The story of Rasputin — his behaviour, his murder — gets stranger all the time as details emerge. For example, I only learned a few months ago about the involvement of not only one Prince Felix Yusopov but also the potential involvement of Britain’s MI6, who at the very least wanted to keep an eye on things.

So the common disclaimer seen in many movies and novel, “This story if a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any persons, living or dead”: it seems Prince Felix played a role there, too. Duncan Frye explains.

Rasputin, still shimmering through history, remains a weird figure to me — weird in the old sense, wayward. Boney M had fun with him, of course, even appropriating a Turkish folk song for it, and Epic Rap Battles of History invite him round for a duel with, uh, Stalin. (I love Epic Rap Battles of History’s work, but I admit, I can’t laugh much at this one.)

For a certain man who lived in Russia long ago, he’s left quite a stain.


“I stole this from …”

I listen to music when I write. I make playlists for different projects — mixtapes for characters, rough maps for themes. Many of my characters listen to music, find themselves haunted. Josh Bozeman, the unreliable narrator of Double-blind, wants to forget the first movement of  JS Bach’s Brandenburg Number Two, in part because it reminds him of his own complicity in a violation. Employees at radio station VOIC in Sky Waves sing Ron Hynes’s “Sonny’s Dream” for hours after hearing it on the air. (I’ve observed this behaviour at ever radio station where I’ve worked; that song has serious power.)  In deluded your sailors, Seth Seabright busks “I’m Not Jesus,” a song by Apocalyptica with Corey Taylor that helped me get into a safe mental place to confront the novel’s themes of childhood sexual abuse.

Much of the writing I admire seems to be part of a larger conversation, both within itself and outside itself. Flannery O’Connor, John Donne, Franz Kafka and Christopher Marlowe hash out questions, sometimes agonies, of identity, power, faith,  violence, and grace. While I can’t write like that, music is becoming part of the conversations in my fiction. In This Marlowe, set mostly in England in 1593-4, I mention just one Elizabethan song, and that only by straining historical accuracy with a backstory of theft: John Dowland’s “Fine Knacks for Ladies.” I don’t know much about Elizabethan music. For me, much of the appeal of so-called historical fiction is the conversation it can have with a reader’s present, and with the writer’s present, so I stopped worrying about Elizabethan music.  Instead, I broke a sentence’s easy parallel structure with the narrator’s phrase “maps and legends” to allude to the REM song by the same name. The image and idea of maps, of not always understanding them, are key to what I wanted to do with this novel. Later, main character Kit confronts Izaak, fellow Cambridge divinity student and now state examiner – and torturer. Kit demands to know if Izaak can blush in shame: “Or dost thou lack the blood?” Calm, Izaak answers: “What I lack not is license. Grace, too.” These two former divines argued about ideas of grace at university, and Izaak is one manifestation of the power in my fictive world, the menace and violence arriving, as the Tragically Hip put it, with “no knock on the door.” 

I love the Tragically Hip. I’m still unfolding songs from the 1990s, let alone the steady gifts from the 2000s. When creative doubt freezes me, I crank “My Music @ Work.” The first Tragically Hip song I sat down with liner notes and took in was “Grace, Too.” I was just starting to gestate what would become This Marlowe that summer, 1994, and “Grace, Too” got tangled up with a character based on real-life intelligence agent Robin Poley. My Robin, a dangerous man struggling for control, “a total pro here … armed with skill and its frustration,” parallels Kit to the very end. 

“Grace, Too” helped me write This Marlowe. It’s that simple. That important to me. 

Did I steal something?

Another Tragically Hip song  I listened to while writing This Marlowe is “Fifty Mission Cap.”  The song demonstrates the leap – or perhaps fall –  into empathy. The speaker is an experienced pilot considering a hockey player: “Bill Barilko disappeared that summer.”  The speaker identifies with Barilko through the defiance and joy of accomplishment and flight. He’s also pragmatic about the dangers: “He was on a fishing trip (in a plane crash).”  Then the speaker tell us “I stole this from a hockey card.” It’s not just any Bill Barilko hockey card; it’s the one the pilot keeps “tucked up under [his] fifty-mission cap.” A talisman? A good luck charm? A reminder?  What matters is the connection he’s made with Barilko, the empathy. That, and the attempt to take the pain and confusion of a violent death into something better, or at least something meaningful.

Writing This Marlowe became an act of wish fulfillment. I admire Christopher Marlowe’s work, yet I know very little, with certainty, about the man. We’ve got the intriguing traces in official records. A Canterbury cobbler’s son who receives a divinity scholarship conditional on a promise to take holy orders. Cambridge hesitates to award his MA; the Privy Council gets involved; Marlowe never does become a Church of England priest. He writes plays and poems: startling, outrageous, beautiful, terrifying. And then, a mess. In 1593, a xenophobic poem, posted to the door of a church, blames immigrants and refugees for England’s problems and threatens violence and fire, all while alluding to several of Marlowe’s plays. Thomas Kyd, who once shared rooms with Marlowe, is arrested on suspicion of writing this poem. (I can’t think of a less likely suspect. For a start, the poem sounds nothing like Kyd’s work. Or Marlowe’s.) Thomas Kyd makes a damning accusation from prison. Kyd later says he was tortured, and I believe him. The Privy Council issues an arrest warrant for Marlowe on of atheism, considered a form of sedition, only to give him the very lenient instructions to make daily attendance. Ten days later, Marlowe dies, stabbed during a brawl over who would pay the bill at a rooming house.

A violent death.

A stupid one.

It’s meaningless. A fiery genius dies young for that?

The story in the coroner’s report is, at best, suspect. I’ve no idea what happened in that room. I can’t know Christopher Marlowe any more than the Tragically Hip’s pilot can know Bill Barilko. The knife, the age, the arrest — it’s  stuff I could steal from a book flap. 

I stole other things, too: biographical details of various Elizabethans, notations in source documents. Then I took liberties. My first duty: not to a shopping list of fidelity but to my story. 

Violence comes as no surprise to my character Kit. He knows how dangerous Ingram, Nick, and Robin are. He knows he is the reason Tom Kyd suffers under Izaak Pindar. I made my character’s death mean something, even if only to him, because I want the real Christopher Marlowe’s death to have meant something. 

Something more than the market value of the fatal dagger, the amount carefully recorded in the coroner’s report.

I worked it in to look like that.

(The balancing act with “Fifty Mission Cap” collapses here, because I’ve got no experience with being a pilot, or with facing violent death. I nearly drowned once, in a swimming pool. I felt no menace, no fear; the beauty of the sunlit water distracted me. I’ve been ill for several years with an aggressive autoimmune disease, and while I think much more now about mortality, I hardly expect my own death to be violent. Painful, perhaps. I can’t know that, either.)

Gifts from Wainwright and Shakespeare

Yeah, I’m a Marlowe fan, and I object to bardolatry — to the mindless worship of William Shakespeare as some sort of demigod, faultless in his work, all sunshine and rainbows spilling out of a vacuum. I particularly object to calling Shakespeare ‘The Bard’, as the definite article there declares no other bard could exist. Ai. Such an approach to Shakespeare denies history — he came out of no vacuum — and also denies the thinker not only exposure to Shakespeare’s peers who influenced him in a long, ongoing cultural conversation, but also a more nuanced experience of Shakespeare’s work that allows for, considers, and accepts that sometimes he fucked up and failed. His failures only deepen his triumphs .

None of this means I dislike Shakespeare’s work. Far from it. Some of those plays deserve their status, their vigorous lives; they show us something about ourselves, over and over. And the verse — dear God, the verse.

Which Christopher Marlowe mastered first.

Honest, though, I’m flapping my gums about Will today, about his sonnets. I don’t know them all, and the ones I do know I could know better. I like colliding with art. I’m not interested in sitting down all passive and respectful as some Serious Ac-tahrs declaim the Bard … that is, recite lines and then stoop to hand me the spit-warm marbles from their mouths. Most of the Shakespeare videos I had to watch in high school felt like that. I can’t think of a quicker way to turn people off those plays than productions which take as their aim the delivery of culture.

When I collide with Shakespeare — or with O’Connor, Melville, Kafka, Marlowe, Chaucer, Lowther, Donne — when I’m knocked on my arse by beauty and strength, when I’m startled out of complacent delusion that I’ve already read this, already experienced this … when that happens, so much opens up. It’s not rainbows and sunshine; it’s blazing starlight.

I’ve just collided with Rufus Wainwright’s album Take All My Loves, which is different arrangements of nine of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The project includes my long-beloved Sonnet 29, and my new favourite, Sonnet 40. Wainwright and his collaborators, for the most part, allow the words to work through them, versus try to impose their egos on the words. Yet the artists not passive vessels. In the most intriguing pieces on the album, I find hybrids, fusions. Track 3, ‘Take All My Loves’, the arrangement of Sonnet 40, could be done by no one else but Rufus Wainwright and Marius de Vries.

I said things open up for me. A specific example: my new and developing understanding of Sonnet 40, thanks to Wainwright and de Vries, is spilling into a new fiction project, deep into the novel’s conflicts, themes, and characters.

That arrangement of Sonnet 40 is playing out here now, layers and echoes: a conversation.





The weight of Thomas Kyd

12 May 1593, London: Thomas Kyd is arrested on suspicion of writing a piece of xenophobic and inflammatory doggerel later called the Dutch Church Libel. The DCL complains of the influx of refugees into London and threatens violence and fire ‘per Tamburlaine’. It also alludes to all of Christopher Marlowe’s well-known plays save Edward II, which had not been performed. 1593 was a plague year; the theatres were closed. And in 1592 the theatres had closed early, again because of plague.
Plague, indeed. I’ve studied Kyd’s work, his big play, pamphlets attributed to him (they sound like him), dedications, and letters, and I know the DCL inside out: on voice alone, I will go to my grave arguing Kyd did not write the DCL — never mind the danger writing and posting the thing. The Privy Council, the governing body understood to be exercising the will of the Queen, responded to the DCL and its threats of fire (London was made of wood; fire could easily become a disaster) with orders of search and seizure, interrogation, and torture in Bridewell, ‘to be used at such times and as often as you shall think fit’. Kyd writes afterwards in two separate documents that he was tortured, and in the dedication to his last published work he writes: ‘Having no leisure (most noble lady) but such as evermore is traveled with the afflictions of the mind, than which the world afford no greater misery…’
So. Kyd is arrested for a document he most likely did not write, a document which alludes to the plays of a man with whom he once shared rooms, a man who would on 20 May face the Privy Council himself on a charge of atheism — which does not quite mean for the Elizabethans what it means for us. In 1593 England, denying the existence of God — for the Elizabethans might see it as a denial, an act of defiance, not a reasoned argument — meant one also denied a God-appointed sovereign’s right to rule. Atheism would be a very heavy and dangerous charge, not just an inflammatory idea for a bad-boy poet to flip about a tavern. Our evidence for Christopher Marlowe’s atheism comes from Richard Baines and the famous Baines Note, from the Privy Council minutes of 18 May 1593 referring to the charge against Marlowe, and from Thomas Kyd, imprisoned and likely tortured in Bridewell, who refers to the charges in his letter to Sir John Puckering but never actually makes them himself, not without unstable and thereby questioning rhetoric.
The DCL, it seems, gets forgotten.

Kyd’s letter to Sir John Puckering, written after Marlowe’s death, complains of Kyd’s arrest and torture and attempts to distance the writer from the accused atheist … yet it doesn’t. The form of the letter is a petition, which had a set form and expectations, something a man likely trained as a scrivener would know. Kyd never joined the Worshipful Company of Scriveners, though his mostly legible handwriting suggests the training, and his father, Francis Kyd, once served as Company Warden. Thinking of Kyd’s later reference to ‘afflictions of the mind’, I can’t help but wonder what else contributes to that letter’s instability.

Last night I was part of a reading series in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, and I was reading from my new novel, This Marlowe. My novel is based on the last few months of Christopher Marlowe’s life and, of course, includes a character, Tom, based on Thomas Kyd. The DCL plays out, in its ugly way. I’d planned last night to read the scene in which Tom is arrested. I couldn’t. Various book reviewers have commented on how compelling they find my Kit character, the one based on Christopher Marlowe, and that’s lovely. I’m delighted. But yesterday I could think only of my Tom character, and of the real Thomas Kyd, of what might have been done to him … and, as my character Kit might say, for what? For all of poxed-up what?


This Marlowe: a playlist

If you visit my house, you will see what my husband and I have spent all our money on over the past twenty-odd years: books, and music. I listen to music as both a passive consumer — aware something is playing in the background — and as a greedy supplicant: eyes wide, forehead sweaty, mouth slack. I can play nothing. I can sing a little, now that I’ve figured out I’m an alto and not a soprano. Because I lack the training and the language, I can’t tell you how or why a piece of music or a song works.

All I can do is respond.

I create playlists to go with various projects. In the old days, I burned CDs, and in the ancient times before that, I made cassette mixtapes. When I come back to revisions, I can get myself into the emotional places I need to be by spinning an earlier draft’s playlist.

I had many mixes for what became This Marlowe. Here’s one.

The Lizard — Pipher

Scarborough Fair/Canticle — Simon and Garfunkel

Loser — Beck

Maps and Legends — REM

Para mihi domine — Christobal de Morales, arranged by the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Gabarek

Locomotive Breath/Bond Theme — Scheppel with Feed the Wolf

Fuckin Up — Junkhouse

99.9F — Suzanne Vega

Morning — Beck

The Drunken Whaler — Copilot

Everybody Wants to Rule the World — Lorde

The Heart’s Filthy Lesson — David Bowie

Heart is a Drum — Beck

Scared — The Tragically Hip

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap — AC/DC

King of Birds — REM

Losing My Religion — REM

Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God) — Kate Bush

Faster — Within Temptation

Under Pressure — Queen with David Bowie

Breaking — Suzanne Vega

Uniko Iv: Emo — Kimmo Pohjonen and Kronos Quartet

Dear God — XTC

Pilgrimage — Suzanne Vega

Grace, too — The Tragically Hip

I’m So Sorry — Imagine Dragons

Dirty Knife — Neko Case

Say Goodbye — Beck

Demons — Imagine Dragons

This is Gospel — Panic! At the Disco

Heretic Pride — The Mountain Goats

Don’t Come Around Here No More — Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers