Author A.J. Hartley darts through space and time, hurtling into a terrifying alternate universe with a middle-schooler in “Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact” or contemplating the destruction of Earth with museum curator Deborah Miller in “The Mask of Atreus.”
Andrew James Hartley plants his academic feet in the Renaissance. He is Robinson Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare at UNC Charlotte, an internationally known scholar and head of its Shakespeare in Action program.
And both of them are hot. Under Hartley, UNCC is more than halfway through a six-year exploration of the bard’s works; “The Shrew Project,” a deconstruction of “The Taming of the Shrew,” starts Thursday.
He and British author David Hewson are collaborating on novels that add historical and plot details to Shakespeare’s tragedies. Their grisly, audacious revision of “Macbeth” appeared in 2012, in print and an audiobook read by actor Alan Cumming. “Hamlet: A Novel” will come out in May with an audiobook by Richard Armitage, who portrays dwarf leader Thorin in the “Hobbit” film trilogy.
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Hartley recently published a scholarly analysis, “Shakespeare and Political Theatre in Practice,” and a performance history of “Julius Caesar” that he researched for five years.
His two identities diverged when he popped into the thriller marketplace a decade ago and was acclaimed “an overnight success” – after 6,000 nights of writing.
“My first novel (‘Mask’) had a female protagonist, so the publisher didn’t want a photo or full name on the jacket,” he explains. “I got reviews saying, ‘Ms. Hartley doesn’t like men very much.’ I took that to mean (the ruse) was a success.”
Nobody has called him “Andy” since his soccer-playing youth in Preston, Lancashire. (That city in northwest England, which is about the size of Greensboro, also produced “Wallace and Gromit” animator Nick Park and was once home to Ben Franklin.)
Young Andy played guitar and piano, painted oils and watercolor, and played “Dungeons and Dragons”-type games. (“I credit those partly with shaping the way I write fantasy novels.”)
Faculty at the University of Manchester told him to go to graduate school in the United States for better mentoring and more varied course work, so he entered the master’s program at Boston University and came out with a doctorate.
And he wrote – through the early years of marriage to pediatrician Finie Osako, nine years of teaching at the University of West Georgia and the birth of their son, Sebastian (he’s 11 and named for a character in the play “Twelfth Night”).
“I wrote my first novel when I was 19,” he says. “So there were 20 years of writing before my fiction was published, 20 years when I could have quit. I use the phrase ‘like an addict:’ If you can quit, you are not a writer. That’s how I process the world, by writing.”
By about the time UNCC hired him in 2004, he had become the hybrid he calls himself today. He’d edited the journal Shakespeare Bulletin, sold “The Mask of Atreus” (eventually published in 28 languages) and was establishing himself as an international authority on performing the Bard with “The Shakespearean Dramaturg.”
Tiffany Stern, a Shakespearean at the University of Oxford, calls it “the bible to Shakespeare troupes, professional and amateur alike. This field-defining book has made him famous throughout the worlds of theater, performance and Shakespeare studies.”
In her recommendation that UNCC make him a full professor, she praised “rigor, creativity and productiveness that are hallmarks of the best critics and thinkers, which he combines with dedication to teaching, consistent creative output and a strong international reputation for research.”
Academic and actioneer
Does this all sound a bit dry? Not so. Says his collaborator, Hewson, “This surprises everybody: When you get to the violent bits in the stories, where berserkers are decapitating people right, left and center, that’s Andrew, not me. He’s a devil with a broadsword – on the page, anyway. In person, of course, he’s a charming English gentleman.
“Andrew knows Shakespeare inside-out. I just have the usual preconceptions of the amateur. That odd mixture of academic knowledge and plain ignorance seemed to make sense. I’d prompt possibilities from him he might not have thought of. He illuminated some very interesting corners of the plays that had never occurred to me.”
They’re not bound by tradition, either. Their “Hamlet,” which Hartley calls “a ‘Game of Thrones’-y kind of thriller,” includes a dwarf jester sidekick, Yorick’s son, who gives Hamlet a target for his great soliloquies – but who may not be real.
The same freshness runs through the Shakespeare in Action program. It sponsors activities related to his plays, leading up to the 400th anniversary of his death in April 1616. Some have been plays, some symposia; one examined Elizabethan-era gardens.
“The Shrew Project” comes out of a class Hartley is teaching with Kelly Ryan. It consists of multiple takes on infamous scenes from “The Taming of the Shrew,” in which Petruchio “tames” assertive Kate to make her a properly submissive wife.
“How do we save this play from itself, so it can be done in a way people can watch it now?” he asks. “We don’t care what was intended 400 years ago. If you’re staging it in the present, you’re staging it for the present.
“How do you do ‘Othello,’ which was written for a white actor in blackface, today? How do you do ‘Merchant of Venice’ after the Holocaust? If you say, ‘Oh, it’s about the human condition,’ that’s a dodge. ‘Merchant’ was one of the things that led to the Holocaust, part of the anti-Semitic dialogue that went on.”
Farah Karim-Cooper, head of higher education and research at London’s Globe Theatre, says Hartley helped shape her approach to working with actors.
“He’s excellent in his discerning, critical, yet sensitive writing on Shakespearean performance,” she says. “Few scholars know how to negotiate the delicate territory of (working) with actors and directors while maintaining scholarly objectivity and credibility.”
A lucky man reflects
With his 50th birthday coming this summer, Hartley knows he’s in an enviable position: He has a secure job, so he doesn’t have to pay the bills with fiction.
In fact, “I still don’t think of fiction as a job. I’m lucky, in that I know I’ll never write a book I don’t want to write.” He can do both the “Caesar” guide, which retails for $100 and will go to college libraries, and thrillers costing a tenth as much that sell 150,000 copies.
He jokingly calls himself “an agent’s nightmare. They want you to be a Lee Child, a Tom Clancy, so the books are essentially the same. That’s one of the surest ways to be successful. But I’ve started and ended series, and now I’m reworking some old stuff.
“People think that, once you have your foot in the door, (fiction) is plain sailing. It’s not like that at all; it’s a rocky road all the time. But stopping isn’t something I can do.”