The Friday Slot - author Ros Barber

I think Ros Barber's The Marlowe Papers is possibly my favourite novel of the year so far. I didn't think it would be, when I first saw that it was written in verse, even though its subject matter, a different life imagined for the playwright, Christopher Marlowe, had huge appeal for me. But in the end, the use of verse only enhanced it.

As many of you will already know, Christopher Marlowe, author of plays like Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine, died in suspicious circumstances. It's always been believed that he was stabbed to death in a bar-room brawl, but evidence of his spying activities for the great Elizabethan spy-master, Walsingham, have long left room for doubt about his true end. His homosexuality, too, has often been thought to have played a part in his shadowy life, possibly contributing to his mysterious and violent death. Perhaps it's because he wasn't the apparently simple family man that we're encouraged to think that Shakespeare was, that darkness gathers about Marlowe and his early demise. Conservative forces still at work, some believe....

Ros Barber is more than eminently qualified to write a fictional account of Marlowe, though. The author of three collections of poetry, including Material, published in 2008, she was also joint winner of the Calvin and Rose G Hoffmann Prize 2011 for The Marlowe Papers, and she has a BA in English Literature and Philosophy, an MA in Creative Writing, and a DPhil in English Literature.

As might be expected with such an unusual and even controversial work, not everyone was won over - Andrew Motion was ambivalent in the Guardian, but Adam O'Riordan, an excellent poet himself, gave it high praise in the Daily Telegraph, calling it 'rich and charmingly playful'. You can find my own review of it in The Herald here:

I really hope to see it on next year's Orange shortlist (or whoever is sponsoring the women's-only prize), and many other literary awards' lists. It's one of the most unusual books to have been published this year, and a rare risk from an industry that many believe has become far too cautious lately. Sceptre have launched a few interesting writers this year - all credit to them for having faith in Barber's novel.

But enough of my enthusiasm! Time to let Ros speak for herself, in this fascinating interview. Enjoy!:

LM: Your novel, The Marlowe Papers, imagines an alternative ending to the life of Christopher Marlowe. Why did you want to 'save' him from the story of his life and death that we already have?

RB: I hadn't really thought about 'saving' him, exactly. When I first learnt about the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare theory, I simply thought it would be an exciting and interesting story to tell, from Marlowe's perspective.  You're the author of the greatest literary works of all time, but nobody knows... and if they find out, you're dead. That was my hook.  In the process of creating a 'posthumous' Marlowe I realised that if he didn't die in Deptford in 1593, his whole life and character would need to be reassessed, since so much of the Marlowe we think we know has been constructed by reading his life through the lens of that violent death.  It's easy to show that Marlowe was considerably less violent than other young men of his era (including Ben Jonson, who almost went to the gallows for murder); his friends found him witty and likeable: he was called 'kind Kit Marlowe'.   The version of Marlowe with which most people are familiar came largely from the testimony of his enemies; chiefly Richard Baines, a double agent who was trying to take him out of the spying game, but also puritan clergymen who used his apparently violent end as an example of what happens to atheists.   I liked the idea of a man whose whole identity gets away from him - not just his name but his posthumous reputation - and there is nothing he can do about it, being officially dead.  In many ways it's a contemporary story of celebrity - for Marlowe was certainly a bit of a celebrity in his day - a story where a talented young man is brought down by a combination of envy and his own foolishness.  Whether he died in Deptford in 1593 or not, I do think we have the wrong end of the stick where Marlowe is concerned, on a number of issues.

LM: There is almost a 'legacy battle' in your book between Marlowe and Shakespeare. How much do you think Marlowe's literary legacy has suffered at the hands of Shakespeare's? Did you anticipate any irate Shakespeare fans attacking your book?

RB: It's interesting to me that some people assume that if you're a non-Stratfordian (i.e. you don't believe Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the works attributed to him) you are 'anti-Shakespeare'.  Most people come to the Shakespeare authorship question from a love of the plays and poems.  Some of our finest Shakespearean actors are non-Stratfordians.  When I began working on the novel I quickly learnt that Shakespeare scepticism arouses great hostility in some quarters, and that a small minority of people react as if their much-loved author were under attack. And of course, he isn't: one thing both sceptics and traditional Shakespeare fans can agree upon is that the author known as William Shakespeare was a genius. I'm aware that a strong dislike of the theory has coloured a few people's reactions to The Marlowe Papers.  But fortunately not many. Mostly, I am glad to say, readers and critics have been able to accept it for what it is: a novel, a work of fiction, something essentially playful.  As for Marlowe's literary legacy, it was more or less completely eclipsed by Shakespeare's - just as one would expect when comparing a handful of early works by an author who apparently died in their twenties with a large body of work from a mature author who had clearly gained some powerful psychological perspectives.  (Though Marlowe's Doctor Faustus remained popular, and continued to be performed, for several decades after his death).  What's interesting to me is how easy it is to see the Marlowe-Shakespeare canon as the body of work of one man, with Marlowe's work as Shakespeare's missing apprentice pieces.  The two canons blend very easily into one: even Marlowe's earliest play, Dido Queen of Carthage, has Shakespearean 'echoes', being reminiscent of Anthony and Cleopatra and A Midsummer Night's Dream, whereas early Shakespeare works such as the Henry VI plays and Titus Andronicus are splendidly Marlovian.

LM: What made you choose to set it down in iambic verse? Did you have problems finding a publisher willing to take this on? What has the public response been to it?

RB:I wanted to find an authentic voice for Marlowe while still using contemporary (rather than 'mock-Tudor') language - and blank verse seemed the easiest way of achieving this.  We recognise the rhythm of the iambic line as inherently Shakespearean, so it begins to feel Elizabethan even though the language is modern and accessible.   When I first finished the manuscript I sent it to the agent who had represented the first novels I wrote twelve plus years ago.  They were more traditional affairs, written in prose, and though loved by certain editors, they were deemed hard-to-categorise by marketing departments, so weren't taken up.  As you can imagine, when my agent saw The Marlowe Papers, she didn't envisage our luck changing.  She advised me to submit it to a poetry publisher, which, in terms of getting it in front of readers, felt like the equivalent of throwing it into a canal. In any case, it was a novel: I didn't want it to be mistaken for a collection of poems.  So I found another agent, he submitted it on a Monday and we had accepted an offer from Sceptre by the end of the week.  My editor told me that when she heard she was being sent a verse novel, she thought 'This will be a quick turnaround.'  But, as many people have discovered since, once she started reading it she found herself sucked in.  It's literary fiction, but it's also a thriller, a spy story, a love story, a page turner.  A recent review said it 'thunders along like an episode of some Elizabethan 24', and that has been the response from readers, too.  I get tweets and e-mails all the time from readers who say they didn't want it to end and have started reading it again for the second or third time.  A common remark is that you forget it's poetry: for me that is the highest accolade.  My advice for anyone intimidated by the idea of reading a novel in verse (quite understandably, most people) is just to think of it as a prose novel with shorter-than-average lines.  The extra white space is for your own thoughts.

LM: Anything to do with the Tudor age, from its royalty to its literary stars, seems to exert a huge hold on us today. Why do you think this is? Is it an age that has always fascinated you, too?

RB: If I were to guess why the Tudor age is so popular I would venture, because it is the age of huge royal dramas and personalities: Henry VIII and his six wives, Bloody Mary, the Virgin Queen. It is the age of adventure and exploration: Sir Francis Drake, and the bringer of our modern staples, tobacco and the potato, Sir Walter Raleigh; a time of English ascendancy and glory - repelling the Spanish Armada and other threatened invasions.  Life perhaps seemed more vivid because death was always just around the corner, be it the plague, grisly public executions, or traitors' heads spiked on London Bridge. With the Catholic-Protestant tensions there was also a lavish amount of intrigue, plotting and conspiracy: this was the era when the intelligence services were invented, with double-dealings and English agents sending messages home in cipher.  And as the printing presses took hold, and books began to be written in English instead of Latin, it is the first well-documented, accessible era in our history: the age of Shakespeare and myriad other writers - from philosophers like Francis Bacon to satirists like Thomas Nashe - who began to explore in a lasting way what it meant to be human.  Language in the Elizabethan era was deliciously inventive and playful, chiefly in order to circumvent the dangerous eyes of the censors, who could chop off your hand, imprison, torture or execute you for writing or publishing something deemed against the interests of the regime.  That kind of danger - and the extent to which humans are driven to avoid their own demise - leads to exciting stories, whether they are written as history or as fiction.  Though I have always felt it to be one of the most colourful eras of British history, my interest only became true fascination when I began to research The Marlowe Papers. 


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