Author Gregory Maguire on “Wicked,” sexy swans and gay perspectives
By Frank Rizzo
Can there possibly be a more beautiful bird?” asks author Gregory Maguire about one of his characters is his latest book, “A Wild Winter Swan,” the story of a stunning, one-winged swan-boy who disrupts the life of a 15-year-old girl in New York City in the ‘60s.
“There’s the purity of the whiteness that makes them stand out against whatever background you see them in, whether it’s the sky or a lake,” says Maguire from his home in Concord, Mass. “There’s something about their size, too, as well as their elegance that make their descending presence seem like a visitation. They’re sort of like angels.”
But there’s a bit of a dangerous mystery to them, too, he says.
“Did you ever come across a turkey or quail while out in the woods and suddenly it explodes and rises before you? It’s arresting and terrifying but also awesome.”
Give Maguire a subject, idea, or image and listen to him expound in elegant and imaginative ways as one might expect from the author of such richly fantastical novels – many that take different perspectives of tales by Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm, L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll, and Charles Dickens, among others. His books include “Mirror, Mirror,” “After Alice,” “Lost,” “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” and “Wicked,” which was the basis for the blockbuster Broadway musical.
Maguire says he was drawn to doing his own modern version of the Hans Christian Andersen story that tells of a group of brothers who were turned into swans by a witch, but were rescued by a devoted sister and magically returned to their rightful figures – except one brother who was only half-saved and who retained a single large wing.
Maguire is not the only one who found the tale compelling, he would later discover. His friend Brian Selznick, who wrote “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” that became the Martin Scorsese movie “Hugo,” and who is also gay, was transfixed by the tale when he was a boy.
“When we were both about 10, we wanted the swan-boy to be our friend,” says Maguire. “We didn’t have the word for ‘boyfriend’ yet, but we were so smitten with the romantic idea of having this friend who had this beautiful way about him and how cool that would be. I didn’t know anybody who came across that story in childhood who didn’t fall in love with that boy and want him to be their best friend. I was sure that if I had met him, we would be ‘BFF’ and that I would understand him and accept him for who he was – and then he would like me.”
He also learned that the writer Michael Cunningham, who is also gay, had written a short story about Andersen’s swan-boy, re-envisioning him as another lone outsider in contemporary New York City who “kind of just lives there.”
“I guess I’m building a little argument for the fact that there is something about the beauty in brokenness that is attractive to gay writers,” says Maguire, “or at least as it’s understood by young people, who don’t yet see that the ways in which they think of themselves as broken are really the ways that they are whole. It just takes a while to learn that for a young person.”
Maguire says he doesn’t set out to write on gay themes or gay characters, but rather the imaginative novel-writing is “a series of 100,000 lessons, told one at a time, about how being an individual matters. So, in that way, every single novel that relishes the individual has a way to speak to gay and lesbian readers, and readers of any stripe or identity, whether they can name it or not.”
That being said, several of Maguire’s stories have gay elements or characters.
“Not so much in this one – though I was tempted at first – but then I thought, no, that would distract from other things I wanted to do in this book. Though I have not shied away from it, I have never made it the central part of any book. It’s there, just as it is in the world, just like devotion and justice and beauty are there in the world.”
But in his previous book “Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker,” which is his own expansive take on “The Nutcracker,” the reader eventually discovers that the re-imagined character of Dr. Drosselmeier – a peripheral character in the famed ballet – is a closeted gay toymaker from 19th century Germany “whose creativity is a kind of salvation.”
There’s a beautiful and sustained ache in that book that is sad but also oddly comforting.
“What is it in fairytales that gives them the capacity to highlight our loneliness and at the same time be consoling, too? I have asked myself this question since I was 10 and I’m not sure I know the answer, but I relish the effect,” Maguire says. “Fairytales insist we have a foot in each world. They don’t work if we can’t hear resonances and chimes in our own lives.”
From “Mary Poppins” Author
After writing books for young readers and adults for 42 years, the Albany-born-and-raised author says he now thinks every book is going to be his last.
“I decided that I’m only going to do something if I really feel like it right now,” says Maguire, 66.
He expected to take last year off from writing to spend more time in Massachusetts and at his family’s other home in Vermont with his husband of 16 years, painter Andy Newman, and with his three adult children Alex, Luke and Helen. But the Hans Christian Andersen story – which isn’t one of the Danish writer’s most famous – kept speaking to him. He also got a bit of push 25 years ago by P. L. Travers, author of “Mary Poppins,” who suggested he take a crack at the tale. She told him: “There’s a story – the sixth brother. Give him something to do. The boy with the wing. You know the one I mean?”
But Maguire didn’t want to write it in a way that reflected his young sexual yearnings.
“That wasn’t the kind of story I wanted to write right now. I wanted it to be more innocent and I also wanted to draw on something cozy about childhood that predates the revolutions of the ‘60s. I wanted to set it in the last possible year when people were not sensing the great schisms that we were about to discover,” he explains.
“The swan-boy breaks into that world in my story the same way that stories and novels broke into my life and opened my windows and lifted me out of the safe and loving environment that nonetheless was too small for me, as most children find in their lives. That’s why we grow up.”
The book is set for the most part in the confines of an aging townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where the heroine Laura has lived with her Italian-American immigrant grandparents since her mother became institutionalized. A large section of the book focuses on Laura’s efforts to hide the swan-boy named Hans in the uppermost floor of the house.
“It’s a cozy and housebound book, and how interesting to me that it happens to come out during the COVID period, where we are all housebound and we are looking out our windows to see what might come in – in a good way – what kind of grace and challenging idea that is going to be blown in where we’re sheltering in order to keep ourselves alive and healthy that allows us to move forward into a new way of being.”
So, will Maguire finally get that year off?
Maybe not. Next year, he has a children’s illustrated book coming out, “Cress Watercress.” It’s a rare book of his that features all anthropomorphic animal characters, centering on “a small rabbit family that has to leave the warren when its father doesn’t come home one night.”
Yes, another tale whose main character is missing a parent, a familiar trope in most of his writings.
“Unless there is a dead parent, I don’t see it as a story,” he says. “I see it as wallpaper or Muzak. Nothing starts until a child is thrown on his or her own devices, usually begun through grief.”
For parents who seek to protect their impressionable children by shielding them from such tales that might be viewed as traumatic, Maguire says the opposite is true. Maguire points them to the life lessons supplied by fairytales and folk stories.
“They gave us the chance to grapple with the inevitable horror of loss by telling us about it early and by saying, ‘You can survive loss. It takes a lot of work and some help, luck, and grace but one can survive.’”
Most of Maguire’s books, he says, can be boiled down to this thesis that is elegantly presented in a scene from “Cress Watercress,” in which the mother likens the experience to the weeping child – who is finally dealing with the fact that the father is never going to come back – to the phases of the moon.
“The mother says, ‘You will feel this over and over again, and the feeling will lift over and over again. That’s just how it works. That’s what feelings are. They come and they go, and the one thing that you can be sure of is that they do not stay the same.’ Why do books for the younger readers not tell us about the cycle of emotions? Why is it something we have to wait until we’re grownups to learn? This is an important thing for children to understand. Someone should tell them. ‘Yes, you will feel this, and it will go away – and it will come back, too, and that’s OK. That’s normal.’”
When asked about the much-anticipated film version of the long-running “Wicked” musical that opened on Broadway 17 years ago, he says he understands it’s still being developed, and echoes reports that there is finally a script that everyone feels can work as a movie.
Speaking about the book that has become a phenomenon, he says: “Isn’t it amazing? I felt when I wrote it that it might be considered simplistic and, in a lot of ways, I think it’s more important now than it was 25 years ago.”
Does he still think about what it is to be “good?”
“I do,” he says. “I don’t claim ever to be able to settle on the right course of action – and I will pay the price before the courts of everlasting justice – but I do think it’s important to try.”