Interview: Kathryn Johnson, author of The Gentleman Poet

Kathryn Johnson’s new novel, The Gentleman Poet: A Novel of Love, Danger, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, starts from an intriguing premise: Scholars have long cited a real-life shipwreck saga as one of the inspirations for the Bard’s late great play, but what if instead of simply reading about it, Shakespeare had himself been a passenger on the ill-fated voyage of the Sea Venture? The ship, en route from England to the Jamestown in the New World, encountered a strong storm and was ultimately steered into the reefs of Bermuda, where 150 passengers (including John Rolfe, who would later wed Pocahantas) disembarked and tried to make a home for nine months until two ships could be built for the survivors to continue the journey. Dramatizing this already suspenseful tale — and injecting the possibility that Shakespeare might have been on board —  Johnson’s novel works on a number of levels: as minutely researched historical drama, as speculative fiction, as literary homage and gamesmanship, and even as romance, since the book’s focus is as much on a young servant girl named Elizabeth Person and her budding relationship with the ship’s cook as it is on that distinguished title character.

The Gentleman Poet hits bookstores on Tuesday, September 7, and Johnson has a full schedule of events ahead, including an appearance at George Mason University’s Fairfax, VA Campus as part of the upcoming Fall for the Book Festival; she’ll be speaking there on Monday, September 20, at 1:30 p.m. in the Sandy Springs Bank Tent, just outside the Johnson Center.

In advance of her tour, Johnson indulged a few questions about the new novel, and I’m glad to share our chat here.

Art Taylor: A simple question to begin with: What inspired you to write a novel about Shakespeare? Are you a longtime fan of the Bard’s work? Of The Tempest in particular?

Kathryn Johnson

Kathryn Johnson: Actually, my interest in writing The Gentleman Poet began in just the opposite way. I felt that I’d read far too few of Shakespeare’s plays in college. I wanted to learn more about him and what has made his poetry and plays so enduring. But as a working writer it’s very hard to find time for exhaustive reading and study unless it’s devoted to producing something. I think that’s why I so appreciate Bill Bryson and his books. He finds something that interests him, like hiking the Appalachian Trail or sampling historical high points (A Short History of Nearly Everything), and feeds his curiosity by going off to research until he has enough for a book. Before I could write anything, I needed to read not just from the plays but also some of the excellent nonfiction works that have recently been written, like Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All, Ron Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars, and Stephen Greenblatt’s wonderful, Will in the World. At first, just writing a story with Shakespeare somehow involved, something like the film, Shakespeare in Love, that was all I had in mind. Focusing on The Tempest came later.

The Gentleman Poet re-imagines the inspiration for The Tempest by placing Shakespeare directly in the shipwreck that scholars believe served as the basis for the play. Can you tell us a little about your research for the book?

My research was mostly done through the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The Folger houses, so far as I know, the world’s largest collection of writings and artifacts related to Shakespeare’s work and times. Even the interior of the building itself is a resource; it was constructed to imitate Elizabethan architecture, so when you’re in the beautiful reading room, for instance, you feel transported back to another time. It’s an amazing place. The other venue for research was Bermuda, because that is the setting for most of the story. The wreck of the Sea Venture was just off the coast of Bermuda, while it was still uninhabited.  I was able to view some of the artifacts recovered and displayed in the Maritime Museum there. And you can’t miss those treacherous coral reefs all around the island—islands, actually, since Bermuda is really a group of islands connected by manmade bridges. I researched for two years before starting to write in earnest because I needed to separate the usable details from the massive amounts of other information, and of course there was the issue of coming up with an interesting plot. Altogether, the novel took four years to plan and write.

And yes, the wreck of the Sea Venture, and survival of its passengers and crew on Bermuda for nine months, are believed to have inspired Shakespeare to write The Tempest. It appears that he read an account written by one of the passengers aboard the ill-fated ship that sailed, with eight other vessels on their way to the Jamestown settlement, into a hurricane. The account eventually made its way back to London on a return ship, and if you read the journal entries, then compare them with the opening storm scene of the play, you’ll see stunning similarities. Shakespeare liked to use familiar themes, plots, and news-worthy “hooks” just as Hollywood does today. When word of the survival of the voyagers hit the streets of London, this was huge, creating the level of popular excitement similar to when men landed on the moon. Shakespeare most likely saw refugees from a storm-tossed ship marooned on an island as great fodder for a new play.

W. H. Harrington. Wreck of Sea Venture. Painting, 1981. From the Bermuda National Trust and Bermuda Maritime Museum; linked from the Folger Library.

So where do the facts end and imagination begin? And what challenges did you face in navigating that line between fact and fantasy?

In writing any piece of fiction, regardless of length or genre, unlimited choices confront the author. That’s part of the fun of writing a short story or novel. And it’s also the nightmare. You can’t have everything. You need to choose what you’ll include and which direction the plot and characters will take. So I had to decide which of the historically sound data I could keep, and then, as you say, draw a line and leap over it into fantasy. William Strachey’s account of the wreck and the months spent on the island by the stranded settlers provided a tremendous amount of factual material. For one thing, this place had been called the Devil’s Isles by men of the sea for generations, and they were terrified of it, avoided it as it was rumored to be inhabited by witches, monsters, and cannibals. Strachey described his surprise at the gentle climate, ample wildlife and vegetation for food, and lack of pests and pestilence—it was as close to paradise as he or any of his 149 companions had ever seen. So I could use his wonderful details. I also had access to the ship’s manifest, which gave me the names of the settlers and crew. I used many of the real names along with their “job descriptions”: governor, serving girl, carpenter, cook and so forth. But of course I had to expand on the few snippets of dialogue that Strachey included if I was to create breathing characters and active scenes.

While Shakespeare gets the “title role,” so to speak, the novel focuses mainly on the journey of a young woman, the servant girl Elizabeth Persons. Was Persons inspired by any of Shakespeare’s own heroines? And how might her experiences speak to readers today?

I found Elizabeth Persons’ name on the manifest. She was one of the servants on the actual voyage. Then I noticed in Strachey’s account that Elizabeth married the ship’s cook while on the island. Aha! A romance blossoms among the castaways! How could I not use that? But I found no other information about the couple, and so from there I needed to use my imagination. Actually, a lot of drama occurred on that island in 1609-10—a murder, mutinous rabble rousing, gallows erected for a hanging. Again, wonderfully tempting material for a writer. It also seemed to me that if I was linking the famous shipwreck with Shakespeare’s play, I might also link some of the historical figures with characters in his play The Tempest. And so Elizabeth, in a way, becomes Shakespeare’s muse in my novel, keeping him at his writing and inspiring the character of Miranda in his play. And along the way, with Shakespeare’s help, she transforms from a troubled young girl to a mature and capable woman. For this reason, as well as because of Elizabeth’s age, I think Young Adult readers will also enjoy the adventure.

As to how Elizabeth’s experiences speak to readers today, I think of her story as one of survival against great odds. She lived in turbulent times, suffered the loss of loved ones as a result of religious intolerance and violence. Are we not living in turbulent times? I think so. And the politics of religion and international power struggles that made and destroyed people’s lives in the 17th century are still with us. Elizabeth, in her own quiet way, carves out a place for herself in this frightening world, and perhaps that’s encouraging for each of us today—as we try to make a safe place for ourselves and our loved ones.

You’ve written historical fiction; you’ve written suspense; you’ve written romance — so this new novel combines several of your areas of interest and expertise. What does The Gentleman Poet mean to you in the context of what has already been a productive and prolific career?

Wow! You’ve been checking into my deep, dark past! Well, yes, I have written for all ages of readers, though mostly for young adults and adults, and I’ve bounced between genres while using several pennames: Kathryn Jensen, K.M. Kimball, Nicole Davidson. But this story gave me a chance to come home to a type of story I’d loved as a younger reader. The very first real novel I ever read was, and I wish I could recall the author but it’s been so long, Mara, Queen of the Nile, set in ancient Egypt. To see an author capture on the pages of a book the magic of another time and place, that has always fascinated me. I wrote two historical novels for young readers under my maiden name, Kimball, both with American settings, but I’d never had a chance to write stories set in the past for YA’s or adults.  So this novel means a great deal to me. It’s the book of my heart, one I’ve always wanted to write, and the culmination of a long string of experiences in the publishing world. I’m terribly grateful to my readers, students, mentoring clients, and editors, all of whom have supported me through the years and given me this opportunity.

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