Gregory Maguire is the author of more than a dozen novels for children and many novels for adults, including "Wicked," the basis of the smash Broadway musical of the same name. Formerly a professor of children's literature at Simmons College, he is a co-founder of the Foundation for Children's Books and of Children's Literature New England Inc. Maguire is also one of the writers of "The Exquisite Corpse Adventure," an original story written for the Library of Congress' Read.gov website and now a book from Candlewick. His latest novel is "Out of Oz: The Final Volume in the Wicked Years" (William Morrow).
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
What sparked your imagination for your book –Out of Oz: The Final Volume in the Wicked Years?
For years I have been planting secrets in the first three volumes of The Wicked Years. Writers always know more than they can or choose to squeeze onto a page. I wasn’t sure I would ever reveal any of them (and I always knew I would never reveal all of them). When the time came to write Out Of Oz, I knew I could tease readers with the hope of finding the answer to the most basic question of all: What really happened up there on the parapet, when Dorothy splashed the Wicked Witch of the West with a bucket of water. No one was present but Dorothy and the Witch, and Dorothy wasn’t talking. What would she say if she came back to Oz and was put on trial?
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
I am used to having more ideas than I can handle in any one book. I used to be able to organize them in separate shapes in the atmosphere, like airliners flying on a horizon, waiting for permission to approach the landing strip. Maybe that is the strength of the younger writer. Now, solidly middle aged, I find I have used up a good deal of the ideas I was born with. The skies are sometimes clear of approaching inspiration. I stand on the proverbial runway and read poetry to clear my head, to attract the attention of distant ideas.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
The best thing that happened to me as a kid was finding the book called Harriet The Spy. It is funny, it is honest, and it is fresh and sassy. It might have been called The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Spy. What are writers but spies, after all: peering at the world, eavesdropping at life, and trying to figure out secrets by writing things down? I started spying when I was about 11 (called a Spy Notebook), in honor of Harriet, and to train as a writer. Some 45 years later, I am still keeping it. Only now I call it a journal.
Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?
I used to keep several folders of images I would cut out of the newspaper or book catalogs. You could photocopy pages of picture books if the library lets you. In one folder I kept images of characters palpably imaginary: dragons, Santa Claus, ghosts, aliens, elves, werewolves, witches, skeletons. In a second folder I kept pictures of ordinary real-life people: a toddler on a bikes with training wheels, grandfathers on a park bench, a window-cleaner, a teenager with jeans down about his hips, the President of the United States, a dentist, a French baker. Then I would close my eyes and select one image from each file, and ask myself the question: What happens when these two characters cross paths? Incidentally, this is how I got the idea for my book called What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy. I came up with a meeting between a novice tooth fairy who wasn’t really sure how to do his job meeting an ancient grandmother who only had one natural tooth left in her head, and thought the fairy was the Angel of Death coming to reunite her with the rest of her dentures.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
Any day I might answer this question I might answer it differently. Today I will concentrate on books I have come across in the past five or ten years. These include picture books, kids’ books, and teen novels.
- Feed, M. T. Anderson.
- Brundibar, Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak.
- When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead.
- The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian O. Selznick.
- Marching for Freedom: Walk Together Children and Don’t You Grow Weary, Elizabeth Partridge.
How do you decide on themes for your books?
I usually try to write books that explore themes including questions I am grappling with myself. It makes the effort of writing that much more worthwhile. For instance, in Wicked, I tried to see if I could figure out what was the nature of evil. (I couldn’t, but it was fun and profitable to try.) In What-the-Dickens, I examined what can support and nourish the frightened and poor when there was little nourishment or safety to be had. (This I did conclude: story.)
How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?
For a long time I didn’t set novels in the past because I was afraid I didn’t know how to research accurately. I was afraid readers would find all kinds of mistakes. As I got older, I got less timid, and found I enjoyed reading history. My technique is to read at least three different books about a period, and then to study closely the art of the period. Paintings tell you just as much as books do, and sometimes more. For instance, when I was writing Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, which was set in Holland in 1628, I went to Haarlem in the Netherlands with a notebook. (My spy notebook.) I spent a long day in the Franz Hals museum studying paintings by the great masters of the Dutch Renaissance. Here’s a painting of lobsters with lemons on the table—so they liked lemons with fish too! Here is a grand dame with pearls in her hair, wearing black and white striped silk—I’d never have guessed a dress so modern looking from three hundred fifty years ago! The rooms, the gestures, the occupations of the people in the background, the color of horses, the types of plants in the gardens in the background - easy to collect and easier to use in writing.
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
Nothing is as persuasive as conviction. I’ve known teachers who rush into a classroom on Monday morning saying, “You’ll never guess what a good book I read over the weekend! Let me tell you about it.” I’ve known friends to come for lunch and say, “I can’t stay long: I have to get home to finish the book I’m reading before the kids get off the school bus.” Enthusiasm is infectious. You can’t persuade anyone to be interested in reading if you don’t do it yourself, and share your excitement with your kids, your kids’ friends, your kids’ parents, etc. And soon you will be building a culture of reading.
Can you tell us about any new books that you will be working on during the coming year?
I wish I could. Oh, how I wish I could! I don’t know yet.
If you weren’t creating children’s books, what do you think you would be doing?
As a kid, I loved to draw, but I fear I could never have been a decent illustrator. I loved to sing, and still do, but with a case of permanent runny nose it is embarrassing to sing in public these days. I wish I had studied architecture: I should have liked to build beautiful, small, cozy, elegant homes.
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about you and your work?
I have a Facebook page: Gregory Maguire. And I have a website: www.gregorymaguire.com. All are welcome!