Author Interview: Elise Broach on Shakespeare’s Secret

Shakespeare’s Secret by Elise Broach (Henry Holt, 2005). Hero knows her unusual name comes from a character in the Shakespeare play “Much Ado About Nothing,” but that’s no consolation on the first day of sixth grade at her new school. All the kids make fun, and she’s sure this year will be as empty as all the rest. But then Hero meets an elderly neighbor who tells her about a missing diamond, and much to her surprise, Hero finds herself becoming friends with one of the cutest, most popular boys in school. Ages 10-up. More on Shakespeare’s Secret.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

This is always the hardest question for me to answer. I’m never quite sure where my books come from… for me, the writing process is sort of like the Greek myth where Athena springs full-blown from the head of Zeus. There wasn’t a single source of inspiration for Shakespeare’s Secret; the book is more of a melting pot of influences and events.

In the winter of 1998, I took a children’s writing course with a friend through a local high school’s adult education program. Six of us formed a writing group after the class ended, and that summer we all decided to start novels. I had lived in England as a child and was a bit of a Shakespeare nut, and I’d always admired the play “Much Ado About Nothing” because it’s witty and fun but doesn’t shy away from the deeper themes of honor, reputation, and betrayal.

Originally, I thought I might write a contemporary version of it set in middle school (what better place to explore reputation and betrayal?), the way the movie “Clueless” transposes Jane Austen’s Emma to modern Beverly Hills. My family moved six times when I was a child, and I had the strange experience of occupying literally every level of the social hierarchy at some time during those years–sixth grade was actually my “popular” year, unlike for Hero–so I’ve always found those social issues interesting and resonant.

But then, as I was writing the story, it went off in its own direction. Over the winter, my children had been playing in the woods behind our house and found an old pewter tennis trophy stuck in the snow, with the date 1915 engraved on one side. It was like finding buried treasure. We were all completely intrigued, wondering who might have owned it and left it there. As a result, in Shakespeare’s Secret, the mystery of the diamond took center stage. It begin to eclipse the plotlines that were more closely based on the play, which was fine with me. In my writing, I’ve learned not to force things. Stories are like children; they have to be allowed to grow in their own way, in their own time.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I am indebted to my wonderful writing group–Claire Carlson, Anne Gaston, Mary Hughes, Laurie Krebs, and Peggy Thomas–for the fact that this novel was ever finished. We met every three weeks and I gave them a chapter each time. I had a baby and two young children at home, so the deadlines imposed by the group were incredibly important–even essential–in forcing me to write to the end. After a year and a half, I’d completed the book.

I spent a month or so polishing it, and then, in the spring of 2000, began submitting it. Over the next year, I sent it to eight or ten editors or agents and accrued a sheaf of rejections. They were full of contradictory advice. Some liked the mystery but didn’t like the voice; some loved the voice but thought the mystery needed more work; some thought it was “eminently publishable” (God bless that encouraging soul) but said it wasn’t right for their list.

Because I’m such a critical reader myself, I basically believed every one of them. The funny thing was, it didn’t really discourage me. I came to think that the book probably wouldn’t be published, but I was still so glad to have written it. It had shown me that I could write a novel, and that was such an empowering feeling.

Then, in late 2000 and 2001, I had three picture books accepted from the slushpile, and in 2002, I was able to get an agent based on my other picture book manuscripts. She asked if I’d written any longer fiction. I gave her Shakespeare’s Secret, which was originally titled The Finding Place. She liked it, and at my suggestion sent it to Christy Ottaviano, an editor at Henry Holt whom I’d heard speak at the New York SCBWI conference that winter. A few weeks later, in August 2002, Christy made an offer on the book.

In so many ways, Christy turned out to be the perfect editor for this project. We have similar backgrounds (she went to graduate school in English literature and taught high school English; I went to graduate school in history and taught college history) and she has a wonderful ability to be very analytical and very supportive at the same time. She was thorough in telling me what didn’t work, but her pure enthusiasm for the book was like a giant safety net that let me take the risks needed to make it better. As a writer, you sometimes feel like you’re crossing a tightrope in total darkness, one foot dangling over thin air. It’s a great comfort to know that someone is there to catch you if you fall.

In her revision letter, Christy asked a lot of questions, but she had enough confidence in me to let me find my own answers. By the time I started revisions in 2003, I’d become a very different writer than I was in 1998 when I began the book, partly through all the writing experience I’d gained but also through my life experiences in the intervening years.

While I was revising, I was caught up in the totally bizarre process of running for public office in the small town where I live. The campaign was full of challenges for someone who is congenitally frank in her opinions and addicted to solitude and privacy. Furthermore, since elections are essentially popularity contests, it gave me a firsthand, intense exposure to the questions of reputation and social power that plague Hero in Shakespeare’s Secret.

When I started revising, I knew there were lots of things I wanted to change about the story. I wanted to deepen the characterizations and the mystery, and make Hero more organically connected to the plot.

I also wanted to make the book more my own: something only I could write. (Actually, it changed so much in the revision that I began to worry it was something only I would read!) I’d always loved British history, especially the stories of Henry VIII’s wives, and I’d been interested in the Shakespeare authorship question for a long time. Those historical themes and my personal experience in the campaign became the keys to carrying the mystery and the story of Hero’s social adjustment to a different level.

I doubt I could have written this same book at any other time in my life. The Author’s Note at the end closes with a quote from “As You Like It”: “And one man in his time plays many parts.” I think for writers, different times in our lives set the stage for different selves, and create the possibility of different books (which are always the products of a particular mix of imagination and experience).

I finished all final edits to the book in the summer of 2004, and we were lucky enough to have Brett Helquist create a fabulous cover that captured both the intrigue of the mystery and the historical aspects of the plot. One of the most exciting things for me on the road to publication was the enthusiastic response from my son’s sixth-grade friends, who read early copies and turned out to be as fascinated by Shakespeare, Edward de Vere, and Anne Boleyn as I was (and these were boys!). The book was published in May of 2005, seven years after I started the first draft.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Oh, there were so many. Literary challenge: I don’t consider myself a mystery writer and Shakespeare’s Secret is unambiguously a mystery. I was hugely comforted to read recently that J. K. Rowling doesn’t consider herself a fantasy writer. Maybe there are more of us imposters in the writing world than I realized. At any rate, I rarely read mysteries and didn’t read many growing up, so I worried that I wouldn’t know how to write one. And truthfully, I was as interested in the human mysteries of the story–what makes a person popular? What makes a person ostracized? What makes a mother abandon her child?–as in the missing diamond and the Shakespeare/de Vere question. But I hope that those other mysteries just made the story richer.

Research and logistical challenges: layering all the details of the Shakespeare authorship question over the framework of the original mystery in three weeks, which was the timeframe for the revision. I have lots of British history books, I’d saved many articles on Edward de Vere and Shakespeare, and the Internet was helpful for filling in gaps, but the revision required lots of additional research.

Psychological challenge: I have a bad mix of character traits for a writer. I’m a total perfectionist but a terrible procrastinator. I’m obsessed with details but easily bored. I worry about showing too much feeling because I’m horrified by anything sappy or sentimental. So sometimes it’s hard for me to be messy enough and patient enough and fearless enough to make a book as great as it could be. But I try. About writing, Ernest Hemingway said, “The hell with playing it safe.” I really believe that. I’d rather read a book that fails in interesting ways than one that succeeds in all the usual ways…and I’d rather write a book like that, too.

Cynsational News & Links

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A Message About Messages by Ursula K. Le Guin from CBC Magazine.

An Interview with Novelist Marcus Sedgwick from ACHUKA.

An updated list of books nominated for BBYA 2006 is available at Genrefluent (scroll to read; includes links to teen comments).