The Twin Novelists

AG: It’s still no.

LG: I didn’t ask again. The offer is off the table.

AG: I learn from things you do. There’s a collaborative element there. But let’s draw a line somewhere. What we do do is give each other comments. When I’m at the end of what I know what to do with a project, and it’s really desperate, that’s when I send it on to Lev.

LG: We show each other outlines, sometimes. I saw an outline for Crooked.

AG: Yes, that’s the manuscript I just turned in, for a book about Richard Nixon. It’s first person point of view. It’s like a history of the Cold War; that background underlay some of his decisions. Nixon was doing what he had to do.

LG: What was the great logline about the Cold War? I have to do “Harry Potter for adults” all the time. But I don’t really have a problem with it. I was pretty obsessed with Harry Potter. But of course, it is incredibly different from what I write.

AG: I’m much less a Potter fan. Actually: This is my question for you. You flag yourself as a sort of genre writer, but you’re not. You think about language a lot. You have a literary background. Are you just frightened of being pinned as a snob?

LG: Who’s doing the interview? I self-identify as a fantasy novelist. What defines a fantasy novel? It has certain conventions. And The Magicians, you’re reading it and it’s letting you know what kind of novel it is. And I feel as though what it’s telling you is that it’s a fantasy novel. Here’s a guy, he discovers he has a power that he never knew he had. He finds his way into a secret, magical world. What kind of novel is that? It’s fantasy. As a fantasy novelist, I’ve read a lot outside of fantasy, more than your average fantasy novelists, and a lot of that gets imported across genres. But if I had to put it in a bin, I’d put it in the fantasy bin. Fortunately, it’s less and less necessary to do that.

AG: I don’t know if I think of myself as a genre writer. So far, my books have all been one-off experiments. I have a superhero novel, a novel about videogames, a novel about Nixon, kind of H.P. Lovecraft. There’s no question that there’s a certain amount of genre in my books. I’m not sure what I’m doing as I thread between them. But I love genre. When I wrote my first book, I set out by saying, I love superheroes, but I’m even more fascinated with them than the experience I get from the comics. I want a literary memory. I want that sensory experience. I want more than the comics are giving me. It lent itself to literary prose, and that’s how I handled it

LG: Well, you were telling a superhero story but using the tools of realism to tell it.

AG: It’s tricky. It’s the easiest way to alienate two audiences, to write a comic adventure for literary readers or a literary novel for superhero readers. I get a very curious audience.

LG: How much of a formative experience of you was [Alan Moore’s comic book] Watchmen? When I try to think of what I was trying to do in The Magicians, the closest model I feel like I can come up with is The Watchmen.

AG: 1985 was the year of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. I tend to weigh them equally as influences, despite the fact that Frank Miller made himself a caricature in later years. There was an emotion about those latter-day superheroes, in the next phase of their careers, that I hadn’t felt before. And it defines an incredibly rich space. I was trying to hold that in my head as much as possible. I was trying to write another Watchmen, there’s no question.

LG: I was conscious that Watchmen was critiquing the superhero genre, even attacking it. Questioning all the assumptions and conventions that underpinned the superhero genre. But by doing that, paradoxically, he didn’t destroy the superhero story. Alan Moore wrote the greatest superhero story that had ever been written. It was an important lesson to me. When you attack a genre, the genre gets stronger.

MK: So basically, you’re saying Watchmen is the Beckett of the superhero genre—destroy it to recreate it

LV: That’s a good way of putting it.

AG: It was a critique, but what it really did was open up an emotional palette that hadn’t been there before. You felt it in a new way.

LG: And it obviously came out of a great love for the genre.

AG: We were born in 1969. So in 1985, we’re 16. Our minds were at the perfect level.

LV: And [William Gibson’s novel] Neuromancer was ‘83, ‘84, and it was a big moment. And then in the ‘90s and 2000s, people started doing fantasy more.

So what is your feeling on genre distinctions more broadly?

LG: I used to go around saying that genre distinctions are ending and the barriers are coming down, and we should tear down this wall and all that. Now, I sort of walk that back a little bit. I feel as though part of the thrill of the divisions comes from the fact that you are crossing boundaries. It wouldn’t be exciting to import some of these literary tropes into a fantasy novel if you didn’t feel that shock of transgression. And if there weren’t different genres, you wouldn’t even feel it. So now I’m pro genre distinctions. Where I stop is this idea that literary fiction is hierarchically better than other genres. I think it’s a mistake to try to say that one’s more valuable.

AG: Some of the distinction may be with our agents. Mine always plans around bringing my books into the mainstream, and that’s the transgression, bring genre tropes into literary fiction.

LG: You think of bringing genre tropes into literary fiction. I think of bringing literary tropes into genre fiction.

Let’s go back to Magician’s Land for a second. [Spoilers ahead.] There’s a moment where Quentin’s father dies, and Quentin has a beautiful and devastating reaction to it. He first wants to think his father was a magician, and only then can he come to terms with it. And ultimately, the death makes him a stronger magician himself. Obviously, there are parallels to your own life here.

LG: Pa was sick. He had been sick for almost a decade with Alzheimer’s. And I knew that his death was coming. In some ways, I was rehearsing it, getting ready for it. There’s a lot of fathers and parents in The Magician’s Land, much more than in the earlier books. But Quentin’s dad isn’t like our dad. Our dad is a magician, he’s like a scary powerful magician, whereas with Quentin, I wanted to play with this idea: It's a central trope of fantasy novels that the hero’s parents always turn out to be secretly somebody special. They’re kings and queens or they’re magicians or they’re amazing people. I wanted to stick that stake in its back, to find out, well, what does it feel like to find out that your parents are exactly who you thought they were? You’re not chosen at all. You’re just like anybody else. Quentin doesn’t want that to be true. But it does turn out to be true, of course. It’s autobiographical up to a point.

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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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