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Gregory Maguire Steps Out from Behind the Curtain

Can we safely call Gregory Maguire's Wizard of Oz prequel, Wicked, a sensation? Having sold three-quarters of a million copies since its 1995 publication, now the novel is enjoying a second life as a big-budget Broadway musical directed by Tony Award winner Joe Mantello.

Gregory Maguire In his first book for adults, Maguire explored Oz in the years before Dorothy's arrival, revealing some critical facts too long obscured by L. Frank Baum's 1900 novel and the classic 1939 motion picture. What made the Wicked Witch so wicked, anyway? As Maguire notes, "She wears black and she's kind of ugly; she doesn't seem to take care of her skin very well," but that hardly justifies her nasty reputation.

"It's a staggering feat of wordcraft," the Los Angeles Times marveled, "made no less so by the fact that its boundaries were set decades ago by somebody else."

Now, in Mirror Mirror, Maguire's latest novel for grown-up readers — he's also published more than a dozen books for children — the author recasts Snow White in 16th-century Italy with Lucrezia Borgia in the role of the wicked stepmother. Powell's Kathi Kirby assures readers, "Maguire's latest retelling of a classic fairy tale is intriguing, surreal, exotic, and sensual. The author's style is mature, assured, and utterly engaging. This is not your Disney bedtime tale."

Critic Ron Charles agrees: "Entertaining as all this is, it's not child's play. In the best sense, Mirror Mirror is a novel for adults that unearths our buried fascination with the primal fears and truths fairy tales contain."

Dave: Mirror Mirror begins with a poem. How did that come to open the novel?

Gregory Maguire: Very often, the prettiest parts of a book, like poems and epigraphs and small set pieces of description, are the pieces you stick on last, but in this instance the poem and the idea that there would be little snippets of poetry throughout came first. Here's why and here's how:

I was just about to begin writing Mirror Mirror, within about a week of it, when September 11, 2001 happened. I found myself incapable of caring about fiction-making for a number of months. This seemed to be true of many writers I knew. It certainly was true of me, too. But I did have a contract and obligations to fulfill, so my way, finally — finally — of getting myself into the story was to use Scotch tape to put 3x5 index cards around the kitchen, on the kitchen cabinets. I thought to myself, If you just think of a phrase or two, or a word, as a kind of germ, a seed to begin, that will be how you start this one. This is not how you usually work, but these are unusual times.

The very first bit that came to me was four lines of poetry referring to the Snow White character in my book called Bianca de Nevada.

I am a girl who did no wrong.
I walked this side of Jesus when I could.
I kept an angel in my apron pocket.
I do not think it did me any good.

You hear in those sad lines, really, my sense of the desperation in those towers. No matter how faithful those people were, how good or how bad they met terrible ends because of some grinding of fate that was larger than their belief could prevent.

Having then unleashed that little bit of poetic voice in me, I went on and wrote five or six more. The next was the one regarding Lucrezia Borgia, the famous poisoner from the High Renaissance.

I am a woman who slept with my father the Pope.
They say I did, at least, and so does he.
And who am I to make of the Pope a liar,
And who is he to make a liar of me?

Similarly, those lines have to do with religious authority and with individuals bucking against it, whether it be the authority of fundamentalist Muslims or fundamentalist Christians or fundamentalist states. This was part of my way of marrying my anxiety about the moment to the story.

Once I'd written five or six of those poems, I realized what they were. They weren't just poems. I'm not a poet; I don't have any pretense of being a poet. What they seemed to be were the subconscious mutterings of my characters.

Have you ever noticed when you look in a mirror, unless you're really depressed or something, the person in the mirror generally looks a little more competent, a little more curious, a little more intelligent than you actually feel yourself to be? They often look more interesting and more soulful. I realized: That's what it is. My characters are fairly simple characters, they're pre-Freudian, they don't have the knowledge of history behind them, but their subconsciouses, their mirrored counterparts, are smarter than they are. This is what their mirrored counterparts would say if they could open their mouths and speak.

That's where the poetry came from and that, in the end, is what it meant in the novel. I don't expect anybody to recognize that, but in my mind it makes the mirror itself a character. Mirror Mirror is the name of the book, and those bits of poetry are the mirror speaking back to the people who are looking.

Dave: When you started writing the poetry, did you already understand that the book would be about Snow White?

Maguire: I did. I was contracted by HarperCollins to do a Snow White-ish kind of book. My editor, who is very good at selling books and knows also when to stand out of my way when I don't want to take an opinion of hers, said, "Write Snow White and the gay dwarves." I said, "I don't want to write Snow White and the gay dwarves. I have no objection if Anne Rice wants to write it, but I don't." But she got me thinking. Somewhat against my better judgment, I agreed to write a Snow White book; for a lot of complicated reasons, I decided to do it. But then I had to make it interesting to myself. I had to make it an intellectual exercise.

So I thought, What is the story of Snow White really about? It's one of our foundation myths, along with Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, the main three of the fairy tales, in a sense. What is it about? It's about truth telling. There's the mirror that tells the truth, of course, and gets everybody in a lot of trouble. Then there's the apple, which seems to be a poison apple, but you stop and think, When else is an apple involved in the telling of truth? Of course it's the Garden of Eden, the apple of knowledge. Knowledge and truth are closely aligned.

Dave: Mirror Mirror marries those fairy tale storylines with a historical setting and real-life characters.

Maguire: I wasn't going to make it a Biblical story, so I began to think about when in history I might be able to set Snow White's story to have it be about a shifting notion of the significance of honesty and truth telling. The Renaissance made the most sense. My tax attorney always says I can take any trip I want as long as I write a book about it, and I hadn't been to Italy in about fifteen years — once I thought that, I thought, Great! So I went to Tuscany, started reading about the High Renaissance, and remembered about Lucrezia Borgia, who was well known for poisoning her husbands and her boyfriends and her boyfriends' boyfriends, just everybody up and down the street.

It was a lot of fun to say, Here we are in the High Renaissance. Truth is breaking out like gale force winds on all four corners of the continents. What else is happening? If truth is breaking out, the peasant superstition is dying, or it has to convert somehow it has to evolve if it's going to survive; it has to evolve into science, into something.

The story of Mirror Mirror is in many ways a story about evolution. It's about the evolution of a child into an adult. It's about the evolution of those dwarves into something a little less rock-like, a little more humanoid. It's about the evolution of history, too, from the darkness of the Middle Ages into the light of the Age of Reason.

Dave: You use a similar device in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, taking elements of a fairy tale and planting them within a historical context. There the setting is seventeenth-century Holland. Where is that marriage born, taking the fantastical elements and planting them within a historical time and place?

Maguire: Let's say I've decided to marry a fairy tale with an adult concept or theme that I think the fairy tale is really about. In the instance of Mirror Mirror, it was the telling of truth and the story of Snow White. In the instance of Confessions, it was the story of Cinderella and the notion of How do we equate different kinds of beauty?

First, I have to decide that there's a marriage to take place. I have to look at a fairy tale and say, What is this about? In the case of Confessions, the two elements getting married are the Cinderella story, such as we know and love, and the notion that there is no objective value of beauty. You cannot easily say that the beauty of a young girl is more worthwhile than the beauty of a tulip than the beauty of a High Renaissance painting than the beauty of a moral gesture — but you can ask the question.

So where will I have the ceremony? Well, of course, I'll have it in Holland at the height of the Dutch Renaissance because this is the first time in history where the middle class began to emerge with some disposable income and cared enough about the beauty of their homes to hire painters right, left, and center, to paint for them; to paint themselves, to paint genre scenes, to paint flowers, to paint historical and less so religious scenes, and to stuff their houses with paintings high and low. That's why we have so much Dutch painting: because it was a commodity; there was a market for it.

I love to read and stick my nosey nose into the air to sniff the tides; I didn't sniff that Girl in a Pearl Earring and Girl in Hyacinth Blue were both coming down the pike about a year after my book. But I did remember about the great tulip boom and bust in 1627 and 1628 in Holland, where just like the Great Depression in 1929 fortunes were lost and lives were ruined because of a drop in the market, in this case for these beautiful, elegant, basically disease-ravaged tulip bulbs. (They were disease-ravaged because the diseases themselves made the tulips more beautiful.) A whole house could be exchanged for the price of a single tulip bulb that would produce one blossom. That's what a bubble of investment it was. That was the reason I chose Harlem in the 1620s.

Dave: I know that you didn't initially set out to write a book about The Wizard of Oz. Would it be fair to say that Oz was simply your choice of setting for the story you were trying to tell?

Maguire: It's absolutely fair to say.

The first thing I set out to do was to write a story about a character that was truly evil. In a way, I failed at my aesthetic intention. I had an idea of doing something more like having a Hannibal Lecter or Humbert Humbert as a character. I wanted to write a fully evil character and make them comprehensible maybe not forgivable, but comprehensible. And I couldn't do it.

I thought of the Wicked Witch of the West. I thought, Next to Hitler, she's about the scariest creature in my subconscious. The minute I had that idea, I realized I was on to something good, if not necessarily big. It would only be big if I did it well, but it was certainly good; even if I did it poorly, it was a good idea.

I came up with the idea of marrying the story of The Wizard of Oz with this notion of exploring evil at one and the same time. But then the story had to take place in Oz because the story is Oz, in a sense.

Dave: You take on a certain amount of responsibility attempting to tell the story of a character with whom people already have strong associations. On the other hand, there's a potential advantage to working with what may be a natural curiosity of the reader.

Maguire: I have a different intention than my publisher does. I'm not a writer because I want to make money. I'm a writer because I'm a very slow thinker but I do care about thinking, and the only way I know how to think with any kind of finesse is by telling stories. This is how I was raised to think. It's how my family was raised to converse. My publisher on the other hand is interested in selling books and making money. I don't mind accidentally making piles of money when it happens, but we go into it with a different agenda.

I didn't decide to write Wicked based on The Wizard of Oz because I thought everybody would buy it, but I did think that because it is a familiar subject and people have a preconception they might be intrigued to follow and see whether their preconceptions hold any water. That's what I was intrigued in, too. They might feel the same as I do. Oh, the Wicked Witch of the West. Gee, we don't know much about her, do we? She wears black and she's kind of ugly; she doesn't seem to take care of her skin very well; but she's still interested in those ruby slippers. Why? There's a complication there. What is it?

She always tells the truth. In the movie, the Wicked Witch might be scary, but she never lies. Glinda, in a sense, lies to Dorothy; Glinda knows from the beginning that the shoes can take Dorothy home, and she doesn't bother to say anything. She puts Dorothy in danger. And the Wizard lies all over the place; that's his job really, like any unelected public official; it's all propaganda. But the Wicked Witch doesn't lie.

Even as a kid, I was aware of that. I thought, What's behind that? Why is she like that? What's this all about? It just happened that my interest was matched by the interest of what is probably now about 750,000 people, to read and find out, well, what is she about? It was awfully lucky. It was an awful good stroke of luck the day that I thought about that.

Dave: As someone who has had a lot of success repurposing old stories to tell new ones, how is it now for you to watch the Broadway adaptation of Wicked, in which someone has adapted your work and turned it into something different?

Maguire: It is very different. I suppose if there were a Broadway play up and running right now based on my children's novel called Missing Sisters or my adult novel called Lost, I would probably feel a lot more proprietary about it and a lot more dismayed for any way that it deviated substantially from my original storylines and characterizations. However, I do feel that I'm a bit of a bricoleur. I've taken bits and pieces and made an assembly out of them for my own curiosity, and it seems to have struck a chord with other people. Now for me to say, "Okay, the story of The Wizard of Oz and the character of the Wicked Witch of the West was invented in 1900, hit the stage in about 1903, had a first film of it with Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man in 1914 or thereabouts, then the famous film version in 1939, multiple parodies, The Wiz in 1975, then my novel Wicked in 1995 where the witch finally gets rehabilitated a little bit — and here evolution must stop." You know? As much hubris as I have, I don't have that much.

It seems to make perfect sense to me that I should now stand out of the way and let the story even my story go on and develop some grandchildren. I feel like I stand in an avuncular, grandfatherly relation to the Broadway play. It does do some things to the story that I wouldn't have done myself, and that I didn't do myself — that I actually considered and rejected — but that's not to say that I disapprove of them. I recognize that it's another generation, and in the next generation down there will be new characteristics. It's not a clone; it's something else.

Dave: You mentioned Lost. It was funny to read Mirror Mirror, then Wicked, then Lost. It was somewhat jarring to suddenly encounter a character using a cell phone. Wait, this is contemporary.

Maguire: I'm very proud of Lost, and I'm delighted when I go into bookstores increasingly I get nice crowds at bookstores, which is very agreeable — but usually when Q&A time comes, somebody will raise their hand and say, "What about Lost?" And there are a number of people who start curling their lips and vomiting into their hands. But there are always a couple of people who will say to me later, "Lost is my favorite among your books." And partly because they think it's the most original.

I don't know that it's my favorite or my least favorite, but it is different. Because it relies less on a recognized template of an older story, it required more of me to find and finesse. I'm very proud of it. I hope it is considered not just an aberration. Oh, he must have been very depressed that year; he had a temporary lobotomy and didn't know what he was doing. I would love to continue to write stories in all different kinds of genres, including some I haven't attempted yet.

Dave: An author who made a spectacular crossover from children's books to adult fiction last year is Mark Haddon.

Maguire: I didn't know he had written children's books!

Dave: He's published about fifteen in Britain.

Maguire: I never knew that.

Dave: It brings me to the idea of being storyteller, jumping not only from a historical setting to a contemporary setting to a fictional setting but also speaking to different audiences, whether they're defined by age or genre or something else. How many kids' books did you write before you published Wicked?

Maguire: At least eight or ten, or twelve maybe, of what are known in the industry as chapter books. Think A Wrinkle in Time or Charlotte's Web, roughly that length of book and for roughly that kind of audience, one that is at the top of its reading game — but before hormones have started to corrode their intellectual abilities, at least temporarily. The best reading audience in the world, I think, is that thirteen-year-old reader.

I'm just now putting the finishing touches on a novel called The Final Firecracker. It is the last in a series of seven comic novels I've been writing for children. They begin with Seven Spiders Spinning, then they count down: Six Haunted Hairdos, Five Alien Elves, Four Stupid Cupids, Three Rotten Eggs, A Couple of April Fools, and this one, The Final Firecracker. My brother Joe the mathematician says, "This is called 'a decaying series.'" I'm sure he's only talking of mathematical properties, not literary.

This book takes place in Vermont. It involves a couple of genetically mutated chicken eggs that have turned into dragons, a rogue Siberian Snow Spider who defrosted out of a glacier, and the ghost of a baby elephant who died choking on a peanut in India. At the same time, it's also about graduation and children having to move on from grade school into middle school, the fear of that as well as the challenge and excitement about it.

Every book that I write, no matter its intention, whether it's a comic lark and a spree and a romp, as these books are, or a serious meditation using the guise of a children's story but the depth and complexity of an adult interpretation and apprehension of the world, every story is a kind of road trip for me. It's a way for me to turn my back temporarily on my comfortable home, on my three noisy preschool children, on my devoted partner, on the politics of Massachusetts and the Supreme Judicial Court this particular month, and on the upcoming election, and the fact that I'm graying and my teeth are giving me trouble. I love taking road trips, and I don't want to take the same one each time.

I want to go on vacation every year to Maine with my family; I want to go to the same house and do the same things. They love it. It's a tradition. But I don't want to write the same book.

Writing different things and writing for different audiences, writing comedy and writing tragedy — and indeed I'd like to try to write for the stage soon — is a way for me to make sure that I'm not dead yet, marrying two new creatures and finding a new place to hold the ceremony so that I can be amazed and amused and learn something as well.

Dave: If you could have written one book that you didn't, what might that book be?

Maguire: A book that's already written? There are three that spring to mind immediately. There's one book published in the mid-seventies for teenagers called Unleaving, as from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, Margaret, are you grieving / Over golden grove unleaving? It's by the English novelist Jill Paton Walsh. This is one of the most beautiful novels for children or adults that I've ever read in my life. I just reread the last few pages of it a couple days ago so it's very much on my mind. It's a brilliant novel, beautiful and moving, and not as well known as it ought to be.

I love The Once and Future King by T. H. White in another mode entirely. And indeed, I suppose that once I decided to write Wicked, to the degree that I had a model in mind, it was The Once and Future King, which is noble, profound, funny, bawdy, serious, sentimental, romantic, and knowledgeable, all at once.

Finally, another book that I've only read once, but I read it in a moment of some distress...I was in Cambodia adopting my first son and there was a little bit of a political problem; I wasn't sure what was about to happen in the next day. I had brought with me a novel by Ron Hansen called Mariette in Ecstasy. The writing in it was so beautiful that it saw me through a hard patch, that particular day. But then, sadly, I had five other paperback books to read the rest of the trip and none of them measured up. I couldn't read anything after it.

Just pulled off the top of my head, those are three books I admire hugely. I would be happy to go to my grave having written any one of the three.

Gregory Maguire spoke from his home in Massachusetts on February 27, 2004.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. Mirror Mirror: A Novel
    Used Trade Paper $1.50
  2. Wicked: The Life and Times of the...
    Used Trade Paper $3.50
  3. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
    Used Trade Paper $2.50
  4. Lost Used Trade Paper $3.50
  5. Seven Spiders Spinning (Hamlet... Used Trade Paper $1.95


Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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