Six Degrees Left: Retelling the Classics


Atticus authors John Minichillo, JM Tohline, and Tommy Zurhellen continue their conversation on retelling the classics. Read last week’s conversation.

The following conversation is conducted by Atticus Books publicist Lacey N. Dunham and editorial/marketing assistant Abby Hess.


…it is an altogether unique and enjoyable challenge to create “something new” out of something that is already a permanent part of the literary fabric.


As writers, why do you think there’s a desire to retell stories? Why do readers gravitate toward retellings?

Tommy Zurhellen: Again, all stories are retellings, so we do it whether we admit it or not. For readers, it may be the same reason we check out the movie version of our favorite books, or the graphic novel version of our favorite film. We get to revisit our original experience, and we get to use our prior knowledge of the text to put it up against the light and look for the differences. That’s a lot of fun for me when I read an allegory.

John Minichillo: I don’t think writers gravitate toward retellings. There are the famous examples of Joyce Carol Oates, Jane Smiley, John Gardner, and Jean Rhys all doing it. But for the most part, I don’t think most writers are all that interested in [retellings]. They don’t want their work to be seen as derivative. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s challenging for me to be able to pull it off and I really enjoy the game, but like all of the writers mentioned, retellings are only a small portion of my body of work.

JM Tohline: I think what John and Tommy both said is absolutely true—especially John’s point about many writers being “not all that interested” in retellings because they do not want their work to be seen as derivative.

“I think that each of us…has at least thought of retelling one of the stories that made us fall in love with books.”  Photo Credit: Jonathan Gray

I think that each of us, at one point or another, has at least thought of retelling (or “re-imagining”) one of the stories that made us fall in love with books. This is a natural stop along the author’s path. But while most authors force themselves away from this idea rather quickly (again, desiring to “do something new” and to “not be seen as derivative”), some of us return to that spot and settle down for a while. Why not? That spot offers a nice view. And anyway, it is an altogether unique and enjoyable challenge to create “something new” out of something that is already a permanent part of the literary fabric.


When writing a book that alludes in a significant way to an earlier work(s), do you expect the potential readers to be lovers of the original, or is there an altogether different audience?

JM Tohline: There are certainly readers who loved both The Great Gatsby and The Great Lenore; there are some who chose to dislike Lenore before they ever started it, simply because of their deep affection for Gatsby; there are still others who never read Gatsby and who thoroughly enjoyed Lenore as its own independent piece.

John Minichillo: All that matters is that I love the original. The original is something that stuck in my head over the years and the retelling is a way for my imagination to go back there and play around.

JM Tohline: When retelling a story, you must resign yourself to automatically creating more preconceived notions in the minds of readers than you would otherwise deal with. Sometimes, this is good; other times, this is bad.


Should the author of the original story of a retelling be acknowledged, either within the story, the introduction/acknowledgements, or the cover?

John Minichillo: That’s up to the marketing folks, right? From a literary perspective, if you wink at the past, you assume your readers are smart enough to get it, or if they don’t get it, the story still holds up.

Tommy Zurhellen: To me, the best part of retelling a story for a publisher is the chance to put “based on the play by William Shakespeare” (or whomever) on the bottom of the page or screen, so folks who would never read that play or old novel can feel like they’ve read it. It helps sell stuff. Is there creativity in recycling old parts? I definitely think so. There’s a lot of work in it, for sure.

John Minichillo: Because of GoodReads and blogging and all of that, there’s this weird thing with being a writer these days. I know people out there I’ve never met who are reading my book or about to read my book, and some of them feel like they need to go out and read Moby-Dick first to really get mine. I want to say, “No No No, just read it!” I feel like I’ve given them homework and my book is supposed to be fun.

JM Tohline: I remember reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower a few years back and writing in the margin of the book, “I wonder if he is going to allude to The Catcher in the Rye at any point,” as the vibe of Wallflower was so overwhelmingly similar to the vibe of Catcher.  A few pages later, the narrator in Wallflower talked about how he was currently reading The Catcher in the Rye. Of course, Wallflower was not a retelling of Catcher, but you could tell that Chbosky was influenced by Salinger’s classic, and I was impressed and pleased that he provided this (as John put it) wink at the past. That’s important, I believe, when writing a book that takes elements from a long-ago classic.



Tommy, you’ve written two literary novels, Nazareth, North Dakota and the forthcoming Apostle Islands that both reimagine the Bible in a contemporary setting. Is the Bible literature? Can it be read as literature?

Tommy Zurhellen: I think the Bible is most certainly literature. These are stories that try to explain things that can’t be explained. It’s that delicious middle ground, between the mundane and the miracles, that make it unique and special for anyone, no matter what you believe. They don’t call it the Greatest Story Ever Told for nothing (although Stories may be more apt, since there’s so much going on at once, and so many holes left open.)

John Minichillo: I can’t imagine the Bible not being read as literature. It’s a story. There are symbols. There are characters. We have no way of knowing if any of it is real. What we do know, and what we can talk about with certainty, is that the stories of the Old and New Testament have literary merit.

I’ve often retold famous short stories. I see it as a kind of homage, to pay my respects, but also as a way of directly linking my work to Great Literature.

Tommy Zurhellen: The Bible I read as a kid and the one I read now are completely different; the words on the page haven’t changed much, but I sure have. And that’s true with any narrative: for example, I read Moby-Dick in high school, sure, but when I read it again in grad school, I couldn’t believe this was the same story. There was so much more I hadn’t seen before. I think it’s the same with the Bible. The reader brings as much as the writer to any tale, we know that.


John, your novel The Snow Whale is less a direct retelling and more a flirtation with the specter of Melville’s Moby-Dick, which is usually considered one of the great American novels. What is your relationship to Moby-Dick and how did it find its way into your debut novel?

John Minichillo: When I was in college and an English major I had a summer job working in a cemetery. One of the full-time cemetery employees was a national merit scholar who had dropped out. The grass wouldn’t always grow as fast as we could cut it, so as long as we were discreet, there was downtime. I was in the habit of bringing a book and the national merit scholar recommended Moby-Dick. I had an English major’s awareness that it was maybe the closest we’d ever come to The Great American Novel (which is otherwise a joke) and that was the first and only time I read it, most likely sitting on a tombstone and without a dictionary. I was most impressed by the “nonfiction” elements, the whaling, a whole world of experience that doesn’t exist anymore.

As a writer of short fiction I’ve often retold famous short stories. I see it as a kind of homage, to pay my respects, but also as a way of directly linking my work to Great Literature. The white whale and Ahab and the basic plot is recognizable even to people who never read [Moby-Dick], and it is everywhere in the pop culture. I was intimidated by the challenge of retelling this particular giant of Great Literature, but then I got the idea that gave me access, a way to set a whaling novel in a contemporary frame, which was Inupiat whaling, which I knew absolutely nothing about. A friend suggested that the imagery would be powerful and that I should trust my imagination. So I started researching and he was right, the story came to me like a gift.


JM, The Great Lenore spins around the works of two American writers of magnitude: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edgar Allen Poe. What in particular drew you to the themes, ideas, and writings presented by these two writers, who have very different styles and who tell very different types of stories?

JM Tohline: The inclusion of Poe as an integral member of my novel’s backdrop is the one that should be most surprising, I guess. After all, the title of the novel, as well as a handful of the story elements, allude to (wink at) The Great Gatsby, but more than anything, I feel Lenore is a modern re-imagining of 1920s literature in general. At least, that was the working sense I had, and that is the reflective sense I have.

And where does Poe fit into the glamor, decadence, transience, and effervescence of 1920s living and literature? Nowhere at all. Maybe it’s exactly that contrast that drew me toward him. Or maybe it is simply that Poe was the first author—back when I was in high school—who made me want to start writing myself. Or maybe it is simply one of those things we do as authors that has no rational explanation, and that just simply is.


Next week the discussion wraps up with a look at Hollywood films based on books and some of the best/worst adaptations. Read last week’s conversation on writing within the limits of a previously told story. 


Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top