John Reed is author of the novels, A STILL SMALL VOICE (Delacorte), THE WHOLE (MTV Books), the 2004 bestseller, SNOWBALL’S CHANCE (Roof), the recently released ALL THE WORLD’S A GRAVE: A NEW PLAY BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (Plume), and the forthcoming TALES OF WOE (MTV Press). He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and is an Associate Creative Writing Professor at New School University. He is the Books Editor of the Brooklyn Rail, and has published in Open City, Paper Magazine, New York Press, Timeout New York, Bomb Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Artforum, Art in America, Playboy and many other venues. He is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle, 2009/10.
Robert Lopez: How did you come to ATWAG? It is such a great idea – fearless, provocative, and both reverent and irreverent at the same time.
John Reed: Ah, thanks thanks thanks. Hmm, I think I can manage a pretty wishy-washy, indecisive answer here.
At times, I think of the play as a rejoinder to Henry V. To this day, at the onset of war, Henry is marched out to fill the ranks of the marines with new recruits. It’s a misrepresentation of the Henry V, and Shakespeare, and I wanted Shakespeare to weigh in, in his own words, on the war, love and madness that is our age.
At times, I think I wanted to address questions of authorship, of parody, of the literary canon, of contemporary letters in relation to “great” works, and of the creative future we bequeath our children.
At times, I think I’m just a public school kid who grew up in downtown New York City, surrounded by poor artists, punk rock, and language poetry—and stuff like this is how I have fun.
RL: Were you at all apprehensive writing a new play by William Shakespeare?
JR: I confess that my admiration for Shakespeare has been strengthened by this curious debacle, as has my belief that a number of people worked on the plays. Shakespeare borrowed from contemporary sources, contemporary successes, and worked with other writers and actors and backers to get where he needed to be. The proper comparison is to a contemporary writer/director, or writer/producer.
Genius is relatively ordinary to the human genome. Of the thousands of manuscripts I’ve seen—as a teacher, a student, a writer—far more have suffered from too much intelligence, too much creativity, than have suffered from too little. Of the art I’ve seen—growing up in the artworld—I come away with the same impression. The crossing of class boundaries, which is often a primary motivation to be an artist, a writer, produces a complex perspective that is contrary to mass market forms of expression.
Right about the time I finished ATWAG, I had this funny dream. I dreamt I was in attendance at some kind of sporting event: maybe polo. It was late afternoon, the first cooling off of a hot day. I was part of a standing audience of intellectuals and petty nobility. (I can’t quite put a period to the setting.) One of our party came running out—having just been received by a royal audience—and he reported gleefully, in staccato barks, that the Queen had given him a poop. One of her poops. He held a clear plastic carry case (which, by the way, was identical to the case we use to contain my daughter’s pet lizards when we’re cleaning the aquarium). It had two lean, firm dark turds in it; one lay partly atop the other, not-quite perpendicular. Everyone mocked the bearer of the turds mercilessly. He took his teasing in good humor, as it was meant. Then the crowd went silent, breath held, as he slowly lifted the case up to his nose, to sniff the Queen’s poop. His expression was one of enormous concentration. He sniffed like a connoisseur of wine—committing the sensory experience to memory. Then, the crowd still silent, he passed the plastic tub to the person beside him: with a similar sense of purpose, this person, too, sniffed the poop. And then—the silence settling in like reverence—the tub was passed from one set of hands to the next. The tub was passed gently, like an urn of ashes. And everyone lifted it to their nose, and sniffed it.
RL: The task of putting ATWAG together seems extraordinarily difficult, perhaps even impossible. What was the process of putting ATWAG together like? Did you conceive of the new story first? How did you decide which passages to employ and fool around with?
JR: When I finished the draft for this project, I started cleaning out my files, as is my ritual. I’ve made a giant mess; I’m too tired to do anything else; and I feel the need to mark an end, and a beginning. While I was at it, tossing old scraps of paper I’d hoarded, I came across a Xerox from college, folded in quarters. One the back: a list of ten major projects that I wanted to write. Of the ten, the Shakespeare project is the third I’ve published.
I remember talking about the book over the Thanksgiving break of either my junior or senior year of college—I had come back to the city and made the rounds of various Thanksgiving gatherings; the effort was to fashion some personal semblance of family from disparate individuals who wanted nothing to do with each other. Shakespeare was my topic. Lacking the required skills, I talked but didn’t work on the project until 2003. Even then, I only drafted one act.
In 2006, walking down the street, the remainder of the narrative occurred to me. I jotted it down. The idea came up in a few conversations (including one with the project’s future editor) and, whether or not those conversations had anything to do with anything, I sped through the next four acts.
I had matured enough as a person and an editor to manage the project. And, there was the computer, which allowed me to have multiple plays open at once—and not have to flip through pages. I didn’t use any software, but I did use search functions and search engines. I put together the first act, back in 2003, without the use of a computer—and that was not particularly easy. In 2006, I blocked out the remaining four acts (from the six plays I structured the work on: Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Lear, Henry V and Othello); the first draft had plenty of holes and an initial word count of 50,000 words. As I tightened up the draft, and needed specific lines, I used searches more. For footnoting, I used them extensively, which saved a great deal of time. Imperfect as they are, I spent several months on the footnotes. If anyone doubts it’s Shakespeare—as a few people have—the footnotes are available at alltheworldsagrave.com, and on my website, johnreed.tv.
RL: How did you decide which characters/plays to use?
JR: I chose the characters based partly on Shakespeare’s template—the young prince, the queen, etc.—and partly based on who I thought audiences would most want to see, and mostly based on the narrative that popped into my head when I was plodding along Sixth Avenue. I know this is factually incorrect, but for some reason I have it in my memory that I was barefoot at the time.
RL: The play begins with Iago and Hamlet and while they are recognizable as the Iago and Hamlet we’ve always known; these characters have new shadings, new motivations, etc. How important was it to make the characters new, yet retain the familiar at the same time? Along those lines, Hamlet’s love interest is Juliet, who is having an affair with Romeo. These choices all seem right and I’m curious as to what choices were considered but ultimately left out.
JR: I wanted the characters to be recognizably themselves, but to refresh, recast, respin them.
I did want to deepen the female rolls. I ascribe to the argument that Shakespeare focused on the male rolls, since young men (and less experienced actors) played the female rolls in Elizabethan London. In the Juliet/Hamlet relationship especially, I wanted an underlying psychology of sado-masochism—which fed into themes of senseless violence and war. Gertrude, as knowing, and Lady Macbeth, as loving, makes for the two halves of a character that is conflicted, appealing, and repugnant—and a character I adore.
My Hamlet is “a prince of blood.” To me, the added dimension takes easily. Othello, III, iii:
“Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!
“Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars … “
Hamlet’s conscience, guilty, is a driving force in Hamlet’s actions—and, in that, he is as much to blame for his undoing as Iago.
My Iago: evil, manipulative and highly sarcastic. Not too different from Shakespeare’s Iago, but more justified. He is damaged by war—his deeds might be seen in the light of delayed stress syndrome. His revenge on the Prince—though he is unconscious of it—an act of war on war.
My Macbeth, in the end, has a spine—and one can see how he ended up king. Lear is Lear. The Weird Sisters are the Weird Sisters.
And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, I outed. Of course, they were pretty out already. As was Old Hamlet.
I was tempted to leave Macbeth, a la Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. It fit right in. Unfortunately, the relationship added so many lines to the play that I had to forgo the kinship.
RL: The only projects I can think of off the top of my head in this sort of universe would be Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and his Fifteen Minute Hamlet. Are there any others out there you know of?
JR: There are many plays that are rejoinders to Shakespeare: Edward’s side of the story, Horatio’s side of the story, etc.. Mostly unpublished, with the notable exception being Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. His fifteen-minute project is not a play but a “best of.”
As far as I know, as much as Shakespeare has been mucked around with, nobody has done this before.
A million Shakespeare novels—one or two a season—which sends me scurrying to my bookshelf for a quotation:
Take the poetry and the incredible psychological insight away and you have artificial plots that were not Shakespeare’s own to start with, full of improbable coincidence and carelessly hurried fifth-act denouements.—Anthony Burgess
RL: What about staging ATWAG? I know there was recently a reading by a company of actors. I was sorry to miss it. Are there plans to put this on the stage? I’m sure there would be great interest.
JR: There have been a number of workshop and University productions of ATWAG—and I’m enormously thankful to everyone who’s invested in the project creatively. Donna Devlin and Will Hammond spring to mind. There are workshop productions coming up that I am looking forward to sitting in on. The New York City reading was directed by Terrence O’Brien, out of his American Shakespeare Lab. We had a little talk-back that night, and William Niederkorn, the Shakespeare rabble-rouser from the New York Times, suggested we somehow incorporate the stage directions. I find it difficult to view the stage directions as anything but optional, but his thoughts were edifying to me, since the stage directions are the only thing in the text I wrote entirely on my own. (I should maybe mention that all, or almost all the stage directions we see in Shakespeare are editorial inclusions.)
I’d be honored to have you in a first row seat. Lately, I’d much rather go to the theater than the cinema. There’s nothing like a live audience at a live performance.
RL: As the author of three novels, A Still Small Voice, Snowball’s Chance, and The Whole, how did you find the process of working on ATWAG compared with writing a novel?
JR: Snowball’s Chance, The Whole and ATWAG were all very similar: frenzied adventures. Many full days and every waking moment for three months, or something like that. A Still Small Voice took me years, and required a huge amount of research—and my editorial skills at that time were, at best, fumbling. ATWAG was almost all editorial, and meter.
RL: What are you currently working on?
JR: Tales of Woe is forthcoming from MTV Press. I don’t know the exact publication date. True stories that just get worse. Instead of sin, suffering, redemption, just suffering, suffering, suffering. Fifty pages of full-color art. We’re talking about a hardback with black pages—all that could change—but I’m very excited. And sickened. It was truly the most awful, despairing thing I ever worked on. Hmm, a little tease up at TalesofWoe.com. A few other bigger projects in the works. I’d love to do something to stir up trouble, just for no good reason at all. Anyone else out there? Hear the bugle?