Interview: Author Robin Maxwell turns the table on classic Tarzan tale

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Tarzan & Jane by Thomas Yeates

When considering iconic fictional couples, there are only a few who immediately come to mind whose relationship has stood the test of time. Romeo & Juliet, Lois & Clark, Rhett & Scarlett, Fred & Wilma, Homer & Marge and even Peter & Mary Jane are all partners who, when matched together by just their first names, embody a picture of romantic affinity in our collective pop cultural consciousness.

But at the top of this list of passionate fictional pairings is a couple whose story has captivated the world for the past 100 years. Tarzan & Jane have been swinging through the jungle and sharing romantic adventures in books, comics, films and television shows since Edgar Rice Burroughs published his first Tarzan story in the All-Story magazine of October, 1912.

Author - Robin Maxwell

Author Robin Maxwell is renowned for her works of historical fiction (see Mademoiselle Boleyn and Signora da Vinci) that showcase real figures from throughout history, but in fictional stories that fill in gaps of unrecorded time, while paying close attention to the facts of actual historical events. Robin is also a life-long fan of Tarzan & Jane and recently became one of only a handful of authors ever to be authorized, by the very guarded Burroughs estate, to pen a novel based on the famous Ape-Man and his mate.

Maxwell’s novel Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan has a very different twist in that this is the first time that the Tarzan story has been told from the perspective of the woman who would become his soul-partner – and who better to capture that tale than an author of Robin’s experience, who specializes in storytelling that adheres to history, be it fact or fiction.

JANE” is getting fantastic early reviews, including a ringing endorsement by Dr. Jane Goodall herself – and that lady knows her apes! Ms. Maxwell was very thoughtful and gracious in taking time to answer some questions for Nerdvana readers about her craft, her history with Tarzan and how her unusual new book came to be.

What is your history with Tarzan? Have you been a life-long fan? What is it about his character and the character of Jane that drew you to their story?

Tarzan was my first pre-pubescent heartthrob. After all, what girl wouldn’t crave the undying affection of a gorgeously muscled, scantily clad he-man (and an English lord at that) living free from the confines of civilization in a lush paradise? Though I’d read Tarzan comic books, I’d never dipped into a single Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. Yet Tarzan and Jane were as hard-wired into my fantasy life and consciousness as any characters in popular culture. I was intrigued by “Sheena Queen of the Jungle” (the leggy blonde Irish McCalla who had her own TV series and ruled her domain without a man). But while Sheena had a better outfit – a seductive little leopard skin number, gold upper-arm bracelet, spear, and that curved horn she’d blow in times of danger, the peppery sophisticate, Maureen O’Sullivan, as Jane had a full-blown romance in paradise with the hunky (if dumb) Tarzan. So what if she stood – as actresses did in those days – in a sophisticated slouch with hands on hips and was somehow a cosmopolitan lady underneath it all? And who cared that after a scintillating start in the early 30s with her revealing two-piece outfit and a four-minute-long fully nude swimming sequence with Tarzan her tog became a high-necked, brown leather housedress? It was all right. The movie-Jane still lived a wild, unfettered life, cavorting with animal friends in the tree-tops, chasing through one hair-raising adventure after another, and (gasp!) living in sin with a half-naked Adonis.

JANE by Robin Maxwell

“JANE: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan” is the Tarzan & Jane story from the lady’s perspective, but in the Tarzan historical timeline, where does your story begin and end?

In many ways I tried to stay true to the timeline of the first ERB novel in the series, Tarzan of the Apes, which takes place just after the turn of the twentieth century. However, the history of how young John Clayton came to be abducted from his noble English parents marooned on the West African coast and taken to live with the “Mangani” tribe of anthropoid ape creatures, does not come at the beginning of the story as Burroughs told it, but somewhere in the middle, as a literary flashback. Tarzan’s meeting with Jane is still the pivotal moment of the plot, and only several months pass before my novel ends.

Is this a one-shot book or are you planning a series that mirrors the Tarzan timeline?

While I don’t foresee anywhere near twenty-four books or staying true to the Tarzan timeline, if the response to JANE is good, I have three more ideas that I’ve pitched to the ERB estate. Two are original, only using Tarzan and Jane as characters with some concepts that Burroughs touched on lightly, and another adheres more closely to one of the books in the Burroughs series.

Do you have a single favorite Tarzan story or novel?

While I prefer the characterization of Jane in some of ERB’s later books, like Tarzan the Terrible (by this time she was a strong, capable female able to take care of herself in the jungle without her man), and though there are several short stories in Jungle Tales of Tarzan in which we see him as a boy learning the hard lessons of life living with the Mangani, I have to say I’m partial to Tarzan of the Apes. It has lots of flaws of logic, the style of writing is overblown, Jane is a wide-eyed swooning girl who comes to Africa cared for by her black maid, and the ending is a bit ridiculous. But I stand in awe of what Burroughs created. The characters, his wild, breathless descriptions and the world he invented out of thin air leave me, as a writer, entirely humbled.

How did the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate react when you first approached them with the idea for your novel?

I was told by the ERB, Inc. president, Jim Sullos, that had I come to them with JANE even a year earlier, the door would have been shut in my face. It was a strange bit of luck that the estate had only recently decided that new novels might be considered and authorized. I made the first pitch to Jim on the phone (with my lawyer listening in). As soon as I said, “It’s the Tarzan story from Jane’s point of view,” he was hooked. He loved the originality, and to my surprise, he loved the romantic aspect of it.

Before I came into Tarzana (where the corporate offices are) to meet with him, Jim read one of my eight historical fiction novels and decided that I was a capable writer and had a style that would lend itself to a Tarzan classic. This was a huge hurdle, of course. The next was to tell him a story with a beginning, middle and end that would grab him. I pitched for five hours. It was then I let him know the changes I wanted to make, some of them quite significant — like the age at which Tarzan is taken to live with the Mangani. Not one year old, but four. I had a rationale for every major difference. Then we had to deal with sex. According to the laws of the “Tarzan Universe,” an actual lists of no-no’s — “Tarzan may not…take drugs of drink, be a racist, harm women, etc.” number 17 stated that Tarzan “may not engage in illicit sex.” This was a problem. My story was about a love affair — two beautiful, extraordinary twenty-year-olds living alone and mostly naked in a jungle together. It was meant to be sexy. It was meant for adults. I told Jim that if Tarzan and Jane could not have sex I couldn’t write the book. Then he went back to the board of directors with my ideas and digressions from the Burroughs canon, and a few weeks later I was given the green light. On the sex question, that was a “yes,” but I had to promise that it would be handled tastefully.

You are known for writing fictional stories of historical figures like Anne Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth; do you feel more freedom in expanding on the history of a fictional character like Jane Porter?

Absolutely. In my historical fiction (which is different from historical romance) I do massive research, and I stay as true to fact as is possible with the history that is known. There is so much written about Anne Boleyn and her daughter Elizabeth I that I really cannot (nor do I want to) stray too far from fact. Two things save me from being forced into dry storytelling. There are gaping holes in history where nothing is known. These, as a writer of historical fiction, I get to fill the way I choose, though of course I use what I do know about the characters, their motivations, how they had acted at other stages of their lives — I “extrapolate” to fill those holes. And if you carefully choose the figures you write about, you find that the fact is oftentimes stranger than fiction.

Just before I wrote JANE, I wrote the first novelized version of the Romeo and Juliet story in the history of literature. That was O, Juliet. This was where I learned how to take literary figures and write about them, change what had been done before (brilliantly) to my liking, expand and add detail and dialogue and, in the case of the Italian romance, change the timeline from three days to three months. Because of my experience with Romeo and Juliet and having already messed with Shakespeare, I had much more confidence taking on a second pair of iconic literary lovers. I had a ball writing JANE.

“Jane” has received advance accolades from the Burroughs estate and even Jane Goodall herself, but are you concerned about fan reaction to your take on these beloved characters?

Right from the get-go I knew that there were purists and die-hard Tarzan and ERB fans. Thankfully, Jim and the estate were behind me from the start, encouraging me, praising my past works and every stage of the novel — from a long, detailed written proposal to several drafts of the manuscript. If I had not had the benefit of this support I would have been far more nervous about the reception. Having been an author for fifteen years gave me the advantage of knowing what was going on in the publishing world and understanding the audience for this book, one that was far wider than the ERB/Tarzan fans. Between 70-75% of fiction readers are women, and I knew that women of every age were going to love this book. I’m also known for writing strong, ahead-of-their-time females, also popular with readers. Jane Porter is no exception.

Do you feel that male fans of Tarzan will enjoy this book?

I know they will. Most Tarzan fans are indeed men, and the male fans who’ve read it already love it. I couldn’t be happier with the response. Jim Sullos calls it “a masterpiece,” and John R. Burroughs (only living grandson of Burroughs) has said, “thrills and adventure leap off the page in the great tradition of ERB himself.” What more can I ask?

What is it about Tarzan that has made the character so popular over the past 100 years?

Well, he’s got everything, really. The Tarzan of ERB’s books is big, strong, handsome, virile, has a noble spirit, is intelligent (not the movies), but most important free from the restrictions of civilized life. And he is human. He doesn’t have super-powers or a silly costume with a cape. He is every man’s fantasy, and every woman’s fantasy lover. I can’t explain it better than the late, great Ray Bradbury who said, “Burroughs stands above all these by reason of his unreason, because of his natural impulses, because of the color of the blood running in Tarzan’s veins, because of the blood on the teeth of the gorilla, the lion, and the black panther…In conversations over drinks around our country the past ten years I have been astonished to discover how often a leading biochemist or archaeologist or space technician or astronaut when asked: what happened to you when you were ten years old? replied: “Tarzan.”

As you are also a screenwriter and have connections in the film industry, is there any chance of “Jane” being adapted for the big screen?

We will have to wait and see!

What is your favorite Tarzan film and why?

When I got started on research for JANE I watched as many of the old Weissmuller/O’Sullivan films as I could stand (the ones I had loved as a girl). I reached my limit when Jane stood in front of her rather suburban tree house with an elephant elevator and said to her and Tarzan’s adopted son, “Boy, go down to the river and get us some caviar, and I’ll put it in the refrigerator.” To my more discerning eye, Tarzan was just a big, dumb lug who only knew verbs and nouns.

No other Tarzan movies were remotely satisfying. The one I waited for breathlessly in 1984 (“Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes”) while visually beautiful, was the greatest disappointment of them all. This Jane, a delicate, corseted Victorian lady, made her entrance fully halfway through the movie and never put a single toe in Tarzan’s jungle. Sacrilege! All the others were forgettable (or like John and Bo Derek’s “Tarzan the Ape Man,” downright awful). By the time of Disney’s animated version and its live action Tarzan spoof, “George of the Jungle,” were released, I was too old too care.

I’m still waiting for a truly great Tarzan movie.

Is there any chance of a similar “woman’s-point-of-view” story for Burroughs’ The Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris?

Of course I’ve thought of it, and even pitched it informally to Jim Sullos, but because of the mess surrounding the really wonderful “John Carter” movie, it’s pretty unlikely that such a novel would get much traction.

Your resume and interests look to be perfectly suited to the Steampunk genre, have you thought about delving into Victorian science-fiction/fantasy?

Truthfully, no. I have a completed sci-fi novel that I’m re-writing now, and an idea for a sixteenth century horror story, using one of my most beloved characters from another of my books. But I do love the Victorian period, its darkness and boldness. You never know what could happen in the future.

Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan will be available in bookstores and online on September18, 2012. You can follow author Robin Maxwell at or on FACEBOOK at

Learn more about the history of Tarzan in the Nerdvana article, Tarzan of the Apes: Simian-man saga celebrates a century.

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