Without further ado, here's my interview with Allison Epstein!
I’ve always wanted to be a writer—I’ve never wanted to be anything else, honestly! (There was a brief period in middle school where I wanted to play the Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, but I don’t count this as a real goal, for obvious reasons.) I’ve been writing ever since I can remember, all the way back to terrible short stories in first grade.
A Tip for the Hangman wasn’t the first novel I wrote, but it was the first one I felt could possibly be published. I started it the summer before my senior year of college, and there was something about Kit that connected with me right away. I knew this was the book I wanted to throw myself into and get right.
It was a long process, for sure: I started the first draft in 2013, and I was revising it up to the wire before its publication this year. But my agent and editor were huge supporters all the way through. They helped me see what the book was trying to be, and I couldn’t be happier with the way it stands now.
2. Your novel follows the fascinating life of Elizabethan playwright, Christopher "Kit" Marlowe. What initially sparked your interest in Kit? Do you identify as a "Tudor enthusiast" yourself?
I’m definitely a Tudor enthusiast! My fascination with the Tudor period came from my lifelong Shakespeare geekdom: I studied early modern drama in college, and I will attend any production of Hamlet within a 20-mile radius of my home. My interest spiraled out into learning more about the historical and political context these plays were written in, and now pretty much any Tudor-adjacent setting is catnip to me.
I first came across Kit in a college class called “English Literature Pre-1600”—which, as you can imagine, is a pretty wide window! My professor introduced us to a different English writer every week, starting with a quick bio and moving into the writer’s work. Usually the biographies were pretty dull: the author went to Cambridge or Oxford, ran up some debts, got married, maybe had a kid.
And then there was Kit Marlowe.
My professor introduced him as “basically the first celebrity writer in England, probably a spy, probably gay, probably an atheist, murdered at 29, wrote about the devil.”
My reaction: “I’m gonna need you to say more, right now.”
I stopped by the library on the way home and checked out every book about Marlowe I could find. I fell deep down the rabbit hole, researching Elizabethan spy networks, international politics, everything that could have informed this strange, wild, wonderful man’s life. Seven years later, I had a book on my hands.
3. I absolutely loved the way you wrote Kit's character, and I couldn't help but admire and genuinely like him as a person throughout this book. How much did you know about him before beginning your writing, and did your opinion of him change through the course of your research?
First, thank you so much—I love Kit dearly! His character was the first part of A Tip for the Hangman that really clicked for me, and though the plot and pacing have changed dramatically from draft to draft, Kit’s personality has remained mostly the same. There’s something so wonderfully modern about his scandalous behavior and unorthodox ideas—a refusal to bow to authority that fits almost better in 2021 than in 1591.
The other great thing about Kit Marlowe’s life for a historical fiction writer is that there’s a really compelling amount of information about what he thought, said, and believed—and an equally compelling amount of mystery. He’s pretty well documented for a Tudor-era person of non-noble blood, but at the same time there are lots of intriguing gaps in the record: and those gaps are where I really had space to explore his character and get to know him.
4. Can you tell us a bit about your research process? Which sources did you consult to dive into the world(s) of Kit Marlowe, Elizabethan playwrights, and Walsingham's spy network? Any particular sources that you found especially interesting?
My research process usually comes in two waves. First, I’ll do a big block of background reading, grounding myself in the period and in the characters’ lives. This’ll help me get a good grasp of how my plot will shake out, and it gets me far enough along to outline. Then, as I start actually writing, there will inevitably be more specific questions I didn’t even know I was wondering about. And then it’s back to the books, but this time on a targeted fact-finding mission. When were forks invented? What was the name of Mary Stuart’s chamberlain in 1586? That sort of thing.
I was lucky to have studied the period in college, so I got a good crash course in Tudor history and politics from some really wonderful English literature professors. (I’m currently researching a completely different time and place for an upcoming project, and man, am I realizing how helpful this was.) There were also some wonderful primary sources available online through the National Archives and the British Library, which I was able to quote almost directly in the book.
For general worldbuilding, I leaned pretty heavily on Elizabeth’s London by Liza Picard, which I wholeheartedly recommend. I also loved The Reckoning by Charles Nicholl, which is a great “what-if” exploration of some of the more mysterious aspects of Marlowe’s life and death. It’s out of print now, but if you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a great read.
5. Do you personally believe that Kit was a spy? This is a debated theory among historians, but in your opinion, do the primary sources provide a compelling argument? Or was this novel more of a fun "what if" scenario?
I’m completely convinced Kit was a spy! The historical record provides so much good evidence that, for me, is tough to explain away by coincidence. The letter from Lord Burghley to the faculty at Cambridge explaining away Kit’s absences is a pretty strong piece of evidence in my opinion—you’re not going to get the queen’s right-hand man to intervene on your behalf unless you’re involved in some pretty high-up stuff.
As far as the actual espionage activities described in my book, they’re almost entirely “what-if”s. There’s little to no evidence that Kit Marlowe was directly involved in the effort to unmask Mary, Queen of Scots, and the plot with Lord Strange in the second half of the book involves a good deal of speculation. But the timelines matched up so beautifully for both plots, and the opportunity to imagine what might have happened was too much fun to pass up.
6. I appreciate you taking the time to explain some of your characterizations of other characters in this novel in your Author's Note. Besides Kit, who are some of your other favorite characters that you wrote about, and why?
I love this question! Sir Francis Walsingham in particular is one I kept close to my heart. I’m just so impressed by his cleverness: he truly was the brains behind so much of the political situation in his day, and he could scheme circles around everyone. I wanted to tap into the physical and emotional toll of carrying responsibility like that, and what emerged was a practical, weary man with a keen sense of how much he’s asking of others. He became sort of a mentor figure to Kit as the book evolved, and I surprised myself by how much I cared about him.
Another character I loved for a completely different reason was Robert Poley, another member of the queen’s spy network. Unlike with Walsingham, I don’t sympathize with Poley at all. He’s a trash human being, but his twisted mind was so much fun to write!
7. If you could time-travel for a day, would you personally like to experience life in Elizabethan England (or the earlier portion of the Tudor period), or is this a period of time better admired from afar?
I would love to experience one day in Elizabethan England, but only one day, and no more! I forget who originally said that time travel is fun for rich straight white men and nobody else, but it’s definitely true that the Tudor period was a brutal time. There are so many specific details of everyday life that I’d love to see firsthand—I would pay cash money to watch a Tudor person cook a period-appropriate meal, for one thing!—but it would be safest to treat this as a quick visit rather than a long-term stay.
8. What are your personal feelings regarding the Elizabeth I / Mary, Queen of Scots drama? I imagine you did quite a lot of research about this portion of Elizabeth's reign, as it features heavily in the novel. Do you consider yourself "Team Elizabeth" or "Team Mary"?
Objectively, Elizabeth and Mary were both playing the political hand they were dealt, and they both made pretty ruthless decisions to advance their own causes. They were savvy political leaders navigating a deeply treacherous landscape, and I both respect them for what they accomplished and judge them for what they were willing to pay.
OK, now that the historian’s caveat is out of the way, I’m Team Mary all day, every day.
What can I say? I love a schemey underdog. She was creative and determined and completely convinced of her own worth as a person, and I have to respect that. There’s something very cloak-and-dagger about Mary’s history that speaks to the drama queen in me, and I found myself rooting for her all throughout my research, even though I knew how the story ended.
9. On that note, are there any other characters from sixteenth-century England that you'd be interested in writing about? Any other specific Tudor favorites?
Oooh yes! I’ve always wanted to write a novel about Anne of Cleves. I love her so much, and history has done her dirty in my opinion. She’s often written off as the ugly German princess who was too innocent to know what she was getting into, but she’s one of the only women of her era to play Henry VIII’s game and objectively win it. This project has been fighting me for years, but maybe one day I’ll figure it out.
I also want to write a YA paranormal mystery series where John Dee, Elizabeth’s astrologer, solves crimes with the help of an angel sidekick. I’m keeping that in my back pocket in case I ever learn how to write YA.
10. Are you currently working on any works-in-progress that you can tell us about? Are you planning to dabble any more in Tudor/Elizabethan fiction in the future?
I’m deep in revision on another project that I won’t talk too much about, because it’s not really fit to see the light of day… But I will say that it’s set in 19th-century Russia, at the very end of the Napoleonic wars. I’m one of those insufferable people who will talk about War and Peace for 700 hours if you let me, so it’s been really lovely to spend some time in that world.
I’m definitely not turning my back on Tudor times for good, though! It’s my first historical love, and there are so many more stories I’m itching to explore.
Bonus Question (because as a first-time author writing my first book, I'm curious): Can you walk us through your writing process and routine? What does a day in your life look like when working on a book?
I work full-time as an editor, so my writing process is sort of an exercise in finding time and making time. I usually try to get a good hour or so in the morning before I start work, and if I’m on a roll I might get another half-hour or so after dinner. This has worked well for me, though—I’ve never been one of those people who can focus on writing for seven hours at a stretch! I’ll get 25 minutes of good writing or revising, followed by 10 minutes scrolling Twitter, followed by another 25 of cranking out a scene. If you stack up enough 25-minute blocks in a month, sooner or later you’ll have a book!
Bonus Bonus Question (because I’m excited): What are some final thoughts you’d like to leave my Tudor enthusiast readers with, regarding “A Tip for the Hangman” and Kit Marlowe?
I just want to thank you for inviting me to chat with you, and your readers for giving the book a try! A Tip for the Hangman is and will always be the book of my heart, and I’m so excited to share it with other Tudor enthusiasts!
As a reminder, you can support and/or connect with Allison in the following ways: