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Oz In The Family

Gregory Maguire, G90
Mark Ostow

A conversation with Wicked author Gregory Maguire, G90.

Novelist Gregory Maguire turned Oz on its head ten years ago with Wicked, an alternate history of the Wicked Witch of the West that sold 750,000 copies and inspired a Broadway musical. Now fans eager to learn the “ever after” of the witch’s reputed son, Liir, will finally get some answers with a long-awaited sequel, Son of a Witch. It’s hardly “happily,” of course, as the disappearance of the Wizard leaves Liir struggling to save not one but two princesses in treacherous new Oz ruled by the fanatical Emperor Apostle. Maguire, who earned a Ph.D. in English and American literature at Tufts in 1990, lives near Boston with his husband and three adopted children.

Why return to Oz after all these years?
I had thought I was done with Oz. In fact, my agent encouraged me to be done with Oz. Then a couple of years ago, the musical opened, and it brought a new readership to my novel. I started getting letters from teenage girls asking me about [one of the book’s characters], a 12-year-old girl named Nor, who basically became a political prisoner. The last time we see her she is in chains, and my 14-year-old readers were upset with that. Then the pictures from Abu Ghraib came out, and those pictures were so horrifying to me, they reminded me of Nor. That kicked me out of the starting gate and made me say, “I have to find out what happened to her.”

If Wicked was about the nature of evil, what is Son of a Witch about?
I entered the book with a more visceral reason, to save the girl, which is what any fairy tale is about. But one of the things that Wicked said is we all have the capacity to do terrible things. Then the question is do we have the capacity to recover from them? That’s in a way what this book is about. The story was called Son of a Witch because that is the central question—if he is, does he have powers of his own, and if he isn’t, does he have powers of his own? That’s a question for all of us, whether we are adopted or abandoned or a fifth-generation Tom Goldsworthy Saltonstall the Fifth.

How intentionally is Son of a Witch a commentary on current political times?
It is very intentional. There is one line in the book that says something about the harnessing of piety as a political aphrodisiac, and that is certainly something that is happening in this country. I am a churchgoer and a believer, but the harnessing of piety for political ends is, I think, corrupt and heinous.

Was your interest in history and politics influenced by your studies at Tufts?
It comes quite specifically from two English professors I had. One was Martin Green, who was interested in the marginal areas of literature that aren’t considered part of the canon—westerns, science fiction, children’s books. He taught me there is real work and real art going on there. The other was Jesper Rosenmeier, who taught a course in Colonial Literature. Jesper was able to communicate with such passion the human beating hearts that lay just beneath the sermons of the Puritans. He really trained me to be a better novelist, and care about the relationship between politics and the individual heart.

How has adopting children influenced you?
The really interesting thing about being a family of five where nobody has the same genes is that each of us has a 20 percent share in determining who the Maguire-Newmans are. It’s liberating to say, “We are all in this together, folks.” I don’t have to be always looking to find out you are like me or my father, I can see how you are like yourself and how I am like you, and that’s a nicer transaction.

What is your writing schedule like?
People say how do you raise three children and run a nonprofit and put out a book a year. The answer to that these days is really, “I don’t know.” All I have memory of in the last three years is family life. But somehow the books come out. I think that’s a defense mechanism of a sort. I can’t afford to remember my writing process. My time has to be spent taking care of my children.

You wrote your first “gay scene” in this novel. How do you think your readers will take that?
I’m too old and successful to worry about losing readers if they don’t like two paragraphs in a 400-page book. On the other hand, if accidentally my own personal sexual psychology got caught up in writing a brief sexy scene, I’d want my editor to tell me. But she said no, this is in keeping with what the book is about. If I wanted to talk about the effect of the religious right in politics, I had to use all the tropes I could find to make sure my point got across. The severe reaction nationally to gay marriage meant that it was a legitimate scene for the novel.

As a gay parent, how do you feel about the argument that children ideally need both a father and a mother?
There are many ideals toward which we can strive—but should I have striven for that ideal and left three children on the streets of the cities where they grew up abandoned? Surely for them, having no parents is worse than having two male parents. If I was squabbling with straight parents because there weren’t enough to go around that might paint the argument differently, but that’s not the situation we’re in.

The ending of this book seems to cry out for a sequel—is one in the works?
You may have to wait another ten years. Liir had a quest and the quest was answered. At the end of Son of a Witch, I want to suggest that he has just grown up and now all the questions are beginning. I won’t write another book unless I can’t help myself. I can live with ambiguity. That’s the human condition.