LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
At the beginning of Anne Fortier's new novel, the reader is pulled into a fairy tale. Twins born in Italy, and whose parents die there, are raised in America by Aunt Rose. She passes away when the girls are 25. Janice Jacobs, a snarky fashionista, gets the bulk of the estate. Her sister, Julie, a radical in need of a makeover, inherits a key to a safety deposit box in Siena, Italy. This is where the tale takes a different turn.
Julie has been officially ordered to stay out of Italy because of her political activity when she was younger. So, she travels under her birth name, Giulietta Tolomei, and discovers an ongoing blood feud between the Tolomeis and other powerful families in Siena. They've been at each others throats since the 14th century. In fact, Shakespeare used their stories as the basis for his play, "Romeo and Juliet." Anne Fortier's medieval and modern mystery, "Juliet," leads the reader through a time-shifting maze of words to discover the unknown story of the Montagues and the Capulets.
And she's in the CBC's Montreal studio, welcome to the program.
Ms. ANNE FORTIER (Author, "Juliet"): Thank you so much.
HANSEN: Where did your own fascination with "Romeo and Juliet" begin?
Ms. FORTIER: Well, it probably started quite early. My mother used to live in Verona when she was young. And so we'd go to Verona a lot and visit Juliet's balcony and touch the statue, as you're supposed to do when you're there, and see her grave and so on. So, from very early on, I had a relationship with Juliet, I felt. So, imagine the shock I got when I realized that, in fact, the very first version of that story, the "Romeo and Juliet" tragedy, was actually not set in Verona at all; it was set in Siena.
I think it was published in 1476, so, well over 100 years before Shakespeare.
HANSEN: Julie Jacobs, aka Giulietta Tolomei, has this key to a safety deposit box and that's her inheritance. What does she find in the box?
Ms. FORTIER: Julie begins to unravel the history of her ancestor, the original Giulietta Tolomei, and this becomes the original story of "Romeo and Juliet," the way it might have happened in Siena during the 14th century.
HANSEN: What are some of the same hatreds in the 21st century, if any?
Ms. FORTIER: Well, it's funny because if you go to Siena, especially around the time of the Palio, this horse race that takes place twice a year, you'll see that these contrade(ph) from all over the city are competing with each other and it very much resembles what you imagine as having been those old family feuds.
And this is what Julie discovers when she goes to Siena. She discovers that there are these contrade, but more importantly for her, she meets the descendants from the rival family, the Salimbeni family.
HANSEN: And it seems as though, even though there was essentially a truce that was signed between the two families, there's a bit of, oh, they're always giving each other the evil eye in 21st century Siena.
Ms. FORTIER: Precisely. And I think that, you know, if you know that your family had a feud with some other family, you'll always be playing with that fact, even in the 21st century. Of course, the truce between the Tolomeis and the Salimbenis is an historical fact. Back in 1337, there is a very nasty massacre between the two families and that forced the government of Siena to basically enforce peace upon those two families.
That's the setting for the original story of "Romeo and Juliet." There has been a terrible feud. Now, we assume there is a peace but is there really?
HANSEN: And the question for Julie Jacobs is, who might have murdered her parents?
Ms. FORTIER: Precisely. She has grown up knowing almost nothing about her family. And it's not just her parents; it's her entire family history, of course, reaching all the way back to Giulietta. This is when she meets up with long lost relatives in Siena. It suggests to her that there might be a curse on her family, as well as on the family of the feuding family in Siena.
HANSEN: The pox on both their houses?
Ms. FORTIER: Precisely, yes.
HANSEN: Are you inspired by such writers as A.S. Byatt, author of "Possession," historical fiction and the same technique that you use of alternating medieval and modern chapters, for example?
Ms. FORTIER: I really admire the writers who can write in two different times. I love those kinds of books. But to be quite frank with you, often when I read those books, I find the past a little boring because people have been, the author has been doing so much research and all that research has to be there in the book. So, I knew that if I was going to do the same, I would have to make it really action-packed. It would have to be not weighed down by research but pulled together by action and plot and love and fear and all those emotions that make us want to turn to the next page.
HANSEN: You talked about injecting some excitement and some action into the medieval chapters in the book. When your book was published in Denmark, you wrote that critics slammed the idea of the book rather than the book itself. And you continue: it wasn't hard to do. You characterized yourself as a Dane turned American polluting her old fatherland with a thriller, adventure, romance, Hollywood package deal, taking poor Shakespeare hostage in her shameless Dan Brown-esque endeavors. Ouch.
And, of course, the book in Denmark went on to be a bestseller. But is the bard turning in his grave?
Ms. FORTIER: I certainly hope so, because that would show us that he's still, you know, paying attention to what's going on. But I think that if he's turning in his grave, it's mostly to see what kind of snobs it is that keep saying that you cannot mix commercial and literary, because that's what he was fantastic at doing. And that's why he's so famous still today.
HANSEN: Anne Fortier's new novel is called "Juliet," published by Valentine Books. And the author joined us from the CBC studio in Montreal. Thank you very much.
Ms. FORTIER: Thank you so much.