by Kris Dinnison
Gregory Maguire is known to many readers as the talented creator of some of the most bizarre and original fiction of the past ten years. Readers of the novels Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister will remember the provocative way in which Maguire has reconstructed some familiar tales. It's a pattern he repeats in his newest work, Mirror, Mirror. But Maguire's self-image is quite a departure from the boldness of his books.
"I'm kind of a quiet, milquetoast kind of person," Maguire admits sheepishly. Whenever someone suggests that Maguire's artistry puts him on the cutting edge of fiction, he suggests that someone must have moved the edge underneath his feet. In fact he claims his greatest accomplishment is overcoming his native shyness. "I am proudest, I suppose, of conquering timidity," Maguire muses. "The timidity that might have kept me from adoption. The timidity that might have kept me from being an artist."
Maguire's mother died when he was very young, and the family struggled after her death. Eventually, his father and stepmother were able to pull the family together again. Maguire grew up in a sheltered but creative world that he compares to the childhood of the Bront & euml; family. "My father and stepmother were very strict in an old Victorian sort of way," recalls Maguire. "What liberties we were allowed were related to books." He and his siblings found entertainment with each other, while in the wider world their peers were discovering the growing world of television and movies. "We were endlessly creative," says Maguire. "The combination of the excitement of reading and the ability to create kept us sane."
The seeds of those childhood experiences with books and the rich inner life those stories helped him create have carried Maguire into a lifelong passion for children's literature. Maguire is one of the founders of an organization called Children's Literature New England, which promotes children's literature with, among other activities, a large annual conference. He has taught and written prolifically in this area, spreading his belief that literature is essential to the growth of children. Now, with three adopted children, he can try out his ideas on a captive audience. "I believe in literature because it has the power to reveal, to console, and to stimulate," explains Maguire. "I really do believe that children have always had a great deal to survive to make it to maturity.... It's even more so for children in the present, as children have to fight even for identity."
Maguire's first works as an artist were for children. In fact, he wrote and published for many years before he made his first foray into the world of adult fiction. When Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West was published in 1995, the acclaim was enthusiastic and widespread, and Maguire's adventure in adult fiction had begun. And yet Maguire did not leave the stories of childhood completely behind. He used them as fodder for more complex tales that would draw adults into that world and make them question their ideas about good and evil.
Wicked began as desire to write a story about an evil character. Maguire felt stymied by his first choice -- writing about Hitler -- so he went with the next most evil character he could think of. That's how the chronicles of Elphaba, the wicked witch who met that pesky Dorothy on the road to Oz, took shape. Now Maguire's novel has been transformed into a Broadway musical, which ran to ebullient praise in San Francisco this summer and opened on Broadway in October. And what does Maguire think of this latest incarnation of his work? "I have to tell you, I just love it!" Maguire exclaims. "It's very much a derivation of my book, it's sort of a next generation from the book...But I would be more than unusually filled with hubris if I stood on a pedestal and proclaimed the perennial rightness of my story, when in fact my story was a derivation."
Indeed, all of Maguire's adult novels have their roots in familiar stories. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister sets the Cinderella tale in 17th-century Holland and takes the tack that Cinderella was a spoiled child and that the stepsister was the underdog heroine. Lost combines elements of "A Christmas Carol" with the fact and legend of Jack the Ripper to create a compelling ghost story of sorts. And Maguire's newest novel, Mirror, Mirror places Snow White in Renaissance Italy with the notorious Borgia family lurking around, waiting to despoil the fair Bianca.
Maguire likes working with the foundation of fairy tales for a couple of reasons. "One is that with only one or two exceptions fairy tales are exceptionally porous," Maguire explains. "There's a lot of inconsistency and a lot of room for someone who wants to do an interpretation to move around without betraying the intent." The second reason goes back to why Maguire has been drawn to stories his whole life. "I am a democrat with a small "d," and I believe in the raising up of the small," maintains Maguire. "Fairy tales are basically about children growing up. All children are disenfranchised adults. The world is very perilous for them."
Few of Maguire's books illustrate this position more clearly than Mirror, Mirror. In this reworking of Snow White's familiar tale, Maguire creates a landscape that is at once historically accurate and dreamlike. "When I began writing Mirror, Mirror I was not entirely convinced that I knew which way it was going to go, historical novel or fantasy," Maguire says. The resulting novel is a combination of both.
He also takes the story's essential elements -- the mirror, the dwarves, and the apple -- and gives them each a new relationship to each other and to the characters. "There had to be some relationship between them," explains Maguire. After some careful research and some lucky coincidences, Maguire decided the mirror would be a magical object made by, but taken from, the dwarves. But how could he tie that in with the historical information surrounding the Borgias? "I happened to be listening to NPR and they had a story about the symptoms of mercury poisoning," Maguire laughs. One of those symptoms was paranoia, a trait the Borgia family was well known for. Since the mirrors of that time were made from a combination of silver and mercury, Maguire was able to make the mirror into both a magical object and an explanation for Lucrezia Borgia's paranoid tendencies. "If you dig around enough you find a fact that is so suitable that it almost seems history put it there for you to find," says Maguire.
The presentation of the dwarves proved to be especially daunting for the author. "I definitely didn't want them to be yard gnomes," he jokes. "I would have wanted to run them over with my lawn mower." As he struggled with this challenge, Maguire saw a Renaissance fresco of the crucifixion in which a dwarf was present as one of the onlookers. "I saw that fresco when I was doing research for the book," Maguire had a dwarf present for a great moment of Christendom.... I decided I wanted dwarves not as humans and not gnomes. So I went back to the drawing board." The resulting creatures are a compelling concoction seemingly born out of and able to move through solid rock. As the dwarves are named, and noticed, they gradually take on shape and distinctions they didn't previously have. "They're almost like pre-children," Maguire says of his creations. "They have to be evolving into something that they have not been."
Indeed this idea of evolution pervades not only Mirror, Mirror, but all of Maguire's novels. "This book [Snow White] is about Bianca sleeping her childhood away, and about the Renaissance, during which the world was moving out of the childhood of superstition," explains Maguire. He hopes readers of his novels will experience similar growth. "That's the difference between writing for adults and writing for children," Maguire explains. "Children need the notion of absolute good and absolute evil so they can recognize it. As we get older we need to be able to play devil's advocate for ourselves. That's why I write these stories for adults."
Publication date: 11/06/03