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Q&A With Lev Grossman

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Submissions for our printed anthology, open to MA, MFA, and PhD creative writing students, close on March 31, 2014. We sat down with guest judge and New York Times bestselling author Lev Grossman to discuss his likes and dislikes in fiction and nonfiction. For those of you still polishing your stories, check it out. (You guys, he’s amazing.) Then, submit your story!

Forgive the broad question, but can you describe what makes a piece of fiction successful in your eyes? What elements of craft inform the pieces you enjoy the most?

It is a bit of a broad question. It’s hard to single out one element. Fiction is one of those unforgiving mediums where for it to truly work well all the pieces have to be there: the style, the sense of place, the sense of character, the narrative flow, and whatever else. You don’t get to choose. You have to check all the boxes.

But if I had to pick one element that means the most to me, personally, it’s structure: the flow and the rhythm of the narrative. I want to — have to — feel that the story is a whole, that all the pieces work together,  that every piece of the story is in that place for a reason, each one passes you on to the next, until at the end it all narrows to a sharp point — that pierces you, right through.

We primarily publish work from emerging writers. What mistakes do you see new writers make and what would you advise them to avoid?

I’ll mention one mistake that I know well, because I’ve made it myself, plenty of times. “Write what you know” is a cliché because it’s true, but the tricky party of it, the unstated part, is that it can be very difficult to identify exactly what it is that you do know. By default a lot of emerging writers write about themselves, which makes sense. But it takes a long time to know yourself well. Not a lot of people can do it at 23. As an emerging writer one more often has insight into other things and other people.

Do you have a favorite short story or essay? What specifically do you like so much about it?

It’s hard to pick a favorite, comparisons being invidious that way. But I’ll mention Joyce’s “The Dead,” Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” Munro’s “Runaway” (really anything by Munro), Barthelme’s “Paraguay,” Borges’ “The Secret Miracle,” Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and Kelly Link’s “The Faery Handbag.” If they have something in common it’s that they’re bursting with intelligence, and they’re by people who not only write brilliantly but who read brilliantly, and who’ve learned from what they read, and who have read everything.

And these are stories that work hard for their readers. They earn their crust. They’re stories written to please the reader, not the writer.

In terms of essays, John Jeremiah Sullivan strikes me as just about the state of the art these days. Check out “Upon This Rock,” his essay about going to a Christian music festival.

When you are reading a piece critically how does it differ — or does it — from when you read a piece purely for the sake of reading? How can writers hope to strike a successful balance?

It doesn’t differ at all. When I’m reading critically I take notes, that’s the difference. I want to read like a reader, not like a critic, whatever that is.

 What do you look for in a creative nonfiction piece that you feel most writers fail to achieve? (What makes a creative nonfiction really great as opposed to only okay?)

The first question I ask myself is, would I be embarrassed to say any of these sentences out loud? It’s surprising how little nonfiction gets over that bar.

And after that it just has to read like a story. Even if it’s not a story, even if it’s just a chain of abstract logical reasoning, it needs to read like one, to flow and tense and begin and end like a story. And the writer needs to know how to tell a story, and her or she needs to know what the story they’re telling is about.

What, if anything, are you sick and tired of reading?

Anything that isn’t funny. God knows great writing doesn’t have to be a laugh a minute, but if I’m not laughing at least once every, say, 5,000 words … it’s not a dealbreaker, but there better be a damn good reason for it. Even Kafka laughed when he read his work.

Get to Know: Lev Grossman

Lev_Grossman_credit_Sophie_GeePhoto credit: Sophie Gee

Get to know our judge a little better. In March of this year Lev participated in Reddit’s first books subreddit AMA. He spoke about his beginnings as a writer, his novels, and how success in fiction has affected him as a journalist. Check out some of the highlights below or pop on over to the full feed and really indulge yourself. It’s wonderful. You will want to hug him.

But don’t.

How his success as a novelist has affected his other work:

Success as a novelist has influenced my work as a journalist in that I do less of it. Now I can afford to take months off at a time and just work on fiction.

It has also made me more of a diva. I do more long features now, less of the incidental short pieces. Because, you know, now I’m an artist.

Also I take more risks in my journalism now, stylistically. I try things — metaphors, weird structures, personal stuff — that I wouldn’t have tried before.

On being an honest critic:

The one iron rule I have as a critic is never lie. Never pretend to enjoy something because you think you should have — because it was fancy, or politically correct, or somebody important wrote it, or everybody else liked it, or your wife is friends with the author’s daughter, etc. And vice versa, you have to cop to loving something even if you ‘shouldn’t’ because it’s trashy or impolitic. It would have been a lot simpler for me to pan THE CASUAL VACANCY like everybody else, but the truth is I loved it.

On writing The Magicians:

When I wrote The Magicians it was as a standalone. Completely. I wrote it on spec, w/out much real confidence that it was going to get published. I didn’t even think of what might come after — somehow that would have been to jinx it. I know the ending seems cliffhanger-y in some ways, but at the time that’s really how I meant it.

There are ways in which I kind of wrote myself into a corner in The Magicians — I would have written a few things differently if I’d been planning a sequel.

His top five must-read books:


On creating characters:

“Usually — when things go well — I can kind of write my characters into existence. I nail down some basic facts about them, and then I start feeding them lines. After a while the character gets real enough to me that they start feeding me lines instead.

“But when all else fails, I rip off someone I know.”

And even, a comment about his hair:

But yes, hairless authors have a clear advantage over haired authors, because we spend less time drying our hair. We’re out of the shower, we’re at our computers. That’s 5 minutes saved right there.

You haven’t had enough, have you? Read it all, here. Thanks for being fabulous, Lev!

This Year’s Guest Judge: Lev Grossman

Judge Banner

The Masters Review is thrilled to announce this year’s guest judge, Time magazine book critic and New York Times bestselling author, Lev Grossman. Submissions for our printed anthology open on January 1, 2014 and remain open until the end of March. We are looking for the best fiction and narrative nonfiction written by students in graduate-level creative writing programs. Our collection represents the best among emerging writers and showcases the programs and schools cultivating this talent. We cannot wait to see what this year in stories will bring us and warmly welcome Mr. Grossman to our growing list of established writers and judges.

AM Homes wins Women’s Prize for Fiction

201210-omag-books-homes-284xfallIncredible news for Masters Review judge, AM Homes, who was awarded the Women’s Prize for Fiction this week for her novel, “May We Be Forgiven.” We are  honored to have worked with her this year and to have our newest edition — publishing later this year — include an introduction written by the award-winning author.

Congratulations to AM Homes.

The Women’s Prize was originally known as The Orange Prize for Fiction until 2012 . The award celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing throughout the world.