By Mark Alpert
There are no new stories to tell, it’s been said. Every novel is a retelling, conscious or not, of an older book. Even three thousand years ago, when Homer was composing his epics about gods and war and human frailty, he was probably snatching bits and pieces of older poems he’d heard and reiterating their plots and characters and themes.
And yet readers crave freshness. How do we give it to them?
This problem is particularly acute when the writer deliberately bases his or her story on an older one. For example, imagine the general consternation that must’ve ensued when Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents decided to create a Broadway musical based on “Romeo and Juliet,” featuring street gangs in New York City instead of feuding families in Verona. The potential for disaster was enormous. And yet the brilliant trio avoided nearly every pitfall, and with the help of Jerome Robbins and Hal Prince they produced “West Side Story,” one of the finest musicals ever.
I faced a similar challenge when I decided to retell the story of Joan of Arc. It’s a familiar tale (see my recent post for a recap), but it holds many mysteries that remain unsolved even 600 years after Joan’s martyrdom. For me, the primary mystery is Joan herself: what was going on inside her head? Was God really issuing instructions to her in the voices of Saints Catherine and Margaret? Or did she herself come up with the idea of driving the English out of France and then convince herself that the command had come from the Almighty? Was she perhaps a remarkably high-functioning schizophrenic?
The first step in this process, I reasoned, was to see how other authors had handled the challenge of telling Joan’s story. So I read Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, the 1896 novel by Mark Twain, who was quite obsessed with the teenage Maid of Orléans. Twain spent twelve years doing research for this novel and another two years writing it, and he claimed it was his best and most important book. But it’s not. Twain chose to narrate the story from the point of view of a fictional character named Sieur Louis de Conte, a childhood friend of Joan who goes on to become her scribe and later (in a very unrealistic twist) a clerk at her trial. De Conte is Twain’s stand-in — he speaks worshipfully of Joan and dutifully records the major events of her life, but he never gets inside her head. Her character in this novel is flat and opaque. She’s not nearly as lively or interesting as Huck Finn, the hero of what is actually Twain’s best and most important book.
As it so happens, at the time when I started thinking about writing a Joan of Arc novel I had the opportunity to see one of the best plays about her life: “Saint Joan” by George Bernard Shaw. The play premiered in 1923, just three years after Joan’s canonization, and the 2018 Broadway revival starred the marvelous actress Condola Rashad. The play’s last scenes focus on Joan’s trial and execution, and I loved the many intellectual exchanges among the characters who are trying to understand Joan and decide how to deal with her — the Englishmen determined to exact their revenge, the traitorous French churchmen trying to prove that she’s a witch, etc. And Rashad did an excellent job of portraying Joan’s no-nonsense conviction in the rightness of her cause. But even in this masterpiece of drama, Joan remains an enigma. I still couldn’t see what made her tick.
Needless to say, Twain and Shaw were geniuses, and their worst works are still a thousand times better than anything I’ve ever written. So I began to despair that I could add anything useful to the canon of Joan of Arc literature. That’s when I realized that I couldn’t write a historical novel about her. If I wanted to make Joan come alive, I had to reimagine her as a modern-day teenager with contemporary beliefs. What’s more, I had to connect Joan’s story with my own passions and obsessions.
I’ll explain exactly how I did that in my next blog post. In the meantime, you can read the first chapter of my forthcoming novel, Saint Joan of New York, by going here.