One thing you know from Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West is that witches have feelings too. One thing you know from his suburban Boston home is that they also have grooming issues. “Oh, the Wicked Witch of the West is having a bad-hair day,” says Maguire, propping a green-faced hand puppet on his desk. His daughter Helen, 2, giggles and strokes the puppet’s tresses. Just then a friendly ghost appears: son Luke, 5, hidden beneath a quilt, swoops into Maguire’s office. His dad grins and keeps talking.
Good spirits seem to surround the author these days. Wicked, a musical adaptation of his 1995 reimagining of The Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch’s point of view, will open on Broadway Oct. 30. His latest novel, Mirror Mirror
, a postmodern spin on Snow White, is earning raves. And Maguire, 49, who spent a stretch of his childhood in an orphanage, is living out his own happy ending as an adoptive father of three with his partner of six years, painter Andy Newman. The only downside? “I hate having a minivan,” Maguire says. “It’s so embarrassing.” Not as mortifying as green skin. Wicked centers on witch Elphaba (loosely named after Oz author L. Frank Baum and played by Idina Menzel), whose complexion makes her an outcast. Maguire “gets the complications and uniqueness of women very well,” says Kristin Chenoweth, whose Glinda is Elphaba’s socialite roommate. During Wicked’s pre-Broadway run in San Francisco last June, Maguire gleefully watched the audience applaud Elphaba’s first appearance. “They were on her side because of my book,” says Maguire. “That was electrifying.”
He didn’t stop with Oz. After subverting Cinderella in 1999’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, he transported the Snow White story to Renaissance Italy for Mirror Mirror, tapping into the Borgia rulers’ habit of poisoning their rivals. “Maguire restores the edge to an oft-told tale,” said Publishers Weekly, “and imbues it with a strange, unsettling beauty.”
Yet Maguire, who began his career writing such successful children’s books as Seven Spiders Spinning, hasn’t forgotten how to connect with a younger audience. “With Luke, Gregory can just give out a series of absurd words or make a funny face and make him laugh,” says Newman, 48, who met Maguire at an artists’ retreat in the mid-’90s. Raising Cambodian-born Alex, 3, and Luke and Guatemalan-born Helen has special meaning for Maguire. When his mother, Helen, died of complications a week after his birth in Albany, N.Y., his writer father, John, was too ill to take care of Maguire and his three older siblings. All were sent to live with relatives; Maguire also spent time in an orphanage. Eventually, John, who died in 1987, married Marie McAuliff, now 86, and reunited the family. “There was almost a redemptive quality to Gregory having Luke as his son,” says Newman, “and making a circle whole by picking up where he was left off when he was born.”
A creative whirlwind from an early age—he recalls reenacting Oz with younger brother Joe “playing the entire Munchkin population from his stroller”—Maguire wrote more than 100 still-unpublished manuscripts as a teen. At 20, as an art and English major at SUNY’s University at Albany, he wrote his first published children’s book, The Lightning Time. In 1976 he enrolled in a children’s literature masters program at Simmons College. “He was very gifted,” says Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, who befriended Maguire there. “He has a very Irish-y, snappy humor and a very honest quality.”
Maguire became interested in writing for adults during a stay in London in 1990. Inspired by a Danish writer’s statement that no fairy tales ever take the side of the strong against the weak and Gulf War press coverage of Saddam Hussein, Maguire became “very curious about understanding the nature of evil,” he says, and Wicked was born.
Maguire says he’s “turning over ideas” for another book, but for now he’s content to bask in his good fortune. “My stepmother used to say, ‘You children are so lucky.’ And I used to say, ‘You’re not giving enough credit for hard work,'” he says. “Now, in middle life, I have a broader concept of what luck is. And the luck to be born with a working imagination is one of the chief blessings one could hope for.”
Anne Driscoll in Boston