INTERVIEW: Wicked author Gregory Maguire reveals his favorite witch
When I asked Gregory Maguire the identity of his favorite witch, he first checked his witch ball, because of course he owns one. A witch ball is like a reflective Christmas ornament you hang from the ceiling to make sure there aren't any witches hiding in corners.
After dutifully checking that he was, in fact, alone (no creepy critters crawling), he hesitantly whispered, "Baba Yaga," and was not struck by lightning.
Baba Yaga is a character of Russian fairy tales, but she is also one of the leads in Maguire's newest novel, Egg & Spoon. Set in early 1900s Russia, Egg & Spoon follows the mismatched paths of rich girl Cat and peasant Elena as they accidentally switch places and go on a grand adventure to save their country from being flooded to death.
Maguire is best known as the author of Wicked (now a very successful musical about the Wicked Witch of the West), which is why the "favorite witch" question caused such a stir. He actually squealed, "Oh, my God! Do you want this to be my last novel?" Apparently, witches are quite unforgiving. Or maybe not.
He was first introduced to Baba Yaga in Jack and Jill magazine as a child. Maguire was entranced by her "quirkiness and power." She certainly steals the show in Egg & Spoon, and although she does like eating small children, she's not all bad. According to Maguire, "She is not amoral, but her morals are refreshingly hidden." He said this is true of all people you meet: "Most of us have some hidden ambitions or strategies, sometimes even hidden from ourselves."
One of Maguire's ambitions? To finally see the Russia of his new novel. Twenty-two years ago, he was invited to go on a trip with two dear friends on a river cruise from the Baltic Sea all the way to St. Petersburg. Because of financial pressure, he wasn't able to make the voyage. He said he regrets very little in his life, but he does regret this missed opportunity.
For someone who's never been to Russia, Maguire certainly paints a vivid picture. In Egg & Spoon, we get to ride on a ritzy, Russian train; attend a floating extravaganza; and even wander through enchanted woods. Although the setting is stunning, I found the moments of levity to be the most charming.
Maguire has a way of weaving comedy and wisdom like strands of string. He's a firm believer in a good laugh. He said, "There are books of almost perfect literary genius, but they're not as comic as they should be, and they suffer from being too intensely serious."
He looks to Dickens and Shakespeare for his comedic inspiration. In Maguire's opinion, their work is brilliant because "they lighten up from time to time. Give us a chance to rest. That's what I try to do, too." With lines like, "I'm a scad loose in the head, but redeemed by the genius of my personal glamour," Maguire does so swimmingly.
Although Egg & Spoon is a fairy tale (and fairy tales were originally intended to teach lessons), Maguire said he doesn't write to teach. Instead, he likes to ask questions. In this novel, for instance: "What are the ways to share? What are we willing to give up? What are we willing to do without in order to help someone else?"
Elena, Cat and even Baba Yaga struggle to answer these questions as does Maguire. He said, "I don't know the answers, but I like to ask."
Kind of like the favorite witch question, Maguire was hesitant to talk about his next project. (Again, he doesn't want to be struck by lightning.) He said he "didn't want to fall down any rabbit holes. That was a clue, by the way." Make your own conclusions, and be wary of that witch behind you.