I am so thankful to Robin for writing this guest post on how she came up with the idea of O, Juliet. It is a brilliantly written book and she is an amazing person to know. Thank you Robin.
I had been desperately trolling around for months after finishing SIGNORA DA VINCI, a project that was so research-intensive I thought my head was going to explode. That book was a hard act to follow with its rich, colorful real-life characters and civilization-changing events. Also, I was distressed to realize that with so many historical fiction authors out there (so many more than when I started in 1997) that all the well-known historical figures had been done and done to death, and every waiting lady, royal cousin, seamstress, confectioner and bastard child had also been snatched up for a book. How was I going to be original in this climate?
Then I read that that Susan Fraser King had written a historical fiction called LADY MacBETH. That stopped me in my tracks. “Brilliant!” I thought, “Use a literary figure instead of an historical one.” I had loved Sena Jeter Naslund’s AHAB’S WIFE (a wonderful adventure and beautifully drawn heroine gleaned from a single reference in Melville’s MOBY DICK about Captain Ahab’s wife). But why go any farther than Shakespeare? It took me another split second to come up with “Romeo and Juliet” for myself, only the most romantic tale ever told. I’d always wanted to write a great love story. And best of all, I realized with more than a touch of disbelief, nobody had ever written it as a novel. It took place close to the period and in the same part of Italy as SIGNORA DA VINCI, so I wasn’t going to have to kill myself with research. It was an easy-peasy pitch to my agents and publishers. Everybody LOVED the idea from the first moment.
I decided from the get-go that I was not going to compete with Shakespeare. How could I? He, in fact, had stuck pretty closely to the basic story points — hard to call them “facts” — that the three Italians short story writers had used in the century before him. But the Bard invented Juliet’s nurse, and Paris (the young man Juliet was betrothed to), and gave the helpful cleric (Friar Lawrence) and Juliet’s cousin whom Romeo kills (Mercutio) names and distinct personalities.
I took similar liberties, going even further. I lost Juliet’s nurse altogether, as my Juliet is four years older than Shakespeare’s heroine. Besides, I wanted my Juliet to have more freedom to move around and see Romeo privately. I made her cousin a character who is much more central to the action and a closer family member than Mercutio had been. My friar (Bartolomo) is a well-known figure in Florence and tied into my Dante sub-plot. And since I’m a firm believer in really bad “bad guys,” I created the character of Jacopo Strozzi to replace Paris as Juliet’s family-approved suitor, even giving him a “dragon lady” mother.
Shakespeare’s play takes place over a few days. I felt that was not nearly enough time to expand my characters, add scenes of Romeo’s peace-making between the families Monticecco and Capelletti (both names from the older Italian short story), get to know Romeo’s wonderful parents, give Romeo a calling that he loved (olive growing), and situations in which Juliet and her best girlfriend can confide in each other.
Lucrezia Tornabuoni (that girlfriend) is a major addition, and one of my favorites. Those of you who read SIGNORA DA VINCI (that takes place several decades later than O, JULIET) will remember her as the fabulous mother of Lorenzo de’ Medici and materfamilias of that powerful Florentine family. Here she is an 18 year old girl on the verge of her marriage, and a devoted friend to Juliet. Extremely bright, though rather conservative and conventional, she is frequently freaked out by Juliet’s outrageous behavior.
So you can see I didn’t feel constrained by Shakespeare’s play, or the Italian short stories. I just freely used what worked for my purposes and left the rest “on the cutting room floor.” I’m sure I’ve ruffled a few feathers, but that was a risk I was wiling to take, and I’m confident that there’ll be plenty of readers who will be happy with my take on the iconic legend.
Like so many of my historical characters, Juliet is a woman ahead of her time, someone courageous enough to take chances and buck convention, particularly in her passionate drive to find a marriage for love (something unheard of in her society). And like all my heroines, Juliet is well-educated (also not common among women of her time) and her educated, discerning, cultured mind is central to her character. I didn’t feel it was hard to convey it in the writing. I wonder if those qualities come across in the reading.
You might wonder why I linked the works of Dante Alighieri to the story. While I was doing the research for SIGNORA DA VINCI I kept running across references to Dante. EVERYBODY idolized him, read him, quoted him and if they were writers, emulated him. He was responsible for making the Italian language acceptable in literature and poetry (as opposed to Latin). When I was creating my characters and their relationships I tried to remember what was at work while I was falling in love with Max (we’ve just celebrated 26 years of marriage), and I recalled that besides a strong physical attraction, we found we shared a passion for certain music, yoga and human anatomy (don’t ask!). In Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet had a physical attraction for sure, but beyond their “love at first sight,” there didn’t seem to have much else going on. It worked perfectly in a story in which everything takes place in a few days. There was no time for any real getting to know each other.
So I put all those factors together, decided Romeo and Juliet needed “common ground” on which to play out their burgeoning romance, and realized that a love of Dante was perfect. I made the two of them amateur poets (which kind of scared me when I realized I had to write poems in both their voices). But the greatest benefit to me was that I got to use so much of Dante’s love poetry. It gave my book a rich literary pedigree I wouldn’t ordinarily have had. His words are really beautiful and I, think, accessible and relevant today.
I would recommend reading the slim volume VITA NUOVA (New Life) and Dante’s biography, THE LIFE OF DANTE written by Boccaccio. THE DIVINE COMEDY, THE INFERNO is a masterpiece and Dante’s most famous work, but it’s pretty grim and hasn’t got much to do with love.
Thank you so much for inviting me to share my thoughts with your readers. I hope you enjoy reading the book that was such a joy writing, O, JULIET.