'Wicked' fun in Oz

Author Gregory Maguire saw the first of his popular Oz books become a hit musical. Author Gregory Maguire saw the first of his popular Oz books become a hit musical. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / November 15, 2008
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Gregory Maguire of Concord returns to the world of L. Frank Baum's Oz in his new novel, "A Lion Among Men," the third in a projected four-book cycle called "The Wicked Years." It began with 1995's "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," a monster seller that became a smash musical, and continued with 2005's "Son of a Witch." In "A Lion Among Men," the Cowardly Lion finds himself in the middle of a civil war in Oz and must find out the truth about Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, who is a heroic figure in Maguire's version. Indirectly, the Oz cycle explores contemporary politics and morality. Maguire is not tired of Oz, nor is his audience: "A Lion Among Men" is No. 10 on The New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list.

Q. Why do you keep returning to Oz?

A. My books are an attempt to avoid expensive therapy. By design, my writing about Oz is a useful way to sublimate my own discomfort, fecklessness, and rage. Oz seems a suitable screen upon which to project aspects of American life and problems.

Q. The stories are not overt allegories, but you do intend parallels with current affairs?

A. We are all aware of the danger of terrorism, but there's a danger in reacting to terrorism and fear in such a way as to belittle ourselves and diminish our stature in the world. I believe in good and evil, the devil and the saints, and that we make choices. It is unintellectual to talk about it as baldly as that, which is why I write fiction.

Q. Why is your take on Oz so much darker than Baum's?

A. Baum wrote in 1900 about a kind of nursery school land, but by the time the movie came out in 1939 the danger had been stepped up, the flying monkeys are scarier, the witch shows up earlier, and her effects last longer. It made real in Oz what was beginning in 1939. By 1995 my story seemed a natural next step.

Q. What would Baum have thought of your books?

A. He would love to know that his world has become the American ur-mythology, up there with George Washington and the cherry tree. Margaret Hamilton [who played the wicked witch in the film] would have loved it. She was anxious that she would be remembered for scaring children. She would have loved to find out that her character would someday be regarded as a heroine. DAVID MEHEGAN


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