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It began as a joke, just a throwaway line at what the author remembers as a "grim" bookstore appearance a decade ago.
Gregory Maguire had just written Wicked, a politicized, adult fantasy that retold The Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the misunderstood, not-so-wicked witch challenging the tyrannical Wizard.
The novel went on to sell more than 1 million copies and inspire a popular Broadway musical, but it was no instant success.
Shortly after Wicked's publication, Maguire was at a Chicago bookstore speaking to a crowd, if that's the word, of seven. Someone asked whether a sequel was planned.
"Yes," Maguire says he joked. "It's called 'Son of a Witch.'"
Nobody's laughing now.
Maguire's Son of a Witch (Regan Books, $26.95) is No. 14 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list, just two weeks after being published. And the 10-year-old Wicked? It's No. 16.
Son of a Witch features Liir, who as a boy in Wicked witnessed the visitor Dorothy do in the witch Elphaba, who may or may not have been his mother.
Maguire prefers to call it a "companion novel," although he has no objection to sequels. Some, he says, are even better than the original, such as A.A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner, published two years after Winnie-the-Pooh.
But to call Son of a Witch a sequel "might unfairly raise expectations that the main character of Wicked made another appearance here," he says. "She does, after a fashion, but the book isn't about her: It's about the world she left behind. I'm all for truth in advertising, even on book jackets."
Maguire, 51, taught literature at Simmons College in Boston before becoming a full-time novelist.
He also has written revisionist versions of Cinderella (Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister) and Snow White (Mirror, Mirror). He says he never writes a book unless he can't help it.
"Something has to bother me, like a mosquito, until I have to do something to relieve the itch."
In the case of Son of a Witch, his itch came from two sources:
One was the photographs of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib prison.
The other was questions from the young readers of Wicked.
Teenagers, especially girls, have flocked to the musical (now in New York, Chicago and Dallas) and go on to read the darker, more complex novel, which, the author says, wasn't intended for them.
But he welcomes their questions, such as "Whatever happened to Fiyero's daughter, Nor?" -- who may be Liir's half-sister, a political prisoner of the Wizard.
The combination of the photographs from Iraq and the letters from young readers compelled Maguire "to get a visa to return to Oz ... and find out, while on the ground, everything I could about what things were like 10 years on."
Maguire's own life has changed. Living near Boston, in a state where same-sex marriage is legal, he married his partner, painter Andy Newman.
They adopted three children, ages 7, 5 and 4, from Cambodia and Guatemala.
More distractions at home and less time to waste, he says, results in shorter sentences and scenes.
Can he imagine Son of a Witch as a musical?
"I can't, but if someone else can, hum a few bars and I'll begin tapping my toes. I'm very suggestible."
*Read a Q&A with Gregory
Maguire at life.usatoday.com
*Read an excerpt from Son of a Witch at books.usatoday.com
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