Interview with Robin Maxwell
1) What was your process in starting to write O, JULIET?
In the days after I had made the decision to retell the Romeo and Juliet story – for the first time in literary history as a novel – two thoughts began warring in my head: “You’re a genius – lucky as hell that no one’s thought of it before... and “You’re out of your friggin’ mind!”
Yes, I knew I would feel comfortable in late fifteenth century Italy. My last historical novel, Signora da Vinci, had been set there. For that book I had outdone myself in researching the period (to the point I thought my head would explode). I loved the Italians, and the thought of setting my Romeo and Juliet amidst them really got my creative juices bubbling.
2) Was Shakespeare the first to tell the Romeo and Juliet story?
Not at all! Since ancient times, countless “girl-and-boy-from-warring-families” tragedies have been written. The Roman writer Ovid’s “Pyramus and Thisbe” tells the story of forbidden love between a girl and boy from two feuding families, and a secret rendezvous in a tomb…one that ends in tragedy. The Greek author Xenophon in his “Ephesian Tale” spins a wild story that includes a trip abroad, pirates, a crucifixion and sleeping potion, all of which culminates in a tomb. There had been three Italian short stories written in the fifteenth century about these star-crossed lovers, and in the sixteenth one long English poem. Of course Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” had been adapted into Broadway musicals, ballets, operas, and even a graphic novel but these, in their own way, faithfully adhered to the great man’s work. Then there were the countless movie versions. These were even more devoted presentations, simply filmed versions of his play.
3) Were you nervous about competing with Shakespeare?
It did give me pause to take on the Bard and one of the most beloved literary works of all time. I thought, "What about all those Shakespeare nuts out there who would rip me to shreds for daring to tread on these sacred shores?" What I had in mind was rewriting the story in my own words, in my own way. I knew I needed to lengthen the period over which it was told from a few days to a few months, and I wanted to change the setting from Verona to Florence (where the “historical” Romeo and Juliet had played out their drama. I’d be fleshing out the lives, character arcs and motivations of Romeo and Juliet, losing some characters (Juliet’s nurse!), and adding others (a truly evil suitor and a best girlfriend). I’d be changing the helpful cleric from Friar Lawrence to Friar Bartolomo, and giving him a public face – the man who taught a weekly symposia on Dante Alighieri at Florence Cathedral (this really happened!).
I decided that both Romeo and Juliet would, like so many Italians of that time, be Dante freaks, and that part of their initial attraction – aside from the proverbial but perfect “love-at-first-sight/sexual chemistry” – would be their shared passion for that legendary poet. Then I really stepped in it. I cast the pair as amateur poets themselves. “Now you’ve done it,” I thought, “Now you have to write love poems in both their voices!”
I suppose the greatest challenge was what to do with the ending. Should I stay true to the classics or let either Romeo or Juliet live...or both? Either way was bound to be risky.
But I took the plunge and I have to say, I'm quite happy with the results. I hope you'll read O, JULIET and decide whether my choices work for you.
Thank you Robin so very much for the interview! Check out her website for some more fun stuff. http://www.robinmaxwell.com/