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Interview: Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire is the author of The Wicked Years, a four-book cycle including Wicked, Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men, and Out of Oz—all New York Times bestsellers. Wicked: The Musical is soon to celebrate its tenth anniversary on Broadway, and is one of the top dozen longest-running shows in Broadway history. Maguire has written five other novels for adults and two dozen books for children, and has written and performed pieces for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Selected Shorts. His novel Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister was an ABC film starring Stockard Channing.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.

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The first thing that I wanted to talk about is that I live in New York, and I saw you at an event years ago at a Barnes & Noble in Union Square where you read sections from the novel Wicked and then members of Broadway cast performed the songs that had been adapted from those sections. I thought it was one of the best book events I’d ever seen, and I was just curious whose idea that was and how that came about.

Well, I have to say my publisher, HarperCollins, and the people who make the play, the Broadway theater people, have worked hand-in-glove all the way along in order to make sure that there’s as much generosity of spirit about this shared material as they possibly can. It never hurts the play for me to go out and talk about my work, and it certainly never hurts me, as a writer, to have a fourteen-million-dollar advertising budget behind my book. While I can’t remember whose idea it was exactly, I do know that there was no coercion needed. There were no greased palms, everybody was happy to help out together.

You said something I thought was really funny, if I’m remembering right. You said that when you first went out on tour, one of your friends said something along the lines of, “You’re not so cute that groupies are going to be a huge problem, but you’re cute enough that they might be a slight problem.”

[Laughs] That was the writer Alice Hoffman, who said, “Never leave a bookstore with somebody you’ve just met.” I didn’t want to ask her, “Why, Alice? Do you have any interesting stories you want to tell me about? I’m all ears.” I just said, “Thank you for your advice. I’m a babe in the woods; I’m a novice. I’m not stupid, but I’m a novice.” She gave me, for protection, a kind of hand puppet of the Wicked Witch of the West. She said, “What you must do, if you are going out and you happen to go to a café across from the bookstore, take this Wicked Witch of the West puppet out, order yourself a bottle of wine, do not drink it, just put the puppet on the bottle of wine, and put the Wicked Witch of the West across from you at the table, and that will scare off all pretenders.” That was good advice, except, of course, the Wicked Witch of the West invites lunatics out of the woodwork, and so it didn’t quite work in quite the fashion she had imagined it would. But I did carry that puppet around with me for years and told that story often.

So obviously the Broadway play has been a big success, and I understand there’s a feature film in development. What’s the status of that?

There is a feature film in very slow development. I have not heard any updates recently. I think I did see over the past summer that there was a director who was considering being attached to the project. But Universal Studios is the main bankroller for the play, and they are still making money on Broadway and on four continents on every night the curtains go up, and so they’re not in any big hurry to turn this into a feature film just yet. Why kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs? The eggs are still good-sized, and eventually the movie will come to be, but only I think when the play has finally gotten to be completely passé and either needs a little boost or is done, and therefore can be reinvented once again.

The reason Oz is in the news right now is that there is this new movie coming out called Oz The Great and Powerful. Have you been following that at all?

I have seen the trailers for it. I saw the truncated one last fall that I liked quite a bit. I saw the expanded one that goes out to a minute, and I wasn’t quite as impressed with that one. It began to look as if it were verging on Tim Burton territory. Nothing wrong with that, except that that’s not my personal picture of what Oz is like.

How would you say your take is different from a Tim Burton take on it?

Tim Burton’s worlds are fascinating, and I love them, but they crawl toward the baroque and the macabre, let’s say—even his Alice in Wonderland. My take on Oz is sinister in some ways, but it is no less capable of salvation at the same time. In other words, my world is just as corrupt and just as redeemable as the real world in which we live. At least that’s my artist’s attempt.

I’ve heard you say that one of the things that makes Wicked strike a chord with people is it is concerned with doing the right thing and being good versus being bad and that that’s kind of become almost passé in literature. How do you think we got to this place where questions of doing the right thing are not fashionable?

One can certainly understand that when the bad becomes so immense, the last hundred [or so] years has not been a very noble period for the human race, and so we have some choices just for self-protection. We can choose to ignore the problems, which is the most common way human beings have of severing themselves from the pain of fecklessness, or we can say we’re going to fight as hard as we can, and we’re going to lose. Or we can say it’s all beyond us, no one person can change the history of the Holocaust, no one person can turn back global warming, no one person can impound all the guns that threaten all the schoolchildren in every school in the nation, and so to say that I have the capacity for good is to indulge in a kind of hubris that is outsized to my real capacities. So I think we have stepped back from the belief that we could change the milieu in which we live.

You said that one of your goals with writing Wicked was to encourage people to not be so hasty in demonizing other people and the book has sold millions of copies—I think seven million copies—the play has been this big Broadway hit: Have you gotten any feedback that suggests that message is sinking in to people who are enjoying the story?

Yes, I have. Mostly from young people who are not scared of saying what they think about something. We should all be that young. I am very pleased that Elphaba particularly as a character, but also the story of Wicked in general has been such as to make people want to write to me and say, “I identify with this character of Elphaba because she is going up against it; she knows she has so little chance of success, but she won’t give up.” And, personally, between you and me and anybody else [listening to] this podcast, I identify with her too. I take my own set of courage from the story of Elphaba. I admit it’s a bit onanistic to think I can admire as a hero somebody I made up from some part of my own brain. It’s a little bit of a closed system there, isn’t it? But nonetheless, I do. I don’t quite say to myself, “What would Elphaba do?” But in a way, knowing that there’s a character like Elphaba out in the world—it doesn’t matter that I helped shape her—what matters is that I can take an impression from her strength and her vivacity, and it can make me decide how I’m going to approach my teenage kids when they come home today.

Do you ever get letters from kids who say, “There was this green-skinned girl in our class, and we used to be mean to her, but having read the book, now we realize we should be nicer to her.”

No, because every letter that I get from every kid says, “I am the green-skinned girl. They should be nicer to me.” Boys and girls alike.

Let’s talk about the world of Oz. Since this is a show for fantasy and science fiction fans, I think one that one thing that was really interesting about the way that you approached creating this world of Oz is you said that you actually consulted with a cultural anthropologist to create the societies. Do you have lessons that are generalizable for fantasy writers in terms of creating those kinds of worlds?

I think about this a lot in almost every work that I do, regardless of the audience. If it’s an audience of kids who are eight or if it’s an audience of adult readers, I try to think, “What are the minimum details that I need to supply in order to make this world seem coherent?” Now, in a short story, you may only need one or two crispy phrases or surprising iterations of the layout of the world in order to make the whole thing snap into being and leap up before the eyes of the reader like a pop-up book. But, in a large world, especially a world like Oz, which already existed, I felt I needed to be on the money for every single aspect of the life and culture and history that’s provided. But, of course, L. Frank Baum did not provide a whole lot of that. The history of Oz is very sketchy, and I wanted to deepen it and to enrich it, and I wanted to be able to have some sense of how the entire society had worked and was working and might work in the future, depending on how people behaved. To that end, I made a list of the things that any cultural anthropologist going out in the field might actually consider upon finding a new population. What are the inheritance structures? What are the class divides? How do the people in any particular part of the clan relate to clans outside and to differences within the clan? What is the attitude toward gender? And then what are some of the processes? The marriage processes? The birth processes? What is the relationship of fable and faith in that particular society? The more I delved in, the more I got my hands dirty, the more I felt I could find answers either in myself or in some turning over of the ground that L. Frank Baum and MGM had left us.

You did have to make some changes to L. Frank Baum’s world—what have been the most impassioned reactions from L. Frank Baum purists that you’ve gotten to changes that you made?

The initial response to Wicked from the world at large, the world of literary critics, was generally very good. There was one particularly nasty response from the New York Times, but almost all the other reviews were quite flattering. They were better reviews than I ever expected to get in my life, and I was really pleased. The Oz purists were slower to come on board. I think I was considered something of a heretic at first, for the following reasons: I allowed a certain kind of joyful inanity to seep out of Oz, that is to say, while there’s cause and effect in the story of Dorothy in Oz, there really is very little cause and effect in Oz without Dorothy there. The populations all throughout Oz that Baum began to embroider and then continue to embroider were all self-contained and hardly knew or cared about each other even if their territories were contiguous. There was very little sense of how they’d come to be there or what made them be unique, one from another. When Dorothy lands in Munchkinland, nobody in Munchkinland has ever been to the Emerald City, it’s just hearsay. They’re farmers out in the sticks, so I felt that I needed to explain a little bit about that, about why the populations were so different, and that suggested to me that there was a lot more antagonism among the populations than Dorothy was aware of when she got there. So most of my inventions were based on apprehensions from clues that had been left on the ground by Baum—and by MGM, I consider them co-parents, as it were, of the Oz that we all feel that we know. The diehard Oz enthusiasts, the L. Frank Baum clubs, etc. were not all that happy, but I’ll tell you this: I was out in Wichita or in Kansas City or Omaha or someplace on tour for Wicked, and at the end of my reading when I had talked about the Wicked Witch of the West, and I had made it clear that I had no intention to have written a Saturday Night Live parody of The Wizard of Oz, I intended to take it all very seriously as if it were a nineteenth-century moral tale. At the very end, when I was signing books, a woman came up to me. She was very tall, she had a trench coat, a brim-snapped hat on, and she came to me, and she peered down into my face, and she said, “I have a confession to make.” I said, “Yes?” She looked this way, she looked that, she said, “I’m from the official International Wizard of Oz Club, and I’ve come to spy on you and report back to our minions, but I’ve become a convert!” And then she threw off her hat and bought three books and had them all signed for her mother and her husband and her children. I think that’s sort of what happened. It took the Oz people a little bit longer to realize, yes, I was playing around with sacred material, but not in any way to disgrace the original material, just actually to make it seem richer and to make its richness make more sense.

There’s this whole thing about in the Wizard of Oz that the Scarecrow is the symbol for the farmers, and the Yellow Brick Road is a symbol for the gold standard, and the whole thing is a political allegory. What do you think about that and did you do anything similar with your Oz books?

I stayed away from using any of those characters as allegorical elements, I mean, the most famous characters. And I have come around to thinking that, what I’ve heard a few other people write, is that it’s quite possible that the images of the Yellow Brick Road and the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, particularly, occurred to L. Frank Baum as a result of political cartooning. He was, after all, a newspaper journalist in the years before he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and so he was familiar with how political cartoons were beginning to use symbols like that and characters in order to demonstrate certain segments of the population and their attitudes toward cultural, social, political, and historical changes. On the other hand, it’s been suggested that the images themselves are so strong, that they actually didn’t have to mean anything. The cow jumping over the moon doesn’t have to mean anything, but, boy, there’s a cow jumping over the moon, that in itself. Blake famously said about the “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright” in his poem, when asked, “What does the tiger stand for?” he said, “The tiger stands for the tiger.” And so, in a sense, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man stand for who they are in the story; their origins may have been political, but once Baum started to use them as characters, they shucked off their origins, I do believe. And so I don’t believe anybody would waste his time writing an allegory about the foundations of fiscal policy in a book intended for eight year olds.

You have said that Wicked was inspired by the US involvement in Iraq. Were the later books in the series similarly intertwined with contemporary politics or did it kind of go off on its own after a while?

Well, they were. Son of a Witch, the second in the series, was the most directly inspired by contemporary events, and here’s where I break with what I said as an answer to the previous question, the book Son of a Witch was intended as a response of mine to the Second Gulf War, and to the pictures of people coming out of Abu Ghraib, especially the one of the man with the hood and he’s on a box wired up supposedly to electrodes. Those pictures came out and were all over the front of the Boston Globe and they were so horrendous that I felt physically sick, and I thought if I don’t write something about somebody making an attempt to break someone out of prison, then I’m just going to go bonkers. I’m going to have to sign myself into McLean’s [psychiatric hospital] and spend the rest of my life there because I find this so offensive, so horrible to consider. Now when I came to read the book Son of a Witch for an audio book, books on tape, I found to my surprise that the character playing the new ruler of Oz, the new Emperor of Oz, had a distinctly Texan twang, which I don’t believe he had any right to have. So I suppose I was betraying my own political attitude in my performance of some of the characters once I came to do the book on tape.

You’ve described yourself as a pacifist. How hard is it to be a pacifist given contemporary politics when there doesn’t seem to be much support for that kind of idea?

I’m a pacifist by inclination; it’s not a religion. I would prefer in almost all instances for people not to be put in danger, but I was also raised a Christian, and I have read the essay by Thomas Aquinas on the moral justifications for a just war, and I know that there are times when one must pick up guns and try to right a wrong or to defend yourself. I know that. But I just always hope that’s always used as defense and as a last resort rather than an immediate kneejerk reaction. It is hard. It’s a hard position to hold, and like any position that any thinking being holds, I wobble on it back and forth all day long as well as in any given conversation.

Can you talk about how you went down to Nicaragua on sort of a peace mission?

Yes. It was in the late eighties, right before the Iran-Contra revelations, but there was certainly money coming in, flooding in from the United States, to arm one side of the struggle, to arm the right side of the struggle. By “right” I mean not the progressive side, not the leftist side, but the other direction. And I knew that there was, because I knew people who lived there, that there was a really commendable effort by American citizens who didn’t believe in the arming of rebels in another country to want to go to Nicaragua, and to stand, to want to link arms with the peasantry [ . . . ] as a way of saying even if the American government is funding these guns, not everybody in America, in the United States, feels the same way. So we’re going to come down and just be another voice, another presence, and stand [ . . . ] in solidarity with the movement. I was very happy to do that, I was very scared to do that, and I’ve never done it again. But it was a real education, and it was an attempt for me to stand up for what I believed.

You talked about using storytelling to comfort children there.

Yes. Boy, you’ve done your research well. The fact is that I didn’t speak much Spanish, but I found that I have a little bit of a Pied Piper sort of presence sometimes among children, and I was able just with the tiniest bit of toys or sticks or stones and making animal noises, I was almost always able to bring the children together and to engage with them. I was staying one night in a house that only had one door. It was in the farthest highland place that we were going on this trip, and about nine o’clock at night the lights in the town went off, the entire lights of the whole little mountainside village went off, and one of the Americans said, “Oh, they may be cutting the power in order to attack the town at night. We all better go inside our homes.” I was staying with a minister whose wife had been killed and had left him with three children, and when the guns went off, the children came and nestled under my arms, like little chickadees coming for safety, to a person who didn’t have any Spanish and certainly didn’t know what to do if somebody burst through the door with a gun, and I just started singing and rocking and making funny noises, and indeed it was some sort of gun episode, outside in the street outside our house. Nobody was hurt, eventually everything was silenced. I never did find out what it was, but I felt that I was able, at least in that moment, to give comfort in the way that I could, by singing and being a lunatic.

I think it’s really interesting that you said that your parents didn’t really let you watch TV and that The Wizard of Oz was basically the only TV that you were allowed to watch, that it was like Christmas that it was on TV once a year and you were allowed to watch it.

Well, the story as you put it out is a little extreme. We actually were allowed to watch TV, but not much. We had to vote as a family of seven children which half hour the TV was going to be on every week. We could watch it every week, we just couldn’t watch it all that regularly. But, yes, you’re right, once a year my parents relented, they gave up their harshness and their restrictions and they said, “Oh, The Wizard of Oz is a great family film, every child should see it.” It was part of our annual festival, it was in the liturgical calendar, really: There was Christmas, there was Easter, there was The Wizard of Oz. [ . . . ] Because of that, I think the story of Oz got into me, I don’t say more deeply than it did to other people of my generation, who didn’t live in the video mesmorama in which children and adults live now, but it certainly did get in deep to me as the first instance of a filmic impression. This was one of the few stories that I got through the movies first, and then went back and started trying to find the books afterwards.

I saw that your father wrote a humor column. What kind of effect did that have on you?

Yes, you might say he was a kind of early and localized Garrison Keillor, not with the kind of extended metaphor with which Garrison Keillor has been working for forty years or so, but he collected funny stories from around town and told them in a column that ran four days a week in our local newspaper. He was also a stringer attached to Time and Newsweek and the New York Times to report on any news that was happening out of upstate New York—the Albany area where I was born and where I was raised. So I grew up thinking, “Oh! I don’t think too much of my father, I don’t like him, he’s a bore, I’m going to do anything other than what he does in my life, I’m going to be a different person than he is,” but my whole life I’ve been a writer, exactly the way he has, and incidentally so too are three of my brothers writers, so despite the fact that we thought what he did was not terribly interesting, we must have been raised in that hothouse atmosphere of love for words, love of story, and love of sharing whatever it was that was good by writing about it.

What do you think about that, being raised with such limited access to television? What kind of effect did that have on you? I know you have kids now. I can’t even imagine trying to limit kids’ access to the Internet and so on today. What do you think of that sort of approach of limiting children’s access to media?

I think it’s a lost cause, and I think it’s important to lose it. That is to say, I think it’s important to try, and I think you’re going to lose. Our children are now fifteen, thirteen, and eleven, and we won the battle for ten years in a row. From the time they came to us, they’re all adopted, until they were about eleven, and then, in the last couple of years, as they’ve come up into high school and middle school, we’ve pretty much lost a good part of the battle, they are on screens an awful lot of the time, but not all the time. I still collect the iPad, the iPod, the phone, and the computers every night around eight thirty, quarter to nine, and that’s it ’til the next morning. They are supposed to read, and most of them do, the older one does homework, and the younger two read every night. They are not being raised in the world in which I was raised, and I couldn’t raise them there even if I wanted because it doesn’t exist anymore. I’ve had to relax a little bit and remind myself they need to be able to be functional in the world in which they find themselves. Just as I’ve found a way to be functional in my own [ . . . ] universe.

I saw on your Facebook page that you went to a symposium on dystopias last May. What was that and what things were discussed there?

It was run by a group called Children’s Literature New England, which is a group I actually helped to start about twenty-seven years ago. That group had as its aim to enliven the mission of telling people about the significance of literature in the lives of the children. To do that, it used to hold weeklong conferences once a year at which a stellar band of writers and illustrators, teachers and librarians, would come together. We had people like Ursula Le Guin and Maurice Sendak, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, just pretty much anybody who was alive and could move across the floor accepted our invitations to come and speak. But as I have gotten older and have pulled back from doing that kind of organizing work in order to raise my own family, the group too has gone through a transition, and last fall we’d been meeting in smaller groups, and we did have a three-day symposium on dystopian fiction. We read some older material, we talked about Tobin Anderson’s work. We talked about The Hunger Games work. Some of the names of the books escape me at the moment. There’s a wonderful new anthology by Datlow and Windling called After. I don’t know if you’ve seen that. I have a story in that. And that’s a whole set of new and original dystopian fiction written for children.

Do you want to tell us about your story from the anthology?

Yes, it’s called “Hw th’Irth Wint Rong by Hapless Joey @ homeskool.guv.” And it is a six- or seven-page story that pays a tip of the hat/homage to Russell Hoban in his famous and wonderful dystopian novel called Riddley Walker. What most characterized that novel is that, in addition to the world being broken, even language was broken. The laws of grammar had all been forgotten. In order to read Riddley Walker, pretty much you have to read it out loud the way you find if you read Shakespeare out loud or Chaucer, who actually realized that your ears are hearing things and understanding it, doing just as much of the work as your eyes are doing. You read Riddley Walker and you read it out loud phonetically like a child learning to read and you remember how every child learning to read is trying to unriddle the universe. I took that plan and I wrote about a boy who was trying to write an essay about what happened to the world. He sees photographs of what the world used to be like when planes flew through the air, and everybody was clean and lawns were cut and everything seemed to be bright-colored, but in the time since he was born, half the world plunged into shadow, my suggestion as to why that happened is that something has gone wrong with that high speed particle collider halfway underneath France and Switzerland and that it generated a particle that began to change the nature of molecules. This is actually built out of a fear of mine of the Large Hadron Collider. People talked about the fact that nobody really knew what was going to happen if two particles collided and made a third particle that had never existed. Well, I always have to have something to worry about when I go to bed. First, it’s whether or not I’ve flossed correctly, and then it’s whether or not the universe is going to change its nature before I get up and brush my teeth. So that’s really where that story began, it was built out of that anxiety.

You’re best known for writing fantasy but I saw you wrote at least one young adult science fiction novel; I don’t know if there are others. Just what is your relationship with science fiction?

I read science fiction when I was fourteen or fifteen in the way that I read everything. So I read my Robert Heinlein, I read my Isaac Asimov, and I read my Ray Bradbury. There are some science fiction writers I really do admire a huge amount. There’s somebody who writes for teenagers, H. M. Hoover; she wrote with particular literary style that was very appealing to me. I’ve liked some of the work that Doris Lessing . . . and at the moment names escape me. I admire almost everything of Ursula Le Guin’s.

I hear you’re working on a new novel called Egg and Spoon. You want to tell us about that?

Yes, it’s on a table in the back of my study here. It is, in a little bit of a sense, a dystopian novel. It is set in the past, in roughly 1905 in czarist Russia. And despite the fact that it’s set back then, it’s really a meditation on some things that we are facing right now in our dystopian 2013, which is the threat of climate change, floods, and droughts, and weather that won’t sit in the month in which it belongs, and its implications for human suffering and the human need to begin to find new ways to share resources. I purposely set it in the past so that it won’t be too extreme and too science fiction, and it allows me to dabble in the kinds of things that I like to, but it nonetheless is intended to respond to readers, to young readers, right in the world in which they live. In which we see these storms, and we can worry about things like colony collapse of bees and about drought and about what it’s going to mean if our chain of food supply really is as drastically interrupted and revised as seems to be quite possible even within our lifetimes.

Do you have any idea when it will be released into the wild?

I would like to think that there is still a wild for it to be released into by the time I’m finished, and I would like to say probably fall of 2014.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.