November 18, 2017

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Interview: Gregory Maguire on Why the World Needs Magic and ‘Egg and Spoon’

Photo by Andy Newman

Photo by Andy Newman

Gregory Maguire is no stranger to children’s fiction. While many people recognize him as the author of Wicked (HarperCollins, 1995), the book on which the blockbuster Broadway play is based, he’s also consistently written works for younger readers. Among these include What-the-Dickens (2007) and now Egg and Spoon (2014, both Candlewick). He is even a founding member of the Children’s Literature New England organization. Maguire talks with SLJ about his latest otherworldly Egg and Spoon, who should be reading it, and why fairy tales are necessary nutrition for the modern world. 

What is it about children’s books that make you return to this audience again and again?
For me it is more striking to write for children because of their position in their life experience. They’re innocent and untried and they brook no nonsense. They don’t want to waste their time when they’re reading a book. Writing for children is the most demanding exercise.

In Egg and Spoon, the entire country of  Russia feels as if it’s a protagonist, from the Elena’s barren village to the courts of the Romanov dynasty. What inspired you to write during last years of Tsarist Russia?
Russia is a character in this novel because so much hangs on whether it is dead or alive—alive with magic. One of the things that I like writing about Russia is similar to why I love writing about Oz. They are alike because they’re equally extensive as maps of possibility. Each can serve as an analogy to the great and complicated United States of America.

Egg and SpoonYour signature snark and “truth-telling” is evident in Egg and Spoon, which can be appreciated by kids and adults. Who is your target audience for this work?
Probably me at about the age of 14. In some ways, since I was well read and well educated at 14, I was very full of myself and thought I was much more of an adult than my parents, teachers, and priest. My book is meant for anyone who remembers that feeling of aggressive affection with authority. It’s meant to be a crossover. It’s intended to appeal to readers of Wicked and kids who are good readers at 14, or those who are not embarrassed by reading fantasy.

I feel liberated by the current climate change in which there’s less apprehension of what’s suitable reading for kids or adults. People who love this kind of thing are going to love this kind of thing. That truth has liberated me to write whatever I want to write.

A couple years ago, I became a little self-conscious about the book because it was being released by children’s publisher. [The author] Susan [Cooper] asked what I was working on. I told her I was feeling nervous about it. She poked me in the shoulder and reminded me of something Maurice [Sendak] said: “Write the book that you need to write and readers will read the book that they want to read.” She reminded me of those words at just the right moment.

My favorite character in this novel is the hilarious Baba Yaga. And Cat and Elena have such spirit. Do you have a favorite character? Who do you identify with most?
Baba Yaga is a combination of Auntie Mame and Eleanor Roosevelt played by Carol Burnett. She’s someone with an incredible range of voice and a capacity for change and affection. Her voice was in-exorcisable. She was hysterical and at times I felt like I was channeling a deranged Miss Piggy. I just listened. And I took dictation whenever Baba Yaga decided she had something to say.

I love the child characters. They are named after my children Luke, Alex, and Helen. I’m concerned about the fate of the world for them. And that’s why I put them at the center of the fate of the world in this novel. One of my friends has told me that Father Uri is a lot like me because of my myopia and self-centeredness. Uri is actually the central syllable in my name. He’s the narrator and the writer in the piece. I reveal myself more than I intended.

At the end of Egg and Spoon, we see that the novel is dedicated in memory and honor of Maurice Sendak. Are there specific tributes to Sendak in the book?
The doctor is intentionally my interpretation of Sendak. He was famously combative and claimed to admire children, but not particularly like them. He had an uncanny grasp of what they [children] needed. I closed one of the final chapters with a quote from him. He said this in an interview with [NPR Fresh Air host] Terry Gross—one of the last interviews that Maurice did before he died:  “Live your life. Live your life. Live your life.” What more do protective parents want for their children than that they live their lives fully, responsibly, and foolishly?

So many of your books have strong connections to fairy tales. Why is it’s important for kids and adults to read these kinds of stories?
In the world at large—I don’t know if it’s a side effect of staring at flat screens the whole day—adults and kids have become more and more literal-minded and less capable of grasping analogy and symbolism. Fairy tales promise us from the very start that they’re not the real world. “Once upon a time” right away releases us.

I think the more Google-fied we become, the more we believe that there’s a factual interpretation for everything, and the more we rely on our skepticism and become immune to fairy tales, poetry, and dreaming. We need them more now than we did 40 years ago. It has become harder for us to live in comfort with analogy and suggestion. We want concreteness and absolutism. And fairy tales do not promise absolutes. That’s why they’re essential nutrition. One of the things that Egg & Spoon emphasizes is that the world is magical. As literal and concrete I am as a father, in my heart I am a child, and I believe that the world is still magic.

Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on next for young readers?
I haven’t admitted this out loud yet. My next one will be an adult book, and it will have an Alice in Wonderland connection.

 

This article was published in School Library Journal's November 2013 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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