I have several local news items burning a hole in my mailbox, but before I do anything else I would like to record a little of what it was like to meet Gregory Maguire a couple of weeks ago in Chicago.
It was wicked.
(‘Sorry. ‘Couldn’t resist.)
Actually, it was lovely. If you have read any of his fairy tale take-offs for adults or seen “Wicked,” the Broadway musical that is based on his novel by the same name, you know that in his writing he is wildly inventive and mischievous, with definite access to the dark side of life. I think I expected him to be morose or at least deadpan in person. But instead, he is warm and charming, with a gentle sense of humor.
He talked to a group of librarians at 8 o’clock in the morning at the American Library Association’s annual conference. I left my hotel room at 6:15am in order to get to the conference center in time to get a good seat near the front. Hundreds of other librarians/Maguire fans joined me.
Gregory called his talk “Playing with Stolen Property.” He told us about spending part of his childhood in an orphanage and later leading his younger siblings in games of “let’s play.” “Let’s play house, let’s play church, let’s play…Wizard of Oz!” They made the baby of the family be the wicked witch caught under the house, with nearly disastrous results.
He also shared his admiration for Maurice Sendak, author-illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are and many other children’s books. “He is a wonderful thief,” Gregory told us. “The artist as scavenger is an ancient notion, but Sendak does it with abandon and playfulness.”
Gregory has completed a critical work called Making Mischief: a Maurice Sendak Appreciation. It is due to be published by Harper Collins (William Morrow imprint) in September. In this book, he explores not only Sendak’s masterful individual pieces, but the idea that everything Sendak does is part of the complex, inter-related master work that is his whole life.
Also coming out from Harper Collins (William Morrow) this fall, in October, is another “Maguire treatment” of a classic tale. Matchless: a Christmas Story is “an illumination of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic ‘The Little Match Girl.'” It was originally a commission from National Public Radio.
He concluded by talking about the common language of childhood, how anybody shares it with you. And about the importance of classic stories. “They found us where we were and brought us to where we are today.”
At the end of his talk, rather than keep everyone for a group question-and-answer session, Gregory invited people to come up and ask him questions individually if they wanted to. Dozens of people stood in line to do just that. I lingered nearby, shamelessly eavesdropping on all of them.
More than one person told Gregory that they had seen “Wicked,” the musical, when it toured their home town. They wondered what he thought of the Broadway adaptation of his novel.
He replied that he had kept himself distant from that creative process, staying involved only enough to protect himself, but not so involved that his ideas would ruin the theatricality of the project. “I mean, L. Frank Baum didn’t come out of the grave to yell at me (for adapting his novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) so as long as they kept the theme, I was okay, and they did that. I like it! Even if you don’t like half of it, it is still worth seeing.”
I admired his graciousness. People came up to him, gushed over him, surrounded him, asked him to speak at their libraries and schools in communities from Wisconsin to Singapore. One woman asked if she could interview him for a magazine devoted to people of Irish heritage.
I would have been a basket case with so many excited people wanting something from me, but Gregory stayed polite and grounded through all of it. He calmly asked people for their names if they didn’t offer on their own, and he said, “Would you like a photo?” to very gently make the point that they should have asked before putting their arms around him and posing.
He accepted business cards from people (including one from me!) and gave his agent’s card to the people who asked him to speak in their communities. However, he also told everyone that he was curtailing his speaking schedule in order to be with his own three adopted children. “They need more care as they get older, not less,” he told one fan. “I’ll give them eight years (of my undivided attention.) Then, if someone is still interested in hearing me speak… (I’ll be available again.)” He told someone else that he has been doing school visits for 30 years.
Someone mentioned an article in Newsweek that got his name wrong. “You should write to them and get them to correct it!” the fan said.
But Gregory shook his head with a rueful smile. “No, I’ve learned not to say anything.”
When it was my turn to speak with him, I confess that I, too, gushed a bit and explained that I was planning to write a little something about him for my blog. I asked if it was okay to mention his children. He said yes, but that he appreciated my asking. They are 11, 9, and 8 years old. He and his husband, Andy Newman, adopted them from Cambodia.
I also said, “You’re so gracious with all of these people! How do you do it?”
“It’s interesting, all the different places people come from.” He didn’t mean just geographically to this location but also emotionally and mentally to his work.
Then he grinned and said, “I’m very curious.”
Me, too, Gregory. Me, too.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com
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PS – I took the photo, above, from the Gregory Maguire biography/bibliography page on Amazon.com.