Like the disadvantaged tooth fairy in his latest novel, hatched parentless in an old tin can, Gregory Maguire had a rough start. His mother died when he was born, and his father, widowed and unable to care for the three children he already had, placed the newborn in a Catholic orphanage in Albany. There Maguire stayed for some two years until his father recovered, remarried, and was able to collect his children back together.
So it comes as no great surprise that the related concepts of being orphaned and homeless—of feeling abandoned and always in search of one’s place in the world—are main concerns for many of the author’s characters. Orphans, stepchildren, and home-seekers pop up everywhere in Maguire’s books, juvenile and adult. In Missing Sisters, his children’s book from 1994, he tells of Alice Colossus, a 12-year-old orphan who learns she has an identical twin sister who lives in a nice house with loving parents, and sneaks away from the orphanage to find the family she has been denied. Lost, a modern-day adult ghost story that crosses A Christmas Carol with Alice in Wonderland and Jack the Ripper, features heroine and Maguire alter-ego Winifred Rudge, who sets off on a fateful journey to her lost ancestral home in London. Stepchildren are forced into appalling situations with cruel stepmothers in two of Maguire’s adult novels: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, his revisionist Cinderella tale set in tulip-crazed, 17th-century Holland, and Mirror Mirror, in which a Snow White replacement is threatened by Lucrezia Borgia.
Maguire’s most famous book, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, is a study of evil set against our nostalgia for the The Wizard of Oz and Dorothy Gale, the Kansas orphan trying desperately to get home again. That tale has sold more than two million copies and been adapted into a hit Broadway musical.
Given the themes of his books, you’d think Maguire’s childhood was a nightmare, but in fact he remembers it as being a generally happy one. After he rejoined his three siblings, he lived in a middle-class neighborhood in Albany, and his family grew as his father and stepmother had three more children. His parents, who had grown up during the Depression, scrimped by giving the children hand-me-downs and home haircuts. Yet his parents were generous when it came to encouraging reading. His father was a journalist, his stepmother a poet, and Maguire remembers a house filled with books and a dictionary always on the kitchen table in case someone wanted to look up a word during a conversation.
“My mother had died when I was born, and so I think the family culture reflected a sense of forever-after that things could go wrong at any time,” Maguire told Schenectady’s Daily Gazette in an interview early in his career. “Consequently my father and stepmother were very protective of us, and the only direction in which we could expand without fear of danger was in reading.”
Reading and writing. An early influence on his future vocation was Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, the story of a girl who writes down everything she observes around her.
“[Harriet’s] obsession with journal keeping and her desire to be a writer was a real role model for me,” he says. “Instantly, after finishing the book (maybe for the fourth time, which doesn’t make it too instant), I got a journal of my own. I didn’t call it a journal—I called it a spy notebook—and I began to spy on my neighbors and family members in Albany.
That early surveillance became the foundation of journal keeping that persists to this day. “I still keep it, though I don’t call it a spy notebook anymore, but that’s essentially what it is. I’m on Volume 54.”
Really? He’s got them all?
“I have them all. They’re in a safe deposit box at a bank. I’m no Virginia Woolf, and I’m no Anaïs Nin, but I have kept a record of my life for the past 46 years or so. Not every day—increasingly, the last few years since I’ve been a father, it has been harder and harder to write even once a month in there.”
“My parents didn’t teach me to write,” Maguire has said, “but they sure demonstrated every day of their lives that words were of value and needed to be paid attention to.” Maguire elaborated on the connection between writing and childhood in an interview for the online book site Powells.com. “I’m not a writer because I want to make money. I’m a writer because I’m a very slow thinker,” he said, “but I do care about thinking, and the only way I know how to think with any kind of finesse is by telling stories. This is how I was raised to think. It’s how my family was raised to converse.”