The Sweetest Debut: M.L. Rio on Shakespeare, Murder, and Dorian Gray Fan Fiction

Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies. Today: M.L. Rio on her debut novel If We Were Villains, a rollicking tale of murder forged from Shakespearean tropes and lore. 


What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

I’m so bad at this! It’s been three years and I’m still so bad at it. But it’s usually something along the lines of “It’s about a group of young Shakespearean actors who get a little too method and ruin their lives.” Which isn’t wrong but isn’t a great pitch, either.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

Depends which relative. Sometimes I say, “It’s about Shakespeare,” and sometimes I say, “It’s about Shakespeare AND MURDER.”

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

I’m a bit of a perfectionist so I actually did ten or 12 drafts before I even started querying. This would have been back in 2014. I signed with my agency in (I think) March of 2015, we submitted to editors in either June or July and to my absolute astonishment we had a book deal about 48 hours later. Talk about an emotional roller coaster.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

The Old Man and the Sea. Because that’s it, that’s all it is. The whole book is in the title. It’s an old guy who sits alone in a boat for a hundred pages.

Name a book you’ve read more than twice.

I reread the entire Lord of The Rings trilogy this year, for the first time since I was about 14. I was rambling around in Wales and found this absolutely lurid hardcover version from the 1970s in a used bookshop and just had to have it. I was also listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin on that trip (you know, “Bron-Yr-Aur,” “Over the Hills and Far Away” and all that) and there’s so much about Middle Earth in there that I thought, “You know, I should really brush up my Elvish.” It was delightful.

What about a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

Well, Shakespeare’s works would be the obvious answer. But to be a little less obvious, I also listened to a tremendous amount of music while I worked on this book. A lot of Daughter and Agnes Obel, many sad spooky songs about drowning or being lit on fire or buried alive in the snow — sometimes figuratively, something not. My tastes run toward the morbid.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

I’m totally addicted to Narcos right now. Ironic, right?

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

I don’t always listen to music while I’m actively writing, because I tend to get distracted, but music is a big part of my creative process. I have pretty eclectic taste as far as music goes, and what I’m listening to is largely dictated by what I’m writing. Right now what I’m working on is set in 1977 so it’s been a lot of classic rock — I already mentioned Zeppelin, but I’m kind of running the gamut for that decade. Everything from Black Sabbath to Supertramp.

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

Oh, I’d definitely go back to Wales. There’s this wonderful town there called Hay-on-Wye that’s just nothing but bookshops. I think there are something like 19 bookshops, all with different specialties. I never wanted to leave.

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

Believe it or not, I wanted to be a marine biologist. I was obsessed with sharks. I had books and stuffed animals and even shark pajamas. (I was a weird kid.)

Did you have a new years resolution for 2017? If so, what?

I actually made a resolution to read more non-fiction this year. It’s been going really well so far, which is more than I can say of pretty much any other resolution I’ve ever made.

What freaks you out the most about four years of Donald Trump as US President?

The possibility that we won’t even make it four years before he starts a nuclear war over something somebody said about his tiny hands on Twitter.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

I need a little white noise (and also caffeine) when I’m working, so I usually do very well in coffee shops. But I do also like to be surrounded by books, so I often cheat and go to a bookstore instead. That can be kind of the perfect halfway point between the café and the library.

Do you write at a desk, bed or couch?

I moved back to the States from London in December and don’t really have a permanent address, so I’m living sort of an odd nomadic life right now. Hopefully I’ll be settling somewhere soon, but for now I write on whatever’s available, whether it’s a bed or a desk or a bar or an airplane tray.

Is morning writing or late-night writing your go-to-time?

I am much more of a night owl (to the point that a few of my college roommates started calling me the Vampire). I’d venture a guess that most of Villains was written in the wee hours between midnight and three in the morning. That probably won’t surprise anyone who’s read the book. Stars, hide your fires, etc.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

I do a little of both. I try to get a whole first draft down on paper before I start doing any serious revisions, but when I sit down to write I usually start by going back to read through whatever I wrote the previous day, just to reorient myself in the story space. That often results in a kind of on-the-go editing, but it’s mostly minor — fixing typos, adding missing words and deleting extra ones, that sort of thing. When I do finally have a whole first draft, that’s when I rip it to shreds. I’m a merciless editor. Murder your darlings, as they say.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

Well, I was a working actor for a few years. That can be kind of a wild life, but it doesn’t pay very much unless you’re ‘making it big’ so I was also working at a Barnes & Noble and a wine bar at the same time. Currently I’m a grad student—I just finished my master’s degree and I’m staring my PhD in the fall. So I guess you could call academia my ‘day job’. I’m a professional student. I might just keep getting more degrees until I die.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

Insomnia and an obsessive personality.

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?

Maybe Dorian Gray. I don’t know why; I just feel that there would be something inherently hilarious about that particular character in a modern context. It’s almost too easy; you transpose Dorian Gray and Henry Wotton into a twenty-first century setting and it turns into a classic collegiate May-December romance, only they’re gay and May’s immortal. I mean, I’d read that.

Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?

“Aren’t you done yet?” Dorian asked, with a heavy sigh, as though his present occupation of lying supine upon his bed were somehow exhausting.
Baz worried away at his sketchpad, tongue pinched between his teeth, little watery eyes darting from the page to Dorian’s face and back again. “Can’t rush art,” he said.
“You’d better rush yours or I’ll die of boredom,” Dorian threatened. But, of course, he wouldn’t. With a smug little smile he thought of the other portrait, wrapped up in newspapers and hidden like a pile of dirty magazines underneath the bed. His phone buzzed; he risked spoiling Basil’s drawing to lift his head and glance at the screen. The little smile widened.
“Who’s that?” Baz demanded, in envious dismay, automatically affronted by whoever had so moved his model.
“Dr. Wotton,” Dorian said, sinking back down, suddenly less restless.
“Aren’t you going to answer?”
“No,” Dorian said. “I think I’d rather make him wait.”