M. L. Rio was born in Miami and raised in North Carolina by parents from California, and has never been able to satisfactorily answer the question, “Where are you from?” She spent most of her childhood in Middle Earth or Neverland or Wonderland, attended Hogwarts for a number of years, and eventually graduated from the real-life University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with degrees in English and dramatic art and a minor in creative writing. Storytelling has always been her specialty.
"Little Eureka Moments," an Interview with M.L. Rio
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Addison Rizer. Of the process she said, “M.L. Rio’s novel, If We Were Villains, is a spectacular exploration of young students undergoing high-stakes, of Shakespeare, and of living in a space where other’s words feel more right than your own. Her prose is sharp, threaded with Shakespearean, and structured like a play to add to the drama of it all. It is, at once, a fun read, and one that hits the heart.” In this interview M.L. Rio talks about acting in the 1600s, publication as a first-time author, and the goal of invisibility as an author.
Superstition Review: During the Halloween scene you were able to incorporate an authentic spontaneity to theatre by not telling your characters anything about performance beforehand. The scene felt threaded with surprise, the special effects more shocking because of the real reactions of the actors in what is usually a heavily-rehearsed medium. How did you come up with the idea of keeping the actors in the dark for their own performance? How would this idea work throughout an entire production as opposed to only a few scenes?
M.L. Rio: This is an exaggerated version of how actors actually worked in the early modern period. Because printing was expensive, actors didn't receive a copy of the entire play for their personal use; they typically only received their own lines and cue lines--what's called a "cue script." Their rehearsal time also would have been much shorter. Nobody in 1599 was doing two weeks of table work and two weeks of blocking and six weeks of rehearsal, and I think that pattern actually makes a modern actor's job more difficult (in some ways), because there is no spontaneity, no organic reaction. So this was something I wanted to explore, as a writer and a thespian: How would it work if a modern theatre troupe went onstage with only a vague idea what to expect? With a group like this which knows Shakespeare so well the risk is somewhat lower but there's still--as you mentioned--a huge opportunity for surprise, and as an actor that's an incredibly valuable tool to have onstage. I think for a full performance it would work much the same way as it does in the Halloween scenes; it simply presents more of a challenge because you have to create a character and the whole story as you go, never knowing who's going to do what. It would be terrifically exciting, I think, for both an actor and the audience, but there's a catch: you can really only do it once.
SR: That “organic reaction” creates a new dynamic to acting, both for the actors and the audience as you pointed out. Can you talk about how this organic reaction can be found in writing as well, especially from a writer’s point of view? Moments that may have surprised you while writing perhaps?
MLR: Well, there's definitely less of this in writing because writing is not normally something you improvise, and certainly not something you improvise in front of a reader. But that's not to say writing is predictable, even if you're working with an outline. Personally I find that a strong outline allows me to engage in two very different types of creativity. First, there's the process of discovering a story, of trying different twists and turns and beginnings and endings until you find the shape of the narrative. Then, there's the process of actually putting prose on paper. And there are little 'eurkea' moments in both phases. I've spent weeks trying to tease out a storyline or fill in a plot hole only to be smacked in the face by the solution in the most unlikely of moments--brushing my teeth or walking my dog or what have you. When I'm past the outlining stage and I'm actually writing, I'm still frequently surprised by creative revelations. Just because I know what needs to happen in a scene doesn't mean I've figured out how it's going to happen or which words to use. You can't plan the little moments that make up the larger events of a story. You have to just immerse yourself in the scene and follow where it leads you.
SR: Throughout the novel the characters speak Shakespearean lines in their conversations off the stage. Can you describe the process you went through to balance the Shakespearean discourse within each scene? Did you find certain characters gravitate to specific plays or characters?
MLR: I honestly didn't do much to "balance" the discourse. That job largely fell to my editor, who was very good about saying, "All right, there's just too much verse here. Reel it in." Because Shakespeare is what I do academically, it comes very naturally to me, and it was essential to have somebody without that background read the book and call me out when I got carried away. So if you found the book remotely readable, you can thank my editor, Christine Kopprasch, for that. As for who says what, this may be a disappointing answer, but I didn't worry too much about who was quoting whom or which play. Kind of like the idea of being genuinely surprised onstage, it was a much more organic process than that. These are people who are more comfortable speaking Shakespeare than speaking in their own voices, and I let them say whatever felt right--because when you're trapped in a moment of fear or grief or affection and words are leaping to your lips, you're not going to stop and worry about the source or implication of that utterance.
SR: You’ve done a wonderful job creating characters that, as you say, feel more comfortable speaking Shakespearean than their own voices. I found the scene in the library between James and Oliver to be an fantastic use of Shakespearean lines, deepening the confusion Oliver feels because James speaks so heavily in Shakespearean. Can you talk about how the composition of this scene differed from the other scenes in which the characters spoke only a few lines of Shakespeare at most before returning to their own voices? Why does James only feel comfortable attempting to talk to Oliver in Shakespeare here?
MLR: James actually addresses that himself in Act IV, Scene 7. Sometimes it's just easier to be somebody else. Because he can't bring himself to say what he's really trying to say he falls back on Shakespeare, hoping that Oliver will be able to parse it out and spare him having to be more explicit. Which doesn't work, of course, because Oliver is in such deep denial. It's not that he doesn't understand; it's that he doesn't want to.
SR: The novel features extremely high stakes for these young characters. Grueling academic demand, intra-personal relationship drama, and cut-throat competition all pile on these kids. What would you say living in this environment does to the characters? Why?
MLR: This is a hard question to answer without giving large parts of the story away. But the short answer is that they all buckle under the pressure. One of the golden rules of drama (and writing, incidentally) is that not every scene can be the climax, but that's how these kids are living from moment to moment. Every day could be the end of the world, and that's exhausting. So they self-destruct.
SR: I love that, as you say, they really are living as if every day could be the end of the world. In the end, there are differing reactions to this on-edge living, and the stakes continue to elevate. Mental breakdowns, violence, and isolation all exist as the story breaks these kids down. What I found really fascinating was how each of their reactions correlated to their personalities. Thinking back to the scene with Gwendolyn in which they all expose both their strengths and weaknesses, these reactions seem to feed off their revealed weaknesses. James can’t let go of what they’d done, for example, and his weakness acting was, as he said, “he couldn’t quite leave” the characters he plays behind. Can you talk about how their weaknesses as actors also reveal their weaknesses as individuals? Why is it important for them to expose their weaknesses to each other?
MLR: One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from an acting teacher is parroted by Gwendolyn in that same scene: "We're only ever playing fifty percent of a character. The rest is us." No two actors are ever going to play a character the same way. Why else see the same play more than once? Art is inseparable from the self. So your weaknesses as an actor are going to reflect your weaknesses as a human being. And getting onstage with a bunch of other human beings is a bit like going into battle with them--individual strengths and weaknesses affect the whole unit. Someone else's mistake can get you wrecked just like someone else's quick thinking can save your ass. The better you know each other, the better your odds are.
SR: If We Were Villains is your debut novel. Can you talk about the publication process as a first-time author? What reactions to the novel surprised you? What was the most rewarding moment thus far?
MLR: As a first-time author you spend a lot of time nudging your agent and asking, "Is this normal? Should I be worried? Am I doing this right?" (In my case I think there was even more of that than usual, because I'm so young--and that's the first thing everybody I encounter in the industry comments on. I've been mistaken for an intern at my own imprint... more than once.) But by the time the novel actually came out I was far enough removed from it (I'd written it almost three years before) that I think I had as objective an outlook as an author can have about their own work. It also doesn't hurt that I was an actor for so long, because that gives you a thick skin. Artistic criticism can be hard to take, but you have to remember that art is subjective. I never expected everybody to love the book, so I was pleasantly surprised to hear how many actually did.
SR: As you were an actor before this, have you found the parameters around each medium to change the way you react and receive criticism (acting gets an immediate reaction from an audience, whereas writing takes much longer to get feedback)?
MLR: Honestly, not really. Art's art. It's never easy to put it in front of an audience, but that's a risk you have to take. However, I will say that doing theatre for so long really taught me to have a sense of humor about the whole thing. Theatre is brutal and nothing is sacred (a lesson the Villains learn under Gwendolyn's tutelage over and over again). My feelings aren't easily hurt and half the time people criticize the book I completely agree with them. Sometimes I don't, and sometimes readers are just wrong (like the guy whose review insisted the book was clearly influenced by Dostoevsky; I hate to burst your bubble, my friend, but the guilt complex here has everything to do with Macbeth and nothing to do with Crime and Punishment), but that's when you just have a laugh and get on with your day.
SR: On your social media platforms, you’ve talked openly about your writing process, how you edit, and you even have a place where readers can follow your progress with each draft of current projects. There’s often a disconnect between author and reader, but you break that barrier as much as you can. Can you talk about your decision to encourage your readers to be involved in your writing process?
MLR: When you first start thinking about publishing (as a writer) it's really daunting, because there's so much mystery about the process and how it works. I think I was better prepared than most because I'd worked as a bookseller and had the opportunity to attend the Denver Publishing Institute before I started querying, but I remember before that being absolutely baffled. Sharing that information from my own perspective wasn't so much a decision as a natural reaction. People started asking me questions about how I work and how publishing works and I answered them to the best of my ability, because why not? I know there's this idea that artists are supposed to have some kind of secretive mystique, but we can't all be Elena Ferrante.
SR: You’re right, there is a sort of mystique around artists, and I think, writers in particular because of the medium. There’s an entire world created for the reader, but the human part of the process seems very out of reach with the final product in hand. It is baffling, not only attempting to publish something, but also to comprehend how someone can write such interesting and real stories. Since you’ve published your first book now, can you talk about how your perception of other authors has changed when reading their books?
MLR: In fiction the first task of the author is to be invisible. Yes, you (hopefully) have your own voice and your own distinct style, but if a story is going to work you need a world and characters which are real in their own right and don't exist purely as reflections or extensions of their creator, like God making Man in his image. If anything, it's the opposite: your world and the characters who inhabit it should be more real to the reader than you are. In good writing God doesn't make Man in his image; Man makes God in his. Writers are the sum of their writing. This is a long way of saying that despite having some insider knowledge of how the process works and enjoying engaging with readers and other writers, I still try to let writing speak for itself. I know exactly how much work goes into a novel, but I also know that's not what you want a reader thinking about when they read it. If they're curious afterwards and want to learn a little more about from whence some piece of fiction sprang, spectacular. But that curiosity should always be the effect, never the cause.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
MLR: It looks like a Left Bank junk shop, honestly. I recently moved back to the States from London to start my PhD and didn't bring much with me in the way of furniture, so I'm just surrounded by crates of books and records and odd incongruous objets d'art inherited from a family with a history with the Foreign Service in Southeast Asia. But that works very well for me. It's chaotic but comfortable and creatively stimulating, if that makes any sense.
SR: That move must have been absolutely crazy for you! What was your writing space like in London? Would you say one space inspires you more, or differently than the other?
MLR: In London I didn't really have a designated writing space. I moved from one tiny bedroom in one tiny flat to another tiny bedroom in another tiny flat and never even had a chair I could call my own, never mind a whole 'writing space.' I wrote in pubs and cafés and on trains. And that can be very stimulating, but it is also exhausting not to have a bolt-hole to call your own. I absolutely miss London--I miss the familiar outline of the Globe and the quiet camaraderie of the British Library and the riot of color and sound in Brick Lane on Sundays--but I'm also very relieved to have a little something all to myself now. On rainy days I can stay in my pajamas and make tea and put some good music on and work for hours without interruption, and after five or six years of bouncing from country to country and never living in the same place longer than a few months, that's a very welcome change.