Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Welcome back, Potter

I admit I haven't yet read a single book in the series, but this Harry Potter parody video is just too good to resist posting. It will probably only make sense to Americans who've seen the original show.

But for what it's worth, click here and turn your speakers on.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

An interview with David Blixt, Part 2

See yesterday's blog entry for Part 1 of the interview, if you haven't read it yet. And apparently, because I said the word "bastard" too much in that post, this blog is now rated R. You've been warned.

You've drawn on many sources: Shakespeare, Dante, early 14th-century Italian history… All these elements seemed to come together very well, but surely there were times (probably many times!) when this information was in conflict. Can you give an example of a time or two when this happened, and how you resolved it in the plot?

Actually, it was all fairly fortuitous. Starting with the initial idea from Shakespeare, I took the historical events and worked the Shakespeare into it. Since Dante was a part of the history, it was a matter of choosing which version of his life’s story best fit my needs.

The hardest part was not mixing Shakespeare with history, but Shakespeare with Shakespeare. There is some overlap, intentional and otherwise, between the Bard’s plays. There are three shows that mention Verona prominently – R&J, Shrew, and Two Gents. Petruchio and Lucentio are mentioned in R&J, giving it a relationship to Shrew. And Mercutio is said to have a brother named Valentine, who is the lead in Two Gents. There’s a servant named Launcelot in both Two Gents and Merchant. Meanwhile, Benedick from Much Ado is said to be from Padua, while the Prince of Aragon is mention in Merchant as well as Much Ado. On top of it all, the Prince in Measure For Measure is an Escalus, making him related to the della Scala clan. So all of these interlocking plays allowed me to toy with the crossover, and that wreaked a little havoc with my history – who was the Prince of Aragon when? What was going on in Vienna? These are problems I look forward to resolving as the series goes on.

On the topic of historical accuracy, here’s a story my wife wants me to tell: a month ago, while finishing the sequel, I was doing research on a family from Ferrara when I discovered a death-date for Cangrande’s eldest sister. It drove me mad, as I had looked for it ages ago and come up blank. It also made me furious because she appears in MV. So I called Keith, my editor at St. Martin’s, and begged him to change the two passages that mention her, wiping her out. To my amazement, he was able to do it. I’m sure there are other mistakes in the book, but that one would have had me tearing out my hair and apologizing to strangers on the street.

I feel like I haven’t answered the question. I'm certain there's a great story about combining Shakespeare and history. But for the life of me, I can't think of it. The resolutions of conflicting storylines aren’t nearly as interesting as they should be, because whenever the solution came along, it did so without much help from me. History was always the answer. Whenever I’m at a loss, I return to the research. The solution to any dilemma always lies in events or facts I haven’t paid enough attention to.

I learned a number of things from the novel, and it refreshed my memory about others, such as Shakespeare, which I hadn't read for years. Also, the expression "giving someone the fig" has found its way into my vocabulary, which, hmm, may not be such a good thing. What are some especially interesting or surprising things you learned while researching?

There were revelations, and like the fig, most of them were small but fun. Take the word Carnival. I studied Latin in high school, but it never occurred to me where that word came from until I was researching Venice, and found out it was the festival that marked the beginning of Lent – Carne Vale, “Meat Farewell.”

Another example – while we were in Verona in 2002, our friend Rita Severi showed my wife and me "death doors." Maybe I had just missed it in other works, but I was not aware that the living and the dead were not allowed to pass through the same doors. So all the houses had these waist-high doorways called death doors. Creepy, but neat. I didn’t have cause to use it in MV, but I plan to make use of it soon.

The research took me all over the place. I learned about horses, pharmacology, falconry, fresco painting, cooking, numerology, and a dozen other subjects. Since I wasn’t raised Catholic, a great deal of practice and belief was new to me. And, of course, I learned a ton about astrology, since the great unifying theme is that Cesco is “star-cross’d.”

One big revelation was Dante. I had never read his Commedia before this, and because it was the Harry Potter of its time, I knew I needed a deep understanding. So I read a couple of different translations and a lot of footnotes (as or more informative than the translation choices). Then Jan and I were able to meet Dante’s descendant, living on the estate Pietro bought in 1353. After an afternoon of discussing his family history, he invited us to a reading in the Piazza della Signoria, with actors doing dramatic interpretations of Dante’s works. I was blown away.

That same week, Jan and I were taken around the city by a woman named Daniella Zumiani, who showed us the Roman ruins beneath the current city. They’re public property, but they’re underneath all the shops and restaurants in the main drag. So she would take us into a shop, brazenly stroll past the proprietors, and lead us to the basement to view the ruins, preserved beneath plexiglass. That was the inspiration for the Roman baths beneath Cangrande’s palace.

As far as the fig goes, there’s a character in the Inferno who gives God the fig. How spitefully, horribly wonderful. I’ve taken it back to Shakespeare, making the fig the insult that starts the opening brawl in R&J. And my world turns full circle…

What scene(s) did you find the most enjoyable or easy to write, and which the most difficult?

The scenes I struggled with most were the scenes I never wrote. I often found myself with an idea for a scene, but resistant to actually writing it out. I’d move on to something else, planning to circle back later. But whenever I did try to return, I decided to make something entirely different happen. If I was bored by what I had in mind, how could my audience not be? Far better to change direction than force a scene I didn’t want to write.

The easiest scenes for me were the ones that were purely dialogue. By the time I was into chapter four or five, the characters were so clear in my head that they practically spoke. All I had to do was transcribe their words. Which made that final scene so surprising, and so enjoyable. It’s all dialogue, and I wrote it in a day, it came out so fast. I never saw it coming.

Historical novels set in 14th-century Italy are few and far between. Do you feel that this was an advantage or a disadvantage in the writing/publication process –or some of each? What finally convinced St. Martin's Press to buy it?

I’m really not sure why it’s an under-mined era. Bernard Cornwell hit it with his Grail Quest series, and everyone loves Edward II, but the rest of the century seems to leave people cold. Is it the plague? Is it that we were forced to read Chaucer in high school? Or is it that the next couple centuries are so rife with potential that we look on the 14th as mere backstory? I don’t have an answer. It’s certainly not a lack of exciting information – look at Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror!

This was actually a help in the writing, because I had very few preconceptions about the era, and could create with impunity. As opposed to another series I have in mind, where I'll be setting foot on some very well-trod boards...

But this lack of interest in the period was definitely a hindrance in selling the book. However, there were so many other obstacles that I don’t know how big a part it played. Time and again, publishers passed on the novel. I was told that historical fiction wasn’t as big a seller as it used to be, something I don’t believe. My first agent kept trying to sell MV as a romance novel, which it isn’t. Shakespeare and Dante were considered too scholarly for mass consumption (mind-boggling, but true). And then there’s the size – not long compared to what I like to read, but longer than most editors want to buy. My favorite rejection was from a large company who said the book was too popular for their high-brow press, but too high-brow for their popular press.

When Michael Denneny became my agent at the beginning of 2004, he sent it around to many people, including his old cohort at St. Martin’s, Keith Kahla. But after reading it, Keith decided to give it a pass.

Then, eighteen months later (!), the two of them were at lunch when Keith said, “Hey, is that Shakespeare novel still available? I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.” Needless to say, it was. By then, I had cut a third of the book, trimming it down to a lean, mean 192,000 words. Keith read the new draft, really liked it, and guided me through the process of getting it sold. All in all, it was twenty-three months from the time he first read it to the actual offer. And it will have been another twenty months from the offer to publication, a time that saw another 28,000 words added and a few significant changes. I doubt I’ll ever have the luxury of that long ramp up again, so I’ve tried to enjoy it.

What can you tell us about the forthcoming second book in the series? How many novels do you have planned in all?

Ah, the sequel. Funny story.

I’ll start with the basics. It picks up eight years after the end of MV, and covering five months in the year 1325. The narrative follows both Pietro and Cesco, with a little Antonia [Pietro's sister] as needed.

Now, the story behind the story. I finished the first draft of the second book – originally entitled IL FALCO (meant to follow IL VELTRO) – over two years ago. But after doing a production of Merchant of Venice, I realized I could do more overlapping with that show. So last fall I went to rewrite it, and I realized I simply had too much story. Details and characters were being denied their full potential. So I cut the book into two parts. Fine. Had a good sucker-punch for the ending of each, I was happy.

Then the contract arrived from St. Martin’s. And there, on the page, in cold black and white, was the devil in the details: they had imposed a word limit. 175,000, no more.

Why? It’s simple. They were having trouble with MV. Advance readers are daunted, a major foreign market doesn’t want to spend the money on translation, and the audio-book folks are balking at the size. So they want the second book to be shorter.

(Let me pause for a moment to express my pleasure that St. Martin’s bought the sequel in the first place. They could have waited until MV was out to see how it did, but they have enough belief in the series – and in me – to commit to the next book. Cheers to you, St. Martin’s Press, and thanks!)

The only trouble was, I was four chapters from finishing the first of the two IL FALCO books, and I was already at 177,000 words.

So I chopped it in half again. IL FALCO is now books two, three, and four.

It meant finding a new ending where one did not exist before, but that was a lot of fun, and a great challenge. And I was able to find some events and develop some characters, as well as include one major historical plot point, that I had been glossing over until now.

As far as how many books, it was originally six. Then nine. Then I did this splitting, which takes us to, what, eleven? But I honestly have no idea. I know the timeframe, I know where Cesco is going and what is going to happen. But how each book breaks down is still an undiscovered country.

What I can say is that certain historical figures are going to crop up, including: Roger Mortimer, Isabella, Edward III, Orhan (son of Osman), Emperor Ludwig IV, Pope John XXII, Petrarch, Gil Álvarez Carrillo de Albornoz, William of Ockham, and many more.

All this will culminate in the events laid out in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet – though I may be tempted into writing a coda novella. It’s just difficult when most of your leads are dead.

It’s very strange to think about, but I’m writing a series that everyone already knows the end of. So it really is the journey, not the destination, that matters to me. That, and a few surprises waiting along the path.

Thanks for letting me play, and forcing me to think about the forest as well as the trees. Cheers!

And thanks for your willingness to do the interview - it's been very informative, not to mention lots of fun!

To recap: The Master of Verona will be officially released today in hardback from St. Martin’s Press ($27.95, 608pp, 978-0-312-36144-0). Visit for more information.

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 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!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The usual quarterly announcements

The editors' choice reviews from August's HNR are online.

The forthcoming books page has been updated (par moi) with US titles through April '08, and a selection of UK titles through the end of '07.

There aren't any new deals to post because historical fiction hasn't been mentioned much on Publishers Marketplace lately.

I'm presently very itchy and sleep-deprived after a much-needed weeding of the garden last Sunday resulted in a bad case of poison oak. So I expect I'll be posting more later, when I'm more coherent.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Just for the fun of it

I managed to earn this rating because I said the word "dead" twice and "corpse" once, and that was in quoting the Chabon-related pieces last week. I gather dead corpses are not considered appropriate for children.

All the words to catch me on, and they're not even fun words.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Book designs along gender lines

Interior book design is one of those things meant to be unobtrusive - if you notice it, there's something wrong. Yesterday evening I read with curiosity the latest post from Booklist Online's blog, Likely Stories, about the mismatched, over-the-top book design for Andrea Barrett's upcoming historical novel The Air We Breathe, out in October. The post is very funny ("taken together, it’s like trying to read a novel through a doily") and, of course, it compelled me to find the ARC of Barrett's novel I'd grabbed at BEA.

Perhaps what's most interesting that if this post hadn't pointed out the issues with the design, I doubt I'd have noticed anything. To me, The Air We Breathe is designed to look like an authentic 19th-century novel, with chapter numbers superimposed against a woodcut print of a leafy tree, and dropped caps beginning the text of each chapter. I'll admit that the font used for the author's name in the headers on the left-hand pages, with its old-fashioned script flourishes, doesn't go well with the all-cap outline font the title uses on the right. But it wouldn't be so noticeable as to distract me from the text.

On the assumption this difference in opinion was gender-dependent, I asked Mark to take a look at the galley. Apart from commenting on the mismatched fonts on the headers, he didn't notice anything majorly wrong. So I don't know.

Do you like it when interior book designers subtly (or maybe not-so-subtly) try to evoke a past era through their choice of fonts, graphics, etc., or do you find it distracting? Put another way, is this a girly thing? I'm trying to think of other examples where this is done, and failing, but maybe someone else can come up with one.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Evaluation at the halfway point

On January 1st of this year, I posted a small number of reading resolutions. Alas, I haven't been doing very well by them so far. The only one I can truly say I've kept is (5), keeping an ongoing reading list, which you'll find on the sidebar here. I've read an embarrassingly small number of books in 2007, about forty in six months. Don't ask how many I've bought or acquired over the same period. It's probably about ten times that. yikes.

Also, generally, the books I've been asked to read for review have been the ones I've enjoyed most. (See the multiple DNF indications on the sidebar - all non-review books.) There are exceptions, but it makes me wonder if I'm better off having other people dictate what I read.

Things coming up in the immediate future - I'll be posting a two-part interview with David Blixt beginning on Monday, July 23rd, the day before the official release date for The Master of Verona. I'll also be participating in Jane Kirkpatrick's blog tour for A Tendering in the Storm, which will involve a brief interview (based on that novel and its prequel, A Clearing in the Wild, which I just finished). It'll be going online in early August. And sometime in the next two weeks I'll be writing a readalike on W. Michael and Kathleen O'Neal Gear's prehistoric novels for NoveList. This means reading one, preferably two, of their novels to remind myself (as it's been a while) what their style is like. I'll be starting People of the Moon tonight.

I'm currently knee deep in my Historical Mystery chapter, after finishing up with Sagas two weeks ago. Despite the craziness that was June, I'm doing my best to write a chapter every month. This one's a long one, and I started late, so I'm not sure I'll make it. But going through and making notes on the books I want to include are adding an awful lot of historical mysteries to my TBR pile.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

On the death of genre fiction

What happens when you write a review of an alternate history novel that not only grants a number of backhanded compliments to the author, but slams genre fiction in its entirety?

`Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.' (Ruth Franklin, Slate, May 8 2007)
You leave yourself wide open to a zinging rejoinder from Ursula K. Le Guin:
... 'But it was dead, dead! God damn that Chabon, dragging it out of the grave where she and the other serious writers had buried it to save serious literature from its polluting touch, the horror of its blank, pustular face, the lifeless, meaningless glare of its decaying eyes! What did the fool think he was doing?' ...
Read the whole thing, though; it's worth it. The novel in question is Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Literary snobbery at its most obvious.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Your favorite historical novels 1997-2007

We're looking for input for a feature in the next Historical Novels Review (August - the 10th anniversary issue). We want to know which historical novels from the past 10 years are your favorites.

Email Bethany Latham (, HNR's managing editor, with the title(s) of your favorite historical novel(s) published between 1997 and 2007. Bethany will be tallying the votes and compiling the list. The only qualification is that the novels should have been published for the first time within the last decade.

Don't be shy - we need more contributions in order to have enough data to run with the feature. And thanks!