Gregory Maguire (2007)
This is an interview with the author Gregory Maguire who wrote the novel Wicked, which was turned into a wildly successful musical of the same name. From Death Ray 05, published in 2007.
Gregory Maguire is an American writer with a passionate interest in children’s literature, being co-founder of a charity dedicated to furthering reading among the young.
He is primarily known for penning revisionist fantasies, often based upon well-known fairy tales. However, his most famous works take their inspiration from a more recent source. Maguire has taken L Frank Baum’s famed series of novels, borrowed his world and put his own stamp firmly upon it, often adding his own characters into crucial points of the stories, or looking at Baum’s own characters from alternative points of view. The first book, Wicked, centres on Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and portrays her as a passionate rebel rather than as a hook-nosed harridan with a nasty allergy to water. It has been adapted into a musical that has enjoyed great success both Stateside and in London town.
Guy Haley: You are very passionate about literature for children. Why do you think that is important that children read?
Gregory Maguire: I heard a report this week that said at the age of 10, only 43% of American kids read for pleasure. At the age of 15, that has dropped to 19%. When I hear statistics like these, I fear for the loss of certain skills that imaginative reading enhances; apprehension of subtlety, ambiguity, tolerance for differences, willingness to suspend judgment until the last page (or even beyond). I think reading for children, even more than reading for adults, is central to the survival of a literate citizenry. That is why I still write for children, even though my income is much richer and stronger when I publish for adults.
GM: Tell us a bit about your organisation, the CLNE.
GH:I helped found an educational charity called “Children’s Literature New England” 21 years ago. For two decades we met (four times in the UK) and considered topics of literary interest as they are dealt with in books for children: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”; “Swords and ploughshares”; and “The Fairytale belongs to the poor.” Writers and artists such as Philip Pullman, Quentin Blake, Maurice Sendak, Ursula K Le Guin, Philippa Pearce, Jill Paton Walsh, Penelope Lively, Peter Dickinson, Susan Cooper, Russell Hoban, John Rowe Townsend, Alan Garner, and many others collaborated with us to consider these literary themes as expressed in books for the young. This is built on the notion that children’s literature is no less an art form than novels for older readers.
GH: Why do you choose to use the “toolbox of the fantastical” to tell your tales? Do you think that fantasy is more effective at bringing messages to children (and adults) than stories with a contemporary setting?
GM: I am afraid that as a Luddite, someone who doesn’t have an iPod, a cellphone, a play station, or a digital camera, I cannot convincingly portray our increasingly technological contemporary world with any verisimilitude. So writing stories that take place in the past or in a fantastical setting makes me much more comfortable.
That said, I also think that the kind of relaxation that once must go through in order to tolerate a “magic” story might just make one more tolerant of larger themes, too, and I care deeply about the themes of my stories – more than about the plots, characters, settings, or the mechanics of magic.
GH: Some of your greatest successes have been with stories set in Oz. Why have you chosen to use L Frank Baum’s world?
GM: Oz – unlike Middle-earth or Wonderland – is an imperfectly realized magic land. I admire much of what L Frank Baum did, but it is what he failed to do, or did less well, that allows me license to parachute into his magic kingdom and see if I can make any more sense of its history or politics than he did. Basically, I took a land of fabulous incongruity and I tried to superimpose an orderly civilisation upon it, with its own history, religions, cultural conflicts, etc – to be an anthropologist of Oz.
GH: Do you ever feel awkward, playing in the sandbox of such a renowned man?
GM: He is conveniently dead, so I am seldom embarrassed at dinner parties.
GH: You also use fairytale a lot, especially in revisionist fantasies for adults. This seems quite popular in film and literature at the moment. Why do you think that is?
GM: As we become something of a post-literate society – or perhaps I should say that as our shared literacy becomes more audiovisual and less textual – the fairy tales, like the parables, remain conveniently portable and functional vessels of story that, because we get them young – and frequently – may in fact be the final shared narrative that most people in the west can agree that they share in common.
GH: How do you feel about the success of the musical Wicked? Are musicals as valid an art form as literature in your mind?
GM: I love the musical Wicked and am buying tickets today to see it for the 26th time. It is a different art form than the novel and as such made some changes to the plot, which do not bother me. The basic theme of the story is the same as in the novel I wrote – which is that we should beware demonising our enemies, or seeing the world in absolute moral tones of black and white.
GH: You say that you enjoy English novels. Why is that?
GM: I believe the English write more delicious prose, by and large. I also grew up in a time when English writers for children were very easy to find in the libraries in the US I loved CS Lewis at the age of 10, also the books about Mary Poppins, Paddington Bear, and Tom’s Midnight Garden.
There are exceptions. Among my favorite US writers living and working today are Jess Walters, Ron Hansen, and Daniel Handler.
GH:Who are your major influences?
GM: As to the Wicked cycle, I would say TH White’s The Once and Future King, Grahame Greene as to a spooky tone and sinister atmosphere, and perhaps Ursula Le Guin as to someone who took and takes fantasy writing with utmost seriousness.
Did you know?
Gregory Maguire is married to painter Andy Newman.