Mona Awad on All's Well

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 173

In her new novel, All’s Well, author Mona Awad combines elements of All’s Well That Ends Well, Macbeth, and the 1999 movie Election to tell the story of Miranda Fitch, a theater professor with a mutinous cast and excruciating chronic pain. What do those plays have in common, and how did Awad weave them together to create her darkly funny new book? She is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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Dr. Mona AwadDr. Mona Awad is the author of three novels. 13 Ways Of Looking At A Fat Girl, published by Penguin in 2016, won the Amazon Best First Novel Award. Her 2019 novel Bunny was a finalist for a GoodReads Choice Award for Best Horror. Her novel All’s Well was published by Simon & Schuster and Penguin Canada in August 2021.

Awad has taught creative writing at Brown University, the University of Denver, Framingham State University, Tufts and in the MFA program at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published August 31, 2021. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Lord, How We Lose Our Pains!,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax-West in Studio City, California. Photo of Dr. Awad copyright Brigitte Lacombe.

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Related

All's Well That Ends Well
Visit The Folger Shakespeare to read the play that inspired Awad.

Shakespeare and Beyond: An Excerpt from All's Well
Read an excerpt from Awad's novel.

The First Folio
Take a look at All's Well That Ends Well as it appears in the First Folio, with our LUNA Digital Image Collection

More from Shakespeare Unlimited
Listen to more authors on Shakespeare Unlimited, including Mark Haddon, Julie Schumacher, and Edward St. Aubyn.


Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: Your pain is yours. That is, until you give it away to someone else.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Novelist Mona Awad has written a new book that’s all about pain: physical pain and the psychic pain it can cause. As you might expect, the book is dark, but it can also be laugh-out-loud funny.

It follows Miranda Fitch, a professor in the English Department of a small college who is determined to stage a student production of All’s Well That Ends Well with a group of performers who’d really rather be putting on Macbeth. Miranda is the one who’s in pain. That is until she meets three weird men in a bar near campus who offer her what seems like a means to topple the power structure that’s been holding Miranda in check. All’s Well has been called a “dark and insane gem,” and we invited Mona Awad to join us from her home in Boston to talk with us about it.

We call this podcast, “Lord, How We Lose Our Pains!” Mona Awad is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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BARBARA BOGAEV: Right away, even before I open your book practically, your title is All’s Well, but am I supposed to make some connection to The Tempest because the protagonist’s name is Miranda?

MONA AWAD: Yeah. I think I was just kind of playing around with—her boss, Miranda’s boss in the book, the dean, has this relationship to The Tempest because he played the monster, he played Caliban. I love the idea that Miranda, our protagonist, is having this relationship with Caliban. And, of course Caliban is in charge of her fate. So, I guess there’s a little bit of a wink to The Tempest there but no, it’s mainly All’s Well and Macbeth of course.

BOGAEV: I kind of love how you’re talking about the dean as if he came with this hard baked backstory. But you made it up, as if you didn’t make it up yourself.

AWAD: Yeah. It was funny, you know, this book. It was a very organic process writing it even though, when I first kind of conceived of it, I was thinking that it was just going to be about a director who was obsessed with All’s Well, and with Helen in particular. But then it became very clear to me that the other play, the world of the story was going to open up and I was also going to be telling the story of Macbeth. I was surprised that the two plays could speak to each other in one story in that way, but it did feel very organic.

BOGAEV: Well, we’re going to get to Macbeth, but first let’s talk about Miranda and her terrible pain. I mean, she’s in psychic and psychological pain as well, but she’s in terrible physical pain. You really write like you know what it’s like to suffer like this. And I hate to put you through it, but could you please read this passage on page four?

AWAD: Yeah, of course.

BOGAEV: And before you start, could you tell us briefly who Mark is? That’s the man referenced in this passage.

AWAD: Right. Yes, Mark is Miranda’s physical therapist. They’ve been working together for a while now on her pain, to no end, of course. Okay. I’ll just start.

“I lie here on my back, on the roughly carpeted floor with my legs in the air at a right angle from my body. My calves rest on the office chair seat, feet dangling over the edge. One hand on my heart, the other on my diaphragm. Cigarette in my mouth. Snow blows onto my face from an open window above me that I am unable to close.

“Lying like this will supposedly help decompress my spine and let the muscles in my right leg unclench. Help the fist behind my knee to go slack so that when I stand up, I’ll be able to straighten my leg and not hobble around like Richard III.

“This is a position that, according to Mark, I can supposedly go into for relief, self-care, a time out from life. I think of Mark. Mark of the dry needles. Mark of the scraping silver tools. His handsome bro-face. A wall of certainty framed by a crew cut, ever nodding at my various complaints as though they are all part of a grand upward journey that we are taking together, Mark and I.

“I lie like this and I do not feel relief. Left hip down to the knee still on vague fire. A fist in my mid back that won’t unclench. Right leg is concrete all the way down to my foot, which even though it’s in the air, is still screaming as if crushed by some terrible weight.

“I picture the leg of a chair pressing onto my foot. A chair being sat on by a very fat man. The fat man is a sadist. He is smiling at me. His smile says, ‘I shall sit here forever, here with you on the third floor of this dubious college where you are dubiously employed. Theater studies, aka one of two sad concrete rooms in the English department, your office, I presume. Rather shabby.’”

BOGAEV: You are a great reader. Thank you for that.

AWAD: Thank you.

BOGAEV: Have you been that person on the floor with your legs up?

AWAD: Oh yeah. I have been that person, and that’s part of the reason why I wrote this book. I had chronic hip pain for years and ended up having to have surgery. Didn’t really solve the problem of my pain. Then, as a result of being unstable on my legs after the surgery, I ended up herniating discs. Neurological symptoms down my legs and a really awful time. I mean, I couldn’t close a window. Miranda can’t close a window in her office. I couldn’t close a window in my apartment.

I really wanted to explore what that’s like for someone. Pain just sort of shaping your day; shaping what’s possible for you in the world, and how small your world becomes. And then, of course, dreaming about what would happen if my pain were suddenly taken away. What would that feel like?

BOGAEV: Well, first, I’m so sorry that you went through that, and I’ve been there too, with back pain. It sounds like you’ve resolved it.

AWAD: Yeah.

BOGAEV: And I mean, a big part of any pain—but especially back pain, because it’s so amorphous and it’s hard to communicate. It gets very complicated.

AWAD: Yeah, it’s very true. That’s part of the reason why I think I ended up deciding that Miranda would be a former actress, is because of that very thing: that difficulty in communicating.

When I would try to explain my pain, to just to communicate it, just to get them to understand what I was feeling, I would often find myself performing it in order to communicate it. Because it is so amorphous you just find yourself hunching over, you know? You’re sort of playing it up. And when you play it up like that, you start to doubt yourself.

So Miranda’s relationship to acting, I think, makes that ambiguity even more fraught for her. It was very exciting when I, kind of, I knew, “Yes she’s going to be an actress, and it’s going to be hard for her to even believe herself about her pain.”

BOGAEV: Yeah, fraught and gendered.

AWAD: Oh yeah.

BOGAEV: I mean that’s so interesting about the performative aspect of the pain. That question in your back of your mind, “Are you overblowing things? Are you being hysterical?” And that word, you know, that’s what we all know women throughout history have been branded with, that accusation.

AWAD: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I mean it’s certainly her experience and my experience too. I was so afraid of being a bad patient. I was so afraid of betraying any kind of anxiety because I knew that if I did, the solution would be, “Oh well,” you know, some anti-anxiety pill or some meditation, or something like that. Miranda often finds her story being undermined by the fact that she is a woman. People don’t believe her.

BOGAEV: Yeah. And she’s in a very dark place at the beginning of the book. She’s murderous, in fact. In the reading, you mentioned Richard III. She compares herself throughout the book with Richard III several times. Was this something that you discovered in her as you wrote, to this connection to the villain, the archvillain, of Shakespeare?

AWAD: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, first of all, I love Richard so much. I love the way he engages our sympathies. I love the way that he exerts this kind of charm over us and then we become complicit as the play proceeds. And as we watch him cross one line after another until he reaches a point of no return where we can’t follow him anymore.

I love that Shakespeare’s villains—and his heroes!—do that to us. He just complicates my relationship to his characters. He challenges my sympathies, and I love his villains. You know, for me, I just knew. I knew Miranda would be both the hero and the villain of her own story.

BOGAEV: Well, me too in reading it. And that is just so hard for women to pull off, being both the hero and the villain of the story. Historically, the Madonna and the whore. It’s a very complicated balancing act.

AWAD: Yeah, it is. It’s very difficult. Because I am interested in that kind of moral ambiguity. Because obviously, I mean, Miranda is a woman. Miranda is human. We are just complicated that way, morally. We can be unlikable. A lot of our thoughts are dark and awful, and I love characters that kind of allow us to sort of see that openly, especially female characters. It’s just there’s something very, very freeing about it. So, I relished her villainy.

I knew there was going to be a point where she crossed a line. I knew that because of Macbeth. She, you know, sort of transforms into a Macbeth hero as the book progresses, or a Lady Macbeth. And I wanted to follow her. I wanted to see how far she would go, because we have already seen in the book. I mean, the book is very interested in exploring, as you said earlier, just how low she has sunk because of her pain and her illness. How far removed from life. So, to be freed from that, how does that impact her humanity, was a really interesting question to me.

BOGAEV: Was it also necessary for the story structurally, in terms of “if you hit rock bottom,” so to speak, you can have catharsis afterwards? It’ll pay off?

AWAD: Yeah, I think so. That’s another reason why I think Shakespeare was so exciting to me is those reversals of fortune. You can be sunk very, very low but then suddenly rise, and that was very exciting. Especially to me, given the circumstances in which I found myself, which is being in this pain that I wondered if it would ever go away and dreaming of a day when I would not feel it anymore. So, yes. Absolutely.

BOGAEV: Well complicated heroes and complicated monsters all in one character, some people can have trouble relating to that. A lot of people have trouble relating to Helen in All’s Well That Ends Well, including me I’m sure, you know, the first times I read it and saw it. And the students in your book who are in this theater production, they just don’t get it at all. You have Miranda making an impassioned case for All’s Well to them which I really liked.

AWAD: Yes.

BOGAEV: Could you read that short passage for us, on page 25?

AWAD: Page 25, yes.

“’Grow up,’ I tell myself. Be the adult. Be the teacher. Lie to this long-haired child and tell her the reason we are doing this play is because it will stretch her and her fellow cast members to take on a play that is disturbing, but not in an obvious bloodbath/orgy way. That is witchy without the cackling hags. That is funny-sad rather than simply sad. That is dark-light rather than just dark, just light. That is problematic, provocative, complex, and mysterious. A hidden mountain flower growing in the shade of Shakespeare’s cannon that hasn’t been put on by a million [expletive] schools already. And is timely too, socially relevant.”

BOGAEV: Tell me more about that. Was that your first reaction to All’s Well?

AWAD: No. Not at all. I couldn’t stand Helen. In fact, I was the only person in my class—I was doing a PhD in English and creative writing and I was taking a Shakespeare class and we were reading All’s Well—I was the only person in my class who couldn’t stand Helen. I thought she was so conniving. I thought she was just so insistent on this affection from this man who was awful and I thought, “Wow.”

BOGAEV: Oh, he’s horrendous.

AWAD: He’s awful.

BOGAEV: Bertram is just the worst.

AWAD: I just thought, “Why? Why are you being so pushy and so single-minded? Why do you want this? Why are you turning the world of the play upside down just to get it?”

But there was something about my feeling about her and the fact that everybody else seemed to be more sympathetic to her that interested me. That she could polarize in that way. I thought, “Maybe she is one of those complicated monsters,” you know? Maybe she is somebody who can be both the villain and the hero of her own story depending on the audience or the reader. And maybe, because I was also experiencing pain, the more sympathetic I became to her. I started realizing, “Well you know she’s an orphan. She’s alone in the world. Our attraction is not something that we can ever really explain or understand.”

BOGAEV: And Bertram, he is really hot.

AWAD: He is, yeah. He’s sexy, right? He’s an unseasoned courtier. I started, kind of, warming to Helen, and then that was great because I could use that for Miranda, but I also knew the other side. I knew that innate dislike that I think so many readers have of Helen, which I get. I fully get. She’s complicated. She’s complicated like Macbeth is complicated.

BOGAEV: So the socially relevant side, is that about Helen having agency or owning her passion or her obsession or sexuality and her trickster aspect, her aggressiveness.

AWAD: Yeah.

BOGAEV: And just going whole hog. I mean, she literally goes to war. That’s pretty much how I read All’s Well, eventually. Once I got over all of the things we were talking about, I felt like, “Wait, maybe Shakespeare was taking everything to its most extreme.

AWAD: Yeah.

BOGAEV: Let’s—you know, love is war. Let’s literally have both of these characters go to war and see what happens.

AWAD: Yeah. No, absolutely. I do think so. I do think that there is something about the agency that she claims. Her desire isn’t really possible within the world of the play when the play starts, but because she takes this transgressive action by visiting the king in disguise and healing him, she’s able to get her desire realized in the world of the play. And though I find her desire strange, I still think there’s something exciting about that. Yes, her trickster energy was something that I found very compelling and that I kept in Miranda, for sure.

BOGAEV: We should just remind people that Helen loves this nobleman, Bertram, who has no interest in her whatsoever. She cures the king; Bertram is his ward and in return, the king says, “Bertram, you have to marry this woman,” and he goes nuts and creates—it’s a fairy tale really.
He creates, you know, he creates these impossible tasks: two tasks that she has to meet. He thinks it can never happen and then he prances off to war with his incredibly bro-y, most bro-y guy-of-guys, Parolles, his friend. Anyway, you can read it again, to remind yourself. But yeah, Bertram really is this total jerk.

AWAD: I know. I mean, that actor who has to deliver that line. I always think, “How are they going to do it so that I believe it?”

BOGAEV: Are we supposed to believe it though? I mean that all of a sudden because she’s fulfilled this impossible, she returns his ring and she’s pregnant by him because she tricked him into sleeping with her.Now! Now I love you. Now I shall marry you.” I always read it as he’s just going to get himself out of this situation any way he can. Make the best of it—all’s well that ends well—and just cuckold her right to his death. Deny till he dies.

AWAD: Yeah. I mean, I think that there’s only one line, so that’s—I think that’s a really great reading. I tend—because I think I love fairy tales and I love the improbable, there’s like a really sappy part of me that wants to believe so badly. I always kind of go the dreamy route, where he’s suddenly enchanted or suddenly so bewildered that he’s enchanted, and it is a sincere moment on the stage between them.

That’s how I imagined it after reading it with that sort of fairy-tale lens in mind. I think about him in that moment and I think he’s just, for a moment, he’s bewitched. Because she is witchy. Helen is a witchy character.

BOGAEV: Yes, and I did want to ask you—although now you have answered it—that it sounds like your interest in All’s Well came first: All’s Well and Macbeth. But you also have the setting of this story in an English department of a college.

AWAD: Yes.

BOGAEV: I know you teach literature classes.

AWAD: I do.

BOGAEV: Was that inevitable? You just had so much material from teaching that it worked its way into this book?

AWAD: Yeah. I love campus stories, just period. There’s just something about them. I love that they’re seasonal. I love the arc of the year. There’s just something very beautiful about that structurally in terms of a story.

But yeah, absolutely the power dynamics in a classroom were really interesting to me. I mean I spent so many years in school as a student and I thought I understood what it was to be a teacher from that side of things. As a student I always thought, “Well the teacher knows everything.” When I got on the other side of the desk, I realized that that’s absolutely not true.

The power is just a performance of—there is no real power. You know, it is. Teaching is a performance. It really is. You’re trying to convince and you’re trying to get them engaged and get them interested. They have a lot more power than they think.

BOGAEV: Yeah, because they’re young, just so damn young and beautiful.

AWAD: Exactly. They’re so young and beautiful. They’re glowing. And so that, yeah, that was really interesting to me to see the other side and to see that power dynamic sort of switch. What I thought I understood, was not—It was more complicated than that. I definitely drew inspiration from that.

BOGAEV: Well this would be a good time, if you would, for you to read this passage on page 23.

AWAD: Oh, absolutely.

BOGAEV: Tell us first who Brianna is, please.

AWAD: Yes, Brianna is Miranda’s student. She’s also playing Helen in this student production of All’s Well that Miranda is directing. Miranda doesn’t care for Brianna and Brianna doesn’t care for Miranda. Brianna has a lot of power in the school. Her parents fund the theater program, so she cannot be dismissed. She has to be reckoned with, and this is a scene in which Miranda is reckoning with Brianna.

“Now at last Brianna raises her hand. Brianna of the burnished hair. Brianna of the B-minus mind who yet believes Brianna deserves an A for breathing.

“Reading an essay of Brianna’s will make you fear for the future of America. Will make you hiss, ‘What the [expletive] are you talking about,’ aloud at the bar where you have to go and get loaded on pinot grigio in order to grade Brianna’s paper. So that the bartender will say to you, ‘Miss, are you alright?’ He will even put his hand on your shoulder, he is that concerned. And you will say, ‘I’m fine. I’m so sorry.’”

BOGAEV: Brianna of the burnished hair. Brianna of the B minus mind. I really like this passage, but imagine if I were one of your students I might be really worried. You know, “Is that what you really think of me?”

AWAD: Oh God, no. I mean, I do love my students, of course. But you know, there’s just so much potential for these kinds of feelings, right? For these dark feelings that just sort of flit through your head very, very quickly. When you just become aware of a power dynamic or, you know, a student raises their hand and they ask a question and you’re not sure if you know the answer. Just those moments of panic that you have as a teacher. Yeah, I just loved leaning into that: leaning into the power that they have as young people, you know.

BOGAEV: And it’s such a—“No, no we don’t,” or you don’t, you teachers. But it’s especially such a pitfall now, for teachers with these tight curbs on what’s considered acceptable wording in your comments on papers, right? I hear that you can easily get cited for being too strict or for even bullying or aggression or microaggressions. I get the feeling with this book that you were saying, let’s just have fun with the teacher character who does break all the rules, who really is a monster.

AWAD: Yeah. No, absolutely. Speaking of which, it’s funny. There was a film that really inspired this book too, in addition to the Shakespeare plays and that was Election. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick.

BOGAEV: Oh, I love that movie.

AWAD: Yeah Matthew Broderick. I just… Matthew Broderick playing Mr. McCallister. He’s such—

BOGAEV: He’s so helpless. He’s so in her thrall.

AWAD: Exactly. And Reese Witherspoon, you know, her Tracy Flick. She was also an inspiration for Brianna. Their dynamic, I just thought was wonderful. You know, he is very underhanded in the way that he handles Tracy, you know.

BOGAEV: Oh, yeah. He’s wrong. He’s so wrong.

AWAD: He’s so wrong and he’s so conflicted about her and I just love that portrayal of a teacher. It’s so complicated because on the surface he’s a wonderful teacher and everybody loves him, but he has these dark feelings. And they do inform his actions. Teachers are just human, right?

BOGAEV: Well, we’ve been talking about some of the realist parts of your novel, but your book takes a turn away realism pretty early on. Miranda goes to a bar and she mixes pain medication with booze. She kind of goes off into what, at first seems like a tipsy reverie, but it soon morphs into this encounter with three mysterious men who seem to know all about her, and they speak like the weird sisters or witches in Macbeth. Why did you want a supernatural element in this story, besides your thoughts on Macbeth? I mean—and do you even think of what you did as a supernatural element?

AWAD: Oh definitely. You know, it’s an interesting question. I think the reason is because it’s part of the plays. I think that you can make an argument that there is a bit of a supernatural element to Helen. And I mean it’s certainly there in Macbeth.

I love the idea that she’s sort of entering into this terrain that’s unreal. You know, the book takes place largely in a theater, but the theater extends beyond the school theater. The stage is in the bar too when she’s meeting those men. The stage is in her physical therapy gym; she notices that the carpet is the same as the carpet in the theater.

I wanted to extend the world of the stage across the world of the book. That was really exciting to me because then that meant that anything was possible, you know? And in this story, a lot of impossible things happen. A lot of miracles occur and so I had to set the stage for that. And that’s how I did it, by just bringing in the supernatural.

BOGAEV: It is like onion skins.

AWAD: Yeah.

BOGAEV: The transitions must be really hard, I was thinking, from realism to magical realism or whatever we’re calling this. As a writer, how do you create that?

AWAD: I think for me, it’s pretty intuitive and organic. The materials that inspired me already had those components in them so it was easy to do. Because there is the very real setting of the school and the school theater in that production, then there’s also the very real setting of the physical therapist’s office. To kind of veer away once I’d introduced the world of Macbeth, that just felt like a very natural progression for this story.

BOGAEV: It’s interesting as a reader, those transitions too, because for instance the three men, or the witches, give Miranda a potion, eventually.

AWAD: Right, yeah.

BOGAEV: But before they do, they recite the top of Helen’s monologue from Act one, “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, which we ascribe to heaven.” Now, when I read this, I wondered if this whole thing was all in Miranda’s fevered brain. This whole thing with the witches, since she’s teaching All’s Well and is also thinking about Macbeth. So, it’s almost like you’re walking this razor edge with us between delusion or hallucination and outright magic, which is also very exciting somehow.

AWAD: Yeah, it was very fun to play with that. We really are seeing the world through Miranda’s eyes, and she’s not a reliable narrator. Although, you could say, who is a reliable narrator? But she certainly is not. She’s wacked out. She’s, you know, fevered and in throes of so much pain, and she’s a former actress. She’s very melodramatic just in general, so you can’t really… she’s definitely not a straight narrator the way that maybe her co-director, Grace, is.

Yeah, I did have fun with the fact that I was looking at this world through Miranda’s fevered eyes. Then that allowed me, too, to open up the borders of reality in play.

BOGAEV: I really love the way that these mysterious men talk. They speak in wonderful and wonderous ways. Could you read just a bit for us so we hear them on page 104 and 105?

AWAD: Sure.

“’Oh, the melodrama Miss Fitch. They’ll murder it. And Brianna is no Lady M, is she?’

“‘Never,’ I agree.

“‘She’s no Helen either.’

“‘How did—

“‘No wonder Miss Fitch,’ he says looking like he’s going to cry. ‘No wonder at all about your back. No wonder you’re all out of whack.”

Broken, broken,’ whines the fat man. ‘Bank, bones, spirit.’ He covers his eyes.

“‘Bank, bones, spirit.’ I hear myself repeat.Broken, broken.’ I hear my voice crack, a mirror shattered.

It’s a wonder you can stand at all.’

“‘It’s a wonder,’ I whisper staring at the shards. ‘It’s a wonder,’

“‘But pain can move Miss Fitch. It can switch. Easy, easily. Do you know how easy? From house to house. From body to body. You can pass it along. You can give it away, piece by piece.’

“‘Give it away?’ I repeat.

“‘To those who might need it,’ the middling man says.

“‘Even want it, even thank you for it,’ the fat man says. He’s looking right at me now.

“‘Exactly. Just like theater, it’s all theater in the end.’

“‘Hear, hear.

“He looks at me. ‘You know what I’d love? I’d love to show you a trick. Do you like tricks, Miss Fitch?’

“Shouldn’t. Shouldn’t like tricks. Up to something, these men. I should go. Now, leave and never come back.

“‘I like tricks,’ I whisper.

“‘I think you’ll enjoy this one a great deal being in theater. It’s a theater trick.’

 

“The fat man starts to laugh so hard he begins to cough. He coughs and coughs growing red in the face. The veins on his cheeks fatten, grow livid. ‘He’s going to die,’ I think. Keel over any minute.

“‘May I show you?’

“I look at the three men waiting for me to answer.Run,’ I tell myself. Drive home drunk. Die there alone in your dark room.

“‘Show me.’”

BOGAEV: Spooky. Oh, it’s so great at the end. You know, “Run. Show me.” Can’t resist. I don’t want to give away what happens, but these mysterious men help Miranda to completely upend the power relationships between her and her colleagues and her students. So, what was your thinking about this? Is there a message about pain and power? Or are you exploring those dynamics just by the fact of turning them on their head?

AWAD: I think there’s something to it. I think we do transfer pain in our everyday lives. You know, whenever we share something with someone, we are in a sense, you know, sharing our pain with them. And I’m interested in that. Ethically, what does that do to that person who internalizes the pain? I, sort of, wanted to literalize it. I wondered what would happen if you could really transfer the pain.

Yeah, and particularly, you know, it’s a revenge fantasy in some ways that’s being realized here for Miranda because, you know, she longs to be able to be free. She’s angry at these people who, in her mind, are pain-free and strong and able to live their lives, like her colleagues. Like her students.

It was really fun to play with the power of transferring pain and what that might mean for her and her own sense of power. How it might elevate her. Yeah.

BOGAEV: Yeah and it’s so layered with teaching.

AWAD: Right.

BOGAEV: As a teacher you’re imbuing your students with your knowledge.

AWAD: Right. Yes.

BOGAEV: Then in theater—at a certain point in theater there was the fear, the belief, that you literally transmitted things through your eyes while you’re on stage to the audience.

AWAD: Right.

BOGAEV: That was one of the things that made theater so dangerous.

AWAD: Right, absolutely.

BOGAEV: So, would any of this storyline have worked if you had picked a different Shakespeare play as the center of this story rather than All’s Well?

AWAD: Oh no. It had to be All’s Well. First of all, I had the relationship with it. I had the really, really strong reaction to Helen that felt very special.

BOGAEV: And you need that to write.

AWAD: Yeah. Absolutely. And I had an equally strong relationship with Macbeth. Both of them have desires that aren’t possible to fulfill within the world of the play when the play opens. But then something happens. They take this, like, wildly transgressive action—each of them does—and then suddenly they are able to realize their desires. In the case of All’s Well, of course, it’s a comedy. You know, there’s no price to pay for her circumvention. But obviously in Macbeth, there’s a huge price to pay.

BOGAEV: Well, it does come up over and over again in your book that All’s Well is a problem play.

AWAD: Yes.

BOGAEV: And you read the passage earlier, but Miranda also puts it this way that it’s neither a tragedy nor a comedy: it’s something in between.

AWAD: Right.

BOGAEV: Something far more interesting, which is how we usually understand the problem plays. I guess you could definitely say that about your book, too. Is that what you were aiming for?

AWAD: Yeah, absolutely. The relationship between tragedy and comedy is so vital to this book. Miranda’s tragedies also inform the comedy and inform the way that she rises. We wouldn’t be able to appreciate the rise without understanding the depth of the fall. So yeah, it was very important. That’s another reason why All’s Well was so important to me is because it is a play that embodies both tragedy and comedy.

BOGAEV: So did writing this give you new perspectives or insights into the play?

AWAD: Yeah. I think it did. You know, I do see the ending with Bertram and that single line differently. And, I appreciate the fact that she is a character who openly shares her desire.

Then, just the relationship, I think, between All’s Well and Macbeth: I didn’t really appreciate it before but there is a relationship between them, you know. In one play a king is healed. In the other play a king is killed. And that action that’s taken against the king, that’s what catalyzes the rest of the character’s journey, the hero’s journey. That was very interesting, too, to just be in both plays and see the relationship between them.

BOGAEV: Well, thank you so much for a great read and for a great conversation.

AWAD: Thank you so much, Barbara, for having me on. It was a pleasure.

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WITMORE:
Dr. Mona Awad is the author of three novels. Her 13 Ways Of Looking At A Fat Girl published by Penguin in 2016, won the Amazon Best First Novel Award. Her 2019 novel, Bunny was a finalist for a GoodReads Choice Award for Best Horror.

Her new novel, All’s Well was published by Simon & Schuster and Penguin Canada on August 3rd, 2021.

Dr. Awad has taught creative writing at Brown University, the University of Denver, Framingham State University, Tufts and in the MFA program at U-Mass-Amherst. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast episode, “Lord, How We Lose Our Pains!” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax-West in Studio City, California.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.