Gregory Maguire returns to children’s literature with Egg & Spoon, which borrows a premise from Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, takes inspiration from Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, and folklore, and stars two girls who team up with the witch Baba Yaga to save (Tsarist) Russia from global warming. Bookshelf spoke with him from his summer home in Vermont.
Do you remember where the idea for this story started?
I do remember. The germ was planted between the time I was 6 and 10, by everything I read in those years leading up to the end of fifth or maybe sixth grade. All those books that were so instructive and so illuminating. I had a relatively cloistered childhood. Books were the only liberty. My parents were very old-fashioned Irish immigrants. People tell me their parents were strict. Not really, compared to my parents, who would not let us ride a bicycle until we were old enough to take and pass the New York state driver’s license test. If it had wheels, you needed a license. But they loved language and literature. My father was a writer and my mother a poet. They encouraged reading and everything I read seemed to reveal yet another secret of the universe. It was during that period I encountered my first Russian fairy tales.
You must have gotten a great education. I don’t remember anybody reading us Russian fairy tales in elementary school.
I did get a great education from the nuns, who I think probably favored the reading kids over the sporty ones, but I got my books and fairy tales at the public library. I had made a pledge to myself that I would read every book in the children’s library, although I remember getting to the Bs and finding five copies of Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, all illustrated by different artists. I checked them all out, took them home, read the first one, closed it with a smack, and started on the second. I was horrified to learn it was the exact same story as the first one. I thought they would all be different stories about Peter Pan. I have recounted my Peter Pan mistake for laughs many times but it’s just dawning on me that this might be the beginning of my fascination with ersatz sequels, wanting to supply another story, or two or three – the extra stories about Peter Pan I wished had been on the library shelf of my childhood.
This feels like a really big moment but I better get you back to Egg & Spoon.
Yes. Okay, so 30 years ago I set a story in the same town [as Egg & Spoon’s setting], Miersk, Russia, titled The Dream Stealer, which was my first attempt to create this fairy tale world. It was maybe 120 pages long but it had an ice dragon as one of the subjects, and a dragon tooth boy, and Baba Yaga. I had about three sequels worth of material which, eventually, I abandoned. But my steel-trap mind has a faulty trash system and things that don’t want to be thrown away are not thrown away.
Then maybe five or six years ago, one of the big Hollywood animation companies asked for a story line and Miersk popped up, as did Elena and Kat (the main characters of Egg & Spoon). But when I turned it in to DreamWorks or Paramount or whichever one it was, they said, ‘We’ll pass it on now but we’ll look at it again when it’s a book.’ Huh, I thought. I guess they’re telling me it has to be a book. But of course the book I wound up writing is much more complicated than whatever DreamWorks or Paramount wanted, but I do have to thank them for getting me to root around in my trash bucket.
Presumably there was no thread about global warming in the story line you created for the animation studio though, right?
No, but if I’m going to spend a year or several years on something, it had to be about more than a just a girl and a boy or two girls and Baba Yaga. It would need to be about something vaster, something about which I’m passionately or monomaniacally obsessed, and I am completely gripped by the plight of global warming and what it’s doing to the world’s food production system and what will happen to us when populations get desperately hungry. And while I never like to distract readers from what a book is actually about, I decided to set the story in 1907 in Russia to take the pressure off them. I didn’t want them to feel like they are being hectored or lectured to, and I decided that all stories are set within the huge grip of history anyway. Other people’s stories are just as valid as ours. This one has Baba Yaga so maybe they won’t even consciously remember the part about global warming.
Well, a witch who lives in a house that moves on chicken legs is a bit of a scene-stealer.
Baba Yaga is also from my childhood reading. I think I actually first encountered Baba Yaga in Jack and Jill magazine. I remember the illustration, how angular and anarchic she looked, in the same way as The Cat in the Hat – not malicious or misguided, just perhaps a witch whose motivation was misunderstood.
I promised myself I would not bring up Wicked until later in this conversation, but I think we have stumbled into it with “misunderstood witches.”
Well, Baba Yaga and Elphaba definitely have a cousinly relationship. Both of them have issues, part of which have to do with power, and part of which have to do with timidity.
This is being billed as your first book for young readers since What the Dickens (Candlewick, 2007), but in the intervening time you concluded your series about Glinda and Elphaba with Out of Oz (HarperCollins, 2011).
Yes, I did, and that one is considered to be for adults. Can you tell the difference? I’m not sure I can. I told my editor at Candlewick there’s no sex and the main characters are on the edge of pubescence but if you don’t think this is for children I can take it to Harper and I won’t have to change a word but she said, no, this is definitely for children. I think they bought into the same set of strategies that I do: give children a moral puzzle that is also entertaining. And of course, Wicked was not published for teenagers at all, but they found it anyway. I deliberately included a ribald, unappealing sex scene in the first 10 pages so people would know it was not for children. My nephew read it when he was about 17 and I was surprised his parents let him. But now I run into 11- and 12-year-olds who admit they have read it although they also say they didn’t understand some of it.
Do you get tired of always hearing that clause after your name, “the author of Wicked?”
Well, it reminds me of something Maurice Sendak once said to me: that the headline on his obituary would read, ‘Wild Things Writer Dies,’ even though he’s written 100 other books. He then shrugged in that menschy way of his and said, ‘On the other hand, at least they’re going to say something.’ You take the good with the bad. I feel very lucky that Wicked arrived in my life when it did. It sold three-quarter of a million copies before it was on Broadway and it did so quietly. It was never on the bestseller list. And then it was on Broadway, with a $15 million advertising budget, and it sold a lot more. At that time, my husband and I were adopting our children from Cambodia and Guatemala and having kids is an incredibly effective prophylactic against letting success go to your head. They were a lot more interested in whether there were Cheerios in the house than when I was going to be on Oprah.
Any touring for the new book?
A little but, again, I’ll be sticking closer to home because of the kids [his three children are now high school age]. Once the youngest heads off to college there will be time again for book tours, but right now their needs are central.
Egg & Spoon. Gregory Maguire. Candlewick, $17.99 Sept. 978-0-7636-7220-1