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Advice to new writers: Don't claim to know the truth. Trick readers to think for themselves.

September 25, 2007|By DANIELLE HIGGINS and SHOVAL RESNICK

Fairy tales offer a break from a sometimes harsh reality. Through reading, one can travel to the realm of fantasy: Alice's Wonderland, the Lost Boys' Neverland, Dorothy's Oz. Books allow any child (or adult) to experience a magical world that offers an escape from the mundane, the restricted, the oppressive.

Recently, we spoke with Gregory Maguire, author of the best-selling novel "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West" and other books. He gave us some insight into the process of beginning to write and appreciating the enchanted.

Maguire, 53, said he was, from an early age, interested in the escape offered by fairy tales. His home wasn't exactly magical; his father and stepmother were strict. But they did create a home that nurtured his natural talents.

"I grew up in a household steeped in love of language," said Maguire, who lives in Massachusetts.

His father was a journalist; his stepmother, a poetry lover. This exposure to the arts early in life encouraged Maguire to explore the power of writing. He felt drawn to fantasy worlds such as C.S. Lewis' Narnia, Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, Frank Baum's Oz.

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"Through magic, you can do something wonderful," Maguire said. "(These fantasy worlds) all seemed wonderful metaphors for what books and reading could do."

He said he began to write early in his childhood. He wrote his first story, a ghost story, at the age of 5. He used known characters, but made them his own. Maguire further developed this method of writing, culminating in the publishing of "Wicked," his first novel for adults and his first real success.

The hugely popular novel goes back to Oz to tell the story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. The book explores several themes. One is the thin line between good and evil. Another is the nature of beauty. Elphaba exhibits traits that are outside of the norms of conventional beauty. For one thing, she's green.

The novel's adaptation into a Broadway musical is also popular; the show sells out in cities worldwide. Maguire said his most satisfying moment as a writer occurred at the release party for the recorded music from "Wicked."

"Idina Menzel, who played Elphaba, was there," he said. "Every 18th person or so was a young woman, age 16 to 25, who burst into tears when they saw her."

Women on the margins of mainstream society can relate to Elphaba, Maguire said. She exemplifies a woman who is strong despite being outside of the cookie-cutter mold of successful women in today's society.

Despite the fantastical qualities of "Wicked," the characters seem human enough and the ideas are grounded in reality. A fantasy story can still deliver a message about the world readers live in. But Maguire said he doesn't want to just serve up a message.

"I don't want to deliver the truth. I want to expand the conversation," he said. "I trick people into thinking for themselves."

To aspiring writers, Maguire's advice is to keep an open mind.

"Write what you care about," Maguire said. "Don't be superior to anything ... shut nothing out."

And be persistent. The publishing world is unkind, especially to new writers, he said. Maguire said he had difficulties getting his work published.

"Don't be daunted by someone else's opinion," he advised. You can allow for a certain amount of disappointment over rejection. Even so, he suggested new writers to be realistic.

"Plan B is useful, especially if anyone wants to (make a living) in the arts," he said.

In addition to writing, Maguire works to promote literacy. He co-founded Children's Literature New England Incorporated, a non-profit organization that sponsors training for teachers, librarians and others involved in the literary lives of children.

To Maguire, literacy is the lifeblood of American society. We are dependent upon it, and democracy is dependent upon it.

"We have to be able to read to know when we're being lied to and to tolerate subtlety," he said. We need to be able to read to be functional members of society.

"It's my hope for the world that we will not abandon literacy."

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