The Real-Life Haunts of Lev Grossman’s Fantasical Brooklyn

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Lev Grossman set his Magicians trilogy, now complete, in a fantastical Brooklyn. Photo: Mathieu Bourgois

Lev Grossman set his Magicians trilogy, now complete, in a fantastical Brooklyn. Photo: Mathieu Bourgois

I don’t mean to be glib when I say this, but it felt very magic. I felt as though something really powerful and authentic was coming out from my fingers and it felt really good, and I had to keep on with it.”

Brooklyn isn’t exactly known for being a setting for fantasy novels. But in 2009, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians made it okay for Brooklyn twenty-somethings raised on Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings to imagine that one day they too, like Quentin, would get a mysterious letter from a Hogwarts-like school (conveniently located not too far upstate) that would plunge them into a life that was magical, but not too alien from their everyday existence. In Grossman’s world, magicians drink too much wine, have ill-advised post-college hook-ups, and wonder what their place in the world is—while at the same time contending with unspeakable horror in a magical land.

In 2011, The Magician King followed; today, the conclusion to the trilogy, The Magician’s Land, is finally released. It’s an achievement, deftly weaving together narrative threads from the two previous novels in a high-stakes battle for the soul of Fillory while simultaneously evoking what it feels like to grow up.

“I was in a very dark place personally,” Lev Grossman said over drinks at one of his neighborhood bars, Mayflower, of the time when he began the trilogy. “I was dealing with a lot of depression. I didn’t really understand that that’s what was happening, but it was.” To get through this difficult time, he read fantasy novels. “I felt as though I wanted to write something like that, but that reflected the realities of my life.” When he started writing The Magicians, something changed. I don’t mean to be glib when I say this, but it felt very magic. I felt as though something really powerful and authentic was coming out from my fingers and it felt really good, and I had to keep on with it.”

MagiciansLandThe series’ protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is living in Park Slope at the start of the trilogy, a neighborhood Grossman knows well; he’s lived in the borough since 1999, and has resided in the Slope and in Prospect Heights in the past. Now, he lives in Clinton Hill with his wife and three children. “I initially started writing about Brooklyn because it was the place I wanted to get out of,” Grossman admitted. “Like I said, I was in a bad place. I really made my peace with Brooklyn since then, but at the time I was really unhappy here. Brooklyn has done a lot to make me feel at home. It’s a real gift to writers just because you walk through it and then block by block it changes completely.”

I had just moved to Park Slope when The Magicians was released, so the first Park Slope I knew was one that was laced with hidden magic: a community garden that served as the gateway to the magical school Brakebills, the “easily findable” house on 8th Avenue where Quentin has a life-changing interview, a walk on 5th Avenue in the book’s opening pages. Grossman’s personal favorite description of Brooklyn in the books is at the end of The Magicians, where Quentin looks out at the Statue of Liberty from the F/G platform at 4th Avenue and 9th Street.

Although the way Grossman recontextualizes fantasy tropes within a contemporary frame is often what’s noted first about the trilogy, I’d be willing to make a case that beyond a love of fantasy, the novels are even more so about a deep love of books. Grossman is Time’s book critic, the child of two English professors, and studied literature, so that doesn’t come as a surprise; in our chat, we spent some time talking about the Franklin Park Reading Series, where he’s read, and some of Grossman’s favorite bookstores in the borough, like DUMBO’s Singularity & Co. (a “nerd pilgrimage spot”), WORD and Greenlight.

The book trailer to The Magician’s Land features fans and authors including Neil Gaiman, Gary Shteyngart, Terry Brooks, and more, reading the opening paragraphs of the novel, which vividly describes a bookstore that’s not quite what it seems, including one of my favorite lines written recently about books: “It didn’t matter where you were: if you were in a room full of books, you were at least halfway home.”

As we talked more about what Grossman described as his “very deep romantic love for physical books,” Grossman recounted an anecdote about having been asked in the past if he really believed in magic. “I don’t believe in magic,” he said. “Books are very, very close. They’re the closest thing we have.”

 The Magician’s Land launch party will be taking place at St. Joseph’s College Tuesday, August 5 at 7:30pm, featuring Magicians trivia and other writers including Michelle Hodkin, Lauren Oliver and Margaret Stohl. 

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