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.)