Lev and Austin Grossman aren’t simply two novelists who share an (admittedly common) last name. In addition to both being successful writers, they happen to be identical twins. And their profession of choice? It’s shared by both their parents—Allen Grossman, an acclaimed poet (who died last month), and Judith Grossman, a novelist. Their sister is the outlier: She sculpts.
This gathering of creative talent made me wonder: How much of our creative ability is genetically determined, and how much is just a matter of happenstance? To try to get an answer, I spoke with the twins last week—the first time the two of them have ever been interviewed together.
As we sat at a West Village café, Lev and Austin interviewed each other as much as I interviewed them, a fraternal back-and-forth that both reinforced and countered my notions of what a brotherly creative duo should be. Our discussion ranged from last week’s release of Lev’s The Magicians Land—the conclusion of his best-selling “Magicians” trilogy—to the influence of the twins’ own magician-like father, to their family roots in a Prussian shtetl, to the effect of cell phones on the writing life. Below is a condensed and edited version of the conversation.
While I was waiting for you, I was reading your [Lev’s] essay on the time you spent in Maine after college. For an identical twin, the isolation must be especially hard. I mean, you two even went to college together.
Lev Grossman: We’re not the inseparable kind of twins. We’ve spent most of our lives since college living far apart.
Austin Grossman: Twins also have a lot of pressure to differentiate, to distinguish oneself.
So was that part of your decision to go to Maine? You wanted to isolate yourself from everyone?
LG: There’s something to that. I wanted to establish a freestanding identity unconnected to anyone else, which turned out to be impossible, of course. But it was an ideal that I for some reason pursued after college.
AG: I did something similar in a sense. After college, I went to work at a video-game company, a thing no one else was doing. A whole different set of friends, a whole different set of intellectual concerns. It was a break of sorts.
LG: But you always had friends. I feel like you always had friends. There was a community around you always.
AG: I wasn't disliked. But there was less of a community, actually, when I went to get my master’s at NYU. I didn’t really hang with anyone there.
LG: I forgot you did that.
AG: I forget too, sometimes.
Austin, you’re A.B.D. at Berkeley. And Lev, you were at Yale for graduate school. Did you study the same thing across the board?
AG: There was a characteristic difference. You studied the moderns, the 20th century. I studied the Victorian nineteenth century, the Romantics.
LG: I never could read a Victorian. Whereas you have an unlimited appetite for it.
AG: Not so much the novels. The poetry.
LG: We agree about that. I like Tennyson. And Browning. I can’t think of any other 19th-century poets.
AG: There’s William Morris. “[The Defence of] Guenevere.” He has a super-violent poem about a medieval battle.
LG: Oh, he’s terrible. The only thing I’ve read is “The Wood Beyond the World.” But it’s not really readable
Well, your tastes may not align. But you’re both writers. And your entire family is creative. In your case, nature and nurture appear to be walking in lockstep. So what prompted your interest in writing?
LG: You read interviews with authors and they’re always saying, “I was five, and I was already telling stories and whatever.” That wasn’t me. I only got serious about writing my sophomore year of college. Because our parents are both writers, it was always prominent in the pull-down menu of possible careers. But at the same time, that was difficult, as well. The thing about growing up in a house full of creative people is, it’s a lot of very powerful voices in the house. And it can be really hard to hear your own voice in the middle of that.
AG: That’s how I think about it. Pa’s voice [Allen Grossman] is a voice to aspire to, to show you the possibilities of what a voice could be. But at the same time, in the way of fathers and sons, it was also a voice to survive against, to build something that could resist.
LG: But you list Pa as an influence, which I would never do. I haven’t read that much of his poetry. I’m really not that interested in poetry. Actually, I’m sure I’d be more interested in it if I were not the son of a poet. In this case, though, it was very much like poetry was Pa’s thing. I thought if I was going to figure out who I was, I had to set out and find somewhere else to be. His presence is so large for me in poetry that I still avoid it. It feels like there’s not enough oxygen in there.
AG: I always think of you as a more novelistic novelist than I am. I’m not predisposed to like poetry. I’m not the kind of person who thinks of poetry as charming or who says of something, “it’s like poetry,” as a turn of phrase. I like poetry, but if I like a poem, it’s earned its way to that liking. I write in the first person. I write novels that shape toward dramatic monologue. And my impulse to do that came out of my affinity for the dramatic monologues of Tennyson and Matthew Arnold. I would read any poem that begins with the pronoun “I.” I would get fascinated with that. But it’s mentally how I attack the question.
LG: It’s a notable difference. I’ve written five novels, all in the third person. I can’t do anything else. Austin’s written two, both in the first person.
AG: It’s a productive dissimilarity. If our books were similar, it would be kind of a drag, I have to say.
LG: But I think we influence each other.
AG: Oh, absolutely. There’s an affinity.
So if not writing, then what?
LG: I was so single-minded about it. In a badly obsessive way. I really had trouble letting it go once I decided. Success came very slowly. My first book was a failure. It didn’t sell any copies at all. I got $6,000 for that novel and I didn’t even make my advance back. It vanished without a trace. There would have been a lot of arguments for giving up. I didn’t start The Magicians until I was 35; it came out when I was 40. That was my first real bestseller. There was a bit in college when I thought I might be a scientist. I took Chem10 and did pretty well. But I realized I was getting to the edge of my math skills. But I really like the lab stuff.