An Interview with Gregory Maguire
by Mary Brigid Barrett
Gregory Maguire is the author of eight novels for adults (including Wicked, published by Morrow, the inspiration for the Broadway musical of the same name) and numerous children’s books. Maguire is also a co-founder and co-director of Children’s Literature New England (CLNE), an educational charity whose mission is to raise public awareness of the significance of literature in the lives of children. Mary Brigid Barrett had the opportunity to ask Gregory Maguire a few questions about CLNE and his own writing career.
Greg, why is there a need to promote children’s literature? And why does CHILDREN’S LITERATURE NEW ENGLAND (CLNE) specifically promote an “awareness of the significance of literature in the lives of children?”
CLNE, as it is fondly and succinctly called, was established by a small band of friends and colleagues who had worked together teaching on the graduate level. The fundamental belief of CLNE’s founders–indeed, the glue that bound the friendship first, and lent strength to the organization in time–is that the ability to read and derive pleasure, comfort, and stimulation from reading, is central to human life. If having access to the rewards of reading is nearly a human right, were poverty and hunger and health care and political disenfranchisement not even more urgent? We believe being able to read well not only enhances one’s moral sympathies – or can, at best – but enlarges one’s critical faculties, ultimately helping to create a more responsible citizen and a better society.
Children’s literature is a branch of the great tree of literature. With the increasing inroads into children’s reading time by what I call “the video mesmorama”– computers and monitors in all their stripes – and by the increasing affluence of many Americans, the time and chance to read for pleasure or profit in America diminishes, even for children. Especially for children. CLNE was founded as a way to encourage teachers, librarians – and other professionals who work with and care for children – not to lose sight of the great goals of the humanities, the love of which is best planted in childhood.
How do you promote that awareness?
Annually CLNE mounts one-week themes in children’s books arranged around an expansive literary theme. We ask a serious question of adults –”Am I my brother’s keeper?” “How shall a man choose to be good?” “What is the virtue of play?” “Do I dare disturb the universe?”– and then find out how people who write for children ask and pose answers for serious questions.
Pedagogically, then, by example CLNE explores the virtues of the dialogic seminar (although in a conference setting, which is contradictory). Because the themes are carefully honed, and their thesis statements elaborated and circulated among the speakers, the one-week institute becomes a week-long conversation. By example participants are reminded what it is to consider a large question–how ennobling, if you will, how refreshing–and by specific lecture participants learn particular approaches by authors, many of whom are scholars of children’s literature and critics in their own right.
If a book for children is a good book, then the tools by which its art is effective are the same tools by which any work of literature is made. Craft, inspiration, language, plotting, characterization, tone, point of view–it does not diminish a work of art to consider it critically.
Your nonprofit organization has the words New England in its title. Should we assume that your attendees are all New Englanders, that your impact is local? Who attends your literature seminars? And, how do attendees share their acquired knowledge with their own communities?
The title of CLNE–New England being the NE part of it–refers to the geographical location of the majority of its Board. The five founding Board members, in 1987, all lived in the Boston area. Now, we are expanded into Vermont, and honorary board members hail from Connecticut and Maine and Wisconsin and Maryland, and Canada and England as well.
Nonetheless, from the start we have pulled an international clientele. There are years in which, among our two hundred participants, we have had delegates from about half the states in the union and up to a dozen countries beyond the United States.
As to how the attendees share their knowledge–this is less documented. Almost all who attend are professional teachers or librarians or editors or writers. We assume that they carry the tools of their profession into the conference with them, and that they are considering the arguments with their own needs, interests, and abilities at the ready. We have resisted the temptation to provide one-step-solutions to any individual’s needs (where’s my reading list for my college class last year? How shall I defend this book against the local censors in my town? How can I get my non-reading first graders to pony up to Proust?). We believe in fact the addiction of a quick-fix solution is a serious problem, and we steer clear of pretending we have any answers for the myriad and contradictory needs our participants may have. We do believe, however, that in the healthy criticism and love for literature old and new, and in the passion of sharing that love, participants are emboldened to use their own professional skills to resolve the issues with which they struggle.
That said, to those who request scholarship help, we are quick to choose to give the very limited aid we have to those who are capable and willing to perform public service. Teachers who come collaboratively from a single school or school system can apply for a reduced rate, and in return they testify that they will (with their own skills, not ours) create and sustain a unit or a strand of teaching that is partly composed of the illumination they receive at our institutes.
In our culture, children and teens are surrounded by many different kinds of storytelling mediums– movies, television, electronic games, and even Internet blogs where people share their personal stories. Do you think that literature has a different impact on young people than story told in an electronic format?
I am most aware of the difference in time that a story in words takes to tell. There are hours of any day when I am more public, and some when I am more private; there are moments when my brain is fiery, and other moments (more of them) when I’m working more slowly. For me, the optimum art form is still the novel, as it is endlessly tolerant of the many moods and abilities with which I come to it, and endlessly patient when I have to put it down again because the FedEx man has arrived, or the baby has fallen in the bird bath again.
In the visual world the definition of what makes “Art” is endlessly debated. To some, everything of a visual nature is art. To others, art must provoke and challenge; it can be beautiful, but it is never pretty or cute. In the world of the written word is everything “literature?”
Everything that is written isn’t literature. It’s a good question: what is it that clinches a piece of writing as a piece of literature? (A subject for a future institute…) Nonetheless, as many people have said, you know it when you see it. There are phrases I’ve seen attributed to Emily Dickinson and Kafka, about literature hacking apart the icy sea within–or “if I feel the top of my head has come off, I know it’s poetry.” Perhaps only metaphor itself can serve adequately to describe the sensation of being in the company of literature.
Is there a domino effect related to your work at CLNE? What is the extended impact of Children’s Literature New England on adults who live and work with children? What has been its impact on children, themselves?
Besides the fact that many of the early participants of CLNE institutes have grown and thrived in their careers and now hold positions of influence in teaching colleges, publishing houses, etc. throughout the country (and the world), we have noted with pleasure a number of conferences sprung up in other parts of the country that have imitated not only our format but even our name. There is a Children’s Literature Hawaii and another one somewhere, Children’s Literature Louisiana, or something like that.
Many of those who organize CLNE have worked with children, or still do, teaching and library work and the leading of literature and writing classes. The policy of CLNE is to focus on the needs of the adult reader as a way to remind said reader of how it is to be in a reading community. Therefore we rarely import children to have on display, and we rely on the expertise of our participants to use their own professional skills to share what they have learned with children. What they learn first and foremost, of course, is that there is no engine like enthusiasm to get anyone reading. (The Da Vinci Code! The new Harry Potter! That scary Philip Roth book! And what about the Sandman graphic novels, have you dared to try them yet? Treasure Island works hugely well as a read-aloud if you are willing to do voices…etc, etc.)
What kinds of stories and books are you drawn to as a reader, as a writer?
The more I have identified myself as a writer of fantasy, the less I read it. I’m not sure why that is. I am particularly fond of a certain sort of English novel (that is, by British writers). I find that the slightly more formal and even archaic use of language often works a more powerful spell on me than a more contemporary breezy American style. Also, since one reads in part to get away from one’s concerns, I find that to read about England is to renew an old friendship with a great culture I have admired, and also to visit a place that is different but not foreign: I am at home in an English novel, even an older one.
We all have our favorites, of course. Most recently I have enjoyed Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin; Feed by M. T. Anderson; Morality Play by Barry Unsworth; Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald.
Why did you become a writer? Is there any one teacher, class, or experience that helped you become a good writer? Or is writing a talent you are born with and cannot learn?
My father was a newspaper columnist and the practice of putting out text quickly, to deadline, must be a wonderful training. I watched my father do that, and I listened to my stepmother read and consider poetry at the dining room table. However good my teachers were–and they almost all were–I was most deeply affected by the love of language and story that permeated the house in which I was raised.
I also began to write out of a deep and real sense of boredom. My parents were hugely strict, and we were not prosperous. Reading books from the library and then trying to write my own, on the backs of sheafs of typed reports my father brought home from the office, were the only ways to explore the wide world.
Halfway through my life (I hope only halfway through) I find I can’t conclude whether writing is a talent one is born with and cannot learn. I think one can learn to understand what makes up good writing. Whether one can ever harness one’s brain to produce it if one isn’t so inclined–I’m not sure. I have been wanting to write for the theater for a long time, and I am not scared of new challenges nor am I ignorant about how a play works. I have yet to have a single idea that would work better as a play than as a novel. I may yet.
Barbara Harrison, your CLNE cofounder is also a writer. What is your favorite amongst Barbara’s publications?
I came to know Barbara first through critical writing, including a wonderful essay published in The Library of Congress Quarterly Review (and that may not be the correct title of the journal, but it was something of the sort). But as admiring as I am of Barbara’s critical faculties, and especially the breadth of her interest in the classical world of ancient Greece, I am even more fond of her novel Theo, which takes place during World War II in Greece. It is a loving evocation of a brave community in a difficult time, poetically rendered and dramatically presented.
Where can people find out more about Children’s Literature New England?
We have a website: CLNE.org. It has information about our upcoming events.
For more information about Gregory Maguire, his work, and his books go to: GregoryMaguire.com