With her debut novel, “If We Were Villains,” M.L. Rio took the age-old literary advice to heart: Write what you know.
“I’m a Shakespeare fanatic,” says Rio, who recently moved to North Texas. “I’ve been Bard-obsessed since I was about 9.”
Her case of “full-blown Bardolotry” led Rio to earn her masters in Shakespeare studies at King’s College and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. Since age 14, she has acted onstage in a variety Shakespearean roles, “from the infamous hunchback Richard III to the fairy queen Titania.”
On the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, she even spent the night in Hamlet’s famed castle Elsinore.
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“If We Were Villains” (a phrase lifted from “King Lear”) is a tragic thriller about a tight-knit group of acting students at Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Broadwater, Ill., where the curriculum is all Shakespeare, all the time.
While they are mounting a production of “Julius Caesar,” life starts to imitate art. One of the fourth-year students, the most talented and most arrogant, winds up dead after a falling out within the group.
Another of the students, Oliver, the one almost always relegated to supporting roles, winds up doing time in prison and sitting on a secret that will take 10 years to come out.
Rio, who lives now in Addison, also put her writing skills and Shakespeare knowledge to use in a different way in 2016, when she won a contest that allowed her to spend the night in Kronborg, the Danish castle immortalized as Elsinore in “Hamlet.”
“The application said submissions in iambic pentameter were encouraged,” Rio says. “While I’m fairly certain that was a joke, writing dumb stuff in iambic pentameter is sort of a hobby of mine. I wrote this absurd poem about Shakespeare possibly playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father 400 years ago.
“About two weeks later, the phone rang and it was Denmark on the other end!”
“If We Were Villains”
By M.L. Rio (Flatiron, 368 pages, $25.99)