Six Degrees Left: Retelling the Classics

Magic No Mystery 4
Photo Credit: Nancy Ellis

There will always be parts of a story that sound familiar.  Aspects of plot, character, or voice that we’ve seen or heard before as if the authors have swung past each other in similar loops, grabbing snippets from one another as they cross.  Whether you believe that there are really only seven basic plots, or that the potential for unique stories is infinite, there’s no doubt that many authors try their hand at retelling their favorite stories in part or in whole. Here at Atticus Books, we have several retellings in our arsenal: The Great Lenoreinspired by Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Poe’s The Raven; Nazareth, North Dakota and its sequel Apostle Islands, both an allegorical Biblical retelling with a modern Messiah; and The Snow Whale, which follows the same sea-faring adventure as Mellville’s Moby-Dick.

These echo-ings of great literature have the potential to either protect and preserve, or to muddle public memory of the originals.  It’s not always clear what kinds of retelling can produce successful, unique books separate from their inspiration.  Is it enough to add in a few plot twists, throw in some flesh-eating zombies, change the gender of the character, or drop them in another place and time?  Thanks to Atticus authors J.M. Tohline, Tommy Zurhellen, and John Minichillo for opinions on how it can be done.

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


Did each of you start your novel with the idea that it would indirectly touch on or retell a beloved story? Or did that unfold organically during the writing process?

The Great Lenore by JM TohlineJM Tohline: The Great Lenore grew from the seed of an idea entirely independent of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It was only once I began to dig into the soil in which I intended for this seed to grow that I began to discover similarities between the stories, and in turn chose to drag these similarities into the spotlight. In fact, the working title of Lenore was “Between Death and Put to Rest”—with the final title emerging only near the conclusion of the story itself.

Nazareth, North Dakota by Tommy Zurhellen


Tommy Zurhellen: Luckily for me, in hashing out Nazareth, North Dakota, I didn’t realize how beloved the Bible stories were, otherwise I might have stopped writing it. I knew I had to be careful, but I also felt like I had an obligation to tell the story the way I saw it.


The Snow Whale

John Minichillo: For a long time I had wanted to do a retelling of Moby-Dick. What was harder and what took years was figuring out the right angle, the right idea. And once I had a way in, the book came together pretty organically.




By writ
ing characters that already exist, does there seem to be more limitations to what they can do, speak, or think?  Must these characters adhere to a pre-written fate?

John Minichillo: One of the main motivating factors of retelling Moby-Dick was that I would get to write in the white whale. This is probably the most recognizable character in all of American Literature, and Moby-Dick is in the public domain, so I can steal from it. Obviously, the essence of Melville’s other main characters pushed me in certain directions with my own characters, and it was really helpful when writing.

Tommy Zurhellen: The reason why we still have the story of Jesus is because he died and rose from the dead at the end, so I couldn’t change that. If the reader got to the end and the Messiah character married his high school sweetheart and moved to Idaho and sold drapes, they’d be disappointed. There are some parts of the original frame you just can’t fidget with. Everything else, well, that’s the fun part.

There is no such thing as pre-written fates if the story we are working on decides it wants to do something different. – JM Tohline

John Minichillo: Moby-Dick ends with Ishmael clinging to the floating casket with Queequeg in it, and the Pequod sunk by the white whale (sorry if I spoiled it for anyone). I couldn’t really have a predetermined ending, but I kept the sketch of the plot and that quartet of characters.

JM Tohline: I’ll never forget watching Inglorious Basterds in the theater and thinking: “The only thing that’s too bad about a movie like this is that it is so original, but it has a predetermined end result, because we already know their assassination plot against Hitler is going to fail.” Five minutes later, Hitler was machine-gunned to death. Hey—it’s fiction! There is no such thing as pre-written fates if the story we are working on decides it wants to do something different.

John Minichillo: Characters pretty much never respond well to a prewritten fate. You might know Hamlet’s going to die, but there’s a lot of room there in the middle for Hamlet to act up.


How much has to be different for the retelling to be a successful piece of writing detached from the original story and unique enough in itself?

Tommy Zurhellen: I think you have to throw at least one, big wrench into the original machine for you to call it your own. Otherwise, you’re just typing. Usually when you do add one wrinkle, that affects other things in a wave, and things change organically from there. That’s the theory, anyway.

Every story is a retelling. – Tommy Zurhellen

JM Tohline: For my experience with Lenore, this question was flipped around. Because I began with an original story and decided to incorporate elements of Gatsby, the question became, “How much of ‘Gatsby’ do I incorporate, in order to pay tribute to the novel in which my efforts are ultimately finding their roots, without going overboard?” In the end, I feel I did go overboard in one monumental moment of the novel, but in all, I believe a comfortable balance was struck—the balance between maintaining independence while (as it were) still acknowledging genealogical ties.


What makes a written work a “retelling” as opposed to a “riff” on a classic or original story? Are there certain aspects that can or should be changed for the new piece to work?

John Minichillo: For my money a retelling has a recognizable sketch of the original plot and/or character(s). There are loud literary allusions. The opening passage of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is clearly and famously a riff on Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man. Is it a retelling? Maybe.  Does that awareness shape an understanding of Ellison’s character? Absolutely. Without a doubt. Did it help establish Ellison’s literary reputation? Very much so.

JM Tohline: The distinction between a “retelling” and a “riff” is one each reader makes for their own self—and ultimately, it’s all semantics. Each novel ends up being whatever it ends up being, and “what it ends up being” tends to have very little to do with what we, as the author, intended for it to end up being.

“As storytellers, we recycle old parts and find ways to put them together.”    Photo Credit: Stuart Richards

Tommy Zurhellen: Every story is a retelling. As storytellers, we recycle old parts and find ways to fit them together. But you’re right, there’s a lot of stories that intentionally riff off (some would say, rip off) older works to come up with something that might appeal to a contemporary audience.

JM Tohline: Tommy nailed it in saying that every story is a retelling. After all, each of our works builds on the knowledge and experience gained from both our [the writer’s] earlier works and every other book we have ever read (with each of these “books we have ever read” having been influenced, in turn, by the books its author had read).

As for The Great Lenore, I couldn’t say for myself which category I would place it in, but I am especially fond of the term that was used at some point along the line by Atticus in marketing the book, calling it a “modern re-imagining” of The Great Gatsby. That’s a nice way to put it.


What are you favorite recent retellings in novels?

Tommy Zurhellen: The idea behind the book Wicked was genius. I wish I thought of that. But if pressed, I’d have to say Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad takes the cake. I love it when writers find a fresh angle on an old story, and then follow to where it takes them. Brilliant!

John Minichillo: Mat Johnson’s Pym is a hoot. It starts out kind of silly and gets really weird and I love that.

JM Tohline: I don’t guess this really counts as a “retelling,” but it was “taking a story that already existed and turning it into something new.” And it was one of the best novels I have read, ever: Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.


Next week the discussion looks at reader responses to retellings and paying necessary homage to one’s literary heroes.

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