The Twin Novelists

I tried publishing but I couldn’t stick at it. I tried for a job at The New Yorker, but I didn’t get it. It was a fact-checking job. I always think there’s another alternate timeline where I did get the job. Who knows what happened to that guy.

AG: I left full-time video-game design for a reason. Your world shrinks if you’re in that industry a bit too much. Then I started grad school at 31, in English Lit, and I really liked that too. And then I came back to literature. I really enjoyed literary studies, I really enjoyed game design, but writing novels is all sections of the brain lit up at once. It was clear that I was using all the faculties I seem to have. I’m skirting the word vocation, but there was something about it that confirmed me to me. It took me six years to write my first novel. It could have been six years of wasted time. But I felt like I had to write.

LG: It’s this feeling like, oh, this is what I’ve been getting ready for all this time.

I think it’s interesting that you’ve both chosen such similar themes in your fiction: elements of magic superimposed on a realistic landscape.

LG: That’s where I think about Pa’s influence a lot, in two ways. One, he was such a high-culture icon: vastly learned, patriarchal demeanor; wrote challenging, arcane verse. I feel as though I fled all the way to the supermarket aisle before I could find someplace I could feel comfortable being. And I ended up in fantasy in part because it was far from where he lived. I assume it must be the same for you.

AG: Let’s not forget that he read us The Hobbit aloud in its entirety, to his everlasting regret. I think that’s the first long book I remember. Do you remember that?

LG: Yes, of course. And he started The Once and Future King, but he got bored. Didn’t finish it. But for me, C.S. Lewis was much more of a thing. I was never a big Tolkien fan the way you were. It was much more The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe for me.

AG: Going back to Pa, I didn’t start writing until I was 31 or 32. I wrote bits in my 20s, but nothing serious. When I did write, it was to piss him off. I wrote the most ridiculous thing I could to show him that, hey, your son is an idiot.

LG: Did it work?

AG: No, not in the slightest.

LG: He wouldn’t even give you that. The other respect in which I think of our writing as coming out of our family is—I’m not sure how to put this exactly, but our books are fantasies of power. I mean, it’s not just that there’s magic in the world. It’s about people who have powers. It was a way of imagining being powerful in the way our parents were. It always annoyed me that Pa was so tall and big. I mean, he was six foot. And burly. And I thought, great, when I’m all grown up I’ll hit six foot. But I never became physically powerful the way he was.

AG: The name Grossman. One of our ancestors must have been physically big.

LG: Big or fat. Or here’s another possibility. I always thought it was a joke. Grossman in German means great man. When the Prussians moved into the shtetls and started registering everyone, the Jews didn’t have last names, so they had to be assigned last names by whoever was taking the census. And sometimes, they made jokes, which is why you get people whose name is Mauskopf—mouse head. Just something they would fill in. So I always pictured some peasant floundering in a pile of shit in a ditch, and they were like, yeah, Grossman. But Louis, Pa’s dad, he was really short.

AG: But he was a wrestler. He beat up a cop once. The cop made an anti-Semitic slur, and he picked him up and threw him across the room. And they took him to jail, and he said, call the mayor. Do you know who I am? And they let him out. They called him Louis the Lock.

What about on your mom’s side?

LG: Well, the writing definitely started with their generation. Our dad’s dad sold cars for a living. His wife was a homemaker. On Ma’s side, Victor, her dad, was a career soldier, and her mom did some secretarial work. They were both the first of their family to go to college.

AG: They were both black sheep. And no one knows where our sister came from, either. She was a math prodigy.

LG: She always said she ran further than we did. She looked for any medium that didn’t have any words at all, starting with math and computer science. And then, she wound up in sculpture.

AG: I stuck with video games until I was 30—I purposefully set up to not become a writer. It would be nice to do something different. I worked at becoming a non-writer. I’m a failed non-writer. But I would never have done my first novel if Lev hadn’t looked at the first few chapters.

LG: And I never would have written The Magicians if I hadn’t read those early chapters. I scrapped what I was working on and started over. And what I started writing was The Magicians. So there’s a lot of influence going both ways.

AG: I think of it as a Lennon-McCartney thing. We both make each other better, in some ways. Complementary strengths. That’s the way it ought to be, ideally.

LG: I’m Lennon, though.

AG: What? No. I’m Lennon.

LG: Fine, it’s a Lennon-Lennon thing

AG: I don’t know. You might be George. We need to come back to this.

Ok, I’ll settle this. Which one of them is older?

LG: Lennon is older. McCartney is the kid.

AG: How do you know this?

LG: I’m obsessed with The Beatles and their history. I find their story immensely fascinating. They keep putting out books, and now this three volume definite work is being written. The first volume is fantastic. Actually, Eliot in The Magicians books is based on the young John Lennon.

AG: In a million years I would not have guessed that you cared about Beatles in the slightest. Our mother was in Liverpool in the 50s, actually. She managed never to see The Beatles.

LG: That’s the story of her life.

So did your parents meet in England?

AG: Our parents met at Brandeis. They were a professor-student couple.

LG: It was less scandalous in those days.

Would the two of you ever consider writing together?

LG: I once suggested that we do that, and Austin said no.

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Presented by

Maria Konnikova

Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes and the forthcoming book The Confidence Game. She is a contributing writer for The New Yorker, online.

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