When Gregory Maguire was writing “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” in the early 1990s, he often daydreamed about how successful the book was going to be.
“It took a lot of courage for me to take such a beloved story like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and put my own imagination into it,” said Maguire in a recent phone interview from his home in Massachusetts.
Up to that point, he had been writing popular children’s books, but “Wicked” was a departure. “It was my first book for adults,” said Maguire, “and I kept imagining how this book was going to be the next big thing. I fantasized that it would be a cult novel like ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ ”
WHERE: University at Albany
WHEN: Thursday; reading at 7 p.m. in Recital Hall at Performing Arts Center of Uptown Campus; book signing at University Art Museum following the reading
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: New York State Writers Institute, 442-5620
He laughed that writers do that sort of thing because it often takes a risk to try something new. “We might be afraid, but our imaginations tell us to do it,” said Maguire.
What he never imagined was his book becoming the basis of a hit Broadway musical. “Wicked,” which opened during the 2003-2004 season, received 10 Tony nominations and has become a worldwide phenomenon.
“The play probably would never have happened if I hadn’t received such a good book review in 1995 in the L.A. Times,” said Maguire.
The New York Times gave the book a horrible review. “I felt decimated to read that review,” said Maguire, “but five days later, the L.A. Times came out with a glowing review and everything changed after that. When the movie people read that review, they really got behind the book, put up some good money, and it eventually became the play.”
Film in the future
According to Maguire, there are plans to bring out a film version of “Wicked” in the year 2014. “That’s the 10-year anniversary of its Broadway debut,” he said, “which is exactly what happened when the play ‘Chicago’ came out as a film a few years ago. Since ‘Wicked’ is breaking attendance records all over the world, there’s no need to rush a film out now.”
On Thursday, Maguire will read from his work at 7 p.m. at the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany’s uptown campus. A book signing will be held at the University Art Museum following the reading.
Maguire, who grew up in Albany, was happy to see his book turned into a musical. “I’ve always loved the theater,” he said. “I used to sing in the choir at St. Vincent de Paul’s Church when I was in my early twenties.”
Because he had the rights to his novel, he could have insisted on writing the play, but he chose to give the producers the freedom to create a play based on his book.
“I didn’t demand creative updates,” said Maguire. “I did want to sit in on some of the auditions just to experience what that was like, and everyone who auditioned was wonderful. So I wasn’t much help there.”
He knew the play was going to be good when he sat in on a read-through shortly before it opened in San Francisco. “The characters were all on stage and whenever they spoke they would stand up on their chairs,” said Maguire, “and when they were offstage they would just sit down. I thought it was terribly moving and funny, but I didn’t realize the spectacle of the production till I finally saw it performed onstage. I’ve now seen it at least 34 times in the last four-and-a-half years, and each time I see it I come away liking it more and more. I can see why people keep going back to see the witch fly at the end of Act 1.”
Writing serves purpose
Maguire is certainly more financially comfortable today than he has ever been, but he continues to write for two reasons. “Writing helps me think. I’m very concrete,” he said. “I think in plot with characters and moral dilemmas. If I couldn’t write, I wouldn’t be able to think through some of my thoughts.”
The second reason he writes is to react to current events. “Writing is cheaper than going to a psychologist,” said Maguire. “I’m deeply engaged in the world, and writing allows me the opportunity to express my thoughts about things that bother me, such as this war in Iraq, why we do harm to children and global warming. Instead of keeping my rage inside, I’m able to write about it and get it out.”
Although he has now written some successful adult novels, he still writes for children and young adults and has great love for children’s literature. “Since 1987, I’ve been the co-director of Children’s Literature New England, a nonprofit organization that tries to elevate awareness of the significance of literature in the lives of children.”
The organization conducts an annual one-week institute in which it brings together teachers, librarians, college professors, writers, illustrators and people in publishing to honor and celebrate children’s books and their serious literary themes. “We should never forget those first books that had such a profound impact on us as children,” said Maguire.
His most recent book for young adults, “What the Dickens,” is a whimsical fantasy about a rogue tooth fairy, born alone and outside his pack, who tries to find his place in tooth-fairy society. That book came out last fall, and he is putting the finishing touches on the third book of a projected four book ‘Wicked’ series, which will be out this fall.
“I never intended for this to become a ‘Wicked’ series,” said Maguire, “but I just kept finding more and more stories in the original Oz books. This one is called ‘A Lion Among Men.’ So you can imagine who it’s about.”
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