wBack in 2018, Playbill estimated that more than 30 million people had seen the Broadway production of Wicked. The Stephen Schwartz/Winnie Holzman musical takes a sympathetic behind-the-scenes look at The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West, and it’s become an enduring stage sensation, with a John M. Chu movie adaptation on the way, and a long, long cultural tail, inspiring endless copycat works. Among other things, you can draw a straight line between Wicked’s billion-dollar-plus earnings and Disney’s recent mania for villains-reimagined stories like Maleficent, Cruella, and the Villains book series.
Broadway’s version of Wicked ends with the supposed death of the Wicked Witch, whose actual name is Elphaba, and whose real motives have little to do with wickedness. Author Gregory Maguire, who wrote the bestselling 1995 novel that the Broadway show adapted, continued the story in the Wicked Years series, with 2005’s Son of a Witch following Elphaba’s child Liir, 2008’s A Lion Among Men going deeper into the Cowardly Lion’s life, and 2011’s Out of Oz bringing in Elphaba’s granddaughter, Rain. Out of Oz ends on a cliffhanger, with Rain flying out over the ocean, intending to destroy Elphaba’s most magical artifact. The book’s closing line mirrors the opening line of Wicked, bringing the series to a clearly bookended halt. But it still left Rain’s fate and future unclear.
Maguire has written many fairy-tale-derived books outside of the Wicked Years series, including the Hans Christian Andersen-inspired novel A Wild Winter Swan and the Alice In Wonderland-inspired After Alice. But he finally returns to his most famous series with 2021’s The Brides of Maracoor, a novel that opens in a new country and a new setting. On the island of Maracoor Spot, seven women known as the Brides of Maracoor enact a timeless ritual. All seven are all orphans or foundlings, each one brought to the island in infancy to replace a previous Bride who died. When Rain washes ashore on the island, her presence disrupts their rites and upends the fragile balance of power, particularly between the oldest Bride, Helia; her waspish would-be successor, Mirka; and the youngest Bride, 10-year-old Cossy. The story opens up considerably from there, taking in new characters and new nations with an interest in Rain.
Below, read an excerpt from The Brides of Maracoor, and a Q&A with Maguire about how Wicked’s success affected his writing, where he sees his own children in Rain, and what’s next for his re-imagining of Oz.
Why are you returning to Rain’s story after 10 years? Did you always plan to continue that story?
Gregory Maguire: No, I did not plan to continue it. In fact, by the title of the last book of The Wicked Years, Out of Oz, I was trying to signal both to my subconscious and to my reading public that just as one can be out of Cheerios and out of Scotch, I was out of ideas. I’d finished everything I could find out about this story, and I wanted to leave my central character at that point young, full of doubt, and full of liberty, which is where we feel most alive, I think.
So why go back after 10 years, when that was what my subconscious and my conscious mind had determined? It had partly to do with the pandemic. Once I realized we were all going to be in sequestration for an unidentified amount of time, I realized that for my own mental health, I needed to see a landscape wider than the one I could see outside my window. Furthermore, because my own children had had grown up in those 10 years, and are now about the age of Rain, I found I have a newfound concern for people of that age. Sure, it’s great if they’re free and full of doubt, but they’re still endangered. They’re still people. So my fatherly instincts took over, and I began to worry about it.
This book ends in a pregnant place, just as Out of Oz did. Are you planning to continue this story from here?
It’s definitely the first of three. The other two, I’ve already written. I gave myself about 10 days off, then went straight from the last chapter of The Brides of Maracoor to the sequel, which will be called The Oracle of Maracoor. It will take Rain from the coast of Maracoor deeper inland, in a search to try to find somebody wise enough to tell her what to do with her personal troubles, but also tell the nation of Maracoor what to do with the dangerous material it has been saddled with.
You’ve talked in the past about how you wrote Wicked to make people think about the causes behind bullying, and how they judge other people. Does Rain’s story have similarly specific intentions?
I would say I’m less full of hubris than I was when I was 38 and wrote Wicked. I didn’t really believe I knew the answer to anything back then, but at least I felt I knew some interesting questions. And those are what I wanted to pose to myself, and to readers. Now, I’m not even sure my questions are that interesting. But I am sure that each individual soul — if you want to call it that, and often I do — each individual soul is worthy of attention, and is fascinating if you look hard enough. Rain is never going to be Elphaba. She comes from Elphaba’s stock, but she has a different trajectory in life. And how she discovers what her powers are and what her limitations are to me just as vital, in the same way.
As a parent, you look at your children and say, “Each one of them has a different set of hurdles to overcome.” And most of them are invisible to you, but that makes them fascinating. Sure, Rain is interesting because she’s green, and because she has some nascent power, the way most 17-year-olds do. She just doesn’t know what it is yet, or how to use it.
It feels like one of the big questions in this book is about morality. There’s an ongoing question about the nature and use of power, and who’s to blame when things happen, especially if some one person has the power and one person doesn’t. Are those among the questions you’re asking?
That certainly is true. I can’t deny that I think as we as we stare, astonished, at the manifestations of political power in our own nation, for harm and also for good, it really behooves us as citizens not to lose focus on how power is used, and how it is abused. I am not making a particular political stand here. I am simply saying that to bury one’s head in the sand and say, “Oh, well, I don’t really pay attention to that” is, I think, no longer an ethical choice.
The central power struggle in this book is very important to everybody who’s participating, but you repeatedly zoom out to show how petty and ridiculous it is from a distance. Is the pettiness of power also part of the story here?
I wouldn’t have chosen that lovely word, but I’m glad you did. [Laughs] It’s the pettiness of power, but also the lure. Its sexiness, its addictive quality, must be grappled with. Many say it’s impossible to go into positions of power, without having an oversized ego. You have to be slightly ill-made for normal human congress in order to take the reins of power and to use them, either wisely or poorly, beneficently or maleficently. I don’t know that I believe that, but I think it’s an interesting question. But those who are in charge very often seem really petty, as if they’ve lost connection with the roots of what it means to be a common citizen, caring about common things.
Speaking of not caring about common things, in the opening chapters, Cossy sees a mouse drowning in a bucket of rainwater, and doesn’t help it, because she wants to see what it looks like when it’s dead. It’s such a striking failure of empathy.
Absolutely. You caught exactly what I wanted. It’s also, I hope, an image of exactly how impoverished she is, not just by the ways in which she’s being raised, but by the fact that being imprisoned into this island life, without her consent, she’s really bereft of common experiences that might help her think outside herself. That’s part of the crime perpetrated against all of those women, that the full panoply of life has been stolen from them against their will.
And we really see the outcome of that. What else went into drawing her? She’s such a complicated, conflicted character.
I don’t want to say she’s a picture of anybody I know. But I have three adopted children. The youngest is now 20. The oldest was no older than 15 months at the time of adoption, and the youngest was eight months. And I brought them into our family home and looked at them, and thought, “Now, you have to do a lot of the work of unpacking yourself.” All children do, but people who come from family stock about which nothing can be known, there’s deep, deep mystery there. My job as a parent is to help them grow safe, well, strong, and beloved, but also to stand aside and let each one discover who they are. I didn’t know, I just knew that I loved them.
And in a way, I take that same attitude toward my characters, but especially toward a person like Cossy, who comes into her life with exactly the same deficits that my own children did. She has to experience, and make mistakes, and draw conclusions, and learn from her mistakes, if she is to grow up at all functional.
Given the success of Wicked as an adaptation, when you’re writing a book now, do you ever consider how it might look onscreen, or onstage?
Not precisely. But I will say, I’ve always had a histrionic bent. For a quiet, mealy-mouthed, balding man of a certain age, I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic in my own mind. A Walter Mitty, I suppose you might say. So when I write anything, part of my instruction to myself is to say, “All right, if Steven Spielberg had this chapter, what would he need to see and know, in order to make this work?” That involves pacing and a lot of visual, especially when you’re writing about a land nobody else can imagine. It’s one thing if you’re writing about midtown Manhattan. We all know what that looks like. It doesn’t need page after page of description. But when I’m writing about a land nobody else, including myself, has ever been to, I really do need to be precise. You need to give the set designer the cues to make it precise, particular, independent, and memorable.
The same goes for characters, how they look, how they sound. And the same goes with movements through the pages. There are very few chapters or pages where someone is just standing, thinking, because the camera doesn’t like to just stand and look. It wants to be moving, it wants to be panning. It wants to be going back and forth between characters. It wants to be seeing details that are going to be important later on, and storing them away in the reader’s subconscious mind.
Speaking of which, are you at all in the loop on the Wicked movie? Do you hear anything about it?
I just heard from one of my Hollywood agents that they finally have determined when they are going to film, and where. I haven’t been told this a secret, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t tell you. I think they’re going to begin shooting next summer in London, of all places. Universal Studios, I think, is building a whole new film lot for itself over there, and I believe it’ll be one of the first things shot on that lot.
How much emotional investment do you feel in these adaptations of your work?
More than I let on, but not a whole lot! I have the virtue of being easily distracted. To go back one more time to my children — when Wicked was published in 1995, I did not have any children. And by 2003, when the Broadway musical opened, I had my three children, and they were all under the age of 6. So as exciting as Broadway was, and remains, my obligation is with my family. It’s all very well and good to have CBS or NPR or The New York Times or Oprah swarming around with a camera, which they all did.
But in the end, grilled cheese is grilled cheese, and lunch is lunch, and children need to be fed. I didn’t arrange the timing like this, but having taken on the obligation to raise motherless children, I accidentally preserved myself from getting too wrapped up in the green glory that was draping from heaven upon me. I think that’s been my salvation. Others may say, “Are you kidding? He’s nuts. He’s deranged.” But I think I’ve managed pretty well, precisely because I kept my priorities front and center.
And now, here’s an exclusive excerpt from The Brides of Maracoor, as Rain and her goose ally Iskinaary wash ashore on Maracoor Spot and the brides discover them. The book is out now in hardcover and ebook editions.
The intruder’s eyes were closed. The brides didn’t want to hurt her. They didn’t want to touch her.
But when Mirka gave the word, she and Bray, who was stout and strong, took the foreign girl by the shoulders and sat her up. Water drained out of her nostrils. Bray cradled the crown of her skull as one would an infant’s, to protect the neck from snapping. The others removed their veils and lifted the person upon them. They hauled her up the slope to the temple. Cossy carried the waterlogged broom that had been dislodged, with some effort, from the castaway’s clenched armpit.
The goose followed at a distance, settling on the portico. With that capacity for skewing that birds’ eyes have, it trained its gaze at several points of the horizon at once. Before long, however, it tucked its head under the wing that had done all the work hauling the traveler to shore. It became a statue: Sleeping Goose.
Though Mirka had made a sign that they were to be quiet, Helia must have heard them. From her corner of the dormitory the senior bride banged her oakthorn staff against the wall.
“You go quiet the old maenad,” said Mirka to Cossy. “She is soft on you.”
“What’ll I say?”
That was little help.
Cossy didn’t want to leave. What if the visitor died while Cossy was gone? What a thrilling moment to have to miss. But with Helia bedridden and mute, Mirka was thumping around as senior bride, even if she wasn’t yet sporting the white veil. So Cossy had little choice but to obey.
Helia rolled her fist forward in the air, a gesture that meant Haul me up to a sitting position. Cossy didn’t think she was strong enough to do it by herself, but Helia leaned on her staff and pushed, too.
Then the old sack of bones was sitting up, sniffing the air like a cave dog. She grunted in the form of a question. Cossy replied as nonchalantly as she could manage: “Everyone’s come in early today.”
Helia wiggled one hand forward laterally, clearly meaning Coracle spotted on its approach?
Cossy raised her eyebrows. She didn’t want to lie to Helia or disobey Mirka. “Do you want some water?”
Helia bit her lip, thinking. Then she nodded.
Cossy hurried to the water basin and dipped a clay cup. When she got back to the side of Helia’s bed, she said, “Here.”
Helia took it, smiled at Cossy a little, and dashed the water to the floor. Then she placed the cup upside down on the end of the staff and hurled the clay item over the screen. It shattered against the wall above the other brides.
At once, Mirka was at the screen-fold, a scold. Fists furled, old Helia pumped both her arms up and down. The message was clear. Wordy or wordless, Helia was still in charge. Tirr and Bray were called to her side. They hoisted the senior bride from the bed, and helped her get to the common room.
There the old woman put her hand on her breast, suddenly a delicate gesture. Behind her, Bray snorted. Helia gave her a backhand slap without even looking. Nothing wrong with the old bride’s hearing.
She moved forward. Peering, peering, like a newborn chick at the very new world.
The floor was wet around the table, where seawater was still sluicing. The brides had been drying the visitor with towels of raw linen. Her breastbone rose and dropped, proving stubborn life; otherwise she was as much like a laid-out corpse as Cossy could imagine. How did the dead hold so still? How did they use the privy? It was such a mystery.
Under Mirka’s instructions, the brides of Maracoor surrendered to the guest a small portion of their precious pale cordial, made from upslope flowers that bloomed only two weeks a year. Not all the brides were happy about this largesse. Each drop of liqueur was reward hard to come by.
But the medicine seemed to work. The damp thing began to shiver. Old Helia made an upturned wave. Strip her wet clothes off.
No one could argue with Helia because she couldn’t argue back. So Mirka knelt to work at a metal clasp that fixed to a strap around the woman’s waist. A second strap slanted across a shoulder. The straps attached to a sort of saddlebag. With some effort, Mirka removed the bag and handed it to Cossy to put aside. There was nothing within — Cossy peeked — but a sodden onion with a bite taken out of it and an elegant whorled seashell, a nautilus. Water ran out of its alabaster sleeve.
Buttons were undone. Bodice ties gave way. If the castaway had had boots or shoes, they’d been lost in the sea. The plum-black skirt came off. The chemise and the knee-length pantaloons were in such sad repair there wasn’t much point in trying to keep them intact. Helia scissored her fingers, and Cossy ran to fetch the utensil from the workbench.
Supported by her sister brides, Helia leaned over the table and snipped the strings at the clavicle and at the waist. They peeled the woman as they might a passion fruit.
Helia snapped her fingers. Kliompte lunged forward with a towel. Helia wiped the stranger from neck to ankles. When instructed, Bray rolled the naked tidewrack over onto her stomach. Helia dried the woman from nape of neck down to shins and the raw, untrammeled skin of her bare feet. Is this like preparing a body for burial, wondered Cossy. It’s not like plucking a hen to roast, or descaling a fish; there’s nothing to pluck or scrape.
The brides avoided nudity among themselves, so Cossy’s interest was as much clinical as morbid.
The sun now trained its evening spotlight into the temple. The sun only ever gilded the interior for a few moments before sinking into the sea, for the deep portico kept the rooms in shadow most of the day. But as if it had waited all day to see the castaway for itself, the lowered sun speared suddenly through parting clouds.
The water sluicing off the young woman onto the stone floor wasn’t the green water of the sea, as Cossy had thought. That runoff was clear as salty tears. Now dried by the administrations of the brides of Maracoor, the traumatized naked form was all over green — except the untempered soles of her feet. Those proved a vulnerable and intimate pink.
From the book The Brides of Maracoor by Gregory Maguire. Copyright © 2021 by Kiamo Ko Limited, LLC. On sale from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.