Interview: Robin Maxwell

One of the exciting things about having a blog like this is chatting with writers I’ve admired. Robin Maxwell certainly falls into that category. I was thrilled to read her latest book, O, Juliet, and jumped at the chance to interview her. She’s had a very interesting background and I enjoyed chatting with her about Anne Boleyn, the writing life, and her latest work. She’s also giving away a beautiful heart necklace and copy of O, Juliet at her blog. Enjoy this interview.

You started out in occupational therapy before moving into the world of screenwriting. What inspired you to make the leap?

My initial instinct was toward the creative life, but when it was time to choose a college and a major, my father’s firm hand prohibited me from choosing the arts. As I had a natural penchant for science, psychology and crafts, occupational therapy was as close a fit as I could manage, and I found a great program for it at Tufts University in Boston. But I was only able to work in the profession after graduating for three years before being pulled back to my true love. While I had to do the requisite “day jobs” (secretarial and waitressing), I took acting classes in NYC (and had a rather pathetic acting career) before moving to Hollywood and discovering that my real passion was for “the word,” on the other side of the camera, where movies are actually created. A funny “full circle” is just now taking place. The first screenplay I ever wrote (with my comedy writing partner, Billie Morton) — “Trouble in Toyland” — has just been optioned (by an Australian production company) for an animated feature after 30 years! I know the best movies take a long time to get made, but this is ridiculous. It just might break all the records.

It’s no secret that you’ve been a favorite of mine when it comes to historical fiction. I have enjoyed your take on Anne Boleyn especially, and thought it was interesting how you compared her to Hilary Clinton in a Huffington Post article. What might England and the world be like if she had only bore a son for Henry VIII?

Your question boggles my mind. I can hardly imagine the answer. If the son and his mother had lived through childbirth, certainly Anne would have been the second and the last of Henry’s wives. Even if he’d tired of her the moment she gave up the great chase (she wouldn’t sleep with him for 6 years of their courtship) Henry mightn’t have gone murderously mad the way he did (though I believe he had a few psychotic genes from his father, Henry VII). But what would England and the world have looked like without Anne and Henry’s religiously tolerant offspring, Elizabeth I, her not wishing “to make windows into mens’ souls,” and bringing Protestantism into full flower in England? If we look at the two male offspring of Henry VIII’s who did live (Henry Fitzroy and Edward VI) we find very weak personalities and constitutions, both boys dying before the age of eighteen. Henry would have been a hard act for any male heir to follow, though Elizabeth (perhaps because of her sex and her difficulty in reaching the throne) not only equaled her father in charismatic appeal, but far surpassed him as a ruler.

Why do you believe people seem to overlook Boleyn’s role in the Protestant reformation?

The easiest explanation (some would call it cliched) is probably closest to the truth — because she was a woman. The reason I became so fascinated with Anne was precisely because of her history-changing accomplishments — out in the open, smack in the center of the world stage — during a time when women just didn’t do such things. The few that even desired to effect change did it behind the scenes. Anne was working on the most immense social reform possible — weaning a deeply Catholic society (and king) away from Catholicism. And she wasn’t just doing it to ensure Henry’s divorce from his first wife (as some charge). Religious reform was a deeply held belief that Anne had learned as a girl at the radical knee of Margeurite de’Angeloume (heretic sister of Catholic Francois I) as I discussed in Mademoiselle Boleyn. Later, Anne was the only person in the English court who was not terrorized by Henry VIII (in fact, she had him wrapped around her finger), and when she pressed the Lutheran tomes into his hands and said, “Read this, sweetheart,” he listened. It was also this hold over Henry that caused Anne to be so despised by the other courtiers who were still moaning and groveling at Henry’s feet. Their pathological jealousy of her (as well as a host of later misogynistic historians) not only relieved her of much of the credit for her role in the Protestant Reformation, but led to her murder — and make no mistake, that’s exactly what her execution was. Flat-out murder.

In O, Juliet you tackle Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from an historical fiction perspective. This is a new venture for you somewhat, since in the past your main characters have been historical figures. I have to ask, when was the moment you decided to write this story? Where you nervous about penning a character first created by Shakespeare?

The actual light bulb moment came when I read that another author had written an historical fiction called LADY McBETH. I thought, “Hell, what an amazing idea!” I had loved another fiction using a literary figure — AHAB’S WIFE — and my mind zip-zipped to that before coming back to Shakespeare. It was hardly a moment before I realized that “Romeo and Juliet” had never been written as a novel. I couldn’t believe my good luck. I whipped out a brief proposal which everybody — agents, editors, publisher — adored, and got right to work. Shortly I discovered that Romeo and Juliet were “in the ozone,” with the second “Twilight” movie (“New Moon”) filled with references and themes from the Bard’s play; Pop star Taylor Swift’s award-winning “Love Song,” about the famous couple, “Letters to Juliet” (a modern day romantic drama to be released in May); and a more-contemporary-than-medieval novel called JULIET being published in August.

Was I nervous about appropriating two of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters for my own? How could I not be? One device I used to make a literary distinction from the master was to make Romeo and Juliet not only amateur poets themselves, but to both be devotees of Dante (the middle ages’ greatest “rock star”). I used Dante’s beautiful (but little known) love poetry liberally in O, JULIET. My detractors are having a field day repeating that “Ms. Maxwell is no Shakespeare,” but DUH…who in their right mind would ever attempt that? I was also, according to my critics, “attempting to fix what was not broken.” But my purpose was simply to shed some light on the lives of everyones’ favorite star-crossed lovers, and I must say, I’m very pleased and proud of my efforts.

I enjoyed the use of historical characters such as Lucrezia de’ Medici and the beautiful love poetry by Dante throughout the book. Your take on Juliet is wonderful, and I found the strength of mind and wit in her reminiscent of Anne Boleyn or even Elizabeth at times. Was there a figure from history or even present day that gave you some inspiration for Juliet?

I think my answer is “all my heroines.” The “strong-willed-woman-ahead-of-her-time-who-is-looking-for-a-marriage-for-love” can rightly describe every one of the great ladies of the novels that preceed O, JULIET — everyone from Anne Boleyn and the young Elizabeth (SECRET DIARY OF ANNE BOLEYN, VIRGIN, MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN) to Grace O’Malley (THE WILD IRISH), to Princess Bessie of York and Nell Caxton (TO THE TOWER BORN), to Caterina da Vinci (SIGNORA DA VINCI). Even though Juliet’s accomplishments may seem minor compared to Anne’s (the Reformation), Elizabeth (the English Renaissance and conquering the Spanish Armada) and Grace O’Malley (pirate, gun-runner, troop transporter and “Mother of the Irish Rebellion”), Juliet’s courage in defying her family and repressive society in order to be with the man she loved was HUGE. This was a girl (daughter of a merchant) who, from the time she was born, would have been barely allowed to leave her father house (except to go to confession and the occasional social gathering) until the day she married her parents’ choice of a husband, after which she would have continued to remain cloistered in his house till the day she died. Relatively speaking, what Juliet accomplished with her rebellion was enormous.

Can you tell us how you’re promoting O, JULIET?

I made a decision that for this promotion I would do absolutely everything in my power to make the book a success. It was the first of my titles to cross so many genres. This was not simply an historical fiction novel (though it had plenty of historical fiction elements). It was a retelling of the greatest love story every told, so I reckoned romance readers would like it. And its protagonists were young people being thwarted in love by parents and society, so I guessed it would appeal to the YA crowd as well.

At the same time, I was facing up to an industry that had changed radically since 1997 when SECRET DIARY had come out. My publishers and agents had urged all their authors to use every ONLINE (the radical change) method possible for publicizing and promoting their titles, and I took it 100% to heart. The publishers (Penguin/New American Library) got the ball rolling with a stupendous double-cover. The front is gorgeous flowers surrounding a period marble balcony, and the “step-back” is Dicksee’s famous and achingly romantic painting of Romeo and Juliet in an embrace.

My webmistress redesigned my www.robinmaxwell.com home page and built me links to a “chapter sneak peek” of Romeo and Juliet’s famous balcony scene. I bought the rights for one to the Dicksee painting so I could legally use it however I needed it. I planned an enormous blog tour (interviews, guest posts and reviews), to commence in January, the month before the book’s publication (of which this interview is a part). O, JULIET will also be the first-ever book hosted on the new blog http://HistoricalFictionRoundTable.com for a two-week blast of publicity by lovers of that genre.

I hired a young, web-savvy woman as my “west coast publicist.” She opened a Facebook personal page for me, as well as a Facebook “fan page” and started inviting people onto them. With the help from one of my new blogging buddies, I created a blog of my own (http://robinmaxwell.blogspot.com). Its purpose was (what else?) promotion of my book, and to that end I birthed my wild brainchild, the “O, JULIET Love Games” to open a forum for my fans and new readers to discuss and play with every angle of everyone’s favorite emotion — love. With the Dicksee image of Romeo and Juliet as my blog header (and “guardian angels”) I conceived of chats, challenges and giveaways, culminating in a love poetry and essay competition, the winners to be announced on Valentine’s Day.

Then I asked my west coast publicist to create a beautiful newsletter, and appropriated every address on my email lists. She did our first mailing December 2nd announcing the “sneak peek” and the upcoming “Love Games.” (http://www.mynewsletterbuilder.com/email/newsletter/1410107835)

By this time my publishers were quite impressed with my efforts and decided to support them in several ways. On my urgings (and with my suggestions) they designed a cool blog ad (the 2-frame animated .gif that’s running on this page) which the bloggers participating in my virtual blog tour could run on their blogs. Then the publishers agreed to my requests for a two-week blog ad campaign the weeks before and after publication. Finally they surprised me with announcement that O, JULIET had been chosen for their exclusive “Penguin iPhone App Program.” My book was going to be only one of four Penguin titles to have its very own iPhone App in the month of February! With a single touch, iPhone users will be able to read the first chapter of the book, and with another touch, buy it.

Whew!

So while I have no idea whether all my (and my publisher’s) efforts will sell more books, at least I feel that we’ve tried absolutely everything to give it a good shot. Maybe I should check in with you in March or April to give you a report. [Editor’s note: Yes, please come back and let us know how things are going!]

Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to speak to your readers. I think this is a fabulous blog giving writers vital information about the difficult but rewarding work we do.

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