Reinventing ''The Wizard of Oz'' -- Novelist Gregory Maguire gives the Wicked Witch a back story in ''Wicked''

By Robin J. Schwartz
Updated November 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Practically everyone has seen The Wizard of Oz, but have you ever wondered how the Wicked Witch got that way? Gregory Maguire did. Since no one had the answer, he did what any inventive, self-respecting writer would do — he created his own malicious character in Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. ”I wanted to examine for myself, without preconception, the nature of evil,” says Maguire, 41. ”Wicked is really about the descent into evil of somebody who is essentially good.”

Obviously not a book for kids. Maguire’s Wicked Witch, Elphaba (whose name combines, in homage, the initials of original Oz creator L. Frank Baum), is a little green-skinned girl born to a missionary and his decadent wife in an Oz where the Wizard is a land-grabbing despot. Elphie’s childhood is uneventful, if sad (no one knows what to make of that green skin), until she arrives at Shiz University. There, she becomes best friends with her ditsy roommate Glinda (later, of course, the Good Witch of the North). Elphie’s youth is scandalous — she joins the underground fight in the war against the Wizard. Then tragedy strikes, and thus begins her descent into…well, you know.

Wicked is anything but heavy-handed, however, thanks to Maguire’s impish sense of humor. While writing it, he drank countless cups of Maxwell House coffee in honor of pitchwoman Cora, a.k.a. Margaret Hamilton, a.k.a. the Wicked Witch in the classic film. And once, in desperate need of inspiration, he made the mistake of overindulging in doughnut holes, turning a distinctive shade of green himself. But that was then: These days what you see on Maguire’s face is the flush of success.