Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"Like an Eagle in a Dove-Cote" - Gregg Hurwitz on Thrillers and Shakespeare

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING:  Today on Jungle Red Writers Thrillerfest edition, we have the internationally bestselling and critically acclaimed author of thrillers like You're Next and They're Watching. We also have a pop-culture expert, a man who's written screenplays for many of the major studios and who pens comics for Marvel and DC. And finally, we have we have a Harvard scholar with a master's in Shakespearean tragedy from Trinity College, Oxford who has published and lectured on Shakespeare and writing in the United States and England.

It's probably not going to be that clever a reveal when I say all three men are Gregg Hurwitz. (Although if he were three separate persons, it would explain a great deal about his prolific output.) Today he's going to answer the burning question:

              “What the Hell’s a Shakespeare Scholar Doing Writing Thrillers?”

Aside from Where do you get your ideas? which is easily answered (I don’t know. Where do you get yours?), the above is the question I’m most frequently asked.

As my master’s degree focused on Shakespearean tragedy and I published a few sleep-inducing essays in scholarly journals, interviewers and interlocutors like to zero in on the perceived disparity between my study of so-called high culture and my production of so-called entertainment. The truth is, the distinction doesn’t hold up.

 Shakespeare was, above all else, trying to put asses in seats and sell out the Globe night after night. He wrote convention-bound, highly plot-driven narratives, tales of lust, greed, murder, and ambition. Sound familiar? And he was always careful to alternate tone and mood within the plays—a philosophical aside for the Queen, a dick joke for the groundlings (thank God for groundlings). Noir has oft been referred to as blue-collar tragedy, depicting not falls from kingly thrones, but from the curb into the gutter (to paraphrase Dennis Lehane). I just watched Body Heat again last night and good God does the parallel hold true there. In fact, methinks this is an essential parallel for every type of good crime narrative.

Tragedy is shaped most often by the tragic flaw of the hero. Something inside him, often the very trait that propelled him to greatness, becomes the very thing to drag him down to his mortal fate. Our blessings become our curses. Our best traits are also our worst. We know this from our own lives, and tragedies show us the same, blown up onto a grander stage and trotted out under the Proscenium arch.
When I’m writing a thriller, I think about a misstep my protagonist makes—or a flaw inherent to his or her personality—that sets the plot into motion and calls forth unforeseeable and often disproportionate consequences. Something in them opens the door to the barbed and torturous journeys I drag them through. In the absence of that, I’d not be writing fiction, I’d be writing stories about bad things happening to good people. And what’s to be learned from that?

The Survivor, my next book (August), opens with Nate Overbay
 standing on an eleventh-floor ledge outside a bank, about to end his life. He a decent guy who—for a variety of reasons—is at the end of his rope. He sets one foot out into the weightless open when he hears gunshots from within. A spray of blood paints the window to his side. Rather than jump, he crawls back through the window, picks up a gun set down on the bank counter by one of the heist men, and—

 You get the picture. But the point for our purposes here is: If Nate wasn’t on that ledge, if he hadn’t decided to commit suicide while leaving some personal matters—matters involved an estranged wife and daughter who he still dearly loves—unresolved, then he wouldn’t have been in (literal) position to go into that bank and face those gunmen. And if he hadn’t done that, then none of the holy hell that faces him over the next four hundred pages would have happened. A tragic flaw or misstep opening a world of unforeseen consequences. That’s what defines tragedy—and thrillers of every stripe.

You can find out more about Gregg, read excerpts, and listen to audio of his books at his website . You can also friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and explore his channel on YouTube.


  1. I'm ordering my copy of The Survivor now. Fascinating post. Thanks, Gregg.

    For the JRW faithful: Because of you all and your posts about Downton Abbey, I watched the first two episodes via Netflix this week. I'm hooked!

  2. Ah...Gregg! Love this! (I can confess that all my TIME books were based on Shakespeare--PRIME TIME was As You Like It, FACE was Romeo and Juliet, AIR was A Comedy of Errors and DRIVE was Winters Tale.)

    And even The Other Woman--is King Lear. More I cannot say.

    But I so agree--the passion and the fatal flaws and the obsession and the desires and the motivation, and--the story, you know? It's all about the story.

    Thanks for being here!

    (And did you see Linda Fairstein's Today Show lists of sizzling summer reads? She picked THE OTHER WOMAN!

    http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/48097321/ns/today-books/#.T_wu15HYGn4 )

  3. Thank you, Laura!

    Very HPR - congrats on that. Fatal flaw is an excellent shorthand for all that, as well.

  4. Great post, Greg! I agree with you totally about Shakespeare and other great writers that some scholars and literary writers try to set in some artificial category above genre. As if Shakespeare sat down to write, saying, "I'm going to write a post-modern fable, and I think I'll add some post-colonialism in there, as well. Make it a metatext."

    Hank! So excited about all the great acclaim THE OTHER WOMAN is receiving! I can't wait to get my grubby paws on it. xoxo

  5. Thanks for a great post, Gregg! I'm definitely going to pick up your novel. I agree, Shakespeare was the ultimate genre writer of his day. He was just a great storyteller--and that never goes out of style.

    Hank, ditto what Linda wrote above. THE OTHER WOMAN is everywhere! Can't wait to read it.

  6. Greg, I'd love to hear what made you study Shakespearean tragedies in the first place.

    Hank, yay for the pick by Linda Fairstein. Give Matt Lauer my love when you end up on the Today Show.

  7. Hank, I didn't know your books were based on Shakespeare!

    Greg, love "Shakespeare just wanted to get asses in seats." :-) He was a working writer, just like us. And he ripped off everybody. He just did it extremely well....

  8. Darlene - I'm guessing I was drawn to the lust, intrigue and murder! The tragedies are perfect little thrillers.

  9. Gregg, absolutely love the discussion about the character flaw that pulls us into the story. I had to think a minute about my books--and yes that was true of every, single one. And what a fabulous premise! Opportunity for redemption and reunion! going on the list...

    Laura, we told you so....

  10. Yes, I so agree...that's what makes the person real, you know?

    And yes, Deb--I was trying not to be obvious about it, but those stories guided me every step of the way. They're not--the same stories, of course. but just the sense of the story.