IFOA: Your bio says that you “dwell in the spaces where literature and history meet.” What kind of historical research went into Juliet’s Nurse?
Lois Leveen: Lots! I read medieval cookbooks to plan meals, and medieval medical manuals to figure out how pregnancies, infertility and breastfeeding would be handled. I did research on the impact of the plague, to understand how it continued to affect Italian society even after the initial outbreak ended. I read about fashion, which was key in this period, not just in terms of what people wore, but because fabric and clothing served as a kind of exchange commodity, the way we might think of currency or precious metals you would pawn or trade. I read a lot about vendettas and violence, and about marriage contracts. But the book is set in the era before the printing press was invented, which means the written records are quite limited. So I found that visual art and material culture were also incredibly helpful. For example, if a woman was pregnant or had just given birth, one gift she might receive was a parto tray, on which special meals would be served to her. Those trays often had scenes painted on them, and those scenes would be of women, usually saints, who had just given birth. So you can look at a tray and see what that parto room would look like: where is the mother? where is the child? where is the wet-nurse? Even religious objects would be decorated in ways that would reveal what people wore and how they acted in particular situations. I traveled to Verona while I was working on the manuscript, and during my time there I took over 1,000 photographs just in one day. Understanding how a private house would be laid out, how frescoes would appear on the walls, what it would have felt like to move through a crowded medieval city—all of that relied on being there in person. But, of course, you have to be careful not to get so caught up in the research you forget about the story. The historical details work their way in, but ultimately the novel is about the characters and what happens to them.
IFOA: What made Juliet’s nurse an intriguing enough figure for you to build a story around?
Leveen: The idea for the novel came to me so immediately, it was stunning. I was actually struggling with another novel that just wasn’t coming together, and the title “Juliet’s Nurse” came into my head. I knew the nurse was a comic figure in the play, but the truth was I hadn’t read Romeo and Juliet since high school. So I pulled my copy off the bookshelf, and discovered how incredibly complex and compelling Shakespeare made her. In her first scene in the play, we hear this amazing backstory: she had a daughter who was born the same day as Juliet but died. What was it like to lose one child, and then immediately take comfort in caring for another in such a physically, as well as emotionally, intimate way? We also learn a bit about her husband, and how he interacted with Juliet. But what was he like? What was his relationship with Angelica, the nurse? Later in the play, Angelica describes Juliet’s cousin Tybalt as “the best friend I had,” which is odd because they’re not in a single scene together. So what was their friendship like? Even in the play, Angelica is an intensely emotional character, and I sensed that shifting the focus squarely onto her would tease out new aspects of this seemingly well-known story. And I’m very interested in what history I can learn as I work on my novels. Here was a way to think about women’s roles in late medieval and early Renaissance Italy, including women of very different class positions. So really, once the idea came to me, I couldn’t NOT write it.
IFOA: How much of Juliet’s Nurse was informed by cues from Romeo & Juliet? Was the play a rigid influence or a point of departure for you?
Leveen: I like to have some sort of boundaries to play against when I’m writing. So I tried to stay true to Romeo and Juliet as much as possible. But of course the play already exists, and my task was to create something new, which meant the play also always had to be a point of departure, even if I wanted to stay as true to it as possible.
One of the challenges of writing first-person fiction is that you can only convey what your narrator-protagonist sees, hears, knows or surmises. Which means I had to figure out what to do about things that happen in the play that Angelica doesn’t witness herself. How could those things be part of her story?
And there’s also the complicating factor that Shakespeare is pretty fast and loose with his history, so although the play is ostensibly set in Verona in the 14th century, some of what he writes is really more about England in his own era. For example, he has Tybalt, Mercutio and Romeo dueling with rapiers, which were common in Shakespeare’s day but didn’t actually exist in the period when the play was set. So I gave myself permission to get the Italian history right, even if it meant departing from the play.
Leveen: Not when I started. I was so entranced with Angelica, I didn’t hesitate at all. But last April, after the novel was finished, I spoke at the Shakespeare 450 conference in Paris, probably the world’s largest gathering of Shakespeare scholars. I think participants were there from 80 different countries. And suddenly I realized the enormity of what I’d done. Shakespeare, the most famous playwright in English, and Romeo and Juliet, the most famous English-language drama. How could I have been so brazen? And yet, of course, there’s a huge literary tradition of reinterpreting Shakespeare (not to mention the stage tradition: pretty much any time you stage a Shakespeare play, you’re “interpreting” the text). Mostly I’m glad I didn’t think about it until the novel was done. Ignorance is the better part of bravery, I suppose.
IFOA: What is the best compliment a reader can give you about your work?
Leveen: I’m always so grateful to hear from readers who are moved by my work in any way. It feels like a true honor to be able to create something that can affect another person deeply. My first novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is based on the true story of a former slave who became a spy for the Union during the American Civil War, and I heard from many readers for whom that tale of race and valor was personally inspirational. Is there a parallel for this novel? Perhaps. Only as I was finishing the first draft of Juliet’s Nurse did I really confront the fact that it is, in part, a book not only about surviving loss but specifically about losing a child to suicide. Well, of course, that is what Shakespeare gives us, but thinking about how the rates of teen suicide are rising in our own era, I felt like what I was writing about this period in the past needed to resonate with what is happening today. So I would say now that the most profound thing I can hope to hear from readers is about that. Maybe some of what Angelica goes through in trying to understand Juliet’s choice can spark conversations about how we can keep real people we love feeling secure enough to make different choices. It might be a lot to expect from a novel, but I’m hopeful.
Lois Leveen is a novelist, poet, educator and historian. She presents Juliet’s Nurse alongside other authors on October 26.