Novelist and Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman was in a dark place. It was 2004, and it had been two years since the most recent Harry Potter book had come out.
"It was a difficult time for all of us," he remembers. "And I started playing with the story in that [waiting period] in almost a fan fiction-y way."
The result would become The Magicians, his New York Times best-selling fantasy series. The Magicians has been described as "Harry Potter for adults," or as George R.R. Martin said, "The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea." In his interview with host Ophira Eisenberg on the Ask Me Another stage, Grossman describes the decade he has spent with his magical characters, and why he's ready to move on. His third and last installment of the series, recently published, is The Magician's Land.
Grossman may be a magic expert, but is he a pinball wizard? His Ask Me Another Challenge takes us on a trip to the arcade. Get ready to relive your awkward teenage years as we play sounds from classic video games.
On working autobiographical details into a fantasy series
I thought a lot about what it would be like once you got out of a school for magic. You would no longer have your avuncular adviser — there'd be no sort of Dumbledore or Gandalf. Nobody's gonna say, 'Here's this ring. Things are very bad. But here's this ring, there's a volcano over there, take the ring, put it in the volcano, and everything's going to be fine.' There was nobody, there was nobody who would say that ... no direction at all, and you just had to figure out what volcano to put your ring in, and no one would tell you and you never knew afterwards was it the right one. I felt very lost and unadvised, and so it becomes much more a story about people trying to figure out not so much we're gonna use the magic and defeat evil; it becomes much more about trying to figure out what is magic for.
Why our culture is obsessed with fantasy
Around the turn of the millennium ... the great pop culture Eye of Sauron turned and looked at magic and became interested. I feel like it's really an expression of disillusionment. I think we went through a phase where we thought technology was the same thing as progress ... and over a long period of time it just meant we got a lot of email from Nigeria and it wasn't enough for us. ... We started looking for answers elsewhere, and I think we turned to magic.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR and WNYC's hour of trivia, puzzles and word games. I'm Ophira Eisenberg and please welcome our VIP - The New York Times best-selling author Lev Grossman.
EISENBERG: Thank you so much for joining us. Have you ever been on a game show before?
LEV GROSSMAN: Never been on a game show, no.
GROSSMAN: First game show.
EISENBERG: Yeah, how does it feel?
GROSSMAN: It feels just utterly terrifying. It's like...
GROSSMAN: My body is falling apart even while I'm standing here. It's weird, it's an odd feeling.
EISENBERG: I understand. However, I feel like you do something - this is not difficult - you do something that's much more difficult, like, you've currently finished a trilogy. How does it feel to be done?
GROSSMAN: It feels good.
GROSSMAN: It feels great. I feel really proud. It took me five years to write the first one. So now we're coming up - we've actually passed a full decade that I've spent kind of thinking about these characters. I'm really ready to be done with them.
EISENBERG: It's time to walk away.
GROSSMAN: Yeah, I'm just going to put the characters down and walk away, yeah.
EISENBERG: If some of our listeners have not read this New York Times best-selling author's work "The Magicians," it has been described as "Harry Potter" for adults, or I like that George R. R. Martin said that "The Magicians" is to "Harry Potter" as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea.
GROSSMAN: He's an eloquent man...
EISENBERG: Yeah, very.
GROSSMAN: ...This George, yeah.
EISENBERG: But how do you feel about the comparison to your books to "Harry Potter?"
GROSSMAN: Oh, I love it.
EISENBERG: Yeah, you like...
GROSSMAN: I'm a huge "Harry Potter" fan. I'm a massive "Harry Potter" fan. And really, you know, there was a dark time, I think we - many of us can remember it. It was in 2004, I think. It was in that deep trough between "Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix" and "Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince," right? Two years that we all - it was a real - it was a difficult time for all of us. And I really - I started playing with the story in that time and that kind of - almost a fanfictiony way, just to see, you know, I'm going to rewrite the story and sort of think about ways that it could be kind of more like my life.
EISENBERG: So it is autobiographical? There's...
GROSSMAN: In many respects, yeah.
EISENBERG: Even though it's fantasy.
EISENBERG: So these are, you know, these are college students that are going to - that's why they say "Harry Potter" for adults because they are basically Magic University of sorts and they - I've read they're outsiders, they're depressed, they have a lot of kind of characteristics of what I was like, that I related to those feelings when went to university, trying to find my way. Are you saying that was - what's the autobiographical part?
GROSSMAN: You know, a lot of the stories about them after they graduate, you know, I thought a lot about what it would be like once you've gone out of a school for magic. You know, you would no longer have your avuncular advisor. There'd be no sort of Dumbledore or Gandalf. Nobody's going to say, you know, here's this ring - things are very bad - but here's this ring, there's a volcano over there. Take the ring, put it in the volcano and everything's going to be fine. There was nobody. There was nobody who would say that.
EISENBERG: No direction.
GROSSMAN: There was no direction at all. And you just had to figure out what volcano to put your ring and no one would tell you. And you never knew afterwards was it the right one? I felt very lost and unadvised. And, you know, so it becomes much more a story about people trying to figure out, not so much, you know, we're going to use the magic and defeat evil, it becomes much more about trying to find out what is magic for?
EISENBERG: You know, there's so much - I love fantasy because it's escapism, that's how it speaks to me. But it also sort of deals with, I guess, a lot of problems and issues without the confines of reality. But why do you think fantasy is so prevalent right now? Why is our culture obsessed with it? I mean, we are just all about magic and vampires, you know, and monsters and space. Like we - this is all of television that people are consuming.
GROSSMAN: It's true. Something weird happened, I feel like around the turn of the millennium, where we went from this super science fiction dominated pop-culture with "Star Wars and "Star Trek" and "X-Files" and "The Matrix." And then "Harry Potter" came in and "Lord Of The Rings" came in and "Twilight" came in and then the "Narnia" movies. And suddenly, yeah, the great sort pop-culture eye of Sauron turned and looked at magic and became interested in magic. I feel like, you know, I feel like it's really an expression of disillusionment. I think we went through a long phase where we thought technology was the same thing as progress. Technology would make our lives better, it would solve our problems. And I think that over a long period of time, it just really meant that we got a lot of email from Nigeria.
EISENBERG: Totally, exactly.
GROSSMAN: It wasn't enough for us. We wanted it to be enough and it wasn't. And we started looking for answers elsewhere, and I think we turned to magic.
EISENBERG: Oh yeah, I like that, OK. Well, Lev, we know that you are very smart and your books are filled with some genius ideas in them. So we know we had to do something really special when you were on our show. And we also had to find you a very worthy opponent. So luckily we did both. Let's first meet your opponent, Michael Sweiven.
EISENBERG: Michael, you are a high school teacher - history high school teacher.
MICHAEL SWEIVEN: Correct.
EISENBERG: Thank you for keeping the past alive.
EISENBERG: What is your arcade game of choice?
SWEIVEN: When I was a kid, my mom, for my birthday, rented me the standing arcade version of "Pengo." And that became my love - other than my wife, Kendra (ph) now. "Pengo." I'm happy to say I'm the, I think, New York City record-holder - I mean, at this bar that keeps it.
SWEIVEN: But the world record-holder is this guy from Australia from the early '80s, or at least until recently, I think. But he disappeared after he set the record. And he couldn't handle the adulation.
SWEIVEN: He's like the Thomas Pynchon of "Pengo."
JOHN FLANSBURGH: He's probably like "Tron." He probably went into the game.
EISENBERG: That's right, he's part of the game. You are now playing him when you play. How about you, Lev? Do you have a favorite arcade game?
GROSSMAN: Wow. I really loved "Centipede." "Centipede..."
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah, sure.
GROSSMAN: ...The Trackball - it was an early trackball game. Spent a lot of time with "Centipede," yeah.
EISENBERG: OK good because in this quiz we are going back to the gentle days of Atari and "Pong" to test how well you and Michael can recall the sounds of some classic video games.
EISENBERG: So no joysticks, but you have your buzzers. So get ready to relive your awkward teenage years, or maybe in Michael's case, quite a recent time.
EISENBERG: All right. This is one of the many taunts you'll hear when playing what arcade game, which is one of the first to include synthesized speech?
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
GROSSMAN: Is that "Berzerk"?
EISENBERG: Yes it is.
SWEIVEN: That's Evil Otto?
GROSSMAN: My brother would've made me pay if I missed that one.
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah?
GROSSMAN: Yeah, yeah.
EISENBERG: Now it sounds like an angry Siri or something like that, right? It's just like we don't hear that. That was supposed to be the future. This is a sound effect from what Activision game for the Atari 2600?
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "PITFALL")
EISENBERG: You're swinging from a vine, if I remember right.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
GROSSMAN: "Pitfall," yeah.
EISENBERG: Yes, pitfall. Yes, exactly. This cheerful tune was probably stuck in your head after playing hours and hours of what game?
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
EISENBERG: Michael says "Tetris." And that is correct.
EISENBERG: You needed to work together with your friends to play this Dungeons And Dragons -esque arcade game, otherwise you'd hear this...
UNIDENTIFIED VIDEO GAME CHARACTER: Someone shot the food.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
EISENBERG: Michael is just dominating.
GROSSMAN: I trained for this. I will say, in my defense, that "Magicians" is one of a few works in the literary canon to contain an actual "Gauntlet" joke - bona fide "Gauntlet" joke - wizard needs food badly.
EISENBERG: Wizard needs food badly?
GROSSMAN: When someone says that totally out of context, it kind makes no sense. But I had to put it in there.
EISENBERG: It's one of my favorites. This was a theme to what surreal arcade game?
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "BURGER TIME")
EISENBERG: There was food chasing you.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
GROSSMAN: "Burger Time?"
EISENBERG: "Burger Time," yes.
EISENBERG: Did you ever play that?
GROSSMAN: I think I watched a lot - I watched - it was too intimidating - I watched people play it. I didn't have the guts to put the quarter in myself.
EISENBERG: It was, like, a fried egg and...
EISENBERG: ...A hot dog...
EISENBERG: ...And a pickle chasing you - Kale, some couscous. That should be an updated game - Vegan Time. All right, this...
EISENBERG: ...This your last clue. This is the theme to an Atari 2600 video game based on a rock group. Your mission was to guide the five members of the band past sneaky photographers and lovesick groupies and shifty promoters to reach their spaceship, naturally. So name the band.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN")
GROSSMAN: Is it Journey?
EISENBERG: That is Journey. Yes it's Journey.
SWEIVEN: Nice job.
FLANSBURGH: And that is our game.
EISENBERG: I never stopped believing.
EISENBERG: John, how did our contestant - our VIP and our special opponent - do?
FLANSBURGH: I have been informed by the judges that they are both winners.
EISENBERG: They're both winners?
EISENBERG: Thank you guys so much for playing. Thank you so much, Michael.
SWEIVEN: Thank you.
EISENBERG: And our VIP Lev Grossman.
EISENBERG: And now, please welcome back our musical guest, Julian Velard.
JULIAN VELARD: I'm going to play you guys a song that I actually wrote for my fiance. And it is called "No One's Getting Married Tonight."
VELARD: (Singing) Baby look at the sky. I can see the bridge from here, our future's never been so clear. The clock is counting the reasons why you should leave me on the brink, with a lifetime left to think about this city and all its people, walking around parks 'til the day they die. Don't make me one of them. I guarantee I'll give this love a try. Here's what I think. Let's go and get drunk with all my friends. Make sure the evening ends with making out in the back of every cab. I don't care where we wake up, if you swear you stay with me and no one's getting married tonight. No girl in this bar looks better than you. No matter what they do, they can say let's have a three-way. No, the only two things that are true is that you're leaving with me and no one's getting married tonight.
EISENBERG: Julian Velard.
VELARD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.