Most famous for penning Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which re-imagined The Wizard of Oz and was transformed into a hit Broadway musical, Gregory Maguire has carved himself a literary niche by looking at fairy tales and children's stories from a different angle. He's reworked Snow White, Cinderella, and in his latest novel, What-the-Dickens, he explores the idea of the Tooth Fairy and its relationship to youth.
City Pages: Your novels frequently look at tales and characters that are part of our collective upbringing and cultural backdrop. Why does reexamining these stories as an adult inspire you?
Gregory Maguire: Well, there's several reasons they're appealing, one is I think generally they're all good stories or have good elements or else kids wouldn't be interested in them. So the fact that I'm interested in them now because children have been interested in them is a credit to their original value. The stories that are uninteresting to kids, they don't talk about, they don't remember, and they fall out of the culture immediately. So the fact that I go back to them at all means that they’ve already been tried and true. They already have something interesting and arresting to them. But why I go back to children's stories instead of other aspects of our culture or other thoughts and observations and apprehensions of the world I have has to do partly with how fragmented of a culture we live in here in America. That is to say in this year of politics we're always talking about the great divide between the red states and the blue states, in terms of economics we talk about the divide between the haves and the have-nots, if we are interested in Marxists sensibility, we talk about the class structure, we talk about certain privileges of education, but the one thing that we share in common, despite which side of the great divide we hail each other from, is the common territory and experience of childhood. You don't have to have a political opinion when you're 6 to decide whether you like the Wizard of Oz or not. You don't have to decide the face content is of your moral struggle to believe in the Tooth Fairy when you're 5. These stories sort of predate the ways in which we distinguish ourselves as adults one from another, and therefore they are somewhat universal in a world that is rapidly losing universals. Now, as a writer, I suppose I could also add I'm a professional. I want to get the biggest bang for the buck so to speak. I want to sell my work, I want to hit the biggest audience that I can, and so therefore to use the material of childhood is to use the material that almost nobody says 'Oh, I don't know anything about that, I'm not interested.' Everybody who grew up in America has a memory of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. If you say “poison apple,” quick, what are your associations for poison apple? Or what are your associations with the words “ruby slippers” or your association with the first tooth you lost as a child? Almost every American will come up with the same response. And that means they are all together with me on the same page, the first page of a book that relies on that material as its fundament.
CP: What do you think is appealing to adult readers about revisiting the stories that they loved and learned from as children?
GM: Well frankly I think we cower in terror at the world as it is. I know I do, that's why I'm here with a closed door and my children on the other side of the door. The reality of things with global warming and An Inconvenient Truth, and the apparently inconvenient truth of the fiscal meltdown; that if you've been hearing the news today, seems to have happened in Europe and Japan and Canada, and will no doubt happen tomorrow on Wall Street. These things are really scary, and they're things we have to deal with, and we may not in fact conquer them, we may be conquered by them. So to go back to a time in which we were consolable, those stories of childhood were consoling and as children we were consolable, I think that's a legitimate function of art--to console. So I use the material at hand that's appealing to me. But I use it for the same reasons that anybody might use any material for art: to console, to challenge, to inspire, to question, and to remind people that even in the solitude of reading, we're not alone.
CP:You've taken on Cinderella, Snow White, Dorothy and Oz, and now the Tooth Fairy. Is there a fairy tale or character that you just won't take on because it would be too difficult?
GM: Well, after I had written Wicked, which was by no means my first book, it was the first book that brought me to wide public attention, I would get letters from people, including my editor saying 'Why don’t you do the back story to Alice in Wonderland? Why don't you tell us all about that?' And I said with all due respect, and with all interest in a vibrant financial life of my own, The Wizard of Oz is a wonderful story, but in some ways a story with a lot of holes in it. It's a story with a lot of useful inconsistencies. Alice in Wonderland is a major work of a genius by a major writer. Maybe Tom Stoppard doing Rosencrantz and Gilderstern Are Dead about the back story of Hamlet, maybe he has the cajones to do that, but I've got a little growing up to do yet, I'm not going to take on Alice in Wonderland. So, there are things that are so brilliant and so beautiful that I'm not going to touch them. Now, mind you, remember Michael Cunningham's book The Hours? It was very brave and nervy to say, 'I'm going to take Virginia Woolf as a character and I'm going to take her themes as my themes too, and I'm going to build a book that is at once an homage to what she was trying to do, but my own book at the same time.' Virginia Woolf too is one great figure in literary history of the last century. I'm amazed that he had the nerve, and I think he did and he succeeded. But I prefer to take material that's a little more porous. Maybe the material of childhood is more porous because it does leave out adult things like sex and greed and the thirst for power and the dark side to human life that sometimes make us seem as if we're little sprites in the dark, but the dark will always win. Because there are absences in children's stories, it provides me an easier place to find a foothold.
CP: Writing for adults and children pose different challenges, but you seem to switch target audiences at will, and sometimes, as with What-the-Dickens, you write in a way that appeals to both adults and young readers. How do you master that in-between style that snares both age groups?
GM: I used to put if not photographs of people, sometimes I would just put their names, and I would tape them to the edge of my computer screen. And I would just say to myself 'You are not writing for the National Book Award committee, you are not writing for the review editors for New York Review of Books. You are writing for toothy Burke Hutchinson, age nine, who lives halfway to the next town and is a friend of my son's. And he's nervy and smart and a normal second grade boy with his own limited experience of the world and his own limitless appetite to know what comes next.' And sometimes fastening on a specific reader or a specific set of readers will help me remember how to tell a story that is appropriate to them. So, if I put a picture of the name of a nine-year-old on my computer, I also might put a picture of my stepmother who raised me whose 90 and reads well, and taught me to read and care about language. And those are both up there themselves, then the selection process of what would be interesting to them both is part of what determines the tone and the prose style of the work.
CP:Do you think that writing for one audience is more difficult than another?
GM: Yes, I think writing for children is much harder. And this is I think because children have so many more pulls to their appetites, to their attention. When I was a kid, which was several thousand years ago now, or so it seems, we were not prosperous, so we didn't have many advantages available to prosperous families 40 years ago, but secondly, the world was not as wired as it is with video. So the competition for books was much less, there was TV, and that was about it, and my parents were pretty strict about keeping the TV off most of the time. Now when a writer is trying to get a child's attention, they know that probably the child is reading in a room with the TV on, or where the TV can be turned on with the flick of a remote control. They know that when a child goes on vacation, there are screens that descend from the inside roof of the SUV so they can watch Shrek the Third for the fortieth time. But if you're going get their attention then and keep it, you really have to use every fiber and muscle group you have as a storyteller to make it worth their while and to keep them from flinging the book out the window onto the highway and going back to Shrek the Third.
CP: How then, do would you suggest parents and teachers get children to read with all the distractions they face? How can a book compare to a friendly green ogre?
GM: It used to be that all you had to do was lock a child in a room for 18 hours with nothing but a book, no food, no water, no light. That would usually work. But the government doesn't smile on that anymore that the department of social services would come and put you in prison, so you can't do that. I think that what you really need to do is have your own personal domestic Oprah's Book Club. You have to in some way prove to children who are reluctant readers that reading is a communal activity too. Whether it be by reading the first chapter of a story out loud then having the kids go off and read the second chapter then coming back to read the third chapter out loud. There are lots of different ways you can invent to make it a collaborative effort and a source of joy and communion. Even if it's the only time in the week where kids get to drink soda in the living room, or whatever it is that kids need as a special treat to know that this is a special event. You can soup it up and hang on the whistles and bells and persuade children that the act of reading together is something that is worth celebrating. I have an intensely literary household, we too, like my parents, keep the TV turned off almost all the time except for elections and impeachments. And the house is stuffed with books. We have more books than many libraries in third-world capitol cities. But my children are not by and large different from other American children. You could put them in a room with 80 books, a truck and a doll, and they would invent a story about how the truck ran over the doll, and the doll lay bleeding on the carpet screaming for mercy, and the books would go untouched. And they would play that game over and over again until the doll began to run over the truck and the truck lay on the carpet bleeding motor oil and pleading for mercy. It is hard to get kids these days to turn and look at a book out of boredom so you have to be inventive and make a communal event, I really do think so.
CP: Your children's books have been favorites of young readers for many years now, so I'm curious, what was your favorite book as a child?
GM: There are so many stages of childhood, there are as many stages of childhood as there are of adulthood. So I would almost have to go year-by-year if not season-by-season. There was a wonderful book called A Diamond in the Window. It is what is known as a magic book or a fantasy, a domestic fantasy, a little bit Harry Potter-ish in that there are normal people who wander sideways into a world where extraordinary things happen, then wander back and have breakfast then brush their teeth and go to school. What's wonderful about it is that it takes place in Concord, Massachusetts, and it is filled with metaphors for how the mind can be expanded, how the spirit can be expanded by images of the mind. It's a transcendentalist book in a way. I read this book when I was 11, here I am at age 53, and I'm living in Concord, Massachusetts partly because the book effected me so much that I wanted to be a writer who lived in Concord and could think in metaphor, and have my life expanded over and over again by the images in my mind.
CP: You clearly have a very active imagination. Do you think most adults have an imagination as vivid as yours but they repress them, or is your imagination functioning on a higher level than other people?
GM: That is an interesting question and I have no idea what the answer is. There are ways in which we are boxed in ourselves. I don't think of myself as having a vivid imagination, I think of myself as having a slow mind. I know other people have quicker mind than mine. And one of the reasons I write is that I value the act of the mind, I value the act of thinking. And writing stories, and even writing letters and writing essays, helps me to know what I think. If I'm at a dinner party and somebody turns to me and says, 'What do you think of the nature of evil? Does it exist or not, and what is its nature?' I would say 'Please pass the asparagus,' and go to the bathroom and cry for an hour because I couldn't think of an answer. I might then set myself to task of what is the nature of evil; let me write a story so I can think about it. I don't know that I have a more vivid imagination, but I do know that, despite how glib I am and long-winded in answering your questions, I actually don't think very fast, and I write because I value thinking, and writing helps me know what I think.
CP: My last question. Back to your latest book What-the-Dickens: do your children believe in the Tooth Fairy?
GM: They do, even the 10-year-old who has already begun to sniff the dirty backstairs gossip about Santa Claus. The Tooth Fairy, perhaps because she or he comes with so much less commercial glitz, they fly in the secrecy of night, under the cover of darkness with a great many alibis, so they are easier to believe in a little bit because there is less to pin on them, there is less rhetoric. I heard my 7-year-old saying to my 6-year-old, 'I don't think there's a Tooth Fairy.' And the 6-year-old said, 'Sure there is.' And the 7-year-old said 'OK, but I wonder if daddy pushes the money under the pillow.' And the 6-year-old said, 'Look, if the Tooth Fairy is too busy, they write him a letter and say 'Would you please do this for me because I can't get there tonight.’'' And they kind of worked through that themselves, and went to bed. The 7-year-old lost a tooth and taped a quarter, a dime and a penny which he had stolen from my desk, to a note that said, 'Dear Tooth Fairy, here is $106, please leave me $200 change.' Any creature of the imagination that's going to give such a high return on investment has got to be believed, wouldn't you agree?