Hello all! This past winter, I was given an Advance Reading Copy of Michelle Ray's debut novel, Falling for Hamlet, a modern retelling of Shakespeare's classic. I took it with me over the Christmas break when I was in Wisconsin where, thanks to a blizzard in NYC, I was stuck for five extra days (I was going a little mad myself!). I picked up Michelle's book and feel in LOVE with it. So much so, that I was even able to give it a blurb (which let me tell you, is such an honor to do for a book you admire so much).
A little about the book from the publisher: Meet Ophelia, a beautiful high school senior and longtime girlfriend of Prince Hamlet of Denmark. Growing up in the castle as the daughter of the kingʼs closest advisor, her life is dominated by the overbearing royal family and the public reaction to their every move, fueled by the paparazzi that follow them everywhere. After the sudden and mysterious death of the king, Hamlet spirals into madness and seems determined to take the castle with him. While his dangerous paranoia mounts every day, Ophelia must try to help Hamlet solve his fatherʼs death, avoid the queenʼs suspicion, and keep herself safe from the fallout.
And here's what I had to say about Falling for Hamlet: “To read or not to read will never be the question for Falling for Hamlet. Michelle Ray’s clever debut gives readers an Ophelia who is in turns humorous, clever, and full of girl power. I’m simply mad for this book.”
Falling for Hamlet has just been released in the US and the lovely Michelle graciously agreed to do a Q&A with me. As someone who recently retold a classic (Prom and Prejudice, my modern update of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice), I couldn't wait to find out how Michelle tackled such an iconic play. Luckily, she was more than willing to share that and more!
Welcome Michelle! As you know, I LOVED Falling for Hamlet. It's such a fun read. I guess I should start with the obvious question – what lead you to want to do a modern retelling of the Shakespeare classic? I love Hamlet. I love its complexity and its humanity. There are people who watch the play who want Hamlet to take action and stop brooding already, but I’ve always connected with his uncertainty and his fears. And everyone in the play gives him reason to wonder who he can trust. Is the ghost lying to him? Is his mother? Is his uncle guilty? Are his friends there to spy or to help? Tough questions that could drive a guy nuts.
There were two modern versions of Hamlet that made me see how current the story is: the film version with Ethan Hawke and Julia Stiles, and a stage version I saw at DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. Both used the modern setting to enhance the story, not as a gimmick. The jeans, cars, and cell phones pointed out the timelessness of the story. Hamlet doesn’t need codpieces and tights to make sense or to move an audience.
Your Opehlia rocks! She not only gets to live in your version, but she really comes into her own. What made you decide to tell the story from her point of view? I hate the way her story plays out in Hamlet. I’ve only seen one or two Ophelias who were not a distraction and didn’t leave me feeling dissatisfied. All the fireworks of her madness can be impressive, but I just wonder why. Actually, the ones that make the most sense are set in the 1800s and earlier because women’s roles were so much more set. Ophelia in the original would not have had choices about who to marry, where to live or travel, or have been able to tell her father “no” about anything. It made me wonder how a modern Ophelia could make the same tough choices of the original if those chains were lifted, and what would make her life feel out of control. Then I wanted to know how she would grow or change as a result of being pushed to the brink by those she was supposed to love and trust the most. I thought would be wounded and wary, but stronger, too.
As someone who recently retold a classic, I'm very curious about your process. I reread Pride and Prejudice a few times and watched a bunch of the movie versions before writing my outline, then kept a copy of the book at my side while writing. How often did you refer back to the original story while writing? Did you watch any of the movie adaptations? I kept the play in hand every day of the first draft, and referred to it repeatedly in subsequent drafts. My goal was to stick closely to the original, so the original framework for the novel and each scene was Hamlet. I was doing line by line translations, and figuring out how to get Ophelia into key scenes she wasn’t a part of in the original. Once I’d made it though the first translation, I filled in scenes that would make their lives more real, current, and deep. I watched the Ethan Hawke version before, during, and after the process, and mentally returned to the stage version I most loved for moments that spoke to me.
One of my favorite aspects of your book was the way you told the story. Each chapter opens up with Ophelia being interviewed by Zara on a TV show (I kept thinking Oprah the entire time). Then the chapters end with Ophelia being interrogated by police agents Francisco and Bernando. I honestly had a hard time putting the book down because the interrogations always left me wanting to read the next chapter to see what would happen next! What led you to structure the story this way? Did it make telling such a complex story easier or harder for you? I was thinking about two things when I began: 1) If she didn’t die, wouldn’t it look pretty suspicious? 2) If she was a part of all of the drama and was still standing in the end, wouldn’t the media be clamoring to get her story? She spends so much of the story being uncertain and overly forgiving and getting pushed around that I thought an audience might like to know early on that she would get strong and confrontational in the end. I also wanted juxtaposition between her angry, mouthy self when she was with the police and the sweeter public face she chooses to use while on TV. It made the storytelling easier in some ways because it helped me look forward to where she would end up, but I had to be carefully not to give too much away. Actually in one draft, each of those interviews told what was coming, but my writer friend, Kim Ablon Whitney, suggested it be used to build suspense. She was right.
When putting a classic story in a modern settling, sometimes you have to abandon a plotline or characters from the original (my Mr. and Mrs. Bennet had to be tamed down from the original to work with my story). I haven’t read Hamlet in years, but if memory serves, you stayed really true to the original characters. Were there any aspects of the original Hamlet that made you think, “I wish I could keep this plot/scene, but it just won’t work”? I was able to work pretty much everything I wanted in, and it gave me permission to cut or abbreviate some parts that I wasn’t entirely fond of. What I hated was cutting some of the soliloquies and making the language so plain. “Whilst, like a puff’d and reckless libertine/Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,” turned into “Don’t tell me you’ve never screwed around.” Not nearly as lovely, but necessary. Actually, a few sentences later, I got her to say, “Primrose path of dalliance,” as a joke because I loved the words so much. The biggest challenge was getting Ophelia, who’s not in most of the play, to be a witness to key scenes. That’s where technology and creative license came in. Adding her in helped build tension in places, like when Hamlet drags Ophelia with him to speak with his mother since Gertrude is not that fond of Ophelia to begin with.
Is Hamlet your favorite Shakespeare story? (Mine is Twelfth Night.) Any plans to retell any more of the Bard’s stories? That’s like asking me to pick my favorite child. I teach and LOVE Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet, and think Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard III are brilliant. I could go on. Most are more fun to see performed than to read, but I do read them when I can. I would like to retell more of the Bard’s stories, and have started one. It’s on hold for now and I’m working on retelling a different classic, but I definitely seeing myself continuing in this vein.
I’m a huge music fan/geek. So I’ve got to ask – do you listen to music while you write? Favorite bands? Recent concerts? I’m much more of a story person than a music person, though I love musicals. However jazz hands and singing along slow the writing process, so if I play anything while I write, it has to be instrumental music (a favorite is the soundtrack to the Kiera Knightly Pride and Prejudice) or mellow songs (like Joshua Radin’s stuff).
I do think about what songs my characters would like or songs that I think tell their story. Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts” makes me think of Ophelia every time I hear it, as do “Stupid Girl” by Garbage (though I’m not sure if she’d be calling herself stupid or it’s how others would view her), and “Find the River” by R.E.M. (for it’s connection to her sadness and the images of flowers and the river, which are so prevalent in Hamlet and my book). I used 1940s jazz ballads in the story, as well, like “As Long as I Live”, which she dances to with her father, for its foreshadowing. I search for lyrics that match and try to use them in my work or in character building.
Finally, what are you working on now? I’m working on an adaptation of another classic. It’s more of a prequel than a strict adaptation, which is both freeing and more challenging. Having beats in a story that have been working for hundreds of years is reassuring, but this way, I’m not as bound by the language or by readers’ expectations as I was in FALLING FOR HAMLET. I have a few folders with other stories, too, some of which are original and some of which are seed ideas for classic retellings. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to finish them all.
Thanks so much Michelle!
And now on to the giveaway! Little, Brown Books for Young Readers was kind enough to give me TWO copies to giveaway! For a chance to enter, simply comment below - you can say anything you want: hi to Michelle, favorite Shakespeare play, what's next on your to-read list, etc. One winner will be randomly chosen from the comments below at 3:00 p.m. EST on Thursday, July 14th. For another chance to win, visit my Facebook Page.
Please note: contest open to US residents only (sorry!). And due to lovely spammers, I do have to approve comments so it may take a few hours for them to show up. I try to check-in often so don't worry if your comment doesn't show up right away.
Good luck! XO, Elizabeth