SE: Your book let me tell you is a novel you wrote from the perspective of Hamlet’s Ophelia, and, in an Oulipian twist, you only use words that Ophelia speaks in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I found the results to be quite remarkable. To start, a very fundamental question—perhaps the key question: why Ophelia?
PG: I began with the idea of taking all the words spoken in Hamlet and rearranging them into a new text. However, it didn’t take me very long to realize that while initially I could say almost anything with this stock of words, unless I took huge care in monitoring what I was using, I could easily end up with a highly resistant residue of archaisms and prepositions.
I therefore decided to use not all the words in the play, once each, but all the words spoken by one character, with no restriction as to number of uses. Now if you choose Hamlet as your character, his vocabulary is so vast there’s virtually no constraint—and I needed an active constraint to make the book work. If you choose Francisco, there’s the opposite problem, of being able to say only a very little. Ophelia has enough words to express herself on all sorts of matters, but also few enough that she is constantly bumping up against the unsayable.
The constraint also allowed her to give readers the experience of reading words they have read before but are reading now in a new context. Because her mad scenes introduce a language that is unusual and therefore memorable, the reader easily recognizes, for example, where “rosemary” comes from.
At the same time, I wanted the book to do what novels generally do: tell a story. Ophelia has one of the play’s most powerful lines: “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.” My attempt was to give her something of what she may be.
Also, and again quite aside from the constraint, here was a character who invites questions, a character who has very little opportunity to speak for herself in the play, and may now do so . . .