When I first read his email, I did a little stunned look around my empty office (are you writing me?!), and then I wrote back a hearty: "Of course!" The Three Musketeers is one of my favorite subjects. I get eye rolls when I bring home a new translation from the library, or a graphic novel, or watch the Oliver Reed/Michael York/Richard Chamberlain/Frank Finlay version of the movie for the ?? time. (I skip to the parts about Athos.)
I'd like to thank Dr. Bradley Stephens of the School of Modern Languages at the University of Bristol, UK, for seeking for my input. He studies and writes about romantic literature and is looking at adaptations of romantic literature.
Here's our Q&A:
JF: Dr. Stephens, To begin, let me humbly state that whatever comes of my novels is only possible because of the sweat and popularity of Dumas. When I started my first book (2009), I had no intention of riding his coattails. My sole purpose for writing was to please myself and take a character I loved and breathe new life into him. I'd be naive to think that I won't be judged on my choice to write from Dumas' classic work, but I've written my stories out of a reverence for Dumas and his work rather than my wish to exploit them.
BS: I wondered firstly whether you saw your fiction as a form of adaptation in itself? Various terms might be used to describe your writing -- 'new chapter', 'sequel', 'spin-off', 'fan fiction' -- and I wondered how you yourself as a writer would classify your work.
JF:This classification business puzzles me some. Yes, I do think the broad term 'adaptation' is correct. I'm playing with and embellishing the life of an existing fictional character. I do so because the work inspired me. That The Three Musketeers has survived and is still read is icing.
I've primarily tried to fill in the blanks. Two of the novels in my series develop the backstory of Athos. He's the character I most identified with when I read Dumas, and in many ways, Athos was as important in The Three Musketeers as d'Artagnan. I state this because of the major role he plays in the second half of the book and his connection with the pivotal character Milady, whom Athos was married to prior to the novel.
These connections between Milady and Athos made me ask a lot of questions. How did they meet? Why did he marry her? What kind of love did he have for her that made him later shun women? What did she do to him to make him want to kill her, this woman with the heart of a poet? So much of this psychological dynamic doesn't get explored or explained in the original text. And that's not a flaw of the original work. But it IS my purpose. I look deeper into the character of Athos and understand what happened to make him who he is. Think his thoughts. Feel his feelings. Recount his story. Dumas doesn't. So, I wrote it (and still am).
My first book Blood, Love & Steel (a working title, I may end up just calling it Athos) is a sequel in the traditional sense. It picks up the summer after the end of The Three Musketeers. The four have been to La Rochelle, have executed Milady and have dispersed. A pretty heady time, I think, for the man who killed the only woman he ever loved, now bereft of his constant companions. Prime for an interesting twist of events. The novel I'm completing now, Athos and Milady: In the Beginning, is all backstory. It tells the story of how a younger Athos met Milady, fell in love, was betrayed and eventually why he breaks, which, by the way, leads him to become a Musketeer. I get chills just thinking about all the possibilities. So, Athos and Milady can be considered a prequel to The Three Musketeers.
BS: A second question that immediately came to mind was: to what extent did Dumas' own sequels to his novel influence your approach to Athos?
JF: The book Twenty Years After has informed my first novel quite a bit, at least one particular plot point. In Twenty Years After, Athos has happily resumed his noble persona with a son. A son! My God, what happened that this heartbroken man would fall in love and produce an heir? That answer is glossed over in Twenty Years After and leaves a lot of room for a Musketeer fan to take some liberties, which I do.
My sequel is a romance. Athos falls in love with a new character of my creation and his melancholy over Milady is finally broken. Because I created a new main character/lover for Athos, a serious student of Dumas might wag a finger, but most people will never read Twenty Years After (I'm still trudging through it). It and Ten Years Later just don't have the same verve as the first novel. But in most plot nuances, I stuck to the Dumas version.
BS: Does Athos' vulnerability as a heartbroken man lend him an irresistible allure to readers?
JF: I'm in love with that man. No question. I'd have to be to want to write three books about him. He was mysterious and strong and flawed. Probably a looker, too. At least, I can dream. I have to give some credit here to Oliver Reed, who played Athos in the Salkind movies. I saw them when I was a teenager. He made Athos real for me first, before I ever read the book in my 30s. But the book, it rounds out the
elements of a great man. Underneath the bravado of a musketeer, Athos was deeply sensitive. I paint him as such. Let's hope readers find that I've done it in a tasteful, reverential way. (Although, I'm going to raise the flag now, the book of how Athos and Milady meet is full of sex.)
BS: I wanted to ask you what the story meant to you personally, and why it is you think that different cultures across national borders keep coming back to this novel.
You can find Dr. Stephens' profile here: http://www.bris.ac.uk/sml/people/bradley-c-stephens/index.html. You can also find a recent blogpost of his on the Huffington Post, which looks at the reception of Les Misérables: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bradley-stephens/finger-pointing-and-flag-_b_2345226.html
He also took part in a panel at the French Institute in London (with the new film's screenwriter and a West End star) on the novel's transition to stage and screen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEtTaSgs2F4 and he also wrote a new introduction for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Signet Classics / Penguin USA, 2010).
Thanks again, Dr. Stephens.