MARBLEHEAD — It’s rare indeed that a recent college grad can spin a liberal arts degree, a talent for writing, and a passion for Shakespeare into a bona fide book deal.
Yet that’s exactly what Molly Booth has done. This month, Booth’s 2014 college thesis project became the young adult novel “Saving Hamlet,” published by Hyperion/Disney. And she’s accomplished this feat at 26, younger than Hamlet himself, and with far fewer slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
“My Hamlet obsession never really stopped,” Booth said in a bubbly voice punctuated with laughter. Seated at Atomic Coffee Roasters, a favorite cafe in her Marblehead home base, Booth showed a visitor a college diary where she scribbled, “I stayed up till 2 a.m. working on my Hamlet paper.”
The novel is told from the perspective of Emma Allen, a sophomore assistant stage manager of her high school’s drama club production of “Hamlet.” Emma’s world becomes jumbled when she falls through a mysterious stage trapdoor and into Elizabethan London, circa 1601 — specifically, into the cellar of the original Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare himself is rehearsing the very first performance of his famous play. She has to bail out both troubled productions. (Upon first glimpse of Shakespeare, Emma quips, “I thought he was going to be taller.”)
Both shocked and thrilled by the reality of her accomplishment, Booth recently celebrated her debut at the Peabody Barnes & Noble. She’ll be at the Miami Book Fair Nov. 17-20, and participate in a YA authors panel with Jen Malone (“Wanderlost”) and Jaye Robin Brown (“Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit”) at Brookline Booksmith on Dec. 2.
“Saving Hamlet” is both a contemporary teen drama and a time-travel fantasy. With her protagonist shuttling between her 21st-century high school and 17th-century England, Booth peppered her story with both contemporary text messages and Elizabethan lines of dialogue. Lacking any “solid, super-scientific reason” for the wormhole, Booth had to create “tensions and reasons for her to go back and forth in time,” she said.
Booth’s own path to the Bard began in a circuitous fashion. Her parents let their homeschooled kids pursue their own interests. When Booth gave up the dream of dancing for the Boston Ballet, she began acting and working backstage at local community theaters. “When I was in high school, I threw myself into theater,” Booth said. On a brief tour of formative hometown haunts, including the park where she and a high school friend would sit overlooking the harbor and hash out their creative projects, she pointed out the Marblehead Little Theatre. “I lived in there,” she said.
Booth could be an understudy for Emma; both are plucky, and share a pixie haircut. And she had inspiration for the moment when Emma is suddenly promoted to stage manager in “Saving Hamlet,” having stage-managed a 70-plus-person cast production of “The Wizard of Oz” herself while still a teenager. “Suddenly I was 17,” she said, “in charge of all these people, in charge of flying monkeys and a tornado.”
Hamlet mania didn’t begin until she entered Bunker Hill Community College. Professor Luke Salisbury’s course “Sophocles & Shakespeare” introduced her to Shakespeare’s plays with “such joy and excitement,” as Booth writes in her book’s acknowledgments. She had never connected to a text like that before. “It exploded in my brain.”
Shakespeare’s Elizabethan diction and grammar “makes all of us feel that English is our second language,” joked Salisbury, who remembers Booth as “really bright” and a “very, very good writer.” But “if you can jump over the language and get into what’s going on, the emotions, the characters,” Shakespeare’s world comes alive.” Via “Saving Hamlet,” he said, “I think Molly’s doing that.”
After two years at Bunker Hill, Booth transferred to the tiny, 250-student Marlboro College, in southeastern Vermont, where she began writing fiction more seriously. The kernel for “Saving Hamlet” began to grow.
Brian Mooney, one of Booth’s fiction instructors at Marlboro at the time, said that Booth immediately had a marketable book concept, “more than anyone else I’ve worked with.” He and other Marlboro professors coached Booth to expand her story into a full-length novel. “She knows YA literature very well and is smart enough and skilled enough to make a big contribution to the genre,” he said.
Booth finished her first draft in the winter of 2013, her junior year. She secured a grant to travel that spring to see Shakespeare’s Globe in London, the reconstructed timber and thatched reed theater on the south bank of the River Thames.
“I have never felt anything like stepping into that space,” Booth said. “I grew up reading every fantasy book in the world and you always want to believe there’s some magic in the world. This was it for me.” The trip was instrumental in helping her nail the Elizabethan period’s historical details.
Soon after graduation, Booth focused on submitting “Saving Hamlet” to agents. When she sent her future agent her query letter, “he got back to me in 20 minutes, asking for the whole manuscript,” she said. “I nearly dropped my computer.” She landed a two-book deal; her second novel, “Nothing Happened,” a YA retelling of “Much Ado About Nothing” in which all the characters are teen summer camp counselors, is forthcoming in spring 2018.
In the meantime, Booth’s a busy lady. She volunteers for the All the World’s a Stage Players, a Shakespeare troupe for homeschooled kids based at the Chelmsford Center for the Arts, where she’s directing a production of “Twelfth Night.” Come January, she’ll enroll in University of Massachusetts Boston’s M.A. program in English literature, and plans to write her thesis on, you guessed it, Shakespeare.
Booth also plans on continuing to write fiction. “You get to be in charge of everything. You’re acting and directing and stage managing the whole manuscript,” she said. “I can disappear into it for a long time.”
With “Saving Hamlet,” Shakespeare is the passion Booth falls into. She wants her readers to do the same. “That’s my trap door,” she asks. “What’s yours?”