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The Worm Hole Podcast Episode 97: Natasha Solomons (Fair Rosaline)

Charlie and Natasha Solomons (Fair Rosaline) discuss Natasha’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, told from the perspective of Rosaline, wherein Romeo is a groomer and Juliet must be saved from him. We discuss as well Natasha’s stylistic choices for her prose and the changes she made to the original ending.

Please note that there is a lot of discussion of sexually predatory behaviour and some explicit language in this episode.

Mark Scott’s rephrasing of Charles Dibdin’s argument can be found in his 1987 publication, Shakespearean Criticism, page 419
Natasha’s I, Mona Lisa
Natasha’s Mr Rosenblum’s List
Ros Barber, The Marlowe Papers
Pamela Butchart’s To Wee Or Not To Wee
Susan Calman’s audiobook version of Pamela Butchart’s To Wee Or Not To Wee

Release details: recorded 28th November 2023; published 13th May 2024

Where to find Natasha online: Twitter || Instagram

Where to find Charlie online: Twitter || Instagram

Go back to the list of episodes


01:39 The inspiration for Fair Rosaline – Natasha’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet as being darker than it’s portrayed
06:18 How we never see Rosaline in the original, and how Natasha changes this
07:01 Shakespeare’s own thoughts on his characters, and Natasha’s interpretations here
10:29 How Natasha borrowed from other Shakespearian Rosalines and Rosalinds
16:32 The importance of Juliet and her relative relevance in the book, and how Natasha considered different types of readers when she wrote
19:39 We start talking about the changes Natasha makes to the ending
20:44 Romeo’s copying Tybalt – the balcony and roses not being Romeo’s original idea in Fair Rosaline
21:57 The theme of roses and thorns
24:54 How Natasha wrote her prose – similar but not the same as Shakespeare’s
28:12 How Natasha changes (or, as she says, ‘made it more explicit’) Friar Lawrence
32:45 The men being in on it
34:17 The importance of the convent and the theme of women’s freedom
40:25 Tybalt’s death and why Natasha made the choices she did
42:29 How Natasha wrote with her young daughter beside her on Zoom in lockdown
44:34 What Natasha’s writing now: Cleopatra, with the Shakespearian influence again
47:18 There will be a play of Fair Rosaline!


Please note that this transcript has been edited for legibility and is not a 100% accurate representation of the audio. Filler words and many false sentence starts have been removed, and words have been added in square brackets for clarity.

Charlie: Hello and welcome to The Worm Hole Podcast episode 97. Bringing on an author and talking with them, about one – occasionally more – of their books in detail. I’m Charlie Place and today I am joined by Natasha Solomons. We’ll be talking today about her latest novel, Fair Rosaline, which asks us – no! demands – that we reconsider the story of Romeo and Juliet in a different light. In a retelling of the classic tale, we follow Rosaline. Upon the death of her mother, Rosaline’s father tells her she must soon be inducted into the local convent, supposedly as her mother wanted. Understandably Rosaline’s not keen – she’s young, and yet to experience life. So Rosaline makes a deal with her father – if he lets her enjoy her life for twelve days (we might say Twelve Nights) she will go willingly to the convent. Of course that’s not her real plan; she hopes to find a way out of it all. And maybe she has – her first choice of action is to attend a ball; it’s a masquerade, she’ll be fine. But that evening she meets an intriguing young man who turns out to be a son of the Montagues. She’s met a man called Romeo and he will sweep her off her feet far beyond what’s appropriate. Hello Natasha!

Natasha: Hi, thanks so much for having me.

Charlie: It’s lovely to have you on. Can you tell us the inspiration for this book?

Natasha: I was wondering what I was going to write about next during, I think it was the first or second lockdown, and I started rereading some of my old favourite books and plays. And I reread Romeo and Juliet. And it was really funny, rereading it because I felt like I was reading over the shoulder of my teenage self. Because I remember reading Romeo and Juliet, not seeing it, but in that summer where I must have been, I don’t know, sixteen/seventeen, and I gulped down the classics, whether it was Jane Eyre, Pride And Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and Romeo and Juliet. And I remember how I felt when I read it as a teenager, thinking, ‘well, it’s so romantic and it’s so tragic that these lovers are kept apart. And then when I reread it again during that lockdown as an adult, I had a totally different response whilst still remembering and holding [on to] how I had felt as a teenager. Because now, looking at it as an adult and as a mother, I feel that, yes, this play is a tragedy, but it’s not the one I thought as a teenager. To me, it’s a tragedy about adults who fail to protect children and fail to protect, particularly girls, from, in my view, somebody who’s essentially a sexual predator. And that was the jumping off point for writing the novel.

Charlie: Okay, so can you tell us more about your interpretation in this vein, this new interpretation, effectively, that you have?

Natasha: Yeah, absolutely. I finished reading the play, the next thing I did was to call my sister, and my sister works in child protection, and she’s a doctor. And it was during the pandemic, so she was slightly busy, but I’m very insistent. So I phoned her and I said, I need you to stop whatever you’re doing, I need you to read Romeo and Juliet. And she was kind of, ‘well, you know, I’m kind of busy’, but she’s also used to me, and at some point she was going to surrender, so it was just easier to agree sooner rather than later and just skip to that part. So she read the play again, and then she called me back a couple of days later saying, ‘oh, my goodness, you are so right. Romeo has all the markers of a groomer. The way that he interacts with Juliet in the play, and the way that he brings those close to her into his circle. You see the way that he interacts with the nurse, where he’s absolutely awful about her, with his gang of buddies, and then suddenly she’s there before him and he’s ingratiating himself. That’s the mark of a groomer, where they try and insinuate themselves into the lives of those closest to their targets.’ And we talked about the play at length. And then I went off and I was researching the history of the play, the performance history. And the start of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is all for Rosaline. He’s head over heels in love with her. It’s all about her. And yet convention would seem to tell us that we’re supposed to believe in the star-crossed lovers of Romeo and Juliet, that somehow this is fate, this is everything. But literally, an hour before he meets Juliet, Romeo is declaring his undying passion for somebody else. It shows that he’s really fickle and the way that he talks about Rosaline in his posse of buddies, it’s so unpleasant. They all sort of tease her, and she becomes really the sum of her parts. She’s so dehumanised. And I wanted to know how Rosaline herself must feel. And to lean into this most problematic part of the play. Over time and history, different people have had different ways of dealing with it. So, for instance, in the Victorian period, often what would happen was that they would just cut the character of Rosaline entirely from the play. Because she’s too difficult; she shows that Romeo is fickle, that he’s not entirely to be trusted, and it undercuts the supposed romance between Romeo and Juliet. I think that’s lazy. I think you’ve got to look at the play itself again and say, well, he includes Rosaline, why is she there? And I think she does, she really tells us something about Romeo. He’s not a romantic hero. He’s really, really, problematic. And that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to look at that.

Charlie: Well, you said about her being dehumanised. We never really see her in the play at all, am I right? It’s just through dialogue from other people.

Natasha: Well, she never has a line, and she’s not mentioned in the stage directions. She’s almost certainly at the ball because she’s mentioned when they’re going out and they’re pinning up invitations and delivering invitations – Rosaline’s name is on the guest list. So assuming she wasn’t washing her hair that night, she’s probably at the party. But she doesn’t have a line. And mostly she’s just discussed by other people. We hear her mentioned second-hand, whether by the Friar, Romeo, or his gang of mates. And, yeah, I wanted to hear from her directly.

Charlie: I was looking at what you’ve written in your author’s note about Shakespeare, how he’s got a few Rosalines, he’s got a Rosaline he’s got a Rosalind, got a Rosaline here, right here in Romeo and Juliet. Do we have any idea whatsoever of Shakespeare’s thoughts of any of his characters in this play?

Natasha: It’s very hard to say, ‘Shakespeare thought this’, because I think he likes moral ambiguity. And I think he leaves most things up to the audience to decide. He’s not didactic, he’s not dictatorial in that regard. For me, that’s one of the reasons that his plays survive and prosper, is because he’s not telling us what to think. But I think he lays it all out and says, ‘here we are. Romeo says this, acts this, behaves in this way. You decide’. And what is so delightful is that as a director, or as an actor, as a novelist, you come to those parts and you decide, ‘well, for my time I feel this, I believe this’. We turn the colour dial up on certain aspects of the play. For me, it’s dangerous to say absolutely in Romeo and Juliet. Absolutely thinks this. I mean, I would say that I’m not inventing the idea of Romeo being problematic, I think it’s there in the play and he’s leaving it there for us. I’m not saying no one in the future can ever do a purely romantic version of Romeo and Juliet. I think it’s, in our day and age, extremely difficult to do that. It’s a play that, if you’re not careful, would seem to glamorise suicide at the end. In terms of one’s relationship goals [laughs] I think it’s not one to aspire to! It’s not a secure and sensible romantic attachment, at the very least. But, yeah, I think that’s the joy of Shakespeare, is that there’s a sort of a muscularity to it.

Charlie: You’ve made some very good points there, and it’s interesting because I myself, I like looking at texts and things both kind of in a vacuum – there’s an argument that you’re meant to as such – and then also in context of the author, which, of course, we’re getting towards here, which is interesting. And you’ve made me think of something that I wrote down, well, I got it from Wikipedia, but it’s from Mark Scott in 1987, that you’ve got this opinion that critics such as Charles Dibden ‘argued that Rosaline had been included in the play in order to show how reckless the hero was, and that this was the reason for his tragic end’, which I found [a] really interesting finding because when I was looking at your acknowledgements, and I did go to your acknowledgements, I think a few pages into when I started to get an idea of what you were doing, and I was like, ‘oh, wow, I’ve not thought this before. Where has Natasha got this from?’ It’s interesting that we’ve got this opinion, which is not the same as yours, but we’re kind of going towards, in that way, your idea, this modern interpretation. I wanted to ask you, you’ve mentioned the other Rosalines and Rosalind – effectively why and how did you take these other Rosalines, Rosalinds, and put them together from Shakespeare’s plays?

Natasha: It’s really hard to say… well, why? I guess, in part, I wanted to be able to use, in that kind of slightly scrapbook way, to be able to say, yes, I’m using some more aspects of Shakespeare to try and build this. In order to build my girl, I used aspects. And I love the language of Rosaline from Love’s Labour’s Lost, but she’s a much more sophisticated character. She’s much more mature. My Rosaline is much younger. And in As You Like It, which is the play I know much better, I love the relationship between the two women, between Rosalind and Celia, that they’re cousins, but they feel like sisters. And the way that Rosalind dons men’s clothes, in many ways to protect Celia, these two girls who are quite vulnerable, they’re outside the supposed protection of the court but obviously, in As You Like It, that protection is under threat through the madness of Celia’s father. But I like that relationship between the girls, there’s something about it, that female friendship, that really appeals to me. And yes, there’s men and there’s a love story, but to me, the real love story in that play is that between Rosalind and Celia. It’s really strong, and I absolutely believe it. But in terms of how, I think that’s getting into alchemy, because that’s just how you write. And you have to start to feel the characters and they have to come alive. And ultimately, you can’t take that from any other writer, it’s just not possible. You have to create them yourself, you have to start seeing them. And sometimes it’s literally through writing, you discover their voice and you start to see them and you start to realise how they would react and feel and think in any situation. Sometimes you have a much stronger, visceral sense of whoever this person is before you start to write. But in this book, it was interesting because I’d come off the back of writing another novel called I, Mona Lisa. And I, Mona Lisa is a bonkers novel. It’s the life, times and adventures of the Mona Lisa, but as narrated by the painting herself. So not Lisa del Giocondo, but the painting, from the moment she swims into consciousness at the end of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintbrush. And, essentially, before writing that book, for the first time in quite a while, I was slightly paralysed and slightly stuck. I felt like nobody really wanted to listen to what I had to say any more. And when you’re a writer and you feel voiceless, you feel entirely useless, like you’re a pointless, broken thing. And it was difficult, it wasn’t a good time. And I was looking at photos, actually, of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, sort of behind glass and under siege by all these people, and I thought, ‘I feel like you, not a beautiful woman being gazed at, but a woman behind glass’. And one of the things that people always say about the Mona Lisa is that she’s just waiting to speak. And I thought, ‘well, what if she is speaking? What if she’s screaming, but no one can hear her?’ And so I went through this process of trying to give her a voice and hoping that in that process, I would find my own. But in that way, her voice is very close to mine. And although in some ways, it probably seems like the least personal of my books, because it’s a book about a Renaissance painting narrated by an inanimate object – I mean, it’s bizarre – it also, in many ways, feels the book that’s closest to me, because she expresses lots of my feelings about creativity and art, why we do the things that we do, why art matters. And really, she’s saying, why art matters to me. So it’s a very personal book. Now, I am getting to the point, I realise you’re probably wondering what this has to do with your question.

Charlie: No, that’s fine. Tangents are fine [Natasha laughs].

Natasha: But when I came to then write Rosaline, the voice initially was totally wrong, because the voice was of a 40-year-old woman, and Rosaline’s fifteen, and it was totally wrong. And although Mona is first person, and Rosaline is a third, but it’s a limited third person. It’s limited to Rosaline’s perspective. That means we really need to be privy to her thoughts. And that meant that I needed to remember how a 15-year-old girl thinks. And that took me on a deep dive back into being a teenager. And to really remember that, to remember what it is to be in love, to feel broken, to feel out of control, all of those things. And so, on the one hand, Rosaline, of course, is taken from Shakespeare and these other characters. And there’s little bits from A Midsummer’s Night Dream. She’s a magpie girl, you can see all the pieces that I put together. Essentially, there’s a large part of her that’s just me. That’s just teenage me, not me now, but a version of me then, or a version of how I wished I’d been, because I don’t think I had her determination. I mean, in some ways, yes, of course, all characters express a version of you, but I’m very aware as to which part of me that Rosaline expresses [Natasha laughs].

Charlie: Okay, well, yeah, I haven’t read Mona Lisa, but I read about it, and I was familiar with the fact that there was some of you in that and your process. But then to hear you continue about Rosaline, I know you’ve brought in little bits before, that’s really, really, interesting. And I don’t know about you listeners, but I haven’t read I, Mona Lisa. I have read Mr Rosenblum’s List, which I know I loved. It’s a while ago; I can’t tell you what I loved exactly, it was a while ago, but I did. I’m putting Mona Lisa on my list, definitely. As you were talking about Juliet and Rosaline and Juliet being cousins, I was thinking, obviously Rosaline is the main character, but how important was it to you to include Juliet and also include what she’s thinking to the extent you can? How relatively relevant, I suppose, was it?

Natasha: Well it was essential, I had to have Juliet in, partly because the relationship between the girls interests me as much or more than the relationship between Rosaline and Romeo. That Romeo, in many ways, is what drives Rosaline towards Juliet and initiates her huge want and desire and need to save the younger girl and to see if she can achieve that. And the other part, I guess, is that I held in my mind two kinds of readers. One was a set of readers who would be really quite familiar with Romeo and Juliet, whether they’d read it, whether they’d seen it a few times over the years, but certainly were fairly aware of the play. And for them, I knew there would be a delight in recognising the same scenes that they had seen or read many times before, but coming in at an odd angle and, then, that odd angle compelling them to reconsider their feelings about the play. But in order for that to be fun and to have that delight of recognition, the play had to fit perfectly with the book I’d written around the edges, like the dovetails had to absolutely match. And so, for instance, the ballroom scene, because the first happens before the action of the play – the play takes place over five nights from Sunday to Thursday, and then we pick up the action of the play, and that takes us to the end of the book. And I had these scenes, certain ones in mind, that we would see and we needed to be privy to, but at this slightly odd angle, at a tilt, and I wanted that absolute pleasure of recognition. But then, on the other hand, I knew that there would be another readership who pretty much only knew the pop culture references to Romeo and Juliet. They knew there was a romance. They knew it didn’t end that well. And at some point, there’s a balcony. And I needed the book to appeal equally to those two sets of readers so that the latter set, often, who might be much younger, wouldn’t feel condescended to or excluded from the story by only having these hints, but then there’s extra pleasure for those other readers. And obviously, including the play in those scenes, Juliet is absolutely essential to it. Certainly in my version, it’s Juliet and Rosaline who interest me and who pull me in, more than Romeo.

Charlie: I love how you wove your story into the original and wrote your scenes from different angles and stuff, because… yeah, I just really loved it. And I’m going to ask you about that, because at the end, you change things, which I thought was… yeah, I thought about that for a while, actually.

Natasha: I do and I don’t. If you go back and you read the last scene, the language and the lines I use are identical. I haven’t changed them.

Charlie: That’s true, but you save Juliet, which does change things, I think.

Natasha: Yeah, no, absolutely, that part is saved. She is saved. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to alter the ending, but then it’s she’s saved in life, but she dies in fiction, both endings happen at once, because there’s this sort of meta ending where Rosaline has set the path for this story. Juliet’s proxy is dead, and she hopes that the rumour and the story will carry on, because it’s only with the story of Juliet’s death [that] the real Juliet can escape. So fictional Juliet dies and carries on, and real Juliet gets to live.

Charlie: That’s true, yeah. And I like how you’ve put it there, it’s given me more appreciation for it. And I’m going to touch on, you said about the balcony scene. You have Romeo effectively, well he’s copying Tybalt. That’s what I took away it. ‘Oh, look, you know, that was very easy for him. Do what Tybalt’s doing.’ We don’t know that he necessarily copies anything from anyone else, we don’t know, but how he just repeats everything all the time.

Natasha: I mean, what Romeo does is he uses the lines. So the lines that he uses to seduce Juliet, for instance, we hear first from him using them on Rosaline, is because I wanted to try that idea that they literally are lines. They’re chat up lines that he feeds girl after girl. And of course they’re great lines because he’s had so much practice. And so what, in the play, when you’re in theatre, feels romantic and beautiful, actually reading here feels slightly trite and rehearsed because it is, because he is somebody who just repeats.

Charlie: Yeah, no, totally. You talking about the theatre, again, definitely, I think if you’ve got an adaptation of this, it’s got to be a play, hasn’t it? Almost.

Natasha: Well, watch the space [laughs].

Charlie: Ooo, okay. All right. I might note that down as the question to end with, depending on if you’re okay with saying something about it. I’m just noting that down. And also, I mean, it sounds kind of obvious, but you have got this theme of roses. You’ve got thorns, I think – I’m just looking at the book cover here – yes, you’ve got roses and thorns on the cover, of course. Are you able to talk about how you’ve used this theme? I know you’ve got the, I think it’s the marzipan flowers as well. How you incorporated that more, took what we have from the original and went to town on it, I suppose?

Natasha: I suppose there’s that key quote: ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’.

Charlie: Yeah.

Natasha: And that’s in the context of Juliet wishing that Romeo wasn’t a Montague. And he’s sort of saying ‘I won’t be if you don’t want me to be’. And a rose by any other name. So even if I had a different name, I would still be. And it’s about also that gap between the sound of a word and its meaning. There’s always that language gap. But I suppose I come back to the idea of roses and the symbol of romance and wanting to undercut those. I love the fact that on my cover, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, the roses are rotting. So they start at the top of the cover but by the ones on the bottom that Holly’s painted, they’re rotten. And so for me it’s not just roses, it’s rotting roses. And again, my Romeo, a rose burning other name would smell as sweet, but the sweet smelling Romeo is a lie. It’s a false sign, actually, it sort of signifies romance, the ideal suitor, but the reality isn’t that. He sends out all the signs and signals of love, but actually the truth isn’t that. And there’s moments where he’s speaking to Rosaline, and she wonders – he’s saying all of these things, but they feel like tropes. He talks about the moon endlessly. She’s like, ‘well, there isn’t a moon’, because he’s using the tropes of love, but they’ve become untethered to their meaning. So they are just sort of empty roses being strewn everywhere to symbolise love, whilst actually there’s nothing behind it. It is just the symbol, but it has become unattached to its meaning. And I guess I like the way that in modern culture, we do have these signs and signifiers for love, like roses, chocolates, like, why? What have these things got to do with…? And yet they are this sort of slightly lazy shorthand. And whenever anything’s become a trope or a shorthand, I just want to poke it till it falls apart. A bit like you pulling the petals off a rose. I like to break things [laughs]. It’s something that has been noted!

Charlie: [Laughs.] And I was wondering, and I definitely would like to hear what you think on this, because as I was thinking of the roses as a theme and how it’s used, and also, you’ve kind of made this almost meta thing going on with Romeo reading his own script, coming up with a script.

Natasha: Yeah, yeah.

Charlie: You have touched on your writing, effectively, your writing itself. And I wanted to ask, I like how you wrote this book, and you’ve got some Shakespearean language in there, but obviously you’ve written in prose. Was it important to you to preserve the original ‘vibe’, I suppose, of the language as you were writing?

Natasha: Yes, I mean, I come back to those two sets of readers again. So I knew that readers who were familiar with Shakespeare, familiar with the play, would want to find lines from Shakespeare. And if the whole novel was written in casual, modern speech, those lines would absolutely ping, and it would sound really strange. So I had to sort of massage all the speech so it would fit. But on the other hand, one, I can’t write entirely in Shakespearean verse. I just can’t do it. A couple of writers can; I’m thinking of Ros Barber – I don’t know if you’ve read The Marlowe Papers, it’s a novel in verse, in blank verse – and it’s just… I mean, it’s a miracle of a book, but she’s a poet. I’m not a poet. I can turn a metaphor and I can turn a simile, and, hopefully I see things at a poet’s angle, but I lack that sense of rhythm. And so it’s something I really admire in others. So I think for two reasons. One: my incompetence [Charlie laughs]. That I knew I couldn’t write all the conversation, and all the dialogue, I could not write that in a blank verse. Another writer may have done. But also I had in my mind this other set of readers who are the ones who only know Romeo and Juliet through its tropes, the cliches. And I wanted to invite them in, not to leave them on the outside of the novel thinking, ‘well, this idea was nice, but…’ – I didn’t want them to think it was not for them. And I wanted to draw those readers in. So what I’ve done is, once I’ve used Shakespeare’s lines, sometimes I just use them as they, are a lot of the time I’ve literally just tickled them. And I do work as a screenwriter, so I’m fast and loose, and I’m quite comfortable tinkering with dialogue. And I just have tinkered it, switched things round a bit, just so for the modern ear, it’s a bit more fluent. Because I know that purists will be kind of, ‘why have you shifted that line? Why have you done that?’ Well, I want to write and be understood, and I don’t want to write a line of dialogue that, to a significant portion of my readers, they’ll have to pause, puzzle over, possibly even look up, because that completely interrupts the flow. So it’s a slightly damned if you do, damned if you don’t, because I know that those people who just love the play as it appears in Shakespeare, will be irritated by the fact I’ve shifted around a word here and a word there. But then I come back to again that Shakespeare himself is an actor. He’s incredibly practical. I don’t think he’d care. I think. I think he’d be fine. I can say that because he’s very unlikely to send me an angry email [both laugh].

Charlie: No, I think that’s fair to say. He’s a creator. He likes working with ideas and stuff. Yeah, but, no, I mean, you’ve got to work with your current context, and you’ve got to think of readers nowadays in that context as well. You said about Friar Lawrence, and we said about the confectioner. I wanted to ask you, I suppose, why it was important and why you wanted to, effectively, ‘change’, let’s say, in quotes, ‘change’ – because he could have been more like this – Friar Lawrence in your version?

Natasha: I would say I haven’t really changed him. I’ve made it more explicit. But he’s such a dodgy character. When we first meet him, he’s wandering around his garden, trimming plants, telling the audience that these plants could be deadly, he could use them to create untold havoc and even bring death, but he’s choosing not to. But he could. That’s ambivalent! There’s definitely a moral ambiguity there. There’s something that is inherently unsafe in the friar. And he’s Romeo’s confidant. He’s also the character in the play who has the most lines after Romeo and Juliet. Usually, because he does go on a bit, directors tend to cut them back. But he’s a big character, and he’s difficult. How much does he want to save the lovers? How heartbroken is he? I think he’s a difficult character. And, I think that when the play is directed, you have to make a choice about the Friar. Is he really the heartbroken man trying to bring together two families? Or actually, is he a bit of Iago? Is he a bit of a manipulator? Is he really sort of playing with us all and, not really too fussed? I think there’s a coldness at the heart of him that I find him, as a character, very unsettling. I think it’s also worth thinking about, again, the context that when Shakespeare wrote this play, Britain had, or England, rather, had been separated from Rome and Catholicism for a couple of generations. And so the idea of Rome and the idea of anything to do with Catholicism in Rome felt exotic, a little bit dangerous. Now, we would probably say ‘gothic’. It’s not a word that they would have used. And all the trappings of Catholicism – so incense, celibate priests, all of these things. And his audience would understand that shorthand. They would hear the mention of a friar, parts of Italy, and immediately they would understand the symbolism of that. And so to make that resonate and to get a modern audience to understand that, I’ve sort of turned the volume up, I guess.

Charlie: You saying that, it’s made me think of just the sheer frustration, I suppose, and thinking of how Friar Lawrence doesn’t do enough when he could, in the play. And then watching on screen almost makes it worse. You’re like, ‘really, like something could have happened. You could have done something. This could have been saved.’

Natasha: But then the fact he doesn’t is… I think I would say it’s a choice, and it’s what makes him nefarious. Yeah, it makes him difficult. And then I’ve made a decision, and brought that up. And it’s little things again, like in Shakespeare, because it’s a play, and we’re there for between 2 and 3 hours, we don’t find out why the families are feuding. It’s just a feud, a historic feud. But I had to come up with a reason why they’re feuding, because somehow in a novel, you don’t accept that it’s historic, you want to know why, that has to exist. I mean, I don’t think my reason is as good as the one that Pamela Butchard comes up with in her stories. So she’s written a series of Shakespeare retellings for kids which are so funny, they’re spit your tea out funny. And in her version, you have to imagine it, though, with a really sort of broad… I think, is it Susan? I can’t remember her name, the comic who reads Pamela’s books. But in those, Mrs Montague has borrowed [switches to a Scottish accent] Mrs Capulet’s Hoover [laughs], and she broke it and gave it back without saying anything. And Mrs Capulet knows that when she lent it to her, it wasn’t like that’. [End Scottish accent.]

Charlie: Susan Calman.

Natasha: Thank you, Susan Calman. Amazing. Well, the way she reads it is just, oh, my God. Anyway, my reason is not as good as the Hoover damage, but we can’t all have that. Add that to your reading list.

Charlie: Yeah! Well, yeah, no, I need to say, listeners, every author that Natasha has mentioned in this podcast, you’ll find links, et cetera, et cetera, you know the deal. So, expanding on Friar Lawrence, then, why was it important to you to have so many men in on this, effectively?

Natasha: I guess I wanted the sense of a conspiracy. And also that, again, if you go back to the play, there’s the sense of these two lovers caught in fate and caught in a world where everything’s bigger than them and they have no chance. And I wanted to do that, but not with Romeo. I wanted to have it so that it’s this feeling of these two really young, vulnerable girls of thirteen and fifteen, and they’re caught up in a world where they’re totally out of control and that they have no power. And there are men around who do have that power. That’s the sense that I wanted to create. It’s a story about how Rosaline, who initially, being powerless, feeling out of control, then tries to assert herself in the face of all this, where it’s so difficult, both as a woman, as a young woman, as a young unmarried woman whose father doesn’t really care, whose brother doesn’t really care, and how she can push back against that.

Charlie: I want to say, yeah, I was kind of surprised about Friar Lawrence, and also not for all the reasons that you’ve talked about him. And then I was surprised about the further revelation. Now, I know I said earlier that we would talk about the ending, and I think, actually, we ended up talking about it, the very ending, earlier. So I will go on to other questions instead. Yeah, I want to ask about the convent, I suppose the importance of having Rosaline go to the convent in the end – if I say I’m thinking here about the theme of freedom, and also, I suppose, bringing the nuns into it, can you kind of go into this whole theme and the inclusion of them?

Natasha: I suppose it goes back to, I wanted different models of what’s possible for women, where at the start of the novel, Rosaline is told that her mother has sent her this letter saying that it’s her final wish – her mother’s died of plague – that she will go to a convent. And it’s a very difficult letter because her mother, like Anne Hathaway, can’t read or write. So it’s come through the conduit of her father, who has a motive and his own agenda for wanting his expensive daughter to be packed away. So there’s a part of Rosaline that is just furious. She’s furious because she’s fifteen, she wants the world. She doesn’t want to be shovelled away to a convent. And there’s another part of her that also she wants to say, is this really what her mother wanted? You can’t shout at the dead, it’s impossible. They don’t answer. Also, which is worse, that her mother didn’t want her to go and her father’s lying, or that her mother did want her to go and she’s telling the truth. And both of those options feel terrible to Rosaline. And in some ways, the book is about her working out that grief, really, not just the grief of her mother’s death, but this decision that she’s to be sent away, to be sequestered. There’s, as we’ve discussed, the problematic vision of the Church in Friar Lawrence and his incredible manipulation, but I also wanted to offer another vision where, really, for women in the Renaissance of a certain rank, you get married, but to be married at that time means, essentially, if you’re fertile, you spend your entire fertile years pregnant. You’re pregnant, you probably don’t breastfeed, which has modest contraceptive powers, because your baby will be handed over to a wet nurse so you can get pregnant again really quickly. And every time you give birth, there’s a significant risk of maternal death. It’s very unlikely you don’t lose some children along the way. And as you get older and after a certain number of pregnancies, that risk of death really increases again. If you survive the first one or two, you’ll probably be all right for a while. But by the time you get to sort of seven, eight, nine, ten, well, that risk is really climbing again. So your body’s not really your own, and you’re very tied to the household. And I’m not saying there isn’t tremendous love, tremendous joy mixed in with the exhaustion and the grief. I’m sure there is. But marriage isn’t ideal for a woman in the Renaissance; it’s pretty hard. Well, being a nun, if you’re wealthy, your father or your brother will still pay a form of dowry. I mean, it’s confusing the word dowry, but it sort of still is a kind of dowry which they pay to the convent. And if that amount is big enough, then you live quite nicely. It’s not as you would outside, but your cell can be furnished with nice things from home. They can pay ordinary nuns to say the more inconvenient prayers, you don’t have to get up and pray at three in the morning. You’re taught to read and write. You can sing, you might learn some music. If you’re interested in gardening, you can do gardening. You can learn about the body, you can learn how to make tinctures. So there’s a sense of intellectual community and curiosity. You’re not going to die in childbirth. And you have the comfort and the companionship of other interested, interesting women. I mean, I’m presenting it now in the most ideal form, and of course, the reality is somewhere in between, but I wanted to suggest it as a viable alternative to marriage. But it’s not without cost, because you still have to give up the world. You still essentially live in one building and its grounds and gardens for your entire adult life. Your mind might be free, but your body is absolutely constrained to this, however beautiful the convent is, however beautiful the location and the gardens, you are constrained there. I mean, I’m glad I don’t live there, neither option is ideal, but I wanted to really look at both of them. I wanted it to be complicated. And I hope that some people read it and think, ‘yes, this is absolutely, what a great life for her’. And other people think, ‘no, this isn’t right for her, this isn’t what this woman would want’.

Charlie: I think, in a way, I still don’t know how I feel on, like, which side, is it closing her away and it’s not good, or is it freedom? And I think I fall somewhere in the middle, because I think, especially when you put the constraints of her society in the context, in that format, which is difficult to do from our modern perspective, as much as we try, we’re never going to live it. Yeah, I think it could go either way with her or strictly that she’s just okay with it. Yeah.

Natasha: I don’t know either. I think I oscillate, but I always find with books [laughs], I always crave a happy ending. There’s a part of me that yearns for them, and then they happen, and I don’t believe them. So [laughs] I think this is in between with a note of melancholy, which to me feels, I don’t know, I guess most honest.

Charlie: Okay. Tybalt – I suppose I forgot for a moment, but, yeah, it was in my mind, in the back of my mind, I knew that Tybalt was going to die. And at the same time, I was really hoping that he and Rosaline would get together, even though I knew it was impossible… yeah. But did you ever consider changing that? Did you ever explore it, just in your head or even writing about what could have been?

Natasha: No, because that would have been the happy ending that I couldn’t believe.

Charlie: Okay.

Natasha: I wanted that sense of loss, that the boy who was right for her, the one who loved her unconditionally, was always there, but she couldn’t see it till it was too late. In many ways, she was too damaged to be able to be with him for some time, that she was pretty broken by the relationship with Romeo and everything that had happened. So there’s that sense that at some point in the future it will be right, but then, of course, the future never comes or doesn’t come for Tybalt. So, no, I didn’t. I knew he had to die. And I think also, I changed one thing in the play, in this very meta way at the end, and it would have really lessened that if I’d played that trick before. So I had to be very careful. And, I mean, I’ve sort of used it where there’s that sense of Tybalt, a bit like sort of Hamlet’s ghost, where he does come back, which is, again, another Shakespearean trope, but in this, hopefully, it feels more like a manifestation of grief. I don’t think we need to believe that he’s really some supernatural warning from the grave. She’s so sad and she misses him so much, and she kind of wills him into being and he’s there before her. But, yeah, I mean, that was another borrowing across the canon. Fast and loose.

Charlie: No, I like that because I felt… I kind of want to just say I felt a profound sense of loss almost when Tybalt died!

Natasha: Aww, thank you!

Charlie: Because, yeah, it was impossible. And also, I really wanted it to happen. Oh, my goodness I did. Writing this book. You wrote this book with your young daughter alongside you.

Natasha: Yes.

Charlie: She was on Zoom or a video software with her class. You had a lot of voices in the background, sounds very difficult to concentrate to me. Anyway, tell us about this, how you wrote with your daughter, with you?

Natasha: I don’t really know how I managed it, but it was during lockdown. Everybody just had to get on with it. And this is my job. So she had a little table beside my desk, and she had a laptop set up so she could join in with the rest of the class on Zoom. And she wouldn’t wear headphones because they made her ears hot. So she would shout at the laptop, and all the other kids in the class would shout back because kids don’t have volume control. And I would try and wear my headphones so I could work. And then mostly she was fairly bored by what was happening on her screen, and what was happening on mine was much more interesting, and I’d realise that there was just a small person beside me. And especially when I was doing things like looking at the reliquaries from the Medici chapel in Florence and bringing up all those images, and she would be kind of, ‘I don’t want to do phonics, I want to do that‘ [Charlie laughs]. And she’d be pointing at my screen at these diamond skulls and finger bones. And I can understand that. But I think when you write with love in the room, even if love is loud and trying to turn you around on your spinny chair and interrupting you for snacks endlessly, I think it still finds its way into the writing. So I think that some of Rosaline’s fierceness is me as a teenager, but some of it is my daughter. I mean, she is absolutely… she’s small and so fierce, so brave. And I hope there’s a lot of her in there and my love for her.

Charlie: That’s lovely. A potential archaeologist in training. Your Cleopatra novel, what can you tell us about it?

Natasha: Well, I’ve been working on that this year. [A] hopefully feminist untelling, looking again at Cleopatra. That the vision we have of Cleopatra, whether it’s from Shakespeare or Plutarch, is written by the winners of history. And that the men and the Romans and the Greeks got to dictate our vision of Cleopatra. Actually, I think modern feminist historians are suggesting, well, no, the truth of who she was isn’t really in this version. There’s hints of her, but the Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra is very hard to pull out of our image, and this idea of Cleopatra the slut. I’m all for sluts, but Cleopatra wasn’t one. She slept probably with two men in her entire life. It’s just they happened to be the two most powerful men in the world. And she was a politician. And she spoke seven languages. And I think whilst I love Antony and Cleopatra the play, I think it’s absolutely magnificent, it’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. I mean, the Cleopatra presented in there, she’s wild and she’s a bit bonkers. And also the play fails the Bechdel test – most of the time when Cleopatra is with her handmaidens or her friends, they’re talking about boys! And we’re told that she’s this amazing politician, so let’s talk! But it’s this endless mooning over Anthony. And I don’t really buy it. I mean, in my version, I’m actually looking more at Julius Caesar than Antony in the Roman plays. What amazes me is that Shakespeare writes Julius Caesar and writes about the Ides of March, and he misses out Cleopatra; she’s there during the Ides, but she’s not in Shakespeare. And actually, what happened to the women and their experience of the Ides of March is much, much, more interesting than what happens with the men. And I like the play Julius Caesar, but I think it’s about time to look at those events from the women’s point of view and from Cleopatra’s.

Charlie: Sounds good. Is this 2025, you say?

Natasha: Yes, I think so. Yeah. Well, as of this moment, I’m still tinkering.

Charlie: Okay. And I’m going to go back to the line I flubbed, effectively: you mentioned a play. Is there going to be an adaptation of Fair Rosaline?

Natasha: Yes, I am about to start work on a play.

Charlie: Okay.

Natasha: I can’t say too much yet because we’re at early stages, but yes, that is the plan. It will be a play, actually, quite soon. So, yeah, it’s very exciting. I’m busy! [Laughs.]

Charlie: That sounds exciting. And listeners, we are actually recording this at the end of November 2023, so by the time you listen to this, you might want to go and definitely look at links and find out more about where this play has gone. Hopefully be absolutely successful, talking about this in the past. Natasha, this has been lovely having you. Thank you for being here today.

Natasha: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

[Recorded later] Charlie: I hope you enjoyed this episode. Do join me next time, and if you have a moment to spare, please do leave a rating and/or review of this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Podcast Addict. Thank you. The Worm Hole Podcast episode 97, was recorded on the 28th November 2023 and published on the 13th May 2024. Music and production by Charlie Place.


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