Juliet & Romeo by David Hewson #BookReview Q&A #BlogTour

Verona 1499, at the birth of the Renaissance.  Two young people meet: Romeo, desperate for love before being sent away to study; and Juliet facing a forced marriage to a nobleman she doesn’t know.  Fate and circumstance bring them together in a desperate attempt at a secret marriage to thwart their parents.  But in a single fateful week their intricate scheming falls terribly apart.

Shakespeare’s most well-known and well-loved play has been turned into a gripping romantic thriller with a modern twist.  Rich with the sights and smells of medieval Italy, people with a vibrant cast of characters who spring from the page, this is Shakespeare as you’ve never read it befoe – and with a killer twist at the end.

It's my pleasure to be hosting the blog tour for Juliet & Romeo by David Hewson today, many thanks to the author and Emily Glenister from The Dome Press for inviting me and for my advance copy of the novel. You can read my review below but first I'm delighted to welcome David Hewson to Hair Past A Freckle. David has very kindly answered a few questions for me.

Your retelling of Romeo and Juliet was originally written as an audiobook and narrated by Richard Armitage. What made you decide to write a novelised version too, and was it easy to rewrite?

So many people kept asking for it - including Richard when he was recording. To be honest I'd been so focused on the script I hadn't given it any thought. The book is probably 95% like the script but I had to adapt a few things to novel format. Also by then I'd also produced a full dramatic version for Audible Germany, which involved a big cast and music. You get more insights with each iteration so there are a few tweaks and even a couple of new scenes in there.

I imagine there are a few purists who shudder at any retelling of Shakespeare's works but for the rest of us; can you explain why his plays have invited so many new approaches through the years?  What made you choose Romeo and Juliet for your retelling?

There are fewer than you'd imagine but yes the Shakespeare jihadists are always out there. The truth is that every performance of a Shakespeare play is an adaptation, an interpretation. The originals are so fluid you have to make key decisions about how you approach them. Also standard theatre productions usually cut and change elements of the text too so I'm not exactly doing something new. I liked the idea of Romeo and Juliet because I think that at heart there is a very contemporary theme here to do with identity and conformity: how much are we masters of ourselves, and how much slaves to others? Also any chance to go back to Verona I'm not going to miss. It's a wonderful place.

Would you write another new version of classic literature - by Shakespeare or another writer -  and if so, what?

This is the third Shakespeare adaptation I've worked on in eight years (after Macbeth and Hamlet for Audible). So yes I do fancy more but probably not for a while. I seem to be engrossed in other projects for one thing. Richard III or a revisionist Othello, perhaps, or Julius Caesar combined with Antony and Cleopatra... plenty of possibilities out there if only I could find the time...

Have you any favourite other reimaginings of Shakespeare's plays - either in print or on the stage or screen?

West Side Story is simply brilliant, for the story and the music.

Who is your favourite character in Juliet & Romeo and why?

I suspect Friar Laurence. He's a quiet, intelligent chap who wants to do good by everyone and is willing to risk his life to do what he thinks is right. I also gave him an interesting back story you won't find in the play, one based on real history.

I loved studying Shakespeare at school but I know many people say that they hated analysing words that were written to be performed.  Did you enjoy Shakespeare as a teenager or did it take a bit longer for you to appreciate his genius? Which of his plays did you read at school?

We did Macbeth at school and I loved it for the swashbuckling story. The problem is always the language which can be very difficult. I read lots and lots of academic material for this work and it's amazing how many clever people can't agree what Shakespeare actually means at times. But it is definitely better performed than read so that the actors can bring the dialogue to life.

How long did it take you to write Juliet & Romeo, and how does that compare with your previous books?

Six months or so which is about normal. Add in revisions and all the post-delivery stuff and it's probably closer to nine. I write for a living and only tackle one project at a time so it's full-time work, five days a week. 

Do you get nervous prior to publication waiting for the early reviews to be published?

Not usually but this book is so unusual and unlike most of my work I'm frankly terrified.

Which writers most influenced you?

I'm not sure 'influenced' is the right word. There are lots of writers I admire but I don't think it's a good idea to try to emulate someone else. One of the big battles in writing is finding your own voice, not a copy of someone else's. I've tried to simplify my writing over the years so that people think about the story, the characters, the world it involves, not how clever I am with the odd semi colon. The best writing, it seems to me, is invisible. But equally I do admire people who do things very differently -- Robert Graves for his elegance and ability to emulate classic Roman historians for example. At the moment I'm reading an Italian classic from 1962  by Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and it's as far away from my own style as you can get. A great and unique book though.

Thank you so much David. I agree with you that West Side Story is brilliant and I hope now Juliet & Romeo has been published that you're feeling less terrified - as you'll see from my review, I loved it!

David Hewson's version of one of Shakespeare's most famous plays is set in 1499, at the beginning of the Renaissance and with the discovery of the 'New World', religious turmoil and the rebirth of the Arts, change and the juxtaposition between the ways of the older generation and the hopes and desires of younger people are constant themes of the book. The decision to switch the names of the protagonists in the book's titles is perhaps indicative of this more forthright Juliet's yearning to be more than a possession, belonging first to her father and then her husband,
"No one owns me but myself," Juliet whispered in the garden.
Not even Romeo, she thought. We are equal or this isn't love at all.'
She is acknowledged in this book at the central character and the catalyst who sets the ultimately tragic events in motion. Faced with a forced marriage perhaps it's inevitable that she seizes her chance to choose her own husband even if it means the two warring families will be thrown into further turmoil. Romeo is also facing a future decided by his father and he is due to embark on a career in the law, although he is a writer at heart. Juliet isn't always impressed however, telling him,
'This poetry of yours could get tedious.'
The rivalry between the Montagues and Capulets extends to each family's servants and in the hot Verona summer the street skirmishes threaten to escalate into destructive violence. City marshal, Escalus has been tasked with keeping the peace in the fractious city but with the Black Death apparently coming ever closer to Verona, there is a fevered claustrophobic feeling on the streets and he will need to take strong measures to prevent riots and mass bloodshed. The tense expectation of the terrible events to come lead to a poignant sense of foreboding for these star cross'd lovers as the early humour and romance of the novel eventually succumbs to inexorable tragedy.
As Shakespeare adapted and altered the works of others, so David Hewson has made his own changes. including one major twist. I'm not going to give it away here, of course but I can say that I thought it worked very well and though it may upset some, I felt it was an intriguing evolution of the plot. Likewise, the opportunity to further develop secondary characters, particularly Friar Laurence and Juliet's Nurse, is utilised superbly. Their back stories inform us why they become involved in the drama and as they realise the impact of their key roles in the proceedings, both are forced to reflect on their choices in scenes that extend the pathos of the story still further.
Juliet & Romeo is a fresh, contemporary look at a much loved tale. Though set hundreds of years ago, the language is modern and accessible. Verona and Renaissance Italy are brought vividly to life, from the descriptions of the architecture, clothing and food to the influence of cultural figures such as Dante, Da Vinci and the Borgias on the characters. As David Hewson says above, Shakespeare's original works were so fluid that every interpretation will differ. I think that the Bard would have thoroughly approved of this adaptation. Juliet & Romeo contains all the elements we've come to expect from Shakespeare - it's exciting, violent and tragic but also romantic, sexy, bawdy and wise - and yet still offers us a new perspective on Juliet and her Romeo. I fell in love with the story all over again and thoroughly recommend this wonderful retelling of a much-loved tale.

Juliet and Romeo is published by The Dome Press and can be purchased here. The audible version, narrated by Richard Armitage has been nominated for a 2018 Audie Award for Best Original Work. Don't miss the other stops on the blog tour, details are below.

About the Author

David Hewson is the author of more than 20 published novels including the Pieter Vos series set in Amsterdam and the Nic Costa books set in Rome.
His acclaimed book adaptations of The Killing television series were published around the world. His audio adaptations of Shakespeare's Macbeth and Hamlet with A.J. Hartley, narrated by Alan Cumming and Richard Armitage respectively, were both shortlisted for the Audie Awards. 
A former journalist with the Sunday Times and The Times, he lives in Kent. 
His first book with The Dome Press, Juliet and Romeo, will be published in May 2018.
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