Today, I am proud to post this interview with Gregory Maguire, of Wicked fame. He had an intimate Q&A/reading session at the Muse and Marketplace conference in May, and I became even more enamored, thoroughly impressed and awed by his intelligence, wit and great reading style.
Gregory Maguire's adult novels
Kristen Tsetsi, founder of Tuesday Shorts, had already been in contact with him briefly last year (and we're still hoping maybe someday he'll send us a short-short), so I asked after the session if I could have a few minutes. He had a prior engagement, but he generously allowed me to e-mail him some burning questions.
So here we go....
SRR: First, let me say it was an honor and privilege to hear you speak at the Grubstreet Muse and Marketplace. I was already a fan, and your eloquence and "stage presence," if you will, are remarkable. I must say, I also think you're quite humble given your success and obviously much smarter than you claim!
During your Q&A, you mentioned something that I think will strike the hearts of all writers. You spoke of the devastation of your first review of Wicked by the New York Times and subsequent jump back up after the Los Angeles review was published, an underdog comeback of sorts. Could you talk a bit about that?
GM: All writers need a little humbling. Put another way, all writers need to be reminded that their work is not for everyone. No one's work is. I have been rather lucky with decent reviews and a popular following. However it comes at some cost: the packaging of my books disguises, I think, the more intellectual aspects of my prose efforts at the expense of the common-ground appeal of fairy tales. I joke around the house that I am not likely to get a long article considering my contributions anytime soon in the New York Review of Books.
So there are plusses and minuses to every stroke of luck. The New York Times reviewer didn't "get" WICKED, I felt; it's also possible she got it just fine but didn't like it. Fair enough. I've had other compensations.
Ultimately, one doesn't write for reviewers. One also tends to respect reviewers who point out flaws one has not seen; one tends to dismiss reviewers who point out flaws that are not actually pertinent to the novel at hand--that is to say, flaws in the book that the reviewer believes she has read, or believes the author should have written, rather than the book in hand. Reviewers (and I am one, so I know) can read incredibly quickly and sloppily.
SRR: You read a little from your novel in progress, DEPOSITION OF AN ORACLE, the final installment of the Wicked series (oops. Third of four). Initially, did you know that this would be a series? How did the inspiration evolve?
GM: DEPOSITION will be the third of four books. I didn't know the books would be a series until my readers wrote at the end of SON OF A WITCH that they would take out a contract on my life unless I began to wrap up some loose ends. Since fiction is meant to simulate real life--even life in a fantastic land like Oz--loose ends don't bother me at all. But I now see, too, that I don't want to be writing about Oz for the rest of my life, so I will provide some narrative closure by the end of book four (tentatively called THE WATERMARK) for my sake as well as for my readers (and my poor, punished characters).
SRR: When you talked about your process of writing, you used a piano analogy, that writing was something like practicing scales. You are so talented in your readings, it makes me wonder. Are you also a musician? Do you have an acting background as well?
Nice of you to ask! I play piano and guitar and I do sing (used to lead a church choir.) I do not have a background in acting--but do in teaching, which is much the same thing.
SRR: While developing your novels, you mentioned occasionally using notecards to keep track of your scenes. How often does it occur that you find the story jumping into totally different or alternate paths?
Very often--if not always. But it is akin, I think, to driving across country--that famous (and useful) metaphor. If I start out for San Francisco, I usually get there--don't change my mind and decide to terminate the trip in Topeka or veer up to Anchorage. However the discoveries along the way --sometimes just to keep one's self invigorated-- mean interesting diversions. San Francisco may be the destination, and I do reach it: but perhaps it looks and means something other than I expected when I started out.
SRR: As well, you use a journal method and write by hand; I believe you said it allows you to moves slowly and carefully in the development process – pushing the "whole cart." Could you expand on that notion?
Like all fourth-grade kids, I find it painful to write by hand. It goes slowly and the wrist aches. One has to stop and rest from time to time, which allows the mind to sort out words a lot more efficiently, to sift not only for clarity but beauty. I am a fairly glib writer as I am a speaker, but my prose style is improved by slowing myself down.
SRR: I found your words on writing for children quite moving. You said that children demand the best we have to offer and thrill to learn how to live. In your session, you described for us your move to adult novels. Could you tell the readers briefly about that decision?
In the mid 1990's, with the school book market ever more intimidated by the rist of Christian fundamentalizm (especially in Texas), children's book publishers were becoming cowed as to both subject and style. If a big segment of the book-buying market took against a book, there was little hope for it. (We see the same thing in the attention paid to the opinions of the buyers of Borders and Barnes and Noble.) I think that children's book editors began to play a little too scared just at the time that I was beginning to want to open up my subject area to more and more morally complex material. In the end, I was for a time crowded out of the children's book market because my work didn't suit the market needs at the time. I have come back, gladly--in my new novel for children, out on September 11 this fall, called WHAT-THE-DICKENS. The great success of HARRY POTTER helped publlishers of children's books to see that the wildly imaginative and morally complex could not be fully suppressed by twitchy school boards in one part of the country.
SRR: When I first started reading Wicked, I was not only drawn to the mysterious world these characters inhabit, but also the political and social metaphor. At the end of your session, we unfortunately ran out of time, and I had just asked my burning question. The writing immediately suggested a parallel in my mind to George Orwell. Has that comparison ever been made and did you "feel" his work as an influence?
Most of the books I have loved the best have had a moral question at their center--a question about the individual's relationship to society. So Orwell's ANIMAL FARM, though I only ever read it once, in high school, stayed central in my thinking. So too the work of Grahame Greene and, in a lesser sense (on this score), E. M. Forster. I have usefully reread 1984, come to think of it, too.
SRR: One of your last statements [in the Muse and Marketplace session] was that one of the writers tasks is to "Keep ourselves awake." I love that sentiment but also think it can be broadly interpreted. What does it truly mean for you?
All those wonderful metaphors--and I forget who said which one-- Kafka, was it, an axe chopping up the frozen sea within-- Emily Dickinson, "If I feel the top of my head is being taken off, I know it is poetry." None of that verbatim. If a writer can respond that way to other writing, a writer must also respond that way to the world--when and if it is possible. The axe should always be swinging, the head always exploding with revelation. Clearly one can't schedule this or self-medicate in the interest of encouraging revelation: but one can encourage in one's self a habit of study of each day as it comes, each moment of feeling, each perceived conundrum, quirk, or contradicton of human experience. They come at us hourly, moment by moment; reading poetry regularly hones the skill of seeing the world anew. At least it does for me. And I hope that translates into making me a better writer than I might otherwise be.
I want to thank Gregory Maguire. His thoughts have greatly enlightened me personally, and if you haven't yet, read WICKED. It is a thoughtful and entertaining journey through the land of OZ and the exploration of good and evil. I can't wait to read SON OF A WITCH (the second of the series) now.