Speak Easy, Speak Love is a delightful retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing set in 1920s New York. As soon as I heard about this witty retelling, I knew I wanted to read it. I’m happy to report that Speak Easy, Speak Love far exceeded by expectations and has turned into one of my favorite books of the year. Today McKelle George is to talk a little bit more about her writing and this book.
Miss Print (MP): Can you tell me a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?
McKelle George (MG): I wrote a little in high school and my freshman year in college–but primarily fanfiction and roleplaying. I went to school on an art scholarship, actually, and had planned to study illustration. But then I went to live in Europe for a few years, and I knew I wanted to be a writer. I got home the summer of 2011 and I switched my major to English. I wrote four novels–and the fourth was Speak Easy, Speak Love–and otherwise my story was kind of typical, if a bit long. It took 9 months of actively trying to find an agent, we signed in 2014, then we revised my book, and about eleven months on submission to find my editor (December 2015). It was more stressful as it was actually happening, ha–but now here we are!
MP: What was the inspiration for Speak Easy, Speak Love? What made Shakespeare and the 1920s the thing you had to write?
MG: I was inspired to do a Shakespeare retelling after seeing some amazingly clever and innovative adaptations at the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] and the Globe in England. When I sat down to think of ways I could tackle my favorite play, Much Ado About Nothing, I thought instantly of the 1920s. The play is feminist in subtle ways and it offers two different kinds of womanhood in Hero and Beatrice, and the 1920s is a uniquely feminist decade. Women had just gotten the vote and the emergence of the flapper in the time after the Great War had all the right soil to explore those themes.
MP: As a retelling of Much Ado About Nothing, you started with a framework for a story going into this novel. How did you decide which original elements to keep and how did you decide what you wanted to change?
MG: This is a YA adaptation, so I knew they wouldn’t all end up married. I also had to consider the time period I was working in–what would be historically accurate and what wouldn’t. But honestly I kept as much as I could. I love the play. My book even keeps all the character names and everything. But I also had questions for Shakespeare, like: why on earth would Hero take Claudio back after all that? And what is Don John’s deal, why is he causing so many problems? And I tried to answer them in my own way.
MP: What is one thing you would go back in time to experience in the 1600s? What’s one thing you would love to see or do in the 1920s? What kind of person do you think you would have been in those times?
MG: A Shakespeare play, obviously–in the original globe theater. That would be awesome. And I would attend Texas Guinan’s 300 Club speakeasy in Manhattan. If I’d lived in the 1920s, I think I would have been a conglomeration of Benedick and Beatrice. Ben got all my writing ambitions, but I’d have to deal with being a girl and poor the same way Beatrice does.
MP: Did you have a favorite character to write in this novel? Who do you think you most resemble (or wish you resembled)? Anyone you’re especially excited for readers to meet?
MG: I answered this a little in the last question–I’m probably half-and-half of Beatrice and Benedick–but I actually very much enjoyed writing Maggie and John. There’s a lot less to go on as far as character goes in Much Ado, so I got to make up a lot. And I love the world they occupy: jazz and mobsters. I’m especially fond of John, and I hope readers like him (though I get why they might not, ha).
MP: Working off the last question, what was it like taking characters written in the 1600s and translating them to the 1900s? How did you drill down to the key personalities of your core characters?
MG: Many, many drafts. Unfortunately this is just how I write. I need lots of words and pages to discover who they are. Of course, I had a few markers to work off: Beatrice had to be wicked smart and unafraid to say what she felt. Benedick had to be able to go toe-to-toe with her. Prince had to be someone others trusted and relied on. But a lot of that was superficial, and it was through writing them that I discovered their motivations and fears.
MP: What is your favorite scene or a scene you are excited for readers to discover?
MG: There are three kissing scenes, and I am very fond of all of them.
MP: Can you tell me anything about your next project?
MG: I’m working on a spooky, magical realism book that’s a retelling of The Tempest–as well as a dieselpunk reimagining of the Arthurian legend. They’re both very slowly killing me.
MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?
MG: Don’t give up, first of all. Settle in for the long haul. But also be gentle with yourself. At some point, your writing is going to disappoint you, or your work ethic might disappoint you. Whatever. Forgive yourself for the gap between the kind of writer you want to be and the kind of writer you are and keep going.
Thanks again to McKelle for this great interview!
You can see more about McKelle and her books on her website.