The Gregory Maguire Interview
Today I chat with the author of the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, a very compelling and provocative retelling of the story of the green-faced villain from The Wizard of Oz. And yes, that book was turned into a pretty popular musical. Wicked is just one in a series by Maguire, which also included Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men and the recently-published final volume in the series, Out of Oz. He is also the author of many other novels and children’s books and is the co-founder and co-director of the nonprofit educational program Children's Literature New England. You can find out much more about him here.
How did you know it was time to end the Wicked series? If people were dying for it, could you add another one after Out of Oz or is that truly it?
Well, all stories have arcs, and since the first book was subtitled "The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," I thought that even though the Witch was gone, it could be said fairly honorably that one's "times" extend into the second generation beyond one--into the lives of one's grandchildren, perhaps, because presumably they are molded and affected in part by how their parents were raised. So the Wicked Years had a natural setting sun aspect to it, but I wanted to leave the story opening up in the end, into the future, with all kinds of possibilities, rather than closed and finalized, all problems resolved, all happiness and peace restored.
How did you know how many books the series would run? Was it more of a contractual situation or when you began writing Wicked did you have an idea that it would take four books to complete this tale?
I didn't really know, but of course a trilogy is a customary thing. Once I realized there could be a sequel, I thought the ideas might support a trilogy, with one volume each to cover to lives of the Witch (WICKED), her son Liir (SON OF A WITCH), and her granddaughter (OUT OF OZ). But by the time I got to the end of SON OF A WITCH I realized some sort of amuse-bouche was needed. I intended A LION AMONG MEN to be a slight book at first, a kind of intermezzo, like a yodeler performing in the lobby during the intermission of GOTTERDAMMERUNG. But it fleshed itself out and roared before I knew what was happening, demanding equal time for the Cowardly Lion.
How does it feel to be finished with the series?
Sad, to be honest. A bit befuddling. I am not quite sure in which direction I am headed now. But I feel, as Ursula Le Guin said at the end of TEHANU, her fourth and final EARTHSEA book, as if I have not left my characters safe, but I have left them free.
I read that you said that Wicked began as a meditation on the nature of evil. What big-picture themes or human tendencies fascinate you right now?
I wonder if big-picture themes are the province of younger, brasher, less-experienced writers? I tend to want to take a smaller look these days. I have an idea for a play, and it consists, so far, of two middle-aged women sitting in a waiting room talking. I don't know if it will be much more than a reflection on sanity and superiority, which is hardly a big picture theme, but more an exercise we all make as we try to navigate daily life, from gargling mouthwash in the morning to flossing in the evening.
On that note, in another interview you once said "I don't write any book that doesn't ask a deep question.” Of the books you’ve written that address a deep question, which was the hardest for you to answer?
Oh, the interesting thing is that exploring the deep questions hardly ever turns up a decent answer, but it does make for an interesting story. I suppose in CONFESSIONS OF AN UGLY STEPSISTER, an exploration of the conundrum that beauty is not relative--you can't measure the worth of a gorgeous bloom against the worth of a gorgeous painting against the worth of a sudden shooting star in a black sky--but then, you might be able to say, "Yes, but charity is worth more than all of those other instances of beauty."
What are some of your favorite other retellings or re-interpretations of famous works of art or literature by other writers?
My touchstone is T. H. White's THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING. I recently read John Gardner's GRENDEL, at last, and while I quite liked it I wasn't blown away. P. L. Travers’s fable of the animals at Bethlehem, THE FOX AT THE MANGER, is one of my favorites: swift and tender and raw all at once.
Do you read fanfiction, either from the Wicked stories of from other books or films?
No. I don't know how to find it online. I spend so much time at the computer doing my own work, minding my own business as it were, that I have little time to search for other things.
Before you published Wicked, what type of vetting did your publisher need to do to make sure that legally, you would have no problems with your version of what happened in Oz?
Oh, there were several banks of lawyers involved, on my part and on the part of the publisher, and then when the book was optioned first for Hollywood and next for Broadway, there were yet more lawyers involved. I had to attest to the provenance of every idea I used in the book--which names were original, which were from Baum, and from which books, etc. Luckily I had kept good notes.
When you write, how much of your book do you plot out ahead of time (and how do you do so?) Do you know everything that’s going to happen before you write it, or do you discover as you go?
I usually have a sense of where the story will end up--not exactly what will happen, but what will constitute a final incident--but what happens between the beginning and the end is almost entirely unknown, and that's worth the trip: it's why I write, to discover as I go.
How do you know when a book is finished and ready to be sent to an agent or publisher?
I write cleanly because I don't start until I can't bear it any more. So I generally do three drafts before a publisher sees something, and then about four drafts afterward.
What do you believe you got from your PhD that you hadn’t gleaned from earlier studies in literature and writing?
Because I took my PhD later than my earlier degrees, as is the custom, I was, according to the nature of the universe, older. I had a lot more confidence in trying things I hadn't tried before (like research, for one; like putting myself into the mental and spiritual mindsets of writers I otherwise had overlooked or dismissed, for another), and so I took from increased assurance at argument and research a challenge to reach for harder and higher goals in my own writing.
I’ve read that you’re working on a play. What can you tell us about it so far?
Curtain up. Or is there a curtain? We don't know yet.
Apparently the play is about the ambiguity of certainty...
I’ve read that you enjoy traveling to Greece when possible. Have you gone there recently? How (if at all) does it reflect the recent economic troubles going on there?
I was in Greece in April on a private study tour. We read Homer and Aeschylus, we read the Odyssey and The Hesiod, we read nineteenth century poems and twentieth century poems and I talked to twenty-first century high school students about WICKED (which they had most of them seen in London). I hadn't been there in a few years and so I didn't have the apparatus to conclude what the economy was doing to the country, but I did think that the new Acropolis Museum, built just in time before the collapse, was simply magnificent.
What did you read, as a child, that most formed your tastes in literature?
Fantasy. Madeleine L'Engle, Jane Langton, E. B. White, and the great nineteenth century fantasists: J. M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum (obviously). Among realistic fiction I was only ever enamored of HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh.
I read in another interview that, due to your Greek heritage, if you weren’t a writer you could see yourself running a diner. What do you typically like to order from Greek greasy spoons?
Moussaka, especially if there are rivulets of orange tomato-tinged oil running along the bechamel plateau up top.
Some writers seem to think that because they’re short, children’s books are easier to write than other types of books: what would you say to aspiring writers with that mentality?
I stand a respectable five foot six. I don't know what you're talking about.
Oh, short BOOKS. You should have said. No, children's books are far harder to write than adult books, since children have much less patience than adults. In a children's novel, as in a poem, each line has to do quite a lot of work; syllable for syllable there is much more stress upon the language, generally. It takes a higher level of craftsmanship to make a wonderful book for children. (The new book about the writing of CHARLOTTE'S WEB is a great case in point, for those interested.)
You’ve been writing children’s literature for a long time. Have you noticed any differences now in terms of what parents and kids want from when you started writing (or even reading) children’s lit?
As children have matured--which is to say turned into creatures from another century than the century in which I was born--I recognize them as fellow human beings less and less often. The technology of the world in which they are born!--it boggles the mind. All parents want books to do several contradictory things: both to console and to challenge, to hearken back and to lean forward. I think the books are expected to do the same things as when I started reading and then writing children's books: it is just that as a child and as a young writer I could lean forward with much clearer vision than I can now. I hardly know where I am in 2012, cybernetically speaking; how can I pretend to children at the age of 10 to present to them a vision of the world in which they live? I don't even know how to change the font on this paragraph.
Do you try your children’s stories out on your own kids? What type of critics are they?
My children are the best kind of critics. Dismissive. They have no interest in serving as my sounding board and therefore I don't bother them. I am free to follow my own instincts, which is how I began to write at the age of 8 and how I intend to end up, scrawling lines with my finger into the pudding spilled onto the plastic tray in my nursing home.
How does it feel to be the 302nd person interviewed for Zulkey.com/WBEZ?
I am speechless, dumbfounded, perhaps even actually and entirely dumb.