A few months ago I started hearing about FALLING FOR HAMLET and I couldn't wait to get the book and see how Michelle imagined the main characters in Hamlet for a current audience. I know this one is going to be a favorite of many teens in my life. Michelle took time out of her busy debut week to answer a few questions, (and after hearing her answers, I can tell she's a kindred writing spirit) so let's get to know Michelle Ray and her wonderful debut book!
First comes love, then comes madness...
Meet Ophelia: a blonde, beautiful high-school senior and long-time girlfriend of Prince Hamlet of Denmark. Her life is dominated not only by her boyfriend's fame and his overbearing family, but also by the paparazzi who hound them wherever they go. As the devastatingly handsome Hamlet spirals into madness after the mysterious death of his father, the King, Ophelia rides out his crazy roller coaster life, and lives to tell about it. In live television interviews, of course.
Passion, romance, drama, humor, and tragedy intertwine in this compulsively readable debut novel, told by a strong-willed, modern-day Ophelia.
Adapting something that is well known can be scary for a writer. Did you have any second thoughts about adapting a Shakespeare play?
I did. First, the question was whether I had anything fresh to say. There are other adaptations of Shakespeare and even other adaptations of Ophelia’s story, but I thought the setting, my voice and my way of telling it made it unique so I kept going. Second, the language of Hamlet is incredible but translating it was rough. At times, I wasn’t sure I could make it sound colloquial enough, and at other times, I wished I didn’t have to. Shakespeare’s words are magnificent, so I hated to make them go away. However, my hope was to remind people what a great story Hamlet is, to update it with a modern message, and to perhaps draw the unfamiliar or the reluctant to the original.
How did you get to know Ophelia?
I thought about her a lot. I know that sounds basic, but I did. She was in my head constantly for years. I would imagine conversations she’d have with other characters, how she would view the media, and how she would feel about certain events in the book. I’m not a writer who jots these things down formally. I chat in my head while driving, while trying to fall asleep, and while going through daily activities. In fact, I created Ophelia’s conversation with Hamlet about his seeing ghosts while at a children’s museum with my kids. When a great idea strikes, I end up rooting through my purse for receipts or scraps of paper to write on so I don’t forget. It’s not pretty, but it works.
In terms of building who she was, I started with what would make her betray Hamlet and worked my way back and forth from that. I had to think about the history of her family (the dead mother was Shakespeare’s fault, not mine, yet it helped Ophelia be a little more lost and lacking in good guidance), her father’s position in the court and living situation (the pressure to behave well and the lack of privacy within the castle mirrored what happened to her outside), and how long she was with Hamlet (a tumultuous, long-term relationship seemed like a better answer than a new relationship. When you’ve got history with someone, you’re less likely to walk away from craziness . . . usually). Then it was a matter of adding detail. When I tried to make her do things she didn’t want to do, the pages didn’t work. Sounds as insane as the original Ophelia, but it’s true. She guided my way.
What kinds of things did you change as you worked on the story?
In early drafts, she was in college. This allowed her to be more independent, and in some ways, more irresponsible. Once my agent suggested that I try aging her down, the dynamic changed, and I believe it changed for the better. Her ties to her father and her conflicting feelings about his demands seemed even more believable when she was in high school. Some of the behaviors that got her into trouble were more embarrassing once she was younger. And her feeling of being out of her depths and having no one to turn to made even more sense with her still being in high school. Also, with Hamlet already in college, there was added tension of his being free of their old life while she was still under the thumb of his parents and her father. He had more access to girls, too, which drove her nuts.
You’re a teacher – have you always been a writer?
Nope. I was a director before I was a teacher, which is storytelling, but the words weren’t my own. There’s a certain comfort in that because you can always blame someone else for dull moments. In truth, I’d always had stories in my head, but I didn’t write them down because I didn’t see the point. My husband encouraged me to put them on paper, but it took a loooong time (over a decade) before I thought of myself as a “writer.” It’s still odd to admit that, actually. What really made me take writing seriously was teaching writing to my fifth graders. An incredible group called LitLife came to my school to teach teachers how to teach writing. In doing the activities, I realized that I loved putting words on paper and that I was good at it.
What’s a writing day like for you?
Choppy. My teaching day is intense, so I don’t usually have time to think about my writing. I love what I do, and I love that I have a job that keeps my mind occupied, but when I get home, I’m tired. Even so, it’s writing time. This means I sometimes shortchange my family by disappearing to write, and other times it means I’m frustrated because I can’t write when I want to. Kids’ homework, baths, bills, and quality time are important, but it means I have to be very efficient when I write. I admit that I get shouty when I’m interrupted (like if my kids can’t sleep and come out a thousand times to tell me so), and I stay up late a lot, but I love all the aspects of my life so I wouldn’t give anything up.
Many reviews for FALLING FOR HAMLET say they can’t wait to see what you do next. What’s up next in your writing?
It’s the most remarkable thing that people feel that way, and it presses me to keep going. I’m working on another adaptation for teens and an adult historical fiction novel. My great fear is that FALLING FOR HAMLET might be the only book I ever get published, but others I trust don’t seem as concerned as I about this. Either way, it’s been such an exciting ride, such an unexpected pleasure to be published and to have my book in real bookstores. I’m trying to appreciate each moment.
Thanks Michelle! Whether you know the story of Hamlet backward and forward or have never read a word of Shakespeare in your life, check out FALLING FOR HAMLET and hear another side of the story.