Friday, October 12, 2012

Interview with Robin Maxwell

Yesterday I shared my review of Robin Maxwell's Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan, her take on Jane Porter, Tarzan's soul mate. It was a fun, surprising historical novel that entertained me. I'm excited to share some interview questions from Robin Maxwell about Jane, including the story of how she ended up writing the first Tarzan story authorized by the Burroughs estate. Be sure to check out the giveaway for TWO copies of Jane below!

Robin Maxwell
Tell us about your book.

The story of Tarzan and Jane is the wildest, most primal and overtly sexual iteration of the Romeo and Juliet legend in all of literature and pop culture. These two are buried deep in everyone's subconscious. In fact, the idea for writing my version of a cultured Edwardian lady falling passionately in love with a naked savage in an African eden came shockingly unbidden to me -- "Like magma erupting suddenly from a long-dormant volcano."

Writing JANE: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan was a journey of discovery in re-imagining the iconic story exactly a century after the debut of Edgar Rice Burroughs's "Tarzan of the Apes," the first of twenty-four novels. It was a challenge to retain the period veneer and classic adventure style that were ERB hallmarks, while appealing to discerning modern readers. For this I turned to science and history where Burroughs had employed fantasy and suspension of disbelief. My lifelong fascination with and deep research into paleoanthropology and Darwin's "missing link" in human evolution were woven into my narrative. I had to revamp my protagonist from a meek, turn-of-the-century "maiden" into a stroppy, fearless young woman with dreams of a scientific career who -- for the love of a man like no other -- transmogrifies into "Jane, Queen of the Jungle."

This is the first authorized Tarzan novel written by a woman—what is the story behind receiving approval from the Edgar Rice Burroughs Estate?

I was fortunate that two of my dearest friends had been dealing with the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate on a screen adaptation of the first of ERB’s novels, The Outlaw of Torn, and I knew from their experience that one did not tread anywhere near a Burroughs creation without great peril to one’s self. And of course I desperately wanted the blessings and authorization for my concept from the estate, as much as I needed them.

So, first things first. I got myself a copy of Tarzan of the Apes and read it thoroughly. Of course I was blown away by the storytelling and the astonishing imagery. But lurking behind every banana leaf and every elephant’s ear were, in my writer’s mind, fabulous opportunities for telling this brilliant classic in a new way.

So I revved up my courage and sent a letter of introduction to Jim Sullos, president of ERB, Inc. That very day I got a call from him, and before I knew it he was demanding to know what my “great new idea” for a Tarzan novel was. So I unchoked my throat and told him: “The Tarzan story from Jane’s point of view.” At that point I had only the most basic “beats” of the adventure that would bring Tarzan and Jane together. But I was confident that it was good.

I didn’t have to wait long – maybe 3 seconds – before Jim blurted, “I love it. It’s original. It’s never been done like this before in a Tarzan novel.” And surprising me even more – because at that point I didn’t know Jim from Adam – one of the reasons he liked it so much was because it was a romance. Since then I’ve learned what a big, sweet-hearted guy he is, so now it doesn’t surprise me at all. And funnily enough, when I saw the cover of the All Story Magazine where “Tarzan of the Apes” debuted, there in the bottom right corner, it read: “A Romance of the Jungle!”

It was during this phone meeting that Jim explained that 2012 was the one hundredth anniversary of the All Story publication. We figured it out, and realized that if we timed it properly, my book could be written and published in time for the “Tarzan Centennial Year.” This was fabulous news.

But suddenly I was faced with the prospect of coming up with a detailed outline of my novel, something that Jim could pitch to the ERB, Inc. board of directors. Doing an outline for a novel (especially one with historical elements) is no small task. People think you can just “throw together a few pages.” But that’s not how it works. If you want to get it right, this is the time that you do a good portion of your research. This is the time you develop your characters and fill in the beats of your story. The way I work, I have the beginning, middle and end (and a good idea of everything else in between) all blocked out in my proposal. And as it always happens when I’m researching a novel, exactly the right books find their way into my hands. It’s almost like magic.

First I bought the The Big Book of Tarzan (with eight of the early novels all in one doorstop-of-a-book) and about four dozen research books. There were ones on the rape of colonial Africa; missing links in human evolution, Jane Goodall and chimpanzees, Dian Fossey’s gorillas, feral children, Victorian and Edwardian woman, Edgar Rice Burroughs, explorations and big game hunting in West Africa circa 1900, as well as the tribes of Central and West Africa. Being a thoroughly modern researcher, I surfed the web and printed out tons more stuff from that. I even toyed with the idea of dinosaurs in my story, and looked into tales of the fearsome “Mokele Mbembe” along the Ogowe River.

I re-watched the old Weissmuller/O’Sullivan movies. Of course I was blown away by the raw sensuality of the first couple of movies. But after about six I had to stop, because Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan never seemed to get any smarter or more eloquent. And Maureen O’Sullivan, lovely as she was – and she was lovely – seemed to have lost her wildness and passion. The early sexy costumes had been replaced with cover-up-everything dresses. We later learned that the censors had had a go at her, which was a real shame. I think I hit my limit in “Tarzan Finds a Son,” when Jane says to their adopted son, “Boy, go down to the river and get me some caviar and we’ll put it in the refrigerator.” The elephant-driven elevator up to the tree hut was final straw.

But the more I read, the more into focus my story became. I knew I wanted to honor ERB, to stay as true to his intentions and spirit as possible. But one hundred years had passed, and I knew from my experience in the publishing world exactly what today’s readers expected and demanded…and what wouldn’t fly. Tastes had changed, and sensibilities, too. The story had to be fresh, relevant, and accessible to a wide audience.

One of the things that’s been beaten into my head as an author in the last fifteen years is that 70% of fiction readers are women. I think that’s something that’s changed over the last hundred years, but in any event, my publishers are always nagging me to write things from a woman’s point of view. Sometimes I grumble, and argue with them, but in this case I was all for telling the story through Jane’s eyes. That’s what would make it different. And that was exactly what had appealed to Jim Sullos at ERB, Inc.

Of course women, on the whole, were far different a century ago than they are now – their lot in life, the rights they had and didn’t have, and the way they were perceived (especially by male writers). So although I wanted to set my book precisely when ERB set Tarzan of the Apes – turn of the twentieth century – I was determined that my Jane was going to be a forward-thinking, strong-minded, brilliantly educated female of her day. Somebody that would resonate with modern women.

With all of my initial research done and my story blocked out from start to finish, I went back into the Burroughs office and I pitched for five hours to Jim. Though he liked it, he had to get the okay from the estate where my story and characters diverged from ERB's. It took several weeks, but one day I got the call - a go-ahead with JANE, with all the points that I needed to bring the story up to date and make it my own. Since then, Jim, John R. Burroughs (grandson of ERB) and every employee of ERB, Inc. have been incredibly supportive and have made anything and everything in the amazing Tarzan archives available to me, including one hundred years of Tarzan and Jane images that have proved to be great inspirations to my writing.

Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan a century ago and now has generations of fans. What is it about the primitive side of human nature that fascinates us still to this day?

I think the primitive side of human nature is less about our fascination with it than it being hard-wired into each and every one of us. There's a part of the brain called the limbic system which is sometimes called our "lizard brain." I believe we've been so anesthetized by layers and layers of civilizing effects and intellectual armoring in our everyday lives that we are shielded from experiencing our primordial self. But when we rip into a juicy sparerib, have wild sex or enjoy a profound connection to nature (communing with an animal, swimming in a lake, river or ocean, even hike in the wilderness) that ancient part of our brain reasserts itself. We catch glimpses -- body and soul - into the primitive side. We either revel in these feelings and abandon ourselves to them, or become uncomfortable and "pull ourselves together." Strap on the armor.

The Jane in my novel comes from one of the most uptight times and societies in history, but she is an aberration. Even before she leaves for Africa Miss Porter is a tomboy who rides horses hard and rough-houses with her hounds. She knows how to swim, not just "bathe" like proper young ladies do, and she understand human anatomy. Because of the circumstances of her meeting Tarzan, they are on incredibly intimate terms immediately. So of all the women in the world she is, perhaps, the best-suited to revert to her primordial self and go wild with Tarzan in his jungle Eden.

Sometimes Jane is portrayed as a 'too smart for her own good' character. What can we expect from your Jane?

I have to say that my Jane is the most "too smart for her own good" Jane ever written (or portrayed in the movies). Of course when this phrase is employed referring to women, it's incredibly sexist. My Jane is far too intelligent, outspoken and ambitious for her time, but she wasn't altogether alone. By this time such females were known as "New Women," and it was believed that if there were enough of them they might actually bring down the British Empire. Happily, my Jane had role models -- female explorers and adventurers like Mary Kingsley, Annie Smith Peck and Lady Jane Digby, and she voraciously read of their exploits. But her presence on the African expedition that stumbled on Tarzan would never had been possible without her extraordinary father, Archie Porter -- a professor of anatomy at Cambridge University and an "enthusiastic amateur" in the field of paleoanthropology. He's a progressive thinker who not only believes in women's higher education, but depends on his daughter to assist him in his studies.

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I'm thrilled to be able to offer TWO copies of Jane to lucky readers! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US, Canadian and European readers. Ends 10/26.


  1. What a great interview. I love books with a strong female character and Jane sounds like a character that will be lots of fun to read about!

    1. I so enjoyed Jane in this book -- she felt believably strong to me, not anachronistic -- and I think Maxwell really balanced honoring the Burroughs estate without diluting the impact of her book.

  2. Fabulous interview! It's gotten me interested in reading the book.

    1. Sarah, I can't take credit for it -- Ms. Maxwell wasn't able to do a custom interview, but shared these -- I suspect they're sort of her FAQ -- which I'm delighted by because I've been so curious about how she connected with the Burroughs estate!

    2. That's what fascinated me about it too. (And thanks for the clarification!) That was the part that caught my attention about Robin Maxwell's answer - that, and her overall enthusiasm for her subject. I've never been an aficionado of all things Tarzan (or am that familiar with the story, to be honest) but now I'm very tempted by the book.

  3. Interesting to hear the author's story. Though not a Tarzan fan (did they really make so many movies!? had no idea) my interest is always piqued by a woman who dares to challenge the status quo!

    1. Unbelievably, I've never seen the movies (Disney or live action or otherwise) or read any of the comics or books until last month -- but I felt like I 'knew' the story -- or the gist of the story -- so it is interesting how it has entered American pop culture.

      I'm not sure I agree with Maxwell's assertion that "The story of Tarzan and Jane is the wildest, most primal and overtly sexual iteration of the Romeo and Juliet legend in all of literature and pop culture" but that tells you exactly what her take is on the Tarzan mythos and franchise. I was relieved to find her articulation of Jane to be refreshing!

  4. I almost missed the European thing, wohoo :)

    Jane's POV, cool. That is a story not told before, I do wonder what she has to say

    1. I'm so glad you didn't miss it! Yaaaay!

      I think you'd like this -- it is just sexy enough to be, well, sexy, with a pretty fun action heroine!

  5. I really liked hearing about how it all came to be approved by the ERB team - that's pretty amazing how it all came together!

  6. Audra - I love your questions and the answers Robin provided. I never really thought of Tarzan and Jane as a R/J-type romance, but I suppose I can see the similarities now that it's been pointed out. I really really enjoyed this novel and it's even more impressive how much detail and thought this author has put into her book.

    Great interview, as always. And goodluck to the participants!