Andrea Chapin introduces us to a young, charismatic and nakedly ambitious William Shakespeare in her elegantly-written historical novel The Tutor


Andrea Chapin (c) Ric Kallaher
The Tutor
is your debut novel. What were you doing before this?

“When I started The Tutor I had been, for almost 15 years, a book doctor. That is someone who works on other people’s books before they are published, often with an agent or sometimes with an editor. It’s now over 250 novels and memoirs that I have worked on. It’s fairly anonymous, maybe an acknowledgement or line saying thank you, but usually not even that. Because no one wants to publicise that they had someone work on their book before the actual editor worked on it.

“I had been doing that non-stop for quite a while, but I had always wanted to write my own novel and it hadn’t worked out yet. I think I had, in my own journey, reached a point where I was really wondering, ‘Am I going to write my novel or not?’”

Was there a catalyst that brought the novel about?

“My brother-in-law said at Thanksgiving, ‘Everyone in the theatre world is reading this amazing book, James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare:1599!’ I thought it sounded like something I would really like to read. Looking at one year of Shakespeare’s life from many different angles – from the political, from the religious, from the economical. But that was all.

“Then, a couple days before Christmas, I was buying presents, last-minute books to put under the tree. And there, sitting in paperback, was this book my brother-in-law had mentioned to me. So, I bought it, wrapped it up, and put it under the tree for myself.

“It was a larger gift than I had anticipated. When I started reading it, I was completely fascinated, and I was especially fascinated by the prospect of the lost years. What was Shakespeare doing during chunks of his life? I thought to myself, ‘This is the job of a fiction writer – to imagine what Shakespeare was doing!’

“Part of that curiosity goes back to that I have worked with a lot of authors and I have seen their names before then they showed up on the New York Times Bestseller List. I also taught fiction workshops at NYU, and worked with a lot of authors who were just beginning, who were just launching.

“I began mulling over this idea of the lost years and what Shakespeare was doing before his name ever appeared in print. I kept thinking, ‘Even though Shakespeare feels like like a god, a huge force in our world, he was a person’.”

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Why did you decide to tell the story from Katharine’s point of view?

“I decided I couldn’t write it from a male point of view, and thought, ‘What if I created someone like me? Someone who has worked very collaboratively with authors, helping them create plot lines, really helped them develop their books. What if a character like that worked with Shakespeare? And that is how the whole thing launched. I started fooling around with it, toying with it. And interestingly, I have to say that when I started writing Katharine there was something very magical, almost chemical, about it. The Tutor came from a more honest place in my own voice than anything else I had previously written.”

In your story Shakespeare is complex and oftentimes a bit unlikeable. Where did that version of the Bard come from?

“I wanted to veer away from the warm and fuzzy Shakespeare. Not that there has been one, but in Shakespeare in Love – which I love – he is just so adorable. I had my own ideas about developing a character that ended up being fairly ruthless and narcissistic, but still very compelling. Sometimes those people can be not the nicest, but still be extremely intriguing and dazzling because of their brilliance.

“While I was doing research, I read a lot about Picasso and Françoise Gilot, one of his partners. She wrote an amazing autobiography about what it was like to be Picasso’s muse. She really is the only one of his muses who escaped with her life, in a way. She had to leave him – he was sleeping with someone else but he also couldn’t let go of her.”

“I was taken by that aspect of the muse and the artist. And also, when you do read what there is about Shakespeare, it assumed that he didn’t really go home much. Early on he had three children, and by 24 or 25 was probably in an acting company. By 27 or 28 his name appears in London and then he is really in London. He does not return to Stratford as his home until a couple years before he dies.

“What also struck me was the type of ambition that he needed was so huge. I am not saying that every ambitious person is a narcissist, but I played around with the idea that this person had to want it so badly that he would use people, and not be the greatest dad or husband, because he wanted to get where he wanted to go. And he did!

“Not only to write the sort of poem that he wrote with Venus and Adonis, and get a patron like the Earl of Southampton – that is amazing. But also to decide not to be just a poet, not to be just a player, not to be just a playwright, but actually to be a businessman too and be a part of the company. That shows incredible ambition.”

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Where do you think that ambition could have come from?

“Well, his father. We don’t know if John Shakespeare could read or write, but he held about 15 positions in Stratford, ending up being the equivalent of the mayor of Stratford. That is an ambitious man. Shakespeare saw that. John Shakespeare also applied for a coat of arms, and married up – Mary Arden owned the property his parents worked on. To send your child to grammar school you had to have a certain political standing, and John Shakespeare made sure he had that. Shakespeare had, as a role model, an extremely ambitious man.

“So Shakespeare is someone who saw this ambition and then something happened. Was the father a catholic? Was he a drunk? Was he ill? We don’t know. But something happened and his father stumbled, right at the time when Shakespeare would have gone on to Oxford. Someone with Shakespeare’s skills would have the opportunity, but right at that time his father’s fortunes failed and Shakespeare had to go off to make money, changing everything.”

Can you give us a glimpse of your process and research?

“In the beginning of all of this, an agent that I doctor for asked if I had read any good books, and, since I had just written the first couple chapters of my book, I mentioned that James Shapiro’s book had kind of changed my life. And she laughed, and said that he was one of her clients. Things progressed, she put us together, and Professor Shapiro was extremely generous in information. I could email him and he opened doors in terms of where I needed to go for research. That was terrific.

“Before I opened Shapiro’s book, I had always enjoyed Shakespeare but I hadn’t been obsessed with Shakespeare. It was when I started digging into the research, and all of his plays, and each sonnet, and then the poems, that I became truly obsessed.

“I felt like I had to familiarise myself with what was going on in literature during that time. I delved into Philip Sidney, and other contemporaries. I went back to Ovid, and often had three different books in front of me with different annotations – the translation that Shakespeare would have used and two more recent translations. Then, once I went to Ovid, I could see where so much of the poets of the time, certainly Shakespeare, got the seeds that became their works.

“In my journey, I joke that I have given myself at least a master’s, maybe a PhD, in Elizabethan literature and history on my own. I really thought it was important to see what his influences were as much as I could. That’s why I brought them in and had so much fun doing it.”

The Tutor

What do you hope readers will take away from your novel?

“I would love for my readers to learn about Shakespeare and his life as they, hopefully, enjoy the story. I had a lot of fun playing around with Venus and Adonis because it is such a wonderful and really sexy poem. I would love for readers to become curious about those other works of his.

“Reviews have said that the situation of Kate and the other characters is one we’ve all found ourselves in, like when our friends say, ‘What are you doing with him?’ and someone says, ‘You just don’t understand!’ And that makes me so happy because, overall, I wanted to achieve a story that people could relate to now. I wanted to make these characters not feel ancient or archaic – not just Will and Kate, but the larger context of family and her relations.
I wanted them to feel like contemporary folks.”

The Tutor is published in the UK by Penguin on 26 March, priced £7.99

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