Fifteen years and a wildly popular Broadway musical later, author Gregory Maguire is putting an end — maybe — to his Wizard of Oz-inspired series of books with the publication of the fourth Wicked Years novel, Out of Oz, available now. Before we say goodbye (or see you later) to the Emerald City as Maguire imagined it, EW asked the author about some of his favorite and not-so favorite books.
What was your favorite book as a child?
The Diamond in the Window. It takes place in Concord, Massachusetts, and that’s where I live now. I moved here in part because of that book, both the magic in it and the sense that magic was just a metaphor for a deeper, metaphysical way of thinking about existence. That was such a powerful part of my understanding the world and my understanding of the power of literature that in a way, I fell in love with Concord, Massachusetts because of that book because of that book, and that’s why I live here more than 40 years later.
That’s a great book. But parts of it are pretty abstract, and it’s not exactly an easy book for kids.
Not anymore. It was fine when I was a kid, but I think kids’ tastes have changed, and you have to suspend an awful lot of what they call “disbelief” to get through that book now.
There are a lot of adult ideas in it, too.
I think you’re right. There are lots of references to 19th century culture, Emerson and Thoreau, and the idea that truth is an ideal. Remember Mrs. Truth standing with her lamp, and that long line of figures from history who come up and give their little contributions to her and make her lamp burn a little brighter for a minute? I mean, that’s such a metaphor, like a 19th century black-and-white lithograph of the truth on a barren landscape. But at the same time, if you can see that picture when you’re ten, if you see that passage, you kind of, for the first time, get a picture of an abstract concept: the picture of truth as something that exists in and of itself. My mind was really stretched and made richer by that book.
What’s a book you come back to over and over?
I come back to the work of Maurice Sendak all the time. In fact, I even wrote a book of appreciation about his work. He did a book called Fly By Night with Randall Jarrell the poet, and it’s a story about a boy who falls asleep and floats over the landscape during his dreams, and just sees visions. I suppose it’s a little bit like that metaphor of Mrs. Truth, isn’t it? He just sees the world and doesn’t know how to interpret it, but it’s full of beauty, and when he wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t remember that he has been able to fly at night. The book is very sexy in a way because he’s flying naked — and I don’t mean it’s sexy as in alluring. It’s sexy in that it’s partly about the power of a young person in their dreams to slip out of the constraints of how they’re being culturally raised, and live naturally in the world, live naked in the richest and deepest of emotions without shame or fear of question. That’s what poetry is about too, I think. The combination of Sendak’s marvelously evocative drawings and the poetic cadences of Randall Jarrell call me back to that book again and again. I also rely on dreams a lot for my own writing. I mean, I often say, “What are you going to dream tonight? And will it give you a clue on what you’re going to write tomorrow?” Every now and then it does.
Is there a book you’ve never read that, for whatever reason, you’ve pretended to have read?
Having just legitimately and honestly and honorably finished all of Proust after seven years — I’ve been reading Proust one volume a summer for seven years, and this past summer, I just finished — I’m proud to say I cannot say Proust. I can say I have never finished War and Peace, and I mean to. I have read huge chunks of it, and I have quoted it as an epigram in Wicked, but all those Russian names hurt my jaw, you know, trying to say them over and over again and keep them straight in my head. They all look like each other to me. The characters got hopelessly tangled up as I tried to make them individual in my mind, and the dramatis personae. So I’ve never finished that book. I think if you endure enough of the war, you deserve the peace of actually finishing it [laughs]. I’ll finally put myself at peace by finishing War and Peace.
What’s a classic or much-hyped book that you’ve never quite understood the merits of?
That’s an easy one to answer. I don’t get everybody’s devotion to Jane Austen. I think Jane Austen makes great movies [laughs]. For a long time, I would have answered Pride and Prejudice as the book that I said I’d read but hadn’t, but I finally read it about a year ago, and I think Pride and Prejudice has some very funny parts, but to me, it’s about three times too long — and look who’s talking, somebody who writes 500-page novels! The humor in it is funny, but the situations seem to me very repetitive and run into one another, yet almost all the critics I know think that the great writers who I really do admire from the 19th and 20th century descended from Jane Austen — and we must all bow to her and kiss the hem of her garment — but I’ve never gotten it. I think I’m missing the Jane Austen molecule or something.
What is a book you would kill a bug with?
It would have to be something broad and flat and really, really oversized. Possibly the original edition of the Story of Babar because that was oversized. I’m assume that flies are included in bugs, so yes, with the Story of Babar, you might actually have hope of the elephant killing the fly.