Friday, September 3, 2010

Interview with Kathryn Johnson author of The Gentleman Poet

Today, author Kathryn Johnson joins us to chat about her new book, The Gentleman Poet, A novel of love, danger, and “The Tempest”which comes out on Tuesday, September 7th. !

Many scholars believe one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays, The Tempest, was inspired by a shipwreck and true tale of survival that captured the imagination of 17th-century London. In the book, Kathryn proposes the questions what if the greatest playwright of all time didn’t simply read about the wreck of the Sea Venture off the Bermuda coast? What if Will was on board, fleeing powerful enemies, daring one last great adventure?  A very intriguing plot.

BAnews: How much of The Gentleman Poet is real—actual history, that is—and how much is fiction?

Kathryn: Many of the names for characters and their roles came directly from the ship’s manifest and from the account of the wreck written by one of the passengers, William Strachey. I also relied a great deal on the timeline provided by Strachey’s journal. But what these characters actually said to one another—or how their individual adventures played out—all of that is purely my imagination at work.

BAnews: Can you give us an example of the mix of real and fantasy in the story?

Kathryn: Sure. In Strachey’s account of the days the survivors spent on the island, which amounted to about 9 months, he mentions that a serving girl Elizabeth Persons married the ship’s cook. So one assumes that a romance developed and that, despite their dire circumstances, love was still alive and families were being formed among the group. So in the story, Elizabeth and Thomas the cook fall in love.

BAnews: You’ve set The Gentleman Poet in 1609. Can you tell us what in the story might be relevant for us in the 21st century?

Kathryn: Well, many things in life never change. People in times past worried about how to support themselves and their families. They took risks, as we do, in their careers and life choices. They feared disease, war, persecution, getting old, loss of loved ones. So the characters in my story are very similar to people we meet every day in the 21st century

BAnews: Tell us about the research you did for the book. Did you spend a lot of time in archives, studying letters and other records?

Kathryn: The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. was an amazing help. They have, I believe, the largest collection of Shakespeare-related material in the world, including several of the priceless and rare First Folios, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays printed by his friends after his death. There I found two amazing accounts of the shipwreck of the Sea Venture, which was bound for Jamestown in 1609. It was this ship and its survivors who, legend tells us, inspired Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest.

BAnews: Any exciting research trips?

Kathryn: I also went on location, so to speak, in Bermuda (tough work if you can get it—LOL!), which is the setting for most of the story. I spent two weeks touring the island and studied some of the artifacts salvaged from the wreck, which still lies in the coral beds just east of the Bermuda coast. And by the way, Bermuda is a super spot for a reading vacation—full of legends, ghost stories, and there are guest houses where you can stay very reasonably, some of them centuries old that were built as homes for privateers.

BAnews: What about survivors. How many made it to shore after the wreck?

Kathryn: That’s one of the amazing things about the historical account. It tells us that there were 150 crew and passengers aboard the Venture when it ran aground on the reef, less than a mile from land. They’d just suffered four terrible days at sea, nearly sinking in a hurricane. But here they were within sight of land, and the captain somehow got every single person safely to shore. And there they lived for 9 months, building a new ship, which eventually carried them the rest of the way to Jamestown. Talk about courage and persistence!

BAnews: That is amazing. But how did Shakespeare find out about this wreck without the modern advantages of the Internet, Facebook, twitter, telephone, email, or even telegraph messages?

Kathryn: Most scholars believe that Strachey’s account traveled back to England on a ship from Jamestown. When Londoners learned that the Sea Venture hadn’t been lost and its passengers were still alive, it was huge—something akin to man walking on the moon. Shakespeare must have seen a copy of that letter. Read his play, The Tempest, and you’ll see that the similarity with the wording with some parts of Strachey’s account is uncanny. For instance, Will seems to have lifted whole phrases from the ship’s historian to use in his opening storm scene!

BAnews: But then again, Shakespeare was famous for borrowing from other writers—

Kathryn: Exactly! Will was the ultimate literary recycler. But what he did with those characters and stories…oh my! That’s why he lives today through his plays. That’s why hundreds of theaters and festivals across the country, and around the world, still perform him. And I guess that’s why I just had to write this book. I took my cue from Will. I borrowed his tempest and put it in my novel.

Thanks Kathryn for stopping by. We'll all look forward to reading The Gentleman Poet.  For more about Kathryn and her book, check out her website,  Kathryn also provides writing tips on her website.

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