I used to have a real problem with books that were retellings of other stories. I just didn’t get it for the longest time. It seemed like the lazy way out to take someone else’s story and tell it from a different angle. It bothered me so much that I did what I always do when things bother me and investigated it very heavily. Leaning on the work I’d done on the Civil War and Reconstruction in my undergraduate History program, I wrote my master’s thesis in English on retellings of “other people’s stories.”
It’s called Reconstructions: A Feminist Perspective on Twenty-First Century Literary Responses to Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Civil War and Reconstruction Narratives. And now you all want to run out and buy it, but you can’t because it’s never been published. So you will either have to visit Milner Library at Illinois State University or me at my house to check out a copy. It’s compelling reading—just ask my mom. (It also relies heavily on theories of haunting and space-place, so trust me, it’s cool.)
Anyway—all that is to say I got over my distaste for retellings long before I met my dear friend Maryanne, and I am so glad I did.
I recently read the first in her series of novels that retell the stories of Shakespeare’s women, and Maryanne agreed to stop by and chat about Finding Kate. Grab yourself a snack and your beverage of choice, because you’re going to want your energy for this discussion!
First, Maryanne, why retell The Taming of the Shrew?
Courtney, in response, thank you for having me here! And I definitely want to read your master’s thesis ASAP! I love to read retellings and adaptations, or any fiction that spins a beloved tale in a new direction or gives us new insights into characters we thought we already knew. So maybe it was inevitable that I ended up rewriting Shakespeare’s stories. As arrogant as that feels at times – How dare I? He’s the greatest writer in the English language! – I think he wouldn’t mind. After all, he borrowed most of his stories from other writers.
I had been kicking around the idea of adapting a Shakespeare play for a while, and in fact, I had begun working on both Hamlet and Twelfth Night in very preliminary stages. But it was a visit to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and experiencing their performance of The Taming of the Shrew in 2010, that pushed me to undertake this adaptation with a whole, committed heart. I’ve talked about this at length on my own blog, but basically, I was blown away by the CSF production. Within the first couple of scenes, there were lightbulbs going off in my head as I suddenly understood things about this play that I had never even imagined. I suddenly understood that this shrew had reasons! That she was never the first one to be harsh or cruel; that she was always on the defensive; that her family treated her abominably; and that Petruchio, the man who in his own words is the only husband for her, saw in an instant what no one else around her saw: an intelligent, vibrant woman being oppressed and warped by her environment. The challenge for him was how to get through to her, and how to convince her to see that her usual reaction – fight with everything she had – was counterproductive once she was removed from that toxic environment. A well-directed, well-acted production, like the CSF’s in 2010, can illuminate this play brilliantly. It did that for me. I hope my retelling can do that for my readers as well.
I don’t have the background in Shakespeare you do, but it seems to me that we don’t get much, if any, direct reference to current events in Shakespeare’s comedies. It’s like he’s determined that this is a comedy, people are here to laugh, and he doesn’t reference the real world in any substantial way. But you set your novel toward the end of the Wars of the Roses, several generations before Shakespeare’s time. Why did you choose that setting and what effect does that setting have on your story?
I had two primary reasons for setting the story during the Wars of the Roses. First, I have studied that period of time extensively, far more than either of the logical historical settings for any retelling: Elizabethan England, where Shakespeare lived, or Renaissance Italy, where Shakespeare set his Shrew. By choosing a time period I know well, I was much more comfortable writing everything – social relationships, economics, clothing, customs, language, housing, current events, etc.
I hear you there. Pro-tip, writers: if you can set your story anywhere, think about what you already know well. And Maryanne, I love that you didn’t go to the logical historical setting.
Second, with reference to the play itself, there is a moment during Kate’s final speech where she compares the relationship between spouses to the duty between subject and lord (“What is [a disobedient wife] but a foul contending rebel/And graceless traitor to her loving lord?” Act V, scene ii). In my take on the play, she doesn’t mean a word of the speech, and it hit me that it would be perfect to put Kate and Will against a political backdrop where most of the noble subjects are in fact “foul contending rebels” and “graceless traitors” to their king, and where the king himself is considered by many to be a usurper and a murderer. It gives greater import to her words, and puts Will, as a knight who will be placed by the king – and potentially by rebels and traitors – in a tricky situation as the novel progresses. The setting provided greater depth to the relationship between my main characters, and gave them a very real external challenge to contend with.
Speaking of genre, I remember a while back when you were struggling with what genre Finding Kate fit in? Did you ever decide? Did your publisher decide? The market is such a ridiculous thing sometimes. I feel like the message we get as writers is, “You must fit in this box. But not too much in this box. We don’t want it to look like everything else in this box. But sort of like everything else in this box.” It’s like we’re supposed to fit in while standing out. A hard balance, as any Strong Female Character knows, and as any woman knows.
Yes, it has been a struggle, and I still feel it. My publisher has listed Finding Kate as “historical romance” and while there are romantic elements to it, I do worry that the “romance” label will turn off some more serious (okay, snobby) readers. Unfortunately, romance as a genre does not get much respect, mainly, I think, because it is written (mainly) by women for women and about subjects that concern women…but we’d need pages and pages to deconstruct that problem.
At the same time, this novel is not a typical “historical fiction” either in that it doesn’t follow the usual structures or tropes of the genre, and it has a great deal of humor which is, again, not typical of the genre. I have often said if it were set in the contemporary world, it would have a wine glass or a cupcake on the front and it would be called women’s fiction, easy peasy. Unfortunately, the historical element throws that out the window. Why? Because women’s fiction doesn’t include stories set in the past…unless they’re terribly dramatic…I guess? When I wrote my queries, I described it as an “unconventional romantic historical” and I still think that works. But that’s not a category on Amazon, so…
Right. Well, whether or not it notches neatly into a category on Amazon, it is definitely the kind of book I have always liked to read.
There were so many times I related to Kathryn, related to her rage at the way the medieval world (and this one) treats women, and related to the things she said to other people or the things that were said to her. And we’re told as women that rage isn’t okay, that it’s not something “nice” girls feel, when in fact it’s the perfectly natural response of anyone who’s paying attention, especially these days. Here are a few lines I underlined:
“You always act like you’re better than me, than all of us, with your books and your Latin and doing Father’s sums. That’s why no one likes you.” (p. 106)
“You never will learn to be quiet, will you?” (p. 93)
“It would have been nice to have some idea of how to act, of how to be different from who I was.” (p.117)
Those first two are things that have been said to me multiple times over the course of my life, and the third is definitely something I have felt and still feel quite often. Care to comment on these lines?
The virtues the medieval world expected of women were chastity, obedience, and silence. When we look back at the past, we tend to focus on chastity, and male ownership of women’s bodies through legal and religious constructs. But to be an outspoken female was nearly as bad as to be an unchaste one. The “shrew” in literature is only one example of this. The idea that such a woman could – and should! – be beaten, physically muzzled, and verbally abused until she learns to be silent is appalling; that it would be the source of amusement in many plays and stories is worse. I believe that Shakespeare began a process of questioning that with his Shrew play. I hope that I have contributed in my own small way to the breaking down of that harmful stereotype.
The terribly disappointing, but perhaps unsurprising truth is that, five hundred years later, the traits we value in women have not changed very much. And that is something women like us talk about quite a bit, and we need to continue to do so. Fiction like Finding Kate, and like The Last Sister, can help with that conversation by helping frame the present in light of the past. Progress may be slow (five hundred years? seriously?) but it will only happen if we keep working at it.
As far as relating these lines to my own life, I definitely heard things like that first line quite a bit as a child. I wrote from the heart when I wrote about Kathryn’s desire to learn and her anger at the small-mindedness of those around her. I think many smart girls are belittled for their intelligence, and we learn to hide our curiosity and drive to learn fairly early on. In addition, our country seems to be in a strangely paradoxical state right now, where “geeks” and “nerds” are valued in our economy, but at the same time ignorance and anti-elitism is prized in our politics. I don’t know how we’re going to survive the schism.
Again, Courtney, I think you and I could have very long conversations about these issues.
We could and we should! And I encourage everyone reading this to think about how you can contribute to that conversation, whether through your writing or in your daily life.
Join us tomorrow when we’ll be talking about naming places and characters. You’ll also be able to enter to win a signed copy of Finding Kate!