Gregory Maguire writes novels in which classic villains turn out to be heroes--and supposed heroes disappoint. In Wicked, his bestselling novel and basis for the smash Broadway musical of the same name, he profiles Elphaba, the misunderstood Wicked Witch of the West. In Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, a retelling of Cinderella set in the Dutch Golden Age, Iris Fischer, Cinderella’s clever but painfully plain stepsister takes center stage. Maguire is also the author of Mirror Mirror, Son of a Witch, and most recently, What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy. One of many bestselling authors who will be appearing at the Parkway Central Library during the second annual Philadelphia Book Festival on Saturday and Sunday, May 17 and 18, 2008, Mr. Maguire recently took a moment to chat with us about some of our favorite topics.
What role have libraries played in your life?
Not too long ago, I participated in a photo shoot with the actresses then playing Elphaba and Glinda on the stage in New York. The caption of the advertisement read something like “Great American theater began in the public library.” I talked, in a brief line or two, about how affected I was by my childhood reading of The Wizard of Oz and other fantasies discovered on library shelves like gems and treasures (packed in their cellophane dust jackets next to dross and dreck, sometimes). My family was not prosperous, so the public libraries in Albany, New York, seemed nearly hallowed to us as a place to become revived, inspired, challenged, consoled, amused, and befuddled. I serve on the Board of Associates of the Boston Public Library now, in part to honor the debt I owe to public libraries, and also in part to help libraries continue to do that same work for toda’s young readers (and readers not so young).
What was your favorite childhood book?
Yesterday my 8-year-old Alex said at breakfast, “Ba,” (the Cambodian word for father) “do you know what? Every day when I wake up it seems like a dream.” I know what he means--sort of. Every day of childhood is different. Every day is stuffed with different passions. So there can be no one favorite childhood book, as all the days and years of childhood are different. Still, from the adult perspective, some books stand out: here are just a few. Jane Langton’s The Diamond in the Window, a fantasy set in Concord, Massachusetts. (Do you think that book influenced my decision to live in Concord as an adult? You're right.) Maurice Sendak’s Higglety Pigglety Pop! for its mystical overtones cut with a vaguely Borsch-belt comedy. Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy--I began a spy notebook in sixth grade, and 40 years later I still keep it, though now I call it my journal. Finally, in high school, T.H. White’s gallimaufry of Arthurian legends, The Once and Future King--which would serve as a kind of template for my own work in reimagining the history behind The Wizard of Oz, which has become the cycle known as the Wicked Years.
Who is your favorite fictional character?
Probably Merlin the Magician, in all his variety and multiple manifestations in ancient and contemporary literature, though I also like the Russian witch called Baba Yaga. My tastes haven’t changed much since childhood.
Who are the three authors you think everyone should be required to read—which books would you start with?
Since one should start reading in childhood, I would say Mother Goose for nonsense if not insanity; Grimm and Perrault and the Greek myths and Old Testament stories for a stable foundation in archetypes; Dr. Seuss for his marriage of ethics and anarchy; Sendak for psychological honesty; and Beatrix Potter, Arnold Lobel (the Frog and Toad books) and James Marshall (George and Martha) for object lessons in loyalty, friendship, and perseverance. If you missed any of these books because you are too old to have got them in childhood, go back and start over. It’s never too late. Everything else descends from these, including usefully wise behavior as a citizen.
If you couldn’t write, what other job would you like to have?
Over the past 30 years I have often taught literature and writing to children and adults. I don’t do this much anymore due to my obligations to my young children. If I had a better singing voice I would like to be an actor in musicals. If I had longer legs I wouldn’t mind being a dancer. Oddly enough, I am preternaturally well-organized, and so I have always said that if and when my career as a writer ever tanks, I will hire myself out to be an executive assistant in some hot shot law firm or something. I love to file and I also love to boss people around, especially myself. (That’s what makes me a productive self-employed writer: I am both labor and management, and as management I drive a hard bargain.)