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Rewriting The Bard: AJ Harltey's Cross-Genre Work

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  This past July, when A.J. Hartley made his annual journey to New York City’s Thrillerfest, the UNC Charlotte theatre professor found himself swapping stories with a fellow Brit, New York Times best-selling author Lee Child of Jack Reacher fame. While sharing drinks at the cocktail hour, the two compared notes about growing up in England. While Childs drew on his experience of being the biggest, baddest dude in his neighborhood to create his larger than life Reacher character, Hartley took a softer, more cerebral route.

He became a Shakespeare professor.

“Child is from the Birmingham area,” Hartley said, “which is about a hundred miles from my hometown, and which is like where I am from (Preston.) It’s also a working class area that is kind of gritty. It was familiar, what he was talking about, but I was quite the opposite.

“I was ‘Keep your head down and try not to get killed.’ His stories about being the biggest kid on the playground and being able to do what he wanted to do because he could kick people’s asses, frankly, no, that was not me at all. It’s funny because now we are about the same size.”

Hartley is also a New York Times best-selling author, notable for writing in many different genres, including adult mystery thrillers and middle-grade fantasy fiction. As the Robinson Professor of Shakespeare at UNC Charlotte, he is co-authoring a pair of novels based on MacBeth and Hamlet with British writer David Hewson. His office at UNC Charlotte is in Robinson Hall, the theatre building named for local attorney Russell Robinson. Though his biggest success has been in writing for children and young adults, he introduced a new adult thriller this summer, Tears of the Jaguar.

Charlotte Viewpoint interviewed him in New York and at his office at the UNC Charlotte campus. The native of Preston, England, arrived in Charlotte nine years ago after living in Atlanta and teaching at the University of West Georgia. Hartley teaches at numerous writers conferences every year, but the New York conference for thriller/mystery writers is where he annually meets literary superstars from his home country, legends like Lee Child, Ken Follett, and Jack Higgins.

Why are so many British writers so successful in the States, from music to television to literature?

I think there is a value placed on language in the U.K. still. One of the ways you set yourself apart in England, especially if you don’t have a lot of money, is being clever through words. One of the things I notice when I go back is there is a level of verbal wit that you get from ordinary working class people in situations that you don’t expect. I do think that it is a way of claiming a sort of status. It is a form of self-performance that still values language. I like that.

I think you hear it in television, too. The sense of what television is in the U.K. is different from what it is in the U.S. Not necessarily better, but often it makes for a stronger, more interesting writing.

How does that sensibility play out in the thriller genre vs. literary fiction?

I think that is actually why I like somebody like Lee Child. He can tell what is effectively a very simple straight forward thriller story but the sentences work. There is exactitude to the sentences and a rhythm to the prose that is good. Not all thriller writers do that. Or can do that. Or choose to do that. This very Shakespearean style. The idea of using a mainstream medium in a sophisticated way is something that really appeals to me. And I will take that over most literary fiction, where it is all about the idea and emotions, but there is not a lot happening.

You and fellow British writer David Hewson have started co-authoring novel adaptations of some Shakespeare’s great works; first MacBeth and now Hamlet. How has that worked as co-creators?

I never sought it, I never looked for it, I never expected it. It happened completely randomly. We got to talking at an event [at Thrillerfest] where we were placed together by accident of alphabet and we produced a book which is proving successful in a number of ways. We had that first conversation two years ago. The book was written in first draft form in three months. That is Macbeth. It is also out in audio form with Alan Cummings reading it.

How does rewriting the Bard work for a Shakespeare professor?

David is known for these contemporary mystery thrillers he writes set in present day Rome. And he’s very, very good with location, with landscape, with architecture. The surroundings of a story that inform the way its characters function. So we knew with Macbeth that was something we wanted to explore, partially because we are making a transition from a play where there is no real setting, no visual dimension at all, because it is all dialogue, to a novel where you can actually paint those kinds of pictures.

How do you divide up the work with Hewson?

One of the things that immediately I took was all the combat stuff, all the battle sequences, because I had experience with that writing in fantasy. That was not something he felt comfortable with at all. So that was one broad delineation we came up with from the start. One of the advantages is that we complement each other. As far as Shakespeare, he is a general reader, a very successful writer, a journalist for much of his life. But he has no college. He was never an undergraduate.

And I am the opposite. I am the typically overeducated academic and a specialist in Shakespeare. I know in some ways too much about Shakespeare and literary criticism and literary history and performance history, and he is coming to Shakespeare with broader cultural associations and responding as a reader. Together, we can bring a more visceral response on his part and a more scholarly on my part to the text. Between us, we work out something to appeal to a wide number of people. We have started to work on Hamlet.

How does Thrillerfest and other writing conferences inform your work?

Every time I come, I feel recharged. Just being around people who are trying or already producing successful books and thinking about them and talking about them. Everybody knows it’s work and skill and you are always trying to raise the level of your writing. People achieve things and that is inspiring. It doesn’t have to be someone in the absolute top percent. There is plenty of very, very good work done by people we consider mid-list writers.

How does a conference in the middle of New York and the publishing industry help aspiring authors across genres?

I keep coming back because there are so many great people here. You have people like R.L. Stine here who looked at my children’s manuscript before I even found a publisher for it. And he gave me notes and advice and suggestions and a blurb for the manuscript. Thrillerfest has a different kind of polish from other conferences. A higher level of glitz and glamour. The presence of the major publishers and agents just raises the level of professionalism.

What are some other conferences you like?

Because I do fantasy, I do a lot of smaller fantasy conventions. Fantasy, sci-fi stuff. And the big ones like Dragon*Con. Dragon*Con is a different experience because it not all about writing. In fact, most of it is about other media, TV, and what have you.

What is it like living and teach at UNC Charlotte after nine years in Atlanta?

We have lived here for eight years. I came here specifically for this job. It is a good position for me. I teach one class a year in the English department and two a year in the theater department. My official home, my tenured home, is in the theatre department.

How does Charlotte compare to Atlanta?

I prefer Charlotte, because it is a lot more manageable. I was in Atlanta for nine years and I felt like I never got a handle on the city. There was always a high rate of turnover in Atlanta. Just when you decide you really like a restaurant it gets bulldozed and something else appears. I guess I am the only person that will say this, but I miss Atlanta traffic. When I used to work in Atlanta theatre, I used to love driving home at night, six lanes in each direction, right through the center of the city when it was all lit up.

What is it like for a native Brit living in two very young Southern cities?

My sense of history is very different from Americans. I grew up a mile or two from a church that was 12th century. So your sense of scale is different. I get less irate when someone knocks down a building that is a hundred years old, because to me, a hundred years old is nothing.

What advice would you have for writers looking for publication?

It took me twenty years to get published. I wrote eight complete novels. I wrote my first novels at age 19. I did not do any kind of writers’ conventions ever. I was very private, I did not show my stuff. When I was finished with a book I would show it to a handful of people and then I would send it out to agents and get rejections. It was a very solitary thing. And I didn’t have any sort of thing as a professional support group. So it took me longer to recover from rejection. I don’t know that I was learning from my mistakes.

If I had been doing these conventions, if I had been more connected to industry professionals, I might have taken it more seriously myself, and maybe I would have shaved some time off those 20 years.

How did you handle the early rejections?

Most of the time when you get rejections, they are massively unhelpful. If you get 50 agents saying “I liked it, I didn’t love it,” what am I supposed to do with that? Okay, so the next book I am going to make you love it? How do I do that? I don’t know. So I was in the kind of community that reinforced the sense it was a hobby. And that made it harder to devote a lot of time and energy to it. I was in graduate school or I was already teaching. My creative writing was very much on the side. Any time anything came up that required attention, the thing that would be pushed out for months would be the creative writing.

Did landing at UNC Charlotte help you get published?

It was not the nature of the job, it was being published. Once I had a contract that this was a real thing, the books were actually going to come out and I was going to make money off it, then I could take it seriously. And the year that I wrote my first thriller, The Mask of Atreus, I wrote three books that year. And I wrote three books because my son had just been born in fairly traumatic circumstances, because he was three months premature and spent the first six weeks in intensive care, and it was a wakeup call to me that all this free time I used to have is about to disappear. If I don’t get published now, I will never be able to justify the time it takes while holding down a career and being a new father. So that for year, I was home with him on paternity leave while my wife was working. My first one got me my agent who I have been with for ten years. But we could not sell the book. The second one was a murder mystery kind of thing, and we could not sell that either. And then I wrote Mask of Atreus is that was the one that broke through.

What are you working on now?

At the moment I am writing the young adult fantasy because it is under contract and needs to be done. The next creative project that I will be embracing is Hamlet as a novel with David Hewson. We are looking at other co-written projects. And then maybe some more adult thrillers.

Anything set in Charlotte?

My middle grade stuff is set in Atlanta, so there is kind of a Southern appeal. I have been working on one which is set in contemporary Charlotte, but I am not sure how far I will go with that.

Do you mix with other Charlotte writers?

Most of my connection to local writers is more genre specific. Most of the people I know are either in fantasy or sci-fi, some mystery and thriller as well in the area. And I see those guys a lot at conventions. I don’t tend to do literary groups, because that is not what I am interested in. I’m a Shakespeare professor. I get all the literary fiction I need there.

This piece is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.