In Conversation with Ros Barber

Fiction is perhaps the best place for a conspiracy. Where else does a writer have permission to take the most controversial theory, fill in the gaps and spin it into a tale? Such is the case with ‘The Marlowe Papers,’ Ros Barber’s acclaimed debut novel— winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize, Author’s Club Best First Novel Award and long listed for the Orange Women’s Prize in 2013.

The novel follows the story of Elizabethan playwright Christopher (Kit) Marlowe. In Barber’s fictional version he isn’t murdered in a tavern brawl as largely recorded, but instead fakes his own death, fleeing to France to avoid charges of heresy. According to the Marlovian Authorship Theory it was during his exile that Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare.

Controversial, yes, but Barber, who believes there is more evidence pointing to Marlowe as author than anyone else is still by no means convinced. She’s most interested in the tortured character of Marlowe, the psychological turmoil that would have come with penning these incredible works without any public recognition. 

I met the author at the British Library café, where this interview took place. In person Barber is wise and candid; at home in the academic establishment while challenging it. It’s no wonder then that our conversation never slipped into hushed whispers. It seems if you’re going to take on Shakespeare in fiction, you might as well talk about it loudly, and over a cup of tea.

Kate Gwynne


marlowe papers

 

INTERVIEWER

At one point in your novel Marlowe complains, ‘How could I give up writing? You might ask a fish to give up swimming, or a horse to ditch this kick and neigh, his stamp and snort.’ As a poet yourself, is it the writer’s struggle that draws you to Marlowe’s character?

 

BARBER

It’s lovely for writers to write novels about writing because you can explore and explain what being a writer is like, what the obsession with writing is like. If he didn’t feel like that then the whole plot wouldn’t work. If Marlowe had gone into hiding and then decided not to write anymore then there’s no story. I know he had to be driven by it, and I know writers are driven by it.

Writers can’t not write. And actually it’s pretty hard for us not to want to put it out in front of people as well. Yes we write for ourselves but we absolutely want people to read it. We absolutely want an audience. And that was such a big part of the plot that it was wonderful to share that passion with him.

 

INTERVIEWER

 You’ve published three books of poetry. When did you decide to pen this story as a novel?

 

BARBER

Right from the beginning. I saw the documentary ‘Much Ado About Something’ by Michael Rubbo. In it, Jonathan Bate, a very well known Shakespeare scholar says that the idea that Kit Marlowe was Shakespeare is ludicrous, but it would make a great novel. At the time I was casting around for a big idea for a Creative Writing PhD. So I decided I was having that idea and I hoped no one would beat me to it.

 

INTERVIEWER

What was your specific interest in the Marlovian Authorship Theory, the basis of you PhD?

 

BARBER

I wanted to explore the relationship between fiction and supposedly non-fictional forms such as biography, autobiography and history. There’s a whole strand of postmodern historical thinking that understands that history is also an imaginative creation, that there are multiple versions possible out of the same facts. What we have left from four hundred years ago is nominal and there are gaps. The gaps must be filled with the writer’s imagination.

I was attracted to ‘The Marlowe Papers,’ the idea behind it, because I thought it was a great story. Marlowe is an interesting character. He’s far more interesting than Shakespeare. Marlowe worked for the intelligent services of the day. He was an outspoken young man and well connected with a circle of other writers.

It’s harder to bring Shakespeare alive because we don’t have any account of him in connection with other people. We have a letter written to him that wasn’t sent. We have his testimony in the Belott-Mountjoy case. There isn’t actually sufficient evidence to support Shakespeare’s authorship. There are all sorts of bits of evidence pointing towards there being something odd around Shakespeare and the authorship of his works.

On the Marlowe side we have Thomas Nash saying, ‘as Kit Marlowe was wont to say.’ We also have the ‘Baines Note,’ showing Marlowe in full flow expounding what for him would have been theological arguments disputed at Cambridge, but that would have been dangerous taken into a London tavern. Marlowe is a richer, fuller character and there is much more of him as a human being that you can get hold of than Shakespeare.

I’d not been exposed to the theory though, the idea that Marlowe was the author of Shakespeare, until I started researching the book. I thought it was fascinating that the theory is written off completely in academia. It’s actually taboo. And the only reason I was allowed to research it was because I was researching a work of fiction. I couldn’t believe there was something you weren’t allowed to look at. The theory has persisted for one hundred and fifty years for a reason. It hasn’t gone away because you can’t completely close it down. So that seemed to me to be a really fascinating, really great opportunity that one can rarely have in a UK or US university.

 

INTERVIEWER

A novel in verse is very unique, yet having read it I now can’t imagine it working so well in prose. Verse makes it feel authentic. It makes you closer to Marlowe, entirely consumed by Tudor London. Was this always your intent?

 

BARBER

Yes it was. I dug out my original PhD proposal and it said it right there that I intended to write it in iambic pentameter. At the first meeting with my supervisor she said that I didn’t need to write it all in iambic pentameter because even Shakespeare drops into prose. When I came to a fight scene that I needed to write, I was quite intimidated by the idea of writing it in iambic pentameter, so I tried to write it in prose. I got nowhere with it. It was only when I put it back into iambic pentameter that it worked. At that point I realised that the whole thing was going to be in iambic pentameter. I didn’t need prose. It only really worked in that form for me.

 

INTERVIEWER

What novelistic conventions did you have to follow to sustain a long form fictional narrative and what things were you able to do away with?

BARBER

Oh god, that’s a very technical question! It’s not an entirely conscious thing.

 

INTERVIEWER

Well, maybe you didn’t think about it in that way. Maybe you would think about it as extending a poem?

 

BARBER

It’s not a long poem. It’s influenced by drama though because I was reading Marlowe and Shakespeare. Some of the poems are clearly soliloquies and I intended them as soliloquies. Each poem is a chapter but also a dramatic scene. So film is influential, though novels and films are said to inform each other a lot these days.

I would say the thing that the novel does that is different from other genres is a real interiority. And the epic poem doesn’t do the internal. The epic poem tends to be externally narrated. You have a storyteller and it talks about people in the third person. Whereas now the novel is often first person and immersive. So it was first person, immersive. It was about having an immersive structure to it. I did draw a structure of the timelines crossing over each other and boring spreadsheets and things— which is not poem-like in any way. Also the use of dialogue, you don’t get a lot of dialogue in poetry. So all those things; dialogue, structure, interiority.

I had my pieces of evidence I wanted to include. I had my dated timeline. Within that I would work on each chapter separately, consider it a discrete poem, but I was aware of its position in the whole and I would be aware of what’s just happened in the present, where he’s got to in the past, what his current emotional state is, what he might be thinking about what he did in the past. After that you just allow it to come.

 

INTERVIEWER

The Kit Marlowe you portray is a man fated to a life in exile, longing for recognition for his work, but unable to achieve it without a pardon from the Queen. There are numerous examples of alter-egos and nom de plumes that contemporary writers have taken up to free them from the scrutiny of the public eye, such as JK Rowling’s Robert Galbraith and Salmon Rushdie’s Joseph Anton. Was this on your mind while writing it?

 

BARBER

We write from the period we are living in so those things are subconsciously influencing us perhaps, but it wasn’t conscious for me in this book. The thing that was very strong for me was the sense of lack of literary recognition. But that was purely a personal thing. When you’re a poet no one gives a toss what you write, basically. You publish a book, it sells four hundred copies and no one notices. The world just carries on. You spend years and years trying to get a book published and when it’s finally accepted it makes absolutely no impact. A lot of poets have told me they find that rather depressing. So I think it was about my own frustrations, the struggle for literary recognition and not being noticed, which I then expanded and blew up. That was the hook of the story for me.

When I saw that documentary, ‘Much Ado About Something,’ the thing that most struck me was to imagine being the author of these extraordinary works of literature and not being able to take credit for them. What an exquisite psychological torture that would be. And that was what interested me about entering the character. I really wanted to explore that. In some ways you often write things because it will make you feel better about your own life.

 

INTERVIEWER

Being a work of historical fiction there’s the added challenge of creating a world that feels authentic for the time period. What was your research process like and what sources did you rely on?

 

BARBER

The works were key because they were my only access to the writers. I read the entire works of Marlowe and the entire works of Shakespeare. I saw as many productions as I could. I watched the BBC’s Shakespeare on DVD so that I could play them and replay them. Then I read all the biographies that exist about Marlowe because there aren’t that many and I read key biographies about Shakespeare and quite a lot of academic papers.

There were things that I felt I needed to really grasp, for example the politics and the religion, because it was so key to what Marlowe was doing. The religious picture was exceedingly complicated. I read some stuff about sword fighting. And I remember a quite lengthy diversion where Marlowe had to get on a boat and I realized I didn’t know what boats were like in Elizabethan England. I had to buy an Elizabethan cookbook though I never actually cooked anything out of it. I bought a book of Elizabethan letters to understand how they communicated with each other privately.

 

INTERVIEWER

And most of the research you said you did before you wrote the book?

 

BARBER

I did a whole year of solid research before I started writing. I felt like if I hadn’t got hold of the research and really absorbed it then any writing I did would probably be wasted. I’d probably end up throwing it away because it wouldn’t be authentic enough. I had to be completely immersed in the period before I felt ready. I actually knew very little, I knew no more than your average Joe about the Elizabethan period or about Marlowe. I’d done a little bit of Shakespeare at school and I did one unit of Shakespeare as part of an Open University degree.

 

INTERVIEWER

So there’s hope yet for anyone that wants to go into historical fiction?

 

BARBER

Absolutely. If you’re interested in it and you love it then it will come naturally. It was actually quite hard to stop the research. I really enjoyed that so much. Fay Weldon said that research is a form of cowardice. And I agree with that, because writing is terrifying. Committing to something is terrifying.

 

INTERVIEWER

At the end of the book you mention that you made some adjustments for contemporary readers.

 

BARBER

I didn’t want anything to feel really jarring. You can’t use a word like camouflage, for example, because it didn’t come in until the First World War. I decided to leave a few words in which some people still complain about, but I left them in where the substitution would spoil it in my view, or make it harder to understand.

My own premise in my head, imaginatively, was that Marlowe had actually written these things in some kind of code or cipher that had been translated into contemporary English, because obviously it’s not in Elizabethan English. Then I gave it to four preliminary readers who found a few contemporary words that I hadn’t noticed and then I handed it to my editor and she found loads more. She did a very light edit and she found a few words on each page and each of those took about forty-five minutes to change because I’d have to find a substitute word that was also in period. But if it wrecked the meter, I’d have to change the whole line. There were lots of little decisions on individual words in the final process of editing.

 

INTERVIEWER

What was your process in establishing imagery that would help evoke the time period?

 

BARBER

It’s funny how the initial metaphor that you come up with is rooted in some way in nineteenth, twentieth or twenty-first century technology. These very familiar phrases that we use all the time. You talk about something being electric or magnetic. Much of our metaphor is about the industrial revolution because so much happened to us from that point onwards— the coming of the train, the motorcar, automation— and all of that has gone into our language.

A lot of metaphors that I would naturally use weren’t appropriate for the sixteenth century. As I said, I was reading all the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe and some of the works of their contemporaries, so I got a sense of what is available in the pool of images you might use. But you have to immerse yourself in it for the metaphors to come.

 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve taught creative writing for over a decade. My impression is that creative writing programs are changing as publishing becomes more fragmented and book discovery is much more online. It seems that writers have to learn not only be craftsmen, but also self-marketers?

 

BARBER

There’s a sort of semi requirement that writers are active on social media and that doesn’t suit everyone. I personally quite like Twitter. I find Facebook takes up too much of my time, because you get sucked into the black hole of Facebook and then you won’t write your book. That’s a bit pointless really isn’t it?

There’s definitely pressure to be visible and active in a way that there didn’t used to be. It’s much harder to be a reclusive writer, even though they do exist. As far as being a self-marketer is concerned that’s entirely to do with self-publishing and I know some people who have had success with it but I really don’t recommend it because most writers are not good marketers. I don’t want the hard sell; I want a relationship with you. And of course you know that there isn’t the quality control with a self-published book.

 

INTERVIEWER

Sounds like you got good support from your publisher in terms of marketing?

 

BARBER

They were really good. Not every debut novelist even with the big publishers gets the marketing and publicity support that I did. I did wait a long time for all of this though. I did the struggle. You know, teaching creative writing and couple of poetry books, a very minor name on the British poetry scene but frankly, for the hours and hours and years of effort and for the age I was at, I had hoped for a bit more. And the success of ‘The Marlowe Papers’ is fabulous; it’s everything I had dreamed of. When I was nine I thought I was going to be a big successful writer. It just took a really long time. But I would argue that if the earlier works I had written had been published I would now be dead in the water. I’d much rather that people judged me on ‘The Marlowe Papers.’ And the way that publishing is now, if you do a couple of books and they’re kind of so-so, you’re actually worse off than if you’d never published anything at all, because its like you’ve tried and failed. That’s a reason to take up a pseudonym.

 

INTERVIEWER

It’s true what you say. Everyone is in a rush. But all the really successful writers stress that this is a long-term career.

 

BARBER

A huge factor in success is not talent but resilience, sticking power. Taking the knock-backs, getting the rejections and getting back on the horse and writing yet another book. It’s hard, but plenty of talented students of mine are nowhere in writing because they gave up pretty soon. And then there are plenty of mediocre writers who are very successful and the reason they’re successful is because they never quit. They just carried on trying again and again until they got through. So resilience is the thing to develop as a writer. Bit of a thick skin. And self-belief, because without self-belief you can’t be resilient. If you’re just full of doubt and you receive a rejection letter, that’s the end of it. We all think that fleetingly but then we usually wake up after a couple of days and think, ‘I’ll show them.’ And that’s the thing that keeps you going for years and years without recognition. Because you’ve got this strange belief that you are a writer even though there’s no real evidence to back it up. But then, if you want something enough you can get there.

 

INTERVIEWER

So what’s next for you?

 

BARBER

I’m just finishing my next novel.

 

INTERVIEWER

Can we have any hints as to whether it’s in verse?

 

BARBER

It’s not in verse. There’s not much point writing anything else in verse at the moment. People are so put off by it. And like I say most writers want to be read. I want to be read. So I shall write in prose. And it’s not historical either, because I’m not a historical novelist. The next one is set in the future.

 

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