The Magicians Trilogy Author Lev Grossman Explains His Cultural Influences

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photo by Patrick McMullan

The Magician’s Land, out today, concludes Lev Grossman’s realist fantasy series — sometimes described as “Harry Potter but with drugs” — about a group of 20-something magicians who find themselves in charge of a Narnia-like land. These are the books, movies, comics, and bands that inspired Grossman while writing the Magicians trilogy.

1. Watchmen
Watchmen came out when I was in high school, because I’m super old. What Alan Moore did in that comic was he brutally attacked the founding conventions of the superhero story. And the amazing thing was, rather than just demolishing the whole superhero mythos, he wound up writing the greatest superhero story that had ever been written. That was an important lesson for me: When you question the underlying functions of a genre, the genre gets better, not worse.

2. Myth: The Fallen Lords
Myth was a real-time strategy game made by Bungie, who were famous but got much more famous for making Halo. But it was a beautiful game — the first game I ever saw where the land actually looked like it had been sort of formed geologically. I must have spent months of my life playing it, and what I most remember about it is that sense of immersion, that sense of totally being swallowed up by a world.

3. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
I read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in May 2004, and if you were to look at the original time stamp on the first file in my hard drive when I was writing Magicians, it’s something like mid-June. So it had an immediate galvanizing effect on me. There was something going on in fantasy; people like Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin were doing interesting things with it that they’d never done before. And [Norrell] made me realize, Wow, that’s where it’s at.

4. Brideshead Revisited
People often say, “Oh, Brakebills is just like Hogwarts.” Brakebills is not like Hogwarts. Brakebills is based on Oxford in the 1920s, which is where the first half of Brideshead is set. I borrowed the whole structure of The Magicians from Waugh: the way that they progress from this innocent idyll at Oxford, with hints of impending darkness, to going out in the world and just getting totally wrecked by it.

5. The Chronicles of Narnia
When I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — I was 8, I’d sayit was the first time I understood what novels were for. I felt a special connection to it, probably, because it was my mom who gave me the books, and she’s English and she grew up in London. She was about the same age as Lucy Pevensie, and like the Pevensies, she was transported to the countryside to get away from the Blitz. (Although she claims that she was so naughty with the host family that she was sent to that they sent her back to London. Apparently, being bombed by Hitler was suitable punishment for whatever it was she did.) So, yeah, those books were so important to me — just the very idea that you could pass from this world into a world that was brighter and more magical and more fun and more important. Even at that point — I must’ve been a sort of gloomy 8-year-old — when I read it I felt like, yes, this can’t be it, this world I’m looking at all around me, there has to be something else. And when I read Narnia, I thought, yes, of course, there’s Narnia.

6. Harry Potter
Also not a big surprise. I started writing The Magicians in the gap between Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I felt like I was very connected to Harry’s story, but as someone who was 35, I was very aware of how far my life was from Harry’s. So writing The Magicians became, what if I rewrote the story and made the character older and made him American? I took away Dumbledore — I never had an avuncular advisor like Dumbledore. I took away Voldemort, and suddenly it becomes much more difficult to figure out who’s good and who’s evil. And even what magic is for. If magic’s not for destroying Voldemort, what is it for?

7. The Corrections
Franzen wrote in a close third person at a time when I felt like everyone was talking about voice and first person; he was funny in his prose; he was unafraid of deploying long, outlandish words, but he did it in a way that was very casual and, to my mind, unpretentious. I felt like I needed to recenter myself and raise my game in terms of my prose. And I would look at what Franzen did and be like, oh, that’s what’s possible, so I should shoot for that.

8. Larry Niven
Niven is best known as what they call a hard science-fiction writer. He wrote a book called Ringworld, which is just about a perfect novel, but what was really most important to me was a little strange fantasy series called The Warlock Stories. He really never stopped being a science-fiction writer when he wrote these stories. He still wanted to use magic very literally; he made it feel like you were in the room while the spells were being cast. People in fantasy often talk about fantasy systems — how did you make up your magic system? What were the rules for it? And the answer is that I watched the way Niven used his magic system.

9. Dungeons and Dragons
I played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons as a kid, and I found myself going back to the source books often to see how they worked things out. Their project was very similar in some ways to my project: They were taking these nifty fantasy, semi-abstract myths and trying to reduce them to a set of actuarial tables and probabilities. They couldn’t skim over details; they had to figure out how everything worked, what everything cost, what you’d need to cast each spell, how long it would take you to recover, and so on and so forth.

10. The Bourne Identity
I never read the books, but The Bourne Identity was a real revelation to me in the way that it depicted action. It did not have a ton of crazy jump-cutting; the music is pretty minimal. What you see is people fighting. When they fight, they get hurt. It’s not prettied up or glamorized.

11. Marcel Proust
Let me be clear: I have only read about one or two volumes of Proust (which is a hell of a lot of Proust). Fantasy novels tend not to be terribly concerned with characters’ interiors — that’s a terrible generalization, but I would say that as a genre, they’re sort of more interested in what’s going on outside than inside, certainly not to the extent that someone like Proust is. So one of the things that I thought would be fun in The Magicians would be to give these characters modernist-style interiors.

12. Metric 
I don’t always listen to music when I’m writing, but when I do listen to music, I listen to Metric. I don’t know why. There’s a lot of great things about it: It’s sort of poppy, but smart; and kind of melancholy, but not lugubrious. But whatever it is, it gets me into the same mood I want people to be in when they’re reading the book.

13. Soon I Will Be Invincible
I knew my brother [Austin Grossman] had been working on a book for a long, long time, but I hadn’t really seen what he was doing at all. And I was blown away by how good it was. The way that he took this source material, which was superhero stories, and turned it into a thing that was just this grand, funny tragedy was so wonderful, and I thought, Dammit … he’s got superheroes. I’ll never touch them ever. So what have I got? And that was around the time that I was reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and I realized, that’s what I’ve got.

14. American Gods
One of the challenges I had when I was writing The Magicians was kind of negotiating between England and America. I was writing fantasy, and I was writing in a particularly English mode — in the C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling tradition, which is distinct from the epic fantasy that Tolkien does or George R.R. Martin does. One thing that was helpful was watching Gaiman try it first. Gaiman was English, but doing this thought experiment: What if you transplanted it to America? What would it look like? It wouldn’t grow the same way. It would come out this weird, twisted kind of route.

15. Game of Thrones
People who watch the show may not realize how long George R.R. Martin has been writing Game of Thrones novels. So I was very much under his spell as I was writing The Magicians. I learned a lot from watching him work, and I learned a lot from his willingness to kill characters. I pretended that he was my Dumbledore, that he was my mentor. And now I know him! I’ve gotten to know him personally and I really like him; he’s a lot like what I wanted him to be.

16. A Wizard of Earthsea
This is Ursula Le Guin’s novel about the education of a sorcerer, and a couple chapters of it take place on this island, Roke, where there’s a school for magic. It’s a great school for magic. You just want to reread those chapters over again so you can stay there. I thought well, what if you did a whole book like that? Because that’s what I felt like I wanted. I wanted a whole book set on Roke.

17. The Once and Future King
I feel like all these books I want to say “yes, this is the key, this is the one.” But it’s wrong wrong for me to say that I was influenced by The Once and Future King. I wanted to write The Once and Future King and it had already been written, so I sort of went off and did something different, but I was trying to do the same thing. I was trying to recast a fantasy novel in the thought of a realist novel, and that’s what he did.

Lev Grossman Explains His Cultural Influences