Between heaven and Oz

With the release of his new book, “The Next Queen of Heaven,” author Gregory Maguire takes a break from the fantasy realms that won him fame and acclaim with books “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” and “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.

His newest offering is set in a small town in the days leading up to the year 2000. The plot follows the increasingly bizarre and comical behavior of the townsfolk as the then-uncertainty of Y2K creeps up on them.

The novel was released last year as a limited run by Concord Free Press, which gave the books away for free with the stipulation that readers would donate money to the charity of their choice and then pass along the book to someone else. Those unlucky enough not to get one of those copies would have to wait another year until Harper Collins released the novel nationally, which finally happened Oct. 8.

With his latest book finally in stores for wide public consumption and the continued popularity of his “Wicked” series, Maguire talked to PGN about writing outside of fantasy and the future of his version of Oz.

PGN: What inspired you to release “The Next Queen of Heaven” for free? GM: I count myself among the few and lucky writers who actually make a living income selling my work. It’s an increasingly rare breed and may not last forever, but as long as I did have some disposable income, I thought, why not do something useful with this book, which is in its own way a little bit nervy and off the beaten path from the kind of writing for which I’m more generally known.

PGN: Did you keep up with how much was raised by the release of the book? GM: I believe I’m safe in saying the 2,500 copies that were printed about a year ago have generated upwards of $40,000 in charitable giving.

PGN: Why did you feel it necessary to apologize to your fans in the author’s note? GM: I hoped that would be seen as a little bit ironic. In any rate, there are a lot of people who assume, because of the success of “Wicked,” that my work is suitable for teenage readers or younger readers. And anybody who digs 20 pages into “Wicked” realizes it was intended entirely for an adult audience. Given the cover that “The Next Queen of Heaven” was going to have, I wanted to protect the sensitivities of younger readers just in case there were younger readers. Also, if it’s a book about religion, to hear a teenager use the word “cunt” on page 4 could be a little off-putting. So a little yellow cautionary light was only fair.

PGN: So it had nothing to do with you writing a more real-world-based book? GM: No, not at all. Indeed it is a more real-world-based story. It’s set in upstate New York, which is not Oz or Narnia. Some think it is. But like my other work, it draws some of its strength, if it has any, from the artifice of an older story. In this case, it’s not “The Wizard of Oz” or the Grimm fairy tails, but actually the story of the nativity. It’s very deeply embedded and I doubt many readers will see any obvious connections. But in my mind the archetypal structure of the Christmas narrative is one of the things that informed how “The Next Queen of Heaven” would be developed as a plot.

PGN: Do you think people today could view pre-9/11 America as a fantasy world? GM: Yes, indeed. When I first got the idea for “The Next Queen of Heaven” it was around the millennium. It was before 9/11 happened. I had blocked out some of it and had been thinking about the fervor that accompanied Y2K anxiety. Everybody was hoarding lentils and bottled water in their basements thinking the world as we knew it was about to come to an end. Well, it’s funny how the world as we knew it didn’t end on Dec. 31, 1999, but on Sept. 11, a year and nine months later. So that anxiety that we felt back then seems almost quaint and sad compared to what we came to a year-and-a-half later.

PGN: Are there any character or thematic parallels between “The Next Queen of Heaven” and “Wicked”? GM: I suppose “The Next Queen of Heaven” takes one of the themes from the “Wicked” books, which is you can’t know who somebody is or what their potential is merely by looking at the surface. Tabitha, who is the foul-mouthed teenage girl, is the least likely to qualify for a saint just as Elphaba is not easily and quickly identified as the hero. Tabitha, nonetheless, if you believe in the concept of redemption, is as legitimately deserving of the possibilities of redemption as any other human soul. Indeed, redemption was invented for people who needed it, not for those who were going to get off scot-free because they lived blameless lives. So in that way I think there’s a cross-referential link between Tabitha and Elphaba. Tabitha, the reason I named her that is because it was that name of the daughter of the witch in “Bewitched.” I named her after that child-witch on purpose because she comes from a TV-watching family and those were their points of reference. Not to suggest she’s a witch. She’s similarly sort-of ostracize-able, if you will.

PGN: Do you think the overall message in the story is more or less obvious because it is set in the real world? GM: I think it’s not more obvious because I like to think I don’t write things that can be boiled down into epigrams or too easily. But I know that many people find the stretch of reading fantasy more than they want to give to a reading experience. So I hope that by setting this story in a contemporary setting without magic involved, it might bring in some readers I wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

PGN: Would you say that there is a greater representation of gay characters in “The Next Queen of Heaven” than there has been in your other novels? GM: I would say yes. They are more overt and easily identified. There are gay and lesbian characters in Oz, but since I tried so hard to make Oz both like our world and not like it, I’ve made the character’s homosexuality less of an issue. It was more acceptable so it didn’t become a plot point. In our country and our time, it’s always a plot point no matter what advances we are lucky enough to make.

PGN: Do you ever feel creatively boxed-in by the success of “Wicked” and “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister”? GM: I certainly do. I certainly have. Although I feel like, after 10 years of being boxed-in, I’m beginning to break out a little bit, not just from “The Next Queen of Heaven.” Last year, I did a large-scale, gloriously illustrated, critical appreciation of Maurice Sendak, who is quietly known as a gay man among those who know it and the famous author of “Where the Wild Things Are” and other wonderful works. The fact that Harper Collins would allow me to do this glowing, friendly appreciation of an American genius in full color with beautiful full-cloth boards rather than cardboard covers was a sign that they are willing to open the cage door for me to roam around slightly wider territory.

PGN: Now that the cage is open, what is next for you creatively? GM: Like any liberated animal, I’ve rushed back into the cage as fast as I could. I am right now putting the finishing touches on the fourth and last book in “The Wicked Years” sequence. It’s called “Out of Oz” and it concludes the story that began in “Wicked.”

PGN: Given the popularity of the musical version of “Wicked,” will “Son of a Witch” ever be adapted for the stage? GM: There probably will not be a follow-up to the Broadway musical because the musical makes a correction upon my story. They make Fiyero survive and there’s no mention of Liir. So, Liir being the son of the witch in book two, it would be hard to put him on stage when Elphaba never had a child in the original musical. That said, there’s also a continuing attempt by ABC to turn “Wicked” into a miniseries. If that ever comes to pass, they won’t follow the plot of the musical because that legally belongs to the people that wrote the musical. They’ll go back to my novel and write a new script on the basis of what they see in my novel. If they do a good job and if it’s successful, I could imagine that they could continue with “Son of a Witch” and “A Lion Among Men.”

PGN: Do you trust network television to preserve the darker and more subversive elements of “Wicked” that were whitewashed in the musical? GM: No, I don’t. But I hope that they will go at least a little bit darker. I think network television can become able to be dark, but ABC is the Disney Network so they shy away from darkness. If it was done by Fox or one of those cable channels, I would be a little more confident that some of the darkness would be maintained. But you never know.

PGN: What are your plans beyond the next “Wicked” novel? GM: That’s a very good question. I owe one more adult novel to Harper Collins and I don’t know what that will be yet. After I do that, I’m considering taking a period of quiet and I have long been interested in the possibility of writing a screenplay or for the stage. So I’m going to try and leave the windows open and let the breeze come in and go back to working the way I used to work when I first started writing, which was, what do I feel like doing today? Not, what am I obliged to do because I signed a contract so I can pay for bread and butter for my kids. What gets my juices going this morning? I look forward to that kind of freedom.

“The Next Queen of Heaven” is in stores now. For more information, visit www.gregorymaguire.com.

Larry Nichols can be reached at [email protected].