We all know the truth—geeks run the world. As a senior writer for TIME magazine, Lev Grossman has profiled some of the world’s most influential geeks, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. The protagonists of his novels The Magicians and now The Magician King are powerful geeks, too, but instead of utilizing technology, their tool is magic.
Here, Grossman tells us about the geek personality, his literary inspirations and the pitfalls inherent in seeking knowledge and power.
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Narnia—The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Magician’s Nephew, in particular—clearly influenced The Magician King. What does Narnia mean to you?
I must have been around eight when I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for the first time. The effect on me, well, it was extreme. Seismic. I was a melancholy little child, with somewhat distant parents, and this story about children wandering from an empty house without parents into a beautiful, magical world where their real destiny lay...it provided a story, and a structure, for all this inarticulate longing I had inside me. It gave me a story to tell about myself—a way to understand who I was.
Of course, I got completely the wrong message from the book. I was supposed to learn about goodness and bravery and self-sacrifice, and take those virtues back to my own life on Earth. But all I really learned was that Narnia was where it was at, and I was not in Narnia, and I had to do whatever it took to get there.
Julia is a fascinating object lesson in what it is like to not be the chosen one, to be left behind. Why did you feel so compelled to tell her story?
Julia is absolutely a Dursley in disguise! Though I had in mind Dudley Dursley, Harry Potter’s stepbrother—I always thought that if my little puke of a stepsibling got to go to Hogwarts, and I was left behind, I would be absolutely consumed with envy. I’m not convinced Rowling got the psychology there quite right.
I think everybody knows what it feels like to be the one who’s left behind or left out, to be the one who’s denied what everybody else is granted. I had only meant for Julia’s story to take up a chapter of the book, but once she had the stage, it turned out she had a great deal to say. I hit a deep, thick vein of sadness and bitterness with Julia.
Why doesn’t magic make people happy? If it doesn’t make people happy, why is it so obsessively pursued?
Magic is the thing that you think is going to solve all your problems. It’s the job you want to have, or the person you want to be with, or the house you want to live in, where you think that if you got them, all your problems would be finished. Done.
Except that that never quite turns out to be true. They’re great, sure, but they don’t solve all your problems, as much as they look like they’re going to. Once you have magic, you realize that your problems aren't going away, and that you’re going to have to face your demons, inside you, which nine times out of 10 is where the real problem is. And facing your demons is a hell of a lot harder than doing magic.
Quentin’s and Julia’s journeys toward power, and perhaps, self-actualization, involve heavy doses of selfishness and self-destructiveness—a hair’s breadth seems to separate them from Martin Chatwin, the villain of The Magicians. Why is that? The kind and well-meaning seem to fare even worse. Is it possible to successfully search for and wield advanced knowledge compassionately?
You’re absolutely right about Quentin and Julia and Martin. Martin is their shadow, the flip side of the coin in the magic trick. They’re just a 16th of an inch apart.
As for learning to wield knowledge compassionately, the story of The Magician King is really the answer to that question. In Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings the answer is easy—you smite evil till there's no evil left to smite.
But I think in the real world evil is less easy to spot—good and evil don’t come in absolutes, and you’re never sure what side everyone’s on, including yourself. The choices are a lot harder to make. That’s the world Quentin lives in.
Your fiction suggests that most geeks have poor social skills. Do you think that’s generally true?
I might disagree with that slightly. In my experience geeks—and I am one, and I’m from a whole family of them—have a different kind of social skills. They’re less comfortable with white lies and pat social formulas. They’re more used to saying what they’re thinking, and answering questions directly, and if they’ve got nothing to say, they shut up. That can come off as awkwardness, but the older I get the more comfortable I am with it.
The Magician King ends on a somewhat indeterminate note. Are you planning a third installment of Quentin’s adventures?
Yes. I’m calling it a trilogy. Two doesn’t seem like it would be enough. What is that, a bilogy? I’m saying three, and then we’ll see where we’re at. After all, Ursula Le Guin went back to Earthsea 20 years later.