Gregory Maguire Brews Another Wicked Mix of Historical Fiction & Timeless Myth

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Born "a mid-century baby" in Albany, New York, to a family of readers and writers, Gregory Maguire, author of Mirror Mirror, to be published this October by Regan Books, grew up in a world of vivid language and colorful stories.

"We didn't watch much TV when I was a kid," recalled Maguire, whose father was a science journalist and humor columnist, whose stepmother was a poet, and whose six siblings include several writers (though he's the only novelist). "On a black-and-white TV, the flat characters -- like the people on The Donna Reed Show -- look even flatter. I was pretty determined that I did not want to be a flat, black-and-white, TV person. So, anything I could do that was going to keep me in some more interesting world was a determination of mine from the time I was about five."

Among the books young Maguire most enjoyed were volumes of fairy tales, which he found himself continuing to read even after having progressed to more mature titles. "Generally, I didn't go back to books I had liked earlier," he said, "because it was slightly embarrassing, when one's reading scope and skill was supposed to improve; and yet there was something about fairy tales -- the way that they existed in a no-man's-land of time and history -- that was oddly compelling to me."

Maguire was writing stories of his own by eight, though he had no thought yet of writing as a career. "I produced, and indeed still have, maybe several hundred manuscripts between the times I was eight and 18, of all varieties -- historical fiction and fantasy, plays, poetry, songs," he said. "I just churned out anything. I was hopelessly fecund but not talented enough to be considered a wunderkind."

At 18, though, when he entered college, Maguire began taking his writing more seriously. "My novitiate was over," he explained.

He began work on a children's novel, a chapter-book titled The Lightning Time, which was sold and published when he was 23. While teaching grade school and then college, he wrote several more children's books. He quit teaching some 15 years ago, to devote himself full-time to writing.

For years, Maguire yearned to write an adult novel, and he had what he thought was a fine idea: a realistic exploration of the life of the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz. But he hesitated, because, he said, "It's not common for someone who starts out in the field of children's books to be able to write successfully for adults.... I was insecure about my technical capacities, so I was holding off doing it until I really felt I was ready."

Economic necessity finally helped force his hand. "The English call it financial embarrassment.... Living in England, I began to be worried about being able to pay my bills. Finally I said, 'I've got do it now.'

"I could see the time was growing ripe, and that if I didn't do it, somebody else was going to have that very good idea and do it -- possibly, or probably, better than I could."

The resulting 1995 book, Wicked, was hailed by critics and readers as a work of classic fantasy.

In retrospect, Maguire said, he saw that author T.H. White, with his retelling of the Camelot legends for an adult audience, was probably a primary influence. "I admired T.H. White's ability to be intellectually broadminded, to be comic, to be poetic, and to be fantastic. And in Wicked, I now look back and think, those were the benchmarks I was setting for myself.

"I don't think anybody would say The Once and Future King is a great work of Western literature; but I think many, many would say, 'It's a great book!' And so I set out, the best I could, to write a great book."

Others followed: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (1999), a retelling of Cinderella, set in 17th century Holland; and Lost (2001), which combined elements of Dickens' A Christmas Carol with the Jack the Ripper saga, and was a September/October 2002 Book Sense 76 pick in trade paper. With these works, Maguire joined a select group of authors who have gone from writing children's books to writing books for grown-ups and achieved greater success with the latter.

His novels -- including Mirror Mirror, a version of the Snow White legend in the Italy of the Borgias -- seem to occupy their own fictive terrain, a place somewhere between historical fact and timeless myth. As a consequence, the author said, booksellers shelve his titles "all over the map" -- sometimes as popular fiction, sometimes as literature, sometimes as science fiction/fantasy, sometimes even as women's fiction.

"I think in a sense my books are 'crossover' books," said Maguire. "They sort of leap over a certain invisible barrier. And the more places in the bookstore they could be, the more opportunity people have to notice them; so I'm delighted about all that."

Maguire's delighted, too, with the way independent booksellers helped his fiction become popular with so many types of readers (including, increasingly, teenagers). "Independent booksellers are definitely on my side," the author said, "and I have many genuine friendships that have come out of my travels to the bookstores, which has been very gratifying."

Soon even more people should be aware of Gregory Maguire's storytelling.

The day before Halloween, a musical based on his book Wicked will open on Broadway.

"It is as big and splashy and saucy and funny and moving a musical as you're likely to see onstage this year," said a happy Maguire, who had nothing to do with the show's writing, but who viewed it during its trial run in San Francisco. "It is a jewel, and a song box, and at times intensely moving, and I'm very proud of it."

Busy touring for Mirror Mirror and helping publicize the Wicked show, Maguire has postponed starting a new book. He's not even sure yet what his next novel might be. But he knows that, like its predecessors, it will be set in an interesting, non-flat world all its own. And it will tell its own story its own way.

"I've never hit the top of the bestseller lists," Maguire said, "but I've crept, with some staying power, just below the radar screen for eight years. And in a cult kind of way, I've become a brand-name author. So more and more, I feel I don't need to conform to anybody else's expectation of what my books should be like. There's now enough of them that they have some specific gravity, and some density of their own." --Tom Nolan