Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Interview with Jess Winfield, Author of "My Name is Will" a novel of Shakespeare

Jess Winfield's My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare is a tale of two men one is the tale of graduate student Willie Shakespeare Greenberg who, with superpsychedelic mushroom and a pound of marijuana in his possession, attempts to finish his thesis and prove his theory about Shakespeare's secret Catholicism. The other character is Will Shakespeare himself who, in the months leading up to his wedding, encounters his own psychedelic substances, attractive women amidst a secret attempt to deliver a mysterious package to a Catholic dissident.

Winfield's narrative is lively, his tale of Willie Greenberg and William Shakespeare provides a very different and entirely exciting view of Shakespeare and his work.

Kelly Hewitt: So, the moment I ready your biography I knew that the first question had to be about your stint as a writer of Saturday morning cartoons. Which ones did your write for and what was that like?

Jess Winfield: I worked on a dozen or more series, everything from hard-edged action series like Incredible Hulk and Iron Man for Marvel (boring) to Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse cartoons at Disney (fun) to the Emmy-award winning comedy Disney's Teacher's Pet (rewarding!). By the end of my 10-year stint in animation, I was producing as well as writing. Wrangling a couple hundred half hour episodes from conception to broadcast, I learned a lot about story structure... but also about the importance of revising, revising, revising until the last moment the product goes out the door. I learned not to become attached to every word I write, and the importance of workshopping material thoroughly (this also a holdover from my days in the theater). Producing also gave me a taste of marketing, promotion, art direction, design, new media, product tie-ins (I actually got to give creative notes on Lilo and Stitch Happy Meal toys... and, absurdly, pasta shapes! "I think the Stitch macaroni won't hold cheese very well...") These are all things that have been helpful in preparing and selling my novel.

Kelly: As a former actor myself and fan of theatre I was infinitely impressed to find out that you and your good friend Daniel Singer's The Reduced Shakespeare Company wrote The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). I have seen the play, which is a fantastic whirlwind of Shakespeare's plays performed by three actors, and was really inspired by the format. You debuted the play in 1981, how has public appetite for Shakespeare and history changed over that time period?

Jess: Well, thanks! Daniel and I recently worked on a revised, 20th-anniversary version of The Complete Works, and directed it at the Arts Theater in London's West End last summer. I don't think the public's appetite or lack thereof for Shakespeare and historical works in general has changed significantly since then -- although I'm thrilled that there's an uptick in interest in Tudor history thanks to mass media successes like HBO's The Tudors, the recent film The Other Boleyn Girl, and the two Elizabeth films with Cate Blanchett. But humor and the culture of comedy have certainly changed since 1981! Back then, the Reduced Shakespeare schtick was well ahead of the coming wave of post-modern mash-up humor. Doing a rap version of Othello or the Histories as a football game or interrupting Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy with a discussion of the week's events on General Hospital seemed pretty clever then; now it's pretty standard YouTube fare. And we used to have big arguments about language in our show; I was always in favor of a well placed "shit," maybe even a "fuck"... the other two boys always overruled me. But now we live in a post-South Park world -- and we're better for it, I say! Our revision of the show reflects that; it's a lot spicier than the old script. It also patches a lot of holes that we were too lazy or too young to deal with when we first wrote it.

Kelly: When is the last time that you performed The Complete Works (Abridged)?

The last time I performed the entire show for a paying audience was June 30, 1992. I've done bits of it here and there since, and Daniel and I did a staged reading of what we call The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (revised) last summer. We recorded it, so who knows, maybe it'll show up on YouTube someday. Funny, I really didn't expect that last performance in '92 would be "the last..." but I'm still in pretty good shape, so ya never know.

Kelly: I have also read that your father worked as a writer and producer for Walt Disney Studios and that too found your way to Disney as a writer and producer. Was there a lot of nostalgia attached to following in your father's footsteps? Perhaps more importantly, was there any nostalgia to be had?

Jess: Great question! To be sure, the Disney of my era was very different from that of my father's. He worked with Walt directly, for one thing (I met him when I was six). My father wrote all of Walt's folksy, sitting-on-the-desk introductions to The Wonderful World of Disney tv program; and if anyone remembers a film called "Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar," that was dad's. In fact, the lead character's name is Jess. My father used to tell me that he was never, once, asked to rewrite a single word of a script. Needless to say, the corporate culture at Disney is no longer quite so respectful of the Author's Intent. But during my years working on the Studio lot in Burbank, it was pretty cool to walk the same walkways, and eat lunch in the same cafeteria, and be able to point out to my friends and colleagues where my dad's office -- a few doors down from Walt's -- was.

Kelly: Secondly, did working for Disney as an adult do anything to change your childhood perception of Disney as the child of one of it's employees?

Jess: There comes a time in every Disney employee's life when, as they say, the pixie dust wears off. For me it was the moment when one of the many internal censors at Disney (there were more censors than writers on the show, if that tells you anything) informed me that if I wanted to make a cartoon where Donald was taking Daisy out on a lake in a canoe, they would both have to wear life jackets.

They're @#%$# DUCKS!!!

Kelly: We've seen quite a few books about William Shakespeare and his life over the last few years. What is it that your bring to your telling of his life that is unique?

In a word: fun. Most of the recent books about Shakespeare I'm aware of -- the brilliant Will in the World for example -- are attempts at biography. Because of the necessary limitations of biography -- facts and educated guesses only, please -- they are by nature conservative. Although I tried to be diligent about dates and locations, keeping the historical portions of my book at least plausible, I didn't even have to keep my portrayal of Shakespeare likely. I doubt, for example, that he was ever racked by Sir Thomas Lucy (though he was, apparently, whipped). Did he ever visit a witch to obtain an abortifacient potion and end up receiving a psilocybin-based hallucinogen, applied rectally with her broomstick? Probably not; but there's nothing in the historical record that says he didn't.

Kelly: I love the storyline involving Willie Shakespeare Greenberg and the writing of his master's thesis and Renaissance Fair drug dealings. How much of his character is based directly off of your own experiences from Renaissance Fair hopping?

Jess: I'm sure I will be asked often whether Willie is autobiographical. We certainly share some events and experiences, but there are more differences than similarities. Although I went to UC Santa Cruz for a year as an undergrad and I spent a lot of time on that library jitney to Berkeley, I never (sadly!) had sex on the bus. I never pursued a Master's degree. Willie was raised in Berkeley, a professor's son; I'm a Southern California kid, raised by a single mom, and my parents were both writers. The character of Mizti, Willie's stepmom, is entirely fictional; (if anything she was inspired by Bill S. Preston's stepmom in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.) As for drugs... I was never a dealer, that's for sure, but the giant psilocybin mushroom Willie delivers is based on one I saw in the dorms at UCSC. I spent a lot of time at the Renaissance Faires in California -- that's where the Reduced Shakespeare Company was born -- so all those sights, sounds, and yes, smells are based on memories. The characters there are mostly amalgamations of different people I remember from that time. But Willie comes to the faire as an outsider, which I never was. I appear as "myself" only in a cameo: one of the members of Short Sharp Shakespeare, portraying the "balcony," with my head under Juliet's dress.

Kelly: The reviews of the book have been very positive. Christopher Buckley, author of Thank You For Smoking, wrote that your newest book is "utterly delicious, original, witty, hilarious and brilliant" and finishes by writing that Shakespeare has never been so fun. Do you think that Buckley is getting at your legacy? The man who made Shakespeare fun, spirited, and perhaps infused with magical mushrooms?

That's certainly a legacy I'd welcome. (But, um, kids, don't do drugs. Drugs are bad, mm-kay?) But I also don't want to be pigeonholed as "the Shakespeare guy." In fact, that's one of the main reasons I balanced the historical half of MNIW with a more contemporary story. The fiction I'm currently working on is Bard-free. And although telling an entertaining story was my primary goal, I also hope that readers will appreciate the political elements of the story. I believe that all literature is by definition political, and in this election year I wanted the tale of William Shakespeare's pursuit by religious extremists, and Willie's pursuit by the heavy-handed and reactionary Reagan administration, to make a strong statement about tolerance, diversity, personal liberty, and the dangers of mingling politics and religion.

Kelly: I have heard mention of a blog that you've been writing for awhile, L.A. Food Crazy. What can you tell us about what fans of yours can find there?

Jess: 've always been a big fan of the ethnic food scene in L.A. We have such an amazing variety of cuisines from all over the world, and the Pacific Rim and Latin America especially. I always had friends asking me for recommendations, so I decided to start a blog to recommend and review places as I found 'em. It's a great place for me to blow off steam and have a little fun while keeping my prose muscles loose, and frankly to keep my name in front of colleagues and fans while I'm busy writing novels. I'm afraid I've neglected it a bit in the run-up to the release of MNIW. But I'm looking forward to getting back to it. I just found this awesome burrito place...

Kelly: By your own admission you're a guy of many hats and have moved in and out of different careers and focuses. Given the success of My Name is Will, what will you do next?

Jess: If only the success of Will was a given! I hope it does well enough that I'll be able to publish my second novel (on a foodie/literary history theme), currently in the works. I truly enjoyed each of my past careers, first with the Reduced and then at Disney. But in the back of my head I always had that gnawing feeling that I should be writing a novel. I loved writing MNIW, and hope to continue writing books and short stories until the end of my days. So, please, if you're reading this, go buy a copy -- and tell three friends... and then write that five star review on!

Oh, I'm also adapting The Tempest as an animated feature length film, which I would also produce, for Starz/Film Roman.


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