I first met Ryan North, creator of Dinosaur Comics, co-editor of the Machine of Death series, and author of To Be or Not To Be: That is the Adventure, at a recent Toronto reading. North was presenting the sequel to TBoNTB: TitA, a second choose-your-path Shakespeare novel titled Romeo and/or Juliet.
As the co-author of a choose-your-path book myself, I couldn't help but corner him with my nerdy questions: "How do you manage your flow charts?," "Do you have all sorts of issues with continuity?" and "Do you also find the idea of choice fundamentally and hilariously meaningless, in an existential way?"
Eventually, security approached to inform me that my car was being towed. I thought that was strange, especially since I'd biked to the event. But in the time it took me to peek out the window to see what was going on, Ryan had been whisked away to sign copies of Romeo and/or Juliet.
Undaunted, I followed up a few days later with a proper interview request. North graciously agreed to answer my questions.
MM: Romeo and Juliet is a story about star-crossed lovers, murder suicide, and betrayal. Many call it the greatest love story ever written in the English language. What made you interested in adapting the play into a chooseable-path book?
RN: I've always found it funny when people call Romeo and Juliet "the greatest love story ever told" because MAN it does not work out well for those kids, you know? I'd like to think the greatest love story ever told would at least let them be together for more than a few hours. But it's certainly one of the greatest stories told -- love or otherwise -- and it's been captivating us for 400 years, so there must be SOMETHING to recommend it.
My first book, To Be or Not To Be, took Hamlet and converted it to the choose-your-own-path format. It was a great fit for a book where you control what happens -- a book as game -- because the plot of Hamlet is very game-like: get a mission from a ghost to kill the final boss, kill the final boss, and game over. You win. I launched that book on Kickstarter asking for $20k and we ended up raising over $580k, becoming Kickstarter's most-funded publishing project at the time. As part of that I said I'd write a sequel, so I was kinda on the hook!
I actually didn't look at Romeo and Juliet initially, but at Macbeth. But the problem with that is Macbeth is NOT very gamelike. In Macbeth (spoiler alerts for a 400-year-old play) you kill the king -- your final boss -- but it's not game over. Instead you feel guilty about it for the next two hours. Feeling guilty is not a super fun thing to make a game book out of, I thought.
Romeo and Juliet, on the other hand, has a couple of things going for it: terrific plot, characters that make some VERY ill-advised decisions, and all the fun of romance with all the thrill of stabbing, swordfights and deadly neurotoxins -- or at the very least, potions that make you fake your own death for 42 hours. The only thing I didn't like was the ending, and it took me what was in retrospect a surprisingly long time to realize, "Wait a minute, I'd be writing a book with TONS of endings, so I could put in a different one if I wanted!"
So that's what I did, and in the end I put in Macbeth as a "book within a book" -- a mini-adventure that you, as Romeo, can play if you check out the library while you're banished in Mantua. (If you play as Juliet you get a book within a book as well, because while she's faking her own death she has a dream, a Midsummer Night's Dream, if you will).
So to make a long answer slightly longer, I'd say what attracted me to Romeo and Juliet was the fun of the characters, the fact they get to make all these horrible decisions, and the fact that they live in a world of love, romance, potential AND street brawling.
MM: I'm assuming Claire Danes' performance of Juliet influenced your writing of the character?
RN: My Juliet is actually pretty different from most Juliets I've seen! In the book Romeo has a +1 stat to rhetoric -- he's really good at talking, y'all -- and I wanted Juliet to have her own perk too. After a while I decided that making Juliet strong both fit her character -- she's locked at home with nothing to do BUT work out all the time -- and it made her lots of fun to play as. A Juliet that can kick ass and solve her problems with her sweet muscles? YES, PLEASE.
MM: If Netflix were to come along and say, "Hey Ryan, we want to turn your book into a television show" and then let you do casting, which actor would you have play Tybalt, The Prince of Cats?
RN: Clearly Patrick Stewart. You may disagree, but that's only because you haven't photoshopped Patty Stew into some Tybalt clothes and seen HOW AMAZINGLY IT WORKS. The guy can pull off anything, I'm sure Tybalt would be a walk in the park for him. So I'm on Team Make Tybalt A Senior Citizen, I guess??
MM: Despite the fact that Romeo and/or Juliet is based on a Shakespeare play, it struck me as deeply personal, almost autobiographical. Am I legitimately insane?
RN: No, it is a personal book in a lot of ways! The fun thing about writing a book with multiple paths and multiple endings is you really get to explore the characters and figure out their different fates. You're taking the player and saying "OK, if you choose this option, here's what happens, and if you choose this other option, this is what happens instead" and you want to make BOTH of those endings satisfying in different ways. So rather than having one theme or idea you get across, you're exploring a constellation of them, and trying to make them all rewarding. And because you're doing that, you get past your superficial ideas of "what does a good relationship look like" and start exploring things more deeply, you know? And I think whenever you get deep into something, you're gonna get a sense of what's important to everyone.
This is not to say it's a very serious book! Like all the greatest works of literature, you can still make Juliet and Romeo team up and build robot suits.
MM: Some people on Twitter claim that Romeo and/or Juliet wasn't actually written by Ryan North. There are several theories that authorship can be linked to a Queen West writing collective, The Earl of Oxford's great, great, great grandson, or even Chip Zdarsky. So which is it?
RN: All I will say is you have never seen Chip Zdarsky and I in the same room, and there is a reason for that (the reason is that we are extremely good pals and we're worried if we appeared together people would see that and it'd make our other friends jealous).
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