Decatur Book Festival: Fantasy and its practice

Marc Schultz -- September 5th, 2010

Clare Grossman and Lev Grossman

Cassandra Clare and Lev Grossman

We finished our time at the festival with two fantasy-centric novelists, speaking in venues separated by the length of the conference and by the general makeup of their audience. The first was Stephanie Meyers-approved YA author Cassandra Clare, whose three-volume Mortal Instruments series (published by McElderry) has reached bestseller status, spawning (among role playing games, graphic novels, and a proposed movie) a just-released prequel called A Clockwork Angel, the first in a trilogy. The second was Lev Grossman, book critic and technology writer for Time magazine, whose 2009 novel The Magicians (Plume) tells a Harry Potter-like story in the vein of a Jonathan Franzen (not incidentally, Grossman wrote Time‘s Franzen cover story).

Clare wisely spent just a few minutes reading from the upcoming fourth novel in the series (The City of Fallen Angels), giving the lion’s share of her time to take questions from a large audience eager to see, hear, and ask questions of an author who has undoubtedly taken up a major chunk of their brain-space; not only will the series ultimately span 9 books, but each one clocks in at 500 or more pages, involving a complicated, historically rich Victorian world populated by all manner of fantastical creatures (including, yes, vampires). Tellingly, it was the relationships among the characters, not the preponderance of demons and magic, that provoked most questions from the audience.

Asked about the inspiration for her various characters and situations, Clare cited everything from Jane Austen (she reads Pride & Prejudice “at least once a year”) to news stories (a married couple who discovered, while trying to have a baby, that they were brother and sister) to the Anglo-Chinese War to J-pop fashion magazines, where she first got the notion for popular series regular Magnus Bane, the fashion-forward High Warlock of Brooklyn.

Lev Grossman took a similar mix-and-match approach, to very different ends, with The Magicians: “I would sit at my desk with a copy of The Corrections on one side and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on the other,” the result being his popular and critically-acclaimed “YA fantasy novel for adults.” Grossman admits that he never quite got over his childhood obsession with fantasy novels, which provided “so primal an experience I found myself looking in every book I read for that kind of engagement.”

At 35, when he got around to reading work from Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, and Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, “it just annihilated me. I had no idea you could do things like that.” After that, he threw away what he had been working on for two years and began working on a story he had first conceived in 1996, about a teenager who goes to a school for magic—an idea that had since turned into the biggest publishing success story ever, for J.K. Rowling.

To push past the idea that Rowling had cornered the market on school-of-magic stories, Grossman first had to learn to listen to himself, rather than trying to figure out what other people would like: “You end up listening some kind of simulated version of what you expect your audience to be.” He thought, “It makes absolutely no sense to write a YA fantasy novel in the fashion of Jonathan Franzen, and yet is it what I must do.”

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