LIANE HANSEN, host:
The characters in Gregory Maguire's novels are magical, devious, frightening, bewitching and wicked. In his first novel, "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," published in 1995, the author takes his readers on an imaginative and eccentric journey into the land of Oz. Maguire stays within the structure of L. Frank Baum's beloved 1900 classic, "The Wizard of Oz," but Dorothy is not the star of "Wicked." That role goes to Elphaba Thropp, the name he gives to the Wicked Witch of the West, a misunderstood Munchkinlander with green skin who challenges all the perceived notions of good and evil in the Emerald City.
Gregory Maguire collaborated with composer Stephen Schwartz for the 2003 Broadway musical "Wicked." The audience discovers that Elphaba is the college roommate of Glinda, the Good Witch, and they don't exactly hit it off.
(Soundbite of "Wicked")
Unidentified Woman #1 and Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Clothing, unadulterated loathing...
Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) For your face.
Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Your voice.
Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Your clothing.
Unidentified Woman #1 and Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Let's just say, I loathe it all.
HANSEN: In the beginning of Maguire's new sequel, "Son of a Witch," Dorothy has melted the Wicked Witch and gone back to Kansas. Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion have stayed behind. Oz is at war; Emerald City is in ruins. And we are introduced to a boy named Liir, who may or may not be the secret son of Elphaba. Gregory Maguire is here in our studio.
Hello. Welcome. Nice to meet you.
Mr. GREGORY MAGUIRE (Author, "Son of a Witch"): Very nice to meet you.
HANSEN: Now "Son of a Witch" is being published 10 years after "Wicked." Had you intended to write a sequel initially?
Mr. MAGUIRE: When I was finished with "Wicked," I had so much left in me that, actually, I kept writing that year. I wrote for about another five months, produced a whole 'nother novel and sent it to my agent, who called me up and said, `Gregory, listen very carefully: Put this in a drawer, lock the drawer, flush the key down the toilet. This is not a good work. And you had to get it out of your system so you could go on to other things, but put it behind you. It's over.'
I followed his advice, as I do in most things. Eight years on, though, when I thought I had left Oz way behind for good, the musical opened on "Broadway," and I began to have a new readership. They were these battalions, if you want to call it that, of middle-school girls who are good readers, who were picking up my adult novel and reading it for themselves, passing it around at study hall, sharing it at lunchtime. I began to get letters from girls--not young women, real girls--saying, `Mr. Maguire, whatever happens to the political prisoner named Nor who is 12 years old at the end of "Wicked"?' The last time we see her, she's in shackles, she's unable to speak anymore, and Elphaba, the witch, says to the wizard, `Release her to me and I will stop my activities against you. Just give me the girl. Let me do one good thing.' The wizard won't do that, and Elphaba draws back. The girl is taken offstage, never seen again.
Now one of my good friends, dear friends, is Maurice Sendak, the children's book artist. I was having a conversation with him about this, and I was saying, `Maurice, what do I do? I'm getting letters from these girls saying, `Whatever happened to that little girl?' Maurice says, `If they're smart enough to read your adult novel, then they're smart enough to face the world as it is. You have no obligation to go back and do anything for them. They've got to learn how the world is.'
Well, Maurice is smart and Maurice is right, and Maurice's muse is smarter than my muse. However, at the same time all that was happening, the photos from Abu Ghraib started being printed on the front pages of The Boston Globe, which I read daily. And some combination of those images, about which I could do so little, and the political prisoner, the girl that maybe I could do just a tiny bit for, pushed me back into Oz, whether I wanted to go there or not.
HANSEN: Now was Nor part of those loose ends and that part that you had written previously? Or was this--this was a whole new exploration for you.
Mr. MAGUIRE: When I went back to it after eight years, I started completely from scratch. There's only, I think, a page and a half from the original manuscript, the `filed' book, let's call it--there's only about a page and a half that actually shows up in "Son of a Witch." It's all new material, because it's 10 years on. I'm a different author. The world is a different place, and Oz, if it's going to reflect America, is going to reflect a different America now than it would have 10 years ago.
HANSEN: Now we don't really hear a lot about Nor in the beginning of the book, but we are introduced to Liir, this brand-new character. I suppose if you have a character that needs rescuing from prison, you need to create a hero, correct?
Mr. MAGUIRE: That's true.
HANSEN: And is Liir our hero?
Mr. MAGUIRE: He's an unlikely hero. He's a hero who makes incredible mistakes--crimes, sins, use the word you want--things he'll have to live with for the rest of his life. Is he the witch's son? Is he not? He may never know. However, he still has to live with not knowing and decide how to act. So he decides, among other things, to see if he can find out whatever happened to Nor.
HANSEN: Talk about some of the elements of society and its inhabitants that you want to explore, starting specifically with Oz itself. There's religious conflict in Oz.
Mr. MAGUIRE: There is religious conflict in Oz. L. Frank Baum never talked about religion 105 years ago in the original novel, but if I wanted this world that I was revisiting, with my readership behind me, to seem real, I felt I had to pay attention to the things that concern us as adult readers in the world: religion, politics, sex, romance, violence, crime, forgiveness, retribution, all those things. Well, you know, Liane, at the beginning of the show that we listen to on Sunday mornings, there's that lovely drum clip, and you say, `These are the voices...'
Mr. MAGUIRE: `...that we heard in the news this week.'
Mr. MAGUIRE: In a way, I went back to write "Son of a Witch," and I felt, `And these are the voices that we're hearing in Oz this year.' And they take different points of view. There's the more or less mother superior, for want of a better word, who talks about the fact that devotion and pietism are not the same thing.
HANSEN: Mm-hmm. And there are elements in this convent that you've created of these women, and there's conflict between whether or not they can use magic or not and whether they do when they're not supposed to.
Mr. MAGUIRE: All levels of conflict at any kind of an institution.
Mr. MAGUIRE: And...
HANSEN: Yeah. Institutions...
Mr. MAGUIRE: Yeah.
HANSEN: ...power the whole idea of who has taken power in Oz after the wizard has taken off in his balloon with Dorothy.
Mr. MAGUIRE: That's right. The history doesn't end just because we've got to the chapter end. In fact, there has to be another chapter. There has to be another administration. It's always going to happen. It's the next administration. If the story of "Wicked" was a story about an iconoclast, how one person could stand up and, feckless or not, at least try to make a difference, the story of "Son of a Witch" is something different. Liir doesn't have the power of Elphaba, either the magic power or the power of character. So how is he to live? The story of "Son of a Witch" is the story of collaboration. It's the story of people learning if we're not able to do it alone, then we must find a way to do it together.
HANSEN: How did you become interested in the fairy-tale genre? I mean, you're a noted children's literature author, but how--the fairy-tale genre in particular?
Mr. MAGUIRE: I started reading fairy tales, like any kid, about the age of eight, when I was a good reader for myself, only I never really put them away. I never really brought them back to the library, in a sense. They continued to be a comfort to me, as a palate cleanser. As I grew older and was reading about Holden Caulfield and was reading Dickens and was beginning to read Dostoyevsky, I still would come back to the fairy tales because there seemed to be something elemental and boiled-down about them. I think of fairy tales as being eroded in such a way that they are hollow and capacious and they can hold any meanings that we care to pack in them for a little while, for the space of a novel or a poem or a short story or a ballet. They can hold that meaning, but it never traduces their essential architecture. There's never any new version of a fairy tale that's going to eclipse what the old version of "Snow White," say, means, or "Cinderella." We're always going to recognize it when we see it anew, no matter what the trappings are.
HANSEN: Do you get concerned that there are expectations from your readers and, perhaps, I mean, from the market at large that you continue to write in this vein?
Mr. MAGUIRE: It's true that there's a wonderful benefit to success, but there are some demons that come along with it, too. Publishers want to make money on your work, and your readers want you to be the same writer book by book by book, but you can't. You can't write the same book over and over again. You can, in fact, only write the book that you need to write and must write and will die if you don't write. Sometimes people say, `Well, is this the middle book of three? Is there going to be a sequel?' And I say, `Not if I can help it, but if a book is coming down the highway and it's either write it or get creamed, then, believe me, I'll write it.'
HANSEN: You do leave open the possibility, without giving anything away, but the last line of "Son of a Witch"--just one last line, a baby who might be green--doesn't that leave open the possibility for the next one?
Mr. MAGUIRE: We're going to leave this building. We're going to step over the threshold and there's going to be all kinds of possibilities in that world outside in this. And so, yes, there are possibilities, but until I can't avoid it anymore, I'll leave those possibilities as a confection for the mind of the reader.
HANSEN: Gregory Maguire's new novel, "Son of a Witch," is available from Regan Books.
Thanks for coming in to our Washington studio.
Mr. MAGUIRE: It's been a pleasure and an honor.
HANSEN: You can read an excerpt from "Son of a Witch" at our Web site, npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.