Arts·Q&A

Choose your own Shakespeare in Ryan North's playable Romeo and/or Juliet

It's the story of two teens who make increasingly bad decisions, so what if Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet were a choose your own adventure book?

By completely messing with them, you might just learn to love the classics

The playable character's the thing! Romeo and/or Juliet, a choose-your-own-path version of Shakespeare's R+J, is out now. (Noelle Stevenson/www.romeoandorjuliet.com)

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is either the greatest love story of all time or a cautionary tale about making decisions with your heart (and pants). The choice is yours! And in Romeo and/or Juliet, the new "chooseable-path adventure" from Dinosaur Comics' creator Ryan North, that statement is true and then some.

Out now, the book is the follow-up toTo Be or Not to Be: This is the Adventure, a Kickstarter sensation that became the crowd-sourcing site's highest-funded publishing project ever. (North asked for $20,000. In a month he had nearly $600,000.) And soon after To Be Or Not to Be exploded, the Toronto-based comics writer (Adventure Time, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl) was committed to a sequel.

Like North's Hamlet, R and/or J maintains the conceit that it's his story, not Shakespeare's — "I'm surprised I can get away with it," laughs North — and you can read (or play, really) as multiple characters, taking Romeo and (or) Juliet to any number of possible endings. There are "over 46,012,475,909,287,476 distinct adventures" according to the book's pre-amble, a claim CBC Arts did not have time to test before deadline, but maybe we'll find time for an update within the next 50 years.

Maybe Juliet ditches Romeo for a life of crime on the high seas?

(Anthony Clark/www.romeoandorjuliet.com)

Maybe R's weirdo wish to be "a glove upon that hand" comes true?

(Nicholas Gurewitch/www.romeoandorjuliet.com)

Maybe you wind up in whatever the horse-zombie hell is happening here.

(David Malki/www.romeoandorjuliet.com)

Each ending is illustrated, and for the book, North assembled a list of nearly 100 artists, assigning each one a storyline and outcome. Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant) supplied the character designs, Noelle Stevenson (Nimona) drew the cover — and the book's many star-crossed (or not) conclusions were provided by a roster of his friends and favourites, including Chip Zdarsky (Sex Criminals), Gillian Goerz (Jerkface A-Hole, Drunk Feminist Films), Nick Gurewitch (The Perry Bible Fellowship)…oh, here's the whole list.

The idea of bringing in illustrators was inspired by North's experience of reading Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, an extremely relatable situation for anyone who found themselves riddled with cobra venom by page three. "When you died, you just got the words 'The End' and I'd realize, 'Oh, wow. I messed up reading a book so badly that I died.' I feel like a big loser!" he laughs. "But with a picture it feels like you're unlocking art. Here's your prize. You found this, this is what you get at this ending, now see if you can find these other pictures."

North told CBC Arts a little more about the making of the book. Completely messing with Shakespeare made him love the classics even more, it turns out. The playable character's the thing…

(Noelle Stevenson/Penguin Random House Canada)

So why Romeo and Juliet?

Well, I'd done Hamlet for the first book, To Be or Not to Be. I'd never done a sequel before, and I wanted it to be something good. What's a good sequel?

You can't do Hamlet 2.

No! Yeah, I don't want to do Hamlet 2 — plus it's very hard to do a sequel to a story with 100 different endings 'cause which ending do you choose?

My first thought was actually Macbeth. Macbeth's [plot] is you decide to kill a king, you kill the king and then you spend hours feeling really bad about it. There's a lot of guilt in that play which isn't that much fun to read or write, I thought, but Romeo and Juliet seemed like fun because the characters make some really bad decisions, real quickly.

What was holding me back from Romeo and Juliet was I always didn't like the ending. Man, if Romeo just picked up flowers and it delayed him for five minutes, he'd get there and Juliet would be awake. There'd be a happy ending! It took me a long time to say, 'Wait a minute, I could do that. If this is what's holding me back from doing the book, I can fix it!'

How long did it take you to settle on a play? Were you really just split between the two titles?

Yeah, well, my third option was Cymbeline, but that was sort of like a dream option because nobody likes Cymbeline

I was going to ask how much of a Shakespeare buff you are, but I think you just gave me an idea.

Shakespeare? Can't stand the guy.

Were you a real fan before starting these books, or is that something that developed as you worked on the projects?

I read the plays in high school and I liked them, but I hadn't read much since then. I just went to see plays once in a while, like Shakespeare in the Park and stuff.

Ryan North, author of Romeo and/or Juliet. (Penguin Random House Canada)

What do you love about Shakespeare?

The language, for one. But what I love the most is Shakespeare is so ridiculously canonized in our culture, right? He's gone from being considered a good playwright in his lifetime to in his death becoming the best possible playwright in all languages.

And when someone is that canonized, having fun with it and saying, "What if these books were written in a second-person non-linear narrative format?" feels almost like breaking a law or something.

When you're playing Romeo or Juliet and you're making them go off the rails, it feels like you're getting away with something you shouldn't be. You're cheating. And it's fun — it's fun to feel like you're breaking the rules.

Is that what makes these plays such great material for a choose-your-own adventure book? Or why did you decide to keep going with Shakespeare after Hamlet? I mean, you could have moved on to anything.

Haha. Anything. Anything in the world!

What I like is you know as a reader who these characters are supposed to be in a way that works for very few other characters. People know who Batman is supposed to be, who Mickey Mouse is supposed to be — and Hamlet and Ophelia and Romeo and Juliet.

When you're playing these characters and you're taking them in different directions, you know it's something that doesn't normally happen, and that's where it's fun.

Choose the right storyline and Juliet's "return from the dead" could give her god-like status in fair Verona. (David Hellman/www.romeoandorjuliet.com)

It's funny, when I started To Be or Not To Be I had the idea in the car — listening to CBC Radio, actually. There was this actor saying people used to memorize soliloquies for auditions and now, no one has these soliloquies memorized anymore. So I thought, "What soliloquies do I have memorized?" I was just trying to go through the "To be or not to be" speech, and realized, "Hey, Hamlet's like a choose your own adventure book. Ohmigosh! I need to write this book!"

And I got home and started writing it, but I stopped really quickly because I realized I did not know how the plot of the play started, or where the ghost appeared, because I hadn't read it for years. I had to start from scratch, and it was the same thing with Romeo.

Yeah, how much do you study the plays?

I remembered the broad brushstrokes but I couldn't remember the Nurse's name — which is because she doesn't really have a name, which helps a lot. So I started by re-familiarizing myself with the play and then doing each scene, each act, I would dive a bit deeper to see that I was catching everything.

What surprised you while you were doing your research?

There's something I'm surprised isn't talked about more. Romeo meets Juliet at this party and only gets her last name. This is a party held at the Capulet house, and he's surprised to meet a Capulet there. But he never actually gets her first name! And at the balcony he's addressing her as Juliet.

You could assume he found it on the house directory on the way out or something, or he knew they had a daughter named Juliet and didn't know what she looked like, but it's a weird sort of tiny, tiny plot flaw.

We interrupt this Q&A to show you how North runs with that plot hole in Romeo and/or Juliet

That should give you a nice idea of how Romeo and/or Juliet reads, right? Right. Back to the Q&A... (www.romeoandorjuliet.com)

What's it like writing a choose your own adventure story compared to writing a comic?

I feel like there's not that many books written in this format for a non-juvenile audience. I don't want to say "adult audience" because that makes it sound like a very sexy book, and it's not. (laughs)

You can do stuff that hasn't been done that much before, if at all! Like, there's a way to unlock a character in the book, which I'm really excited about.

Like a game?

Yeah! It's neat. You can play as Romeo and/or Juliet — there's a part where you can control them both and the narrator's scared because you're more powerful. And there's a side quest called "Nurse Quest." The last character is an unlockable character where you can play as Rosalind, Romeo's first love at the start of the play.

I was looking at how authors wrote them years ago, before computers, and you know those scenes in movies where you want to show that someone's crazy or obsessed, so you show their wall? The board — with the strings tied between things? Ha! That's how they were written, and that's CRAZY but it gets the job done. I use software that lets me see the choice structure visually.

As I'm writing I'm never really committing to saying, "This is the one perfect storyline, the one brilliant plot that will make people say, 'What a good book, I should read this!'" But I'm hoping that of the hundreds of endings and literally quintillions of possible storylines, one of them will say, "Oh, that was pretty good."

Some people are going to be introduced to these plays for the first time through your books. How do you feel about that — especially since you're have so much fun completely messing with the plots?

Ha! Well, this is the thing. I was worrying about that while writing — that I would get push back from Shakespeare scholars saying, "What are you doing with this? These are the greatest works in the language and you're twisting them and you're rewriting them. Who are you to do that?"

I've realized it's not that these are canonized texts that no one can touch. These plays were written as entertainment 400 years ago. People went to the plays to have a good time in the theatre and we sort of lost it a bit. I was reading Hamlet in Grade 12. Reading it was homework and I got graded when I did it. That sort of changes your relationship with the text. And books like this bring it back to, "This is something you do for fun. This is entertainment."

Still, I would caution people against [reading them] and then writing an essay. They might get some things wrong.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed.)

(Penguin Random House Canada)

Romeo And/Or Juliet: A Chooseable-Path Adventure, by Ryan North. Riverhead Books, 400 pages.

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