Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Interview with Alan Gratz

I am very pleased to be a part of Alan Gratz's blog tour for the release of his novel, Something Wicked!

I love these two Horatio Wilkes novels because they make Shakespeare so relevant. It’s like you’ve taken the heart of these Shakespeare stories and added wicked crazy humor and fun to make for some incredibly awesome reads. What was your first introduction to William Shakespeare? Was it love or hate?

Thanks! I can remember the first time I READ a Shakespeare play--Julius Caesar, my freshman year of high school--but I can't tell you the first time I was introduced to Shakespeare and his plays. Shakespeare is such an integral part of Western popular culture that it's difficult
sometimes to tell when he's having an influence on us. So much of our everyday language is based on words or phrases or metaphors he coined or introduced, and so many of his plots and characters are co-opted for other purposes. Kids today watch The Lion King and never realize how many Shakespearean overtones it has (from Hamlet to Henry IV and Henry V), and popular teen movies like She's the Man and Ten Things I Hate About You are direct adaptations (Twelfth Night and Taming of the Shrew, respectively). So there's no telling when I first encountered Shakespeare. Probably on Sesame Street!

As for my first deliberate introduction to Shakespeare, I remember not particularly liking or hating Caesar. It wasn't until I read Henry IV later during my senior year, and had by that time seen many productions of various Shakespeare plays, that I really began to appreciate his work, both as a fan and a scholar. That was when I began to actively seek out his plays and read them on my own, for fun. I went on to take two Shakespeare classes at the University of Tennessee--one on Shakespeare's tragedies, the other on his comedies, and finally understood the meaning behind much of what I'd been seeing in the theater and reading on my own. I do hope that my Horatio Wilkes mysteries are an entree into that world for young readers.

Which Shakespeare plays were required reading?

Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry IV. Oddly enough, I was never assigned to read Hamlet OR Macbeth, at least not until I took that college Shakespeare course. I read both of those on my own before ever studying them. I also taught Romeo and Juliet as an eighth grade English teacher.

Do you think Shakespeare is important? Do you feel teens (and adults) are “better” people for having read the bard?

The great thing about Shakespeare is that his work continues to be relevant not because teachers SAY it is, but because it is so ingrained in our culture. I think Shakespeare has to be taught because his work forms the foundation of everything in literature and popular culture
that has come since, in some way or another. Contemporary storytellers echo his characters, his plots, his language, his themes. I watch The Wire, HBO's fantastic drama about crime and punishment set on the streets of Baltimore, and find myself describing its characters and
themes as "Shakespearean," even if there aren't specific allusions to the Bard. It's the modern way of telling stories that he established, and that we've yet to truly improve upon.

Do I think people are "better" for having read Shakespeare? Not inherently. Not in a "reading the canon makes you better than everyone else" kind of way. But I do think reading Shakespeare--more importantly, UNDERSTANDING Shakespeare--leads to a greater understanding of our own contemporary culture, and in that way I think it makes people better. It makes them better informed consumers of contemporary entertainment, better creators and audiences.

What was your inspiration for the character of Horatio Wilkes?

The first inspiration, of course, is his namesake, Horatio, from Hamlet. As a fan of Hamlet, I always had a special place in my heart for Hamlet's best friend from school, Horatio. It's Horatio who is first shown the ghost of Hamlet's father, and Horatio to whom Hamlet confides
the truth when to all others he feigns madness. And it's Horatio, of course, who gets in some of the last words of the play--"Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!"--as he stands over the body of Hamlet in the final scene. I loved that Horatio was down to earth, that he was a man of science and action, not philosophy, and most of all that he survived a play that has one of the highest body counts in all of Shakespeare! :-) This, I figured, was the hero for me.

I also knew that I wanted to echo the tone and patter of noir detectives, and my all-time favorite is Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. So I threw Horatio from Hamlet and Marlowe from The Long Goodbye into a blender, added a dash of teen snark, and the result was the daiquiri I named Horatio Wilkes.

In your first novel Horatio is in a modern day Hamlet, now in your second novel, he’s in a modern day MacBeth. Do you have plans for more Horatio adventures? Which plays are next? (Please say there are more in the works!)

I do have plans for more. If there is a third novel, it will be Something Foolish, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream--a particular challenge, as there's no murder in Midsummer. I thought after Macbeth I might want something a bit lighter, so I'm taking Midsummer and putting Horatio at an all-night keg party where no one dies, but someone behind the scenes keeps messing with people's relationships--slipping date rape drugs in their drinks and engineering screaming break-ups and scandalous hook-ups. Horatio's also down on love at the end of Wicked--for reasons that should be apparent to those who've read it--and I wanted a book where he dealt with love in its many aspects, and had his faith in it restored. Midsummer, though something of a farce, is a many-layered examination of love's motley forms, and thus really works well for that.

If I get to write more Horatio books, I'd love to do The Tempest, my favorite Shakespeare play, and send Horatio to a Disney World-like theme park in Florida, where a Prospero-like man rules over his little amusement park island of animatronic creatures and furry-costumed
servants. Horatio will be a summer intern, and meet the owner's daughter, a sheltered but intelligent and beautiful girl who has decided to learn her father's business by working her way up from intern to CEO. Which is, of course, how she meets Horatio. And oh, what a brave new
world that has such interns in it... I also have designs on throwing Horatio into Julius Caesar with a college visit toga party that turns deadly. :-) There are a lot of plays left, and I have a lot of fun ideas--now the first two books just have to sell well enough for my publisher to want to do more!

How did you decide which Shakespearean details to include in your novels? Both in Something Rotten and Something Wicked?

The number one rule for putting any Shakespeare allusion or plot device into my novels was, "Does this move Horatio's story forward?" That was very important, and it meant losing the graveyard scene in Hamlet, as well as the scene where Claudius is praying and Hamlet stands behind him trying to decide whether killing his uncle now will send him to heaven or not. It also meant taking out a lot of allusions to dialogue, like the long speech that Polonius gives Laertes that famously includes, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be." I had a lot of things like that in the first draft, until I understood that too many in-jokes and superfluous scenes slowed things down and weren't necessary to my story. Those are things I would never have included had there been no antecedent play, and so those were the things that ultimately had to go.

But that meant that I could also beef up those scenes that got short shrift in Shakespeare's plays, like the scene where Ophelia drowns herself. In Hamlet, that scene takes place off stage. But that's good plot! And important to my story. So in Something Rotten we see that scene--and Horatio's impact upon it--where we never see that in Hamlet because it's not necessary.

Macbeth is a much shorter play, so there was less to cut out. The real challenge with Macbeth though was that much of the good stuff in the play is Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plotting the murder of Duncan and then dealing with the effects of their actions--while my novels are written in the first person, from Horatio's point of view. It was difficult from the outset to turn an intimate look at two killers into a whodunit where we DON'T hear the killers plotting. Thus I have a few scenes where Mac and Beth--my Macbeth and Lady Macbeth characters--are interrupted in the midst of heated, unheard whispers: whispers that in the play were whole
scenes of terrific dialogue about courage and ambition.

Do you expect your readers to pick up all clues and references?

I don't expect readers to pick up everything. Someone who is intimately familiar with the plays will probably catch most of the allusions, but for the most part I put things in to delight those who pick up on them. Some are broad and obvious--like a dog named Spot that Beth tells to get
out--while others, like the "Dunsinane Picnic Area" are allusions to place names. Wittenberg Academy--the school Horatio and his friend Hamilton go to in Something Rotten--is a sly reference to the name of the university they both attend in Hamlet, although Wittenberg is only mentioned four times in the entire play. It's little stuff like that that I enjoy. In my notes for the third book, I have Horatio dealing with one of the boys from the school football team, which is the Wittenberg Bears. That's totally and completely a set-up for if I ever get a chance to do a book version of The Winter's Tale, so I can have Horatio chased by someone from the football team, and thus "exit, pursued by a bear."

How much fun is it write these stories, to spend time with Horatio and his often unfortunate friends?

I have a blast writing these. I love the challenge of puzzling out how to translate characters and scenes and themes into a contemporary setting, and I really enjoy coming up with snarky insults for Horatio to hand out to people everywhere he goes.

Do you have a favorite scene in Something Wicked? How about Something Rotten?

I think my favorite scene in Something Wicked might be Horatio's second trip to see Madame Hecate, the roadside psychic who stands in for the three witches from the play. The first scene with her is fun, but in this one I get to do a couple of things that make me happy. First, I
turn that scene into a plot device where Horatio is baiting Mac into doing something stupid--a traditional detective's trick--and thus make it fully a part of Horatio's story, and not just included because it happened in Macbeth. Secondly though, after Mac leaves, Madame Hecate reads Horatio's fortune, and she's dead on--not just about what will happen in the rest of the book, but about the other adventures I want to write with Horatio in them! If I get a chance to do more books, you'll see Madame Hecate's fortune continue to play out long after the events
of Something Wicked are over.

My favorite scene from Something Rotten is actually one that I added in a later draft, and one which has no precedent in Hamlet. I wanted to ramp up Ford N. Branff--my Fortinbras character--as a real suspect, and that meant having Horatio receive a "warning" from Branff's henchman in the Prince home, a colorful servant named Candy. (Warning off the detective being, of course, yet another classic trope of detective fiction.) So I wrote a scene in which Candy waylays Horatio in his bedroom, giving him a little bit of a beatdown. But my favorite part is that it's a professional beat-down. There's no malice in it, just a message, and Candy actually seems to respect Horatio--and answer some of his questions. Rather than become a true antagonist, Candy even becomes something of an ally when Horatio realizes that Branff really didn't have anything to do with Rex Prince's murder. As a big fan of detective fiction, it thrilled me to be able to write a scene I thought could be right out of Raymond Chandler!

What do you love about writing? What do you find the easiest? What do you find the hardest? What’s a typical day like for you as a writer?

The easiest thing by far about writing is coming up with ideas. I have notebooks full of them. The hardest thing is finding the time to write them. If they ever invent a pill that will replace whatever the body needs to do while you sleep, I will pay a king's ransom for it. I could use that extra third of the day where I otherwise have to sleep.

A typical day for me as a writer is a long one, and unfortunately isn't just writing. I get up in the morning and take my daughter to school, then come home to see if there are any e-mails I need to immediately respond to. I get to my office as quickly as possible--where I purposefully DON'T have e-mail access, and try to get in five or six hours on whatever book I'm working on--but that work can be doing research, creating a detailed outline, actually writing the book, or doing revisions. After that I come out and try to be a human being with my family, and the in the evenings, after my wife an I have spent an hour or two together being sociable, I often do much of the housekeeping things associated with being a professional writer--responding to interviews, updating my web site, arranging school visits, blogging, and all the other myriad things I do to publicize my books. I rarely have a night off--let a lone a day off--but I wouldn't trade what I do for anything. Except perhaps for being independently wealthy. I think I might trade it for that. Which would of course just mean that I could take more time with the books that I want to write--not that I would stop writing. :-)

How do you find time—do you find time—to keep reading? Do you have any favorites of the year?

Oh yes, reading! I forgot to add that into the schedule. Which is of course the challenge. With the new books coming out, I've been spending even more of my evenings working on publicity for Wicked, but I usually try to get in a little reading time most nights before I go to bed. I
also read a lot when I'm on the road alone, as I've found that I just don't work well in the hotel room when I come back from an all-day school visit. Reading is far more relaxing, and still an enjoyable part of my "job." This year, my favorite reads have been M.T. Anderson's Feed, E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau Banks, Jo Walton's Farthing, Jeff Vandermeer's City of Saints and Madmen, Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, and Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier.

If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?

I would go into the future, not the past. I would drop in every hundred years or so to see how things are going for humanity. I want to see how it all turns out. :-)

Thanks, Becky! Oh, and if I can add one more thing: To celebrate the debut of Something Wicked, my publisher is putting Something Rotten online for FREE until the end of November. Not just a chapter, not just an excerpt, but the WHOLE BOOK. I'm really excited about this offer, and I hope a lot of people take advantage of it. To read Something Rotten for FREE, go to www.alangratz.com and click on the link to the free ebook.

To learn more about Alan Gratz, Something Wicked, and/or Shakespeare...visit these other stops on the tour:

the 160acrewoods, A Christian Worldview of Fiction, All About Children’s Books, Becky’s Book Reviews, By The Book Reviews Book Review Maniac, Cafe of Dreams, Dolce Bellezza, Hyperbole, KidzBookBuzz.com, Looking Glass Reviews, Maggie Reads, Never Jam Today, Reading is My Superpower

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Anonymous said...

Wow! Great inteview! Thanks a lot, you two.

Ali said...

Wonderful interview! I've got to read these books, I love spin-offs on classic literature, especially for young people.