The Twin Novelists

What in Lev and Austin Grossman's upbringing led them both to make a life in writing?

Lev (left) and Austin Grossman, at Blue Stone Lane in New York City (Maria Konnikova)

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.

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.

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.

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.

LG: I took an extra year to write it, to make sure I was satisfied with it.

AG: It was good. I haven’t read the final draft.

LG: I did fiddle with the ending. You may have read a version where Plum becomes a goddess in the end. There’s a question at the end: Who is going to become the new god of Fillory? And initially I thought, well, Plum’s not doing anything and she’s of the royal blood of the Chatwins. She could take over. But it didn’t seem quite right. It seemed too pat. So I went the other way.

What happens to Stoppard?

LG: You’re right to ask. He’s a dropped thread. I think he does well. Not bad things. He was going to sort himself out. I wanted to work him back in, but it didn’t seem plausible.

I love that the Cozy Horse appears for the first time at the end.

LG: I knew when I started writing that that’s where it was going. I always knew it had to end there.

I have to ask, what’s next for the two of you?

AG: I’m writing a YA novel next. I’m going back to superheroes. I’ve learned the value of building franchise from Lev, I have to say.

LG: I can’t be too specific. I haven’t talked to my agent about it yet. But I will say that I thought John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars was really powerful, and I thought, wow, I had no idea you could do that in a YA novel. I also have a bunch of adult projects that I can’t seem to choose between. I need five fucking minutes to sit down uninterrupted. I need to go back to Maine. This time, it’s going to work. I need some uninterrupted time to figure it out.

That’s interesting—that you’ve come back to that. Did you feel it was different to write in the pre-smartphone age? When you were starting out, we didn’t even have cellphones.

LG: I think if our generation is remembered for anything, it’s for being the last generation to remember what it feels like to be disconnected. I also think there’s been a real surge of interest in fantasy in the last 10 years. Harry Potter became huge, then Lord of the Rings, then Twilight, Percy Jackson, Game of Thrones. For the first time in a long time, the reigning pop-culture franchises are fantasy. And I think that’s in part a reaction how totally transformed the world has been in the last couple of decades. Lewis and Tolkien, I think they were also responding to how totally changed their worlds were. They lived through the First World War, mechanized warfare, the arrival of the car, the electrification of cities. The world they lived in was nothing like the world they grew up in. And I feel to some extent that maybe we’re responding to something similar. We turn to fantasy to try to ask questions. Like, wait, what exactly is happening here? What exactly have we lost? And I feel as though people are thinking about the same questions.