Last night I went to Lev Grossman’s reading at the Boston Public Library. The author read from his new book, The Magicians, which is being described as “Harry Potter for adults”. Now, this isn’t to say that Harry Potter isn’t for adults; it would be more accurate to say that The Magicians is Harry Potter NOT for children. It does follow the trials of a group of students in magic school (Grossman says he came up with the idea before the Harry Potter books came out. Ouch.) but it also includes some more “adult” topics – sex, drinking, foul language – along with a moral ambiguity not really found in Harry Potter – good and evil are in shades of gray, here. The book really intrigued me, regardless of whether or not the magicians involved are dropping the F-bomb. (And I’m pretty sure that butterbeer is an alcoholic beverage, but I realize that’s not the point.)
The talk and the reading was really lovely. I bought a book and when getting it signed introduced myself as a young adult author, and I assured him that I got away with A LOT in my books. Like what? he asked. Oh, violence, sex – integral to the plots of the novels, in both cases. At least one swear (but spoken by the ghost of Anne Boleyn so it seems warranted – I imagined she would be really, really pissed off). Mind you, this probably won’t get me on any book club reading lists anytime soon, and there is still certainly a line that can’t be crossed – but part of the fun and challenge of writing young adult fiction is figuring out how to properly toe that line, so as to be not gratuitous in detail but to satisfy your readers.
Grossman is also a reviewer, and he reads so many newly released books that he said to really impress him the author needs to do something completely NEW and different with his subject matter, that it can’t sound too much like his previous book, or like it could be written by someone else. Interesting to ponder, yes? Is every story out there, already told, but it’s just a matter of how you tell it? Harry Potter wasn’t the first book about a boy going to wizard school (check out A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin) and clearly it’s not the last. But the point is to make something new of it, to give it your own unique voice. This is both daunting and comforting to me as an author: so many stories have already been told, but your voice can make it unique, can make it different from any any any other telling. You just have to push the story and the voice to some unique new terrain, hoping that your readers will follow.