Gregory Maguire understands fairy tale's power over the adult imagination. For 20 years, the author has reinvented children's tales for adults, dominating the bestseller charts in the process. His first adult novel Wicked told the Wicked Witch's backstory, portraying the villain as a parable for misunderstood modern women and animal rights. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, his follow-up, told the Cinderella story from the hideous, unloved villain's perspective.
Maguire goes down the rabbit hole in his new novel After Alice, chasing Alice's friend Ada as she encounters the Cheshire Cat and White Rabbit and realizes adult men can be really, really fucking stupid. Maguire takes the theme from Lewis Carroll's two Alice novels. In the original books, Maguire says, Carroll broke literary ground: He wrote a children's novel that refrained from lecturing kids and viewed them as superior to adult men.
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"I don't think it's ever been said that anyone before him had written a novel, especially for children, that had no ambition to correct the child either morally, or religiously, or behaviorally," Maguire explains. "He didn't see children as beasts who were not yet fully formed. He saw them as fully formed, but as a completely different species. Once they stopped being children, basically [Carroll] became uninterested in them."
Maguire has studied the history of children's literature, and he uses Ada to open Carroll's theme for an adult audience. Maguire is a fairy tale addict. Most people know him for his adult books, but he started writing kids books. In Maguire's eyes, fairy tales use absurd images to hit at universal truths. He takes these odd pictures and transforms them for adults. Although we see Wicked as a family story today thanks to the hit musical the novel inspired, the novel featured vivid descriptions of munchkin sex. Readers originally came for the fucking munchkins and stayed for the heart-wrenching thematic discussions. When I read the novel in the fifth grade, my devout Catholic babysitter flipped out over the sexual content, but ultimately agreed with me finishing Wicked because of its themes.
Over the phone, I spoke to Maguire about his new book, male stupidity, and why fairy tales hit adults' hearts. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Broadly: You've written many fairytale books for adults. Why did you decide to finally explore Wonderland?
Gregory Maguire: I really resisted for a long time because while fairy tales are by their nature old and kind of puzzling, the images don't necessarily line-up—that's what makes them memorable. What the hell is a pumpkin coach? Where'd that come from? Alice in Wonderland is a work of genius. It's a work of genius in the English language, and it is whole, and entire, and doesn't need one extra syllable, and should not have one syllable taken away from it. So I resisted for a long, long time thinking I just don't have that much hubris. And then, about three years ago, I realized is that it was hubris to think that I have the power to besmirch a work of art, even accidentally. In fact, two works of art are going to last long beyond anybody else's playing with them, or making fun with them on Saturday Night Live, or having children write poems about them in grade school. If [two works of art are] not eternal, they're the closest thing we have to eternal truths.
Was this novel harder to write than Wicked or your other books?
It was more difficult, partly because people know it's so very, very much better than they know some of the fairytales. Alice in Wonderland, as I say, is like Guernica: Every brush stroke is indelibly impressed upon the mindset of somebody who cares about it at all. It was daunting to walk up, stand in the bright glare of achievement, and say, "Well, I'm just gonna prop my little ladder up here, and take a [piece[ (? 3:10), knock the foot off the Pieta and see what it looks like there."
Was Wicked also challenging considering the significance of The Wizard of Oz?
No, and here's why. L. Frank Baum had a good idea, but he is not a genius writer. Alice in Wonderland, however, was written by a true literary genius. So I felt that The Wizard of Oz is good and is significant—and is even fundamental to the American psyche—but it's not a work of absolute brilliance, like Alice.
Do you think Alice is as much a part of the American psyche, although it's British?
Twenty-five years ago I would have said, "Yes, it is," partly because of Disney. And then, maybe 15 years ago, I would've said no. But then, along comes Tim Burton and makes his new Alice in Wonderland, and I understand there's a sequel to that in the works. So, I have to keep going back to that and say, yes there is something universal about that story of a child brought to birth into an insane universe, which is basically all of our narrative histories from day one. There is something universal about that story—of finding one's self stranded on the shores of an absurd and totalitarian world where we can have almost no impact in it.
Were you trying to make people consider something specific about Wonderland?
Yes. When n I was a kid Alice in Wonderland was a very frightening story for me to read because I was used to reading stories that were puzzles and mysteries, and if you collected enough clues you could begin to predict what was going to happen, and you could maybe even work out the solution to the mystery of the plot before you got there. Alice in Wonderland, as a novel, has a different objective. Basically what it says is, "You can collect all the clues you like, Alice, but you're basically fucked." That is to say, Wonderland frightened me. It was like something as painted by Salvador Dali. It was all absurd. There is nothing more frightening to a child than thinking, "None of this makes any sense."
And the people who claim to know what the world is about are just fooling themselves. It is about nothing. And as the Cheshire Cat says, "I'm mad, You're mad. We're all mad here." That's what kid eventually learn when they come to realize how grown-ups are, but when they're young they trust grown ups to say, "Oh yes, God's in his heaven, all's right with the world." And they say, "Okay that's the plan. That's the scheme. I don't need to be scared." In fact, we do need to be scared.
I wanted to trace and unleash that sense of fear that Wonderland suggested to me as a little kid who was beginning to perceive that maybe adults weren't quite as confident about what they knew as they pretended to be.
Is this part of the reason you decided to focus on how Lewis Carroll thought that men were dumb and children were smarter?
Yes, it really is. Lewis Carroll did something extraordinary in 1865 One of his main ambitions was to write what the world might seem like to a child who didn't have all the information. In a way, Lewis Carroll uncorked childhood for us, the true, wild nature of childhood.
Were you trying to touch on social themes with Wonderland's underground setting like you did with your previous adult books?
As a Catholic and a person raised in Catholic schools, the notion of Dante is purgatory and hell are very deeply imbedded in my first notions you know: the Devil is down in hell, Hades is underground, Persephone goes underground. Underground as being the repository of the dead, the sea of the dead, is almost universal because that's where we put our dead bodies. The second thing I thought of was in 1860s England, several things were happening. For one thing, they were laying sewers for the first time in London. Second thing is, they were also laying the very first underground railroad. Third thing, what else was happening in the 1860s but the underground railroad. So thinking about all those things I thought, I want each of those aspects to come up and suggest themselves in this story. Thatmade me think I am probably gonna be pilloried by the British critics. Even though I've lived in London, I am deeply American, as you can hear by my voice. And then I thought, I am going to put into this story a kid who has been escaping disaster through the underground railroad. So, there is a black child in my story. There are three children in Wonderland. There's not just Alice, and there's not just Ada. There's also a black boy who has escaped from great hardship in the American South during the civil war and yet his pains and his griefs are really too much for him. Unlike Alice, he has a different experience of Wonderland.
How did you end up writing children's books in the 1970s?
Well, the answer to this one comes a little bit from my own biography. When I was born-- like I said, 61 years ago--- my mother died in childbirth leaving my father as a widower and four children. I was the infant; I was seven days old when she hemorrhaged and died. And that is how every fairytale begins. The child is thrown into the perilous world—to use a phrase of Blake's—a child is thrown into a perilous world by the death of a parent. In some ways, when I was a kid, and I came upon fairytales, and started to read them myself, they all felt like veiled biographies of me.
In a way, I too I suppose, have been slightly arrested in this way: I've never gotten over being fascinated by the plight of children who have to make their way in a hostile, and unwelcoming, and ungenerous world, and yet do it anyway and survive. The stories that are told to children about what faces them ahead in life are some of the most honest stories that are told in the history of the human species. I am 61 years old, and I have never stopped being delighted and astounded at the strength and power of fairytales and children's novels too.
When you first wrote Wicked, did you ever expect you'd be more famous for writing adult fairy tales than children fairy tales?
No, but here's one thing I did think when I wrote Wicked. I was living in England with my then boyfriend and the laws of my visa did not allow me to go out and work at a bookstore or a hamburger shop or anything. So I didn't have much money, and I didn't like being supported like a call boy or something. I really needed to work for my own sense of dignity, and I needed to pay my own bills, etc. I had had the idea for Wicked a couple of years earlier, but I hadn't really thought I was old enough to write it. Then I turned 39. The day I turned 39 I was one day older than my mother had ever been [when she died young]. I thought, If I'm now older than my mother who died at 38, then I must be a grown up, I must be able to do grown up work. I'm gonna put aside writing stories for children and write a story for adults, even if it looks on the outside like a children's story.
I knew right away that it was kind of a good idea, but I thought it might be the only idea I ever had that may be any money. I knew it was gonna make some money: I had no idea it was going to become part of popular culture. I knew it would interest geeky kind of kids like I had met in college. I knew there were always gonna be readers like that, and that Wicked might have a little following on college campuses and that would be enough to pay my bills and afford me a little personal dignity. I did not know that it was going to make me famous, and I certainly did not know that it was going to give me a platform on which to continue for another 20 years writing for adults. I still do write for children, even though I don't need to—and I don't earn anywhere near as much money writing for children than I do for adults—but I'm not doing it for money. I'm doing it to tell the story that needs to be told, and sometimes children are the most deserving audience.