Brief Interviews is a series in which writers discuss language, literature, and a handful of Proustian personality questions.
Lev Grossman is the author of five books. The third in his Magicians series, The Magician's Land, publishes on August 5.
What did you want to be when you grew up (besides an author)?
The only thing I ever wanted to be besides an author was a cartoonist. I wanted to draw comic strips -- I wanted to be Charles Schulz, basically, and I read lots and lots of books about cartooning and animation. But then it turned out I couldn’t draw and I immediately lost interest.
Later I thought about being a biochemist, because I figured it meant you wouldn't have to talk to a lot of people, but the math was too tough for me.
What books might your readers be surprised that you enjoy?
I think Mrs. Dalloway is the greatest novel I've ever read. I love everything about it. Woolf describes things I never thought anybody could put into words. There’s a moment when she's describing a man sitting on a bench, and he’s falling asleep, and instead of stopping the story when he drifts off Woolf just keeps on narrating, leading us smoothly across the divide into his dream life, with no interruption -- you never know quite when it happens, just like in real life. I wasted a lot of time after college trying to write like Woolf. That was never going to happen.
What word or phrase do you overuse?
When I finished The Magician's Land I went through it weeding out the following words, all of which I use about five times as much as I should: finally, actually, probably, seems, felt, little, bit, some, somehow, huge, realized, truly, really, fuck, shit.
Who are your literary heroes?
Chaucer, Thomas Wyatt, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Thomas de Quincey (he wrote Confessions of an English Opium-Eater), Ernest Hemingway, C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, Virginia Woolf, Fritz Leiber, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, Samuel Beckett, George Orwell, Flann O’Brien, Sylvia Plath, Philip K. Dick, Jorge Luis Borges, Ursula Le Guin, JK Rowling, Neal Stephenson, Tom Stoppard, William Gibson, Alan Moore and Susanna Clarke.
What is the first book you remember reading?
Ant and Bee and the Rainbow: a Story About Colours. I learned to read late, so I must have been 6 or 7 when I picked it up. You can’t get the Ant and Bee books anymore -- or you can, but they cost 50 or 60 dollars online. I don’t know why they haven’t been reissued; maybe publishers are scared off by the ambiguous relationship between two male insects. But Ant and Bee and the Rainbow is a little masterpiece.
There's a moment where Ant and Bee are playing with an old tire that's embedded in the ground, painting it different colors -- it looks like an arch to them. Suddenly the artist pans back and shows you a cutaway shot of the whole tire, including the half that’s underground, so you see that it’s a complete circle. My little mind grew three sizes that day.
Which classic have you not yet read? Do you intend to read it?
War and Peace. Don't start, I know it’s the greatest novel ever written. Also I was named after Tolstoy, so I really should get around to it.
Do you prefer print or e-books?
Print. I'm very crusty on this issue. When I die I want to leave my kids a roomful of books, not a chunk of plastic that they have to guess the password to. I think Maurice Sendak said it best: "It's like making believe there's another kind of sex. There isn't another kind of sex. There isn't another kind of book."