Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What Made The Bard of Avon Tick: An interview with historical fiction author Pauline Montagna

1) Please tell us about Not Wisely but Too Well.

Briefly, Not Wisely but Too Well is the first book in The Stuff of Dreams series about William Shakespeare and the experiences and relationships that make him the great writer he became. This volume takes Will's story to 1593.

2) Why did you decide to write the story of one of the most famous authors in the world? Did his reputation ever intimidate you? 

I am not sure I decided to write this book as much as it decided I should write it.

I had no particular interest in Shakespeare until I picked up a book called Who Wrote Shakespeare? which introduced me to the whole, fascinating, Authorship debate. A couple of years later I saw the documentary Much Ado about Something, which put the Marlovian case. It started me thinking what the relationship between Marlowe and Shakespeare might have been.

You ask whether I felt intimidated. Very much so. So much so that I put the whole project aside at one point and decided to work on something else. But it wouldn't let me go, especially after I visited England and saw Stratford, and Cambridge and Shakespeare's Globe. In the end I had to put aside my other project and get back to it.

3) What historical resources did you draw on in your research?

There is an endless number of books about Shakespeare, Marlowe and the Elizabethan theatre. I spent a blissful summer in our State Library just flitting between one book and another following threads right back to where they began, getting as close to original documents as one can from far away Melbourne, Australia.

My favourite books were the Arden Shakespeare collection, especially the old series that dates back to the 1960s and 70s. They delve deeply into how the plays were written and revised over time. Sometimes a footnote would open a whole new line of enquiry. It was a footnote in the Arden edition of King John that led me to James Burbage, Richard Burbage's father, and his building of The Theatre, London's first purpose built playhouse.

Another favourite was Andrew Gurr's The Shakespearean Playing Companies in which he has gathered every detail about all of the Elizabethan playing companies, their personnel and their plays. He even traces not only where the companies went on tour, but how much they were paid.

And then, of course, you have the most famous original document of all, Henslowe's Diary. Now that is a treasure trove especially for the fate of a couple of Shakespeare's earliest plays. As a transcript of it can be found online. I have it at my fingertips.

One of the historians who has had a large influence on my book is Marlovian biographer, A. D. (Dolly) Wraight. It was she who revealed to me that Robert Greene was not referring to Shakespeare at all in his deathbed tirade against 'the upstart crow'. Another Marlovian whose work has influenced me is Peter Farey whose website is another mine of information.

While I don't necessarily subscribe to their theory, the journal of the Shakespeare-Oxford Society, The Oxfordian,  does publish some well researched scholarly articles, which I have also found useful.

The most useful reference books and websites I came across can be found on my blog The Stuff of Dreams.  Go to the bottom of the page.

4) There will always be fiction included in the tale of a historical personage because we don't have a total transcript of their lives. Writing about an obscure historical figure runs less chance of having people complain about perceived liberties taken with the figure. How did you approach the fiction/history balance?

Well known historical personages do come with a great deal of baggage. Most readers who pick up Not Wisely but Too Well will already have read biographies and novels about William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe and feel that they know them and their life stories well.

However, both novelists and biographers of Shakespeare and Marlowe have the same problem. Not only do we lack a coherent and definitive narrative of their lives, but all we have to go on are a few loosely connected documents which illuminate moments, but which we still have to approach with some caution. Anyone attempting to construct their biographies has to examine those documents carefully, bringing to them their own imagination, knowledge and experience.

However, as many of us have found, we historical novelists seem much better qualified to construct a plausible biography than most literary biographers. I am afraid many of them are prone to making assertions about what their subject did, thought and felt that are based on little more than wishful thinking, and are sometimes not only psychologically implausible but downright laughable. If anyone should be accused of taking liberties with the known facts it is they.

As for myself, I am a stickler for historical accuracy. Although my basic premise about the relationship between William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe is fictional, I have made sure that there is nothing in my story that contradicts the known facts. Wherever I could I have consulted transcripts of original documents. Although I have consulted many secondary sources, I have always approached them critically and delved into how they have come to their conclusions. Nor have I restricted myself to orthodox biographers, but, coming to the subject as I did from the anti-Strafordian direction, I have also taken into consideration the research done by supporters of the alternative candidates.

So while, as I have said, I have kept to the known facts, my interpretation of them is entirely my own. However, I am ready to wager that my narrative may well be closer to the truth than many a supposedly non-fictional biography.

5) I am a firm Stratfordian, but the existence of such a recent and relatively high-profile movie (which cost $30 million dollars) such as Emmerich's Anonymous shows that the anti-Stratfordian position is still going strong. Why do you think some people are so obsessed with the idea that William Shakespeare was not the author of his famous works?

Oh, please, don't get me started on Anonymous. That film was a travesty that did the Oxfordian cause more harm than good and will soon sink into the oblivion it deserves (See my analysis of the film Demolishing Anonymous).

I would say that the Shakespearean Authorship debate is fed by a profound mystery. Because of his fame, every archive in England has been combed for records of Shakespeare and his family, yet for all that research nothing has been turned up which throws any light on how Will Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon became one of the greatest writers in the English language.

We have a great deal of evidence of Will Shakspere in Stratford and about his family and their business dealings. We have evidence of a William Shakespeare living in London who was a sharer in The Globe and the Chamberlain's Men. However, the only connections between these two men are tenuous at best and rather suspect. (The Stratford Monument, perhaps the most famous artefact that identifies Will Shakspere as William Shakespeare is far from proof positive See my article The Mystery of the Stratford Monument.)

Further, except for his name in the front of the book, there is no evidence that even the London-based Shakespeare was the author of the plays. There are no surviving manuscripts, nor documentary evidence of him as a writer. Even the surviving literary references to Shakespeare are mostly obscure and sometimes cast more doubt than certainty. Such a vacuum demands alternative theories to fill it.

But I think at the bottom of it all is that, for the English, Shakespeare is like a god to whom they feel a profound spiritual attachment. They need absolute certainty about who he is. There is no room for doubt. So where there is doubt about Will Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon it must be countered with certainty about an alternative candidate.

6) Do you have any links to any excerpts you'd like to share?

You can find an excerpt from Not Wisely but Too Well on my website at or sample it on Smashwords.

If you are interested in the research behind the novel go to my blog The Stuff of Dreams, or you might enjoy my short story "In Search of Shakespeare".

7) Please tell us about your other works.

Not Wisely but Too Well is the third book I have published. I have also published another historical romance, The Slave, set in Medieval Italy and Suburban Terrors, a collection of short stories, as well as several short stories and novelettes.

All are available on my website. The short stories can also be found on Goodreads, while the novelettes can be downloaded as free ebooks from Smashwords.

8) Where can people find out more about you?

You can find out all about me from my home page, Pauline Montagna, Writer and Publisher. All my books are available there to purchase as ebooks and PODs. There you will also find a collection of novelettes to download as free ebooks as well as my short stories.

From there you can also connect to my blogs, The Stuff of Dreams , a compendium of my research for Not Wisely but too Well, Ms Montagna's Miscellany, a collection of my reviews and articles, and The Writer/Publisher, an introduction to self-publishing based on my own experience and research.

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