Thursday, September 11, 2008

Jennifer Lee Carrell - Authors @ The Teague

Jennifer Lee Carrell, author of Interred with Their Bones, appeared as part of the Authors @ The Teague series at the Velma Teague Library. Carrell has a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Harvard University. She taught history and literature at Harvard, and directed Shakespeare for the Hyperion Theatre Company, and now lives in Tucson. She is also the author of The Speckled Monster, a nonfiction book about battling smallpox.

Jennifer began the program by reading a short scene from the opening of Interred with Their Bones to give readers a flavor of the work. Most of this book, her first novel, is set in modern times. Her heroine is Kate Stanley, an American in London, where she has her big break; she's directing Hamlet at the Globe in London. When the book opens, Kate is sitting on a hill overlooking London after receiving a gift of a box from Rosalind Howard, Harvard Professor of Shakespeare. However, she won't let Kate open it. She tells her she's given her an adventure. This leads to a high-stakes, fast-paced adventure story about a lost play by Shakespeare.

When Carrell was studying for a Ph.D. in English, she was in a library in Harvard Yard on a New England fall day. She was perusing the shelves, and a set of four books jumped out at her. They were called The Elizabethan Stage by E.K. Chambers, copyright 1923. Although the books are a little later than the Victorian age, they still had that cluttered, full feeling. They were full of interesting, bizarre facts about Renaissance drama. At the bottom of one page was a lost plays section. Lots of Renaissance drama was lost. It wasn't considered high art, much more like our sitcoms today. There was a title by Shakespeare, even with some of the plot, but the play is gone.

Jennifer said she started to question what it would be like to find one of those lost plays. If you were the first person in 400 years to find a play, where would you find it? It would have to be found somewhere off the beaten path. So, even when standing in grocery lines, she would spin a fantasy about that idea. It's more fun to make it a story. As an author, she has control issues. She gets to pick who finds the play, and where, and what happened to it over time. But, that book got pushed back.

She left academics, partially because she wanted to write for a more general audience. In 1998, Carrell wrote an article for Smithsonian, "How the Bard Won the West." Many people don't know about the popularity of Shakespeare in the 19th century in the West. Cowboys and illiterates loved Shakespeare. Jim Bridger, the mountain man was illiterate, but had heard about Shakespeare. So, he traded a team of oxen for a volume of Shakespeare, and had a young German boy read it to him. Afterward, he would recite Shakespeare from memory, at campfires.

The Speckled Monster, a nonfiction book, was Carrell's first published book. It's set in 1721 in London and Boston, and it's nonfiction written like fiction. It's about battling smallpox, and features Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was one of the first female published poets in English. After 9/11, publishers were interested in the book because they were interested in biotech stories. She said it was not a biotech book. It's about smallpox inoculations in Boston. When she started the research, Boston was going to be a small part of the story. But, as she dug through genealogy, and other records, she kept stumbling across a place, Salutation Alley, with records of people first inoculated. She realized this was a story lost for 150 years. She had a physical reaction when she realized she had found something lost. That's why scholars are scholars, for moments of discovery.

However, once the book was published, publishers want to keep you on that same track. They wanted Carrell to write another nonfiction book, written as fiction, about a woman who changed the world, but isn't well-known. She spent six months looking for that, but there just aren't that many undiscovered stories with those features. So, she proposed the idea of Interred with Their Bones, with lots of history in it, to her agent. The agent liked it, and they sent it to the publisher, who liked it. Now, she had to develop it.

Carrell said she wanted two elements, the lure of the lost, and the thrill of discovery. She had been pulled in by the lure of the lost plays. She wanted readers to have that thrill at the moment of scholarly discovery. So, she decided the genre that would fit that would be a treasure hunt thriller. The manuscript of a lost play by Shakespeare would be so precious that no monetary value could be placed on it, and people would kill over it.

Jennifer had her original idea years before The DaVinci Code, but that book's success enabled her to jump from nonfiction to fiction. But, her actual inspiration for her book was that book by Chambers with the list of lost plays, not The DaVinci Code.

When she started to work on the novel, Carrell knew where it would end, how, and who the killer was. But, she had no idea about the other characters. The beginning of Interred with Their Bones just popped into her head, but she had no idea what was in the box. She had the beginning and the end of the story.

She wanted to use the trivia, and the obsessions about Shakespeare that surrounds him. She didn't want to make up the clues herself for her treasure hunt book. She wanted to use other people's clues. So, the clues in the novel are historical, other people's ideas. She wrote them out on 5 x 7 cards to work with them, because a treasure hunt is hard to put together.

As characters, Carrell wanted somebody in theater, an academic, somebody educated, but not too familiar with Shakespeare, and somebody who knew about chases and guns. She wanted her heroine to be an ex-academic, now in the theater. She knew she wanted to use authentic Shakespearean places, such as the Globe, Stratford-upon-Avon, libraries. So, she used cards, and laid them all out in order to plot the book.

Her characters came to life, and she flew through the writing, almost as if she was dictating a film in her head. But, halfway through the book, her killer changed. When a story comes to life, it will change from what you planned. That's the pleasure of being a storyteller. She did say most of the weird things that happen in the book are true, not fiction.

The pleasure of fiction is that, hopefully, the author reaches a larger audience. There is lots of history around Shakespeare's plays. Some of the great mysteries in literature are around him. Jennifer said she worked hard to reach a wide audience, so that it would be entertaining for anyone from Shakespearean experts to people who just know he wrote Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet .

Carrell had two models for writing entertaining fiction to appeal to the masses. One was Shakespeare himself, who wrote for everyone from the Queen and King to the half-drunk thirteen-year-old apprentice in the pit. Her modern model is the movie, Shakespeare in Love. She first saw it with a group of Shakespearean professors, who loved it, and laughed at all of the little jokes.

In answer to a question, Carrell said she's working on another thriller with the same character. Kate Stanley is a "three book girl." The next one is about the legendary curse of Macbeth in the theater. The third questions "What's Catholic, or Not?" In Shakespeare's age, Catholics were viewed as terrorist suspects are today. Catholics were suspect.

Jennifer said she had her original idea for the book in 1989. In 2004, she started writing the novel. The hardcover of Interred with Their Bones came out in 2007, and the paperback was just released.

Asked how she came up with the title, she said the title is involved with the plot. She and her husband tried to think up titles, using Shakespearean quotations, but it's hard to come up with three or four word titles that fit a thriller, and haven't been used before. But her husband came up with this one from Julius Caesar. Interred with Their Bones, in a speech by Marc Antony, fits with the book.

Interred with Their Bones is not the title of the book in most foreign countries. In Britain, it's called The Shakespeare Secret because they thought the U.S. title was too uppity. Most countries translated The Shakespeare Secret title. Spain kept the translation of Interred with Their Bones, though.

When asked about Shakespearean societies, she said there are a number of different societies that focus on one aspect of him, like he was Queen Elizabeth's illegitimate son, or he was really a woman.

An author really isn't in on the decisions as to the artwork on the cover of their books, but she did have veto power. The hardcover and paperback have different covers. She didn't like the first paperback cover she saw. Shakespeare looked like a Monty Python figure. But, this cover, with Shakespeare's face, and fire, looks like a thriller cover. She likes both covers, for different reasons.

She was asked how many copies the book sold, but Carrell said she doesn't know how many in the U.S., but it sold well enough to come out as a trade paperback. It sold 300,000 in the U.K.

Jennifer Carrell was asked why twenty or thirty year olds should read Shakespeare. She said, not the for the language. Although it's beautiful and poetic, it can be difficult to understand on first reading. However, he wrote about fundamental aspects of what it means to be human, with an unusual depth. He wrote comedy, and about love, hate, and jealousy. He wrote possibly the greatest first love story. He wrote about middle-aged passion, middle-aged illicit passion, and the love of an aging father for his daughter. The stories have made sense not only to English speakers, but to the Bushmen of Africa and cowboys. They've been performed as Japanese Kabuki theater. She said Romeo and Juliet begs to be done as rap poetry. The opening is really about Romeo and his best friend rapping at each other. It translates into hip-hop. And, Hamlet is a cynical play about power. Younger readers understand that.

It's too bad everyone could have joined us to hear Jennifer Lee Carrell talk about Interred with Their Bones.

Jennifer Lee Carrell's website is

Interred with Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell. Penguin Group (USA), reprinted 2008. ISBN 9780452289895 (paperback), 432p.

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