In conversation with... J.I. Davenport

Hello Jay! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of Mercutio! Can you please briefly tell us what it is about?

A: Thanks so much! Mercutio is a queer historical novel that revisits the world of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to explore Mercutio’s story. I wanted to delve into his world to try to understand what was going on with him; what made him tick. Why was he the life and soul of the party one moment and then raging with madness and sorrow the next? The answer, of course, is love. He’s been in love with his best friend, Romeo, since they were children, and despite Romeo’s many girlfriends, Mercutio is sure that their lifelong friendship will always take precedence. However, when he sees true love blossoming between Romeo and a certain young lady at the Capulets’ summer ball, Mercutio fears the day has finally come that he has lost the man he loves to someone else, setting him on a collision course with his own tragic yet glorious fate… It’s available now on Amazon as a paperback and eBook, which is currently £0.99.

Many of us will be familiar with the Romeo and Juliet story, but did your characters do anything unexpected as they grew on the page?

A: When I first sat down to write the novel, it was going to be a story about unrequited love. Mercutio loved Romeo and Romeo didn’t love him. That evolved as the writing progressed. By the end of the novel, I came to understand that Romeo really does love Mercutio; he just can’t quite accept it consciously. That kind of love just doesn’t fit the ideal of chivalrous, courtly love that he aspires to. Two men courting each other with flowers and poems and serenades? That only works with knights and maidens! But Mercutio knows better. He knows his classical literature, so he understands that same-sex love can be every bit as idyllic and profound. He’s seen it for himself in the romances between the ancient heroes, in the histories of Hadrian and Alexander the Great, which makes it easier to accept what he feels.

So there were all these depths to Mercutio and Romeo’s relationship that were floating around my subconscious, but which only manifested themselves once they started growing on the page.

In your book, Verona comes very much to life and is a character unto itself. How important is location for you?

A: I’m so glad you think so. Location is always vital in helping me to write a convincing and immersive story. When it comes to Italian history, we see so much about the big political titans like Florence and Venice, but Verona can sometimes be overlooked, except in relation to Romeo and Juliet. So I leapt at the chance to champion Verona and shine the spotlight on her in my book. I really tried to learn everything I could about her history, geography and identity, and then use what I learned to weave a vivid picture of my characters and their world. It would have been a crime not to!

If your novel was going to be turned into a film, who would you cast in the role of Mercutio?

A: If Mercutio is ever adapted for the big screen, it’ll probably be a long time from now. So the actor who’s going to play him probably hasn’t been born yet! Or maybe he’s a newborn babe, right now. If it was going to be made tomorrow, there’s a rising star called Harris Dickinson who I think is one of the most talented actors of his generation. He’d be a canny choice. And wouldn’t Harry Styles make a great Romeo? I mean, he practically is Romeo! 

Alternatively, I’d love to see Mercutio made into a gorgeous animated feature film by one of those big Japanese studios like Studio Ghibli. I think that would be the best way to truly bring the novel’s aesthetic to life on screen.

Can you tell us about a scene in the book that you love or that was particularly difficult to write?

A: I think my favourite scene is the lunch between Mercutio and his mother. You really get to see the dynamic between them and how it’s shaped Mercutio’s character. Donna Marzia is a very strong, rather domineering matriarch, and Mercutio’s honed his wit on years of resisting her will. But there is a mutual love and a grudging respect between them: he for her strength and she for his spirit.

A particularly difficult scene to write was the very first one. Chapter One is the big opening, and you’re having to introduce the setting, the characters, the premise and the underlying conflicts, all while trying to hook your reader. I kept redrafting it again and again because I just wanted it to be as good as it possibly could be. The point came when I just had to let go and move on, but I think I got there in the end.

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?

A: There’s lots of material about the supporting characters, their backgrounds and their fates that didn’t find a place in the final draft. Mercutio was going to be a stand-alone title, but I’ve had some really strong ideas about the characters I left behind in Verona. They’re an assortment of comedies, tragedies and romances, and would make a great collection of short stories. The After Mercutio series, perhaps?

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: Before I write those After Mercutio stories, I want to finish a novel I half wrote before I started Mercutio. It’s a very different project: a historical adventure for teens, set in feudal Japan. But, again, culture and “place” play an integral part in the writing. It’s kind of a love letter to Japanese pop culture, especially manga, anime and the chambara genre of samurai period dramas. At the time, I was worried that the project was too big for me and that I wasn’t ready to do it justice; but I grew so much as a writer working on Mercutio that I now feel a million times more confident taking it on.

What are you reading at the moment?

A: I’ve just finished a biography by Sarah Bradford called Cesare Borgia: His Life and Times. I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with that family! They were such powerful, sexy, dangerous characters, yet they weren’t without vulnerability, and they lived in a fascinating time: the age of Michelangelo and da Vinci and Christopher Columbus. I actually planned to set Mercutio during that period at first, but then I learned that the Romeo and Juliet story really belongs to an earlier time than that — so I embraced the Middle Ages. But you can still see glimmers of the Renaissance on the horizon, reflected in Mercutio and his generation. They’re already starting to gravitate towards humanist thinking and a love of clothes, music, literature, sensuality and a zest for life, whereas my older characters are more pious, staid and small-minded, which is still rather medieval.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, interacting with readers – be it via Twitter, Facebook Instagram etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: I was a teen when social media first came along, but I quickly realised how superficial and addictive it can be — not to mention harmful with all the spats and trolling that goes on — so for years I avoided it like the plague! But I knew I’d have to give in one day. It is an essential tool for authors like me to boost our visibility and connect with readers. Surprisingly, I like Instagram a lot more than I thought I would, and I like Facebook and Twitter a lot less. I don’t use any of them enough to say that they disrupt my writing schedule in any significant way — that’s down to plain old procrastination! Sometimes it’s just easier to do other things than write. I always reprimand myself for it — but then I remember that my hero, Leonardo da Vinci, was a notorious procrastinator too, and I feel the teensiest bit better.

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: Definitely do it, and if/when the going gets tough, dig your heels in and don’t give up. Take comfort from your favourite writers, and try to feel inspired by their work rather than intimidated.

Thank you for your time!

A: Thanks so much for having me. It really means a lot.

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