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An Interview with Gregory Maguire

by Geri Ceci Cupery

Gregory Maguire is an author of distinguished works for both children and adults, who published his first novel when he was 24. His writing has been honored by the National Council of Teachers of English and the American Library Association, and featured in CCBC Choices and other publications. He taught at the Simmons College Center for the Study of Children’s Literature for eight years, and in 1986 became a founding member of Children’s Literature New England (CLNE). He and his family live in Massachusetts. Mr. Maguire will be in Madison on Tuesday, November 13, when he will speak at 6:30 p.m. in Room L160 of the Elvehjem Museum of Art.

GCC: Over the years you’ve proven to be a very versatile author, having written young adult novels, middle readers, picture books, and adult fantasy. Have you found any particular challenges, or special joys, in writing for your various readers? Is any one level your favorite?

GM: I have often likened the process of writing to trying to pick up a radio signal on a poor receiver. Most often the signal is weak (often it blanks out entirely); writing then involves making sense of what you can hear and know, and filling in the blanks. Sometimes (and this can be called inspiration, too) the signal is strong and insistent, and then the words come as swiftly and cleanly as if one was taking dictation. It is an easier job to take dictation than to try to worry out the connections between scratchy and unintelligible ideas and phrases. It is lofty and exciting and, frankly, easier. However, one can't rely on inspiration. While I haven't found that adult books are easier to write than children's books, I have found that short stories, poetry, and picture books are harder. All that weeding, winnowing, word-whacking. I tend to indulge in narrative sprawl, I suppose, so I consider myself a novelist first and foremost, and that is what I most enjoy doing.

GCC: You’ve said that you didn’t realize your first book, with its 12-year-old protagonist, was for young adults, until you went back to it after a year and re-read it. Do you now, as a seasoned writer, tend to write with a specific audience in mind?

GM: Increasingly, I feel confident about the age level of the children for whom I write. However, if I am feeling susceptible to giddiness or sentimentality, to both of which I am prone, I write for the approval of the three people whose names are taped to the top of my computer: SAINT JUDE, E. M. FORSTER, and MOMMY. Saint Jude, because he is the patron saint of lost causes, which fiction in development so often seems to be; Forster, because his combination of wit and moral sobriety is an inspiration and a goal; and Mommy because, well, you know.

GCC: Have characters or story ever taken you in unexpected directions that ultimately changed a book’s audience?

GM: I don't believe so. When I was writing Wicked, about the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, I knew from the start that the book would have to include two of the things that prepubescent children have no interest in: sex and politics. Since the idea of the book (a fictional exploration of the nature of evil) came before the subject (The Wicked Witch of the West in Oz: A life story), I knew that the book would engage in philosophical enquiry. I doubted that a decisive conclusion could be drawn about the nature of evil and, indeed, the book mirrors that early assumption.

GCC: Your fourth book, The Dream Stealer, was very well received by critics, one of whom said you had found your voice. Years later you remarked that you’re still proud of that book, which sadly is no longer in print. With your current success, is there any chance it will be published again?

GM: Happily, The Dream Stealer is going to be reissued in the next year or two by Clarion Books. Looking back at the novel some eighteen years later, I realize that the book was the first iteration of my efforts to tell, in novelistic form, some story already known. The retellings and reinterpretations I've done follow in the heels of people like John Gardner, T. H. White, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Jean Rhys.…

GCC: Are there other books you would particularly like to see back in print?

GM: I'm very fond of I Feel Like the Morning Star, which is a science fiction novel and a proposed first-of-a-trilogy. The second book was finished but never published, and the third one unwritten since the second one went unpublished. I wouldn't mind seeing all three of them in print some day.

GCC: Seven Spiders Spinning started off your humorous grade school series, the Hamlet Chronicles, set in the small town of Hamlet, Vermont. The series is still going strong with its fourth installment, Four Stupid Cupids. Do you have plans for Three, Two, One, and beyond?

GM: I've made titles of the Hamlet Chronicles a count-down series. They are: Seven Spiders Spinning, Six Haunted Hairdos,Five Alien Elves,Four Stupid Cupids, and the new one, due out next spring, Three Rotten Eggs. Soon I hope to begin work on A Couple of April Fools. As to the final title, I'm not sure yet. Any suggestions?

GCC: You captured a new audience of adult readers with your highly successful fantasy, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, followed up by Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, a variation on the Cinderella story. Your new book, Lost, is due out this October. What can you tell us about it? Does it, too, add a new twist to an old story, or does it mark a departure from this approach?

GM: Lost is not a retelling, but it does have a literary relationship to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It posits that there was a gentleman in North London in the early nineteenth century who was haunted by an unknown spectre. This gentleman told of his trials and travails to the young and impressionable Charles Dickens who, at age 12, spent six months or so in the same village in North London. The gentleman has a descendent four generations on named Winifred Rudge. Lost is the story of what happens to Winnie when she goes to spend time in the house in North London that had once belonged to her great-great-great-grandfather.

GCC: Of your two adult novels, Wicked is being developed for both a mini-series and a Broadway musical, and Stepsister has already been made into an ABC/Disney special. Were you satisfied with Stepsister’s translation from page to screen?

GM: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister will be aired this fall; as of this writing, I don’t know the date. I have seen the finished product on video and I'm impressed. The director, Gavin Millar, is well known for the arthouse gem Dreamchild, about the aged Alice Liddell going back to Oxford and revisiting the scenes of her childhood, when Lewis Carroll invented Alice in Wonderland to charm her... The director shot Confessions with an eye trained by looking at Vermeers and Hals and other genre painters. Stockard Channing plays the stepmother (less wickedly than in the book) and brilliant performances are turned in by Azura Skye and Emma Poole as the unfortunate (and hardly ugly) stepsisters of the glorious Clara van den Meer.

GCC: Would you like to see any of your children’s books developed for another medium?

GM: I had long hoped The Dream Stealer might interest the Disney studios or Dreamworks SKG, but to date nothing has solidified…. The Hamlet Chronicles have had some offers, too, but I have yet to accept one.

GCC: You’ve noted that fantasy was your first love as a young reader. Much of your own writing belongs to this genre, and I’ve found your reviews of other fantasy writers articulate and enlightening. What have you enjoyed reading lately (fantasy or otherwise)?

GM: I read furiously and rashly across genres. However I tend to REMEMBER the novels better. I am reading The Assault by Harry Mulisch and treasuring it, reading it more and more slowly to make it last. Of late I have read (in galleys) Senseless by Stone Fitch and Just Like Beauty by Lisa Lerner, both dystopian novels to be published this year and early next, respectively. Among the works I've read in the last five years that I already look forward to revisiting I count Morality Play by Barry Unsworth, Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald, and all the Mennym books by Sylvia Waugh (I'm way behind on them). Little of the above is genuine fantasy, I notice.... Since my children are young now, I am learning all over again the grace and pleasure of short stories, both the nursery tales of Goldilocks and Jack and the Beanstalk, as well as original simple tales like those printed Ten Small Tales by Celia Barker Lottridge.

GCC: Since your essay appeared in Something About the Author Autobiography Series, you have filled the "child-sized hole" in your life -- two times over! Has becoming a parent changed your perspective as a writer? Will we be seeing more picture book titles from you, in addition to books for older readers?

GM: I continue to think the idea for a picture book must come in a single instant -- like the idea for a poem (at least as I write them). A picture book is so precarious -- the art and text, the movement and hesitation in it must balance as precisely as the pendants of a Calder mobile -- that I haven't the talent to fuss and finish a piece. It either must appear to me all at once, pre-balanced and ready, as it were, or I could muck about with it for a decade and it still would be shapeless and useless. Whether inspiration can strike in the wee hours when bottles are being refilled -- well, to date, I'd guess no. But nightly as I stroll to the fridge, I consider.…


Read more about Gregory Maguire:

"Gregory Maguire" and "The Author Speaks: Writing The Good Liar." The O’Brien Press Ltd.: Dublin, Ireland.
http://www.obrien.ie/author.cfm?authorid=37 and http://www.obrien.ie/Interviews.cfm?InterviewID=17 (Accessed August 15, 2001)
"Gregory Maguire." Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts: Concord, Massachusetts.
http://www.emersonumbrella.org/maguire.htm (Accessed August 18, 2001)
Maguire, Gregory. "Gregory Maguire, 1954 -" Something About the Author Autobiography Series, volume 22. Gale, 1996, pp. 141-167.
"Maguire, Gregory." Something About the Author, volume 84. Gale, 1996, pp. 154-159.
Paton Walsh, Jill. "Maguire, Gregory." Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press, 1989, pp. 626-627.
Pela, Robert L. "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister." The Advocate (December 7, 1999), p. 96.


Works by Gregory Maguire:

Children’s and young adult fiction:
The Lightening Time. Farrar, Straus, 1978.
The Daughter of the Moon. Farrar, Straus, 1980.
Lights on the Lake. Farrar, Straus, 1981.
The Dream Stealer. Harper, 1983.
The Peace and Quiet Diner. Parents’ Magazine, 1988.
I Feel Like the Morning Star. Harper, 1989.
Lucas Fishbone. Harper, 1990.
Missing Sisters. McElderry, 1994.
Seven Spiders Spinning. Clarion, 1994.
Oasis. Clarion, 1996.
Six Haunted Hairdos. Clarion, 1997.
Five Alien Elves. Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
The Good Liar. Clarion, 1999.
Crabby Cratchitt. Clarion, 2000.
Four Stupid Cupids. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Three Rotten Eggs. (forthcoming, 2002).

Adult fiction:
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. HarperCollins, 1995.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. HarperCollins, 1999.
Lost. HarperCollins, (HarperCollins, 2001).

Other:
"Chatterbox," short story in the collection I Believe in Water: Twelve Brushes with Religion edited by Marilyn Singer. HarperCollins, 2000.
(Editor with Barbara Harrison) Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children’s Literature. Lothrop, 1987.
"The Honorary Shepherds," short story in the collection Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence edited by Marion Dane Bauer. HarperCollins, 1994.
(Editor with Barbara Harrison) Origins of Story: On Writing for Children. McElderry, 1999.
Reviewer for Horn Book, School Library Journal, Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times Book Review.

Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 2001 Number 3 with permission of Geri Ceci Cupery and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©2001 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.

 


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