Monday, November 26, 2007

Questions & Answers with Gregory Maguire

Posted by Lisa

Last spring Grub Street Writers in Boston gave me the wonderful opportunity to interview Gregory Maguire, a fascinating and inspiring writer. Here's the interview, originally published in the Grub Street Rag...

For years, Gregory Maguire didn’t think of himself as a writer. He considered himself a person who liked to make things, who rearranged items in a pleasing fashion, whether elements in a plot, or colors and fabrics in a piece he was weaving. Majoring in both studio arts and English, Gregory says he knew one day he would have to concentrate on one thing or another.

Gregory Maguire is the author of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995), Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (1999), Lost (2001), Mirror Mirror (2003), Son of a Witch (2005), as well as several children’s books. He received his Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Tufts University. In 1986, he co-founded Children's Literature New England, Incorporated, a non-profit that focuses attention on the significance of literature in the lives of children.

Gregory has lived abroad in Dublin and London, and now makes his home in Concord, Massachusetts.

How did you become a writer?

I steadily avoided ever taking any kind of degree that would prepare me professionally to have a job. Even when I was five, the only job I could think that I might like to have would be maybe a baker, and stand behind a bakery counter and sell doughnuts to kids. By the time I was about eight, I realized I wanted to be an artist of some sort and I didn’t want to work in an office. I didn’t want to have colleagues or a boss. I wanted to make things.

I made drawings. I made sonnets. I made plays. Anything I could touch and turn into something else, I did. I had the problem of having a modest amount of talent in a lot of directions. It was hard to settle on being a writer. At some point there must have been some sense that my writing skills were strengthening. I don’t remember that happening but I know it must have happened.

Tell us about writers who influenced you as a child.

When I was about twelve or fourteen, I began to notice how chapters were put together and which sentences stood out to me. I realized there are aesthetic beauties in the art of writing that are separate from the enjoyment of narrative. One of the writers who was a great influence on me is Jane Langton. She wrote a series of books, beginning with The Diamond in the Window, in which children of a somewhat impoverished background go through a series of dreamlike adventures at nighttime and in the daytime lived their normal everyday lives with family squabbles, trouble with money.

I was absolutely captivated because the entire book is a kind of metaphor about what the arts do, which is give us a broad and almost mystical other-worldly vision of our own lives. We go into a novel to lose ourselves and accidentally find ourselves more deeply than we intended. And I thought, wow, that’s why I want to become a writer. I want to influence people’s ability to approach their own lives with a little bit more nourishment, and a little more energy, and a little bit more courage. Though I don’t think I would have put it that way when I was 14.

What is your writing process?

It’s a little bit different for each book. I write fairly cleanly as writers go. That being said, I still go through anywhere from three and seven drafts of a book, but by draft very often I mean I am doing copyediting on myself.

One day I was on a train, and I was about halfway through writing my new book. I hadn’t really plotted the second half, but suddenly I began to see what was going to happen. It was like seeing a set of rooms: there’s the dining room, the kitchen, there’s the back pantry, the backyard, there’s the yard next door. I had a set of index cards with me and I just started writing what happens, one thing after another, and, in a sense, I outlined the entire second half of the book in minutes.

Once an outline is done I make a graphic chart of it that has several strands with the three or four main characters. I see where they come up in the book and then I will be able to look back and think of it as an aesthetic arrangement. Do I need more foreshadowing of what going to happen on page 80? Do I need something happening on page 20 so it doesn’t come out of the blue as much?

What I used to do for many years, for Wicked and for the books that immediately followed, was to work in the kitchen and use the doors of my kitchen cabinets as the sections. That’s why my first four books all have five sections, because there are five kitchen cabinet doors.

At Grub Street, many writers dream simply of being published. How does it feel to have met with such tremendous success?

One cannot attach any kind of shininess to the fact that I happened to have hit it. It is just luck. There’s no morality attached to luck. It’s not a question of virtue. It’s not a question of skill. It’s a matter of luck. It’s a matter, a little bit, of intelligence. I knew if I did Wicked well it would do well. If I did it poorly it may do well anyway. There are any number of novelists whose every sentence is polished and burnished and has a pearlescent sheen, and they have not had the luck that I’ve had.

What were your low points as a writer?

There were two low points and both had to do with Wicked.

One was eighteen column inches of my first New York Times review of Wicked. It was so bad I actually wept bitter tears of regret and venom. And I thought my career was over before it had begun. I thought maybe I should have stayed with drawing or playing the guitar. Maybe I had been feeding the quarters into this particular meter for nineteen years too long.

The other time was the night that Wicked didn’t win the Tony’s for best Musical. By then I had become such good friends with the creative team and many of the cast that I felt it personally.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a sequel to Son of a Witch. I now conceive that there will be four books in what I call The Wicked Cycle: Wicked, Son of a Witch, the one I have now, which is kind of a palate cleanser. It’s short. It’s a dish of lemon sorbet in between the rich first two courses, and the final flaming dessert. I’m trying to keep it short. I’m trying to keep it intense. I’m within about ten pages of the end of the first draft, and I don’t know whether it’s working at all. It’s very nerve wracking.

I also would like to write a play after almost thirty years of writing fiction. I did have a small idea for the opening scene about six weeks ago. Now that I’ve seen Wicked so many times, I’m beginning to see things visually on the stage rather than in a kind of omniscient way, looking down at a plot.

I would like to do something new.