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Lev Grossman aims to upgrade fantasy's profile with "The Magicians"

Time magazine book reviewer and technology writer Lev Grossman is painfully aware that the literary world views fantasy with skeptical eyes.

Magicians ``George R.R. Martin writes the series A Song of Ice and Fire, and every time a volume comes out, it's atop the bestseller list,'' he says. ``And the people who are part of the reviewing world act as if it doesn't exist, as if that aisle of the bookstore was invisible -- even after Harry Potter.''

With his bestselling novel The Magicians (Plume, $16 in paper), however, Grossman -- who appears Friday at Books & Books in Coral Gables -- has made impressive strides toward changing that assessment. The book combines the giddy appeal of magic with more prosaic -- but no less important -- lessons of growing up. The story focuses on Quentin Coldwater, a surly math whiz recruited by a secret magical college. Obsessed all his life by a series of novels about a Narnia-like land called Fillory, the hard-partying Quentin learns that his powers can take him there. They can't, however, keep the journey from becoming a nightmare.

Grossman, also author of the thriller Codex, is at work on a sequel, due in 2011. Maybe The Magician King will further open doors for fantasy's respectability.

``You look around at the literary landscape, and you see some science fiction getting canonized. You see Philip K. Dick in Modern Library and William Gibson in a lot of syllabi. You see detective fiction there as well. But fantasy still remains culturally radioactive. That attracted me to it as a writer. Here's an opportunity to write in a genre that's not getting its due. In a funny way, that gives you room to run.''

Q: So are you a huge fan of The Chronicles of Narnia?

A: ``Fan'' is close to an understatement. Reading the Narnia books was one of my earliest and most intense reading experiences. I must have been about 8, as near as I can reconstruct. There's archival footage of me putting on a puppet show of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for neighborhood children. My daughter is 6, and I'm trying to get her into it, but it may be a little early. I grew up reading fantasy -- T.H. White, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey, Piers Anthony. . . . That was the experience that taught me about reading and what novels were. It's still kind of my first language.

Grossman Q: Did you worry about the inevitable comparisons to the Harry Potter books?

A: I wrote the first couple of chapters in '96, the year before Harry Potter came out, but what I had in the back of my mind was Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. I loved that book. I wanted to play in a world like that. When I took it up again in 2004, Harry Potter was out there, and I had read the books multiple times. But there's a funny thing that takes over a writer. You do think things are coming out of your soul that are totally original, but you're being influenced by what you read.

Q: The Magicians is clearly a fantasy, but a lot of it is grounded in reality. These college kids wield magical powers, but they also have sex, drink and take drugs. Why was that reality important in this story?

A: I love the Narnia books and so much young-adult fantasy. But I wanted to write a story like that for adults that didn't airbrush out the things you learn as an adult. I wanted to see if you could write a story about people coming into their magical powers and discovering other worlds and not have it be for kids. I was writing it during a difficult time for me personally, and I was aware of the dark shadows that lurk around you when you're a kid. I thought, ``What if I write a story like this and let those shadows in?''

Codex Q: One of the hyper-real things about the book is Quentin. He's kind of a jerk sometimes; you tend to want to smack him. Do you see him as an antihero?

A: ``Antihero'' sounds too noble for Quentin. He's painfully naive and painfully un-grownup. I think I took some risks with making him unlikeable. Sometimes he's really very much what I was like when I was a teenager. I wanted the book to feel very real. I didn't want to sacrifice that stuff to make him more of a fun guy. He's always paying attention to the wrong things -- like himself! -- when what he should be paying attention to is other people. I just kept thinking, ``What would it be like if you finally got to Narnia, but you were having a huge fight with your girlfriend?'' It would color the whole experience.

Q: With fantasy books cracking the bestseller lists, do you think the genre will eventually escape the literary ghetto?

A: It's an interesting time for fantasy. In the 20th century, science fiction was the genre of the moment, with Star Wars and Star Trek and the craze for them that lasted through the '70s, '80s and '90s. I fully participated in that. Then a funny thing happened at the turn of millennium with the frenzy over Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings movies. The wind shifted, and suddenly it was fantasy that was answering people's needs in a way nothing else could. There was an explosion of creativity with writers like Neil Gaiman and Susannah Clarke. When I read her Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in 2004, that's the year I really started working on The Magicians. That's not a coincidence.


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