Raised in a family of writers (his father was a journalist and his stepmother a poet), Gregory Maguire grew up with a great love of books, especially fairy tales and fantasy fiction. He composed his own stories from an early age and released his first book for children, The Lightning Time, in 1978, just two years after graduating from the State University of New York at Albany.
Several other children's book followed, but major recognition eluded Maguire. Then, in 1995, he published his first adult novel. A bold, revisionist view of Frank L. Baum's classic Oz stories, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West places one of literature's most reviled characters at the center of a dark dystopian fantasy and raises provocative questions about the very nature of good and evil. Purists criticized Maguire for tampering with a beloved juvenile classic, but the book received generally good reviews (John Updike, writing in The New Yorker, proclaimed it "an amazing novel.") and the enthusiasm of readers catapulted it to the top of the bestseller charts. (Maguire's currency increased even further when the book was turned into the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Wicked in 2003.)
In the wake of his breakthrough novel, Maguire has made something of a specialty out of turning classic children's tales on their heads. He retold the legends of Cinderella and Snow White in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (1999) and Mirror, Mirror (2003); he raised the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge in Lost (2001); and, in 2005, he returned to Oz for Son of a Witch, the long-awaited sequel to Wicked. He has reviewed fantasy fiction for the Sunday New York Times Book Review and has contributed his own articles, essays, and stories to publications like Ploughshares, The Boston Review, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Horn Book Magazine.
In addition, Maguire has never lost his interest in -- or enthusiasm for -- children's literature. He is the author of The Hamlet Chronicles, a bestselling seven-book series of high-camp mystery-adventures with silly count-down titles like Seven Spiders Spinning and Three Rotten Eggs. He has taught at the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and is a founding member of Children's Literature New England (CLNE), a nonprofit organization that focuses attention on the significance of literature in the lives of children.
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In our interview, Maguire shared some fun facts with us about his life:
"While I pride myself on trying to be creative in all areas of my life, I have occasionally gone overboard, like the time I decided to bring to a party a salad that I constructed, on a huge rattan platter, to look like a miniature scale model of the Gardens of Babylon. I built terraces with chunks of Monterey jack, had a forest of broccoli florets and a lagoon of Seven Seas salad dressing spooned into a half a honeydew melon. I made reed patches out of scallion tips and walkways out of sesame seeds lined with raisin borders. Driving to the party, I had to brake to avoid a taxi, and by the time the police flagged me down for poor driving skills I was nearly weeping. ‘But Officer, I have a quickly decomposing Hanging Gardens of Babylon to deliver....' Everything had slopped and fallen over and it looked like a tray of vegetable garbage."
"My first job was scooping ice cream at Friendly's in Albany, New York. I hated the work, most of my colleagues, and the uniform, and I more or less lost my taste for ice cream permanently."
"If I hadn't been a writer, I would have tried to be one of the following: An artist (watercolors), a singer/songwriter like Paul Simon (taller but not very much more), an architect (domestic), a teacher. Actually, in one way or another I have done all of the above, but learned pretty quickly that my skills needed more honing for me to charge for my services, and I'd always rather write fiction than hone skills."
"I steal a bit from one of my favorite writers to say, simply, that I enjoy, most of all, old friends and new places. I love to travel. Having small children at home now impedes my efforts a great deal, but I have managed in my time to get to Asia, Africa, most of Europe, and Central America. My wish list of places not yet visited includes India, Denmark, Brazil, and New Zealand, and my wish for friends not yet made includes, in a sense, readers who are about to discover my work, either now or even when I'm no longer among the living. In a sense, in anticipation, I value those friends in a special way."
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In the fall of 2003, Gregory Maguire took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
While I didn't know it at the time, eventually I have come to believe that T. H. White's The Once and Future King was the most influential book. I observed in it several admirable attributes that I try to make hallmarks of my own work. First, the book is derived from a popular set of myths and commonly held stories that form part of our Western foundation myth (the King Arthur stories). Second, the book is by turns profound, endearing, and comical. Third, the story is unwieldy in a way that seems organic and special.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Unleaving by Jill Paton Walsh -- This award-winning novel for young adults comes closer to being a true "novel of ideas" than any other book for the young I've ever read, including A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye (neither of which were published for the young originally, it must be admitted). The novel is sensuous, moral, dramatic, and makes a great case for the excitement of intellectual inquiry. It also is brisk, gloriously written, and evocative of Virginia Woolf (the author spent her formative years, during the Blitz, living a quarter mile down the hill from where Woolf, as a young child, had spent summers, gazing out at the lighthouse at Godrevy in Cornwall).
The Towers of the Trebizond by Rose Macaulay -- My stepmother recommended this book and I tried it three times, revising my estimate of my stepmother's taste in literature with each abandoned attempt I made. The fourth time I was old enough to apprehend the humor in the tone, and then the story rolled with furious comedy to its startling conclusion. I have never reread this book, but I have meant to for 20 years, and I hold it fondly in memory.
The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton -- This is a children's fantasy first published in the middle 1960s. The wry line drawings by Erik Blegvad add to the story's depth and humanity as two orphaned children pursue their missing relatives through a series of dreams that enlarge their transcendental sensibilities and coalesce their family.
Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald -- I'd read one novel by Fitzgerald and found it rather damp and dispiriting, but when I came to this I was rewarded. Though it takes a while to digest the use of acronyms for two of the main characters (they go by the initials associated with their business titles) that small effort is worth it. The novel takes place during the Blitz in London, as members of the BBC struggle to broadcast under trying circumstances.
Morality Play by Barry Unsworth -- This novel takes place in the 13th century, as I remember, and brilliantly imagines nothing less than the birth of the novel, happening more or less simultaneously with the end of feudalism and the growth of the understanding of particular character, one person at a time.
Howards End by E. M. Forster -- I selected this book only because I had to select something. Indeed, I'm a fan of all of Forster's work, no matter what can (and often is) said about his lack of sympathy or ability to portray real female characters. In general his sensitivity to the small but urgent moral questions of his day, especially relating to individual moral choice in the context of wider social pressures, continues to delight and inform me. His prose style is understated and affectionately comic most of the time, too, which I admire.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf -- Likewise, I might have chosen Mrs. Dalloway, or The Waves, or even Between the Acts as my favorite, but To the Lighthouse is my selection mostly because it was in reading this novel (not my first Woolf experience) that I first realized the range and nature of her genius.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh -- A children's novel by someone who might well have written for The New Yorker in the '60s, given her mildly acid tone and her keen eye for the telling moment. This novel of a precocious sixth-grade girl and the diary she keeps (and loses to her friends) made me roar with laughter as a child but also inspired in me what is, by now, a 33-year habit of keeping my own journal. And keeping a childhood journal was a vast part of my own development as a writer.
The Children of Knowe by L. M. Boston -- This is the first "chapter" book I ever read. I was in second grade (I was a precocious reader myself). The book has rather little by way of plot, but was my introduction to literary atmosphere and also, I suppose, the seeding of a lifelong love of literature written by English writers. (Seven of these ten recommendations are by English writers.) I also eventually went to live in London, and -- memorably -- had tea with the author at her home in Cambridgeshire. The manor house in which she lived, and about which she wrote in this book and its sequels, is the oldest continually occupied domestic dwelling in England.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I'm not as much of a film buff as I am a reader, but, with apologies for my perhaps less than startling choices:
The Wizard of Oz -- Naturally!
The Sixth Sense For its deft plotting.
The Crying Game -- For the same reason.
Babette's Feast -- The only movie I can watch repeatedly and tear up at the end, without fail.
The Sound of Music -- Because it made being Catholic and being musical synonymous, which my experience as an altar boy in a Catholic church had not revealed to me.
Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet -- I'm not sure what I'd think of it now, but I loved it as a teenage boy and have never forgotten many scenes of it.
Topsy Turvy -- Mike Leigh's Gilbert and Sullivan homage.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like classical music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and I adore Bach above all. The late Beethoven string quartets satisfy through their modernity, and they make the symphonies look like the work of a very talented adolescent. I listen to jazz (on the radio) and to Portuguese fado and, when on long trips in the car alone, to original-cast recordings of Broadway musicals. I listen to nothing when I write.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I would force the book club to read all of Dorothy Sayers, as I have read almost nothing of her and I am eager to be well educated enough to read Jill Paton Walsh's continuation of the Peter Wimsey stories.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Increasingly I like books of reference, to get, especially older dictionaries and lists of place names and common surnames etc. Such tomes are helpful in constructing a story with verisimilitude. I like to give autographed novels as presents.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have too much on my desk while writing. Usually file folders having to do with household repairs (the air conditioning is broken at the moment). I sit under a 1950s-era reproduction calendar portraying a Punchinello character eating a huge plate of pasta, and the instruction below in orangey letters is "MANGIA!" So this reminds me that I write, in part, to eat. With three small children at home, I have no ritual except to write when I can, when they're looking the other way.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I rather shockingly sold my first manuscript to Farrar Straus, and it was published -- a chapter book for the 12-to-15 set -- a quarter of a century ago. However it took me 17 years to write a book that would make me any money or earn me any attention as a writer. That was Wicked, which was written while I lived in London in the early 1990s. I had had the idea some years earlier -- to invent a whole life for a very famous and hugely unexplored character -- and when what the English call "financial embarrassment" set in, I decided it was now or never.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I believe hugely in the value of a journal to keep oneself honest as well as in practice. I also think, though, when the well runs dry for a while you oughtn't berate yourself.
In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Gregory Maguire had to say:
Unleaving by Jill Paton Walsh -- This is a novel published originally for teenagers but reissued (in England anyway) as part of a two-novella volume for adult readers. Teens and adults alike will take much from it. It is set between the wars in England, at a summer home in St. Ives, Cornwall. A party of young students in the last summer before going up to Oxford gathers in a holiday venue to read, discuss, and to witness a tragedy of extraordinary moment. The final few pages of the novel (no fair skipping head, they won't work the same magic if excised!) are among my favorite words in all of English literature. It is a sober book, but sun-drenched and memorable, like the best of vacations.
The Once and Future King by T. H. White -- Perhaps you read this when younger. It holds up. Look in again. What you may forget is how very smart it is about human nature. The deft shift of tones from comic to tragic, intellectual to romantic, fantastic to historic, has rarely been done better. You come away with a sense that no effort has been spared. This book, more than any other, was the prototype I used when conceiving how to write my novel, Wicked.
Morality Play by Barry Unsworth -- I first read this five or six years ago. I got about a third of the way through, thinking "oh, a pleasant Brother Cadfael-type entertainment," when the book suddenly began to raise big issues in a big way. I thought: "Holy moley. I was wrong. This isn't an entertainment. This is a serious novel. I don't want to miss a thing." So I went back to the beginning and started over. Yes, it is entertaining (though I hear the movie based on it, with a different title, is less than wonderful), but it is also riveting morally and intellectually. It is about nothing so much as the birth of the individual consciousness and the birth of the novel--the idea that everyone's got a story, not just the ennobled or the sainted.
Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen -- I was in Cambodia adopting my second son, and to still him I wandered up and down the halls of the Sunway Hotel in Phnom Penh, and murmured the soft lines of Hansen's elliptical, poetic prose to calm the baby. The book is about an early twentieth-century young novice experiencing stigmata and having devotional hot flashes. It is about passion, but is neither lewd nor dismissive of piety. The only problem with this book is that it will ruin the next four or five novels for you. It is that good.
Magic by the Lake by Edward Eager -- A children's fantasy -- not the most famous of the Edward Eager books (that would be Half Magic). This is Half Magic's sequel. Good summer reading because it takes place at a summer cabin in some cheesy peduncle resort, probably the 1920's though readers young and old won't get stuck in antique vernacular. It is, I think, the funniest of this very funny writer's books, and what could be better to read under a layer of Coppertone than Magic by the Lake? Isn't that why we go on holidays anyway? Remember to use the high-strength sunblock, by the way.
The Swing in the Summerhouse by Jane Langton -- Another children's fantasy, and another one that takes place over a summer. Pay especial attention to the crisp line drawings by that underrated master of the type, Erik Blegvad. The story is by Concord's quirky apologist, Jane Langton, perhaps better known to the world at large as the author of the Homer Kelly mysteries for adults. This story takes two loosely guarded siblings through a series of fantastic episodes that point up the virtues and the perils of growing up -- something that in summer we all try to forget we're still doing.
The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O'Shea -- I suppose my hand is being shown here. I love fantasy, and fantasy for children seems somehow more convincing than most fantasy for adults. The Hounds of the Morrigan is a grand comic tapestry of a novel, set in Ireland. Two siblings set out across Ireland in some rosily-remembered summer past, and the cast of characters they meet will have you laughing out loud and drowning out Howard Stern on the radio on the blanket next door.
Bat 6 by Virginia Euwer Wolff -- Want something less frolicy, but still fast-moving and summer-tinged? Baseball will serve. This is a novel about girls' baseball teams in the mid-century, the cost of war, the cost of apology. Loan this to your teenage reader and then grab it back again as soon as he or she is done. The author has laser-sharp control of her characters and the questions raised will be revisited around the dying coals of the hibachi well into the evening.
Senseless by Stona Fitch -- All right, this is not for everyone. I'll be up front about that. But if you, like me, want your vacation to be a time in which you remember what the world is like and come to terms with it better -- rather than flinching at the headlines all year long and looking away -- Senseless is for you. It is about the kidnapping and torture of a mid-level American businessman in Europe. It is graphic and it is violent, but it is not excessive. Not for the weak-stomached nor for the sentimental. But you won't forget it. It may be the best book you read this summer.
The Keeping-Room by Betty Levin -- For a change of pace, try this: get it from the library if your local bookstore hasn't got it in paperback. The Keeping-Room is a mystery for teenagers; adults will be riveted too, because of the understated and sympathetic characterizations. It involves a kidnapped child and a century-old mystery unearthed during a high school boy's local history project. The atmosphere of trendy New England suburbia is cuttingly evoked, and the pace is fast and the payoff worth it.
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|Gregory Maguire Home
Good to Know
|In Our Other Stores|
Signed, First Editions by Gregory Maguire|
|The Dream Stealer, 1983|
|Seven Spiders Spinning, 1994|
|Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, 1995|
|The Good Liar, 1995|
|Six Haunted Hairdos, 1997|
|Five Alien Elves, 1998|
|Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, 1999|
|Four Stupid Cupids, 2000|
|Crabby Cratchitt, 2000|
|Lost: A Novel, 2001|
|Three Rotten Eggs, 2002|
|Mirror Mirror: A Novel, 2003|
|Son of a Witch, 2005|