NEW YORK • A year and a half ago, novelist Jeanette Winterson got an irresistible offer from a publisher.
The assignment: Choose any Shakespeare play she wanted and adapt it into a novel.
"I said, 'That would be great, put me down for The Winter's Tale', and they looked at me like I was insane," she recalled. "They said, 'Do you really want to do that?' And I said, 'That's the play, no question.'"
She was one of the first writers to sign on for a project conceived by publisher Hogarth, which asked contemporary writers to reimagine Shakespeare's plays.
She had her pick of the canon and could have chosen Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear or Othello, juicy dramas that were later snapped up by novelists Gillian Flynn, Jo Nesbo, Edward St Aubyn and Tracy Chevalier.
Instead, she picked The Winter's Tale, one of Shakespeare's most baffling, jarring and uneven plays.
The opening acts build up to a tragic climax that leaves the king, Leontes, mourning the loss of his wife, son and infant daughter, who is abandoned in the wilderness on his orders. Then, after a memorable stage direction - "Exit, pursued by a bear" - and a 16-year gap, the play morphs into a wacky pastoral romp, with a statue that comes to life and one of the most awkward family reunions in all of literature.
In her adaptation, The Gap Of Time, which came out yesterday, Winterson manages to preserve the play's weirdness and uncomfortable blend of tragedy and humour.
"It is an odd play," said the 56-year- old. "It's almost as if Shakespeare couldn't be bothered to finish it."
The Gap Of Time takes the play's themes of love, jealousy and estrangement and spins them into a taut contemporary tale about an insecure London banker who accuses his wife of cheating on him and destroys his marriage and a friendship in the process.
It is a promising start to an ambitious new series from Hogarth, which has assembled an all-star roster of stylistically diverse writers to translate Shakespeare's plays into prose. So far, eight novelists have joined the series, which arrives in time for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death next year.
Chevalier, author of Girl With A Pearl Earring, is tackling Othello. Margaret Atwood is reimagining The Tempest, set in a prison. Flynn, author of the best-selling novel Gone Girl, is adapting Hamlet.
St Aubyn, who has written about his profoundly dysfunctional family in his best-selling Patrick Melrose series, is recasting King Lear.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler is taking on The Taming Of The Shrew and setting the tale in contemporary Baltimore, where a young preschool teacher, Kate, is pressured to marry her father's awkward laboratory assistant, who faces deportation.
Best-selling Norwegian crime writer Nesbo was drawn to the moral ambiguities in Macbeth, Shakespeare's tragedy about a Scottish nobleman whose hunger for power drives him to murder the king, Duncan, at the behest of three witches.
In Nesbo's version, due out in 2017, Macbeth is the leader of a Swat team in a gloomy, coastal European city, where crime and corruption are rampant. The three witches are making illegal drugs rather than a witches' brew, and promise him that he will ascend through police ranks - but only if he kills Duncan.
"Those classic plays, they read like crime stories," Nesbo said.
William Shakespeare wrote nearly 40 plays and there have been countless adaptations of his dramas over the centuries.
Director Tom Stoppard took two side characters from Hamlet and made them the stars of his existentialist comedy, Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead (1990).
Shakespeare himself was a notorious mooch who borrowed liberally from other people's plots, raiding Greek tragedies and British history as well as works by his rivals.
Winterson, author of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, chose The Winter's Tale partly because she related to the abandoned baby at the centre of the story. She was taken in by well-meaning strangers after her mother gave her up for adoption.
"As someone who was given away and is a foundling, I've always worked with the idea of the lost child," she said. "It's like starting a book with some of the pages missing. You know you missed something, but that sense of exile can also become a place of creativity, because you have to be self-invented."
Even given the unwieldy source material, she found the restrictions of working with someone else's plot liberating.
"Shakespeare never invented a plot, he always went to an existing story or text and said, 'I'll have that'," she said. "I think he would approve of what we're all doing." NEW YORK TIMES
The Gap Of Time ($24.95) is available at Books Kinokuniya.