INTERVIEW: Delia Sherman, author of “Wizard’s Apprentice”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

It’s about an Evil Wizard and his downtrodden apprentice. It is also (like a lot of my fiction) about finding family outside of the one you were born into. I stole the broad outlines of the plot from the Russian fairytale “The Wizard Outwitted” and combined it with relevant bits of folklore and fairy tale as they came to mind.  

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling asked me for a non-standard villain fairy-tale retelling for middle-grade readers. I love doing assignments for Terri and Ellen. They push me to come up with stories and situations I’d never otherwise approach. This, for instance, came out as a boy story–not a female character in sight. Which is pretty much a first for me. Also, rural Maine?  Please–I’m a city girl. But I’ve spent a fair amount of time now writing in a friend’s house up on the Maine coast and have browsed some pretty scary bookshops–most notably the one run by Doris Grumbach. All of which found their way into the story as well. 

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Well, a boy’s POV was a stretch. I’m an only child, I went to an all-girls school for 12 years, most of my friends have daughters. Little boys are as mysterious to me as elves. Which is why I couldn’t play my usual kid’s story trick of writing a first-person narrative. It was also a challenge to create an Evil Wizard who retains some measure of evilness while taking in a lost child and giving him a safe place to live and teaching him a useful (!) trade. It’s going to be even more fun when I come to write the novel this story kept trying to turn into.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

Some of it is pure wish fulfillment. There are days when I’d like nothing better than to hang out in a dusty old bookshop full of books I didn’t need to sell, with nothing to do but the work I love, growling at everyone who interrupts me. Having once spent 9 months in Maine doing pretty much just that, I know it wouldn’t be good for me, but it’s fun to visit in a story. Also, I’m adopted.  No matter what I try to write about, somehow it always, on some level or other, boils down to finding and making family outside of the ties of blood.  

What kind of research did you have to do for the story? 

I hung out in Maine, visiting bookshops. I reread “The Wizard Outwitted” in Fairytales of Many Lands (which I’ve had since I was five, and it looks it: H. Herda, ed., Franklin Watts 1956–a remarkable volume. But I digress.) and “The Magician’s Horse” in Andrew Lang’s Grey Fairy Book. I talked about shape-changing with the long-suffering son of a good friend (“What do you think it would be cool to turn yourself into?”). I did not pay that much attention to the actual magic and how it was made.  That’s for the book. 

What is the appeal of wizard fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

Wizards, like writers, are both born and made. In order to become mighty in either profession, it’s useful to have a gift for it, but you also have to put in the study and the work. Both writers and wizards conjure up demons, change reality, and manipulate events. And no matter how long you’ve been at it, things can go horribly wrong at any time, so that you never lose the exhilaration of taking a dangerous chance whenever you sit down (stand up, climb a mountaintop) to work. Wizards have great and magical powers. Their work can change the world, for better or worse. What writer doesn’t, in her heart of hearts, want her books to change the world?  

As for readers–well, the idea of being favored by a magical grownup who can get you out of even the worst kind of trouble with the wave of a wand is a very attractive one. Dumbledore (and Gandalf and even Merlin) start out looking to the less powerful protagonists (and the readers) as more omni-powerful than they end up being, but they’re still capable of saving the hero’s day in the end, if not always their own. For adults, I suspect it may have something to do with watching what a fellow-mortal chooses to do with great power. If she chooses to use it for good, then the reader can identify. If he chooses to use it for evil, then the reader can judge.  Either is emotionally satisfying.

What are some of your favorite examples of wizard fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

Well–Gandalf in TLOTR.  He wasn’t my first wizard, but he’ll always be the benchmark–even though he’s a kind of angel, and not really human in the slightest. Shmendrick in The Last Unicorn comes a close second because he was simultaneously so helpless and so powerful. Ged in The Wizard of Earthsea because he was both good and scary (like Gandalf) and because he was human, too. And because his magic of words made emotional sense to me, as formal ritual magic did not. And Merlin of The Sword In the Stone, of course, because he manages to be silly and terrible, sometimes simultaneously. Of more modern wizards, I prefer the gentlemanly wizards of Caroline Stevermer’s Scholar of Magiks to the hearty laddishness of Harry Potter and his mates. I’m also very fond of Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci books, and Howl’s Moving Castle. Her wizards are so utterly self-centered, and yet so utterly charming, which strikes me as exactly what an urban wizard should be.