If you’ve ever encountered William Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers in Romeo & Juliet and thought, “This would be so much better if they made smarter decisions, and possibly encountered some ninjas and zombies,” you’re in luck. The power to change the story is in your hands.
Scheuled for release Jun 8, Romeo and/or Juliet is a new “Chooseable-Path Adventure” by author Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics, Adventure Time, Squirrel Girl) that lets the reader take control of Shakespeare’s story. You can be Romeo or Juliet, and ensure that the two lovers live happily ever after…or never even meet…or possibly die even more horrible deaths. And every ending features an illustration by a murderer’s row of cartoonists, including Becky Cloonan, Kate Beaton, Pendleton Ward, Chip Zdarsky, Evan Shaner and Erica Henderson.
The book follows up North’s previous multi-path adventure, To Be or Not to Be, which took on Hamlet. Newsarama spoke to North about choosing one’s own adventure, the internal logic (or lack thereof) of Romeo and Juliet, and much, much more.
Newsarama: Ryan, the publisher sent me an advance of this book, but I can’t say I’ve literally read the whole thing…
Ryan North: It’s hard to know when to stop, right?
Nrama: Right, you take one path, and then you take a different path…I can say that I’ve read it. I’ve just read it in some different ways.
North: Yeah, you know, I encountered this with people who reviewed the first book: “I didn’t read the whole thing, which is weird for a book reviewer, but I’ve read a whole bunch of it, I can’t say how much I haven’t read…”
I like to say that it’s a book that, when you come back to it in the future, there’s always something waiting for you. There’ll always be something new to discover. Unless, of course, you’re super-exhaustive, in which case you’ve defeated this book.
Nrama: If you have like one of those conditions that causes you to experience time non-linearly, like a Billy Pilgrim/Slaughterhouse-Five thing, you could maybe read through the book in one setting.
North: Yes! Exactly. It’s the perfect book for Billy Pilgrim.
Nrama: How hard was this to write and edit? Because it’s tricky enough to finish a linear story where you’re getting new ideas as you write it, and you have to go back and revise things…
Nrama: Is it ultimately easier or harder to write something where you can pretty much write anything?
North: You’re talking to someone who has never written a straight prose novel…yet. So I have to say, right now, that it seems easier. Because if I’m writing a story, and there’s only one story, and I’m making all the choices for you, and I decide on Page 400 I’ve made a mistake on Page 30, I have to throw out all that text.
But in a book like Romeo and/or Juliet, if I get a new idea…I can just follow that idea. So instead of having to do like one perfect, amazing story everyone will enjoy, you can write a bunch of stories and figure that as long as you like all of them, some people will like some of them. Because, after all, they have a galaxy of choices.
Nrama: I think it’s what our generation has longed for: Never having to make any actual decisions.
North: That dream has arrived.
Nrama: How into the multi-path adventures of the 1980s were you – like the original Choose Your Own Adventure and some of the spin-off/rip-off series around it?
North: Yeah, I liked them a lot. They were always checked out of the library, but there was one I had where you got to go back in time and meet dinosaurs, and at the beginning, you got to choose one item to bring with you – a flashlight, a hammer, and so forth.
And then later in the book, it would say, “If you brought the flashlight, pick this option…” And every time, I’d go, “Uh, yeah, I’d brought the flashlight! And I brought the hammer too!” That taught me that as a player, you can only trust yourself, and then not even that.
So in Romeo and/or Juliet and To Be or Not to Be before that, I tried to avoid choices where you put that on the reader, because if I was the reader, I would totally cheat. And I tried come up with clever ways to keep track of the stakes without the reader needing you to tell them what’s happening.
Nrama: Well, it’s there from the beginning – I was going down the Romeo path, and your description of breakfast makes it seem very, very appealing.
North: It is. I love a good breakfast story.
Nrama: Did you have any favorite Choose Your Own Adventure stories? You’re making me recall some favorites like The Cave of Time, The Third Planet from Altair...there was one called You Are a Shark, which wasn’t that well done, but you did get to be a shark.
North: It’s an amazing title. I’m impressed you remember all these. I read them when I was smaller, and I just tore through book after book and moved on to the next thing.
I do remember the Time Machine series. It wasn’t by the Choose Your Own Adventure people –
Nrama: I remember! They had those silver-gray covers.
North: Yeah! They were these silver-cover time machine books where you got to go back and visit dinosaurs, and I would go back and visit dinosaurs, and I would die over and over and over again. Turns out it’s a pretty dangerous thing to do.
Nrama: I came across just recently in my storage unit a “Choose Your Own SUPER Adventure!” I had when I was like six or seven called Journey to the Year 3000, and it just opens with your scientist friend going, “Hey, I got a thing that can freeze you until the year 3000. Once you’re there, you’ll maybe be able to find a time machine and come back, I don’t know.” It raised more questions with me than it needed to.
North: Yeah, I’m just amazed a scientist develops a viable way to possibly freeze someone for a thousand years and goes, “I’m not going to test this on me, I’m going to use a random young child. And if they come back with a time machine, I’ll now have a time machine I can take from this child.” I feel like this scientist was working the angles on you.
Nrama: Well, there’s always a lot of backstory we don’t know about for the “You” in these books, like the “A Story about You” in Welcome to Night Vale. Like, who is “You?”
North: See, that’s the fun of these Shakespeare books, because we already know the “You” -- we know who Romeo and Juliet are. So the fun comes from A) getting to play as these characters, and make arguably better choices, and B) getting to do things they don’t get to do.
We know Romeo doesn’t do this stuff in the play – but what if he did? And as a reader, you get to play against what you know about the character, as opposed to having this blank slate that you fill in as you go.
Nrama: And there’s plenty of other ways to die! The PR lady at Riverhead sent a note with the book saying she’d died…okay, I read this as “thirty times,” but it’s actually “thrice.”
North: That’s actually where the pictures in the book come in. When I was growing up and reading books like this, when you reached an ending where you died, you’re game’s over, you’re book’s over, and you went, “I’m such a dummy, I died in a book!”
So every ending has an illustration, so each time you reach one, you feel like you’ve unlocked some new illustration. It’s not just hitting a dead end.
Nrama: You’ve got quite a running crew here for your illustrations...what’s the process been like working with them?
North: It’s been great – as you know, I’m a guy who cannot draw, so getting these people to draw my versions of Shakespeare’s characters, it’s a real thrill.
It was fun getting to email all these artists about doing illustrations…but most times, when you contact someone about an illustration, you just go, “Here’s a guy with a hat, draw it.” With these, it was, “Here’s the ending, and here’s the whole path through the book that gets you to this ending, and here’s the whole book if you want more context for the picture.”
But you wind up with this book that has really, really fun pictures at the end of it. So for all the work there is in organizing 100 different artists, it was great getting to see all these pieces and how they played out in the book.
Nrama: What’s the biggest difficulty keeping track of those, or was this where the editor handled it for ya?
North: Oh, it was all on me. [laughs] There were charts and spreadsheets and lists of deadlines…I know what deadlines are like, so I told all the artists “This is the deadline,” and secretly gave them some wiggle room, so if it was like two weeks late, we were covered. It’s what I always secretly hope for when I blow a deadline.
So a lot of organization, a lot of emails, but it worked out – and almost no one had to use that wiggle room, which was amazing.
Nrama: I knew you had to use a spreadsheet!
North: I came this close to just building a database and an interface with that database, which is my natural element. But I figured it was a better idea not to throw too much technology at this problem. Still, a spreadsheet was almost a fallback element, from building a custom database.
Nrama: I almost did this as a “Choose Your Own Interview” deal, but could not figure out how to pull that off, so actually talking to you was probably a better way to go. But I looked online and found there are some interactive “Make Your Own Choose Your Own Adventure”-type sites for writing a multi-path adventure.
North: Yeah, I was looking at how people did it before, the books we read when we were kids. And you know those scenes in movies where you find out someone’s crazy, and the way you find out they’re crazy is a wall covered with pictures and little lines drawn between those pictures…
Nrama: “No beer and no TV make Homer something something…”
North: Yeah! This is how these books used to be written, you’d have things on your wall with lines drawn between them. Which could probably drive you crazy, and would be hard to edit. But I found some software that let me draw boxes, and lines between the boxes – which probably helped make more meaningful choices as I was editing.
The interesting thing is – there’s not a lot of people doing stories like this! So exploring how to tell stories like this forces you to go deeper, and figure out some new ways to tell stories in this medium.
Nrama: And going back to Romeo and Juliet, there’s a ton of deconstructions of that these days, even Shonda Rhimes is doing one for ABC, Still Star-Crossed. There’s a lot of talk of, “It’s the greatest love story ever told…but if you look at it closely, it’s two hormonal teenagers making a series of increasingly bad decisions.”
North: Yeah, they do not make good decisions. But you can undo some of them with this book! The fun of writing this book is I got to see some of these decisions and go like, “What if Juliet just told her mom she was married to Romeo, and it worked out?”
But it’s funny we think of Romeo and Juliet as this great love story, because it really doesn’t work out.
Nrama: Have you thought about doing more of these? Because this is the second choose-your-own-Shakespeare you’ve done…
North: This is the first sequel I ever wrote, so I wanted it to be the best sequel I’d ever written. So we do some things bigger in this book. But I also put in all the Shakespeare stuff I could think of. So in one story, Romeo is banished and goes to the library and encounters a book called “Fair is Fowl and/or Fowl is Fair,” which is obviously Macbeth, so you can play through that if you want. When Juliet is knocked out on drugs, she has a dream…a midsummer night’s dream, as it were.
Nrama: Oh boy.
North: So there’s more Shakespeare options in there. But if you do Macbeth, the structure is, “Macbeth decides to kill the king, he does pretty early on, then he spends the rest of the play feeling guilty about that.” That’s not fun to play through! It’s sad to live through that!
So finding Shakespeare plays that work in that game format…it’s not easy. ButRomeo and Juliet works because there’s a structure, and also, as you said, they make a lot of bad decisions, and it’s always fun to play bad decisions.
Nrama: Well, the plays that have more of a game-style structure, they’re not as well known. Like, Titus Andronicus, that could appeal to the Gears of War crowd.
North: I can see it! Cymbeline would be great, have you read that?
Nrama: Arrgh, it’s one of my gaps. They did a modern-dress film a few years ago.
North: It’s amazing because it’s about this woman who comes across as this really strong, self-motivated character, until halfway through the play, where she gets a cold and stays in bed and the boys tell her what to do until Saturn comes down at the end, literal Deus Ex Machina, and sorts everything out.
It’s almost a trainwreck, except it’s Shakespeare! And because it is Shakespeare, he cheesed people off – it’s his least-performed play. So I want to do a version where Cymbeline doesn’t get a cold, and it goes in a direction you thought it was going before she’s horribly sidelined.
Nrama: You’ve gone from doing Dinosaur Comics, which are structured conversations, to narrative stories with Adventure Time and Squirrel Girl, and now you’re kind of in this meta-ultra-narrative. What’s this evolution as a writer been like for you?
North: It’s funny, because Dinosaur Comics is 13 years old, and I look at the earliest comics and go, “Oh man, I had no idea what I was doing! I don’t know why anyone read these!” But people like them, and I feel like they’ve gotten better and better. And I did Adventure Time after 10 years of doing Dinosaur Comics, and it was very interesting to go from a place where you always knew what the pictures would be to being able to create the pictures, or at least guide them.
It’s fun to play with the form in comics – we did an Adventure Time where everyone spoke in pictures, and we’ve done the multi-path story in Adventure Time and more recently in Squirrel Girl. Things that you can feel at home with in comics that are unique to that medium are things that I’m really interested in.
Nrama: Could you ever see yourself moving into like live-action screenwriting or animation writing?
North: It’s not impossible, but comics really hits that sweet spot between how long it takes you to write it and how long it takes to be finished. So Squirrel Girl takes a month to be written, penciled, inked, colored, lettered and printed. It’s so satisfying to have something you’ve done finished and out in the world.
With animation, it’s like two years before anything gets close to be done. It’s a lot of commitment – nothing against that, but right now I’m addicted to getting things out there quickly. Though it is satisfying for something like Romeo and/or Juliet to come out after working on it for so long – just getting to see everything come together.