An afternoon with Gregory Maguire and the Owls

Filed in Gather Books Essential by on February 3, 2008 0 Comments

My husband and I attended a reading by Gregory Maguire at the Fitzgerald Theater this afternoon. We arrived about 1:40 to pick up our tickets at the Will Call window and discovered it was general seating and main floor only. Since I knew that Greg had written books for children, I wondered if there would be many children in the audience. I knew this newest book concerned a tooth fairy, which also made me think there might be lots of kids.

When we entered, the main floor of the theater was already about two-thirds full. On the left side of the stage, the band, the Owls, was set up to start playing. On the right side of the stage were two chairs so that Marianne Combs, the arts reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, could interview Greg. I hadn't been the Fitzgerald theater for several years and I was once again impressed by its beauty, intimacy, and good acoustics. Plus, the seats are comfortable and have enought leg room. (Last Sunday, my husband and I attended Peer Gynt at the Guthrie, and I again winced at their small uncomfortable seats. I so hoped that seating would fixed with the new building … but that's another story.)

I had just a couple minutes to survey the crowd. Yes, there were children in the audience, but not an overwhelming number. I'd say that adults outnumbered kids about 3 to 1 and the adults were all ages.

The Owls performed about a 15-minute set leading up to the start of taping at 2. I had not heard of the Owls before, but they have a very pleasant sound. The program informed me that "the group's sound draws strongly from the Velvet Underground and latter period Beatles, with lovely boy-girl harmonies and witty, literate lyrics." There are two men and two women in the group and they shift instruments and singing duties on practically every song. The Owls also played interludes between some the reading and interview segments.

At the end of the introductory set, Marianne came out and explained how things would work for the taping. Then she sat down and Greg came out and did his first reading.  He drew me right in with his description of children stuck in a house without power after a big storm. The oldest tries to keep the younger ones calm by starting to tell the tale of What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy. It seemed as the story within a story format might work well, but we learned more about What-the-Dickens (that's the tooth fairy's accidental name), than we did about the other story at this reading.

Marianne asked him how this story came about and he explained that he had been a English teacher for many years. One exercise he used with his classes for reluctant writers (seventh and eighth graders) was to have them pull one image from each of two folders. One folder held current events images and the other illustrations from fantasy stories. The writing assignment was to write a story that explained how the fantasy character and the real person met and interacted. He would work along with the class. One day he pulled out an image of an old woman from the current events file and a sappy sweet image of a tooth fairy from the fantasy file. He started the germ of his new book that day. He had the idea of a young, inexperienced tooth fairy that sees the old lady's dentures in a glass on a bedside table and thinks he has hit the jackpot — a whole mouthful of teeth at once! He then read us the section of the book that grew out of that.

In conversation with Marianne, he also explained that he keeps a folder of story ideas in his desk and he likes to try to add one idea each day. His idea about the tooth fairy and the old lady sat in that file for 10 years, then it became a short story. Later, he reworked it, and it became a 36-page story. Then, it turned into a complete novel.

With the success of Wicked, he has achieved a level of financial stability that allowed him to quit teaching and concentrate on writing full time. He and his partner, a painter, have 3 adopted children — ages 6, 7, and 9. The downside of his success is that readers want him to keep writing fairy-tale based work. But frankly, he didn't sound that unhappy about it.

Greg was a very entertaining presenter and I would go to hear him read again.

So, what's next? He is currently writing an as-yet-untitled book that will be a sequel to Son of a Witch (which was the sequel to Wicked). This one will tell us a lot more about the Cowardly Lion and will be in bookstores in fall 2008!

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