Monday, July 23, 2007

An interview with David Blixt, part 1

David Blixt’s first novel, The Master of Verona, begins a generation before Romeo & Juliet, positing a reason for the deadly feud between the Capulets and Montagues. However, it’s much more than just a prequel to Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. It brings together elements from Shakespeare, the life of poet Dante Alighieri, and the political scene in early 14th-century Italy to form a sweeping historical epic replete with adventure, intrigue, betrayal, and star-crossed romance.

Let's look back in time to the year 1314. The scene is set, of course, in Verona. Dante Alaghieri (the spelling is deliberate), the infamous Florentine poet, arrives at the court of his patron, Francesco della Scala, who is widely known as Cangrande: “the Great Hound," or, perhaps, “the Greyhound.” Attempts have been made against the life of an infant nicknamed Cesco who may be Cangrande’s bastard son; rumors fly about the child’s origins, as Cangrande has no heir from his marriage.

Pietro Alaghieri, Dante's 17-year-old son, quickly gets caught up in Verona's longstanding wars with Padua, following Cangrande into battle to defend his interests. He also becomes best friends with Mariotto Montecchi and Antonio Capuletti, two young men of Verona. But when Mari and Antony both fall in love with the same young woman, it rekindles an ancient blood feud between their families.

David Blixt is a Shakespearean actor and director from Chicago currently starring in the title role in the Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s production of Macbeth. His swashbuckling tale is a perfect read for those who love Shakespeare, know Dante, and want to know how their stories might have fit together. But even if you know nothing about either one, The Master of Verona will make you want to find out.

The novel will be officially released tomorrow, July 24th, in hardback from St. Martin’s Press ($27.95, 608pp, 978-0-312-36144-0). Visit http://themasterofverona.typepad.com/ for more information.

In the afterword to Master of Verona, you mention that there isn't much information about the historical Pietro. After you did the research on him, how did you fill in the blanks?

Honestly, Pietro became what the story needed him to be. The first time I sat down to write, I started from Mariotto’s point of view. But that felt like taking sides right from the get-go. I needed a third party to witness the implosion of the Mari-Antony friendship. Dante’s son, who was new to Verona and pretty much a tabula rasa as far as the audience was concerned, seemed a perfect choice. Then, suddenly, he was drawn into a whole new level of intrigue, and we were off to the races.

As far as coloring him in, there are a few clues from his later life that I could draw upon. Pietro goes on to become a judge of sorts, have a large family, and write a commentary on his father’s work. So young Pietro became interested in the law and justice, owned an instinctual liking for children, while at the same time he was grudgingly familiar with poetry.

Like most of the story, Pietro took shape during the writing. Looking back, I can see how interacting with Mari and Antony made him take on the role of a Shakespearean best-friend, the voice of reason, like Horatio and Benvolio. Here, however, that person was front and center – Pietro is the one fighting duels and making hard choices. I didn’t want my lead narrative voice to be a passive watcher.

But, unlike Cangrande, Pietro is not meant to be a lead in a Shakespearean tragedy. If he has any flaw, it’s his need for approval from authority – something he developed living in his father’s shadow. But that flaw is not Tragic, it doesn’t lead to his destruction. Just his disillusionment.

It seems clear that you're an admirer of the historical Cangrande. Why do you say he's one of your heroes? (And, given that you're also an admirer of Dorothy Dunnett… maybe I'm mistaken, but is there a touch of Lymond in Cangrande's character?)

I feel guilty about the historical Cangrande because I haven’t quite done him justice. I don’t admire him the way I do, say, Caesar or Wellington. But I do feel that he’s been given short shrift in the history books – I certainly knew nothing about him before I started researching the history of Verona. His career is astonishing, his exploits as full of daring as any popular hero’s. As a patron of the arts, he really did help start the Renaissance. So, while far from perfect, he was regarded by his contemporaries, friend and foe alike, as the ideal man.

As far as Lymond goes, I was in the midst of Checkmate when I sat down to write, so I absolutely had him in mind. Cangrande is taller, less acerbic, but just as witty and skillful and sly. Then, in a single chapter, he went from Lymond to Graham Mallett. I was as surprised as anyone.

Dunnett is, to me, the pinnacle of the genre. I have never felt an emotional punch the like of hers. The character that will interest Dunnett fans is Cesco. In MV he’s the object of many plots. In the sequel, he’s old enough to be a participant. If anyone ever wondered what Francis Crawford was like as a child, before he was wounded by life, they should pay attention to Cesco. His wounds will be quite different, causing him to grow into a very different man, but the twinkle in the eye is the same.

I normally find battles hard to follow in novels, maybe because character development often takes a distant second place to the action; I have trouble distinguishing between the people involved. However, I never had this problem in Master of Verona. I particularly enjoyed the early scenes where Pietro follows Cangrande into battle against Padua. Given your experience as an actor and director, how do you choreograph action scenes?

Thank you for the compliment. I do have a peculiar advantage here. Having spent the last decade choreographing fights for the stage, my approach to action is very theatrical, almost cinematic. I’m not interested in relating tactics, but in conveying the story of the battle.

There are a lot of bad fights in theatre, and most of the badness can be attributed to one of three things: the actors are bad fighters, the fight is happening faster than the audience can follow, or the choreographer is showing off a bunch of cool moves with no regard to the story. In a book you can easily control the first two. It’s the last one that can kill you.

A good stage fight tells a story. In essence, combat is desire and denial. The desire is to kill, the denial is the need to stay alive. I like to take the weapons away from my actors and have them work it from an emotional perspective. The stabbing becomes reaching, the parry becomes an emotional refusal. So it’s just another relationship, only played out with weapons. Which makes each fight unique, and intensely personal.

The best example of what I’m talking about is, ironically, from Romeo & Juliet. In that show there are two duels back-to-back – Tybalt/Mercutio and Tybalt/Romeo. These are very different fights. The first one is fun, playful, a pair of guys showing off, not actually trying to murder each other. The second is vicious and brutal, with kicks and bites and desperate lunges, surging the action this way and that all over the stage, ending in death.

How do I know this? It’s all in the characters’ motivations in the moment. What do they want? Mercutio wants to humiliate Tybalt. Romeo wants him dead.

That’s what I tried to bring to the battle sequences. While it’s fun mentioning fancy fighting terms and techniques (Roversi! Mollinello! Passado!), they’re only tools to move the story along – and story is all about character.

The Greyhound ("il veltro"), as quoted from Dante's Inferno in the novel's beginning, is enigmatically prophesied to be a mystical savior of Italy. Many characters believe Cangrande to be this person, as do many Dante scholars today. Yet, as the novel reveals early on, "il veltro" has another meaning. How did you discover this interesting fact, and, later, decide to use it in the story?

It was one of the first things that popped up in the research, though not from any book. Back when I started this, in May of 2000, I was living in Ann Arbor. I had a brief Italian history of Verona that I needed translated. Sylvia Giorgini at the University of Michigan was recommended to me, and she took about a week to pull out highlights from the short text. As she handed me her notes, she said, “It’s funny about Il Veltro. They keep saying the Greyhound, but you know that it also means the Bastard, right?”

When the story stopped revolving around the Mari-Antony feud and became about Cesco, this little tidbit was a delightful play on words that I couldn’t resist. Because bastard has just as many meanings as veltro does: 1) born on the wrong side of the sheets; 2) a true hardass or malicious character; 3) a sword that can be used as either a one-handed weapon or two.

As you know, it was actually the original title for the book – in a perfect world, it still would be. But the irony and charm of IL VELTRO doesn’t translate unless you know colloquial Italian, so it was quickly dropped. Sigh.

You talk on your website about Lady Montague's offstage death in Romeo & Juliet, and how that line inspired you to make her the catalyst for the Montague-Capulet feud. I loved the scene from the novel where she's introduced, as a young woman - it's incredibly vivid and dramatic. (I won't quote from it, though, so readers can discover it for themselves!) Given that she's nearly absent in Shakespeare, but looms so large in Master of Verona, was her character a challenge to create?

It was and it wasn’t. She’s actually a character who is a delight to write, and whom I thoroughly despise. Maybe I’m just a guy who's lost too many friends because of girls, but man, she makes me mad. Which is great. It was also surprising, because I had intended her as the ideal woman – another Julia. But instead she became a Guenivere (a comparison that would no doubt delight her).

In terms of her character, it was a fairly simple proposition. She started, as you point out, as a catalyst for the feud, inspired by a single line of text at the end of the play. The only words she utters in Shakespeare’s text – a mere three lines! – are all about Romeo, and how she’s worried about him. And the end of the play tells us she died because Romeo was exiled. That’s all we know.

But she’s Romeo’s mother, and Romeo is a character in love with love. Where did he learn that? Why not from his doting mater. And based on my interpretation of that single line, she breaks her engagement to run off with Mari, her true love. That’s the act of a romantic. So I made her the uber-romantic.

I find it amusing that St. Martin’s promotional tagline for MV is “Romeo & Juliet is the greatest love story ever told – and every story has a beginning!” To me, a great love story is where the lovers live! It’s this idea that love has to be tragic in order to be “great” that horrifies me – and fascinates Gianozza. She buys it, really believes that only untimely death can make a love live on for all eternity. She doesn’t understand that while drama is and must be conflict, love doesn’t have to be. She’s interested in love as drama, and so she will always seek out the conflict.

Watch for Part 2 of the interview with David Blixt tomorrow!

9 comments:

  1. Fascinating! Looking forward to reading more of the interview (and the book).

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  2. Ditto! I've added it to my TBR list!

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  3. What a wonderful interview! As someone who loves Shakespeare and history and has read the Lymond Chronicles numerous times, I am definitely going to look for this book. And as an historical novelist and a former theater student who's had just enough classes in stage combat to know how much I *don't* know, I so envy you're ability to choregraph fight scenes. I struggle to make them realistic and emotionally compelling (loved your desire/denial description). I often reread Dorothy Dunnett's fight scenes when I have to write one. Do you find hers believable?

    Last night I saw a production of "West Side Story" with friends. On the way home, one of my friends asked her six-year-old daughter (who had been riveted) if she'd understood the story. The daughter said, "Sort of...I didn't understand why they were fighitng". It's nice to discover a novel that offers an answer, at least from the persective of the Shakespeare version.

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  4. David Blixt7:35 AM

    The two fights that stand out for me in the Lymond books are, one, the duel between Francis and Richard in GAME OF KINGS, and two, the chase through Paris, with Lymond and Philippa. In both, the action coincides with revelations of character. While my novel is certainly fight-heavy, I dislike fight scenes for the sake of fight scenes.
    It's interesting that I remember the setting for the duel with Gabriel in DISORDERLY, but not the action. In that, the fight was truly irrelevant, it was the debate that mattered.
    Then there's Niccolo - the fight in the salt shack is wonderful, the duel on Cyprus much less memorable, the final duel was anticlimactic compared to the revelations that surround it.
    All in all, while I adore Dunnett, I sometimes find myself a little confused by her action.
    I do, however, reread her every couple of years (my wife's in the middle of PAWN for what must be the fifth time), because, as I've said, I've never experienced an emotional range the like of hers.
    This is a discussion I'd like to continue, because as I think about it, there are only a few truly memorable fights in literature. I can think of two, maybe three in all of Cornwell (WATERLOO notwithstanding), one in each of McCullough's Masters of Rome books, a few battles in O'Brian, and honest-to-God only one that I truly remember from Sabatini.
    Hmm. This requires pondering.
    Glad you're all excited about the novel - thanks. It's been a long haul, but today's the day!
    Cheers,
    DB

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  5. I agree that fights scenes should be in a book for a reason (same with sex scenes, btw). I have a good number of them as well, from skirmishes to battles, and I always try to weave them in so they further the plot and characterization.

    What you said about the emotinal aspect gave me an evil little idea - what if Arminius and Germanicus fight each other in person during the battle of Idistaviso in my NiP A Land Unconquered. It will be difficult to do well because both have to survive, but if I can rip it off, it could become a great scene.

    The fact it isn't in the sources doesn't mean it could not have happened. There's a lot that isn't in the sources. :)

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  6. The duel between Francis and Richard and Francis and Philippa's escape through the fog in Lyons are the two Lymond Chronicles fight seuqences that stand out for me as well. And I think the chase across the roofs in "Queen's Play" is a brilliant action sequence, though not a fight. In the Niccolò books I also remember the battle sequence where Felix dies being quite powerful. Totally agree about the final duel being anticlimatic (one, actually, of many things that didn't quite work for me as a reader in that book). Now that you bring it up, I'm also having a hard time coming up with other memorable fights in books. I keep feeling there must be some I'm overlooking, but so far I'm drawing a blank. Will post again if I think of more.

    Hope you enjoyed your book release day! I'm off to read part II of the interview...

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  7. David Blixt10:15 AM

    Tracy,

    Thanks for the correction - Lyons, not Paris.

    The rooftop chase is good (I'm going to steal aspects of that for the second book), and there are in fact two sequences in King Hereafter that I remember vividly. But that's such a hard book - took me three running starts.

    On a side note, I'm tickled by the fact that Amazon just wrote to say that shipping is delayed on the copy I ordered from them - it seems thay haven't ordered enough...

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  8. Actually, I didn't even notice you said Paris in your original post. I just typed "Lyons" from memory (and then had to run to the books just now to double-check and it is Lyons). Congratulations on your book selling out at Amazon on pre-orders!!

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