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    Gregory Maguire Reinvents Fantasy Fiction

    Categories: How to Improve Writing Skills.

    With the exception of the late actress Margaret Hamilton (and perhaps that insufferable whiner, Dorothy), no name has become more closely linked to the Wicked Witch of the West than that of Gregory Maguire. It may come as a surprise then that his bestselling novel Wicked did not begin as a re-envisioning of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

    Maguire, who’d published more than a dozen books for children from 1978 to 1994, initially set his sights on a more flesh-and-blood nefarious subject: Adolf Hitler. Interested in exploring the nature of evil through fiction, Maguire hoped to find a context familiar enough to his new adult readers that they’d feel comfortable sticking with him for hundreds of pages while he investigated a topic he knew wasn’t necessarily the stuff of beach reads. But a lack of confidence in his own ability to sift through the overwhelming scholarship on the Führer’s life led him to abandon his first subject.

    Unsure who would make the most compelling protagonist, Maguire heard echoes of the age-old advice write what you know. “But I knew finding evil in the workings of educational nonprofits and church choirs, my primary employers, would be tough going,” he says. So he turned to the subject of his doctoral dissertation at Tufts University: fantasy fiction.

    SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE OF CHILDHOOD—FOR GROWNUPS

    Maguire had loved and studied C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and every writer from Lewis Carroll to Madeleine L’Engle and beyond, and at last it hit him: L. Frank Baum and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. “That witch was the second scariest creature in my subconscious, after Hitler,” Maguire says.

    He knew he couldn’t simply build a novel around a witch who was scary; a whole world had to be constructed. “Without imagining I had either the wit or the cojones of, say, a García Márquez or a Rushdie, I still wanted to unfold for the reader a literary experience that was at once so dense and immediate as to make the reader forget it was a fantasy.”

    With such a high bar set, Maguire started searching for the heart of his story. Writers often hear their mentors stress the importance of a novel’s central conflict, so what—or who—could be vexing his witch?

    “I remembered some line from the 1939 film in which the Wicked Witch addresses Glinda by name,” recalls Maguire. “I was in England, unable to find a copy of the film to rent, and I remembered it as, ‘I might have known you’d be behind this, Glinda!’ But in fact the line was more like, ‘You stay out of this, Glinda, or I’ll fix you as well!’ That single line prompted the story’s key revelation: that Glinda and the Wicked Witch had a history. The moment I understood that, I began to laugh and I knew I had a good idea. I wasn’t sure I could carry it off, though.”

    Carry it off he did—as a bestselling novel that would be the beginning of a new genre all Maguire’s own.

    Many writers dream of seeing their work interpreted dramatically, and Maguire experienced the height of this when Wicked was transformed into a Tony Award–winning Broadway production. Although the process of “letting go” and allowing one’s work to be adapted can be agonizing, Maguire took a laissez-faire approach.

    “Given that L. Frank Baum saw fit not to come out of the grave and haunt me for hijacking his story for my own aims, I thought it only proper to follow his lead and take a very distant backseat in the creative work that went into the mounting of Wicked as a musical,” he explains. Fans and critics alike noted the musical’s deviations from the novel, but Maguire appreciates them both for what they contribute to the reinvention of the Witch, and for the differing ways in which they      capture audiences.

    “The play is a bittersweet comedy, and the book, I think, a comic tragedy, but the meaning is the same: The life of the aberrant soul can have value, and it is no less a loss when one has to say goodbye (through death, through separation) to someone on the margins as to someone in the middle,” he says.

    Perhaps more important than the success of the novel and musical, during the process of writing Wicked, Maguire discovered something fundamental about storytelling that has come to define his career: “Childhood is the source of the only common language we possess,” he says. “Why not use it to make a fictional point?

    “Children’s fables and stories supply perhaps the only genuinely universal bank of references that a contemporary adult reading audience might be expected to share. We no longer can rely (if ever we could) upon all readers to pick up allusions to the ancient Greek myths, the Roman orations, the Old Testament histories, the New Testament parables. But we can reasonably assume that saying, ‘I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,’ is going to fall on appreciative ears.”

    Much of Wicked’s power does lie in Maguire’s deft maneuvering between decidedly adult elements and the tropes and cues of what’s essentially a children’s story, and the same can be said of its sequels, Son of a Witch and 2008’s A Lion Among Men, as well as Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (his reimagining of Cinderella, set in 17th-century Haarlem during the tulip boom and bust), and Mirror Mirror (which transplants Snow White in Renaissance Italy). A fifth novel, Lost, takes a bit more of a realistic approach but still calls to mind the works of Charles Dickens and A.S. Byatt with its ghost-story overtones.

    Although each has its own unique setting and reimagined characters (including some, like Mirror Mirror’s Lucrezia Borgia, sourced not from fairy tales but from history books), Maguire’s novels all blossom from the germination of three creative seeds: a philosophical question, a historical-political moment and a fairy-tale framework. It’s these shoots, interwoven, that make each novel so complex.

    “A novel about evil in all its surprising guises had to include sex, politics and religion, and these are the same three things one doesn’t talk about at polite dinner parties,” he says. “The very theme of [Wicked] demanded it be a book for adults, and then sex and violence and fundamentalism and oppression raised their eager heads and clamored for their moment under the green sun.”

    PRACTICING THE MAGIC OF REIMAGINING

    Like Baum’s yellow brick road, each source tale has so many potholes and dead ends that it proves to be an ideal path for Maguire to follow and rebuild. Still, simply choosing which of the original bricks to use and which to toss aside requires more than a little magic.

    “In a retelling, one needs to gauge what are the irreducible elements,” Maguire advises. “If I say, ‘the novel will have a mirror in it,’ a well-educated reader might think of Tennyson—‘the mirror crack’d/from side to side’—or of St. Paul—‘now we see as through a glass darkly’—or the myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image reflected in a still pool. If you add to the mix a dwarf and an apple, you have a Snow White reference. Put a mirror, a dwarf and an apple in the next Star Trek prequel and it will still suggest Snow White. You don’t need the glass coffin, necessarily, or the tight bodice or the poisoned comb. Just a few elements will do, but they have to be the elements a reader will recognize.”

    Equally as important, Maguire says, is that a writer must select only elements that serve a purpose for his new work. For Mirror Mirror he chose the Renaissance Italy setting because Snow White already counted among its pre-Grimm antecedents an early Italian version and because, at its heart, he wanted his novel to be about the maturity of both a child and a culture.

    “Even as the Renaissance in Italy was at the point of highest glory, there must have been a healthy influence of ancient superstition still at work. As children, we grow from our sense of a magic world to that of a rational one: how much better to set my story at a moment when the very culture of the setting was doing the same thing.”

    Even Maguire’s decision to return to Oz for Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men had a distinct thematic purpose for the author. “Ten years after the publication of Wicked, the play had really rooted itself in New York, and in companies that circulated the nation. I began to get letters from readers younger than those for whom I had originally written the book, and their questions and concerns—in conjunction with the appearance of the first photos from Abu Ghraib—regenerated my appetite to write about individuals living in an oppressive society,” Maguire says. “Oz was still there, in its next wave of history; I would apply for a passport and make a return trip.”

    Once Maguire has chosen each historical setting, source tale and philosophical question, he can begin crafting a story, which he creates word by word, from the first line to the last, in order.

    “It can be embarrassing to admit how much time I spend on the first four or five pages of a book,” he says. “I think getting the first pages right—even if later they are dropped, or superseded by new material—is the hardest job of writing. The first pages set the tone and voice and a vital and lasting sense of the setting that pervades the whole piece.

    “Writing is a craft, but there are elements of sorcery to it. One has to work the spell over and over, eliminating redundancies, in order to sharpen early impressions of a just-born physical universe that must detonate into being with the first sentence. It is an awesome responsibility, and if I can’t get the first five pages right, I can’t continue. It is clearly not time to write this book, or perhaps it is not my book to write.”

    Although the labor of those first pages is always intense, certain aspects of Maguire’s craft have gotten easier for him. He characterized himself as not a very “capable” researcher during his college days, but he has grown to enjoy the hunting and gathering: While writing Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Maguire traveled to the Netherlands and spent countless hours in the Frans Hals Museum, which houses many works from Haarlem’s golden age of painting.

    “I try to approach the setting of my stories—even fantasies—as much a cultural anthropologist as a storyteller,” he says. “I want aspects of health, education, religion, art, attitudes toward women, children, the disenfranchised and the powerful to be evident in my book—as background—so that the foreground, however magical, may seem more real.”

    Self-editing is also becoming a more natural process for the author. “In 32 years of publishing, I have learned to slaughter certain objectionable paragraphs early and without mercy,” he says. “But I am still learning, and there is much slaughter ahead if I am to keep improving as a writer.”

    DRINKING THE STRANGE BREW

    Earning his doctorate in English and American literature, which he did after becoming a published author, has also proven helpful; it taught Maguire to have patience with obscure or difficult source material. “I came to love and admire the work of Puritan writers in the American colonies—work I had previously detested. I saw there was something universal in all expressions of human culture, and a mature student would not pass something by as being not his cup of tea. It was the student writer’s job to drink the tea,” he says. “Drink the tea, people.”

    And that, in essence, is Maguire’s best advice, inspired by Ben Shahn’s guide for fine artists, The Shape of Content. “Don’t be too quick to swivel the radio dial because it’s blasting something you’re not interested in—attack call-in talk shows, fundamentalist sermons, ball game reporting, left-wing sob stories—however you define your least- favorite aural experience. There is always something to learn from paying attention to everything.”

    He also recalls a passage from Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, which was his favorite novel in childhood that wasn’t a fantasy: “She never minded admitting she didn’t know something. So what, she thought; I could always learn.”

    “[This line] bolstered me up through many a formal and terrifying dinner party with older erudite guests from obscure professions. I have built my own sense of confidence on that simple dictum.”

    But even the confidence that comes with being a bestselling author doesn’t ward off all anxiety. Now 55, Maguire—who still writes books for children as well as adults—finds that as his readership grows, so does the pressure he puts on himself. “As one ages, one’s experience becomes less surprising, and books are harder to locate in the ether. If I can’t find something new to think about, to ponder and poke, I had better stop writing,” he says. “This is a seriously vexing concern, and it most conveniently conceals self-doubt about the actual form of the novel I might undertake.

    “Like Baum in The [Wonderful] Wizard of Oz, I seem accidentally to have written a novel that is, perhaps, better and more effective than it had any right to be. And I am the beneficiary of all this warm response. I have to fight to keep it from going to my head, but luckily, as the father of young children, I am brought down to earth pretty solidly, pretty regularly.”

    So what’s next for Maguire? Making Mischief: A Maurice Sendak Appreciation and Matchless: A Christmas Story both release this fall, and the author is at work on the fourth and (likely) final volume of the Wicked Years series. “I can’t see much farther out than that,” he says, “but maybe there is a Rapunzel-shaped story on the horizon.”


    This article appeared in the October 2009 issue of Writer’s Digest. Click here to order your copy in print. If you prefer a digital download of the issue, click here.


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