Shakespearian scholar M.L Rio saw her first book, If We Were Villains, land on UK shelves last month and the fictional thriller is a nail-biting ‘who-dun-it?’ inspired by the Bard. The 26 year old American penned the novel while studying for an MA in Shakespeare Studies at Kings College, London, and her protagonist has his own links to the playwright.
Oliver Marks is about to be released from prison after a ten year stretch for the murder of a close friend. He was one of seven young actors studying Shakespeare at a posh arts conservatory until one of them turned up dead. The evidence pointed towards Oliver but the detective who put him away is still plagued by doubts. As Oliver recounts the past, an intriguing tale of love, betrayal and obsession unfolds, leaving the detective – and readers – guessing until the very end.
I caught up with M.L. Rio to find out more about her nail-biting book, her deep love of Shakespeare and how she came to be the first person to stay in Hamlet’s castle in over 100 years.
Congratulations on the publication of If We Were Villains. I can’t wait to read it! You were studying Shakespeare at Kings College when you began the novel, but your background also lies in theatre. At what point did you feel inspired to write a book?
I’d actually been writing for a long time before I started my master’s at KCL, so I had four of five novels sitting in a drawer somewhere by the time I started working on Villains. That idea first took root in my senior year of undergrad, when I was working on Henry VI for my honors thesis.
How was your experience of trying to get a publishing deal as a debut author?
It was definitely overwhelming, but in the best possible way. Because I’d been to the Denver Publishing Institute in 2014 I had a fair understanding of how the process works, but no amount of research really prepares you for the emotional investment of getting your own work published. It’s both thrilling and terrifying.
You’ve trodden theatre boards and studied the greatest playwright of all time so weren’t your family and friends surprised to learn that you were penning a novel instead of a play?
The very first bit of Villains I wrote—that first scene where they’re all sitting around the library talking about the next day’s auditions—started as an exercise for a college playwriting class. That’s partly why I ended up writing so much of the story in that playscript format. However, I’ve tried my hand at writing actual plays before and don’t seem to have a knack for it. I think it has something to do with knowing that no matter how I see this place or these people, some director and a bunch of actors are going to come along and put their own spin on it. I’m a creative control freak and I have a hard time with that.
If We Were Villains is a provocative title, implying innocence as well as guilt but Oliver Marks has already served his time and isn’t interested in re-writing the past. What motivates him to finally open up to Chief Colborne?
Well, he’s getting out. He’s been behind bars for ten years and he’s really done nothing but think about all this. He needs to tell the story to someone before he can return to the real world and try to lead a normal life. Storytelling is a kind of catharsis. There’s a reason we say people ‘unburden’ themselves of secrets or ‘get something off their chest’—it’s a lot of weight to carry around. As he remarks in the prologue, secrets can be heavy as lead, and he can’t get a fresh start when he’s still struggling with that.
The book’s main characters are studying Shakespeare and you’ve clearly drawn on your own experience as well as the Bard’s texts to set the scene. How familiar do readers need to be with Shakespeare’s works to decipher the clues and red herrings in your novel?
Villains will definitely be a richer reading experience for anybody with a little knowledge of Shakespeare, but my editor did a wonderful job calling me out when things were totally obscure, so you should be able to enjoy the book even if you’ve never read a line of the Bard before.
Shakespeare often pushed the boundaries of obsession, betrayal and loyalty, creating villains we still love to hate. How dastardly and cunning are your protagonists compared to the likes of Iago and Lady Macbeth?
For the most part they’re really pretty hapless. While some of Shakespeare’s villains are quite cunning—Richard III leaps to mind—what makes them compelling is their humanity. The Macbeths are some of the most prolific killers in the canon, but they’re also subject to little human failings. Lady M talks in her sleep. Her husband is tormented by guilt and second-guesses their first murder after it’s already happened. On an even more basic level, he forgets to leave the bloody daggers with the grooms and almost gives away the whole scheme from the start. My little villains (if you will) face a lot of the same problems. They get themselves in much too deep and spend half the book trying to claw their way back out. That’s really the crux of the whole story; for me it’s much less about who’s responsible for the violence that takes place and much more about how seven people get to a fever pitch where that kind of violence is possible and what happens to them in the aftermath.
Shakespeare also had a way of teaching important life lessons with his plays. When readers finish the final chapter of If We Were Villains, what lessons do you hope they’ll walk away with (without giving any spoilers)?
I try not to write with a message in mind (I often find that didacticism comes at the expense of a good narrative) but I suppose the most glaring truth here is that morality is murky. The lines between the good and the bad aren’t always clear.
What would you say is the most Shakespearian real-life situation you’ve ever been in?
My life’s been far too dull to make any real comparisons here, but I will say that working in the theatre will always come with more than one kind of drama—particularly if you’re working with the same people or the same company for a long time. The last troupe I worked with in college made a sport of backstabbing and character assassination in true Shakespearean style, but I’ll spare you the gory details.
You were the first person to stay in Hamlet’s castle in over 100 years. How did that come about?
It was the most unlikely thing. Airbnb hosted a contest for one winner and a guest to spend the night of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death at Kronborg Castle (what English-speakers know as Elsinore). About ten different people sent me links to the contest so I decided I had better submit something. The application said entries in iambic pentameter would be accepted—which must have been a joke—but writing ridiculous things in iambic pentameter is a hobby of mine, so that’s what I did. Two weeks later I got a phone call from Denmark and the rest is history.
When I think of old castles, I think of ghosts and eerie draughts. Did you have any spooky experiences during your stay?
Our night in the tower was actually preceded by a rather lavish banquet—and a fair bit of wine—so we didn’t even get up there until about three in the morning. By that time we were both exhausted and slept pretty soundly. (I wish it were a more dramatic story.) But we did wake up at the crack of dawn and watched the sun come up over the water, with Sweden in the distance, and that was magnificent. Almost magical.
Lastly, is there a sequel or another book already in the works? What’s next for M.L. Rio?
Villains was always intended to be a standalone work and I think a sequel would weaken it, so that’s not very likely. But I have continued to write all through the publication process, and I have two other novels waiting in the wings (if you’ll pardon the pun). My agent is reading one of them right now, so I’m waiting on her feedback, but it’s very different from Villains. It’s a road trip novel set in 1977, so instead of Shakespeare you can expect a lot of rock and roll.
M.L. Rio’s book If We Were Villains is available now through Titan Books.