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NEAL CONAN, Host:

Christopher Moore previously told his readers the story of Biff, Christ's childhood pal. So Shakespeare does not seem too lofty a target. In his new book, Moore takes the Fool's license to amuse and offend and retells the searing tragedy of King Lear as a raunchy comedy.

If you'd like to talk with him about sending up Shakespeare and making the bard bawdier, our phone number is 800-989-8255. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you could join the conversation at our Web site, that's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Christopher Moore joins us now from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco. Nice to have you back on the program.

CHRISTOPHER MOORE: Thanks a lot, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I hope to begin by asking whether you saw that newly discovered portrait of a young Will Shakespeare that's been in all of the papers this week.

MOORE: I absolutely did. I have a piece in the Chronicle today about the portrait. I thought it was terrific.

CONAN: Young heartthrob there.

MOORE: Well, the piece I wrote, I thought that at last we have a face to match the words. You know, we are all beautiful in love, I said in the piece I wrote, and it's basically all these amazing poetic images of human passion and suddenly we have this guy that looks a lot more like Joseph Fiennes in "Shakespeare in Love" than Mr. Whipple with a quilt pen as his old portrait was. So I think it's terrific.

CONAN: And some people might wonder why the author of "You Suck" has been so entranced by Shakespeare over the years.

MOORE: I think if you work with language long enough, you just realize that you're going to encounter Will at almost every turn and he said whatever you have to say except that he said it 400 years ago and in iambic pentameter.

CONAN: Yeah. We're just glad there wasn't broadcasting then.

MOORE: Exactly. Imagine the material we would have burned at that point.

CONAN: Exactly.

MOORE: So I think it's been a fascination that goes on with just sort - if you're an athlete, then you look at those who - those people who are really extraordinary. And if you're a writer, I think you have to look at who I think is the greatest genius in language of all time.

CONAN: And you looked, of course, not just at King Lear; you managed to swipe material from almost all of his other stuff too.

MOORE: I did. I think there's material paraphrased or quoted from about 14 of the plays and a couple of the sonnets. So yeah, I peppered it all through there, and I sort of lived in Shakespeare's world for about two and a half years while I was writing this book.

CONAN: Though I don't think he ever saw a play of his called - staged - called "Green Eggs and Hamlet."

MOORE: Well, yeah, there was that. I think that was just an homage, for that's when I learned to rhyme, was reading Dr. Seuss. And so at the point where Pocket the Fool encounters a wagon full of players on the road, they are performing "Green Eggs and Hamlet," so you know - to eat them or not to eat them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: So, yeah. I did sort of incorporate a few modern references.

CONAN: And a few - well, as one review said, he stoops - he doesn't deign to stoop to any joke, including naming one town Lint-upon-Tweed.

MOORE: Well, that's - that was just a fun tradition to do, all these bizarre - I mean, if you go to England, you see all of these real places like Worms Head, and Pudinho(ph) and things like that. And so, to have dog-snogging on (unintelligible) and - which, you know, Thos(ph) is a real river, actually.

CONAN: Yes, it is.

MOORE: And...

CONAN: And there's one in France, too.

MOORE: Exactly. And the - what's the other one? Bottom water crash. Some of the places - it was just fun making them up. I didn't - when you start having fun with language, you sort of - I had a hard time getting - stopping myself at that point.

CONAN: And it is such a great story, but not a lot of people who've read it, you know, really thought, you know, not enough jokes here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: Well, I think what it is is the character - is you have this, really, the most compelling character to me, and perhaps it's because of what I do - was always the fool. But he just sort of disappears halfway through the play, and he's the only one who seems to have any sense of reality going on among Lear and his daughters and all the noblemen who were just being scoundrels behind the heiresses. And, so, I just thought, more came out of character and then, of course, you know, he being a fool, he would be funny, I would think.

CONAN: And the fool, I mean, where is that funny hat, the motley, to symbolize the fact that while he can get away poking fun at the king and all of the royal retinue because, well, he's - well, he's supposed to be impotent? Not so much, in your case.

MOORE: Not so much. He sort of makes up - my version - Shakespeare doesn't actually name the fool. I've named him Pocket, and it's because he's very small. And he was an orphan and found at a nunnery. And they carried him in their apron pockets. And therefore, he got the name Pocket. And so, to sort of make up for his political impotence and his small size, he basically seduces everyone in the castle that'll stand still for him. And that became the motivating character aspect of that - of the story for me in "Fool," rather than in "Lear," where it's just treachery and grief.

CONAN: There's plenty of treachery and grief, don't get me wrong. The - blood flows through his book.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: Well, yeah, there's tons of murder, but also, you get a lot of shagging with it, too. So, it's, you know, it's two treats in one.

CONAN: Our guest is Christopher Moore. His most recent book is "Fool," which is a rewrite of Shakespeare's "King Lear." If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Let's start with Rick. And Rick's with us from Quantico in Virginia.

RICK: That'd be Quantico in Maryland.

CONAN: Ah. Oh, go ahead. I apologize.

RICK: It's not a problem.

CONAN: There is one in Virginia. I just...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RICK: I know. This is about one street long. I was wondering - and thank you so much for taking my call. I have every one of your books, Christopher. And I've enjoyed every one of them. And the only problem I have is I cannot imagine what goes on in your head when you're thinking up stories like this, and where do you draw all your characters from and your storyline from?

MOORE: Well, it - almost every review that's done on my books, they just accuse me of taking drugs while I'm writing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: So I'm just going to go with that. Pretty much I'm just wasted all the time. No, I think that it's just my default setting for a reaction to the world is funny. And so when I read something as horrible as the tragedy of "King Lear" - and horrible in the sense of the tragedy of the family in it - my reaction is, well, how can I make fun of this? And so it's something that comes very naturally to me.

CONAN: At least in the book itself, there's a more specific story you tell about the origins of how you got started on this.

MOORE: Exactly. Well, this was - I wanted to write about a fool before I wanted to write Shakespeare because I wanted to write about someone who could speak truth to power. And it had seemed for the last eight years or so, the only people who are actually telling me what was going on were comedians. And so I thought, well, I'll write that in historical sense.

And it was my editor, Jennifer Brehl, in New York that suggested I do Lear's fool. And that was easy enough for her, but it sort of set the bar pretty high for me.

CONAN: Yeah. Why did you try Shakespeare?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: Yeah. Because you have all that extra time on your hands. And it was great. And I hadn't had Shakespeare since 10th grade, so it really was starting from scratch with me. And - but what a great adventure it was - really happy that I did it.

CONAN: How did you research it?

MOORE: Started - well, I want to England a couple of times and went around looking at old stuff, because they keep it there, and just wandering around castles and looking at the department of pointy things, which every castle apparently has.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: And sort of get - trying to get a feel for the medieval world, because the play isn't really specifically set in any time or place. You get the feel that it's about the 12th century, but it's not really set in any particular time. I guess it is set in a place. So, I spent about a month in...

CONAN: Sometime after Arthur and before Elizabeth.

MOORE: Yeah. But there's all sorts of pagan aspects in it, you know, because the real Lear lived in 400 B.C., if what we know about it is true, which means there were no castles, or dukes or earls. It was a mud hut with an old man ranting at the storm. So, I sort of had a license, in that respect.

So, I spent a month in England and wandering around France looking at old stuff and then started reading the plays, listening, more importantly, listening to the plays because I needed to be able to write a sort of Elizabethan hybrid language that Americans could easily understand and have fun with. And so, I had to do that by ear. It couldn't be done mathematically, or I couldn't do it mathematically, anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Rick, thanks very much.

RICK: Cool. Thank you so much.

MOORE: Thanks, Rick.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we go now to - this is Kate(ph). Kate with us from Louisville.

KATE: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

MOORE: Hi, Kate.

KATE: I am an English teacher, and I have a couple of comments about this. First of all, I'm thrilled that this is - that you are doing this. Shakespeare is supposed to be bawdy and irreverent and not taken very seriously. And even when he wrote it, he took things that were kind of sort of historical and then twisted them to make political points.

And 400 years later, we have this concept of Shakespeare as very, very high class. And, you know, oh, no one could ever possibly understand it. And he wrote for almost the lowest common denominator with the idea that people were going to come because they wanted to see blood and guts and, you know, sex and stuff on stage.

And so, to take something that even though Shakespeare did not intend, perhaps this particular play, to be historically funny, to take something like that and twist it to kind of show today's audience a different version of what Shakespeare can be, just, you know, makes me quite happy as someone who tries to do that in my life as a teacher.

MOORE: That's great to hear. I think that, you know, not only was Shakespeare bawdy, but how bawdy would he have been if he hadn't been dealing with the rise of Puritans, which was going on...

KATE: Right.

MOORE: ...in England at that time. So, I think that...

KATE: (Unintelligible).

MOORE: You know, because I have the First Amendment and I'm not going to have my hands cut off because Elizabeth...

KATE: Right.

MOORE: ...you know, was known to do that to writers she disagreed with. I have a lot more license and I guess I used it on this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: But I'm glad it worked for you.

KATE: Well, good for you.

CONAN: You burned it all, Christopher.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: Thanks a lot.

KATE: Well, I just wanted to say, thanks very much. And I love your comment about taking something in, you know, character and speaking to something politically because at his heart, at his core, that's what he did all the time. You know, he changed his plays based upon, you know, the monarchy he was under. And so, I really appreciate someone seeing that and changing things, again, today because that's exactly what he would've done if he were still around. He would've changed it again to make his own point.

CONAN: And we're all groundlings here, Kate.

KATE: Precisely. I'll take my peanuts off the air.

CONAN: Okay, thanks so much, Kate.

MOORE: Thanks very much.

CONAN: We're talking with Christopher Moore about his latest book, "Fool." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Bobby's(ph) with us on the line. Bobby calling from Duluth.

BOBBY: Hi. I am horrified at the thought of turning "King Lear" into a tragedy into a comedy. It's the greatest tragedy of all time. I saw Sir Ian McKellen act it last fall and it was a life-altering experience. And the reason the "Fool" goes away is because the need for a sense of reality must vanish.

MOORE: Okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: Good for you. I have plenty of tragedy in the news. I just decided that I would see what I could do.

CONAN: And are you going to give the book a try just to see how it goes?

BOBBY: Me?

CONAN: Yeah.

BOBBY: No, not at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOBBY: I think you can't just read "King Lear." You must see it acted. It's such a different thing when you see it on the stage. A book just won't do it, either his or yours.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much, Bobby.

MOORE: Okay.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see, this email from Amanda in Charlotte, North Carolina. I just finished "Fool" and passed it along to my mother, a retired professor of English literature. Though, she loved Mr. Moore's previous works, especially "Lamb," I admit that I braced myself for a discussion on proper interpretations of Shakespearean prose when she finished the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I couldn't have been more wrong. She loved it and even passed it along to some of her former colleagues in the English department. Maybe Mr. Moore could have that put on the cover of the paperback edition of "Fool," now English lit professor approved.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: You know, it's really funny, my other book, "Lamb," it sort of has this - I get a lot of notes from teachers that say, I can't really give this to my students because I'd lose my job, but I sort of pass it to them under the desk and tell them, especially my bright students, that I think there's just that better feeling, cookies stolen or tastes so much better, that - you know.

So, I don't know if this is going to be taught in literature, certainly not at a high school level. But, you know, I didn't think that about "Lamb" either and it's being taught in at least three seminaries in the Midwest. So, who knows? But I think it's...

CONAN: I didn't know that. I was going to ask if you got more grief from "Lamb" or telling the story, if readers don't know, about Christ's story told by his best friend Biff, or we're taking on Shakespeare here.

MOORE: Well, you know, "Lamb" came out six years ago, so I've just had more time. But there was almost no negative reaction to that at all, Neal, which was a big surprise to everybody.

CONAN: Disappointment to you, I'm sure.

MOORE: Well, you know, we paid people to burn it and they wouldn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: But - and it really has been sort of accepted by people of faith, which, again, was mortifying to me. But I have no idea what to expect. So far, it seems that the people who are more familiar with Shakespeare like this better because it gives them a touchstone. And that was the best I could hope for.

CONAN: Let's go to Mike. Mike with us from Ocean City, Maryland.

MIKE: Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Okay.

MOORE: Good.

MIKE: I want to let you know you're one of my favorite authors. And my question was - is, are any of your characters in any way autobiographical, like maybe Theo Crowe or Tucker Case?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: He's referring to some of the earlier books. I write rascals quite a bit, Mike. And that's - and I think that I may have that spirit. I'm not nearly as outrageously brave as many of my rascals that I write, including Pocket in this book, but I think the rascal spirit must reside in me somewhere. And so that's the autobiographical part.

Some of the characters in my earlier books that hail from the Midwest and go to California, as part of the story, sort of follows my biography as a young man. So, I suppose that Tommy from "Bloodsucking Fiends" might be autobiographical a little bit. But the other guys, the real rakes, I don't know that if I have that. I have more talent with a pen than I really have any other way.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MIKE: Well, great. Thanks for answering my questions. I love your work.

CONAN: Okay.

MOORE: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Thanks, Mike. And I think we got time for one more. Let's go to Beth. Beth with us from Baton Rouge.

BETH: Hey, this is really exciting to talk to you, Christopher Moore. You're one of my favorite authors.

MOORE: Thanks, Beth.

BETH: I just have to tell you, lately, I've been trying to revisit the things that I was supposed to read in high school, but didn't really enjoy, and I'm reading "Fool" right now. But reading "Fool," I cannot touch Shakespeare. You have ruined Shakespeare for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BETH: I'm really enjoying this book. I think it's...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: My work is done here if I've ruined Shakespeare for one person.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOORE: Then I have done my job.

BETH: I'm really enjoying it, so thanks for writing it.

MOORE: Well, good. The people keep asking, by the way, that whether they should read "Lear" before they read this. First, I don't think there's a prerequisite to it, but I also think that it's so divergent from the original that it almost - it might be a disappointment. If I were going to read them in any order and I weren't familiar with "Lear," I would certainly read "Fool" first and then read "Lear." And then it might even be funnier to you in retrospect.

CONAN: And I have to say, I've read them both. And I don't think - if you read "Fool" first, it's not a spoiler.

MOORE: No. Because it's not a tragedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BETH: Well, yeah, but it's the language between the two. I mean, I found Shakespeare to be a little bit dry. And...

CONAN: Oh, give it another try. I think you might enjoy it.

BETH: Okay, but I'm going to finish "Fool" first.

CONAN: Okay.

MOORE: There's a couple of editions of "No Fear Shakespeare" and I think, Shakespeare Simplified, where they do a translation into modern English on the opposite page, on the facing pages, that's a great thing to experience if you're going to read Shakespeare.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: Christopher Moore, thanks very much. We're going to have a translation into Elizabethan English on the opposite pages of "Fool."

MOORE: Very good. Thanks a lot, Neal.

CONAN: Christopher Moore's latest book is called "Fool." You can find an excerpt at our Web site, if you're up for it, at npr.org/talk. His other novels include "You Suck" and "Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Child's Christhood Pal." With us today from KQED in San Francisco.

Tomorrow, it's Science Friday. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at the hunt for subatomic particles. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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