Welcome to Once Upon a Retelling! I'm a huge fan of retellings, and I'm really interested in hearing about authors' own love of the original stories, and what inspired them to retell those stories. And so Once Upon a Retelling was born, a feature in which I interview authors about their versions of well-loved tales.
I'm super excited to have Tessa Gratton stopping by the blog today to talk to us about her King Lear retelling, The Queens of Innis Lear.
Can you tell us a little about The Queens of Innis Lear? What kind of a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear is it?
QUEENS is a feminist fantasy retelling—the plot generally follows that of the play, but I’ve imagined deeper characterizations and motivations for all the characters Shakespeare left flat, especially the women.
Why King Lear? What drew you to this play? And what inspired you to retell it?
I've hated this play since I read it in high school, because it’s one of the only plays Shakespeare wrote where the women are all flat, stereotyped characters with no interiority or motivations. They’re simply evil or simply good, with nothing complicated in between. Even Lady Macbeth, a villain, is a complex person with ambitious motivations and human needs. I felt betrayed when I was a teenager, and have been haunted by King Lear ever since—it’s considered to be such a work of genius, but it’s full of unexamined misogyny. I’ve wanted to retell it for years, but needed to find a window into Cordelia, the youngest daughter. It took me a long time to figure her our—to find a window into her character that I could empathize with and sustain for the length of a novel.
What do you bring to the King Lear story with The Queens of Innis Lear?
A feminist lens. King Lear is about the toxicity of patriarchy, about the nature of privilege and power—men’s privilege and power. That’s all already in the play. I extrapolated from that, and dug deep into the nature of women’s choices and womanhood, the outsider experience, relationships, family dynamics, and also the desire to tear down a broken system. That’s what Edmund the bastard is all about, after all. So I have reimagined the play in a way that allows me to ask questions about toxicity, nature, government, and most of all family and love.
How does The Queens of Innis Lear differ from other retellings of King Lear out there?
Well, besides the deep feminist interrogation I’ve already talked about, mine has a lot of magic. The threads of fate and nature’s fury in the play I made into real, living magical systems. So the storm Lear faces in the play is literally the fury of the island of Lear in my book. The wind, the stars, the roots of the island all have roles here.
Were there any difficulties in tackling a retelling of a story already known, over writing an original story? Anything that was easier?
I was most afraid of not doing Shakespeare justice. Despite my anger at the play itself, it’s complicated and he’s considered one of the greatest writers of all time. That’s intimidating! Convincing myself that I have a right to critique Shakespeare with my own writing, my own fiction, was sometimes hard, and believing I could even improve upon his story is quite the feat of ego. The things that were easier had to do with limitations—sometimes it helps quite a bit to not be able to do anything you want, to be bound into rules from the very beginning.
What do you hope readers get from The Queens of Innis Lear?
Catharsis! I would like to create for my readers a palpable, inexorable empathy with the story and characters, so that the experience opens hearts in those small ways stories can. We need stories to examine our understandings of the world, of relationships, of toxic patriarchy, of how tragic choices are made and sometimes feel unavoidable—yet they are. I hope my readers feel tension, love, pain, and that tragedy. And I hope they come away wanting more.
What do you think makes a good retelling?
New perspectives, and making connections to current themes for readers. If you’re not retelling an old story in order to highlight a new point, or a modern issue, why not just stick with the original?
Are there any retellings you would recommend, either of King Lear, or in general?
Some of my favorites are: Private Romeo, a film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet; Even in Paradise by Elizabeth Nunez, a Caribbean retelling of King Lear; American Queen by Sierra Simone, the first in a trilogy retelling of Arthurian legend in the US White House; Prince of Shadows by Rachel Caine, another Romeo and Juliet retelling; Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord that reweaves a West African folk tale with Caribbean folklore; A Wounded Name by Dot Hutchison, a Hamlet retelling.
Thank you, Tessa, for such a great interview! I don't know about you, but I'm even more excited to read The Queens of Innis Lear, now! I didn't realise it was a feminist retelling!
Be sure to visit Tessa's website, follow her on Twitter, and check out The Queens of Innis Lear, which is out now.
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