Once upon a time, I contacted this American writer, asking about his play featuring Kit Marlowe – published but impossible to find. Because there was no answer, I tried with the publisher: was there any way to get in touch with the author, and/or acquire a copy of the play? Now, you see, I’d done it before – and usually authors are pleased to find someone interested enough in their work to seek them out. Why, I’ve e-met several wonderful people, that way…
Well, this particular gentleman was definitely not pleased. He found me on Facebook, and rather stiffly asked was I the person who had approached the publisher about his play, and what was with all the interest?
I explained how I had vainly tried to approach him first, and went on to tell him about my obsession with Marlowe, and my intention to write a play about him as well… And he answered that no, he wouldn’t have me read his play – because, if I did, I couldn’t help being influenced, and we wouldn’t want me to commit plagiarism, would we? Historical fact lends itself to a very limited number of interpretations – and his was his own.
I replied that, having read and studied on the subject quite a bit, I was confident I could come up with my own interpretation – but yes, let us leave his play alone, by all means. Still, I couldn’t help myself: he was aware of the existence of a great number of plays and novels about Marlowe, wasn’t he? And some of there were more recent than his play’s publication. Was he suggesting they were all plagiarizing each other – and his own?
And the man – let us leave him unnamed – said that he knew nothing of other plays or novels; his own was based on years’ worth of original research, not to mention a deep knowledge of the workings of intelligence service – having he served for years with US military intelligence… Which was why I couldn’t possibly help being influenced if I read the play. Still, if I really wanted to write about Marlowe, why didn’t I try a novel instead? A novel would allow me to explore the character’s personal and psychological sides – in which he himself had no interest at all. Not being a sadistic and morbid sociopath, he wrote, he could never identify with a mind like that. Nor did he particularly want to: a man, he wrote, must know his own limitations.
Half offended and half amused at the man’s condescension – not to mention the implication that I must be a sadistic and morbid sociopath – and also very much doubtful that Elizabethan intelligence had worked very much like its modern-day US counterpart, I thanked him ever so sweetly for his permission to write a novel. Also, I assured him that he needn’t worry: my own interest was in Marlowe’s mind and poetry – with a possible metaliterary slant. I wasn’t going to do anything with the intelligence angle – about which, after all, I only knew what I’d read: a woman must know her limitations…
Which was when our Author began to doubt he had overreacted a little. I must forgive an old spy’s mindset, he wrote – but the fact is, they meant to make his play into a movie, due for distribution in Italy among many other countries: I did see, didn’t I, that my cropping up with my unusual request must cause him some suspicion?
What I thought I saw, by then, was more than a little (occupational?) paranoia… I wished the man all the best with his movie, and considered the whole matter closed.
Until, a few months later, our Author/Spy contacted me to let me know that his play was being re-issued as an e-book. And he remembered I’d been interested – and he’d been less than gracious about it… Now he hoped I’d read it, and he’d be happy to hear my opinion, and answer any question I had.
Bemused and amused in equal parts, I read – and… well. The author had probably no fault that the Kindle edition was riddled with typos – but the rather stiff pseudo-Elizabethan language, the flat characterisation… Ah well, he wasn’t interested in Marlowe’s psyche, after all – he’d said so himself – so I concentrated on the intelligence angle… And the one slightly unusual thing I could find on that score was a notion that Marlowe was some kind of leader in his group, rather than an underling. This made me curious: what had the Author/Spy found to support this? And mind: this was a play, so he needed no supporting evidence at all – but this must come from the much-vaunted original research, right? Because otherwise, what else did?
So I wrote to him, professing my curiosity about that specific detail.
“Oh, that’s just my unsupported hypothesis,” was the rather startling answer, “based on my own deep knowledge of intelligence work, you know. This is how these things work.” But Tom Kyd’s confession was real, did I know? And it had recently come to his attention that there had been another spy tailing Marlowe, a man named Baines. Which was very, very interesting, when one thought about it closely: clearly a confession under torture could never be used against Marlowe, so the Crown needed corroborating evidence…
Oh dear. Oh dear. I wrote back, explaining that Kyd’s confessions and Baines’s note are well-known documents, and have been for decades – and that back then no one would have dreamed of questioning a confession because it was obtained under torture… could he see why I found his take on historical facts a little peculiar?
Oh, he could. All of a sudden, I’d become his dear Ms. Giuliani. It was obvious that I had a very good knowledge of the period, and many very good ideas, and it was a pleasure to correspond with me. Still, his work was a play – and just a play – and he had done his research long before the Internet had come to make things easy for my generation…
And I might have pointed out that Kyd and Baines are quoted in full in any Marlowe biography worth its salt… but I didn’t. I have no idea whether the film is still going to be made – but scripts always go through a lot of revisions and changes, after all, and it is unlikely they will keep the pseudo-Elizabethan anyway, and fiction is fiction, and a spy is a spy… Who knows, was Kit himself this… er, peculiar because of his side-career with Walsingham? Oh well. All the best on your way to the silver screen, Mr. Author/Spy!