Wednesday, August 29, 2007

New Interview: David Blixt, Author of Master of Verona

The Master of Verona is a rare breed. It is historical fiction that combines three different types of characters seamlessly throughout Blixt's debut novel. He could have rewritten the story of a few Shakespearian characters from different plays that sometime interact, or he could have researched and written about true historical personalities whose paths cross in good Verona. But Blixt does both of these things while also introducing his own characters. The final product is an ambitious novel that succeeds because of the author's attention to detail and passion about the characters.

The other I feel like I should note is that David Blixt is a nice guy. He's an easy conversationalist, something I knew from the moment that he surprised me by IMing me out of the blue followed by a fun, off of the cuff conversation. I think all of the attributes I have written about above can be clearly seen in the interview below.

Kelly Hewitt: What do you say to readers who may feel daunted by the detailed list of historical Italian characters, Shakespeare's characters, and your own? What advice do you have about tackling the large number of characters?

David Blixt: My advice, honestly, is to just ignore the Dramatis Personae entirely – that’s what I usually do. It’s a tool for those who like it, and a requirement from my editor. But to me, the leads of a story always introduce themselves. There are one or two characters that the narrative follows, whose experience is our own. Then there are the people they interact with most. If I’ve done my job right, by page 50 the reader should be feeling comfortable in the world, and by page 100 most the main players will be clear. One or two more can be introduced after that – a third of STAR WARS has passed before we meet Han and Chewie – but not too many really vital characters.

So, no need to be daunted. You only need to keep track of six or seven characters, the rest come and go as needed, and context will make their roles clear. The Dramatis Personae is a tool – and a conceit, as if you were reading a play.

Oddly, I don’t feel the same way about maps. I like maps in books, and refer to them now and again, just to get my bearings.

Kelly: One of the things I find most interesting is the mesh of characters that you write into the book. Were there any characters that you tried fitting into the book but just couldn't pull off?

David: Yes, absolutely. In streamlining the story (it was once a third longer), I took out a few references to Shakespeare characters that were clever and slyly written, but useless. Based on the text, the Duke from Measure for Measure is somehow related to Cangrande, and I had this whole scene discussing him and his eccentricities. It didn’t add anything to the story I was telling, so it’s gone. As is a scene with Shylock and one with Lucentio. All those characters will step onto the stage in later books – Shylock and Lucentio soon, the Duke much later on – but when they do it will be to move the story along, not as an attempt at cleverness.

But most of the characters that were cut were minor – Cangrande’s cook and butler had a long scene, one of Antonia’s copyists had a scene. These were slice-of-life bits, humorous but forgettable. They were a look at the leads from other eyes—but Point-Of-View was something my agent, the marvelous Michael Denneny, hammered me over, and he was right. The story is the experience of Pietro Alagheiri, Dante’s son. We may wander from time to time, just to be present at action he doesn’t witness. But it’s best to let the story tell itself through him.

Kelly: On a similar note -- why did you feel the need to Italianize the names of the Shakespeare characters in you book?

David: Two reasons, I think.

Firstly, they’re the historical names, used in the original sources that inspired Shakespeare. When Luigi da Porto invented the story of Romeo & Giullietta, he used the names of two real families famous for their feud as a kind of automatic context for his Italian audience. Shakespeare changed Montecchio to Montague and Capelletto to Capulet for his own audience, already familiar with the name Montagu – it’s a famous hereditary English title.

So, while the story of Romeo and Juliet is fiction, these were real Italian families, not inventions. Dante mentions them in his Divine Comedy . So, rather than anglicize every other name from the period, I chose to use the names from the works that Shakespeare based his plays upon.

The second reason is much more personal. I’m an actor who makes most of his living performing Shakespeare. I am all too aware that, as a writer, I am dealing with creations of a genius. Changing the names just a little allows me the license to see them fresh, not to either put his words in their mouths or keep them frozen on some kind of pedestal.

A good example is Tybalt. I’ve played the role four or five times, and he’s pretty fixed in my head. Changing Tybalt to Thibault is perhaps a meaningless switch to the reader. But for me it is freeing. I always keep in mind the man he is going to become, but the name change is a permission to write him as he is now. Digression – while Tybalt is not an Italian name, neither is Thibault. It should be Theobaldo. By giving him a common French and German name, Shakespeare was making a point of excluding him from the rest of the boys, who have proper Italian-style names. It identifies him as ‘the other’ right from the start. I try to do the same)

Another example is Shylock. At the time Shakespeare wrote, Jews had been expelled from England, so his knowledge of them was spare. The speculation is that he heard a Hebrew word – shalakh – and Anglicized as best he could for the name of his character. The word itself means ‘vulture’ or ‘bird of prey.’ So it’s the name I’ve used, hoping that I’m honoring Shakespeare’s intent.

This won’t be true of every character, of course. Romeo is still Romeo, Benvolio is Benvolio. Petruchio, Katerina, Beatrice, Don Pedro, Antonio, Portia, Nerissa, Bassanio – they’re all perfectly fine Italian names, and they’re the ones that Shakespeare chose for himself. So, ultimately, I guess I am looking for both freedom and consistency in the names.

Kelly: You have said that your previous experience as a Shakespearean actor helped you to write a very active dialogue and it's something that I certainly believe you have accomplished. Were there any parts of the writing process that your background as an actor made more difficult?

David: Amusingly, my agent would tell you it’s the dialogue. I guess it’s a double-edged sword. I like to reveal information through dialogue – I think it has more impact than an internal reveal or realization. But Michael feels that I revert to dialogue too often, that I could be easily more concise if I summarize a conversation. I disagree, and we go round and round. There’s more dialogue in the second book, less in the third so far. It depends on the action. There’s a great deal of shared physical peril in the second book, and individual peril in the third. For dialogue to take place, you need more people. I’m not a fan of asides in novels.

Kelly: All right -- you have been hinting around at a book two, something to follow Master of Verona. What kind of information can you give Loaded Question readers about this next book?

David: Well, it’s complete and sitting on my editor’s desk. The title is in flux – we’re going back and forth between two – but it picks up eight years after MV, and deals with Cesco’s return to Verona as Cangrande’s heir. Nothing goes as planned, and very quickly there are plots and schemes that even have allies from the last book turning against each other. Romeo has an appearance, and much of the action takes place the night of Juliet’s birth. Pietro and Antonia are both older, more seasoned individuals, with their flaws and the wounds of the first book shaping their characters. And poor Pietro starts the novel with a papal interdict looming over him.

There’s also a race over the rooftops of the city and a great recipe for Golden Morsels.

Kelly: You certainly have a knack for writing and by looking at the national sales numbers, people have really begun to notice that. So what happens with the acting career? Do you still intend to do both?

David: I do, though more writing than acting, I think. It’s funny, the week before the book officially launched, I was opening Macbeth and Henry V at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. So that week was rife with book-signings and performances both – it was great! Especially the signings after the shows, with the Festival selling my books right there in the lobby.

Part of the reason I can’t give up acting is that it’s where I discover new things. It was a line in R&J that prompted this book. It wasn’t until I was in a production of The Merchant of Venice at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre that I realized just how much my story could overlap the events of that show. And, having just directed Othello , I’ve conceived a whole other series of books based on that show (sadly, there’s no possible overlap in that show. The dates are rather specific).

But writing is my focus. It’s the only job I have that I’m not divided about. In rehearsals, I’m only 90% there – and most of acting is rehearsing, unless you’ve got a really long run, in which case your mind wanders even more. You can be onstage quoting the most famous speech in the world and be thinking about your laundry. It’s not always the case, not even close, but it happens.
However, when I’m writing, I never want to be somewhere else. Which tells me that writing is what I should be doing.

Kelly: Releasing a new book can be crazy. Has anything eventful happened at any of your book store events?

David: The only real surprise has been the numbers. For my first Borders event, they set up fifteen chairs. At five minutes to the start they had added forty-five and were scrambling to find more. The estimate was between eighty and ninety people, standing-room only. It was both thrilling and humbling.

I’m heading for reading/signings at a few colleges in the next month, and I’m looking forward to that, if a little warily. I used to teach drama for the Ann Arbor Public Schools, mostly to 2nd to 6th grade. Having college kids come up and tell me I taught them is a little disconcerting.

Kelly: I have been asking this question of many of the authors I interview, the readers of this site are folks who find their shelves loaded down with books, movies and CDs. What kinds of these things might one find loading down your shelves?

David: I am a media junkie.

Film: Mostly classic screwball comedies, modern action-films, animated classics, with a lot of TV series thrown in.

A few worthy mentions:

Classics: Libeled Lady, Casablanca, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Thin Man series

Action: The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood, Master & Commander, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, V For Vendetta

Animated: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, anything Muppets, any Looney Tunes

TV: Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes series, Firefly, House, the new Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood, Sharpe’s Rifles, Horatio Hornblower

My recent obsessions have been Casino Royale, the Incredibles, and the BBC s ho w Life on Mars.

Music: Peter Gabriel, Tori Amos, Sting, Paul Simon, The Beatles, The Stones, The Nields, Moxy Fruvous, The Afrocelt Sound System, Benny Goodman, Peggy Lee, John Williams soundtracks, James Bond soundtracks

Audiobooks: Harry Potter, James Bond, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Any old-time radio show, but mostly The Shadow, Gunsmoke, and Superman.

Books: Not including Shakespeare and research books – everything period by Dorothy Dunnett. Jonathan Carroll. Neil Gaiman. Bernard Cornwell. Patrick O’Brian. Raphael Sabatini. Tom Clancy. Ian Flaming. Orson Scott Card. Robert B Parker. Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler. Ellis Peters. Stephen Saylor. Colleen McCullough. Robert Asprin.

Thanks for inviting me to play!


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