PW: You have an unusually strong attachment to Shakespeare. What got you started?
HG: What are the two books people have in their homes, whether they read them or not? Shakespeare and the Bible. It has been that way for ages. Shakespeare's a cultural icon. No matter what education level, everyone basically knows who he is. But they think they can get it by osmosis and when they reach my age, they want to know more.
PW: Was there a catalyst for Shakespeare and Me?
HG: The thing that set me off was finally seeing Shakespeare in performance. Just before I retired—literally two to three weeks—I saw Hamlet for the first time on stage. It was a much-heralded production from London starring Ralph Fiennes. Seeing that performance left an impression—it was an epiphany, really. That ultimately set me off on an obsessive course of self-education and immersion in all things Shakespearean.
PW: You had a long career as a book editor in New York—as editor-in-chief of Atheneum and Doubleday, editing Donald Barthelme and James Clavell—and you're saying you'd never seen Hamlet?
HG: Not since college. But I'd always felt a kinship to Shakespeare. I'm a Texas Jew transplanted to New York; Shakespeare was a Stratford Protestant transplanted to London. Our families were strictly middle-class, bourgeois. My father had endured financial problems as a struggling lawyer in Depression-era Houston. Shakespeare's father, a glover, had suffered financial reverses after over-extending his business. Both of us were Young Men from the Provinces who'd run off to the magical metropolises to make it in showbiz.
PW: And now, of course, you have parallel careers as writers.
HG: He outdid me, but so what, I had a hell of a lot of fun in the process. Speaking of Shakespearean parallels in my life, I'd say Don Barthelme was my Hamlet—complex, contradictory, an antic spirit one moment, the next ready to say, "I have lost all my mirth." Clavell was definitely an Elizabethan and shared much with Shakespeare—both were showbiz types; both were middle-class status-seekers who loved property.
PW: In addition to being an editor and a writer, you've also turned to teaching.
HG: Yes, I got obsessive about Shakespeare, and my mind became so crammed with stuff that felt I had to share it with people—people like me, who knew something about Shakespeare but wanted to know a whole lot more. So I started teaching at something called the Lifelong Learning Institute of a small Catholic college near my home in New Jersey. They're mostly people of my generation. These are ideal people to teach. They know what Shakespeare means when he writes about "the whips and scorns of time" and the "insolence of office."
PW: Did your editorial experience help you as a teacher and a writer?
HG: Part of your job as an editor is basically teaching, but it's a different kind. What you're doing is trying to help a writer improve his manuscript. In the course of that you hope you're getting something across about technique. As an editor, you're both teacher and critic—and that's dynamic. My first draft was over 900 pages. I tend to be super-critical—like Iago, "I am nothing if not critical"—and I began to have second thoughts about the quality of what I'd done. I thought to myself, "I never expected that just a few years after retiring, I'd find myself editing another crappy manuscript, and that it would be mine."