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Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire was born on June 9, 1954, in Albany, New York. He earned his Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Tufts University. Maguire is best known for his series of novels entitled The Wicked Years, beginning with Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which was adapted for stage in the classic Broadway musical Wicked. He is the co-founder of Children’s Literature New England, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing awareness of the significance of literature in the lives of children. He currently lives in Massachusetts with his husband, painter Andy Newman, and their three adopted children.

Spectator Magazine: Alright, so you’ve published over a dozen novels for children, you’ve taught children’s literature on the graduate level, and you’re involved in 2 nonprofits that advocate children’s literacy. What attracted you to children’s lit?

Gregory Maguire: Well, I was a child reader, as most children are, as childhood is the time you learn to read. However, my parents were so strict, and we were not wealthy, so the only liberty and luxury that I had in childhood was reading. A library card served as a passport to adventure, danger, imagination. I felt that I really understood, even when I was ten, how valuable books are when you’re young. They open up a world for young people, and I thought it would be a beautiful, useful way to spend my life; opening up the world for other kids the way it had been opened for me.

SM: Wow, that’s fascinating, thank you.

GM: Sure.

SM: So you’ve written not only children’s novels and picture books, but also adult novels. Is there any sort of awkward transition period when you finish writing, let’s say, a fantastic children’s novel and begin writing an adult novel? How do you shift from one to the other?

GM: Have you ever been in a car, maybe going from your home—which I assume is urban, although that may be incorrect—and you’re going someplace else, and you have to go through a mountain? When you do that, when you go, if you drive any place from one urban area to another through a rural area, almost inevitably what happens is you lose your radio connection. When you come out of the mountain, you have to frequently work the dial on your car radio this way and that way, try to find your signal, I mean if you can, in order to keep listening to the radio. I give you that as a metaphor for how work changes from one project to another, even if it’s the same audience, but especially if it’s a different audience. You feel as if for a while you are moving along in your life in inception and then little by little you begin to hear a trend of ideas, a trend of the way ideas are presenting themselves to you, uh, in your head, and by paying attention to them you can tell whether the idea is an idea for adults or for children and then you keep working, trying to get the radio dial to the most advantageous place in order to hear the story in your imagination, the most perfect place to go correctly.

SM: Did you come up with that whole metaphor on the spot, or have you used that before?

GM: I thought about it just now. Actually, I was just writing a passage before this. I mean I’ve used the notion of radio reception before, but I didn’t actually think about it in terms of audiences until just now. I’m actually writing a paragraph right now about a girl on a train, and the one part of her life in another. So I suppose that’s why the metaphor seemed correct [laughs].

SM: Well it fit very well! So with all these different types of things that you write, what’s your favorite type of thing to write? And I do mean that to be vague.

GM: Well, I like to write paragraphs that have, um, painterly approaches. That is, even if I’m writing about an idea, I like to…I like the visual. A good example I can give is the metaphor I just used. You were asking me about a mental process, and I answered you with a visual, driving from one town to another on a rough course. I answered you with a mental image. And whether I’m writing for adults or for children, whether I’m writing letters or in my journal, or even if I’m writing criticisms or speeches, I like it to be visual so that the reader doesn’t have to work so hard to have an image in his or her head. It’s also what I love when I read; I love to read people who can present their ideas in such a form that I can imagine it as if it was a video where I can see where they’re going. I can see the room. I can see something, I can touch, feel, smell. It is something concrete.

SM: Alright. So moving a little bit into your specific work, tell me about your usage of folklore and fairytales as foundations for some, the majority of, your adult novels.

GM: Well, as you know, on this particular Saturday upon which we’re speaking, it is three days before the national election. And the amount of passion and argumentativeness (laughs), irritability, mistrust, that is in evidence this time of year, every four years, is so colossal, that it reminds you as an adult of how little in common many people in America share. You know, they don’t necessarily share pain, they don’t necessarily share belief in the idea of government, they don’t necessarily share cultural ideas about what is the right political was to live, and what specific power they have. Um, so, when I write a book, I don’t just want to talk to people who think exactly like me. I want  to talk to as many people as possible. When I use folklore or fairy tales or children’s books as, you know, foundations for my fiction, what I am doing is trying to talk to everybody in the room, because you may believe in freedom of choice and I may believe in abortion. You may be a republican and I may be an agnostic. You may be an independent and I may be a vegetarian. But all of us have those childhood stories as a part of our foundation, period. Everybody does. And so, uh, the reason I use fairytales and folktales is to provide a common language that all people share, even when they disagree about everything. Everybody knows about these stories. Everybody knows about the Wicked Witch of the West. You don’t have to belong to a special political party, or live on the coast, or in the heartland to know about art, and that which became a part of your childhood, it becomes a part of your language, of understanding, no matter what you believe in.

"A library card served as a passport to adventure, danger, imagination."

SM: And your novels that use folklore or fairytale as foundations, they focus on the original villains of these stories. Is that to create the point of view that everybody should have that equal start?

GM: That’s a wonderful critical assessment, and I had not thought about it in quite that way, but I don’t dispute it. I think that you have made an interesting, intellectual lead from my answer to your question, and I think you’re probably right. I think, probably, what I am trying to say is we all need to listen to one another, including the people we think are the bad guys. We still need to listen to them. I think your grandmother, Virginia Euwer Wolff, says some of the same things in her work; that actually we need one another no matter how how different we are. It’s a requirement of citizenship and it’s a requirement of courtesy.

SM: Mhm. I agree. So, this is quite a transition; you’ve had one novel adapted for the stage and another adapted for the screen. How involved were you in those projects, and did you enjoy them?

GM: I was not very involved in either. For the screen adaptation, I was made an associate producer, which merely meant I got a first class ticket to fly to Europe, where they were filming, and I hung around and watched the filming for about five days, and then came home. They never asked me about anything, I didn’t offer it, but it was fun. It was fun to get to see the process of that. I got to know the actors and actresses a little bit, and enjoyed helping. The play, I had even less to do with, and that was by design. That was my choice. I decided I would rather have people who were going to work on the play have complete license to do the very best job that they could, with their professional skills, and not have to answer to me. And I was very happy that I did that. I mean, it would’ve been nice to hang out in the theater and watch the whole process, and if I had wanted to, I no doubt could have. But I didn’t want to, I wanted to stay aside, and I also didn’t want to get in the way of anybody’s process.

SM: And do you approve of the adaptations? I know that you’ve seen Wicked, I don’t know if you’ve seen Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.    

GM: Yes, I saw Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister only once or maybe twice. Um, I liked at least something about each one of the adaptations. In fact, I liked quite a bit about each one.

SM: That’s good! So can you tell us a little about Children’s Literature New England, and what gave you the idea or caused you to feel the need to help start that?

GM: Yes, um, when I was about 24, I stopped teaching 7th and 8th graders—I had only taught for one year—but I went to a graduate program in Boston in children’s literature because I finally realized that what I’m writing was, I think at that point, children’s books. Um, and so I went to the school in Boston, and consequently when I got my master's, I began to teach graduate school. And I did that for eight years and I met many wonderful writers and illustrators and people in publishing, teachers and librarians. After about eight years, I had quit the college that I had been working in, and so did many of my friends. We did not want to keep working for that college because they were being jerks, but we did not want to lose our ambition to do good for the world. So we set ourselves up, we all quit the college, and we set ourselves up at Children’s Literature New England in order to keep the community together and to keep the good work going forward.

SM: Do you still enjoy working with it?

GM: Well, actually, after 25 years I have retired from Children’s Literature New England formally, but I will always have something to do with it, and yes I do. And that’s how I know your grandmother. On the very first day I met your grandmother, I could tell we had a lot in common. You can probably tell that too, by listening to me speak.

SM: Oh, most definitely.

GM: [Laughs] And so Children’s Literature New England has given me access to many wonderful, brilliant minds like your grandmother’s and many other people’s.

SM: So how has having three kids of your own impacted your writing, if at all?

GM: It has made me clinically insane [laughs]. It’s interesting. It’s a complicated answer, but I’ll try to simplify it. What it has not done is it has not given more ideas or a new understanding of childhood. I thought that it would, but it hasn’t. What it has done is made me despise myself and become more schizophrenic. Which is to say; now when I am a writer, I am writing. And when I stop writing, I cannot obsess about other work for the rest of the day. I have to go back to being a father, a parent. And when I go to sleep at night, instead of thinking, “What is wrong with my characters? What are they going to do next?” I think “What is wrong with my children? What are they going to do next?” So having children made my creative life become more compartmentalized. I used to be more integrated, where I would wake and think and breathe my work all day long in a happy narcotic bliss. Now, my life is more, uh, dispersed. I have to do things out of obligation to my children. That is a very metaphoric explanation, but that really is the way that they… that is the effect they’ve had on me. They have not improved my comprehension of human nature. I wish they had, but they haven’t.

SM: Alright, and I know that both you and your husband, Andy Newman, are artists. Have you ever inspired each other?

GM: Well, here’s how. We have not inspired each other due to our different work, but we do inspire each other to keep working. We talk every day at lunch. Every single day, unless we have company, about what we have done in the morning, what we have achieved, what we have failed at, and how we hope to move on. So in a way, we have a little art colony of two people. We separate for work during the day, and we eat lunch and dinner, and of course with the children too. We give each other courage. And that’s a wonderful, wonderful contribution we give to each other.

SM: That’s lovely. What’s that like, having another artist there with your to talk about that with?

GM: I think that I’m not inclined to be lazy. I’m not a lazy person, but without being coy about it, I have accidentally become prosperous. I did not intend to, but it happened. And I think that if I did not or stopped living with another artist, I might become tempted to be lazy, if you see what I mean.

SM: Yeah.

GM: I mean, I don’t have to work for my mortgage the way I used. If I feel like slacking off, I can. If I felt like retiring, I can. But my husband says, "What did you do today?” and his interest sets an example and inspires me not to be lazy and to keep working.

SM: Alright, well, switching over to a question about personal opinion, if you don’t mind. Kids are surrounded by an incredible amount of storytelling mediums nowadays, from books to TV to movies to the Internet. Do you think that being told a story through reading has a different impact than being told the same story through watching a TV show or a movie?

GM: I have to say, you have the best questions of all the interviewers that have ever interviewed me, and I’m not being flattering.

SM: Thank you!

GM: I get so bored by so many questions, when people call me up and try to be polite, but I, you know, Andy always asks, “What was the interview like?” and I say, “Oh, you know, the usual.” And I try to be polite, but it’s very frustrating. But that’s a really fine question, and because it’s so fine, I’m not going to answer it very well because I’m going to have to think about it. The brief answer is that yes, I do think that there is a big difference between getting a story by reading it itself. I even think there is a big difference between reading a book and reading the cliff notes. I even think there’s a big difference between reading a hardcover and reading a paperback, and I’ll give you some insight to why I think that. But what the difference is, I’m not sure. I just believe there is a big difference. I feel it myself, as a reader, and I’m sure that difference is experienced by younger people. What it is though, because these young people are growing up with media I did not have as a kid, I really, I don’t know. I feel very ignorant and lost about this question. But what a fine question. And I just gave you an example. Back when I taught at college, I taught what they call an undergraduate course, Introduction to Children’s Literature. And I had people— my students were all about teenage, twenties, and thirties—I had them read about thirty novels for the semester. Thirty or forty. A the very end, the second to last day of class, I handed out a list of everything that they’d read, and I said, “I want you to put a checkmark next to the books you’ve read that you liked, and leave blank the ones, the names of the books you didn’t like.” I said, “This is not critical. You don’t even have to put your names on these pages; I just want you to do this as an exercise.” So they did. They had the list for about five minutes, and then I said, “Ok. Now I want you to go back and on the other side of the title of those thirty books you’ve read this semester, I want you to put a check next to the books that you read in hardcover.” And they did. And then I said, “Now count up the number of books you checked both for liking and for hardcover, and write that number down.” And they did, and I took them home and I studied them, and you know what I found out?

SM: What?

GM: The rough number between 60 and 80 percent correlation between books they had enjoyed the most and the fact that they read them in hardcover. It wasn’t a perfect correlation, but it was far more than an accidental one. So I say this to you by way of suggesting: yes, I think there is a difference in how you choose to read, whether it’s a hardcover or a paperback, and what you get out of it. But what is the difference beyond that one example, I do not know.

SM: That’s really interesting, especially because I do actually enjoy reading hardcovers more than paperbacks.

GM: Well I, um, I can guess why you might. For one thing, at least in America, the paper is generally bigger, and therefore there’s more space between the lines, and it’s easier to read. The second thing is that the design of the page is usually more elegant, and that may seem like a small thing, but if you have a choice between reading an elegant page and a less elegant page, you, you veer toward satisfaction. Finally, a hardcover book is easier to open, and a paperback book very often, I think, we lose, unless it’s really well made, you lose some of the language that comes from the gutter. I just think it ends up hidden a tiny bit, so it makes sense that the more effort you put into reading the more you would get out of it too.

SM: Mhmm. Going on with storytelling mediums, Maurice Sendak once said in regard to e-books, “I hate them. It’s kind of like making believe there’s another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of book! A book is a book is a book.” What’s your opinion on this quotation?

GM: Maurice Sendak is honest and correct in every syllable he’s ever uttered (laughs). I believe that too. Now, I have an example. Not about another kind of sex, about another kind of book (laughs). I was reading War and Peace this summer for the first time.... in fact, I’m rather embarrassed to have not read it before. But I thought, well, no time like the present. So I got a hardcover book and I was reading it, but I am now older and I read lying down, and sometime after lunch I fall asleep while I’m reading, and this heavy book falls on my chest and it’s like a thunderclap. It’s so heavy. And so I began to realize that, you know, for once I wasn’t enjoying reading hardcover. So I finished the first quarter of it or so, and then I said, when I go back to state, I’m going to buy it on an e-book, and then it won’t fall on my chest. And, um, even though I don’t really like e-books, with that book it might be different, easier. Do I bought it on an e-book and I read another 150 pages. And you know what? I find that I cannot remember it as well from reading words on the screen as I do when I’m reading it in the book. And further, I find that I don’t have as much of an appetite to pick it up. Also, the most outrageous crime of all as an author, I decided to skim. Now, Tolstoy is one of the greatest artists of literature. You know, you don’t skim Shakespeare , you don’t skim Emily Dickinson, and you certainly don’t skim Tolstoy. You don’t skim! So anyways, I think there is a difference. It’s something else, it’s not a book. It’s not a reading experience for me. So, admittedly, I am 58, and so it becomes harder as you get older to take on new technology. And Maurice Sendak was a lot older than I, so it became even harder for him.

SM: Alright, I actually only have one more question planned. And that is, what did you like to read as a kid?

GM: Wow. I liked to read fantasy books; I liked all the obvious ones. I liked Narnia. I liked A Wrinkle in Time. I liked a wonderful book by Jane Langton called The Diamond in the Window. Um, but there were two—all my favorite books were fantasy with two exceptions—and those two exceptions were, I wonder if you have read either of them, one is book called Harriet the Spy.

SM: I adore that book.

GM: That’s one of the books that made me want to be a writer. Um, and the second one is a book called The Pushcart War.

SM: I have never heard of that.

GM: It’s a wonderful book, and the author just died, so that’s why it’s on the market right now. It’s about the same era as Harriet the Spy, that is, early 60’s. It’s an extremely funny, um, part, I think you might say, about a war between the giant trucking companies clogging up the streets of Manhattan and all immigrant pushcart peddlers who have to fight to save their lives and it is really funny and it is in some ways profound. I would highly recommend it, especially because Jean Merrill just died and it’s nice to remember somebody and their good work. So Harriet the Spy was about writing, and being true to yourself; The Pushcart War was about politics and how the little guys can manage not to be pulled over by the big bullies. Both of those concepts are important to me in my personal life, and I can treat my love of those books as a child as a moment when I realized, even if I couldn't articulate it, I realized that being honest and true was an important part of growing up. And hearing out the little guy was another important thing.

SM: Mhm. Well, I want to thank you so much for your time. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed doing this. Your answers were exquisitely imaginative and incredible, and thank you so much.

GM: Well you're welcome! Will you send me a copy of what you write, when you're done?

SM: Most definitely. We will make sure to send you a copy of the magazine.

GM: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for your immensely thoughtful questions. And I can't wait, at lunch today, when Andy says, “So how was the interview? Same as usual?”, and I’ll say “No, no, no!”

—Gregory Maguire for Spectator Magazine, 20__

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