So anyway, I wrote a book called The Magicians. I’ve been trying to decide whether or not to post about it, because it seems weird to do it, and it seems weird to ignore it. But since the book is out this week, and I’m a whore for publicity, I figure I might as well do one post. What’s the worst that could happen?
I started The Magicians in 1996. I was a grad student at Yale, and I was supposed to be studying for my orals. It was going to be a novel about the education of a young wizard, which at the time seemed like an incredibly fresh and original premise, only slightly borrowed from Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. I wrote a couple of scenes and then stuck the files in a back corner of my hard drive. Years passed.
Then in 2004 I was having an early-to-mid-life crisis and started working on it again. I’d just read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and realized that there was something going on with fantasy that I had try for myself. In retrospect it seems weird that after having spent my whole life reading fantasy I had only just gotten around to writing it. Probably I just didn’t feel confident enough. But now suddenly the whole story just started pouring out. It was like I’d been writing in a second language up till then, and suddenly I was writing something in my mother tongue.
Of course it wasn’t so easy anymore to write about a young wizard going to a school for magic. What with Harry Potter and all. I had to figure out what was left for me to say about the education of a magician. Which I didn’t find until I started looking at the story as an adult would. Suddenly I become aware of everything that Rowling, as a YA author, chose not to deal with. And once you start seeing that, the story completely transforms.
For example: I never understand why Harry wasn’t a big reader. If I grew up in a closet under the stairs, surrounded by my abusive step-family, I would have been obsessed with fantasies about power and escape and magic. I mean, I was anyway, but I would have been even more obsessed with them.
So Quentin (that’s the hero’s name, Faulknerianly enough) is an obsessive fan of a sort of Narnia-esque fantasy series called Fillory and Further. (Which doesn’t really exist, though we made a couple of fake fansites for it.) So when Quentin actually does get admitted to a school for magic, he sees everything through the lens of what he’s read. He has all kinds of ideas about what magic is going to be like, and what his life is going to be like. Which needless to say all turn out to be wrong. (Plus there’s some secret stuff about Fillory which comes to light later in the book … )
Also for example: in The Magicians, there’s no Voldemort. There’s no Sauron. There’s conflict and fighting and spell-casting and such, but there’s no big personification of evil there, to organize the universe into good and bad. Once you take that out of the equation, you’re left with a very different kind of story. It’s not about using your magic to defeat evil. It’s about trying to figure out what the hell magic is for.