Tessa Gratton talks adapting Shakespeare, queerifying power structures, and writing toward hope in Lady Hotspur

Photo: Lady Hotspur by Tessa Gratton.. Image Courtesy Tor Books
Photo: Lady Hotspur by Tessa Gratton.. Image Courtesy Tor Books /

Following the release of her Henry IV-inspired fantasy novel, Lady Hotspur, we spoke to Tessa Gratton about adapting Shakespeare’s plays, queerifying power structures, writing toward hope, and more.

This month, author Tessa Gratton followed up her Shakespearean fantasy, Queens of Innis Lear, with another book set in the same world, just 100 years in the future: Lady Hotspur. Based off of Henry IVLady Hotspur tells the stories of three women learning to balance ambitions and power with love and satisfaction — all while living in a world that insists they’ll have to sacrifice one to achieve the other.

Touted for fans of Brienne of Tarth and similar characters, Gratton’s novel excels as turning Shakespeare’s stories about powerful men into tales of powerful women. Adding in the political tensions and prophecies that drive the narrative, and the novel is one that fantasy fans won’t be able to put down.

We spoke with Gratton about her process for creating the book, covering everything from how she goes about spinning Shakespeare’s stories into her own to how she comes up with the facets of her world and characters. She had some interesting tidbits to share about her writing process, along with commentary about the book’s themes and what she hoped to convey in writing it.

Culturess: Although Lady Hotspur tells its own story, it’s set in the same world as Queens of Innis Lear. What were some of the major differences in writing the two books? What were the similarities?

Tessa Gratton: As both books are adaptations of Shakespeare plays, the biggest similarity was in how I began: by digging deep into the source material and figuring out what conversation I wanted my stories to have with them. I not only read plenty of criticism, I watched various versions of both plays and interviews with actors, directors, and historians. I took the plays and used them to create basic outlines, developing longer outlines with notes about the thematic, character, and plot relevance of every individual scene, then noting how I planned to shift everything.

The biggest differences stem from the same thing, as I deeply dislike the play King Lear, which Queens is based on, and absolutely love Henry IV part I that Hotspur is based on. I started Queens desperate to engage in a targeted critique of the way the play holds up patriarchal notions of family, nature, and women, and used almost every single scene from the play directly in some way to craft that critique. With Hotspur, I was coming from a place of love, and so the breakdown of the source play was more fun and less work, though it took as much effort. It felt like a transformation of something I adore, a chance to take this incredible play and make it better by…making it gayer.

At the end of the day, Queens is based on a tragedy, and the story spirals through tragic elements, while Hotspur is based on a history play, and the trajectory of the story is toward triumph, not tragedy.

Culturess: Lady Hotspur follows three incredibly strong-willed women and features more powerful women in prominent roles. Were there any characters or historical figures who inspired these women?

Gratton: I tried to keep the characters inspired most directly by their counterparts in the source material, who are, of course, men. Kings, princes, and passionate knights — and I made them women instead, but kept their boldness, their ambition, their flaws and longing. Henry V, who Prince Hal is based on, though the fictional Shakespearean version, is one of the most inspiring characters in Western history, and so it was a treat to take the things he was fictionally known for and play with a woman version.

But aside from that, many of the strong women and their relationships in Lady Hotspur, were inspired by my mom. Notably, Hal and her mother Queen Celeda, and their relationship. My mom was incredibly strong and smart, but most of all, compassionate. She believed in helping others, whether it was simply letting a stranger know their hose was leaking gallons of water into the street or volunteering through her church to organize auctions, funerals, and weddings, or teaching. She was a leader in so many small ways, they built up over the years until her corner of the world was simply better. I tried to infuse her dedication and vision into the strength of the women in Lady Hotspur.

Culturess: In your mind, what are some of the major themes at play throughout Lady Hotspur? Was there any particular message you were trying to send or that made its way into the pages unintentionally?

Gratton: There are several major themes I was working with, having to do with the struggle ambitious women face when reaching for real power, or what we’re willing to sacrifice for either power or happiness and the assumption sacrifice is necessary, and the transformative nature of love — just like the transformative power of magic. But the most important theme to me is making space for queer people within structures of power, because queering power structures is the only way I see to change them for the better without burning them to their foundations first. That’s really Hal’s whole journey and point: using what limited power she has to create a new narrative about women and power, about her country and the people in it. She struggles to create space for her own desire and identity while taking up her duty to the throne and to her family.

Culturess: The world you’ve set up in Queens of Innis Lear and Lady Hotspur is a large one. What’s your process for world building?

Gratton: My normal process involves a lot of reading about different kinds of cultural histories and power structures, from ruling governments to economics, farming, architecture, religious movements, and how all those things shift over time and internationally. I read widely and almost randomly sometimes, finding kernels to pull out and analyze, or things to be seeds for whole new worlds. When I begin developing a specific world, I take the theme I want to write about and maybe a character and start putting them into conversation with elements of world, slowly spiraling out from there with all kinds of questions for myself relating to intersecting structures of power and culture.

For Queens and Hotspur specifically, the kernels I began with where the worldbuiding in Shakespeare’s plays themselves. King Lear has a world that is almost ancient England, but almost secondary world, too, with recognizable place names and references to religion and natural philosophy, so I did the same with the island of Lear and its neighboring country Aremoria. They’re magical, strange mirrors for Ireland and a sort of England/France hybrid. I created their individual (but related) cultures, and carefully moved out from there to create the rest of the world around them.

Culturess: Given that Shakespeare heavily influences both this novel and your previous one, how do you work allusions to his plays into these stories while also keeping them your own?

Gratton: I don’t think about it as an either/or so much as a conversation. The plays are all his, but my works are all mine, but inspired by his works and directly in conversation with his. Literature is meant to be a conversation, something that shifts with every new reader or audience member, each new creator who engages with the story or themes. We can’t write in a vacuum, and always are influenced both directly and indirectly by our predecessors and peers, so in some ways it feels cleaner to me to just admit I’m taking something somebody else wrote and putting my own spin on it to continue that conversation overtly.

Culturess: What was your favorite part of writing Lady Hotspur? What was the most challenging aspect?

This question is so hard! I loved letting myself dive into the narrative with hope, playing with the elements of magic and nature and prophecy that I used in Queens but knowing this time it wasn’t a tragedy, this time I could pull it all toward hope and transcendence. I loved writing Hal, who is so troubled and panicked about war and power, but clings to the idea that the world can be good. And I loved the chance to develop the people of Innis Lear, to play with how they’ve changed in the 100 years since Queens. The island itself has a voice in Hotspur, as do the earth saints and a particular wizard who is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever written.

The hardest part was twofold: on one hand, holding the complicated threads of story from various perspectives in place while giving myself room to grow the story and change it; on the other hand, I was working on this book during the most difficult years of my life, while my mother was fighting cancer and ultimately died. It was impossible sometimes to trust myself to write anything good while I was consumed by fear and grief, while I could hardly imagine the world better. I often didn’t know how to engage with emotions and emotional realities of my story, and feared ruining the story I wanted to tell because I was lost. I don’t think I ruined anything, but sometimes I wonder what Lady Hotspur would be like if I’d written it four years ago, or in the future.

Culturess: Do you have any plans to write more books set in this world? If not, what’s next for you?

Gratton: Not at the moment! Maybe someday, but I am wrung out post Hotspur, and need to give myself space to play in other worlds, and find myself again outside of this experience.

My next book is a YA fantasy called Night Shine, out September 2020. It’s a dark, queer Howl’s Moving Castle type fairy tale about a prince who goes missing and the orphan who knows just enough of his secrets to look for him in the fortress of the Sorceress Who Eats Girls.

Next. Lady Hotspur: 5 reasons to read Tessa Gratton's new novel. dark

Have you read Queens of Innis Lear or Lady Hotspur? Tell us what you thought in the comments below!