Editor’s note: “Talisman” is a new VQR column that you’ll be seeing in print and online. Our Fall 2013 issue features our very first installment, by Francine Prose, on her image of Ganesh. For online-only installments, Sebastian Stockman will interview writers about their talismans.
Four years ago, at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Convention (AWP) in Chicago, Gregory Maguire lost his witch.
Maguire, best known as the author of Wicked, appeared on a panel called “From Page to Stage.” The witch—a puppet that, with its green face and long black hair, at least suggested the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz—had been a gift from the novelist Alice Hoffman upon Wicked’s publication. Over the next decade, Maguire used it as a prop when discussing his book and its radical retelling of the Oz story.
“I would answer intellectual-philosophical questions about the nature of evil, and how cultures have considered it, from the ancient Hittites on,” Maguire told me. “But then at the end I would always talk about the famous 1939 film starring Margaret Hamilton and a child star-wannabe, whatever her name was.”
As a closing gambit to his appearances, Maguire would sing a second verse of “Over the Rainbow,” to emphasize how dangerous—almost fatal—the trip was for Dorothy. Maguire demonstrated to me: He held up his right hand, folded his ring finger down, and spread the others out, as though he had the puppet. “Somewheeeeere over the raaiiiinbow,” Maguire sang, “sheeee’s there, too.”
Maguire wiggled his pinky finger, in order to wave the phantom puppet’s right arm, and finished his verse: “And the dreams that you’re scared to dream really might come true.”
Maguire accepted the applause from his audience of one. He brought his thumb and forefinger—the witch’s left and right arms—together in front of the witch’s mouth and thrust them out, blowing kisses.
After losing his puppet at AWP, Maguire purchased a full-page ad on the back cover of the following year’s AWP convention book:
DEAD OR ALIVE:
THE WICKED WITCH
OF THE WEST
Maguire spent just under $4,000 on the ad, which also offered a “$$$ CASH REWARD $$$” that he says could have run to four or five hundred dollars, but he never heard from anyone. Instead, a reporter found an identical puppet on eBay and sent the link to Maguire, who snatched it up for four bucks or so.
“So, even though … it wasn’t the one given to me by Alice Hoffman,” Maguire said, “it’s her identical twin sister. And, because it was such a good story, in a way, I sort of don’t mind. It’s part of the story.”
When I contacted Maguire to ask about the puppet, he was unable to locate his replacement, mainly because he doesn’t need it anymore. “I’m done with Oz,” he said.
But he’s not done with the use of physical objects to help tell his stories. Maguire’s office in Concord, Massachusetts, is a treasure house of talismans. The walls are crammed with original drawings, paintings, and cutouts, while the flat surfaces are piled with books and figurines. Maguire calls it his “creative nest.” It’s where he gathers the string and twigs and stray ideas out of which he builds his next creative work. It’s not where he writes, though.
“A great deal of my time is spent working downstairs in the dining room,” Maguire said. “Or going to a coffee shop…. This room is like the sex act, and the gestation takes place someplace…outside the boudoir. At the Stop and Shop, that’s where the gestation takes place. But the inception…”
In this fecund room, you can leaf through an early edition of The Prince and The Pauper and read the inscription—not by Mark Twain, but Oscar Wilde. Or you can examine a delicate, intricate, framed paper snowflake. This is not an artifact of a preschool project, but a storytelling prop employed by Hans Christian Andersen.
“What he used to do is snip paper with embroidery scissors while he was telling a story to children,” Maguire said. “And when he was done with a story, he would finish the last snip, and he would open up and it would be images of some creature about whom he’d been telling the story.
“And sometimes they’d be architectural, or just snowflake patterns, but just as often they were actual elements of the story interwoven into paper design.”
Right next to the Andersen cutout was a large drawing by Maurice Sendak, who culled characters from every corner of his imagination and brought them together in an exuberant jumble. “It has everything in it,” Maguire said. “It has animals and wildlife and music and clouds and balloons and sailing and children and Santa Claus. It has everything you could possibly want for a sense of magic.”
Across the room I found an example of that other great quality in Sendak: his morbid humor. Recognizable as Max from Where the Wild Things Are—that wolf costume is unmistakable—there’s something off about the picture, something…old. He seems to have wrinkles, and crow’s feet, and is that a cane he’s carrying?
“This is Max at seventy-six,” Maguire said. “I was interviewing [Sendak] at a conference, and I said, ‘So what’s Max doing these days?’ And he said, ‘Oh, Max, he’s got gout, he lives with his mother, he doesn’t go out much except to his therapist.’”
Maguire was prepared for this answer.
“I pulled out a piece of paper from under the table and said, ‘Draw him for us,’” Maguire said. “And he drew him.”
“We were friends for thirty-five years,” Maguire said. “And I was at his deathbed…the night before he died.”
And so the treasure house is also a sort of shrine. In the same corner as the drawing of Max in his dotage is a photograph of a young Lewis Carroll: a dour, even surly-looking young man, braced against a window with, as Maguire said, “Alice all ahead of him.”
“I took this to [Sendak’s] deathbed,” Maguire said of the photograph. “He was in a coma, and I put it by his bed for a couple of hours, as like to say, ‘He’s over there, you can go, too.’”
About the author: Sebastian Stockman has written for The Wall Street Journal, TheAtlantic.com, The Kansas City Star, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and other outlets. His essay, “The Problem with Sportswriting,” was a notable selection in this year’s Best American Essays and Best American Sportswriting volumes. He is a lecturer in English at Northeastern University.