Author Talk: August 27, 2010
Writing for the first time in English, Danish author Anne Fortier brings Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy to life in her debut novel, JULIET, which follows a young American as she journeys to Siena, only to discover that she’s a direct descendent of the woman who inspired ROMEO AND JULIET. In this interview, Fortier discusses the challenge of taking on Shakespeare and the difficulty of writing a historical novel, elaborating on the differences between the past and the present and how she managed to weave the two together. She also sheds light on how she was able to write about Siena from the other side of the Atlantic and reflects on the childhood experiences that moved her to master the English language and submit her first manuscript at the age of 13.
Question: How did you become interested in writing a novel that supposed the famed Romeo and Juliet actually came from Siena, Italy rather than Verona? What was your starting point for the novel?
Anne Fortier: As soon as I set foot in Siena in March of 2005 I knew I had to set a novel there. Even for a European the place is spellbinding with its medieval architecture and fascinating history. I was there with my mother, and I remember walking around next to her with a notepad, gathering juicy bits and pieces and wondering how to construct a story around the Tolomeis and the Salimbenis --- two feuding families that lived in Siena in the late Middle Ages. Then, out of the blue, my mother came across the amazing fact that the first version of ROMEO & JULIET was set right there in Siena, and not in Verona. It was published in Italy in 1476 by a writer called Masuccio Salernitano, and although the story went through many hands and underwent a number of changes along the way, this was essentially the story that ended up on Shakespeare’s desk more than a century later. As you can imagine, as soon as I learned this marvelous fact, I knew right away I had my story.
Q: It’s one thing to build a novel around a relative unknown in history but quite another to take on perhaps the most famous couple in literature. What gave you the courage to tackle Romeo and Juliet's story partly set in a time before Shakespeare’s? How conscious of or careful about Shakespeare’s characters were you during the writing process?
AF: I think I was so excited by the discovery of Masuccio Salernitano’s story that it didn’t even occur to me to pause and wonder whether I was being too ambitious. And it wasn’t exactly as if I was setting out to rival Shakespeare, in fact, quite the opposite: I wanted to take the story back to its gritty origins, strip away some of the poetic polish, and imagine what it might have looked like if Romeo and Juliet had really lived. Even so, I was extremely conscious of Shakespeare’s version of the story as I worked on JULIET, and did my best to pay tribute to the Bard whenever I could, most often by taking his words and twisting them slightly, but also by remaining relatively faithful to his cast of characters. For example, you will find Friar Lorenzo and Paris playing key roles in the book, and you will also find the drama of Romeo killing Juliet’s cousin Tybalt/Tebaldo played out in grizzly detail...although in a very different way than in Shakespeare!
Q: Half of your novel is set in the 1340 and tells the “true” story of Romeo & Juliet and half is set in the present day and is full of “reincarnated” characters? Which was easier to write? How much of the historical piece did you actually invent? Did you prefer writing one time frame over the other? And if so, why?
AF: Because of all the research Mom and I had to do, I would say the medieval story was definitely more of a challenge than the modern one. Obviously, the Romeo & Juliet plot structure is as much of a fiction in JULIETas it was in Shakespeare and in all the versions preceding his tragedy, but I have tried hard to make the historical setting correct. The ancient families --- the Tolomeis, the Salimbenis, and the Marescottis --- really all did exist, but the individual characters are my invention. Similarly with the Sienese traditions described; the vigil in the cathedral and the Palio really did take place, and I have stayed as true to the sources as possible. However, we actually know very little about the structure of the medieval Palio, and so a certain amount of fiction is required to close the gaps and make the story engaging. We know, for example, that the race started at Fontebecci and ended up in front of the cathedral, and we know that the loser was given a pig, or boar (porco in Italian), while the winner received the victory banner called the “cencio”. We even know more or less what the cencio looked like, from the public accounting records. As you can imagine, every bit of description needed research, but once I felt confident that the stage I had built was fairly true to medieval reality, I had a wonderful time letting loose the actors.
It is hard to say which time frame was most enjoyable for me, because once I got going, I was equally engrossed in both worlds, depending on which storyline I was working on at the time. However, since it was really hard for me to switch back and forth, I would usually write two or three modern-day chapters in a row, and then fill in the medieval chapters when I felt in a “medieval mood”. But honestly, once I was in a medieval mood, it was hard for me to snap out of it again, as my husband will tell you! I would light candles, listen to medieval music, and generally try to avoid newspapers and televisions for a while. One of the last chapters I wrote was in fact a medieval chapter in the very middle of the book, where Romeo rides in the ancient Palio. It is such a high-adrenaline chapter that I knew it required a lot of momentum for me to write it properly, but then suddenly one day I was ready, and the whole chapter just came, in one long stream of words, faster than any chapter I had written before. That was pretty exciting. I don’t think I got out of my pyjamas for a whole weekend while I was writing that.
Q: Siena, Italy, is such a part of the novel that it’s surprising to learn that you’d only been there once before starting this book and only traveled there once to do research while you were writing. How were you able to bring the city to life?
AF: It’s true that I only visited Siena once before I started writing, but keep in mind that I grew up in Europe and spent a lot of time in Italy growing up. Perhaps for that reason it was such a wonderful surprise for me to discover Siena at the age of 33. And I’ll tell you, when I went back to do research in 2006 I didn’t waste any time but spent every single minute thinking about JULIETand the logistics of the plot. I even lay in my bed at Hotel Chiusarelli at night, listening to the vespas and wondering how to somehow use the fact that my room had a balcony. Without spoiling the plot, that was how the idea of Romeo’s tennis ball was born.
But obviously, I couldn’t cover everything on my research trip, and inevitably, the story developed over time, making it necessary for me to go back and check lots and lots of facts. Except ... I couldn’t. I was living in the US at the time, and this is where my mother comes into the picture once again. For while I was stuck at work across the Atlantic, she would be in Siena, going to libraries and archives in search of old documents, such as family trees and architectural plans of certain buildings. At the same time, she had to help me get the facts straight about present-day Siena, too; you might say she was my “eyes on the ground”. Although I knew Siena quite well, my memory wasn’t perfect, and I would ask her to double-check all my descriptions and take hundreds and hundreds of photos; she would even meet with people on my behalf, and I would then base my writing on her reports.
We really had a lot of fun working on this together, and my mother would send me her “top secret” notes in special envelopes “for my eyes only”. Often I would ask her to do the silliest things, such as imagine she had to break into a certain bank or a certain museum --- how would she do it? --- or think about where she would hide if she was Julie. But she loved those challenges --- she is a really good sport.
Q: How about the research into medieval ritual and superstition? Did that process differ from learning about the setting? Do you research and write simultaneously?
AF: I love to let my characters loose and see where they want to go. They often surprise me by going somewhere or saying something I wasn’t planning; sometimes they hit a dead end and I have to rein them back in, but sometimes they strike gold on their own. And so, necessarily, I often find myself in need of research in the middle of a sentence, which can be very frustrating. And more often than not I spend hours doing the research, finally finish the sentence...only to decide that I don’t like it anyway.
When I was writing JULIET, there were many different kinds of research I had to do. Some were fairly easy; you look up a building and see when it was built and who lived there. End of story. But then there are all the grey-zones, where we don’t have enough reliable sources, or where the sources disagree. Religion and ritual is one such grey-zone, and, naturally, it is almost impossible to map trends of superstition among people living in the Middle Ages. Why? Because the sources that have survived were rarely written by ordinary people. Therefore, my descriptions of rituals and such in JULIETare a juicy blend of fact, reasonable assumption, and fancy on my part.
Q: Each chapter in the novel opens with a line from Shakespeare’s ROMEO & JULIET. Was this planned from the beginning? How did you choose the passages? Did they inform your writing?
AF: I almost never decide on chapter headings until I am at least half way through a story. In the case of JULIET I waited even longer, simply because I couldn’t figure out how to do it. With the two different story-lines --- present day and the year 1340 --- I needed some sort of common denominator, and almost everything I came up with sounded either too modern or too corny. It wasn’t actually until I began musing on the final title of the book that I turned to Shakespeare’s play for inspiration, and only now did I realize that while lines such as “Death lies on her like an untimely frost” or even just “An untimely frost” don’t really work as a book title, they have wonderful potential as chapter headings. And once I started rifling through the play for appropriate verse, I was also inspired to tweak the chapters accordingly. In some cases the connection between the chosen verse and the chapter contents are pretty clear, but in others it might take a little bit of book-club discussion to figure out why I chose that particular quotation. I like to keep things interesting that way, maybe because those are the kinds of little mysteries we love to crack in my own neighborhood book club.
Q: You were born and raised in Denmark, have since lived all over the world, and now reside in Canada. What kind of challenges, if any, did writing this
novel in English pose, since it’s not your first language?
AF: You probably have a natural advantage when you grow up in a small country. Denmark has only five million people, and so naturally, nobody speaks Danish but the Danes, and you know you need to learn foreign languages if you want to travel anywhere. Furthermore, almost all music, all films, and all television shows are American or British imports. Films are never dubbed, but are simply shown with the original track and Danish subtitles. What better way of learning a foreign language? That said, I was particularly fortunate to grow up with a mother who was a language teacher, and who encouraged me to improve my English from the earliest age. The walls of my childhood home are covered with books, mostly in English, and my mother would often hand me a volume and casually suggest I read it, although she knew it was far too difficult for me at the time. And I remember being woken up late at night and Mom carrying me into the living room wrapped in my duvet, to sit me down in front of the television and tell me to listen carefully...because this was some of the most beautiful English I would ever hear spoken. That was how I got to know actors like Leslie Howard, James Mason, Lawrence Olivier, and John Gielgud --- without even understanding the context of what they were saying. And it belongs to the story that Mom absolutely hated subtitles, and that she had a particular chair with a dishtowel draped over it, which precisely covered up the Danish subtitles, which she felt ruined the films. So…that was how I watched films growing up: in English, with no subtitles.
That said, of course it was a huge challenge for me to write JULIET in English, and my Canadian husband --- who, fortunately for me, is an English professor --- has had to lay ear to a lot of questions regarding English grammar and idioms. But in a way I feel I could not actually have written this book in any other language; to me, now, Danish has become the language of childhood and social realism, while English is the language of dreams and grand narratives.
Q: You submitted your first manuscript to a publisher at age 13. How did a lifetime of writing prepare you to undertake JULIET?
AF: As with everything else in life, writing takes practice, and practice takes time. That said, I don’t think writing in itself is enough. To become a decent writer, in my opinion, you must first be a good reader. Growing up, I probably read every book in our small school library at least twice. Or rather, I read the books that had adventure, humor and romance, not the ones about everyday people and their problems. Once, the school librarian actually scolded me for borrowing a dozen “Famous Five” books for the holidays; he wanted me to tackle something more serious. I still remember him leaning over the counter and looking down at me with a frown. But even then, as a kid, I disliked social realism and used books to inspire me towards something positive.
Similarly, all my early writing projects took me to faraway, exotic places --- India, desert islands, the Sahara, you name it --- and I would spend almost as much time poring over maps and geography books indirectly “visiting” the place as I did writing the actual story. The manuscript I submitted at age 13 was in fact set on a desert island, and when I met with the editor, he spent a while trying to convince me to write more “normal” stories. He also said something that has informed my writing ever since: “There are no happy endings in good literature.” I remember thinking that this meant I would never write good literature. Rather that than sacrifice my happy ending. As I grew older, of course, I realized how wrong he was, and how unfortunate it is when people judge literature in that way. To me, the number one criterion for good literature is that people enjoy reading it.
Q: The contrasts between how women are treated in contemporary society and how they were treated in the 1340s are striking. Why is highlighting the differences important to JULIET?
AF: If you look at human history, or even take a good look around the world today, you realize how fortunate we are to live right here, right now, in a society that respects individual liberty, and where women are considered individuals, too. Sometimes I worry that the younger generations forget to appreciate the battles fought by their grandmothers and great-grandmothers --- as well as by many enlightened men --- to secure for women the rights and freedoms that we take for granted today. It is important, I think, to keep reminding ourselves of how far we have come since the Middle Ages, or even since Shakespeare’s time, when women had very few options in life and in many respects were regarded as the property of men.
You might say that if Shakespeare’s Juliet had had the freedom we enjoy today, there never would have been a tragedy, at least not on the same scale. She would have been better able to leave her father’s house and elope with Romeo, and she would not have had to stage her own suicide to avoid an arranged marriage with Paris. While it is true that a woman’s consent was required even in Medieval wedding rituals, it is also true that a woman who went against the will of her father and was cast out of the family for disobedience had no choice but to become either a prostitute, or, if she was lucky, a nun. Similarly in JULIET, Giulietta is the property of the Tolomei paterfamilias, and she has no say in her own engagement to the evil Salimbeni. In contrast, of course, our present-day Julie is completely free to choose between Romeo and Paris, and this is what essentially makes her quest to finally write a happy ending to the old tragedy possible.
© Copyright 2010, Anne Fortier. All rights reserved.
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