One of the most famous couples in history has been transported to modern times thanks to Danish author Anne Fortier. Fortier's debut novel, "Juliet" offers a modern take on "Romeo and Juliet" and adds in a dash of mystery and adventure a la Dan Brown.
The book's protagonist, 25 year-old Julie Jacobs, finds herself traveling to Siena, Italy, to unlock a safety deposit box left to her by her aunt. And there the adventure begins, sending Julie on a journey that connects her life with that of her ancestor, Giulietta Tolomei.
A Dallas Morning News reviewer called "Juliet" a "stunning new historical novel" and said "Fortier's way with humor and romance nicely complement the darker plot elements, and 14th-century Giulietta is much feistier and, frankly, more fun, than her Shakespearean doppelgänger."
Fortier will be the featured author at the Stanislaus County Library Foundation's Author Spotlight on Sept. 23. Admission is free.
She spoke with The Bee via e-mail while traveling on her book tour for "Juliet."
Q: Do people need to have read "Romeo and Juliet" or intimately know the story to enjoy your book?
A: Not at all. I like to think you can approach "Juliet" from all angles and have an enjoyable reading experience no matter what. A lot of readers come to me and say that my book has made them want to read or reread Shakespeare's play, and I think that's wonderful. That said, I think most people have a fairly good idea of the Romeo and Juliet story already, even if they haven't actually read the play or seen it performed. It is such a classic that you just can't avoid hearing constant references to Juliet's balcony, the poison and the dagger. And that's really all you need to know.
Q: How did you come up with the concept for "Juliet"?
A: What happened was that I went to Siena in Tuscany with my mother, and I just fell completely in love with that place. So, I started toying with the idea of setting a novel there, and while I was doing research on the city's history, my mother discovered that, in fact, the earliest version of the Romeo and Juliet story had been set right there, in Siena. When I discovered that, I knew right away I had to write that story ... the "original" story of the two star-crossed lovers.
Q: Was it intimidating to write about one of the most famous couples in literature?
A: Absolutely! I bought a new edition of "Romeo and Juliet" when I started writing, and it is completely in shreds. Although "Juliet" is a separate story with a universe of its own, I have tried to put many of Shakespeare's ideas back into play, in new and unexpected ways. The thing to keep in mind, of course, is that Shakespeare himself "borrowed" this famous couple from earlier writers, and so I don't necessarily feel I need to worry too much about his feelings.
Q: English is not your native language. Was it challenging writing a novel in English?
A: I moved to the U.S. in 2002, and since then, pretty much my whole life has switched into English. But, yes, it was a challenge, and I probably spend more time than most people double-checking the exact spelling of idioms and slang terms. At the same time, though, English is Shakespeare's language, and I could not have been playing with his lines the way I do had I written in any other language. Also, to me, English is the language of dreams and ambitions, and of love, while my mother tongue, Danish, reminds me of schoolyard bullies and homework.
Q: The book is getting a lot of buzz. Why do you think it resonates with people?
A: Shakespeare's plays are performed all over the world, and because of his brilliant way of addressing universal themes and emotions, we can all identify with his characters, regardless of age, status and location. So, you might say that Shakespeare -- and "Romeo and Juliet" especially -- resonates with people, and this is why "Juliet" has been sold in so many different countries.
Q: Can you talk about how you collaborated with your mom on this book?
A: Apart from the fact that it was thanks to Mom I discovered Siena and learned that the first version of the Romeo and Juliet story was set there, she also helped me do research for the book, both the present day and past narratives. While I was living in the U.S., working at day, writing at night, Mom would go to Siena and find books and old documents in libraries and archives, and she would visit museums and consult experts. She also took hundreds of photos and made drawings of streets and buildings, and during the editing phase, she was my fact checker. I could not have written the book without Mom, and I almost feel her name should be on the front cover, too.
Q: How long did it take you to write "Juliet"?
A: I got the idea in early 2005, started writing later that year, and wrote through 2006 and 2007.
2008 was spent editing, and the book was sold in September 2008. So, I would probably say three years, editing included.
Q: When you finished writing "Juliet," was it difficult to say goodbye to the characters?
A: Yes and no. I was happy to leave the characters where I did; I felt I had in a sense liberated them to live a happy life on their own. But one does feel a bit empty for a while, until a new story with new characters takes root. The wonderful thing about "Juliet" is that now I meet so many people who "know" the characters and want to discuss them. In that way, I get to spend time with them again. It's almost like a reunion.
Q: I read that you started writing at age 11. What drew you to start writing at that age? And why do you think you are still writing?
A: I read a lot as a child. I am talking piles and piles of books every month. And I remember at some point thinking to myself that there were not enough books that I really liked. So, the obvious solution was to sit down and write a book for myself ... the kind of book I would really like. So that's what I did. And that's probably what has driven me ever since: my love of stories. By writing a book, you get to live in a good story for a very long time.
Q: If the rights for a movie version of "Juliet" were purchased, who would you want to see cast?
A: I'm not sure I know who would make the perfect Julie, but Anne Hathaway probably comes close. And I actually wrote the character of Alessandro with the Italian actor Raoul Bova in mind, just as I wrote Eva Maria Salimbeni with Sophia Loren in mind. Apart from that ... I think it would be wonderful if the 1340 narrative was made exclusively with Italian actors speaking Italian.
Q: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books and/or genres?
A: One of my all-time favorites is Katherine Neville's "The Eight," which combines treasure hunt, mystery, history and romance, but I also very much like A. S. Byatt's "Possession," which is more of a literary mystery. Lately, I have discovered Jane Johnson's "The Tenth Gift" and can't wait to read her new book, "The Salt Road." All of these novels combine historical fiction with elements of adventure, and I am very drawn to that, although I have to say that I have just recently discovered Sara Gruen, and that I think she just may be my favorite author.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: I am reading Sara Gruen's "Ape House" and enjoying it enormously. She is such a gifted writer, and I find myself chuckling at something on every page.