John Reed has attracted his fair share of controversy. His novel Snowball’s Chance, in which Snowball brings capitalism back to Orwell’s Animal Farm, generated criticism—and praise—from the right and left alike. His latest book, All the World’s a Grave (ATWAG), a pastiche of the lines from five of Shakespeare’s plays, is just as contentious. The subtitle “A New Play by William Shakespeare” says it all: Prince Hamlet goes to war for the daughter of King Lear, Juliet. When Hamlet returns he discovers that his mother has murdered his father, and married Macbeth. Visited by his father’s ghost, and goaded by the opportunistic Lieutenant Iago, Hamlet is driven mad by the belief that Juliet is having an affair with General Romeo.
12th Street: It has been said that we Brits are gluttons for punishment. After the reception your book Snowball’s Chance received from the Orwell estate, was it a natural progression to take on, as George Bernard Shaw quipped, “Bardolatry?”
JR: Hmm, I didn’t think about it like that. Maybe I do have it in for the Brits.
12th Street: Thank you. Was personal enjoyment one of your influences when deciding to take this project on, or was it something else?
JR: Oh, sure, I had a blast. I feel, on some level, that writers just do whatever they want and make up reasons later. That’s why some of their rationalizing seems so retarded to other people.
It didn’t hurt that Emily Haynes, my editor, liked the idea. I can’t say that was the single impetus, because I had taken a stab at the project in college—[and] not gotten anywhere—and written the first act in 2003. To be honest, even though Emily liked the idea I was suspicious of it, and I confess that I wasn’t compelled so much as I was consumed. Not an act of will, but an act of abandon.
12th Street: The project seems like a tricky one. Was this more difficult than making things up from scratch?
JR: The hardest part was getting the length down. That required me going deep into all the plays and poetry. I would guess I drew from every play. It took me as long to get the project to length as it did to draft it.
12th Street: What was your high-school English class experience like? Did you trawl through hours of word-by-word analyses of Shakespeare’s plays?
JR: I didn’t learn a single thing in English class. Well, maybe once, when a kid showed me how he could snort coke out of a ballpoint pen.
12th Street: You went to a private school, then.
JR: Public and private school.
12th Street: Did you enjoy Shakespeare when you were younger? Do you enjoy him now?
JR: I always liked Shakespeare, and I enjoy him now, too. The problem in high school was the choice of plays. They’d pick the comedies, because they thought they were easier. But Shakespeare isn’t funny. He’s more, like, larky. Swift and farcical, but rarely funny.
12th Street: Did you wonder who your audience might be when writing ATWAG?
JR: I’m hoping that all the pretentious people buy it. Those are my peeps.
12th Street: The Shakespearean elite.
JR: Well, those guys, I was hoping, would hate me.
12th Street: Won’t they be the only ones to fully appreciate what you’ve done—the people who have his stuff memorized?
JR: Yeah, they don’t seem to mind me at all, as it turns out, and they do catch some of the coy stuff. But I’m not sure they get more out of it than anyone else. Same with Snowball. You don’t need to reread Animal Farm, or know the Shakespeare. Everything you need is right there. It’s fast and fun, and all right there. That’s the idea.
12th Street: What did you feel the response was like to your ATWAG blog on the Penguin website?
JR: Crazy people were really mad at me about the Palin stuff. I doubt they even read the blog; they just looked at the sexy pictures. I do have one thing to add on that. The last day of my blogging, I invited everyone to a toga party in Downtown NYC next year, on 9/11. It’s on, baby!
12th Street: You’re crazy. Will you be Caesar? “Et tu, Palin?”
JR: Me? No way, man. I’m Cassius. Or Nero. Everyone loves Cassius.
12th Street: Nice. Do you have any other upcoming projects?
JR: Tales of Woe is coming out in 2009 with MTV Books. True stories that just get worse. Instead of sin, suffering, redemption—just suffering, suffering, suffering. Fifty pages of full-color art. After we finish here, I’m calling my editor back to talk about the cover. It’s sick. You can get a taste at talesofwoe.com. There’s not much on the website now, but the art, eventually …
12th Street: As the page loads you get a brief glimpse of the face of a man riding a bicycle. Was he based on anyone?
JR: Yeah, that guy was caught having sex with his bicycle. The hotel maids stepped in while he was at it. The maids called the police. He was arrested, charged, convicted, and put on a sex-offender list. That’s one of the few light stories in the book. Most of the stories end in death, or worse.
12th Street: Was the bicycle story based on real life?
JR: Oh yeah, all the stories in Woe are completely true.
12th Street: In Chuck Palahniuk’s afterword to Haunted, he says he’s seen people faint at readings of “Guts.” Do you think we are prepared for Woe, or should we be sitting down to read it?
JR: Uh, I thought I was prepared, and I certainly wasn’t. The stories in this book are sicker and more upsetting than anything anyone can possibly imagine. And, by the way, anything you can imagine, any horrible thing you can imagine happening to a person, it’s happened. Some people are not going to be happy about it. There’s a double dog rapist (a guy who raped two dogs) who scares me. He’s on the loose….
12th Street: So, are you worried the New School might drop you if Woe makes Robert Polito faint?
JR: Robert Polito—in one of the great acts of biography—wrote the book on Jim Thompson, who is probably one of the sickest maniacs to ever publish. A phenomenal writer, Thompson, but really demented. So, no, I’m not worried about Woe ruffling Polito.
12th Street: Okay, so one last question: Your last three books seem to have taken on politics, idolatry, and human sensibilities … What’s next? Religion? Rock ‘n’ roll?
JR: Well, I don’t know what I’ll write next. Tales of Woe takes on the western model of story—sin, suffering, redemption—that we see everywhere. From journalism to blockbuster movie to sitcom. The fact is, people don’t always suffer because they did something wrong, and things don’t always work out for the best. The model—sin, suffering, redemption—is basically a Christian construct. But I have to qualify that by citing the Book of Job. Woe, pretty much, is the story of Job, over and over again. But much sicker and more salacious than Job. And, you know, I don’t really “take on” any of these things. It’s more like I’m some dumb animal, some dumb, small animal, that just keeps running up against the same stone wall. Like maybe, just maybe, the next time, it’ll collapse.
John Reed is the author of the novels, A Still Small Voice (Delacorte), Snowball’s Chance (Roof/Seque), The Whole (MTV Books), the recently released All the World’s a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare (Penguin/Plume), and the forthcoming Tales of Woe (2009, MTV Books). He currently teaches at New School University, and is the books editor at the Brooklyn Rail. He has an MFA from Columbia University. More at johnreed.tv