Jamie Ford Reviews Juliet
Jamie Ford is the New York Times Bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which was chosen as the #1 Book Club Pick for Fall 2009/Winter 2010 by the American Booksellers Association. Read his review of Juliet:
Okay, you’re here, on Amazon and by some clever and fortunate happenstance you’ve clicked over to Anne Fortier’s Juliet. First let me say, bravo. Not only are you intrepid enough to find this gem of a debut novel, but you are about to embark on a journey to Sienna (not Verona, for you Romeo and Juliet purists out there--don’t feel bad, I was one of them too) with our heroine, Julie Jacobs.
Secondly, my advice--aside from urging you to buy this book before someone else in your book club beats you to it--is to buckle up and hold on with both hands. You’re in for a wild ride--a lush, romantic voyage that will stimulate all of your literary senses.
Our story begins when Julie’s beloved Aunt Rose dies, leaving Julie and her twisted sister, Janice orphaned. (Their parents died years earlier in Tuscany). But while Aunt Rose leaves the family estate to Janice, Julie is bequeathed next to nothing, just a passport, a key, and a secret--that her real name is Giulietta Tolomei, a descendant of the Tolomeis and the Salembenis, the real families that inspired Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—and that the "Curse upon both your houses," is alive and well, 600 years later.
With exquisite detail and flawless pacing, Juliet is a multi-layered tapestry of Julie’s present and Giulietta’s 14th-century past, where families, generations apart, are still at each other’s throats. Betwixt tragedy and epic romance, Juliet will stir your heart and quicken your pulse. After all, if Julie is Giulietta, then where art thou, Romeo?
And lest I forget, and in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I’m not your typical admirer of Shakespeare. Sure, one of my earliest childhood memories is of wandering around the prop room of Oregon’s famed Shakespeare Festival with MacBeth’s bloody head on a pike, and yes, instead of a traditional wedding reception, my wife and I opted to take everyone to a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the wedding party still in full regalia), but please don’t hold that against me.
You will fall in love with Juliet, as I did, as she reinvents your perceptions of a Shakespearean classic.
Questions for Anne Fortier on Juliet
Q: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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 grisly detail...although in a very different way than in Shakespeare!
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?
A: 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 Juliet and 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: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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.
(Photo © David Henderson)