American author Chris Adrian had thought about retelling a Shakespeare play for years.
At different times he’d toyed with Titus Andronicus, did what he liked with As You Like It, and puzzled over A Winter’s Tale (well, haven’t we all?).
But he’d scrapped each effort after getting just a few pages in.
Then he moved to San Francisco to take up a new job – he’s a paediatric oncologist, of which more in a minute – and started commuting, by foot, through the city’s stunning, iconic and rather notorious Buena Vista Park.
This was when things began to fall into place and he realised that if Shakespeare’s fairy folk Puck, Oberon and Titania from A Midsummer’s Night Dream had ever emigrated to the US, then it was surely here, in the middle of San Francisco’s licentious melting pot, that they would end up.
“The idea of this city as a container for illicit, transgressive or unusual activities is an old one,” Adrian drawls on the phone from his part time home in Boston. “There is something of a tradition of thinking of that park in that way too – and for good reason.
“Buena Vista is a place people go to do drugs and to have sex. The San Francisco landscape is physically striking all over: but the way that park looks in particular, especially at certain times of the day, made it a short stretch of the imagination to think of it as a place where something unusual or magical going on there.”
The result is The Great Night, which melds realism with magic and fantasy in a grown up way. [It's getting some great reviews, like the Guardian's at this link here...] To put it bluntly, while Shakespeare’s fairies glitter with an ethereal, unworldly quality, Adrian’s are decidedly more down and dirty.
Laughing at the description, he explains: “In early drafts of the story I was trying to stick more to what evolved with the original plot and in terms of the characters, having them look a lot more like they did in the play.
“But as I went over it more and more I felt more liberated to change them for the story I was telling. Puck in particular is pretty different.”
The sprite, indeed, which Shakespeare portrayed as a mischievous troublemaker, is transformed here into a bloodthirsty killer.
“My earliest reaction to the play was always to be a little afraid of Puck, though he is relatively benign he always seemed like such an agent of chaos,” Adrian adds. “And I was frankly terrified of Oberon as a kid – he tortured Titania.”
Although The Great Night is his third novel – there is also a collection of short stories – the book marks Adrian’s debut in the UK.
But it is surprising that it was written at all for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact he had such a tortured experience with his second novel, The Children’s Hospital.
A massive tome, it imagines a Great Flood #2, with only a children’s hospital visible above the waves. His publisher rejected it, as did 18 others – largely because they were simply unable to make sense of it (including the bit about having sex with a horse and the zombie nurses).
Finally it was championed by Dave Eggars’ independent publishing house McSweeney’s and after some rigorous editing (the bestiality and the zombie nurses were sadly cut) it did better saleswise than Adrian’s debut novel, Gob’s Grief.
Then there is the day job. Still only 37, this is a writer who seems to live several lives at the same time, whose nine to five revolves around trying to cure children from cancer.
“If I hadn’t got into medicine early on I might have chosen a career that was less demanding and which gave me more free time,” he admits.
But Adrian is nothing if not a high achiever and he has also spent the last three years studying Divinity on the other side of the country at Harvard, “to make me a better oncologist”.
That’s two degrees to go along with the English degree he got from the University of Florida in the early 1990s (where he was taught by The Interrogative Mood author Padgett Powell). Which means that as well as having read widely, he also has a mountain of student debt to pay off.
Intriguingly, The Great Night features a character who has grown up in what we here in ‘Godless Europe’ – at one point Adrian chuckles over Republican diatribes about British atheism - would consider an extreme, Christian family.
At first glance, divinity might seem an odd choice for a liberal, gay man who writes about horse sex and who describes himself as a ‘lapsed atheist’. But religion and spirituality have long been a part of his world view and he clearly thinks very deeply about it. Indeed, his next book will be a collection of short stories based on the idea of American Puritanism.
“I grew up as the one person in the family who took being a Catholic the most seriously,” he explains. “As an adult, coincidental to spending lots of time in the medical world, I developed a sneaking feeling that strict atheism wasn’t really going to cut it anymore.”
Adrian was recently named by The New Yorker as one of America’s top authors aged under 40. You wonder what he’ll be doing by the age of 50: he’ll probably have a law degree by then and be running for president.
You can also read this interview on the Big Issue Scotland website