Enter the players. There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us. Until that year, we saw no further than the books in front of our faces.
We, here at The Attic on Eighth, love a good novel that delves into the literary canon, plays with what we know, and then produces something of great value that’s all its own. M.L. Rio’s debut novel, If We Were Villains is just that. Dipping in and out of the present, IWWV tells the story of seven young Shakespearean actors who are faced with violence. The novel plays with the prose, borrows from theater, and creates a compelling story of drama, crime, lust, and friendship.
As you’ve already gotten by now, we wanted to treat If We Were Villains a little differently. We like to do more than just review books here on The Attic… we like to see how they affect our lives, how they make us feel, how they make us want to dress, etc. So, we started out our Villains series with a new take on the reaction post… with Editors Eliza and Rory texting out their feelings. Then, our Cocktail Expert Raquel thought about what the novel made her want to drink and concocted a new cocktail: The Friendly Betrayal. Finally, tonight, we’re doing what we rarely get to do and turning straight to the author herself to ask her a few questions.
Shakespeare has been such a monumental part of your life, and Villains was a response to that, obviously. Do you think you’d ever write something so inspired by him again? Or even recently, there’s been a few modern retellings; do you think you’d ever do something like that?
It’s hard to predict where the muse will lead you (if you’ll pardon the cliché), but it’s equally hard to imagine never writing Bard-based fiction again. If I’m being totally honest I have a few ideas in that category stashed away already, but not any direct retellings. I deliberately avoided doing that with Villains because, well, it’s been done. It’s been done to death, and I’ve always found the idea of retelling Shakespeare a little nonsensical, because it’s not as if you’re going to tell it better than he did in the first place… So maybe another Shakespearean novel in the future, but no retellings, and probably not for a while. Shakespeare has always been my primary academic pursuit, but I have a lot of other strong (some might say fanatical) interests, and I’m ready to do something different. No sense writing the same book twice.
You’ve stated there’s no plans for a Villains sequel, but with these little updates you’ve given us at the end, Alexander still on stage, Wren in London… With so many people likening Villains to The Secret History, do you think any of your characters would ever pop up somewhere else, à la Francis in The Goldfinch?
Did that happen in The Goldfinch? I didn’t even notice. I really don’t see myself doing it with Villains. I chose to end it the way I did knowing it would raise questions and I think to then answer those questions would lessen the impact and defeat the purpose. I understand the temptation towards self-reference, but personally I’ve never found a compelling narrative reason to actually do it. I think you risk ruining a good story if you don’t just let it be. And as much as I loved Villains, I don’t want to spend my whole creative career looking backward. I’m young and hoping to go on to bigger, better, more ambitious things.
From your social media, we can see that music is also a big part of your life. Was there anything in particular you had on repeat while writing Villains?
Music is a huge, indispensable part of my creative process (so much so that it spawned the whole next novel I’m working on). With Villains I listened to a little of everything, but the albums that got put on repeat were Agnes Obel’s Aventine, Daughter’s If You Leave, and Ludovico Einaudi’s In a Time Lapse. There was also quite a lot of Chris Cornell’s Euphoria Morning, bits of Band of Skulls, and some of Robert Plant’s recent stuff, particularly from Band of Joy and lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar. (The Villains playlist is a long one.)
If IWWV were to be picked up to become a TV series or a film, is there any specific request you would make? A specific actor for a specific role? Location?
I think the only thing I would insist on is hiring actors who have had good Shakespeare training. These characters know the Bard inside out and it would be impossible to play any of them convincingly without having that shared experience. Personally (if a screen adaptation ever happened) I’d also really like to see these characters played by relative newcomers. Far too often a story gets lost behind star power, and far too often we have actors in their mid-thirties playing twenty-somethings or (worse) teenagers. So much of this story is about the precarious uncertainty of adolescence, and I think it would be very difficult to do that justice with a bunch of actors who are ten years beyond it. Also, what better way to tell a story about struggling actors than to hire real struggling actors?
Can you bring us behind the scenes of your own writing process? How would one of your writing days be? It really depends what stage of the process I’m in. Outlining and character building are difficult to regulate so there’s no typical workday for that stage. You might find me lying on the floor beside the stereo staring at the ceiling and believe it or not, that’s a necessary part of the work. If I’ve started on a first draft that has a more recognizable pattern; I do a little math at the outset and figure out how many words I need to write each day to finish that first draft by the deadline I’ve set for myself. That way, when I actually sit down to work I have a schedule and an outline and all I have to think about is the prose. When I’m in the revision stage—and that’s the longest stage, by far; a first draft takes months but revision can take years—it’s about the same. I figure out how many pages I need to get through each day, then sit down at my laptop with my headphones on and a cup of tea or a glass of wine at my elbow and work until I meet that quota. Repeat as necessary until you’ve got something readable.
Is IWWV exactly how you imagined it would be on the very first day you started thinking about it?
Oh, hell no. It grew and changed through three years and 45 drafts of work and what’s actually in the hardcover could only be described as a distant (but much smarter and much better-looking) cousin of the first pathetic draft I put down on paper.
This one is a classic, a question you probably had been asked before, but do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Don’t romanticize writing, and don’t ever underestimate how much work it is. Way too often people seem to think that they should be able to do one or two drafts of their first book and sell it to Scholastic for a million dollars and become a literary celebrity. And I hate to burst that bubble, but it’s much more like you’ll spend ten years writing five novels that make you blush with embarrassment every time you so much as think about them, and then maybe you’ll write something that might be worth a reader’s time, but only after you strip it down like a used car and rebuild it from the ground up about a hundred times. And that’s just the beginning. Then you have to find an agent and an editor (no small feat) and rip it up again. Then there’s production and marketing and publicity and once the book actually comes out you’ll spend your days worrying about sales figures and trade reviews and Amazon algorithms until you want to cry. The best thing you can do for yourself is learn about the business and shatter your own illusions, because writing is hard no matter what but it’s just a tiny bit easier if you have some idea what you’re getting yourself into.
Your characters are cast in multiple Shakespearean roles as we go through the novel, did those castings bring new edges to your characters that you hadn’t explored previously?
Because I knew exactly who was going to play which role in which play at which point in the story from the start (I’m a meticulous outliner), there weren’t a lot of unexpected revelations, at least for me. Instead I’d say the casting choices I made serve to illustrate—and sometimes even exacerbate—the changing dynamics of the group. Frederick and Gwendolyn see the tectonic plates shifting and they alter their casting accordingly.
How did your own experiences in acting help to form parts of this novel?
It was essential. “Write what you know” may be trite advice, but it’s also good advice that way too many young writers ignore. Theatre is something I know, because I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. I’ve had pretty much every job you can have in a working theatre, onstage and off. And (like writing) it’s a strange, insular artistic world that’s impossible to imagine from the outside. I’d read a lot of novels that featured actors but rarely in a way that I found convincing and while I was up to my eyeballs in Shakespeare for my senior honors thesis, I realized that was a novel I could (and should) write. One of my favorite things now is hearing from people who have read the novel and have a theatre background, because so much of it is so familiar to them, whether it’s the anxiety of waiting for a cast list to go up or the horrible vulnerability of having your performance dissected by a professor in front of your peers. It’s a bizarre lifestyle, and I think it takes firsthand experience to really do it justice.
Can we ever hope to know the consequences of that twist in the final couple of paragraphs?
I’ve said all I want to say. I leave the rest to your imagination.
I’m dying to know, what’s your next novel about?
Well, it’s got nothing to do with Shakespeare—though I did throw one sidelong reference in there, which my agent immediately spotted and said, “You just can’t help yourself, can you?” Anyway, the only thing I really enjoy as much as I enjoy the Bard is 1970s rock bands. Might seem a strange combination, but they have quite a lot in common, actually. I think it’s the amalgam of high drama, low humor, and extravagant spectacle that I find compelling. So I wrote a road-trip/concert-tour novel that takes place in the summer of 1977, which was sort of the beginning of the end for classic rock in a lot of ways. It’s been outrageous fun.