James Hartley is the author of the upcoming book The Invisible Hand, the first book in his Shakespeare’s Moon series for young readers. I caught up with James to ask him some questions about his writing process, his relationship to Shakespeare, and what we can expect from the series.
What gave you the idea for the Shakespeare’s Moon series?
I´d always had the idea in my head to write a book about the world of Macbeth. When I finally got down to the task it had been gestating for a few years and I enjoyed the whole experience so much that I thought it could make a series. The full moon played an important role in the plot for The Invisible Hand and I liked the idea of having a different book loosely based on a different Shakespeare play. A good friend suggested the title for the series and I said, “Yep, thanks!”
Why Shakespeare? Why not another classic writer?
I suppose because Shakespeare is universal: everyone has heard of Shakespeare. I also started with the idea about kids at a school becoming involved in the plot of Macbeth, so it was really the play more than the writer which led me into the whole project.
Why did you decide to start the series with Macbeth?
I was taught Macbeth years ago, when I was fourteen or fifteen, at school in England. I was taught it really well by a teacher who had a passion for the play and he managed to transmit that passion to me. I´ve always liked the play, always had a copy in the house, always sat and thought about the plot, which I love. I like the darkness of it all, the strength of the characters, the brevity, too: how so much happens in such a concise way.
Also, writing the book gave me a chance to reconnect with my own past, with the person I was over twenty years ago, the person I still think I am sometimes. I suppose I wrote the book for me, but for the old me. For me and young people who might be around now, reading books, starting to get a thrill from good literature, who might fancy reading an adventure like this.
Were you at all daunted by the idea of adapting Shakespeare? How did you approach that task?
No, not daunted, really, although I went back and got a good annotated copy of the play and went through it a little bit more methodically than I ever had before. But not daunted. Shakespeare doesn´t really scare me: the voice I hear in the plays is a playful, intelligent observer of people with a good sense of humour and a keen sense of the vulnerability and preciousness of life, but also how ridiculous it can be.
I think he was an astute reader of what an audience likes but also manages to make things his own. There are confusing passages and plays but I don´t pretend to be an expert on Shakespeare. It´s perhaps the experts who scare me more, although I can´t read books like scholars or experts do. It´s the whole Keats thing of unweaving a rainbow, taking the mystery and magic out of things. The play´s the thing!
Do you think about Macbeth differently after writing The Invisible Hand? Do you think about Shakespeare or his works differently?
Not really. I enjoyed meeting Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in my book, that was fun. They think the main female character is a daughter they lost. Lady Macbeth, by the time we meet her properly, is pretty much far gone. Macbeth himself is bitter and twisted, drinking, heavily-bearded and quite scary. That was good fun.
What made you want to write for younger readers?
I suppose to try and help them navigate that weird period where you´re done with children´s books and you´re taking your first steps into the adult world of literature. You´ve faced up to the fact that you like reading, perhaps you´re good at writing, or people say you are, and you´re ready to have a look at these names which you keep hearing and reading about.
The idea that this book might shine a bit of light on how to look at a play like Macbeth, or might take a young reader into the world of the play and show them that it is just that – a world, like theirs – is what inspired me. Also, a large part of the book is about kids at school, suffering classes and falling in love and those two themes made it pretty clear to me the book had to be aimed at young readers.
I made a conscious decision not to talk down to them at all, vocabulary or plot-wise. The book is about people of a certain age and as such I hope people of a certain age will read it – but I really think anyone who´s been to school or has read a Shakespeare play, particularly Macbeth, would get something from it.
What does your writing process look like?
Normally lots of brooding on an idea. The shower is where inspiration often strikes. I sometimes sleep on an idea, tell myself, more or less, to come up with an answer for why A meets B and how by the next morning. I´m not precious about where or when I write. The Invisible Hand was written at the kitchen table in my mother-in-law´s house while we were having a new kitchen put in. I try to strike while the iron is hot: when I have an idea I´ll sit and type it out, however long or short that takes. I write in bursts of between half an hour and about three or four hours. If I´m writing a book I try to write every day, at least every week day. I re-read and edit heavily and then make a gut decision on whether something works or not. If I feel blocked or uninspired I´ll walk, run or swim. You always come back from a long walk with nature with something.
What do you hope your readers will take away from The Invisible Hand? Is there anything about Shakespeare or Macbeth in particular you would like for them to take away?
With Macbeth, a bit of the darkness and drama and a taste of medieval life, of medieval Scotland. Perhaps a picture of a place and time which really did exist, albeit not quite as Shakespeare wrote it, but which existed nonetheless. Getting that world into someone´s head, into someone´s imagination would be nice, for me. And as regards Shakespeare: perhaps the idea that there´s no need to be afraid of the guy or his plays. Yes, he wrote a long time ago; yes there´s a lot of strange language, but, at the bottom, the guy´s still popular because he wrote some good stuff, much of which hasn´t been bettered. Why not have a look at the best before you have a look at the rest?
Which play will you tackle next with the series? Or is it a surprise?
Romeo and Juliet. I´ve had the basic plot in my head for a long while now but I needed to go back and revisit the play. I also want to move along the story of the school, so have needed to think about that, but mainly I want to address the subject of love – first love and true love – which is so vivid and dramatic when you´re young.
Is there anything else you would like the readers of the Shakespeare Standard to know?
Firstly that there´s a short story out right now which is free on Smashwords but 99c on Amazon (all profits to the International Rescue Committee) which is a prelude to The Invisible Hand. It´s called Heart of Winter and is a nice, creepy Christmas story about the school and Shakespeare.
And secondly that I think The Invisible Hand might appeal to actors, directors and producers of Shakespeare or plays which are seen by high-school aged students.
I´m pretty sure the material could be easily adapted to the stage – there are a couple of battle and chase scenes, but nothing crazy – and the setting could easily be moved from a boarding school in England to a boarding school (or any type of school) in the United States. I think it would make a great play, TV show or movie.
The Invisible Hand will be published on 24 February 2017 by Lodestone Books. It is available for pre-order from Amazon here
If you would like more information on The Invisible Hand or James Hartley, you can find it at
or check out James´s website at