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Powell's Q&A

Gregory Maguire

Describe your latest project.
A Lion among Men is volume three in the Wicked Years, my cycle of Oz histories. The project began with Wicked, about Elphaba Thropp, who would come to be known as the Wicked Witch of the West; continued in Son of a Witch, regarding the abandoned boy Liir; and now presents A Lion among Men.

The central character in A Lion among Men is, of course, the Cowardly Lion, known from infancy as Brrr. A talking Animal who more or less raised himself from cubdom in the Great Gillikin Forest, Brrr finds himself on the wrong side of nearly every political engagement in Oz, until he is forced to face a prison sentence or become a stooge for the despotic Emperor of Oz. Thus he finds an assignment to interview Yackle, the mysterious crone who had lingered on the sidelines of Elphaba Thropp's life, and who has questions and ambitions of her own. Whether or not they make common cause, and to whose benefit, is the central question of the novel.

In A Lion among Men we see that little Matter of Dorothy played out again, this time through a Lion whose eyes are neither blinkered by sentiment nor refined by a lifelong practice of adroit observation.

  1. A Lion Among Men: Volume Three in the Wicked Years (The Wicked Years #03)
    $5.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "An absolute must-read for fans of this ever-evolving dark fairy tale." Booklist

    "As usual, the author mixes some relatively weighty existential themes...into his whimsical story line." Publishers Weekly

  2. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
    $5.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "[A] remarkable treat." The Times-Picayune

    "[C]aptivating, funny, and perceptive....Save a place on the shelf between Alice and The Hobbit — that spot is well deserved." Kirkus Reviews

  3. Son of a Witch: A Novel
    $7.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Son of a Witch: A Novel

    Gregory Maguire
    "Ten years after will once again be clicking their heels with wonderment." Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  4. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
    $1.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "[An] engrossing story...endearing and memorable." Boston Herald

    "Highly absorbing....Maguire's precise, slightly archaic language...sweeps readers through this mysterious and fascinating story." Booklist

  5. What-The-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy
    $4.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "There's much here to appeal to both Maguire's younger and older fans, and the immediacy of the story and combination of fantasy and reality will grip even reluctant readers." School Library Journal
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
If readers are not familiar with the work of Jill Paton Walsh, I would propose that they find her novel Unleaving. It is under 150 pages, I think, originally published for teen readers (and then republished for adults), and it is one of the most thought-provoking, beautifully written novels of ideas (that means the novel provides you grist for thinking as well as memorable characters and a gripping plot). I am not sure Unleaving is even in print at the moment, but it ought to be; find it in a library or on eBay.

[Editor's note: As of this writing, Powell's Books has one used copy in stock.]

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
It's a bit of a cheat to give the end of a book, but since I have mentioned Unleaving above, I shall provide you the final paragraphs. (It doesn't give anything of the searing plot away. No spoilers.) A child asks his grandmother what is there to sing about, in the hard life that includes death and pain, loss and regret.

From Unleaving:

"What shall we sing about?" he asks her, but his solemnity is tripping over into laughter, is getting too much for him. And, what shall we sing about? Madge asks herself. Why, whatever brute or blackguard, or random chance made the world, was surely a marvelous conjurer, a dab hand at spectacle! What shall we sing about? Fish to eat fresh from the salt sea, sweet berries from the thorn, bread from the brown furrow, and the orient wheat. We shall see every day, if we just raise our eyes to the hills, the movements of wind and water, and the fall of the light. There are never two moments the same, what with sky and weather, and tide, the passage of time, and the random fall of the rain. To be alive is to be bodily present, to notice where and when one is. Here we are: like amateur actors on some magnificent stage, dwarfed by the cosmic grandeur of our setting, muffing our lines, but producing now and then a fitful gleam of our own, an act of mortal beauty.

"What shall we clap?" she says to Peter. "The lifeboat in the storm. What shall we sing? The beauty of the world!"

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
Having some Greek roots of my own, I more or less avoided Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex as I didn't want to feel ashamed that he had gotten to the Greek-American experience first, and better, than I ever could. But I chastised myself about that and read it this summer, and admire it hugely. There is a line toward the end that could be a crystallization of much of what I have tried to say in the Wicked Years; I deeply admire it: "Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind." He's a wonderful writer, that Eugenides.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I have made many, to the homes and haunts of writers living and dead. Among the living, to the medieval castle called the Manor House, Hemingford Grey, where Lucy Boston set her Greene Knowe novels; to the homes of Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) in Connecticut and P. L. Travers (Mary Poppins) in Chelsea, London. Among the deceased writers I admire, and there are many, I have seen Isak Dinesen's home in Karen, outside Nairobi; Emily Dickinson's homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts; and the Keats house in Hampstead, London. Each visit refreshes me.

Why do you write?
I write because I admire the act of rationalization, of seeking clarity in one's understanding of the complexities of life, and I'm bad at it. I'm slow. Writing, which is an arduous and slow process, proceeds at the same rate as my sloth-like mind. In writing, I find out what I think about things: like the nature of evil (in Wicked), or the relative values of beauty (in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister), or the virtue of story in a dark, dark time (What-the-Dickens). Or, most recently, about the capacities of the individual in a world of prophecy, and the limits and reaches of free will (A Lion among Men).

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
My husband, Andy Newman, is a painter, and so we talk all the time — not just about form and content, but about the fickle and unreliable reaction of critics and buyers. Interestingly, we have similar experiences and similar hesitations about our lives in the arts. Being able to lean on one another provides us an unusual support system, one many artists don't have.

I am always thrilled with the work of Stephen Sondheim, the work of Maurice Sendak, and one or two others. There are few people living today (whose work I understand, at any rate) who I think qualify as near genius level, in that everything, even throwaway scraps, are interesting and carry in them the DNA of a coherent if mysterious and ineluctable spirit. Sendak and Sondheim make me glad to have a mind of my own, and they are among my living heroes.

If you could have been someone else, who would that be and why?
I do love to sing. Had I a longer set of thigh bones and a sweeter voice, I should have loved to be a performer. I can sing, and not poorly (I hope). My kids call it "bellowing." In fact, I sang my way through college and directed a choir, etc. But if I had to give up my talent at writing for another talent, I should choose singing first and foremost. I actually prefer female voices to listen to, mostly, but among the male singers whose voices I like are Jeff Buckley, Art Garfunkel, that sort of voice. Contemporary crooners rather than rockers.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five Books That Remind You That Individual Books Can Be Works of Art in Form as Well as in Content

A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers by Nancy Willard and Alice and Martin Provensen (Illustrators)

Books inspired by great writers often become a mishmash, a pastiche, but this book is informed by Blake and not cowed by his phenomenal achievements. You close it and say, "Now THAT is a book!" A series of linked poems that doubles as a kind of fantasy voyage.

The Life of Emily Dickinson by Richard Sewall

Because Emily Dickinson was so private, Sewall had to find a new way to talk about her. The arrangement of his material — exploring all the people around her as a way to see toward the space she must inevitably occupy, like positing the existence of an invisible moon due to the gravitational pull it appears to be exerting — was a revelation, and helped me figure out how to organize Wicked.

The Once and Future King by T. H. White

I always mention this book as it, too, helped me conceive of Wicked. The fact that White was erudite and comical, moral and sensual, and that he poured all of himself into his retelling of a famous legend as if it had never been told before — well, that inspired me to try the same.

We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy by Maurice Sendak

The picture book has never been stronger than in this stirring and compassionate tale of two street urchins who rescue and raise a third. Check out the double spread of the older boys taking the little black kid down off the moon: it is Christian iconography come home to roost, a sermon as well as a jeremiad.

My Grandmothers and I by Diana Holman-Hunt

I have just finished reading this, so it is on my mind. Originally appearing in 1960, it has been reissued by a small press in London (Slightly Foxed Editions). Diana Holman Hunt was raised by two grandmothers, one of whom was married to the pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt. The memoir is funny, cunningly written, and when one least expects it, oddly moving. I suspect it was a favorite of the young Jane Gardam (who is another favorite English novelist of mine, too).

÷ ÷ ÷

Gregory Maguire is the bestselling author of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Lost, Mirror Mirror, and the Wicked Years series, which includes Wicked, Son of a Witch, and A Lion among Men. Wicked, now a beloved classic, is the basis for the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name. Maguire has lectured on art, literature, and culture both at home and abroad. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.


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