Author Interview: McKelle George on Speak Easy, Speak Love

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.

You can also check out my review of Speak Easy, Speak Love.

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Speak Easy, Speak Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Beatrice knows that if she leaves New York when she’s kicked out of boarding school, she’ll never be able to come back and realize her dream of becoming a doctor. She refuses to accept that future and determines to stay on course at all costs. Even if it means relying on an uncle she barely knows to take her in. Her uncle’s ramshackle mansion, Hey Nonny Nonny, holds quite a few unexpected boarders and hides a big secret: it’s a speakeasy offering entertainment and illegal spirits.

Hero, Beatrice’s cousin, loves the old house more than almost anything and she’s been doing everything she can to keep the eccentric speakeasy afloat. But with prohibition agents watching, limited supplies of liquor, and the pesky problem of needing to pay the staff, Hero isn’t sure if they can make it through one more party let alone the entire summer season.

Hero has always been able to rely on Prince, her steadfast friend who sees the speakeasy as his home and as a chance to prove himself to John, the half-brother who has never accepted Prince enough to let him in on his dealings as a member of the local mob.

Singing at Hey Nonny Nonny could be Maggie’s ticket to something bigger. But only if she’s willing to leave her friends there behind. And only if talent agents are willing to see beyond her brown skin to her big talent.

Then there’s Benedick who is determined to avoid the stuffed shirt life his father has laid out for him. No prep school graduation. No college. No banking job. Definitely no trust fund. Benedick is a writer and he’s sure that if he has the chance he can make it without his father’s backing–or his approval.

It’s dislike at first sight for Beatrice and Benedick–a feeling that only grows stronger in the face of repeated misunderstandings and arguments. Everyone else can see that Beatrice and Benedick are perfect for each other, but they both might be too stubborn to realize it without a lot of help in Speak Easy, Speak Love (2017) by McKelle George.

Speak Easy, Speak Love is George’s debut novel and a retelling of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Written in the third person this novel shifts perspective primarily between Beatrice and Benedick as they arrive at Hey Nonny Nonny. Their story also overlaps with arcs for Hero, Prince, Maggie, and John over the course of an eventful summer that will change their lives forever.

Winsome characters, perfect pacing, and a plot that is simultaneously unique and true to the source material make Speak Easy, Speak Love a delight to read. Set primarily in Long Island, New York, this novel offers a quieter side of the Prohibition in the 1920s that isn’t often seen in historical fiction. Careful researching of the time period and an obvious familiarity with Shakespeare help to make this story vibrant and evocative.

Although they are living in the past, George handles this plot through the responsible lens of modern ideals. Benedick, often in discussion with Beatrice, contemplates his privilege as a young white man from a wealthy family and the knowledge that even during his rebellious flight to Long Island his family acts as a safety net. In contrast, Beatrice is used to having no one and has to learn how to both build and trust a support system as she finds true friends and family for the first time in years. Of course, Beatrice is also a classic feminist as she chases her dream to become a doctor. Side plots following Maggie and Prince explore the idea notion of belonging as well as barriers put in place by racism and discrimination at this time.

Speak Easy, Speak Love is a witty and droll story about six teens, an unlikely speakeasy, and the connections that will change their lives forever. A must read for fans of the 1920s, Shakespeare buffs, and anyone looking for a bright diversion. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Diviners by Libba Bray, The Game of Love and Death by Martha E. Brockenbrough, These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, Snow White by Matt Phelan, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

You can also check out my interview with McKelle starting tomorrow.