During a recent Saturday filled with the excitement of alumni panels, English honor society inductions and student readings, attendees at Lesley’s Literary Arts Festival enjoyed a riveting and humor-filled hour with “Wicked” author Gregory Maguire, the event’s keynote speaker.
From Lesley’s Washburn Hall, Maguire transported the students, alumni and faculty in the audience to his dusty childhood backyard where he first found himself in the land of Oz – a land he would later capture on the pages of his best-selling novels. Maguire began his life in an orphanage after his mother died. Upon reuniting with his journalist father and poet stepmother, he was safe yet still burdened by loss, which is reflected in his work to this day.
But with writers at the helm of his upbringing, storytelling was bound to be the filter through which he viewed life. He has been an artist in residence numerous times, written countless essays, and taught – including at Lesley University. Amid all this work he was still able to find Oz, penning the popular “Wicked Years” series, including the book “Wicked,” which inspired the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical by the same name.
During his speech at Lesley, Maguire recalled a nursery rhyme for the audience:
“How many miles to Babylon?
Three score and ten.
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again.
If your heels are nimble and light,
You may get there by candlelight.”
“Who remembers that nursery rhyme?” he asked. A few hands wavered and he laughed before explaining how, as a boy, he found so-called Babylon in his grandmother’s voice before finding it again in every story he wrote out of his life. He recalled adopting his sons, his life abroad, and various jobs: all detours on his way to Babylon, or so he thought. What’s important, he noted, is where one goes en route to the destination.
“What a magic spell it is, a metaphor,” he said. “It connects the dots, shaping the overwhelming confusion of details to make meaning easier to tell, even if you don’t know what the meaning is.”
Maguire’s talk was followed by a question-and-answer session during which he was asked about his favorite writers. He mentioned Penelope Fitzgerald and T.H. White, although he emphasized that children’s books are his favorite, which was no surprise coming from the founder of Children’s Literature New England.
As close to his inner child as he is, the “Wicked Years” author also draws from darker events to shape his novels. His life in London during the first Gulf War prompted him to write “Wicked.” He had no job, and plenty of time to write. There was also the tragic 1993 murder of a 2-year-old English boy named James Bulger at the hands of other children. The event kicked up dust in the backyard of Maguire’s memories, where he and his siblings never did finish playing the story of the Wicked Witch of The West. Again, the writer turned to stories to process what was happening around him.
Maguire claims to speak two languages: English and Story. He uses both to emphasize the importance of something that aligns with Lesley’s mission, too: the power of healing and therapy through expression.
Maguire’s full life and the way his stories fell all over the spectrum of experience left the audience trusting him for guidance. One aspiring writer in the audience asked him for advice on writing, to which Maguire replied:
“Write every day, and by hand. It will force you to choose better words, and then it will make your wrist hurt. When your wrist hurts, you have to stop for a little while. That gives you more time to think of better words,” he said to a rapt audience, whose members laughed but quickly quieted in anticipation. He continued, “It’s most important for writers to live outside their comfort zone. Know why you feel the way you do. Pay attention. Live the life you choose, not the one chosen for you.”
Taking the room back to the nursery rhyme he started out with, Maguire told the audience that “books are the Babylon of the soul,” and if one believes in metaphor and poetry, why can’t they get there by candlelight?
The event began with a welcome address from Lesley Professor of English Dr. Mary Dockray-Miller, who inducted new members into the Sigma Tau Delta English honors society and gave out awards to senior members. Maguire was then introduced by Lesley senior Maria Bonfiglio, president of Lesley’s chapter of the Sigma Tau Delta, which co-sponsored the Literary Arts Festival with the Provost and Alumni offices.