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The bestselling author of The Magicians discusses Harry Potter, fandom, and how he tries to turn down the trolls.
Bestselling author of literary fantasy hybrid The Magicians and its sequel The Magician King, Lev Grossman is a prominent journalist for Time magazine.
He also doubles as a humongous Harry Potter fan.
Many consider Grossman’s 2011 cover story on the Potter fandom for Time to be the seminal explanation of modern fandom and defense of fanwork as a creative force. In “How Harry Potter Became the Boy Who Lived Forever,” Grossman thoroughly dismantles every typical accusation that people throw at fandom: fanfiction writers are plagiarists, they’re not original, and if they were really serious, they’d be real writers.
“Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker,” he wrote. “They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about.”
Last week the Daily Dot caught up with Grossman at Ascendio, the Harry Potter fan convention in Orlando, Fla., to which Grossman brought his daughter Lily. What started out as a quick interview turned into a fascinating hour-long conversation about magic, Harry Potter, and fandom in the age of new media.
Daily Dot: You named your daughter Lily. Was that in homage to Harry Potter?
“Definitely in part. I mean when you’re naming kids, a lot of things get folded in, but of course now she’s obsessed with Luna.
DD: The girl that plays Luna [Evanna Lynch] is a huge Harry Potter fan. That’s a good example of the fan-creator overlap.
“You see it more and more, this kind of play across this line that was in the past much firmer.
DD: Have people gotten more accepting as time has gone on of your dual role in that sense?
“I think so. The book was perceived as coming from outside the fandom, from this guy. Who the hell is he? There was a great deal of justifiable suspicion towards my intentions.
DD: Was that coming from inside the publishing community?
“There were some moments. It wasn’t published by a genre press; it was published by Viking, and in the publishing world, it makes it look a little bit different. It didn’t look like a fantasy book. It didn’t smell right in some ways. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell came out in 2004, and I remember looking at that book and thinking: Wow, that’s special; that’s a fantasy book that’s delivering high lit and it somehow looks like both. I want my book to look just like that!
“It’s something I’ve been aware of my whole life ‘cause I’ve been heavily into the reading side of things, but I was very solitary as a kid and had a lot of anxiety, and I was never part of the fan community. I don’t think I was part of any communities. So I was always aware of being into this stuff and feeling a part of this culture, but not as being regarded as part of it.
“One of the things that made a big difference is Twitter. [Before], there was no way to make myself visible to people in fandom. And I feel like once people meet me, everything gets easier.”
DD: To me, even though you may not be a part of fandom, The Magicians is a part of fandom. The Magicians is a meta-commentary.
“That’s where that stuff came from, but books are just weird things, you know? It’s possible to read them in so many ways. I can’t count the number of times I’ve come across someone blogging about the book and saying, ‘This person hates Harry Potter fans, therefore I hate him.’ It’s enough to make you weep.”
DD: I’d’ve never have gotten that from The Magicians.
“If you go in believing that, I think it’s possible to come out believing that, and it’s sort of painful. It doesn’t take much criticism to tip me over in a state of total despair and self-loathing. It’s very hard not to over-focus on one or two very loud, negative voices,and just decide I am never going to write another word again for the rest of my life. It’s hard, because you really don’t want to just shut those voices out, but it’s strange, because they have no context.
“Someone will tweet at me and they’ll tell me I’m a terrible person and they hated my books and I should just fuck off. And, you know, they’re probably some trolling 11-year-old, but you have no way of knowing; their voice sounds very loud to you, very authoritative, and maybe I should fuck off! That’s probably Neil Gaiman on the other end of that telling me to fuck off, and I really should.”
DD: Using a sockpuppet.
“Yeah, I know, he does that all the time! So it’s very hard to sort of put those voices in their place, which is not nowhere, but not louder and bigger than they ought to be.”
DD: But the right to talk back, as fan or a critic, is ingrained.
“Yeah. The arrow used to only point one way, and that would be the end of the line, and now it recirculates. This strange sort of ecology around any creative work. And it’s amazing, but it’s very different from what we had in the past.”
DD: The Magicians lives in that mode of responding and creating things new.
“I initially thought about it more in the sense of high culture —things like Wide Sargasso Sea, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. A different frame is put around them. I don’t think they are fundamentally different from fanfiction. It’s so funny, there’s a particular year—Wide Sargasso Sea, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern came out in the same year, like ‘66 or ‘67—which was just when Star Trek fanfiction was getting started as well, and it’s just crazy to think of that event happening at the same time. Something was happening in the culture, I think, that was making people feel like, wait, maybe authors are not gods before whom we have to bow down.
“And so much of what I did in The Magicians I found elsewhere in fanfiction; in fact there’s very little of what I did in The Magicians that doesn’t exist somewhere in the infinite multi-verses of fanfiction.”
DD: At some point it must have crossed your mind that you wanted to write a book that, like Harry Potter, explored themes of magic but with someone who had grown up in the world and had the cynicism of our generation.
“I thought a lot about why people might become magicians and what might sort of drive them to it. Magic in The Magicians‘ universe is a very physically and mentally demanding thing to learn. You really have to be kind of obsessed, and kind of driven and compulsive, and kind of not have a life if you really want to master it in any serious way. Everybody in The Magicians books in some way or another is alienated or cut off from the world, and magic is one of the ways they try to change that.”
DD: It’s a metaphor for how fans connect to the world around them. There’s that wonderful moment when Quentin has physically escaped his location, and as a goose he lets out this honk! It’s a fanboy cry.
“Yeah—it’s funny—and then he becomes human again and it fades away, and he can sort of vaguely remember that feeling. It’s kind of like going to a con, I guess, in a way. You go and everybody’s there and you’re talking to people and everyone understands each other, and then it ends and everyone goes their separate ways and you’re sort of pushed back out into the world.”
DD: You still have a successful career with Time. Was there some point at which the priorities shifted for you towards being a journalist versus being a creative writer?
“To be completely honest, I was never that interested in being a journalist. When I went to work for Time I was a Web producer for them. I was interesting in writing, and I was frankly better at writing than I was at managing people. So I sort of backed into writing journalism, but all I ever did was go home and write fiction. Writing criticism is great, and important, and you get health benefits. But that’s never been where it was at for me.”
DD: Is there any possibility on the horizon for a film of The Magicians, the trilogy?
“Yes. Funnily enough, all the interest has been from TV. An hour-long drama, multiple series. We walked right up to the edge of actually casting people, and then everything fell apart, which I understand happens quite a bit in Hollywood. But then I liked the pilot so much that we went around to other networks. We’ve actually gone fairly far with one network, and I shouldn’t name it because everything’s so delicate. But the project is still alive. There are so many scenes that I would just love to see. It’s like Game of Thrones, but so much cheaper because there’s no horses.”
Photo via LevGrossman.com
Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.