Wicked Witch of the West's son?
Maguire's Son of the Wicked Witch features Liir, offspring of the Wicked Witch of the West.books Updated: Dec 01, 2005 13:12 IST
Gregory Maguire was in London when he first decided to explore the origins of evil. His quest, however, landed him in the fantasy world of Oz.
The author of the best seller, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which inspired the hit Tony-nominated Broadway musical, had originally thought he'd write about Adolf Hitler.
It was the early 1990s and the first Gulf War had just started. Headlines such as "Saddam Hussein: The Next Hitler?" were splashed on the front pages of British newspapers. Maguire's blood chilled. How does someone become so bad? How can one person be so evil? "Stories begin to unfold once I have questions like that, usually unanswerable questions," said Maguire, settling into a leather chair in his study during a recent interview at his home outside Boston.
That's when the author turned to his favorite movie growing up, the book that inspired it and the character that has haunted children for decades: the Wicked Witch in L. Frank Baum's classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
"She was the perfect person to use to try to understand better the nature of evil. You're not really told about her in the original, but I have the freedom to play with a person that people knew and could already identify with," he says.
Maguire, whose trim black beard is flecked with gray, is relaxed in a flannel shirt and loose pants, but takes on a serious tone when speaking about himself, his family and his work.
Grappling with grown-up issues in a children's fantasy world was only natural for the 51-year-old bespectacled author, who has written a dozen children's fantasies. By following the Yellow Brick Road, Maguire was able to use his creative storytelling skills to examine corruption and oppression.
Wicked, the novel, tells the back story of the Wicked Witch, who Maguire names Elphaba. The story is set in a dark and oppressive Oz, where the Wizard's secret police are everywhere and animals are threatened with exile.
Maguire's Elphaba is an intellectual, revolutionary feminist who is deeply misunderstood, yet almost likable despite growing up to be the villainous character ultimately done in by Dorothy. The novel wasn't an instant hit when it came out 10 years ago, but it soon became a cult favorite. It got wider acclaim and reached national lists of best sellers after being turned, more cheerfully and with a happier ending, into a Broadway musical two years ago. Its sequel, Son of a Witch, was published last month. "There's very little about politics in fantasy worlds," Maguire says. "I thought this will be my contribution to the genre, if possible- make it political, make it dirty, make it sexy." Maguire started writing when he was in sixth grade in Albany, New York. The middle child in a family of seven kids, he found escape and privacy in his own writing as well as in more famous literary lands.
Narnia, Neverland, Wonderland, Middle Earth, Maguire explored them all. And like the precocious sixth-grade fictional character he also read, Harriet the Spy, Maguire documented his adventures in a spiralled loose leaf journal - which he keeps to this day. "There are ways in which I feel the most fully alive when I'm actually engaged in the most total fabrication of life," Maguire says of slipping into his world of talking animals and colorful landscapes.
"Gregory had a great imagination and no hesitation of going to the absoulte heart of issues right away," said Jesper Rosenmeier, Maguire's professor of American Literature at Tufts University, where he received a doctorate degree in English and American literature.
"In discussions, Greg was sort of like a tuning fork: He struck the deepest chord. He has tremendous empathy, but he had an ability to challenge others and himself."
These days, Maguire is nearing the end of a 27-stop book tour, crisscrossing the country promoting Son of a Witch." The novel begins 10 years after Wicked ends, and tells the story of a possible son of Elphaba, Liir, struggling with his identity and purpose, should he be evil's offspring.
"The boy is roughly 12 when we meet him," Maguire explains. "How is he to live without the passion or the power of his mother figure, who is dead?"
Maguire's interest in writing may be partly due to his parents. His father was a humor columnist at The Times-Union in Albany and a freelance reporter. His stepmother wrote poetry.
Maguire's birth mother died in complications resulting from childbirth the week he was born. Her name was Helen Gregory, and Maguire is named after her. She was his stepmother's best friend from fourth grade.
While his imagination worked in overdrive to produce stories and journal entries, Maguire still had to make a living. His resume includes busing tables at Friendly's Restaurant, music director and cantor at The Church of Saint Vincent de Paul in Albany, middle school English teacher and professor at Simmons College in Boston.
He also played guitar in coffeehouses, although he denies he was ever good enough to be on the so-called "coffeehouse circuit." Maguire's guitar now leans against a wall in his upstairs study. An old typewriter occupies a spot on a nearby bookshelf. "Five dollars in some yard sale," he jokes. "A writer's office should have a typewriter."
Ceramic pitchers on his large wooden desk store pens and pencils, which he still uses when starting a novel, despite the flat screen computer in the background. A bulletin board with Wicked ticket stubs and a painting by his lawyer-turned-artist husband, Andy Newman, round out the quiet space.
His home is filled with pictures of the couple's three children and volumes of poetry, where Maguire digs for inspiration from Emily Dickinson, Sharon Olds and Stephen Sandy and others. The rustic New England design is intended to evoke the arts colony in upstate New York where he and Newman met eight years ago.
The couple married last year, about six weeks after same-sex marriages became legal in Massachusetts.
"A whole year on, I still am surprised to think of myself as a married man," Maguire says, "surprised in a great and wonderful way."
Maguire says his marriage and his children- two boys ages 7 and 5 adopted from Cambodia, and a 4-year-old girl from Guatemala- have caused him to change his writing habits a bit.
"I have to lecture myself sternly that the children and my marriage are a more important obligation than the next book project or the next deadline," he says. "I love to work." Besides writing, Maguire has been, since 1986, co-director and founding board member of Children's Literature New England, a nonprofit organization that focuses attention on the significance of literature in the lives of children. But his role in that project will likely wind down soon because of the needs of his own children. "They come in at 4 o'clock and they have changed more since 8 o'clock in the morning than you have, no matter what happened to you," he marvels.
After Wicked, Maguire didn't think he'd return to Oz. But with events such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the more recent Abu Ghraib prison scandal, he felt compelled to revisit the fantasyland.
"I think mostly I'm wrestling with the demons in my own soul and if they can amuse and interest other people as pieces of fiction, I'm delighted," he says.
Maguire doesn't think of himself as political and doesn't feel like he has the mettle to stand up on a soapbox. "I don't even know how to build a soapbox," he laughs. "I know how to write a story, that's my skill. And I know how to be passionately interested in something."
Maguire isn't sure where he'll go next, but doubts it will be back to Oz. He's thinking about trying to write a screenplay for a film or writing a play for Broadway.
"I have a very active- indeed, distracting - dream life," he says. "Maybe when I go to sleep I'll say, think of a play: The curtain rises, and then what happens?"