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.
AG: I wrote Eisenhower as a sort of master magician, in the Nixon book. Nixon was a VP under Eisenhower, so Eisenhower was like a magician mentor to Nixon. But then in 1957, Eisenhower had a stroke, so in the novel I have parts of his memory collapse. That was my parallel to Dad. And in my first book, Baron Ether is definitely a stand-in for Pa.
What a perfect ending to your trilogy, Lev.