Maguire, Gregory 1954-
Maguire, Gregory 1954-
Born June 9, 1954, in Albany, NY; son of John (a journalist) and Helen Maguire; married Andy Newman (an artist), June, 2004; children: Luke, Alex, Helen. Education: State University of New York—Albany, B.A., 1976; Simmons College, M.A., 1978; Tufts University, Ph.D., 1990. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Painting in oils or watercolors, song writing, traveling.
Agent—(literary) William Reiss, John Hawkins and Associates, 71 W. 23rd St., Ste. 1600, New York, NY 10010; (film) Stephen Moore, Paul Kohner Inc., 9300 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 555, Beverly Hills, CA 90212; (publicist) Gary Reznick, HarperCollins, 10 E. 53rd St., New York, NY 10022.
Novelist and author of books for children. Vincentian Grade School, Albany, NY, English teacher, 1976-77; Simmons College, Center for the Study of Children's Literature, Boston, MA, faculty member and associate director, 1979-87; Children's Literature New England, Inc. (nonprofit educational charity), Cambridge, MA, founder, codirector, and consultant, beginning 1987. Resident at Blue Mountain Center, 1986-90 and 1995-2001; artist-in-residence, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 1994, Hambidge Center, 1998, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, 1999.
Fellow at Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, 1978; One Hundred Best Books of the Year citation, New York Public Library, 1980, for The Daughter of the Moon; Children's Books of the Year citation, Child Study Children's Books Committee, Bank Street College, 1983, and Teachers' Choice Award, National Council of Teachers of English, 1984, both for The Dream Stealer; Best Book for Young Adults citation, American Library Association (ALA), and Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) Choice designation, both 1989, both for I Feel Like the Morning Star; Parents' Choice Award, and Children's Books of the Year citation, Child Study Committee, both 1994, both for Missing Sisters; Notable Children's Book citation, ALA, 1994, for Seven Spiders Spinning; Books for the Teen Age selection, New York Public Library, 1996, for Oasis; One Hundred Best Books citation, Young Book Trust (England), 1997, One Hundred Best Books of the Year citation, New York Public Library, 1999, and Notable Social Studies Trade Book designation, National Council for the Social Studies/Children's Book Council, and CCBC Choice designation, both 2000, all for The Good Liar; Books for the Teen Age selection, New York Public Library, 2000, for Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.
FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS
The Lightning Time, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1978.
The Daughter of the Moon, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1980.
Lights on the Lake, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1981.
The Dream Stealer, Harper (New York, NY), 1983, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 2002.
The Peace and Quiet Diner (picture book), illustrated by David Perry, Parents' Magazine Press (New York, NY), 1988.
I Feel Like the Morning Star, Harper (New York, NY), 1989.
Lucas Fishbone (picture book), illustrated by Frank Gargiulo, Harper (New York, NY), 1990.
Missing Sisters, Margaret K. McElderry Books (New York, NY), 1994.
The Good Liar, O'Brien Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1995, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Oasis, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Crabby Cratchitt, illustrated by Andrew Glass, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 2000.
Leaping Beauty, and Other Animal Fairy Tales, illustrated by Chris Demarest, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2007.
"HAMLET CHRONICLES" SERIES; FOR YOUNGREADERS
Seven Spiders Spinning, Clarion (New York, NY), 1994, revised edition, 2004.
Six Haunted Hairdos, illustrated by Elaine Clayton, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 1997.
Five Alien Elves, illustrated by Elaine Clayton, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 1998.
Four Stupid Cupids, illustrated by Elaine Clayton, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 2000.
Three Rotten Eggs, illustrated by Elaine Clayton, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 2002.
A Couple of April Fools, illustrated by Elaine Clayton, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 2004.
One Final Firecracker, illustrated by Elaine Clayton, Clarion Books (New York, NY), 2005.
FICTION FOR ADULTS
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Regan Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Lost, Regan Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Mirror Mirror, Regan Books (New York, NY), 2003.
"WICKED YEARS" SERIES; FOR ADULTS
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Regan Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Son of a Witch, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.
A Lion among Men, illustrated by Douglas Smith, Morrow (New York, NY), 2008.
(Editor, with Barbara Harrison) Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children's Literature, Lothrop (Boston, MA), 1987.
(Editor, with Barbara Harrison) Origins of Story: On Writing for Children, Margaret K. McElderry Books (New York, NY), 1999.
(Selector and author of introduction) L. Frank Baum, A Wonderful Welcome to Oz (includes The Marvelous Land of Oz, Osma of Oz, and The Emerald City of Oz), illustrated by John R. Neill, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2005.
Reviewer for Horn Book, School Library Journal, and Christian Science Monitor; contributor of short fiction toanthologies, including Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence,1994; and Click, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2007.
Wicked was adapted as a musical by-Winnie Holzman, book by Stephen Schwartz, and produced on Broadway, 2004; Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister was adapted as a film for the Wonderful World of Disney, ABC television. Several of Maguire's novelshave been adapted as audiobooks.
In forms as various as science fiction and fantasy, realistic problem novels, and rhyming picture books, Gregory Maguire writes about people on the edge of crisis who manage to survive their ordeal and become stronger because of it. Not one to shy away from complex themes in his young-adult books, he also has a lighter side, as is evident in such titles as Missing Sisters and Seven Spiders Spinning. While Maguire is best known as the author of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, a mature look at the land of Oz created by L. Frank Baum, much of his output is geared for young readers.
While many of Maguire's books involve fantasy, he also moves into realism and humor, although a single motif—the loss of a mother—threads throughout his diverse oeuvre. This motif has its roots in Maguire's own life: his mother died at his birth, and because his writer-father was ill at the time, Maguire and his three older siblings were sent to stay with relatives. The future author also spent time in an orphanage before being reunited with his newly remarried father. The birth of three half-siblings followed, and Maguire finished his childhood years in a family of seven children, all supported by his father's work as a humor columnist at the Albany, New York, Times-Union and as a science writer for the New York Health Department.
In addition to writing professionally, Maguire's father was well known around Albany as a great storyteller, and his second wife wrote poetry. Consequently, Maguire spent the second part of his childhood in a family that loved words, and he wrote his first story at age five. Longer works followed, and as a college junior he wrote what would be his first published book, the children's novel The Lightning Time.
The Lightning Time tells the story of young Daniel Rider, whose mother is currently hospitalized. While staying with his grandmother in the Adirondacks, Daniel meets a mysterious female cousin and together the two struggle to keep Saltbrook Mountain free from development. Plot elements include magic lightning that allows animals to talk, a villainous developer, and plenty of eerie effects. A contributor to Publishers Weekly concluded that Maguire handles his first novel "with professional aplomb," and Ethel L. Heins concluded in Horn Book that the young writer "creates tension successfully, and writes with conviction and style."
Maguire followed up the success of his first fantasy with The Daughter of the Moon, featuring Daniel Rider's twelve-year-old cousin Erikka. Again the missing-mother theme is explored, this time because Erikka's birth mother is dead and the girl is being raised by a stepmother in Chicago. Searching for more refinement in her life, Erikka is drawn to a local bookshop as well as to a painting an aunt has left with her. The painting proves to be a magic portal and Erikka soon escapes into the painted scene, ultimately retrieving a long-lost lover of the Chicago bookshop owner. In Horn Book, Mary M. Burns maintained that while The Daughter of the Moon features an overly complex plot, readers will enjoy the book's "fascinatingly complex heroine and … rich collection of adult and child characters." A third novel featuring Daniel Rider, Lights on the Lake, concludes a trilogy of sorts.
While pursuing his doctorate and taking a position with Simmons College's fledgling program in children's literature, Maguire took a break from publishing but returned with I Feel Like the Morning Star. Set in a post-atomic-war underworld, the science-fiction adventure focuses on three rebellious teenagers who want to break out of their prison-like underworld colony. Jane Beasley, reviewing the work for the Voice of Youth Advocates, found I Feel Like the Morning Star compelling, adding that the "suspense builds to a ‘can't-put-it-down’ threshold."
While living in London, Maguire completed Missing Sisters, a story inspired by a television news report about two brothers who are reunited after being separated at birth. Shorter than his other books, Missing Sisters is set in the 1960s and tells the story of a hearing- and speech-impaired girl who loses her closest friend—a Catholic nun—but ultimately finds her own missing sister. "The storytelling is sure and steady," wrote Roger Sutton in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, while a Horn Book contributor called it "an unusual and compelling picture of life in a Catholic home."
In his young-adult novel Oasis, Maguire again explores the effect of losing a loved one. When thirteen-year-old Hand's father dies of a heart attack, Hand's mother returns from the West Coast, where she had moved three years earlier. Hand believes that she abandoned him and also suspects that his Uncle Wolfgang may have had something to do with his father's death. However, when Hand models his father's compassionate behavior and assists two immigrants, then discovers that Wolfgang is dying of AIDS, he begins to come to terms with his grief. According to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, in Oasis "Maguire steers clear of the earnest tones that often characterize YA bereavement stories," and Debbie Carton wrote in Booklist that "complex, believable characterizations are Maguire's forte."
Maguire's "Hamlet Chronicles," set in the town of Hamlet, Vermont, feature the students in Miss Earth's fifth-grade class, both the Tattletales (the girls) and the Copycats (the boys). Divided by gender into warring factions, these boys and girls repeatedly do battle in plots that include everything from mutant chickens and ghosts to rampant cupids and mysterious disappearances. The series was inspired by the response Maguire has received at the many presentations he gives to students around the United States. "Over the years," he explained, "I've developed a very funny presentation. The kids usually howl at my speech, but when they learn that I don't have any humorous books, they're disappointed."
The first book in the "Hamlet Chronicles," Seven Spiders Spinning finds seven spiders from Siberia escaping from the frozen ice of Vermont and discovering seven girls whom they decide to adopt as their mothers. The problem is that the spiders literally have the kiss of death, and the girls must dispatch several of them. There are humorous subplots galore in Maguire's "high-camp fantasy-mystery," according to a Publishers Weekly critic. Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, predicted that Seven Spiders Spinning will be "the stuff of many a grade-school skit," and a Kirkus Reviews critic dubbed it "a lighthearted fantasy that, while easily read, is as intricately structured as a spider's web."
Illustrated by Elaine Clayton, the "Hamlet Chronicles" continue to countdown through Six Haunted Hairdos, Five Alien Elves, Four Stupid Cupids, Three Rotten Eggs, and A Couple of April Fools. With One Final Firecracker, Maguire winds up the chronicles by bringing back many of the characters from throughout the series, including aliens, cupid, mad scientists, fire-breathing chicken-lizards, and an elephant's ghost, as well as a poisonous spider that seeks to give one last fatal bite in what a Kirkus Reviews contributor described as a "winsome, bittersweet celebration of love and loss and loyalty." Reviewing A Couple of April Fools, Booklist critic Gillian Engberg observed that Maguire's "witty, absurd farce and spot-on portrayal of the social pecking order of middle-graders [is layered] with larger questions, while another Kirkus Reviews writer called the series a "relentlessly edgy and smart one, and as such, a breath of fresh air."
In addition to the "Hamlet Chronicles," Maguire's books for younger readers include Leaping Beauty; And Other Animal Fairy Tales and What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy. In each of the humorous fractured fairy tales he includes in Leaping Beauty, Maguire puts a spin on such well-known classic tales as "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," in this case casting "Goldifox" as the hero. The title story, a play on the familiar "Sleeping Beauty" legend, features a cursed tadpole. In Booklist, Kay Weisman called Leaping Beauty "a delightful collection" that is "sure to be popular with sophisticated readers." What-the-Dickens finds three siblings—Zeke, Dinah, and Rebecca Ruth—isolated in the wake of a tremendous natural disaster. With them is older cousin Gage, a mild-mannered English teacher, who tries to calm the children with a story about an orphaned skibberee (better known as a tooth fairy) and the adventures he encounters while learning his trade: granting wishes to humans. Comparing What-the-Dickens to Maguire's "Hamlet Chronicles," a Kirkus Reviews contributor praised the author's prose for its "precise, delightful turns of phrase and a conversational tone that perfectly enhances the subtext on the importance of storytelling." Also citing Maguire's "flair for language," Beth L. Meister added in School Library Journal that "the immediacy of the story and combination of fantasy and reality will grip even reluctant readers."
Maguire's largest shift in writing was the leap he made into adult fiction with Wicked, a novel he completed in only five months. He first began considering writing for adults in the early 1990s, when he was living in England. "I wanted to write … about an evil character," he later explained to a Publishers Weekly interviewer. Recalling his choice to focus on the Wicked Witch of the West, from The Wizard of Oz, he added: "If to each person in life comes one moment of brainstorming genius, I just had mine, because everyone knows who she is." Robin J. Schwartz, in her review of Wicked for Entertainment Weekly, posited that Maguire had begun to wonder how the Wicked Witch of the West became so wicked. "Since no one had the answer," Schwartz wrote, "he did what any inventive, self-respecting writer would do—he created his own malicious character."
The witch in Maguire's story, whom the author names Elphaba Thropp, "is not wicked; nor is she a formally schooled witch. Instead, she's an insecure, unfortunately green Munchkinlander who's willing to take radical steps to unseat the tyrannical Wizard of Oz," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Wicked is not just a simple retelling, however; the Publishers Weekly reviewer described the novel as a "fantastical meditation on good and evil, God and free will." Though Wicked's early public success was slow, the book became a "cult hit," according to a writer for Entertainment Weekly, and in 2003 an adaptation by Steven Schwartz and Winnie Holzman was launched on Broadway. The musical was an instant hit, received three Tony Awards, and played to sold-out audiences for months.
Responding to requests of fans of both Wicked and the Broadway musical adaptation, Maguire returns readers to Oz in the pages of both Son of a Witch and A Lion among Men. Described by Advocate writer Regina Marler as a "complex and surprising sequel" that is "even darker than Wicked," Son of a Witch focuses on Liir, who believes he may be brother to Nor and son of the now-dead Elphaba. Liir is on a mission to find and rescue the princess Nor, whom his mother tried and failed to help. Containing adult themes, the novel touches on political oppression, violence, and sexuality, and "the way governments can harness false piety in order to preserve their own power," as Maguire explained to Marler. In Booklist, Paula Luedtke praised Son of a Witch as "complex and multilayered in plot and meaning, thought-provoking, and unforgettable." The life of the Cowardly Lion is the subject of A Lion among Men, a life set against the backdrop of a war between the Munchkins and the emperor of the Emerald City. Calling the "Wicked Years" trilogy a "darkly enchanting saga," a Publishers Weekly contributor noted that in A Lion among Men Maguire "mixes some relatively weighty existential themes—the search for self, faith, redemption—into his whimsical story."
Other fantasy novels written for adults include Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, a melange of mystery, fairy tale, and fantasy that Maguire sets in seventeenth-century Holland. The story begins at a time when the country is engulfed in the tulip trade, with thousands on the verge of losing fortunes invested in tulip bulbs. Among these are Margarethe and her two daughters, Iris and Ruth. Following the murder of her husband, Margarethe brings her daughters back home to begin life in the village of Haarlem. Shunned by the locals, who believe she is a witch, Margarethe eventually finds work with an artist named Schoonmaker who lives on the outskirts of town. The family eventually moves in with the van den Meers, a business family that has made its fortunes by luring people into making tulip investments. Iris, who is charged to serve as companion to Clara van den Meer, the daughter of the household, soon realizes that there is something amiss in the household. Soon many lives are in even greater turmoil as the three women learn to deal with this latest challenge. Reviewing Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, a Publishers Weekly critic noted that Maguire is able to present "an astute balance of the ideal and sordid sides of human nature in a vision that fantasy lovers will find hard to resist."
A "deftly written, compulsively readable modern-day ghost story," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, Maguire's novel Lost traces the adventures of American writer Winifred Rudge as she visits London to research a novel about Jack the Ripper. Planning to stay with her cousin, John, in a family-owned house that once belonged to Ozias Rudge, who supposedly served as a model for Charles Dickens's Ebenezer Scrooge, she arrives only to find that John has gone missing and no one seems to know where he has gone. As she attempts to solve the mystery, she realizes that strange, supernatural occurrences are transpiring, and an angry poltergeist begins to influence her investigation. "Though Lost reads with the pace and urgency of a thriller, it gradually becomes apparent that we are also getting a sophisticated study of a woman whose past is pushing her beyond her limits," explained Robert Plunket in the Advocate. Margee Smith, writing in Library Journal, concluded that in Lost Maguire "makes the supernatural chillingly real."
With Mirror Mirror, Maguire draws inspiration from the Brothers Grimm tale of "Snow White" to create a "dark and vivid" retelling, according to Susan H. Woodcock in School Library Journal. He sets the familiar tale in seventeenth-century Italy, under the rule of the eerie Borgias, known historically for their tendency to poison their opponents. Snow White, here named Bianca de Nevada, is taken in by the family, but when Cesare, the brother/lover of Lucrezia, begins to look too closely at the young maiden, jealous Lucrezia condemns the young woman to death. When Bianca is rescued by dwarves, they are not the familiar fairy-tale characters, but are instead hybrid creatures of flesh and stone that are wakened by Bianca's presence. "Readers will be intrigued by the new story and yet curious as to how the familiar elements are brought in," commented Woodcock. A critic for Kirkus Reviews proclaimed Mirror Mirror to be "every bit as good as Wicked: wicked good, in fact."
Gregory Maguire contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
One winter, when I was about twenty-two, I was vacationing with a college friend at his family home in Little Falls, New York. At 11:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve, we looked at each other and said, "We have just a half an hour left in this year—what can we do in the next half hour that we will never forget?" With his sister and another friend, we raced into the garage, hunting for some Flexible Flyer sleds. We dragged them across the street to the city park. There we spent the last thirty minutes of the old year sledding. We shrieked, we laughed, we tumbled into drifts together, we threw nets of snow over each other. We caught ourselves in memory.
It is New Year's Eve in 1995 as I write these opening paragraphs. I remember a number of other New Year's Eves. Curling up in a sleeping bag on a park bench in Geneva, Switzerland, because all the hotels were booked. Watching some Kikuyu dancers dressed only in swimsuits and fur anklets doing the hustle at the Bora Bora Club north of Mombasa, in Kenya. Playing record albums of music from the '30s and '40s at my childhood home in Albany, New York. All New Year's Eves are a time of accounting of one's life: What have I done? What will I do? What need I change? What am I grateful for? It seems a good time to plunge into an autobiographical essay, to see what else the nets of memory can catch.*
Every family has its own particular culture. Even little kids who visit the households of friends know this: Somehow the feeling in your house is different from the feeling in our house. Family culture is spun from ethnic origins, the personalities of parents, and family history. Made of good, strong stuff, our family culture—such as I know it from my earliest memories in the late 1950s—was strict, respectful of books and learning, warm in some ways and less warm in others, and suffused with a sense that the world was both wonderful and dangerous.
My father, John (Jack) Maguire, had been born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1917, of Catholic stock originating in the north of Ireland. He was a gifted raconteur and had an encyclopedic memory for funny stories to deliver in his social and professional circles, but at home he maintained a grim Calvinist suspicion about enjoying life. Jack Maguire was in the army dur- ing World War II; afterward he resumed his career as a writer. He settled for a time in Albany, New York, where he met Helen Gregory, the second daughter of a Greek immigrant family.
Helen's family had had its own difficulties. Newly immigrated from northern Greece, Helen's mother had died in a hospital fire in the 1920s, leaving a husband who spoke only Greek, as well as seven children, the youngest of whom was still a baby. Helen and two of her sisters took turns staying home from school on a rotating basis, so that there would always be one sister at home to care for the little ones.
By all accounts, Helen Gregory was a vivacious woman, full of fun and strong feeling. For a time she worked at her father's Greek diner, called the Famous Restaurant. When she got her pay envelope once a week, though it was the Great Depression and times were hard, she always gave some money to the unemployed men who would come around looking for work or something to eat. And maybe they came to look at her, too: Helen was a beauty. She and my father were married in 1944, and lived in New York City, Washington, DC, and, eventually, back in Albany. Helen bore four children. She died of complications resulting from childbirth a week after her fourth child was born. That was in 1954, and I was the baby.
For all that he made his living as a freelance writer, my father wasn't an expressive man. His sorrow and panic must have been immense, but it was tamped down by an Irish habit of stoic acceptance. In the aftermath of the disaster, Helen's sisters offered to care for the children until Jack could pull his life together again. I went to stay with my Aunt Sophia until she realized she was going to find it difficult giving me back to my father. (She told me that my father would come and mind me now and then, so she could go shopping or have some time alone; when she returned, she'd say, "But Jack, you didn't change his diapers!" "He never cried," my father answered, "he didn't fuss, how was I to know?") Though they already had two children, Aunt Sophia asked if she and her husband could adopt me. My father, hoping he might salvage something of family life for his children, didn't want to let me go. Instead, he put me in the Saint Catherine's Infant Home in Albany. The nuns and nurses there called me "Gregory the Executive" because I smiled so seldom. I didn't scowl, I wasn't bad-tempered or fussy: I simply kept my feelings to myself—had I inherited the Irish gene for stoicism? Or maybe did my silence just allow me to observe?
In time my father decided to remarry. The family lore has it that he asked Marie McAuliff of North Albany, "What would you say if I asked you to marry me?" and that she answered, "You'll have to try me and see." He asked, and she agreed. Marie had been a close childhood friend of Helen and all her siblings, and my brothers and sisters knew her already—in fact, she was my godmother, too. So the second marriage started out with some real advantages. The children of the diaspora were brought back together under one roof, and by the time I was six there were three more Maguire children, born of Jack and Marie. We rattled our family list off in nighttime prayers, at breakneck speeds, racing each other to see who could be fastest:
God bless Daddy, God bless Mommy, God bless John, God bless Rachel, God bless Michael, God bless Gregory, God bless Matthew, God bless Annie, God bless Joseph.
Seven seemed a good number of kids to have in a family. We didn't feel like an especially large family—in Albany, with its substantial Irish Catholic population, there were plenty of families with eight, ten, twelve, even fourteen children. Seven seemed just about right to us.
We never forgot Helen, our first mother; even I never forgot her, though I hadn't known her. One of my earliest memories takes place at dusk on a cold winter Sunday afternoon, in our turn-of-the-twentieth-century house on Lancaster Street, in the Pine Hills neighborhood of Albany. I was leaning up against the metal wall of the stove, soaking up the heat; Marie was taking something out of the oven. Had we been chatting about the arrival of a new baby in the family—Annie, perhaps? At any rate, with all the happy egoism of a four year old, I probably made some remark about when I was in Mommy's stomach. Marie replied, "You know, of course, that you were never in my stomach. You remember that I'm your second mother, and Helen was your first mother." I said, "I know, Mommy," in aggrieved and somewhat insulted tones. Maybe the moment is captured in my memory, however, because I had never before really stopped to think about that mysterious bit of family dogma.
Our first mother was part of our growing up. Helen's sisters were warmly welcomed in our home. Marie and Jack both told stories of Helen so that we would come to know her. In the Catholic pantheon of saints and angels we could picture so well, Helen hovered in a category all of her own—not angel, not saint, but some sort of mysterious Greek goddess of warmth, recovery, and love.
Helen watched us from heaven. Jack grumbled at us through his cigar smoke. But it was Marie who taught us to read.*
We were not well to do. When we whined to find out our socioeconomic status, we received the noncommittal reply, "Comfortable. We're comfortable." And comfortable we were—more or less. Teenagers during the Great Depression, both Marie and Jack had formed lifelong habits of frugality. We children wore hand-me-downs from cousins and from each other. We drank gallons of Carnation instant milk, hoping not to get the inevitable lump of undissolved milk powder at the bottom of the pitcher. Marie bought a barber's home haircut set and gave crew cuts to all five boys as we lined up in our underwear in the basement. Five napes one after the other, five crowns, five right temples, five left temples, and drifts of brown curly hair all over the laundry floor, hiding our chilly ankles.
We didn't see these indignities as economies. We saw them as the campaign of our inventive parents to regularize and oppress us. "Our parents are so mean," we'd say to our friends. If ever some friend would make a claim for equally strict parents, we'd drag out our big guns. "Well, our parents won't let us ride two-wheeler bicycles until we're sixteen and we pass the New York State driver's license exam!" Which was true, and usually shut up any stunned competition.
But what we lacked in material luxury—bicycles, horseback-riding lessons, our own individual televisions or stereos, or even new clothes to show off—we made up in our reading lives. Our parents shared a love of reading and the written and spoken word, and the ceremony of a young Maguire getting his or her first library card was treated with as much solemn joy as a First Communion or a birthday.
I'm told that I was read to often as a small boy, but I don't remember it at all. I learned my letters well before kindergarten and was reading simple stories to
myself and to my younger brothers and sister with panache and invention if not with accuracy. In the late 1950s, we moved to North Pearl Street in North Albany, to help care for Marie's mother, whose health was failing. In North Albany, the library was too far away for us children to walk to. So Marie went weekly, with a huge carton in which our family groceries had been delivered, and she took out forty or fifty children's books at a go. (She later learned that for years the librarians had assumed that she was the principal of a grade school.)
When I was nine, we moved back to the bigger house on Lancaster Street, and the old Pine Hills Library on Madison Avenue became the destination of most of my outings. The library was housed in a huge, bloated, late Victorian extravaganza of a private home, with a wraparound porch, stained-glass windows, and ornate polished woodwork, balustrades, and screens. A grand staircase in the front hall twisted up and around to the children's room. There, behind the hugest desk I'd ever seen, the good women of the Albany Public Library oversaw the borrowing of thousands of books a day.
I read like a fiend. This will not surprise any reader of this essay; it would be the rare writer who hadn't found the love of books while he or she was a child. Once I decided to read through the entire children's collection and brazened my way through all those thick Louisa May Alcott books on the top shelf. But I was derailed when I got to James Barrie's Peter Pan, for I took home all the different editions the library had. On finishing the first and turning to the second, I was disappointed to find that different covers and different artists didn't mean a different text—all four editions had the same story in it. I then decided to read just what I wanted. I loved the smell of books, the feel of their covers, even the patterns of library paste spilled on the endpapers. I loved the pictures.
My parents invented a few strategies to help us love to read. We talked about books constantly, for one, and on occasion my parents would post a book chart. For limited periods of time we could write down every title we read and earn five cents for each one. But more important than this was the attitude toward the television. The TV occupied a central place in our family living room, but it was not allowed to cut into reading time. Access to the TV was limited, and access to books was not. We complained—of course we complained! Capably, volubly, constantly. But our accusation that we were being deprived went blithely ignored.
I sometimes tell this to children when I visit them in schools. I point out that four of the seven Maguire siblings are professional writers, and that reading makes the difference. In every class there is some child with a glimmer in the eye, who nods, who knows already.
What a time to be reading, though! I was ten in 1964.
My favorite book was Jane Langton's The Diamond in the Window, which, with its blend of domestic warmth and transcendental fantasy, showed me for the first time how books can expand your ideas about the world you live in. When I was done reading any Langton book, I felt I knew something crucial that I hadn't known before. Is this where a new writer really begins to hatch, at the moment of understanding the life-changing power of the written word?
I was primarily a lover of fantasy, and my favorite books in childhood are the obvious ones. The Narnia books. A Wrinkle in Time. Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz (more because I knew the stories through the films and TV adaptations). The Edward Eager books delighted me. Alice in Wonderland scared me, but it captivated me too. Charlotte's Web—no surprise—and Mary Poppins and Homer Price. The Borrowers tales by Mary Norton, the books about Miss Bianca by Margery Sharp. A lesser-known book called Loretta Mason Potts by Mary Ellen Chase. Eventually, books like The Hobbit and The Once and Future King. If I loved a book, I read and reread it, and eventually, with my allowance, bought the books I loved.
But next to Jane Langton's books about the Hall children in Concord, Massachusetts, the books that most caught my imagination were Lucy Boston's stories of Green Knowe. In fact, The Children of Green Knowe had been the first full-length chapter book I ever read. I wandered into the kitchen once again with the book in my hand. "Mommy, this is a strange book," I said.
"Is it scary?" said Marie. "You don't have to finish it if it's scary."
"I think it's a ghost story," I said, "but it's not scary. It's sort of sad. I don't know what it is. But there's something neat in it."
What was in The Children of Green Knowe—though I had no words for it—was atmosphere. Literary atmosphere. The Children of Green Knowe taught me many things, including that the optimum growing condition for magic is the sense of mystery you develop by observing things closely.
I believed in magic. It was not hard to do, being a good Catholic boy.*
It may seem scandalous, even heretical, to talk about magic and religion together. The type of Roman Catholicism I was raised in was rich in narrative. We read about the lives of saints and dreamed about the chance to be put to death in some wonderfully bloody way for refusing, let's say, to spit on the Blessed Sacrament. We listened to the Gospels and to the stories of the travels and adventures of Paul. The Christmas story and the Easter tragedy and triumph gave shape and meaning to our lives—not simply theologically, but in a personal way, too. Since we carried the death of Helen in an interior pocket in our hearts, we were well inclined by personal need to accept the doctrine of everlasting life. Anyway, children don't analyze what they believe, but they do believe fervently. I believed in saints and angels. I believed in Jesus in a way that has become more metaphoric and political as I have gotten older, but no less strong. I believed in the archangel with his fiery sword at the garden of Eden, and Moses in the bulrushes, and talking animals at the manger at Bethlehem.
As an adult, I find it difficult not to be a skeptic in matters of faith, at least intellectually—but I am aware that an intellectual perspective is not the only possible approach to take. Like most people, I can be impatient with hierarchy and with arcane points of dogma. But I do cherish the religious teaching I received from Catholic schools for its emphasis on moral integrity, for its strong narrative traditions, and for its giving me a language and a grammar with which to consider the crises of everyday life. When all else fails, I rely on the prayerful traditions of my parents, my grandparents, back into the dim ages further than anyone can know. The Roman Catholic tradition may be no truer than any other—but it is my tradition. It is a part of what I called earlier my family culture. And it is rich in mystery.*
I had two best friends all throughout grade school. For different reasons I am not in touch with them now—one died of AIDS a few years ago, and the other, sadly, has been estranged from me for some years. Both of these good, dear friends helped me understand the pleasure of making things. The story of growing up to be an artist of one sort or the other always involves the meeting of soul mates, the sudden, life-enhancing realization that you are not alone.
After I had read the Narnia stories and shared them with these valuable grade-school friends, I wanted more than anything else to find a magic land of my own. Doorways to magic lands are not easy to come across in Albany, New York. I would have preferred looking in Europe, or in the Adirondack Mountains where we vacationed for a week every summer. But if faith could grow in unlikely soil, so must magic. I poked around in improbable places looking for a bit of proof. I wanted to see some tiny hint of magic, some clue—it didn't need to be much!
One winter afternoon I walked my younger sister, Annie, to her ballet lesson on Colvin Avenue in Albany. I was with one of the friends mentioned above. We decided to explore a no- man's-land between the commercial strip and the Little League playing fields a half mile beyond. Just over a pile of soil and construction debris, probably mounded there by bulldozers, we came upon a small, frozen pond. It was hidden from sight of the well-traveled street, and overgrown on three sides by stands of some sort of feathery-headed weed or marsh grass.
With something like Balboa's delight, we slid down the slope onto the ice. From the sunken level of the pond, the street and its noise disappeared; the buildings were hidden by the high grass. All that could be seen were the gray, wind-scrubbed skies, and the grass whistling around us. "It's a magic place!" I whispered. I was partly pretending, but I was also partly responding to the otherworldly atmosphere. How come this secret place suddenly revealed itself to us, who had marched up and down that sidewalk dozens of times earlier? "We were never meant to find this place before now," we decided. "It has called us here!"
I hope I'm not betraying the confidences of my deceased friend or of our younger sisters—his sister Sue, my sister Annie—to publish the name of our private magic land. It was Fliaan—pronounced Flyann. We made a map of Fliaan and its environs, naming sections like "The Witch's Brambles" and "The Cliffs at the Edge of the World." Our adventures there weren't much to report—we generally had run-fling and sliding competitions across the ice, or sometimes played hide-and-seek in the overgrown reeds. When spring came and the ice melted, the place lost a good deal of its sense of mystery, but the following winter the eerie atmosphere returned, and we celebrated. We wrote a national anthem of Fliaan (mercifully, I've suppressed the memory of it). On our departure from our private paradise each week, we sang the anthem and then we said the "Our Father"—just to prove to any attendant nosy-parker saints that we weren't constructing false idols, that we knew what side our immortal souls were buttered on, so to speak.
The story of Fliaan would have no point in this autobiography except that, stirred by hope and long-
ing, I began to write a novelistic history of Fliaan. I had written many stories before this, starting at the age of about seven. But they had been more or less realistic adventure stories, derivatives of The Man from U.N. C.L.E. and Disney Sunday-night movies such as The Moonspinners. My first invented characters had all been adults; they could drive; they were fabulously rich and adventurous; they were independent and competent and popular—all things I doubted I'd ever achieve for myself. But the characters in my stories about Fliaan were comfortably, familiarly fantastic—witches, saints, dragons, gods, dwarves, the whole gamut from fantasy's central casting. The two childhood friends mentioned above helped with the text and with illustrations. I completed four or five volumes of "The Chronicles of Fliaan." They're not very good. But they were my first attempt at fantasy. They were also my first attempt to integrate into a story some atmosphere, some mood that I had experienced firsthand.*
It wasn't all that surprising that the Maguire kids turned to writing. John Maguire was well established as a journalist for the Albany Times-Union; by the mid-1960s he was writing a humorous column four times a week that was second only to "Dear Abby" in reader popularity. Through most of our childhood, he also maintained another full-time job as a speech writer for the New York State Health Commissioner. Marie was a poet whose work had been published in the New York Herald Tribune and reprinted in the Congressional Record. Even Helen had been known to scribble lines of doggerel from time to time. When we wanted to play at being our parents, we organized piles of scrap paper and stapled them together and produced newspapers, stories, plays, and cycles of poems.
With the assistance of the Gaffneys, our good friends from around the corner, we mounted theatrical productions on Sunday evenings after dinner. One extravaganza concluded with the San Francisco earthquake, which we simulated by tossing into the air every sofa cushion and pillow we could gather up. My brother Joe played a small child who was killed in the disaster. The ketchup we used for blood was effective, and the stains came out of the carpet with water and a little Tide.
When I was in fourth grade, I wrote a class play by invitation of Sister Mary Salvator. It was called "The First Thanksgiving," and it involved two Pilgrim kids, Billy and Suzy, who get lost one day late in November. A friendly Indian named Squanto finds them and brings them home, and since all the Pilgrims are so grateful, they decide to have a big dinner to celebrate. Squanto shows them how to make creamed onions, and olives with little red pimentos stuck in them, and turkey, and crouton stuffing. "It's the first Thanksgiving!" they all decide happily. The play draws to a dramatic close when the priest arrives and the Pilgrims genuflect and cross themselves and follow him off to mass. This play was mounted in fourth grade to great critical success. No one ever told me that the Pilgrims weren't Roman Catholics; I'm not sure that Sister Mary Salvator, who hailed from County Kerry, knew much about the Pilgrims to begin with. But eight years later, when I returned to that grade school to take up my first teaching job, I found that the fourth graders were still mounting annual productions of "The First Thanksgiving," though my byline had long since disappeared from the script.
One year, because Marie was taking a course in the history of movies at the local state university, I corralled some siblings and Gaffneys to help make a Christmas present that was meant to simulate an old film. This was before the days of camcorders, nor did our family even have a Super-8 camera. So I wrote and blocked out the story ahead of time—it was called "Passion, Pride, and a Place to Pray"—and we marched on the local Woolworth's in Westgate Shopping Center. We were armed with props, costumes, and backdrops. We installed ourselves in a booth where, back in those days, you could get a strip of four photos for twenty-five cents. We thought it would make a great present, with the photos stapled down on the left of each page and a running synopsis of the action written, frame by frame, on the right.
Then we acted out the melodrama, which included a wonderful scene where the villain attempts to force the hand in marriage of a poor widow lady by threatening to foreclose her mortgage. The widow lady, played with élan by my sister Annie, shrieked her best line,
"You can take my baby, but not me!" and flung her child at the villain, played with equal zest by the irrepressible John Gaffney. Luckily we used a plastic baby doll, for in Annie's zeal the infant went soaring out of the booth and over the heads of six Woolworth's cashiers. We were cordially invited never to come to Woolworth's again.
By the time I graduated from eighth grade, I had finished fifty or sixty stories, ranging in length from four pages to several hundred, many of them written with John Gaffney. Each story was handwritten, usually in a spiral-bound notebook. I never revised my work when I was young—when I admit this to schoolchildren, teachers at the back of classrooms blanche, and frown, and purse their lips, and shake their heads. But since I was a fluent writer as a child, who at an early age had mastered the art of keeping myself interested in what I was doing, I didn't belabor finished work. In fact I scarcely looked at it again. I just went on to the next project.
I have talked earlier about the fantasies I read. In adult life I have gone on to have an appreciation for a wider range of writing. But there was another keynote event in my childhood reading, and this was the ground-breaking book of the middle '60s—for me and for many other young readers: Harriet the Spy.
Harriet M. Welsch maintained a spy route and wrote down what she discovered about life in her spy notebook. I had no sooner finished reading Louise Fitzhugh's masterpiece than I decided I needed to keep a spy notebook if I, like Harriet, wanted to be a writer. I still have the first dozen spy notebooks I filled up, mostly from when I was eleven and twelve. They immediately dispel any notion of my having been a child prodigy. But they also do what journals are supposed to do. They provide two pictures: a picture of the world as seen by the writer, and a self-portrait of the writer that he may not know he's constructing. I include a few sample entries, verbatim. All proper nouns refer to my brothers and sisters unless otherwise noted.
Rachel's nice. She nearly saved someone's life. Yesterday when she was in the Church she grabbed someone's sleeve out of the flames.
Joe just said I'd be a nice father to him, and he'd like it.
My mother's sipping coffee and reading the paper on the kitchen table. Rachel's eating, and Matthew's playing ball in the bathroom hall. Daddy and Joe are watching somebody make a vase on Captain Kangaroo.
Seduced—what does that mean?
Lying right here on my bed, I think I'll write all the sounds I hear:
The water draining out of the bathtub.
Billions of cars on Pine Avenue.
Joe saying his prayers.
My pen scratching.
Matt arguing with Joe.
My bed creaking.
A slight ringing in my ears.
A distant siren.
The side doorbell.
Rachel coming in.
Daddy talking to Rachel.
The Tijuana Brass Tijuana-ing away.
The nailbrush being plunked in the bathtub water.
My mother's sewing machine.
On the TV: "The day you become a woman, your system needs more iron."
Also: "Lady, take your summer kitchen on a date with Reynolds."
Joe's playing with a slinky which he says is his dog Money.
Matthew is in a terrible mood tonight. He said to my mother, "I pity you." I think he said that because we were in a fight. Anyway he got a great big spanking.
All alone! How wonderful it feels, stretched out on Michael's bed, with the wind rustling the leaves of the tree outside his window. I could be in a treehouse, or a balloon, or in a raft, I'm SO alone!
The tree has stopped rustling. I can see it, perfectly still. Oh blessed wind! A picture into reality. How beautiful to find your daydreams ARE reality.
[Neighborhood kids] Richie and Charlotte just walked past. Richie is turning into a pain in the neck.
We went to 5:30 mass. It was a riot. We walked in the front doors, the priest was pleading for somebody to come up and be the lector. But nobody would. (Including me.) Finally he induced this one fair, oversized youth of about twelve to read. He, the boy, had to be the worst one that the priest could possibly have chosen. He stammered, stuttered, mispronounced about every other word, and skipped lines. Whenever he stuttered or paused over a word, members of the congregation would help him out. They all must have sounded like bleating sheep. Then at another time I noticed this stout old lady occupying the pew in front of us. She wore a plaid purple dress that looked like an Indian blanket. She always was unable to find the pages from which the responses were being recited, and she kept on looking over her husband's shoulder to read from his booklet. He was more than a little annoyed at this. And then during the Kiss of Peace, about twenty seconds after the rest of the congregation had finished giving the appropriate congenial handshake, she turned and beamed at Matthew and said, "Peace be with you." After this I could see her slyly looking at her husband to see what he thought of this openness on her part. (He was indifferent.)
Tonight when we were going to swim, Annie said, "Aaahh! There's a spider in my goggles."
Joe said, "Drown it! Throw it in the lake!"
Annie said, "No, don't drown it!"
I said, "Annie, since when have you cared about the welfare of a measly spider?"
She said, "It's not that. I just don't want any drowned spiders in any lake that I intend to swim in."
I don't make any claims for this journal except that it was yet another way I cemented the habit of writing on a regular basis. When I was in high school, I began another journal, this time in earnest, one that has—at this writing—accompanied my whole adult life. In a few months I will buy a new spiral-bound notebook and begin volume number 48 of my adult journal—I've been keeping it since about 1970. Harriet the Spy in mid-career, just as compulsive as ever.*
At the Vincentian Institute, my high school, I felt like a nerd—though we didn't use that word at the time. I wore glasses with thick, black plastic frames and began to grow my hair long. I hung around with the kids who played the guitar at daily mass in the chapel. I was a good student, but not a great one. I spent more time writing stories, painting, composing songs, or writing letters than I did studying. High school was not the disaster it can sometimes be, especially for an oddball, because the atmosphere of the times—the early 1970s—encouraged self-expression. I began to sing in a folk quintet with some good friends and discovered that all those years of belting out the hymns at church had helped me develop a serviceable tenor. In the world beyond me—a world I was only beginning to notice—the campaign against the war in Vietnam was building, and my friends wore black armbands to draw attention to the shooting of student protesters at Kent State by National Guardsmen.
High school is a time when making friends is of paramount importance, and I was lucky to have a wide circle of interesting pals to hang around with. I'm still in touch with most of them: Annie Franze, Eileen Reedy, Mike Savage, Jayne O'Hare, MaryEllen Harmon. For a year or so in high school my habit of journal writing caught on among my friends. We all were scribbling down our thoughts and opinions and anxieties—mostly worrying about our friends, and whether or not our friendships were true and robust! Then, for a time, we started to pass our journals around for comments, and we would scrawl warm remarks in the margins of one another's notebooks, or append notes of devotion on the first blank page to follow. But too much revelation can be risky.
One afternoon I was invited to attend a music rehearsal of a rock band being organized by three guys in my circle of friends. The rehearsal was in the basement of the home of the lead guitarist. Though I preferred acoustic music to amplified, I still enjoyed hanging around with these guys. At a break, we headed upstairs to get some hot chocolate—it was the dead of winter—and we settled in the living room. The guitarist closed the sliding doors to the hall and the dining room, and said, "Greg, we have something we want to say to you."
This was not good, I could feel it. "What?"
"We've been talking about it, and we think that we guys should stop writing in journals. You, too."
"Why?" I said, but I knew what was coming.
"We think it's a pretty girlish thing to do, actually. We're not going to do it any more and we recommend that you stop, too."
I don't remember what I said. I'm not much of a fighter so I probably thanked them for the hot chocolate and got my coat and left. I do remember walking home through the snow, feeling rejected right down into the deepest private part of my self. But though I usually avoided conflict in favor of negotiation and reconciliation, I didn't for a minute stop to consider their proposal seriously. Those guys were just wrong. Writing had nothing to do with gender stereotypes. My dad was a writer, my brothers were writers. And even if those friends were right—even if I was getting a reputation for being odd—there was no way I was going to change my habits for them. Writing was too much a part of me by then.
The English novelist Jill Paton Walsh said once, "You know that you're a writer when you find it impossible not to write." By that definition I think I realized, that grim and lonely afternoon, that I was a writer. Perhaps I wouldn't make my living at it; there were other things I also wanted to do. But how could I not write?*
I didn't have a lot of choice in what college to attend, as there was no family money to spare for dorm fees or tuition. With the help of a New York State regents' scholarship, I enrolled at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany, whose cold, unwelcoming modern campus sprawled about three miles west of our family home. I was a diligent and uninspired college student, increasingly shy in a class that numbered, I think, three thousand. I rode the commuter bus back and forth, did my work, and took no part in the social life on campus.
But my life wasn't as dismal as all that. To pay for textbooks and fees, I accepted a weekend job at the Church of Saint Vincent de Paul, my home parish. I was to form and direct a contemporary music group—musicians and singers. It would consist of those high-school friends still, like me, living in Albany during their college years, as well as college students living
at the university and other nearby colleges. My pastor was Father Leo O'Brien, who had said the daily mass at the high school, and who had become a good friend, as had his associate, Sister Joan Byrne. My more immediate colleague in the music effort, however, was a newly ordained young priest named Father John Turner.
Almost twenty-five years later, it is hard to describe the sense of awakening that accompanied my friendship with Jack Turner. Jack was an intense man, prayerful, private, poetic. We met once a week to discuss the liturgical readings and search for appropriate music, drawing both from sacred and secular traditions. My family had taught me to respect the power of words, for which I am grateful, but Jack—more than any of my undergraduate professors—taught me to honor the power of ideas. He was only eight years older than I, but I felt like a novice sitting at the foot of an Old Testament patriarch or prophet in the making. Among many other gifts he gave me, he taught me that asking questions was more challenging than answering them. After a conversation that ranged widely over literature, art, music, theology, personal experience (mine), existential reflection (his), I would leave the parish house and walk home under the bleaching light of street lamps. I felt more intimately connected with limitless celestial time and with the workings of my heart than all those childhood years of reading had prepared me for. I no longer hungered for a magic land.
Once I wrote a song in his honor, that said, in part,
He always got mad when I called him my teacher.
The lessons are there in the sky, he'd say.
Don't assign me a part that I don't want to play
Oh Merlin, oh poet, oh friend of mine, where are you now?
Oceans away, I know it …
Attending some marvel of God
And ascending some ladder to God
And leaving me watching you leaving me.
He laughed at it and was embarrassed at the starry-eyed hero worship of the song. He asked me to sing it once more, and then he said, "You never need to sing it to me again, for now it exists in the world and in my memory; you should go on and write something new."
Jack left the parish in Albany and moved to the North Country, to a retreat center called Barry House on Brant Lake, New York. At his encouragement, I applied for a summer job at an amusement park on the west shore of Lake George, which was only fifteen or twenty miles away. On weekends and long summer evenings we were able to continue our friendship uninterrupted—singing, swimming, reading poetry, wandering in to Lake George Village to poke around the bookstore. During the day I worked at Time Town. Occasionally, for reasons that now escape me, I had to dress up as a rooster with a twelve-foot comb and strut about, terrifying the toddlers. However, I also ran the park's small theater, and while I was waiting for the films to rewind, I sat on the steps of the projection booth and worked on a novel set in the Adirondacks. I was twenty years old.
At the end of the summer, Jack drove me to the Amtrak stop at Ticonderoga—there was so little traffic that you had to flag the train down if you wanted it to stop—and I caught the train to Montréal. There I took my first overseas flight to Dublin, Ireland, to spend part of my junior year abroad, studying for a semester and then traveling for three months.
Incredibly naive and thunderstruck with excitement and loneliness, I wandered from Ireland to northern Greece. Opposite stony corners of Europe, and the twin homes of my bloodlines. In 1974, my brother John joined me in Athens, and together we traveled to Thessalonika to look for the younger sister of my Greek grandmother—the grandmother who had died in the hospital fire. Our communication with the Greek branch of the family had been lost following the deaths of those in my mother's generation who still spoke Greek. We were the first members of the family to return to Greece since our maternal grandparents had left fifty-some years earlier. In a tiny house behind a blue iron gate, we found her. My great-aunt was a short, stout woman, who, though not expecting us, knew at once from our familiar faces who we must be. She screamed, "Amerikani!" and barreled into us with arms outstretched. Tears, and hugs, and glasses of ouzo. In my great-aunt's simple house, we found her walls hung with black-and-white photos of the American nephews and nieces she'd never met, including Helen's wedding portrait from 1944.
I went back to the States to finish my degree at SUNY and to take up my music leader's job at church again. I saw Jack Turner a few times, but we no longer lived near each other. I never sang his song to him again, for three years after we met, Jack was killed in a car accident in the Adirondacks. I went to his funeral and sat at the back, thinking, "No one knows how important he is to me!" But the kind of person Jack Turner was meant that dozens, even hundreds of people in that church were feeling the same thing. He was only twenty-nine when he died.
The last year of my undergraduate education was spent in private grief. I was grateful for my musician friends—Roger Mock and Francisco Pabalan, particularly, and later Debbie Kirsch and Margaret O'Brien—but I felt adrift without Jack there. I felt I had lost some vital, irreplaceable key to unlocking significance in daily events. I was sad with a sadness I could hardly name, nor even much share with my family or friends.*
I didn't stop writing, though. I graduated from the university and took a job as a teacher in what would now be called a middle school. I taught seventh- and eighth-grade English literature and grammar. What I lacked in teacher training I made up for in enthusiasm for the subjects and for the kids themselves. Toward the end of the academic year I organized a field trip to New York City to go to the Museum of Modern Art and to see a Broadway musical matinee. Somehow I managed to get separated from the fourteen students—during rush hour in Times Square—and I had to drive back to Albany with my pal Roger, who was serving as a chaperone. Neither of us knew where the students were or whether the sole remaining adult was even still with them. The kids all did make it home safely—thanks to Mike Savage, the responsible chaperone among us. Because I was well liked as a teacher, none of the students ever told their parents what had happened. But the mishap made me consider whether I should be teaching, especially when I realized that my year of full-time teaching was the only year I could remember being too tired to write any fiction at all.
I had decided, on my return from Europe, to look at the novel I'd written over the previous summer. It had seemed no worse than some of the children's books I still enjoyed reading, so with great labor I typed up the manuscript and began to mail it to publishers who had brought out my favorite books. I sent it to Harper, to Dutton, to Little, Brown. Each submission usually took three to four months, after which the manuscript was returned with a polite note saying that the book "doesn't suit our needs at this time." I wasn't much daunted. I told myself: It took you a whole year to write this book and type it, the least you can do is take a year to submit it. Don't be discouraged. The point is determination. If a publisher rejects it, just send it out to the next house on your list, whether you feel like it or not.
So I did. I sent the book to the fourth publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and when five months had elapsed, I suddenly thought: I never made a carbon copy of the finished draft. (It didn't even occur to me to photocopy it, as this was before the days of photocopy stores; it was also years before everyone had a personal computer.) What if the U.S. Postal Service had lost the only copy of my first real book? So I wrote to Farrar, Straus again, explaining my bad case of nerves.
They answered that they had read the manuscript, apologies for the delay, and they would like to talk to me about it.
A week or two later I took a day off of teaching and went to Manhattan with my friends Roger and Margy. Farrar, Straus was—and still is—a small and prestigious firm located in Union Square. I walked in to meet Sandra Jordan, the children's book editor, with my new three-piece banker's suit so crisply pressed that it could give surface cuts to anyone who brushed against it. I had a fountain pen and a hand-tooled leather notebook in which to make notes of our conversation. I was twenty-three, and still very shy. Meeting a publisher in New York City seemed more terrifying to me than hiking with a backpack and sleeping roll through central Europe. Sandra Jordan wore a black hat and a cape, and she smoked thin, aromatic cigars. She was good-natured and ironic, with that brusque, New York City edge that Catholic boys from upstate find hard to read. I never knew exactly what she meant; I had perfected sincerity as a posture and a policy. But Sandra found a way to talk to me so I understood her. She guided me through margin notes and Post-it observations tagged onto nearly every one of the 220 pages of the manuscript. When we had finished—several hours of talking—she handed me back the pile of typescript and said, "Well, that's how we think it might be changed. Mull it over and if you want to revise it and submit it again, we'd be happy to look at it. Otherwise, good luck, and it was nice meeting you."
I was devastated. I was sure I had just been made a fool of. Sandra Jordan, by her own admission, was newly hired to be the head of children's books at Farrar, Straus. Probably she was just trying to fill up her workday and look busy. Why wasn't there a contract, an offer to publish? Roger and Margy and I drove back to Albany that afternoon; those good friends tried to cheer me up. However dejected I felt, though, I was determined to try, and I revised the book and sent it back to Farrar, Straus.
That same spring I had received a letter from Jane Langton, to whom I had written a fan letter, finally, and with whom a firm friendship had developed. Jane told me about a new master's degree program in children's literature that was being established at Simmons College in Boston. I left my teaching job and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early summer of 1977, having the good fortune to find lodging with an elderly doyenne named Sarah Reginald Seabury Parker. Sarah Parker lived in Harvard Square, in a fine old federal-style home dating from the 1840s. The house was like something out of Masterpiece Theater. Standing on a table in the front hall was a coat of ceremonial brass armor from the Spanish occupa-
tion of the Philippines. A Dutch cuckoo clock dating back three centuries hung near the dining-room door. Above my bed in the back room was an original Winslow Homer watercolor. And Sarah Parker herself—frail, soft-spoken, liberal, well educated—was a wonderful new friend. The difference in our ages was only sixty-eight years or so, hardly enough to worry about. I changed light bulbs and collected the trash, and before long I also was doing modest cooking for her. Sarah paid the bills and accepted no rent from me, for, as she said, "Dear boy, if I charged you for your room then I'd have to see that everything was perfect, and if I don't charge then I don't have a care in the world, do I?"
I was happy to be studying at Simmons College. My professors there included Paul and Ethel Heins, who have both been editors of the influential Horn Book magazine; Betty Levin, the novelist and sheep farmer; and Jane Langton. Barbara Harrison, the founder and first director of the Center for the Study of Children's Literature, was zealous at raising public awareness about the value of literature in the lives of children. I found new friends among the students, especially Maggie Stern (now Maggie Stern Terris) and Patricia McMahon, both of whom have gone on to their own writing careers. Even more thrilling than the chance to live in Harvard Square and study the history and criticism of children's books in Boston, however, was the news that arrived a month into my first semester as a graduate student: Sandra Jordan approved of my revisions and accepted my first children's novel for publication by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
The book was called, eventually, The Lightning Time. It has the excesses and enthusiasms of a first novel; it is derivative of my favorite writers, but not brilliantly so. I look back at the story of twelve-year-old Daniel Rider and his attempt to help save his grandmother's mountain home from unscrupulous developers, and I see mostly an encoding in fantasy of some of the things that Jack Turner and I talked about. Jack is a character in the story—thinly disguised as Father August Petrakis, an Anglican minister. As a character he is too wise, too lovable, too impenetrably good to get much of a handle on. I hadn't yet learned that readers best love characters who reveal their contradictions and complications, too—but then I had hardly learned to accept the complications in myself or in my own friends. I saw people as WONDERFUL or HORRIBLE, with few exceptions. In my early books I wrote them as such, too.
The publication of The Lightning Time in 1978 coincided with my receiving a master of arts degree in children's literature. My old friends in Albany and my new friends in Boston and Cambridge helped me celebrate my first publication. The book earned me a fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Middlebury, Vermont, and that the reviews were mixed didn't bother me much. At least some wise critics saw my work as "lively" and "imaginative," and I had no place to go but up, didn't I? Still, in retrospect, I wonder what only those who published young can have the temerity to ponder: Had The Lightning Time and its two sequels, The Daughter of the Moon and Lights on the Lake, been turned down, perhaps I would have tried harder to write something more original. Perhaps I would have learned the craft of revision earlier. As it was, my earliest books were published to generally good reviews but modest sales. Alas, I had started writing fantasy at just a moment when the interest in fantasy for children, for the time being anyway, had started to wane.
For another year I lived with Sarah Parker. One evening, awaking from uneasy dreams, I had a sense of foreboding, and for the first time ever I went to check on Sarah. She was awake, but had suffered a heart attack. I called the ambulance, and while we were waiting I tried to console her. She consoled me instead. "Dearie," she said, "it has meant more to me than I can say to have you here in the house with me these two years. You mustn't get yourself stirred up for I have been very happy to know you. The gloves downstairs on the sofa belong to Mabel Colgate and should be returned to her; she left them here at tea on Saturday last."
I visited her in the hospital every day for several weeks. When she began to complain about the food I suspected she would pull through. She was well enough to spend the summer at the seashore. The last time I saw her, I took the commuter train for a day visit, bringing with me a thermos of Manhattans, because Rockport is a dry town. We sat in the gardens and looked at the sea. She died about ten days later. At her funeral, in the blistering heat of late August, the minister declared, "Mrs. Parker requested that, irrespective of the liturgical season, her service begin with the congregation singing Joy to the World." I love to sing, but it was hard to sing. Hard, and necessary.*
In the autumn of 1979 I found myself a small apartment in Porter Square in Cambridge. My dear friend Maggie Stern had a place just up the street, and other friends lived nearby, including Mark Miller, a young research assistant at Howard Gardner's Project Zero at Harvard University. I had not attended Harvard, and for the first couple of years living near Harvard Square I hardly had the courage even to walk through Harvard Yard on my way to the Cambridge Public Library. The university seemed like a huge furnace, a dragon in bricks and slate, dangerously seething with intellectual pomp and superiority. Becoming friends with Mark helped break down that fear somewhat, for Mark was warm and open-minded, a breath of fresh air in my life, even if he had gone to Harvard.
I was increasingly devoted to my friends, but the lives we played at, rich and strange and at times daring, in the exploratory spirit of the times and of youth, weren't anything like the lives of adults in children's books. They were even less like the lives of neighbors in my solid, respectable Irish Catholic neighborhood back home. Growing up in part is realizing that you can invent for yourself the kind of adult you want to be.
One thing I knew is that I loved to travel, so whenever I had the chance I accepted any invitation to visit anyone—anywhere. In 1981 I flew off to the Philippines for a month with my college chum Francisco Pabalan, who was just graduating from medical school. In 1983 I went to Kenya with Rafique Keshavjee, a Harvard graduate student I'd met several years earlier at the card catalog in Widener Library. My writing began to show signs of greater experimentation, maybe as a result of traveling. The Dream Stealer, published by Harper & Row in 1983, was a fantasy like my earlier books, but it was set in a mythical Russia at the turn of the twentieth century. It featured as a central character the famous witch from Russian folktales, Baba Yaga. Depending on the fairy tale she appears in, Baba Yaga can be either fairy godmother or treacherous villainess. In trying to accommodate both sides of her reputation, I learned the pleasure of writing a fully rounded character. Perhaps I also was remembering the fun of the fantastic writing I had tried to do about our own childhood mythical country of Fliaan.
In the mid-1980s I continued to live in Cambridge, sharing a luxurious prewar flat with my friend Rafique. I worked full time at Simmons College as an assistant professor and associate director of the Center for the Study of Children's Literature. My former professors became my colleagues and, even more precious to me, my friends. Furthermore, due to the rigors of college teaching, I was mastering some of my shyness and trying to develop some confidence in my own thoughts. However, Rafique—who had graduated with a doctorate in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard—took exception to my self-deprecating remarks about how weak my sense of logic was, how pedestrian my opinions. "I couldn't even get accepted into a doctoral program," I once declared, which provided Rafique with the opening he took. He said, "I don't believe you. I dare you to apply somewhere. Furthermore, I'll pay the application fee, I'm that convinced you'd be an ideal candidate."
Once dared, I had to commit: I applied to the doctoral program in English at Tufts University. I was accepted in 1986. I had thought the dare was done, and Rafique had proved his point. But the letter from Tufts announced their willingness to waive my tuition fees entirely, and a conversation with the head of the English department revealed that Tufts would also overlook the normal requirement of graduate students to teach there. I felt I had no real reason not to enroll. By this time I had been teaching at Simmons College for long enough that coming up for tenure was likely within a couple of years, and I wanted to give myself at least a fighting chance at that exercise.
In the middle of my doctoral studies, problems began to emerge at the Simmons College Center for the Study of Children's Literature. The master-of-arts-degree program, founded in 1977 by Barbara Harrison, had rooted itself securely and had weaned itself off the so-called "soft money" that the National Endowment of the Humanities had provided initially. But following a 1984 federal report decrying the state of teacher education in the United States, the Simmons College education department, like education departments all over the country, suffered a drop in enrollments. The president and dean of graduate studies decided to move the Center for the Study of Children's Literature into the education department to bolster enrollments. To a person, the faculty of the Center protested. We felt that the Simmons College management was betraying the original intention of the program—to be a humanities discipline—by taking away its autonomy and placing it under the aegis of education, a service discipline.
We negotiated for more than a year, to no avail. Thus, with early announcement so that our currently enrolled students might finish their degrees with the existing faculty while there was time, in 1986 the faculty of the Center resigned in protest at the administration's decision. There was some hoopla over this, both in Boston and nationally.
Soon thereafter, I helped cofound—with Barbara Harrison, Ethel and Paul Heins, Betty Levin, Jill Paton Walsh, and John Rowe Townsend—a small educational charity called Children's Literature New England (CLNE). As I write this, CLNE prepares to celebrate its tenth anniversary as an independent organization dedicated to the same ideals that the Center at Simmons College was set up to foster. I don't know for how long CLNE will continue; every organization, like every relationship, has a natural life span. For ten years, however, CLNE has gathered to its annual summer conferences a stellar company of writers and illustrators for children. Many of them have become friends as well as colleagues: Ashley Bryan, Eleanor Cameron, Susan Cooper, Virginia Hamilton, John Langstaff, Ursula K. Le Guin, Madeleine L'Engle, Katherine Paterson, Maurice Sendak—more, really, than I can name here. I've made good friends from all over the United States, as well as abroad—Japan, Ireland, England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. Among them, Martha Walke is one of the most treasured to me.
Every summer we meet in the new community of friends and colleagues, holding in common a belief that early exposure to literature is essential to the survival of a humane and literate society. Doesn't that last line sound like a grant proposal? But everything in my childhood prepared me to feel a missionary zeal about children and their reading. Though I was sorry to resign from Simmons after eight years of teaching fine students there, CLNE satisfied my compulsion to continue advocacy work. This time, free of the authoritarian dictates of jittery-stomached college overseers.*
My love affair with the Adirondacks had begun in childhood. Ever since the late 1950s, our parents had bundled us seven children into one car and driven to a camp on the east side of Lake George—what was then the undeveloped side—for a week of hiking, swimming, and living in the shadows of the mountains in summer. As an adult I have been to Nicaragua, Egypt, Kenya, Turkey, Romania, the Philippines, and all over western and Mediterranean Europe. I learned the pleasure of travel by going away to the mountains when young. But thanks to the invitation of another good friend and fellow intrepid traveler, Maureen Vecchione, I went to stay in the Adirondacks for the first time in ten years—I hadn't been there since the death of Jack Turner. We rented an A-frame chalet outside of Indian Lake, New York. A day's excursion in a hired speedboat took Maureen and me from Blue Mountain Lake into Eagle Lake. The taciturn local guide pointed to a rustic mansion on a secluded stretch of lakefront property and grumbled, "Oh, that's where all the pinko feminists and faggots and artsy types go to write and paint."
I was just about to start my doctoral work, but I was curious. When I got back to Cambridge, I sent a postcard addressed to the postmistress at Blue
Mountain Lake. If there was an arts colony nearby, would she forward this request for information to them? She did, and they replied, and so I came to know about Blue Mountain Center, New York.
Set up by Adam Hochschild, who is well known as a writer and as a cofounder of Mother Jones magazine, Blue Mountain Center was intended to provide a nurturing atmosphere for creative work for artists, especially those who work for social change. I hardly thought of myself as being an agitator for social change; indeed, I hardly knew whether to call myself liberal or conservative. But in my application packet I included an editorial I had written that had been printed in the Christian Science Monitor—an essay on the 1982 march in New York City to protest the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And I've always had a sympathy for those who fight hard battles. Hadn't I just fought the one at Simmons College myself, and in resigning hadn't I given up my chance for a tenured position? Though my children's fantasies were not what I would consider provocative, at least on a sociological level, I was accepted for a late summer residency in 1986.
Due to a car problem, I arrived at the session late, when new residents had already had a week to begin to form a community. I let myself in the kitchen door, stumbling in the dark, not really sure I had the nerve or the right to be there. But I was willing to put up with anything to spend a month by an Adirondack lake. No doubt a children's book writer was considered only marginally an artist, so I would just keep my mouth shut and drink in the aromatic smell of pines.
The sixteen or so residents that summer worked in areas of poverty and urban renewal, of nuclear disarmament, of AIDS activism, of ecology, of civil liberties. I hardly thought my single editorial in the Monitor made me an expert on anything, so I kept my mouth shut. I nearly scuttled my chances at making any friends.
But one noontime I volunteered to take the rowboat across the lake to accompany the swimmers, a precaution against disaster because of cramp or speedboats. Though I had been shy about arguing political points, I didn't mind opening my mouth and singing to entertain my fellow residents. Hymns, folk songs, Broadway show tunes, anything. As we neared the shore on our return trip, I glanced over my shoulder to navigate. The spirited and indefatigable director, Harriet Barlow, stood on the end of the dock with a look of contentment. She loved the sound of singing over water. Politics is important, but so is singing. I had arrived.
That summer session came at a perfect time in my private life. Earlier that year, my father had died of a brain tumor; also, a devastating schism had developed with one of my oldest, dearest friends. I needed a place to recuperate, and Blue Mountain Center was it—not a holiday, but a haven; not just a haven, but a home.
In the years since, I have returned to Blue Mountain a number of times. For a while the Center had winter sessions. Once I resigned from Simmons, my schedule was my own; I could afford to take four to six weeks off every winter in order to write. The friends I have made there—John Copoulos, Jill Medvedow, L.R. Berger, Cassandra Medley, Dorothy Semenow, Christopher Sindt, Jessica Dunne, to name only a few—connect me to fields of the arts I would otherwise have no access to. More to the point, though, Blue Mountain reminded me for the first time in years that I could continue to gather new friends in. I had begun to behave—without realizing it—as if, blessed with good friends as I was, my dance card was filled.
As a resident one summer, I was walking back through the woods beyond Utowana Lake, and I came across an animal lumbering up the trail toward me. I thought at first it was a dog, and I called out, "Hello!" in a bright, I'm-okay-you're-okay voice. Then I saw that it was a black bear on all fours. It sniffed the air—good thing I wasn't carrying any food, Harriet said later—and it waited. I looked off to the lake, to be submissive, and again said, "Hello," in the same voice, thinking that the bear might identify this as my friendly, untroubled chirp. I looked for trees to climb—or should I rush into the lake? I, the lousy swimmer? The bear didn't move forward or backward—not until I said "Hello" again, same tone of voice. Then it backed up a few feet. Every time I said "Hello," it backed away some more, until finally it lumbered off the path and up the slope. When it was out of sight, I heard it crashing in the woods for eight or ten seconds. The noise would stop—I'd say in a carrying voice, "Hello!"—and the bear would start moving off again.
There have been times, out walking past the deer in the overgrown fairway behind the firs, that I have felt a shiver of connection with the whole world—its natural and its metaphoric aspects—such as I have not much felt since Jack Turner died. I am less and less inclined to put such notions into words, not even in my journal. It is enough that, now and then, one feels at home in one's place on the planet. Hello, indeed.*
In 1987 Lothrop issued a book published for teachers and librarians called Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children's Literature. I edited it with my then-Simmons colleague Barbara Harrison; it is a massive compendium of talks on children's books and related subjects, given while Barbara was director and I was associate or acting director of the Center at Simmons College. I have done some teaching at Lesley College and Emmanuel College, and worked with teacher training through the Foundation for Children's Books, which I helped found—but my energies are always at their strongest when I get back to writing.
As a novelist I was feeling bolder and experimented more. Partly as a result of my growing interest in nuclear disarmament, I tried my hand at a science-fiction novel for teenagers called I Feel Like the Morning Star, which was published by Harper in 1989. I Feel Like the Morning Star concerns a colony of post-nuclear-holocaust survivors trapped in their underground city. During my initial residency at Blue Mountain Center, I set for myself the task of writing a sequel, which I wanted to call The Guy at the Top of the World. It represented my first return to the Adirondacks as a locale since Lights on the Lake, and I had high hopes for it.
Alas, it never came to find its way into print; several New York editors found it too bleak a story, too dark a moral. I consoled myself by deducing that the Reagan tag phrase "It's morning in America" had made books about political corruption and moral ambiguity unpopular. In the Reagan years, whatever else you might think about them, Right was Right and Wrong was Somebody Else, not Us.
However, while working on The Guy at the Top of the World, I found myself one evening unable to sleep. After tossing and turning, I got up and scribbled down at one sitting the text for a picture book called Lucas Fishbone. I had never written a picture book before, and to date have only managed one other (The Peace-and-Quiet Diner), but Lucas Fishbone was a gift outright. I had jotted down the odd name in my journal several years earlier, but hadn't been able to make anything of it until this insomniacal midnight. By asking myself the question at the top of the page: "Who is Lucas Fishbone?"—I finally prompted the internal muse to answer. I'm not all that happy with the production of Lucas Fishbone as a book (nor were the critics, by and large). Though I admire the artwork of Frank Gargiulo, in the end I'm not sure it's right for the story. The text was poetic and open; the pictures ought to have been concrete and specific. As it is, there's not enough to hang onto.
The book is a meditation on time and change, following the relationship of a grandchild and a grandmother through the last year of the grandmother's life. Children ask me, sometimes with glee and sometimes with irritation: "But who is Lucas Fishbone?" I don't want to say outright, for, outright, I don't know. Lucas Fishbone appears to be a lion, though, who derives partly from an image of Walt Whitman with his wonderful shaggy beard and glowing, loving eyes, and partly—perhaps—from the warmer of the images of Aslan in the Narnia books.
But Lucas Fishbone is also our guardian angel, our dead parent, our long-lost lover, our estranged best friend come back, reunited at last.*
Once in 1988—we still lived in Cambridge—Rafique showed up at Logan Airport at 11:30 p.m., to pick me up from a ten-day speaking trip in Los Angeles. I was instantly suspicious; we had a habit of making our own
ways home, on the T or in a taxi. Door-to-door delivery service, given Boston's lousy traffic, was beyond any call of duty. "What's up?" I said. I knew I was getting this first-class escort service for something.
It seemed we had some household guests. They were immigrants from Iran, and because Rafique had known their parents when he did his doctoral research in the late 1970s in a mountain village, the little family of three had shown up on our doorstep one spring evening. "For how long?" I said.
"They're very good people," he answered. "You'll like them."
I met them the next morning when I bustled into the kitchen to make my coffee. Abbas and Parvin Mirshahi were the young parents, dark-haired, solemn, brewing tea. The little one, Razi, was six: a small perky bundle with permanently arching eyebrows and a worried look. "We made you tea," he said. His English was better than his parents'.
"I like coffee," I said.
"I like our home," he answered. "I like you. Do you want to see where we sleep? I can say our phone number: 864-6094. Let's watch TV."
"We have a rule in this house, Razi," I shot out, the stillborn parent in me emerging instinctively. "No TV during mealtimes."
He caught himself in midlunge and twirled—yes, like a dervish, arms outstretched—and said, "Okay, Uncle Gregory."
My jaw dropped, and I was hooked. In one moment, Razi installed himself as a new nephew, joining the ranks that also include Stephen, Peter, and Anne-Marie MacDonell, and numerous Maguire nephews and nieces named Daniel, Justin, Matthew, Rob, Patrick, and Elizabeth. I love all my nephews and nieces. I didn't feel the need for an honorary nephew. But Razi didn't know that. As the son of immigrant parents, he had spent most of his young life on the go, moving from Iran to Germany to Texas to Boston. He was gifted at making instant family of the closest friendly adult. He did not stint with his affection, and suddenly there was room for Razi and his parents in my life—and I couldn't believe that I had managed without knowing them for so long.
Now Razi has a younger sister, a feisty, adorable little thing named Matin. Readers of my novel Oasis will see a portrait of the young Razi in the figure of Vuffy Ziba.*
Another New Year's memory occurs to me as I think of Razi and Matin—but it's a memory of New Year's Day, not New Year's Eve.
Rafique and I were flying to Florida to visit his niece. The plane had several stops to make, and in Philadelphia we picked up a grumpy-looking family whose members plopped themselves into seats across the aisle and a few rows ahead of us. Maybe the parents were suffering from too much New Year's Eve celebrating, or maybe they were sick—or maybe they just weren't good parents. The mother kept her head turned to the window and held an infant loosely, almost dismissively. The father carried on his lap a whining, restless daughter of about two who squirmed and complained and wouldn't settle down. I watched for a while. The father set the girl down between his knees, where she wailed; then he picked her up and stood her on his lap, where she wailed. He went through this again and again, and the girl only fussed louder. "He's not paying attention to what she needs," I muttered to Rafique, who couldn't see as well as I, and anyway was deep in his book. The girl's head twisted around several times. She was panicking for something that she wasn't getting. Her eye caught mine, and though by now she was screaming, and annoying all the passengers, I smiled at her and waved. She kept flinging herself about, tantrum-struck, but when her head swivelled and she happened to look my way again, again I smiled and waved, as if I found her entrancing despite her noisy behavior.
She immediately raised her hands up over her head, the universal signal of toddlers that they want to be picked up. Before I could stop myself, I was out of my seat and saying to the father, "Shall I take her for a little walk? Give you a rest?" and reaching down to get her. The father was shocked at my boldness, and so was I, but in midair I obviously wasn't about to kidnap his child, and he was too bleary with annoyance to resist. The little girl clasped onto my sweater like a barnacle and sobbed. I began to stroll up and down the aisle, rubbing her back and singing to her, and her screams stopped within ninety seconds. In another couple of minutes she was asleep, but she was a fretful child. She kept waking up with a start and an urge to wail, and only settled down again when I rubbed her back and sang.
What is this story for? When we landed in Gainesville and I handed the girl back to her parents, the other passengers on the flight thanked me. Someone joked that they should pass the hat for me. The girl began to scream again in the arms of her father, who was probably not such a bad guy—just inattentive, maybe exhausted, maybe unsympathetic to babies. I tried to keep out of her sight, but at the luggage carousel the girl saw me again, and reached out for me, this time wailing for me to come get her. I said to Rafique as we left the airport, "If that father had said, "Look, here, take this girl, we don't want her," I would have happily bundled her under my arm and given her a home."
The folksinger Bob Franke has a song that talks about "the hole in the middle of the prettiest life." My life is pretty good, but sometimes there is a hole in it about the size of a child. That hole gets filled by a bunch of wonderful kids, the children of many of the friends I've mentioned here—my own nephews and nieces, Razi and Matin, the Pabalan kids, the Mock kids, the Miller-Downey kids, the Terris kids, Conor Clarke McCarthy. I'm surrounded by a tribe of great masterpieces of childhood in their prime. But when my toothsome young friends are absent, the hole is there. I notice it at some times more than others. I think that's one of the reasons I spend so many weeks every year traveling around to classrooms as a visiting author or as a teacher of creative writing. Kids are a natural resource; I need them as I need light and air and laughter.*
For a brief time Rafique and I lived in Jamaica Plain in Boston, where we had bought a turn-of-the-twentieth-century house with skylights, exposed brick, and a bad problem of dog smell from the neighbor's yard next door. But in 1990 Rafique was offered a good job in London, and with the blessings of my colleagues at CLNE, I decided to spend the larger part of every year in London too. We rented out the Jamaica Plain house, grateful that our dear friend Betty Levin invited me to stay at her farm whenever I needed to return to Boston for speaking, teaching, or CLNE work. With the disappointing response to Lucas Fishbone, my career felt stalled; I wrote several novels in a row that I couldn't interest any of my regular editors in. Having just graduated with my doctorate—and having no inclination at the time to go back to college teaching—I put my library in storage and took a deep breath, and left the United States.
Renting—and then purchasing—a flat in central London was an education in fiscal management, and I found myself learning to live without a car, without constant phone conversation with old friends and family. I missed the geography of New York and New England; I missed the informal, unplanned exchanges
with friends and family. I missed the chance to help Razi become a better reader. On the other hand, I felt as if I did need a shake-up in my life. By the time I moved to London, I had been writing children's books for twelve years. The critical response had been warm, except for Lucas Fishbone, but I had the sense of treading water. Living abroad, it seemed, might teach me more about what it meant to be an American, or maybe about being an adult.
Though I have always loved to travel, living abroad could have been a dismal undertaking. Rafique was busy at his job, and as a freelance writer I had no professional circle to speak of. However, my time was made richer by the warmth and friendship of the English novelists John Rowe Townsend and Jill Paton Walsh. I had known John and Jill through Simmons, and we all served together on the board of directors of CLNE. Up until the time I moved to England, however, I had only considered John and Jill as colleagues and august eminences in the field. John's ground-breaking work Written for Children, a history of children's literature, was my constant companion through all my graduate work, while Jill's brilliant novels, like Unleaving and A Chance Child, had joined that small group of titles that, in an alternative universe, I would most like to be able to claim as having written myself.
From the start John and Jill welcomed us into their social circle in Cambridge and in London. They served up a real American Thanksgiving, with turkey and homemade pumpkin pie and all the trimmings. With Rafique joining us when he could, John and Jill and I made several motoring trips across England. (I confess to the affectation of calling them motoring trips instead of car journeys, but with erudite and irrepressible polymaths like John Rowe Townsend and Jill Paton Walsh, the term "car journey" just doesn't carry enough literary oomph.) We spent weekends in Devon with Tony and Barbara Watkins; we traipsed around the Lake District in weather both foul and fair. John and Jill set for me a new standard of hospitality.
Rafique and I lived on the edge of Hampstead, which for its tree-lined streets and brick homes—and for the famous Heath—attracted other expat Americans. Though we had English friends as well, we were delighted when a social group began to coalesce in our neighborhood. With Ann and Sid Seamans, Bob Piller and Beatrice von Mach, and Susan Mashkes, we came to feel we had rooted ourselves pretty successfully. We all laughed at Absolutely Fabulous long before it made it to the Comedy Channel in America. We wrangled over the relative merits of the London Independent and the Times, of BBC One and Channel Four. We argued incessantly about the royal family. We found transplanted elements of American culture appealing, too, things we wouldn't have spent the time on if we'd been back in Boston—like Twin Peaks; and the presidential debates featuring Bush, Clinton, and Perot; and the Olympic figure-skating soap opera starring Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. We craved Reese's peanut-butter cups and American cheeseburgers, and pigged out instead on fish and chips and full-cream teas.
And then, as Rafique had predicted, many of our friends and family visited us, too. Debbie Kirsch and I zipped around Wales, playing Merlin and Guinevere in a rented Austin mini. With Mark Miller, in whose warm family circle I am so pleased to be welcomed, I trudged in the great stone circle at Avebury, lugging the great stone weight of baby Maeve or toddler Kate. I got to the Continent, too. Maureen Vecchione and I zipped over to spend a Thanksgiving in Paris, sipping pumpkin soup at Charles De Gaulle International Airport. Margy O'Brien and I met for lunch in the shadow of Notre Dame, and then strolled up and down the Champs-Elysées, singing snatches of the Joni Mitchell song about just such a carefree afternoon.
Living in England, there were inevitable reminders of my childhood reading, since England has produced so many of the great fantasists. When Roger Mock visited, we had lunch at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, the place where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and the other Inklings had met and shared their fantastic writing. Even more thrilling, in one of my inaugural trips, John Townsend and Jill Paton Walsh brought me to visit their good friend, the elderly novelist Lucy Boston, who had written The Children of Green Knowe that I quoted from earlier. I had spent so many days in childhood looking for magic places, and here I was entering the building in England that the author had used as the inspiration for Green Knowe—the Manor House at Hemingford Grey, Cambridgeshire. I walked into that very hall, wondering which was myself—the young man visiting a venerable writer whose work he had loved—or the seven-year-old novice reader walking through the text into the hallway described in the book—or maybe I was Tolly, the child protagonist, all over again? The three mirrors hung in the hall just as in the description I'd read as a child, twenty-five years earlier.*
During the Gulf War crisis, Rafique and I were in Kenya visiting his parents. To show how my journal writing has changed from when I was twelve years old, here's an entry from February 1991. It refers to an overnight train journey from Mombasa to Nairobi.
Perhaps 2:30 … I hear the sounds in my sleep of people running and screaming, thudding and banging along the corridor—it is a narrow gauge railway—but I don't wake up until I hear from Cabin E next door the unmistakable calm, insistent tones of a mother waking her children from their sleep because something is terribly wrong. And so I wake up, fully, and say, "Rafique, Rafique, get up, something's wrong." There is more shouting and running outside. I think first of sabotage: a bomb, explosives, a terrorist attack—but on a train. There are British soldiers on the train too, coming back from exercises on the coast—we saw all those laughing young men leaning out the windows when we came down the platform to find our reserved compartment. But Kenya is just as much Muslim as it is Christian. A Gulf War incident? I am scrambling into my shorts. I think: fire—the car is on fire. Rafique says, "Don't open the door." Is the corridor filled with smoke and flames? We are still rollicking along the rails. Rafique says, "Quick, climb up on the top bunk, quick." I don't yet think to feel the metal door to see if it's hot. From the top bunk I can push the screen down—can we jump safely from the top half of a broad sashed window? Can we roll away from the train? Are we passing through a game park, will we be safe? The children in the next compartment are chattering excitedly, and the mother is still being calm and steely; it is all in German or Dutch but there is no mistaking the presence of danger. It is dawning on me that the sound of men's voices are raised in anger, not fear. I remember the scene from the end of The Jewel in the Crown, where a train is ambushed and the male passengers executed. Rafique (who was raised in Kenya) later tells me he is envisioning a band of brigands systematically breaking into each compartment; he has thought to drag the ladder onto the top bunk with us, so we could fight if we had to from there. But the noise lulls suddenly, and I think it will be easier to jump from the doorway at the end of the car than the window; you can spring with your legs away more easily. By now we have grabbed shirts as well, and sandals. Rafique unbolts the door and slides it open, looks out, right, left, moves out. I grab our satchels with money, documents, and my journal and writing, and follow him. There is a crowd of men at the end of the car, including several stocky Germans in jockey shorts. Are they jumping? Footsteps pound behind us; two uniformed attendants running. To allow them passage we step into the open doorway of another compartment. A woman in her thirties is there, in underpants and a T-shirt, weeping. Rafique pushes ahead again and rounds the corner toward the door at the end of the car, looks out and down, then pushes back.
"Go back," he says, "go back," and I don't see. But once in the compartment, our door closed and bolted again, he says, "It was a thief. They were beating him."
My journal entry continues in another direction, but I recall that once Rafique had informed me of the circumstances, we agreed he should return to the end of the car and try to convince the irate travelers—some of whom were drunk—to leave law enforcement to the railway officials. Rafique can speak English, Swahili, and a smattering of German, and he is a man of moral conviction, possessed of a persuasive voice. I lay in my bunk, reviewing the drama. I sang to myself to still the pounding of my chest: "Be brave, my heart; my heart, be bold."
It wasn't the first time I have sung to summon courage, and it won't be the last. A few years earlier I had gone to Nicaragua with my friend Maureen Casey, as a member of a Witness for Peace delegation. Our itinerary took us into the mountain village of Quilalí, in a zone that Sandinistas and Contras were both working to control. We were told that the road might be mined; indeed, the day we arrived from Miami, for the first time in the civil war, a peace delegate from another country had been shot. Seeing signs of hardship and terrorism all around, we sang—"Hello, Dolly?" and "Dona Nobis Pacem" were our favorite numbers.
One night, when the power was cut, we were warned to expect an attack by the Contras. There was no protection, no way out. The children of my host came under my arms like chicks, and I sang "Old MacDonald" to them, translating into Spanish as best I could. Not knowing what was coming, and only "Old MacDonald" to hold us steady in the dark. In a way, I was more terrified than ever before in my life, yet since I did not approve of the Reagan administration's policies in Central America, I was glad to be there. Singing is important—but so is politics.*
In the years in which we lived in London, the economy was suffering the severe depression of the early nineties. My British agent, Gina Pollinger, worked hard on my behalf, but I seemed incapable of landing a contract with a British publisher for my children's books. I had turned my hand to realistic fiction for children and young adults—emboldened, perhaps, by the success of I Feel Like the Morning Star—and after several years of slogging I placed a children's novel with an American publisher. Missing Sisters is about a pair of twins who, though separated at birth, find each other and struggle to resolve the dilemma that one is adopted and the other is still in an orphanage.
Missing Sisters is, in many ways, my favorite of my children's novels. For the first time I was eschewing any fantasy overtone and relying on my memories of growing up Irish Catholic in the Albany area in the 1960s. Alice Colossus, the main character, is well meaning, a bit dense, intends to be as holy as she can, but at the same time yearns to make connections with people in her world: her beloved friend, Sister Vincent de Paul, her newly found twin, Miami Shaw, and a pair of prospective parents who just might adopt her. In a sense, I managed to capture one of the great mysteries of life—to me—in two sentences toward the end of the book. Alice is getting ready to leave the orphanage, and in response to what she thinks is a platitudinous remark by the Mother Superior—that the sisters love her and always will—Alice comments, "‘How can you love all of us? There's so many.’ ‘It's a miracle,’ said Sister John Bosco. ‘The heart has infinite room inside it.’"
That's as good a summary as any of what my childhood experiences and these twenty years of adult life have taught me so far. You think you have gone as far as you can go; sometimes you feel exhausted at the work of living, perceiving, connecting, being responsible, being reliable, being resilient. But there is always room for another person, especially one who needs you. It is one of the central miracles. I keep learning it again and again.*
When I finished The Guy at the Top of the World—that book I couldn't sell—I dedicated it to Rafique with this quote freely paraphrased from the Persian poet Hafiz: "My head has no protection than your portal, my body no rest but at your threshold." The story of Alice Colossus looking for a home—a portal, a threshold, a context—has echoes of my looking for a family from the Saint Catherine Infant Home. One definition of home is the place you can be most yourself, and so for some years my home has been with Rafique.
Late in 1994, we returned to Massachusetts. We bought a house in Concord, from which I write this memoir. We live only a mile or two from 40 Walden Street, memorialized in Jane Langton's books and known among aficionados as the Diamond in the Window house—as inspiring a literary site to me as Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House or the Old Manse of Hawthorne. Private lives can still be festooned with loops of significance—hinges of fate, as Winston Churchill called them. I didn't imagine as a child that I'd live in Concord one day. I have come to trust in the circularity of experience, the building up of references, echoes, reverberations of the past in the present. Of the future, who can say: the pathways ahead from now are no clearer than they've ever been. But we get more used to that as we get older.
My narrative has almost reached the present day. Not all significant events can be narrated as stories—but here are a few notable moments of the past year or two.
In 1994 I was an artist-in-residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, a mock-Venetian palazzo built in the Boston fens and stuffed to the ceiling with early Italian paintings, plants, music, statuary, and artifacts—a frothy overload of high culture all crammed into one setting, part surrealist dream, part art warehouse. Talk about magic places! For a month I slept in a flat over the greenhouses and had dreams art—directed by the Renaissance.
Recently I have also embarked on a series of comic novels for children—broad farces, you might call them. Seven Spiders Spinning is the inaugural volume. In a small town called Hamlet, Vermont, seven Siberian snow spiders defrost out of a glacier and imprint themselves most amorously on seven schoolgirls in an after-school club. The girls don't know they are being stalked by the lovesick arachnids until a spider manages to take a big luscious bite out of the neck of their teacher—and then pandemonium breaks loose. The book is to be followed by a ghost story titled Six Haunted Hairdos. There are others in the series—I call them the "Hamlet Chronicles"—waiting to be written.
Though to date it has found no American publisher, a book set in France during World War II, The Good Liar, was published in Ireland by O'Brien Press. I like to
think that my dad would have been pleased about my having an Irish publisher. I was tickled that both German and French prospective publishers found the novel realistic enough to ask probing questions about where I was during the war, was I from a German or French family, how did I know what I knew? Careful research was the only answer I could give, since the war in Europe ended ten years before I was born.
On another front, and following a stint doing volunteer work at an AIDS ward, I was asked to contribute a story to the groundbreaking anthology Am I Blue? Coming out from the Silence, containing original fiction about children growing up gay and lesbian. The critical success of the book showed that there is a gap that needs to be filled, more work that needs to be done. All children need a climate of tolerance and security in order to thrive. I credit a good deal of my adult happiness to growing up in such a climate—a climate largely created by my parents, but maintained by my loving brothers and sisters, too.
In the year before Rafique and I returned from London, I threw myself into a new endeavor. After eight months of feverish composition, I finished a draft of my first novel for adults, called Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Once the book was signed up with a new HarperCollins imprint—Regan-books, directed by Judith Regan—I set about revising Wicked, relying on the careful reading and good advice of friends like Betty Levin and Rafique. Wicked can sound like a campy send-up of the lovable MGM film—and it is partly meant to be just that—but Wicked is also a serious fantasy in the tradition, I hope, of T.H. White and Tolkien. Living in England gave me a new distance from my American youth, and a different culture with which to understand and assess my own culture—and Oz's. My characterization of Elphaba as the Wicked Witch of the West owes a little bit to my earlier depiction of Baba Yaga, but this time the heroine is writ large and human. She is morally ambiguous, she is brave and foolish, she is crippled, and yet she defies being labeled as merely "the green anomaly" or even "the wicked witch." Coming back to the United States with Wicked sold, and a national promotional tour to embark on, I found myself coming full circle once again. Throughout the United States,
friends from folk music days at Saint Vincent's, from Simmons days, or from CLNE, or from Blue Mountain sessions all showed up at the readings—as did my loyal and warmhearted family. It was a chance for me to have a national reunion with most of the beloved people in my life.
There are many inside jokes that readers of Wicked will enjoy; I'll divulge only one here. If you look at the map printed on the end papers, you'll see an arrow pointing off the top left margin of the page, indicating that travelers heading in that direction would eventually reach Fliaan—the magic country my friends and sister Annie discovered and invented in Westland Hills, Albany, New York.*
I have been asked to write this autobiographical essay when I am forty-one, which I hope is too early for a definitive picture of my personal history and accomplishments. It is a couple of days after the New Year as I come to the end of this writing exercise, and though I'm not superstitious, I don't want to draw any conclusions about my life. I made my New Year's resolutions; that seems enough thinking about the future for one week.
The snow comes down tonight, fifteen inches they say. Rafique is working on an animation project at the computer in his study. I'm going to put on my big boots and go out in the dark, and shovel the walk, and knock some icicles from the eaves. I'll think about what I've put in here, and how I've said it, and what I've left out, and why. Maybe I'll get another chance, another time, to augment what I've said, or to update the installment. Let's just call this a chapter break, not FINIS. It is, after all, the start of a new year.
Some years ago, I concluded the preceding essay by admitting a lack of clairvoyance about the future. I could feel the girders of my domestic situation straining; I could hear mutterings on the horizon, suggesting for the world a stormy patch ahead.
It has been almost ten years since my essay was published, and much has happened in those years. In our global world, the signal catastrophe of the events of September 11, 2001, and the effects on our society and globally, were both unexpected and unsavory. Who can fathom the seismic power of historic moments as they happen? As every year passes, the world seems in more precarious health, politically and ecologically, and yet still more dear. And more dear.
I write on a glum afternoon in late May, when the unrelenting clouds of this rainy spring threaten yet more outburst. I live in the same house outside of Boston that I did ten years ago. There are many changes, though.
The house itself is changed—a second floor added, a neat purpose-built study, a library. Extra bedrooms … for now there are three children living here. Luke, Alex, and Helen Maguire Newman—ages six, four, and two, at this writing.
The children's other father is the painter Andy Newman. I met Andy at the Blue Mountain Center in New York in September of 1997. A representational painter of landscapes and figures, he exhibits in a dozen galleries in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Neither of us were looking to be attached to someone new, but the fates had another idea. Andy moved permanently to Massachusetts in the spring of 1999, and twenty-eight days later we flew to Phnom Penh to collect our oldest child, Luke, then fifteen months old.
I returned from Cambodia in late 2000 with baby Alex, then eight-and-a-half-months old, and in the spring of 2002, Andy collected Helen from Guatemala. Our family is complete—so far as we know today—but we have learned to expect the unexpected.
The possibility of a family arose in part from the continuing success of my adult novels. Always a decent seller, my novel Wicked has become something of a cult favorite. My estimable agent, William Reiss
at John Hawkins and Associates, had predicted something of the sort ten years ago. "It won't hit the best-seller lists, not in a way that shows on the radar screens," he had said, "but it's likely to be a steady seller through the years." So it has done, at least in its first decade.
Wicked was optioned by a production company headed by Demi Moore and Suzanne Todd, working in collaboration with Universal Studios. The excitement was significant, but after three or four serious drafts, Universal decided they didn't have a script strong enough to spend one hundred million dollars to film (a literal hundred million, not a figurative "lots"). In Hollywood, even five years ago, there were few if any female stars who could "open" a film with so massive a budget—and Wicked's male roles are secondary ones. The glass ceiling still obtains, or did five years ago.
But other possibilities for Wicked were cropping up. The folksinger Holly Near had read the novel and recommended it to her friend, composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz, whose Broadway work had included Pippin and Godspell, and whose stint in Hollywood had brought him onto the creative teams for Pocahontas, The Prince of Egypt, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, among other films. Schwartz's lawyers hunted about to find out whether the rights were available for a Broadway musical version. They weren't—then. But Marc Platt, a producer at Universal who had been taken with the story of Wicked, saw the dramatic possibilities when Schwartz mentioned it to him. Therefore, when Universal finally decided not to buy the story outright and the rights reverted to me, I was able to authorize a Broadway musical version as well as, eventually, an ABC television movie or miniseries version, as yet unwritten.
In the summer of 2003, ten years to the day that I began to write Wicked, the first paying audiences made their way into San Francisco's Curran Theater for the initial preview. The music and lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz, the book by Winnie Holzman (author of My So-Called Life, among other television scripts), and it is directed by the Tony Award-winning Joe Mantello.
It was, for me, a moment of glee and solemn glory, too. When the dazzling Kristin Chenoweth descended from the flies in an industrially bolted steel bubble, the audience was charmed to see Glinda again and to applaud the more famous of the play's two stars. Kristen glistened and used most of her four octaves in the demanding numbers written expressly for her. However, a few moments later a door at the back of the stage opened, and in stamped Idina Menzel, done up in green makeup as the Wicked Witch of the West, a young woman on her way to college. The roar that greeted her, I thought then, had only something to do with Ms. Menzel as a star from Rent and The Wild Party. It had as much to do with the audience's appreciation for the witch in my story. The audience had already signed on to the notion of the Witch as being an acceptable heroine—mostly because of my novel. I can't imagine a writer enjoying a more public approval—all the better because it wasn't I standing on the stage, receiving an award or cashing a royalty check, nor I opening my mouth and singing "The Wizard and I." It was the Witch. They were on her side.
In October 2003, the play opened to mixed reviews—genuinely mixed. Some were raves, and some were hesitant, dismissive of this part or that, but there was no review that trashed the whole enterprise.
It hardly mattered. The audience took Wicked to its heart, and as of this writing—a few days after winning three of this year's Tony awards, during which Wicked won three, including Idina Menzel's award for best actress in a musical—the production has played to sold out houses for seven months. Like a book, a play will have a life of its own, and now I just sit back and laugh, admiringly and, I admit, incredulously.
Other adult novels have followed. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister inspired an ABC television film starring Stockard Channing and Jonathan Pryce. Lost, a contemporary ghost story set in London, catches strands of my life from the early 1990s and entwines them into a story about love, loss, and the hope for children.
The most recent published book is called Mirror Mirror. I also traveled several times to Tuscany to research the background on Mirror Mirror, a story set in the High Renaissance and featuring Lucrezia Borgia as the poisoning stepmother of my docile heroine, Bianca de Nevada.
My work in Children's Literature New England has continued, and CLNE, along with the Cambridge Public Library, was honored to present the artist Maurice Sendak giving the annual Arbuthnot lecture. Children's books have also kept coming: I have now concluded the "Hamlet Chronicles" with One Final Firecracker, which is being edited this week. Furthermore, I am proud to have several forthcoming children's books: a collection of comic short stories titled Leaping Beauty, and Other Animal Fairy Tales and, down the road a piece, a work-in-progress tentatively titled Gangster Teeth.
I would write more, but the boys need to be collected from preschool. The gardeners are sinking delphiniums and impatiens into the soil, to prepare for the wedding that will take place here. Thanks to the so-called activist judges of this great, funny commonwealth of ours, Andy and I will be married at home next month. Many of the people mentioned in the previous essay will be on hand to cheer us on, to hope for the future, to remember the past.
Our children will give us away, and then take us back in time for supper.
Maguire contributed the following update to CA in 2008:
It isn't four years since I last appended my original essay. Nonetheless, four years seems a lifetime ago. How many lifetimes can I fit, accordion-pleated and folded like origami, into the space of my own four-score and odd years, should I be lucky enough to have that many? And, however long ago four years may seem, how much really has happened to me since then? How much have I lived? Enough to merit another installment?
A lifetime ago, or five lifetimes ago: it's hard to tell the difference. My life is now so entwined with that of my husband, Andy Newman, and of our children, Luke, Alex, and Helen, that by bedtime every night my life has moved ahead by five notches. Each of us growing and changing daily and involved in one another's lives, as a family we experience five human days in any twenty-four-hour calendar span.
I'm sure all parents feel this way. Since my kids are still young, I live my life through their days as well as my own, hour by hour. As they learn to read, I drill them on vocabulary, I listen to their halting efforts, I pick up the books from the floor by the bed. As they learn to play the piano and the clarinet, I count the beats in a measure, correct the fingering on the C-sharp major scale, keep the practice chart up to date. They sign up for baseball. Soccer. Ballet. I drive them everywhere, hanging out on the sidelines with my New Yorker, and hope I'm lucky enough to glance up just when my child is getting a goal or bagging first or executing a perfect plié or whatever it is he or she is supposed to be doing. And when the Little Improbabilities have fallen asleep at last, Andy and I share a bottle of wine and review what has happened since we last had a moment to check in with each other.
In 2005, due to a perfect storm of coincidences and opportunities, we were able to buy a second home in central Vermont and a village house in the Rhone valley in France. (We closed on both properties on the same long weekend.) Consequently, we now spend much of our weekends in a family van barreling toward or hurtling away from Strafford, Vermont. We putt-putt through vineyards at a more leisurely level in the summer, on day trips originating at the early-nineteenth-century converted stable in Cavillargues, Gard (le Maison de l'Écurie, we call it, though it is known locally as chez Newman). Andy's painting career continues strong, with representation in a dozen galleries both here and abroad. And I—when I'm not racing to some board meeting or fulfilling some speaking engagement—I suppose I am still writing. The pages appear to pile up, though not with the speed they once did.
I say "I suppose" and this is not a lazy construction. When interviewers ask me: "How do you manage a creative career while raising children?" I often feel at a loss. I believe a certain kind of useful amnesia, almost a schizophrenia, has set itself up in my brain. Before children, I used to write and live all entwined, no definitive work hours to my self-organized day, thinking my stories out while I cooked or walked or did the laundry. Now, my writing is limited to a very few hours, sometimes even minutes a day, when I have finally finished with the obligations of the household. And now I do not think about my work, at least consciously, once I stop writing. I don't carry it around with me, musing, reviewing, revising in my head. It is as if the needs of the children—and my need to concentrate on how they are growing, what they need, what's going on in their stormy minds—have taken over. Whatever I observe about them is much more important than what I observe about myself. What memory I have is given over to remembering all about them. So each day when I go back to work, I find my project on my desk almost as if someone else had put it there. The little gnostic elves. The word goblins. And I leave my daily contribution to their mysterious gift behind on my desk when the school bus pulls up.
Not long ago a reporter from the Boston Globe called and said, "We're doing a feature on happiness. Can you tell us what makes you happy?" I answered, "I am happiest when the school bus pulls away every morning, and when it returns in the afternoon—but each happy moment relies on its opposite for its power to enchant. I would be devastated if a school bus left with my children never to return, and almost equally devastated if a school bus returned my children to me, never to collect them again. It is in the swing of variations, the absence and the presence, and the continuing promise of both, that true happiness resides."
And so I am truly happy at this point in my life, rather legitimately in my mid-fifties tonight. Truly happy, if exhausted sometimes to the point of dementia. Occasionally bewildered at where I have got to, and even more mystified about what might be coming next.
The fall of 2005—as we were back from our first week at the village house in France—saw the release of my fifth novel for adults. Called Son of a Witch, it was
published ten years to the day that Wicked first appeared. It is a sequel, of course. I had never meant to write a sequel to Wicked. How could I, when at the end of my novel, the Wicked Witch of the West is well and truly gone for good?
Now I might mention that when Wicked was first published—and on various readers' Web sites in the years since—one minority but persistent observation has been that Gregory Maguire doesn't know how to plot his way out of a wet paper bag. He ended Wicked, just like that, they complain. All these plot strands unresolved, all these characters in various degrees of distress, all these complications as wrinkled as ever! Nothing ironed smooth, no bows tied, no happy coda! No happily ever after.
I can't second-guess what any reader wants from a book, of course, nor how they would do the same job, had they thought of it first. I can however admit to my ambitions for Wicked. I had wanted Wicked to read as a serious novel. I had wanted readers to feel the death of Elphaba deeply, as a genuine disaster. As a tragedy, even, built on the crucial point that the woman was not yet forty years of age, and she still had so many possibilities. That is what makes the death of the young so very much sadder than the death of the elderly. The wasted promise, the squandered chances.
But for a death in mid-life to be convincing, it has to break plot lines off in the middle. It has to leave secondary characters stranded in their complicated problems. Otherwise the death would have seemed preordained, and acceptably timed. Artificial. No death of a young person, or even a middle-aged person, is acceptably timed.
In the years since Wicked was published, several hundred thousand copies sold. Then the musical play opened, about which I've written earlier. (As I write this tonight, the play is running in four American cities—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and some city on tour—and two European cities, London and Stuttgart. Also in Tokyo. An Australian company opens production soon. Wicked flies the world over.) The book sales roared ahead—several million by now, and still selling briskly.
The show is dismissed by some but beloved by many. Among those who see the play repeatedly are young women. Even girls. They thrill to the friendship of Glinda and Elphaba, as highlighted by the humor and sass of playwright Winnie Holzman and the musical devilishness of composer Stephen Schwartz. Girls being girls, they are tenacious. If they like something, they love it. They bond. They do the research. They find the original novel and they read it. They notice the differences. And then they sit down and write letters to me.
By 2004, the play had been running a year, and I was getting renewed floods of letters. Interestingly, the comments weren't only about the differences between the novel and the play. The new readers had become ensnared in the distinctly separate plot of the novel, and they wanted to know more. Why had I left so much up in the air? What had happened to the Witch's supposed son, Liir? How could I have left a girl—Nor, the daughter of Fiyero—in chains, a prisoner of the Wizard? And just ended the story and walked away? A girl their own age? EXPLAIN PLEASE Mister Smartypants Author.
I tried to explain what I've said above—about tragedy requiring these snipped stories, that these conundrums remain tortured and unanswerable, these brouhahas knotted. But I began to muse about it. Wicked had been published for adults, but now children—middle-school children anyway—counted themselves among the novel's loyal readers. Was there any reason for me to return to the world of Oz again? Did the girls have a serious point? I also now had my own daughter, my beloved Helen, to consider. What would she say when she was old enough to read about Nor, trapped in the Wizard's demonic clutches? "Ba, how could you do this?" I quailed at the thought.
This wasn't enough, though, to jump-start a new book. What happened (in May 2004) was that images from the Iraq prison at Abu Ghraib were printed in the pages of the New Yorker magazine and on the front pages of newspapers around the world. The imaginative cruelty of the methods of torture of prisoners-of-war by an American occupying army was staggering. One particularly wrenching image showed a man standing on a box, his head shrouded in a hood, his arms outstretched, and wires trailing from his fingers. He had been told, the text reported, that he was wired to an electric grid, and if he fell asleep and toppled off the box, he would be electrocuted.
There are few words, even for a novelist, that can characterize the shame, the fury, the despair that those pictures provoked in many hearts, including mine. And suddenly that shame and anger became a combustible element, fueling a way to tell another story about Oz. A redemption tale, of a sort, in which shy little Liir, the probable son of the Wicked Witch of the West, does in his world what I couldn't quite do in mine. He makes an effort to find someone in a political prison, his half-sister Nor, so he can release her.
Writing as therapy. The act of telling that story helped me overcome my own contempt toward our government's military action and what I perceive as misguided American exceptionalism. Son of a Witch returned me to Oz, in thrall to a different leader but one no less wily than the Wizard had been—an Emperor of Oz who declared himself to be selected by God to wield power as he saw fit. The political commentary on the Bush administration and its policies was not, I trust, too heavy-handed, nor were my concerns limited to current events. There have been demagogues throughout history and there will be more.
Son of a Witch came out, then, in 2005, and spent fourteen weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. I traveled the country to promote it. I learned that my own observations about the world of Oz and the world of early-twenty-first-century America found favor with hordes of readers, though many of them wished that Elphaba could be resurrected. They missed her in Oz. I knew what they meant. I missed her too. I miss her still.
But the Oz about which I write—grindingly unjust, yet brimming with the possibilities that courage, brains, and heart can spark—is a place to which I keep returning. I have just handed in a draft of another Oz novel—the projected third out of a sequence of four, the "Wicked Years" sequence. There have been various working titles and we haven't settled on a final title yet, but I hope the book might appear in the fall of 2008. It takes place eight or nine years after the end of Son of a Witch. In an intense twenty-four-hour period, the Cowardly Lion finds and interviews for an Emerald City court the mysterious old crone known as Yackle, who appeared in both Wicked and Son of a Witch. War is on the horizon—literally—armies are massing to the west and east. Time is short. The Cowardly Lion has one more chance to redeem his life even as Yackle is making every effort to depart hers.
The world in which we find ourselves is sometimes terrifying enough—not only the threat of international terrorism and the military reprisal it has so far inspired, but the perhaps more dreadful reality of the effects of global warming and rampant consumerism on the resources of the planet. It is hard to imagine a time more dreadful, even as our plates are piled high with savories from all corners of the globe, and we travel for pleasure (I'm as guilty as the next, or guiltier), and we chew up forests and ozone layers and drain off natural gas and oil deposits to keep ourselves current. So why, with all this desperate reality facing us, do we still return to imaginary lands like Oz, like Philip Pullman's alternate worlds in His Dark Materials, like Earthsea, like Middle-earth, or Narnia, or Neverland, or Wonderland? Or Hogwarts, or the Hundred Aker Wood, or the miniature planet of Whoville, or where the wild things are?
Escapism? Perhaps—and what's wrong with that? Equally possible, though, is the notion that we move our imaginations into other places, other impossible situations, in order to refresh ourselves, to allow ourselves the chance to see the truth slant, as Emily Dickinson put it—and to return to ourselves revived, ready, and bolstered up in strength by our imaginations to deal with the troubles at hand.
In 2007 I published my first full-length bona fide children's fantasy in many years. It is called What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy. Both the title and the subtitle are significant. The title is a name of the main character: What-the-Dickens is the name of an orphaned tooth fairy (I call him a skibberee) who comes of age without realizing he is part of a history, a tribe, a race, with its own culture and evolution and problems of survival. He thinks he is alone of his kind. Like my adult stories about Oz, like my novels and short stories built on our common memories of the fairy tales, this tale relies on the wispy lore that attends the notion of tooth fairies. It isn't deep lore, it isn't dignified with antiquity. That makes it more malleable for my purposes. Who can say that I have gotten it wrong, when there is almost no primary source material to which to refer?
Yet the second half of the title is just as important: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy. We learn about the orphan skibberee from a character in the novel, a young man who finds himself responsible for some younger cousins during a fierce and even deadly hurricane. The children's parents are gone. Looters are roaming the abandoned neighborhoods. Mudslides have knocked out power, collapsed highway overpasses. Food is almost gone. Hope is almost gone.
All that is left—all that the young man can give his cousins—is a story to distract them. He tells the tale of What-the-Dickens to keep his charges from focusing on their hunger, their terror, their concern for their missing parents. And what good are breezy, silly stories about impossible creatures like skibbereen? Tooth fairies? Green-skinned witches? Cowardly lions and oracular saints? What good are wishes in a world of torture and starvation, disappearing populations of animals and dwindling resources? Wishing won't help, and reading about magic things won't help either. Will it?
The story of What-the-Dickens addresses this very question. The skibberee, knowing that one of the chief aims of the tooth fairy is to give birthday wishes to children, asks, "If we're so small and scared and mean … why do we bother? Why do we do it? Why do we put wishes in the way of humans, where they can find them and use them? To spend our time that way seems too noble, when those humans hardly deserve wishes of any kind."
An answer comes from a senior member of the tooth fairy colony.
"Dear boy…. It is really very simple. We plant the possibility of wishes coming true only in the paths of human children. Children still trust that when they wish on something bright—a birthday candle, a penny in a fountain…. —that their wish will come true. Wishing is the beginning of imagination. They practice wishing when they are young things, and then—when they have grown—they have a developed imagination. Which can do some harm—greed, that kind of thing—but more often does them some good. They can imagine that things might be different. Might be other than they seem. Could be better."
And this is the reason I still write for children. Not because I have my own children now—blessed comforts to me though they are, when they aren't caus- ing me migraines—but because I believe the most important work I can do with the storytelling skills that I have is to help children in the exercise of their capacity to imagine. My future is accordion-pleated only so far: eventually I won't be able to post another update to this bio because I'll have moved on to yet another new home, six feet under somewhere. Or cast on the winds or the emerald seas. But the future of the race is still possible; the future of childhood is eternal. The need to keep children eager, supple with imagination, so they can create solutions for problems we can not yet imagine—that is a job worth doing.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Advocate, October 17, 1995, Peter Galvin, review of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, p. 56; December 25, 2001, Robert Plunket, review of Lost, p. 67; September 27, 2005, Regina Marler, review of Son of a Witch, p. 72.
Booklist, September 15, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of Seven Spiders Spinning, p. 136; September 15, 1996, Debbie Carton, review of Oasis, p. 232; April 15, 1999, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Good Liar, p. 1530; December 1, 2000, Grace-Anne A. DeCandido, review of Four StupidCupids, p. 706; October 15, 2001, Kristine Huntley, review of Lost, p. 383; April 1, 2002, Kay Weisman, review of Three Rotten Eggs, p. 1328; September 1, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of Mirror Mirror, p. 57; June 1, 2004, Kay Weisman, review of Leaping Beauty, and Other Animal Fairy Tales, p. 1726; July, 2004, Gillian Engberg, review of A Couple of April Fools, p. 1844; September 15, 2005, Paul Luedtke, review of Son of a Witch, p. 6; October 1, 2007, Gillian Engberg, review of What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy, p. 48.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1982, review of Lights on the Lake; May, 1989, Roger Sutton, review of I Feel Like the Morning Star, p. 230; June, 1994, Roger Sutton, review of Missing Sisters, pp. 327-328; January, 1998, review of Six Haunted Hairdos, p. 167; March, 1999, review of The Good Liar, p. 247.
Commonweal, April 19, 2002, Daria Donnelly, "Illuminated Manuscripts," p. 22.
Entertainment Weekly, November 17, 1995, Robin J. Schwartz, review of Wicked, p. 73; October 24, 2003, Jennifer Reese, "Grimm Reaper," p. 109; September 30, 2005, Gillian Flynn, review of Son of a Witch, p. 97.
Horn Book, October, 1978, Ethel L. Heins, review of The Lightning Time, pp. 517-518; June, 1980, Mary M. Burns, review of The Daughter of the Moon; April, 1982, Mary M. Burns, review of Lights on the Lake, pp. 167-168; October, 1983, Ethel L. Heins, review of The Dream Stealer, pp. 576-577; July-August, 1994, review of Missing Sisters, pp. 454-455; July, 1999, review of The Good Liar, p. 471; January, 2000, review of Origins of Story: On Writing for Children, p. 105.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1994, review of Seven Spiders Spinning, p. 989; August, 15, 2001, review of Lost, p. 1154; March 1, 2002, review of Three Rotten Eggs, p. 339; September 5, 2003, review of Mirror Mirror, p. 1147; April 1, 2004, review of A Couple of April Fools, p. 333; July 1, 2004, review of Leaping Beauty, and Other Animal Fairy Tales, p. 632; May 1, 2005, review of One Final Firecracker, p. 542; July 15, 2005, review of Son of a Witch, p. 759; October 1, 2007, review of What-the-Dickens.
Kliatt, January, 2007, Nola Theiss, review of Son of a Witch, p. 28.
Library Journal, September 1, 1999, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, p. 234; October 1, 2001, Margee Smith, review of Lost, p. 141.
New York Times, October 24, 1995, Michiko Kakutani, review of Wicked, p. C17.
New York Times Book Review, November 26, 1995, review of Wicked, p. 19; December 12, 1999, Gardner McFall, review of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, p. 28; December 26, 1999, Malachi Duffy, review of Wicked, p. 19.
People, November 3, 2003, Jason Lynch, "Every Witch Way," p. 133.
Publishers Weekly, June 5, 1978, review of The Lightning Time, p. 89; September, 1978, Pam Spencer, review of I Feel Like the Morning Star, p. 143; September 28, 1990, review of Lucas Fishbone, pp. 101-102; August, 1994, review of Seven Spiders Spinning, p. 80; August 21, 1995, review of Wicked, p. 45; October 28, 1996, review of Oasis, p. 82; March 22, 1999, review of The Good Liar, p. 93; August 16, 1999, review of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, p. 58; September 10, 2001, review of Lost, p. 60; September 15, 2003, review of Mirror Mirror, and Ben P. Indick, interview with Maguire, p. 42; August 30, 2004, review of Leaping Beauty, and OtherAnimal Fairy Tales, p. 56; October 3, 2005, James Piechota, "Oz Struck," p. 37; July 18, 2005, review of Son of a Witch, p. 179; November 5, 2007, review of What-the-Dickens, p. 64; September 1, 2008, review of A Lion among Men, p. 37.
School Library Journal, May, 1980, Marjorie Lewis, review of The Daughter of the Moon, p. 69; February, 1984, Helen Gregory, review of The Dream Stealer, p. 75; May, 1989, Pam Spencer, review of I Feel Like the Morning Star, p. 127; December, 1990, Heide Piehler, review of Lucas-Fishbone, p. 84; May, 1996, Judy Sokoll, review of Wicked, p. 148; November, 1996, Renee Steinberg, review of Oasis, p. 108; May, 1999, Linda Greengrass, review of The Good Liar, p. 128; October, 2000, Eva Mitnick, review of Four Stupid Cupids, p. 164; March, 2002, Connie Tyrrell Burns, review of Three Rotten Eggs, p. 234; March, 2004, Susan H. Woodcock, review of Mirror Mirror, p. 249; August, 2004, Eva Mitnick, review of Leaping Beauty, and Other Animal Fairy Tales, p. 126; May, 2005, Carly B. Wiskoff, review of One Final Firecracker, p. 133; March, 2006, Matthew L. Moffett, review of Son of a Witch, p. 255; November, 2007, Beth L. Meister, review of What-the-Dickens, p. 130.
Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1989, Jane Beasley, review of I Feel Like the Morning Star, p. 117; February, 1997, review of Oasis, p. 330; February, 2002, review of Lost, p. 447; February, 2005, review of Leaping Beauty, and Other Animal Fairy Tales, p. 496.
Gregory Maguire Home Page,http://www.gregorymaguire.com (September 20, 2008).