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 http://themasterofverona.typepad.com/ for more information.


  1. Lol, my Snippet Blog, The Lost Scrolls, is rated NC17 - too much pain, death, knives and bastards. But The Lost Fort is a family friendly PG13.

  2. So, St. Martin's Press takes 175K books? I'm so going to send them my suckers once they're finished. *grin*

    This sounds like a fantastic series, and set in a time I don't know so well. May even learn a few things, lol.

    Roman baths can be found in some unusal places. In York, there's one under a pub. I love the idea to have one under Cangrande's palace.

  3. Lots to look forward to! (Bring the kiddies to my G-rated blog.)

  4. Thanks for the great interview, Sarah. I've been loojking forward to this book ever since you mentioned it to me and just bought it today. I can't wait to dive in. David's creative process was fascinating to discover, and he definitely sounds like a writer for writers to read. Thanks and best of luck to David with MV!

  5. Anonymous12:41 AM

    Great conclusion to the interview! I loved the part about the connections between the Shakespeare plays (I'd noticed some of the overlapping names and always wondered if that was deliberate on Shakespeare's part).

  6. Anonymous1:35 PM

    Thanks for the kind comments and good wishes, everyone. And grazi again to Sarah for the time and intelligence she put into her questions. I really did have a ball with them.

    As far as Shakespeare overlap, I have to figure it was a little bit of both - some were deliberate, some definitely not (like using the same name for three distinct characters in AS YOU LIKE IT).

    Now, for a funny, on-going Amazon story, stop my blog. This one's got my editor up in arms. Me, I'm amused.

    Cheers, and talk to you all soon!

  7. You're very welcome - it was fun coming up with them all. That's cool that your book may have sold out of Amazon. For what it's worth, I'm seeing the same thing at Baker & Taylor. (Librarians have ways of knowing these things.)