Magic, Myth, and Forces Beyond Reason

On Tuesday the 25th, Lev Grossman (The Magicians, The Magician King), Erin Morgenstern (The Night Circus), and Simon Toyne (Sanctus) were all on hand for an excellent roundtable discussion, moderated by Lesley Livingston, on the topic of magic, myth, and forces beyond reason.  This event, a part of the International Festival of Authors, took place in the Studio Theatre at the York Quay Centre, and incorporated an interview, discussion time, and a question and answer period.

The authors were each asked to give the elevator pitch for their novels (“every author’s favourite question,” quipped Toyne, “give us your five hundred page book in two sentences”). Grossman characterized his book as what would happen if James Joyce or Virginia Woolf wrote a fantasy novel, with particular attention to the intricacies of magic – he dislikes it being either too easy (he wanted to know why Potions is so difficult in Harry Potter, as it’s basically just Home Ec) or underdescribed. Toyne’s novel, about a religious conspiracy, deals with the origins of religion and myth, which is essentially humanity “trying to make sense of stuff.”

The emotional centerpiece of the night was Grossman’s discussion of fantasy and disenchantment. As many bookish people will attest, novels can provide a tremendous escape from the real world (“because Jesus Christ, this cannot be it”), something that Grossman explores throughout his books; his main character, Quentin, is immersed in fantasy novels before he ever encounters another world. He compared this with other famous examples, saying incredulously, “As far as we can tell, Harry never read a novel in his life!” Although his characters spend most of the novels running away from things, Grossman said that “one day you will have to stop and deal with your shit,” no matter how many alternate worlds you discover. He went on to elucidate some of his motivations for writing these stories, saying, “Books prepared me for something much greater…that never came to pass, but I never stopped hoping for it.”

Authors are nearly always asked about their writing processes, as though there is something fittingly magical about sitting in a room by oneself making things up. Morgenstern, whose novel began when she participated in National Novel Writing Month in 2005, explained that the circus predated characters or plot: she conducted “fictional excavating,” exploring the various tents and features of the Night Circus, and the characters only appeared in subsequent drafts. Grossman characterized fantasy fiction as exorcism, not escapism, and Toyne noted that “most writing is actually rewriting…you sit there, and you put the hours in, and it gets better.” These authors, then, have created a combination of brutally unmagical work, and the surprising alchemy of words.