Reinvigorate Your Love For Historical Fiction With ‘A Tip For The Hangman’

Allison Epstein’s confident debut re-examines Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe

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The Smoker. ca. 1623–25, Frans Hals

From what I understand, Christopher Marlowe (known in this novel as Kit) was, indeed, a spy, though you took some liberties for the sake of the story. What do we know about the real life spy that was Christopher Marlowe, and how does that compare to the Kit we meet on the page?

Imagine taking a standard biography and censoring two-thirds of the pages, and that’s pretty much what we know about the historical Christopher Marlowe. There’s widespread agreement he was a spy who worked under Sir Francis Walsingham between 1585-ish and 1593. Beyond that… Elizabethan record-keeping for non-nobles was not great, and spies tended not to keep detailed daily journals for obvious reasons. We do know Marlowe was frequently absent from Cambridge in the last year of his degree, presumably on spy business. The Privy Council famously wrote a letter to excuse his absences, which implies he’d made some pretty lofty connections for a grad student.

Kit is a beautifully well-realized character; I can fully imagine him engaging in situations that aren’t in the book, or picture him at a pub interacting with friends. How did you approach crafting his personality?

Thank you! Kit’s personality was the one part of this book that came together quickly. I started with his character and shaped the rest of the book to fit. And the more I researched the historical Marlowe, the more sense he made. Scrappy scholarship kid with an impulsive streak, ambition for days, and a bagful of secrets: my source material might be 400 years old, but there’s something very modern about that, and I identified with him in a lot of messy and complicated ways. In a weird way, Kit and I grew up together: I was Kit’s age at the beginning of the book when I started, and I’ll be his age at the end when it releases.

Many characters in this book struggle to balance the identities they must present to the outside world with their own internal truth. Walsingham disguises a sympathetic heart; Catholics hide in plain sight; Mary and her supporters carry out her ambition under the cloak of darkness. Kit, in particular, juggles a multitude of conflicting masks — spy, rebel, student, brother, lover, playwright. Was this something you were intending to explore with the novel?

I’m really glad you asked this! It wasn’t an idea I brought to the first draft, but it kept emerging as I wrote, and I decided to lean in. In an authoritarian society like Tudor England, where every belief and thought needs to be sanctioned by both the church and the crown, it’s not just spies and conspirators who have to hide their true intentions — almost everyone is lying about something to keep themselves safe.

What’s your go-to breakfast drink? What’s a beverage you wouldn’t want to drink at breakfast (or, possibly, ever, depending)?

I’m definitely a coffee-with-breakfast person. The first time I drank coffee was in my high school French class, when my teacher brought in a gallon milk jug of café au lait as “cultural immersion.” That Styrofoam cup remains the greatest cup of coffee I’ve ever had. I’m sure Proust would have a lot to say about this specific taste-memory, but I don’t know what exactly.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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