Michelle Ray, a self-described “writer, teacher, mom, [and] director,” published her first book, Falling for Hamlet, in 2011. Falling for Hamlet is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with one key difference– Ophelia doesn’t die. We sat down with Ms. Ray and talked about her life, her writing, and her friends (and even a little bit about her past with Jake Gyllenhaal). Read more to find out!
Q: How did you get the idea to write Falling for Hamlet?
I went to see Hamlet at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and it was so good-it was modern and it wasn’t fussy at all about being modern because if you see some Shakespeare adaptations…a lot of Shakespeare adaptations make a very big thing about the setting and their point was you could make Hamlet in jeans and a hoodie and it wouldn’t make a difference and I really liked that. I loved everything about it– except the Ophelia. In a modern context to me a girl killing herself over a boy was ridiculous… and I know that girls get upset about boys and I know you feel broken-hearted and I’m sure it happens but for me it just doesn’t make sense that a modern Ophelia would allow herself to be pushed around by her father… and Hamlet so for me it just doesn’t make sense. So I was walking out of the theater and thought, “What if you did a modern story but Ophelia didn’t die?” And then I thought gasp, “What if she didn’t die!” And I got to the subway and I already had an idea about what would make people think she’d gone crazy and I was sort of off and running. My question was as I wrote it was if you keep the story, she still acts crazy, she still gets talked into things by her father, how does a modern girl get talked into doing that kind of stuff and I just felt it needed a lot more explanation, so that’s what I did.
Q: Each of your chapters begin with a talk show interview of Ophelia and then end with a police report. Why did you choose to incorporate these things into your books?
I like books that have beginning chapter things– like a little dialogue or quotes and I wanted to try one of those things. I had two ideas, originally. My thoughts were if you have an Ophelia who is the last girl standing essentially, people are going to want to talk to her, and I thought ,well, who’s going to want to talk to her: the media and the police. And then I asked my husband which one I should do and he said to do them both and let [the publishers] take one of them and so I did. They were in [of the final text], they were out, and then [the publishers] said we not only want them in, we want them in every chapter. To me, then, it became interesting because it’s a question of who is she telling the truth to because it’s her in all of those parts– she’s the narrator, it’s her truth, then she is telling the police and she’s telling the truth but she’s really angry and has nothing to lose by that point and when she is on TV, as you find out in the end, she kind of lies and doesn’t really tell the truth, but its her thinking just one more time.
Q: Your cover has been called provocative by some. How would you respond to that?
The first one was worse! When I first saw it, I liked it but I didn’t love it because the design was kind of out of focus, but I liked it. I thought, “Wow! That’s kind of hot.” I mean, it’s a girl in control– she’s pushing him against the wall and she’s kissing him and that’s really different than what’s on the cover of most books and it’s really provocative… I don’t know if you know this but the women who designed the Twilight covers designed this cover… It’s hard because you never know if your going to like what they’re going to come up with or how much power you have to say whether you do or do not like it… but I like my cover. I really do and it’s good because I have some friends that don’t like the covers of their books so I feel really grateful that I do.
Q: Do you think that it was easier or harder to write a retelling as opposed to a brand new work?
Both. The easy part is the story is already there- Hamlet has been working for centuries, so I knew that the basic story would work. The hard part is taking a characters that is in three or four scenes and she’s crazy in two of them and then making a whole book. The play Hamlet starts with the King is already dead, his mother is already remarried, and Hamlet is coming back after being somewhere else, so the first 100 pages of the book I completely made up what would have happened before. People also have high expectations or people hate Shakespeare so much they won’t even pick up the book. Plus a lot of adaptations are bad, like there was one here in the library that was terrible but some are amazing so they’re really spotty. But it does limit you in terms of stories…but I like retellings, I find them really exciting
Q: Describe the process of writing Falling for Hamlet?
This one was different because it was based on someone else’s play. I had this idea after I saw Hamlet, and then I sat down with the script– I had my script from high school and I had taken my notes in high school English class, and there were all the themes written in the margins: hate, love, betrayal, and they were really helpful. There were also questions written in- Is he really crazy and does Gertrude know? I was also a drama major in college so I had studied it again and talked about it again, like there are some people that say Ophelia went crazy because she’s pregnant, and there are others that say, “No way, absolutely not,” but I saw a production at the Folger in the spring and that’s how they played it, so one of my drafts originally had that but then we took that out because they were like, “Is it about teen pregnancy or Hamlet?” But my process was to sit there with the script and go scene-by-scene and I started with the hardest one, the “Get thee to a nunnery scene,” a brutal, heartbreaking scene of this total turnaround. It’s the scene that breaks her, so I started with that one to see if I could do it and translate the lines into what people actually say. Once i though I had it then I went to the beginning, scene by scene all the way through translating line by line and cutting certain things- there are huge things that aren’t in the book because they have nothing to do with her or him and who cared anyways? So then I took a step back and said, well, “How do I fill this in?” and it was kind of like a painting where you sketch then you paint then you layer and shadow and highlight so it’s just constant adding of layers to make it real.
Q: How long did it take you to write falling for Hamlet?
My first draft was 3 or 4 months, it was really quick. And then I sent it off to some friends- I never took my self seriously as a writer, and I didn’t know if anything would happen, so I don’t have a writer’s circle and I still don’t– I had a really traumatizing creative writing class in college where I had nothing to say and my stories were awful and everyone else had good stories and they were mean and I never wanted to show my work to another person ever again, but I sent it to my friend Kim and my friend Lauren and they made comments that really helped me shape it. Kim helped me send it to an agent which is a whole other thing you have to learn, and then it took a year and a half to find an agent. Then, we worked on it for about a month and then it sold really quickly, about 6 weeks at auction, which means that two different publishers wanted it. Then we spent another 9 months revising it, and many many many drafts later, it came out. So by the time I went to my first book signing I had to reread it because I didn’t remember my own book!
Q: What do you think Shakespeare would think about your retelling?
I hope Shakespeare would find it funny and flattering, I think my intentions were similar to what he was thinking about, teen rebellion and family troubles. Well, maybe he’d be mad and want a cut of the money, not that there was much!