Blog Book Tour - Alan Gratz!
It's Fall and new books are in the air. Several of them are coming from my talented friends. Today I'd like to introduce you to Alan Gratz, who you may already know from his blockbuster premier book, Samurai Shortstop (Junior Library Guild Selection (Dial)). Well, his newest book, Something Rotten just came out and it's a rompin' good read!
Alan - I just finished reading your new book yesterday (in one day - the pace wouldn't let me put it down) and I've got questions!
First, I adored Samurai Shortstop so was anxious to read your second novel. (Drum roll please . . . ) Congratulations on the release of Something Rotten (Dial Books)!
Thanks, e! Something Rotten is a project that is near and dear to my heart. I've been working on this character (Horatio Wilkes) since I was in college, and it's taken me this long to find a story-home for him and to get him into print. It was well worth the wait! I like to tell people that Horatio is as old on paper as he is in real life. I created him almost exactly seventeen years ago for a Mystery and Detective Fiction class back at the University of Tennessee. He's evolved quite a lot since then, but he's always had the same snarky character that has made me come back to him again and again looking for a place to use him.
Something Rotten has a great Mickey Spillane kind of thing going on. Your main character, Horatio, is such a smart arse, it has an almost pulp mystery feel in a modern day setting. Tell us about your approach to writing Something Rotten in this style.
I set out to write a contemporary YA mystery with a very noir feel – first-person narration, cynical world-view, strong moral code of ethics. I used what I hope are pithy metaphors and snappy dialogue to evoke a noir tone, and built my detective on the model of Raymond Chandler's private detective, Philip Marlowe. At the same time, I didn't *really* want to write in that 50's/60's noir voice, because though it's nostalgic and amusing to read now, it's sometimes hard to comprehend the slang and the patter. It would be too forced to have one character in my book who walks and talks like he stepped out of The Big Sleep. My idea was to keep the sarcastic tone and quick pacing of those novels, but to make sure that Horatio is contemporary. He's a real teenager who is up on his current slang and pop culture just like most teens. I like to imagine Horatio as Philip Marlowe if Marlowe had been born seventeen years ago instead of seventy years ago. The character is definitely an homage to that archetype, but he's not a pastiche. Horatio's his own man.
I know you're a huge fan of Shakespeare (might you cross over into obsessed?). Along with the main character being named Horatio, the story is an adaptation of Hamlet, right? What was the tie in with Something Rotten and how did all that come together?
I wouldn't say that I'm obsessed with Shakespeare, but I did take a few college courses on his plays, and I have been known to read and attend Shakespeare plays that *haven't* been assigned for a class. :-) Yes, Something Rotten is Hamlet rewritten as a contemporary YA murder mystery set in Denmark, Tennessee, with the minor character of Horatio recast as a wry, sarcastic, teenage detective. The Horatio character from Hamlet was an inspiration for my detective as far back as my time at the University of Tennessee, even though I didn't delve into the play itself then for a plot. What I like about the original Horatio is that he's practical. Down to earth. He's so down to earth, in fact, that Hamlet gives him crap for it in a famous line from the play, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Hamlet's telling Horatio he needs to think about the bigger picture, to reach out to the deeper philosophical questions that surround them--but ironically, it's that very philosophical nature that is Hamlet's undoing. Horatio, on the other hand, is one of only to or three characters left alive on stage at the end of a play with a significant body count! *That's* my kind of hero--a guy who's grounded enough to still be standing at the end of any story, no matter how tragic.
Once I built the character of Horatio, I tried him in a number of stories (and occupations) that never worked. Years later, when I had shifted my full-time focus to writing YA novels, I realized that Horatio--snarky, smart, sarcastic, lazy--would make a perfect teenager. But what about a story? Well, I figured that since I had already stolen the character from Shakespeare, I might as well steal his plot, too. :-) No, seriously, I've read a great many well-done "updatings" of classic literature, and I loved the idea of retelling Hamlet in a contemporary setting. I once taught Shakespeare to eighth graders, and I know what a challenge his plays can be. Besides the sometimes Byzantine story lines, there's the tremendous hurdle of the language. I think if kids can be exposed to just one of those at a time--say, first reading a contemporary novel that follows the story but has much more accessible language--then it's easy to approach the second, the blank verse, in context. I wrote Something Rotten first and foremost as entertainment--and worked very hard to make sure it stands alone without the reader having read Hamlet to begin with--but I do hope that it eventually gets used in conjunction with the teaching of Hamlet.
Please share some of the hidden jokes you added to the story for the Shakespeare fans. (Something about a bear exit stage left?)
Well, the bear joke isn't in this book, but I've set it up. One of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare is a stage direction from The Winter's Tale, "Exit, pursued by a bear." That has to be one of the greatest stage directions of all time--and coming from Shakespeare, who was so stingy with them you sometimes don't realize a character has even *left* the stage, makes it all the more priceless. So, to use this line--even if I don't eventually use that play--I've decided that the athletic team mascot at Horatio's school is the Bears. Now, some day, I will be able to have Horatio chased out of a locker room by a football player in uniform, and I'll be able to say Horatio "exited, pursued by a Bear." That's a lot of set up for a joke very few people will get, but that's the kind of thing I enjoy. The original draft of Something Rotten had many more allusions to the play, but some got cut out as too-obvious attempts at humor that did nothing to further the plot. Some things remain though for careful readers of Hamlet: Horatio goes to Wittenberg Academy, named for the university Hamlet and Horatio attend in the play; the paper plant at the heart of the story is called the Elsinore Paper Company, named for Elsinore castle, where Hamlet and the royal family live; and I work in allusions to famous lines here and there too, like the obvious "There's something rotten in the state of Denmark."
The Copenhagen River in Something Rotten is horribly polluted by the local paper company. Is this a piece of your own history or completely fictional?
The origins of this part of the story are in the play itself. I was looking for a way to parallel the scene in Hamlet where Ophelia drowns, and I got the idea for my Ophelia character, Olivia, to be an environmentalist hell-bent on cleaning up the river. That in turn reminded me of my experiences as a child, witnessing the Champion Paper/Little Pigeon River pollution controversy that played out in front page headlines in Knoxville, Tennessee, where I grew up. I went back and did some research into the public efforts to clean up Champion's act, and while I change names and fictionalize things, that situation is definitely at the heart of this novel. I found the environmental angle ended up giving the book a real heart too, and I've now made a point of focusing on some environmental or social issue in each of the sequels. Something Wicked for example, which takes place in the mountains of East Tennessee near the tourist meccas of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, will touch on the issue of urban sprawl and commercialization.
Do you have more Shakespearean type mysteries in the works? In other words, what are you working on next?
Something Wicked, based on Macbeth ("By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes!"), is up next. Horatio is back, and this time he goes to a Scottish Highland Festival with his friend Mac and Mac's girlfriend Beth (yes, you may groan now) where he solves the murder of Duncan MacRae, the man who owns Birnam Mountain. The third book in the series, sold but not yet written, will be Something Foolish, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream ("What fools these mortals be.") In Foolish, Horatio attends an all-night keg party where he must solve a date rape, and he also has some lingering issues from Wicked he's got to face as well. My publisher, Dial, has been very supportive of this series, and they seem as excited as I do about exploring both the Shakespearean canon--and Horatio's character--in more depth. I've got more ideas in the hopper for Horatio too--a college visit to a frat house that mirrors Julius Caesar (can you say toga party?), as well as a riff on The Tempest in which Horatio is an intern at a Florida amusement park run by a Disneyesque "magician"--and I can only hope that the series does well enough to warrant more books. I don't have clever titles for those novels yet, so I've given them the working titles "Something Else" and "Something Completely Different." :-)
Thanks for a great read Alan!
You're welcome--and thanks for hosting me on my blog tour!
Look for Alan's forthcoming books over the next few years:
Samurai Shortstop (Junior Library Guild Selection (Dial)) (2006)
Something Rotten (2007)
Something Wicked (2008)
Something Foolish (2009)
and check out Alan's Blog where you can enjoy the custom construction of his new home in the Appalachian mountains from your cumfy chair without the noise of hammers and saws.
Alan is on tour this week, so go read more about him and his work at these blogs:
Monday: Elizabeth O. Dulemba
Tuesday:Kim Norman's Stone Stoop
Wednesday: Karen Lee
Thursday: Kerry Madden's Mountain Mist