YA author E.K. Johnston on what we can learn from William Shakespeare

The Bard died 402 years ago on April 23; E.K. Johnston adapted his work for her YA novel Exit, Pursued by a Bear.
E.K. Johnston won the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award in 2017 for Exit, Pursued by a Bear. (Submitted by E.K. Johnston)

In Exit, Pursued by a BearE.K. Johnston's adaptation of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, cheerleading captain Hermione Winters finds herself in sudden freefall. After being sexually assaulted at a camp party, Hermione discovers she's pregnant. This powerful and thoughtful story won the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award in 2017.

Shakespeare died 402 years ago, on April 23, 1616, at the age of 52. To commemorate his legacy, we asked Johnston about what it was like to adapt one of his plays and what young writers can learn from The Bard today.

Are you a young writer who loves Shakespeare? CBC runs a unique writing competition called Shakespeare Selfie, challenging Canadian students in Grades 7 to 12 to write a monologue or soliloquy in the voice of a Shakespearean character about a modern-day current affairs event. The competition is open for entries until April 27, 2018 at 6 p.m. ET.

1. What made you want to adapt The Winter's Tale for a novel set in contemporary times?

It began as a joke. I was discussing with a friend if we thought we could write contemporary novels (i.e. no magic, no dragons, no one setting people on fire with their brains), and I said the only way I could do a high school novel was if it was a retelling of Acts 1, 2 and 5 of The Winter's Tale, only with cheerleaders instead of the royal houses of Bohemia and Sicily. It was five years before all the pieces fell into place, but even though I was kidding when I said it, it didn't let me go!

2. In what ways does Exit, Pursued by a Bear take inspiration from The Winter's Tale?

At its heart, The Winter's Tale is the story of the unshakeable friendship between two women: Queen Hermione and her lady-in-waiting Paulina. I wanted to take that friendship and write about it in a modern setting, because honestly, not that much has changed. White Dudes are still the worst. They shame women at every opportunity and society is designed to make it easy for them to do it. And yet, somehow, women stick together, and I love that.

3. What was the most challenging part about adapting Shakespeare for a modern-day audience?

Shakespeare is astonishingly adaptable, probably because he was adapting stories himself. The questions that he was writing about are questions we still have, which is probably one of the reasons he's endured so long (well, that and all the stealth innuendo).

4. One thing you and Shakespeare have in common is that you aren't shy about commenting on society's ills. What drove you to write a novel about a young woman's struggle in the aftermath of sexual assault?

Exit, Pursued By A Bear is a book about abortion, and how pro-choice could be stronger, and how the anti-choice movement destroys women at every level, when they are at their most vulnerable. I wrote it in direct response to MP Stephen Woodworth's bill to re-criminalize abortion. I lived in his riding at the time, and I was furious. It was about five years after I'd had the original "I should write a TWT re-imagining" thought, and when the Shakespeare and the fury collided, I knew I had a book.

5. What is one piece of advice you would offer to young writers?

Finish your stuff. I talk to so many young writers who are just overflowing with ideas, but who have never finished a project. In addition to the self-discipline you get when you stick to something to finish it (like, 90 per cent of writing is self-discipline, which is the worst), when it's finished, you can FIX it.

6. What lessons can young writers learn about the writing craft and satire from William Shakespeare's work?

The key to satire is to punch up. If you're laughing at someone who is already hurting, it's just bullying. Which is actually something I learned from Terry Pratchett, via Tumblr — when it comes to addressing famine's effect on the poor, Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake" is not satirical and Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal is satirical. Shakespeare's satire shines because he is poking fun at the powerful, and pointing out all the cracks in the accepted system.

I think Shakespeare's greatest contribution to writing craft is dialogue (which is often quite satirical; basically everything Mercutio says is  🔥🔥🔥, for example, and it's always aimed at someone who needs to be taken down a peg). Shakespeare's words were meant to be spoken, and he didn't even let a word's non-existence stop him from getting his point across. If nothing else, he' s a constant reminder to swing for the fences.