, that sort of thing. Saying things I don’t get to say in reviews
All right, back to work. By the way there’s no Wifi here, so I’m talking to the Internet through my phone, with images off. It’s like I’m back on an old Lynx browser. Hence no image to go with this post.
Picture a drunken frog.
The other day somebody — in fact, an extremely eminent and excellent fantasy writer whose name I’m dying to drop but won’t (but in effect I just did anyway) — asked me for my favorite quote about fantasy. This request plunged me down a rabbit-hole of Googling and rereading and trying to remember something, anything really, that I read about fantasy in college.
In the end these three quotes were my finalists:
1. C.S. Lewis, from his essay on The Lord of the Rings:
‘But why,’ (some ask), ‘why, if you have a serious comment to make on the real life of men, must you do it by talking about a phantasmagoric never-never land of your own?’ Because, I take it, one of the main things the author wants to say is that the real life of men is of that mythical and heroic quality…And man as a whole, Man pitted against the universe, have we seen him at all till we see that he is like a hero in a fairy tale?
2. Iris Murdoch — this is attributed to Murdoch, and sounds like her, but I can’t find the source for this quote, which floats around the Internet a lot, so it may apocryphal. But I love it, so here it is:
We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality.
3. Ursula K. Le Guin, from The Wave in the Mind:
People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.
That’s what I came up with. Tell me: what did I miss?
I’m back in Brooklyn after a week in England, specifically Oxford and the Cotswolds (which are some leafy hills near Oxford).
I’m not going to lie to you: I like England. It has taken me a long time to admit this fact. That’s partly because I didn’t want to be one-of-those-American-Anglophiles who is always pretending to be vaguely English, and partly because my mom actually is English, and she kind of hates England.
She went to Oxford in the fifties and was given so much shit there for being a) really poor and b) a really clever woman that she left England forever right after college. We went back a couple of times, to see relatives, but my mom’s antipathy toward the place of her birth was shall we say pretty pervasive. And she had some pretty good reasons.
I speak in public a lot, which is a weird thing for a person with as much social anxiety as I have to do. I mean, I can barely speak in private.
But if you’re going to be a writer in the present century you pretty much have to do it. And the truth is, after hating it and fucking it up 10,000 times – and many of the people reading this blog have probably seen me fuck it up in person — I’ve actually started to like speaking in public. A few weeks ago I interviewed Ray Kurzweil at SXSW, and I figured it would be in some dinky hotel conference room named after some 19th Century sailing vessel, but it turned out to be in an auditorium that sat 3,200 people. And it was mostly full.
And the funny thing is, I think it went fine. I’m pretty sure my head didn’t explode, and that I spoke in English most of the time. (Ray was, as usual, brilliant.) Afterwards going back up to the green room Al Gore was in the same elevator as us, so that’s mostly what I remember about the whole thing. But I’m pretty sure it went OK.
So since I’ve thought about it a lot, I’m going to pass along the lessons that I have so painfully learned in the form of this guide to Public Speaking … the Lev Grossman Way!
Lesson 1: Ignore your autonomic nervous system. At this point I’m so used to my heart racing and my palms sweating during an event, it doesn’t even freak me out anymore. I expect it and let it run its course and know it for the atavistic evolutionary response that it is. I don’t worry about it. In fact if that ever doesn’t happen when I’m in front of an audience, call 911.
Lesson 2: Wear something you like. It’s sort of like the broken-windows policy: if you think you look OK, you may actually start to feel OK.
Lesson 3: Do not, repeat not, look at people’s faces. When I’m speaking I look at the aisles and the doors and the lights and the back wall, but not the people. This is because when people are listening to you speak, they tend to look weird. It’s just a fact. I do this too: you feel like the speaker can’t see you, so you’re free to let your face be totally blank and expressionless. But when the speaker sees that, they think they’re absolutely dying on stage. I try not to read too much into it. At readings people tend to look the same when they’re bored as when they’re totally fascinated. The only way to find out if anybody’s actually paying attention out there is to make a joke. If nobody laughs, yep, you’re dying.
Lesson 4: Massively over-prepare. Unless you’re superhuman, if you want to speak coherently in front of a crowd, without notes, then you have to run through your speech, like, a lot of times. More times than you’d think. It’s like drinking water before you go to bed after a big night out: just force yourself to do it. I don’t write things down, or memorize a specific wording for what I want to say, because then it comes out sounding robotic. But I do practice saying what I’m going to say, in different ways, over and over again.
Lesson 5: Either have a beer or don’t. I’ve tried it both ways. Rule of thumb, if I’m in a bar, and other people are drinking, I’ll have a beer. This may or may not make me a better speaker. But the point is: I like beer.
Lesson 6: Do be funny, if you can manage it. The secret here is, you don’t actually have to be super-funny when you’re speaking in public. Nobody expects you to be Jon Stewart. People are pessimistic; they don’t expect speakers to be funny at all, so a pretty small amount of funniness goes a surprisingly long way. Say the joke as un-nervously as possible, and you can almost psyche people into laughing. Just don’t go too far and laugh at your own joke. I’ve seen perfectly funny jokes be killed in broad daylight that way. Not pretty.
Lesson 7: Pretend you’re having a good time. This is an iron law. It doesn’t really feel like it, but when you’re speaking in public you are effectively throwing a party. You are the host of this particular social function, and it is your sworn duty to convince people that they didn’t make a horrific mistake by showing up. You have no choice: whatever your personal feelings or ideological beliefs are about smiling, you must smile, at least a little.
Lesson 8: Bail out early. If you’re going to err — and everybody errs — err on the side of reading or speaking too short. I don’t care if you’re John Milton him-bloody-self: Nobody wants to hear you read aloud from your work for half an hour. I think 12 minutes is about optimal. Time yourself before-hand. I read a printed page in about 3 minutes, but YMMV.
Step 9: Personally I don’t bother with that thing where you imagine everybody in the audience in their underwear. I don’t know about you, but I do that all the time anyway. It’s how I get through daily life.
If by some bizarre chance you live near Oxford, and you want to see these principles in action, I’ll be speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival on Friday night.
Next week: How to Make Love … the Lev Grossman Way!
I’ve been on leave from Time for a few weeks, hunkering down with the new book, or as far down as it has been possible for me to get. There are a couple of secret projects that keep cropping up and getting in the way of the hunkering.
And also there’s life. And children. And dentists. They get in the way a lot too. Plus I just got back from SXSW.
[Amy Billingham wrought this awesome graphic to accompany Julia in her progress through Suvudu’s Cage Match bracket.]
This won’t be a long post, as I’m not in a terrifically bloggy place just now. I’m writing, but worse than that I’m plotting, which personally I find to be the most brutal, rock-breaking part of this process.
People don’t talk about plotting that much, they mostly talk about writing, and don’t get me wrong, writing scares me. Pretty much everything scares me. But plotting, that is the serious shit. When you’re in the novel business, you’re not just in the business of saying things with words: you’re extruding the stuff of your unconscious in the form of a series of dramatic events, and that is just a weird thing to be doing. No maps for these territories.
Afterwards, when it’s done, you look at the book and you think, dude: of course, how could I not have seen that, what else did I think was going to happen? (I also think that about everybody else’s books, because of course it’s only mine that are difficult.) But for some reason you have to do it wrong in every possible way before it finally comes out right.
Assuming I don’t do any New Year’s Eve drunk-blogging. Not necessarily a safe assumption.
The end of the year finds me sicking out of work (for reasons of actual sickness) and reading The Golden Bough. Now I remember why in college I thought this book was the key to everything: because it is literally the key to everything. I mean, there’s actually a chapter called “Magicians as Kings.” Why did I not read that before I wrote The Magician King? I could have saved so much time.
[In case nobody flogged you through the annotations to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in college, The Golden Bough is an amazing work of 19th century comparative mythology that basically tried to organize and cross-reference all religions and myths everywhere, teasing out their shared patterns, much as the magicians did at Murs in The Magician King. A lot of modernist writers were influenced by it. By which I mean they stole from it with both hands.]
It’s full of throwaway gems — like this one from Chapter XXIV, “The Killing of the Divine King”:
In answer to the enquiries of Colonel Dodge, a North American Indian stated that the world was made by the Great Spirit. Being asked which Great Spirit he meant, the good one or the bad one, “Oh, neither of them,” replied he, “the Great Spirit that made the world is dead long ago. He could not possibly have lived as long as this.”
It goes on to provide what amounts to a practical guide to when and how to kill a god. And I’m just reading the one-volume version. I actually own the completely insane 12-volume version — I inherited it from my dad — but I think we all know I’m not ready for that.
I’m partly reading it as research for what I’m calling, at least for now, The Magician’s Land. (For background on this, read — and/or subscribe to! — the Brakebills Alumni Associaion Newsletter. We’re almost at 1,000 subscribers; thousandth subscriber wins…a subscription to The Brakebills Alumni Association Newsletter. And a Brakebills t-shirt.)
It also feels vaguely appropriate for the approach of New Year’s Eve — themes of death, renewal, ritual drunkenness, etc. NYE is the one holiday of the year that I wholeheartedly embrace. This is because I’m an atheist and not very comfortable with organized religion in general, plus I need an excuse to buy a scary-expensive bottle of vintage champagne and stay up all night drinking it.
I shouldn’t need an excuse for that, but I do.
p.s. Ever wondered what the deal is with vintage champagne? Here’s the deal. Most champagne producers try to maintain total consistency year over year: they blend grapes and vintages and tweak the results so that every bottle tastes exactly the same. That’s why your basic bottle of Veuve Clicquot never changes, year after year. But when there’s an especially awesome year, they’ll bottle a champagne made from grapes that are all from that year. Those champagnes are called “vintage,” and they have more markedly distinctive characteristics than non-vintage champagnes. #themoreyouknow #winepedant
p.p.s. Herewith, an archive of the Brakebills Alumni Newsletter. I have just figured out how to do this.
When I was in college I already knew I wanted to be a writer. After kicking around in my brain for a few years, that idea finally gelled for me one evening, with no warning, as I was crossing the street to get to the dining hall. I don’t know why, but that’s how it happened.
But I had a lot of funny ideas about what becoming a writer involved. There are a lot of practical things I wish people had told me back then, so I could have avoided the Trail of Tears that was the process of my actually getting published. But I also wish somebody had told me that I wasn’t the only one who had no idea what they were doing.
(This post was inspired in part by another, better essay by Jonath Lethem in The Ecstasy of Influence. Lethem went to Bennington, where his classmates included Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis.)
I went to Harvard, and there were in fact some future published writers in my year. Colson Whitehead was one. I think Ben Mezrich (who wrote the book The Social Network was based on, among other things) was in my class too, and possibly the poet Kevin Young? Unlike Lethem I didn’t know them, probably because Harvard is much larger than Bennington, and I am much smaller than Jonathan Lethem. (I did know my brother Austin, who is very much a published writer. There are probably other writers from my year who I’m forgetting or not-knowing about — sorry!)
As I said, I already knew at that point that I wanted to write novels. I wanted it very badly indeed. I was also pretty sure I never would.
Not that I wasn’t insufferably pretentious about my literary aspirations, mind you. I was! (People I knew in college, who sometimes comment here, can attest to that.) But I was also convinced that my work was crap, and would always be crap, because I had no talent.
There was some basis for this. There were other people in my year who also wanted to be writers, and they were producing some amazing stuff. Way better than my stuff. I still remember lines from their short stories. I was and am easily intimidated, and — through no fault of theirs — I was incredibly intimidated by these people. They were talented. They were confident. They were, for lack of a better word, glowy: they had that aura, the aura of genius in its youth, the aura of embryonic literary celebrity. I knew, to a certainty, that when we graduated and were weighed upon the great scales of the world, they would be blessed, and I would be damned. I would be the guy who appeared in the corner of the photograph in their biographies, making a weird face, who is denoted in the caption by “unidentified.”
And in the short term, that’s what happened. I didn’t win any prizes for my writing in college. (OK, sophomore year I came in second in a short story contest. That was it though.) I did get published in the campus literary magazine, but not before setting an unofficial record for rejected manuscripts first. When I graduated, I didn’t win any fellowships. I didn’t even get into any MFA programs. I didn’t publish a word of fiction for six years.
A rational being, assessing my chances of ever getting anywhere as a writer, would have assessed them as quite low.
The weird thing is, though, that I did eventually get somewhere. Because it turns out that talent, whatever that is, and that glowy aura, are only part of the picture. Once I graduated, other less glamrous skills came into play. Such as: the ability to stay focused on writing when nobody’s giving you encouragement. Related skill: the ability to fail to get a job that’s more interesting than working on your novel-in-progress (check, and double-check!)
Also: the ability to take a beating. I got a lot of rejections during those first, oh, dozen years or so. Enough that a more reasonable person would have given up. But for some reason my lizard hind-brain wasn’t going to let me quit. And after I spent a day/month/year sulking over those rejections, I actually looked at them and thought about why they weren’t acceptances, and fed the conclusions back into my working drafts. That turned out to be a very important skill. Not glamorous or fun, but absolutely necessary.
So what I wish someone had said to me in college was this: don’t let the world convince you that you can’t write. That may ultimately be true, who knows, but it’s way too early to tell. You’re playing the long game, and in the meantime don’t take any guff from those swine. Maybe you don’t look or act or talk like the chosen one. That’s all right. Because in the end writers aren’t chosen. You choose yourself.
I love this Locus roundtable about the accessibility or lack thereof of fantasy and science fiction. I love much of what is said in it, but I also love the mere fact that it exists. It’s amazing how much more self-aware and just interested-in-the-state-of-their-genre science fiction and fantasy writers are than literary writers.
It’s hard for me to imagine a similar public conversation nosubhealth.com happening among literary writers. There is a dearth of frank talk in the literary world.
A dearth, I say.
The roundtable as a whole is, like, a cascading concatenation of interesting remarks, but I’ll pull out this exchange (massively butchered for length), which is about why more SF doesn’t break out into the mainstream.
Quoth James Patrick Kelly:
“I think that at least part of the sag in popular acceptance of sf and thus its failure to break out has to do with our perception of the future. It doesn’t look like an adventure anymore, or at least not the shiny adventure that we were hoping for…a literature that purports to live in the future is bound to have some falling-off because of this.”
Whereat N.K. Jemisin said:
“Jim: Only if that literature fails to keep pace with the realism that readers seem to want from it. Again, I point to YA — the dystopian subgenre in YA is selling like hotcakes because it’s harsh and depressing, and because it doesn’t pull any punches with respect to workable economics and the un-shinyness of the future if we don’t change things. Something in that grimness speaks to the teenagers and young people who are growing up in the increasingly craptastic society we’re creating for them. Is it surprising that they need some kind of literary catharsis to deal with this mess? They need a space in which to imagine revolutions and solutions and coping mechanisms. They do not need “welp, no biggie, it’ll all get fixed somehow and in five hundred years we’ll be in spaaace!” handwaving. That’s not sensawunda, that’s naivete and denial, and if SF has nothing more to offer its readers than that then it deserves to fail.”
Which dovetails interestingly with some of the comments on last week’s “What is Fantasy About” post. Is it possible that the zeitgeist is looking at fantasy right now simply because fantasy is the genre that is offering hope?
That’s a bit glib, but you see what I’m saying.
In any case, I think this stuff is important. Fantasy and SF should break out into the mainstream. We shouldn’t just talk to each other. We can’t sit around and blame the mainstream if it doesn’t read us, it is incumbent upon us to talk to the mainstream in a language it can understand. And I truly believe that we can say what needs to be said in that language.
Now a non-update about the Magicians TV show: it’s going really well. I can’t say much of anything about it, but I had a conference call with the writers yesterday and, you know, wow. It’s going really well. TV moves fast — it’s not like movies where things stay in turnaround for years and years. If things keep on going well, there will be more updates, even better than this one, in the months to come.
I’m writing this from Miami, where I have come for the Miami Book Festival. Book touring brings me through Florida periodically, and I always have an excellent time there. But that has never been enough to erase my tragic associations with the Sunshine State, which stem from the time I came here when I was 8 and threw up on my grandmother’s white couch.
You don’t forget a thing like that.
I usually end up talking a lot about fantasy at events like this. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot, too, mostly in a desperate attempt to catch up with all the stuff I find myself saying about it.
Because I cross the border a lot between “literary fiction” and “fantasy” (just assume infinite recursive scare quotes around every word for the rest of this post) I often find myself having to try to explain fantasy to audiences of non-fantasy readers who have unexpectedly found themselves in a room with a dude who is reading to them about people casting spells. Once the reading is over, and they are given leave to speak, they sometimes ask me: what is the deal, yo, with this stuff you write about people casting spells and shit? I mean, my child/niece/sibling/spouse is into this shit, but I don’t get it.
That is a good question. It’s hard to put into words what the deal is with fantasy – to say, in a coherent way, what all this stuff is about.
Science fiction is different. It’s much easier to theorize, or at any rate it’s been much better-theorized. Science fiction has known preoccupations. With technology for example, and our interactions with it — are we becoming the tools of our tools, sort of thing. With contemporary socio-politico-economic trends, which can be exaggerated to form interesting possible futures. With the future itself, and myths of progress. With the Other, and contact with same.
Something is up with fantasy – I feel like the zeitgeist is taking an interest in it. Like the Great Lidless Eye of Sauron, the zeitgeist has turned away from the big science fiction franchises of the 1990s (Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix, The X-Files) and swung towards big fantasy franchises instead (Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Twilight, True Blood, Game of Thrones). [We’re generalizing glibly here, I know there are a lot of counterexamples (cough, Hunger Games, cough), and I do not repeat not want to get in a big wrangle over whether or not Twilight is fantasy — sorry. Just go with it for a bit.]