Christopher Moore puts a silly spin on Shakespeare

Posted Monday, Apr. 21, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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The Serpent of Venice

by Christopher Moore

William Morrow, $26.99

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Audiobook: HarperAudio, $39.99; narrated by actor Euan Morton.

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There’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink quality to Christopher Moore’s nutty new novel.

In The Serpent of Venice, the New York Times bestselling author brings back one of his favorite characters, Pocket from 2009’s Fool.

In this outing, King Lear’s politically incorrect, tell-it-like-it-is jester goes to Venice, where he interacts with characters from two other Shakespearean plays, Othello and The Merchant of Venice.

Moore also swipes the plot of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, conjures up a side adventure with Marco Polo and gives Pocket an elicit love affair with a terrifying sea creature.

Because Fool was set in the late 13th century, Moore must bend time so that Othello, Shylock and the rest of Shakespeare’s 16th-century Venetian characters can inhabit Pocket’s world. And even though most of the characters are Venetian, everybody speaks English and curses like a bawdy Brit.

Add a weirdly satisfying combo of literary in-jokes and low sex gags to the mix and what comes out of the Christopher Moore meat grinder is unique and sublime.

We talked with Moore about The Serpent of Venice, which comes out Tuesday.

How did you come up with this crazy book idea? Did all of this madness pop into your brain fully formed, in one blazing flash of inspiration?

It’s actually a lot of little moments of inspiration.

I was in Venice because I was invited to speak at an event in northern Italy. In addition to the city being full of water, the streets are so amazingly narrow that your shoulders will brush against buildings on either side of you. It’s very claustrophobic. And pretty creepy at night. I thought, this is the perfect place for a monster story, with something coming out of the water and stalking people. So I put that in my notebook.

Also, I wanted to do something again with Pocket. I like writing him. He’s a character I think you can root for. Somewhere deep in his little anthracite heart, he’s a good guy with noble purposes. But what other of Shakespeare’s plays would he fit in? Well, there’s Othello and The Merchant of Venice, which would connect with the monster story idea.

Then I remembered that The Cask of Amontillado, the Poe story about a fool who gets walled up in a dungeon, was set in Venice, so that’s how that comes in.

The challenge for me, then, is to make it work. Which is harder than it sounds, but I guess that’s why they pay me.

Do readers need to brush up on Shakespeare to enjoy the book?

It wouldn’t hurt to know the plays, but I don’t think it’s necessary to read them first. When I wrote Fool, I found that, for a lot of people, it was their first exposure to Shakespeare since college or high school, but they were able to enjoy the story and have fun with the artifice of it.

The book has characters from Shakespeare, but let’s face it: The title just as easily could have been 40 Leering Sex Jokes in Search of a Plot. It’s essentially just a funny novel.

Aside from Pocket, which of Shakespeare’s characters did you most enjoy reimagining?

I liked writing Emilia, Iago’s wife. In Othello, Iago is an archetypal pain in the butt. I mean, next to Richard III, he might be the most villainous character in Shakespeare. He does a lot of mustache twisting.

In the play, Emilia is there basically to act as a utility to the plot. But in my book, she’s sassy and takes the stuffing out of Iago in every scene she appears in.

But my favorite character was Jessica, Shylock’s daughter. It was fun making her leave home and become a pirate. Arrr!

You might be the first and only author in the business to wear a court jester’s hat in his book jacket photo.

It’s fun. But don’t get the wrong idea about me. I don’t wear it to the airport or anyplace like that. I can be silly, but I’m not that silly.

When you were starting out, before your first book was published, before you had a following, before you became a genre unto yourself, was it hard to get in the door because publishers, editors and agents couldn’t understand what you were doing as a writer?

It was. And for exactly the reason you said: People didn’t know what I was doing. People are more comfortable when you can put a label on something, like “It’s Michael Crichton meets John Grisham.”

The editor who acquired my first book at St. Martin’s told me about the conversation they had when deciding whether to buy it [1992’s Practical Demonkeeping]. They said, “We don’t know what this is, but Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut get away with goofy stuff like this, so maybe we’ll give it a try.”

So if it weren’t for Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut, I wouldn’t have gotten through the door. And here I am now, on the shoulders of giants.

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