Please welcome Phillip DePoy to the blog. I’m a big fan of his work, and am very excited to dive into his new book, A Prisoner of Malta, out today! He answered a few of my questions about it, and courtesy of the publisher, we have a copy to give away to one lucky US winner (enter to win using the widget below the post.)
Will you tell us a bit about A Prisoner of Malta?
The novel takes place in England a few years before Shakespeare arrived in London. It features a young Christopher Marlowe as an agent for Queen Elizabeth and her spymaster Walsingham. He’s recruited by a family friend, Dr. Lopez (the Queen’s physician) to go to the Island of Malta, there to rescue a prisoner vital to the British cause. In the meantime Marlowe himself is accused of murdering a fellow Cambridge student, the dead body was found in Marlowe’s room. Arab assassins, Basque separatists, Spanish spies, local thugs, and Armada warships all conspire to prevent Marlowe from his appointed task. And it’s all historically accurate—more or less.
What made you decide to take on Christopher Marlowe as your leading character?
Honestly, knowing my penchant for Marlowe and his time period, Keith Kahla and Janet Reid suggested the series to me. I had, for twenty years, been the director of several university theatre programs, and some of my favorite theatre stories involved Marlowe, Kyd, and Shakespeare. I’d been talking about Marlowe for such a long time, writing his exploits turned out to be very natural. And the most fun I’ve ever had sitting at a keyboard.
Why do you think he’s such a compelling character?
Marlowe’s a perfect mystery himself. (No coincidence, obviously, that Chandler chose the name.) He was an exemplary Renaissance man: good at poetry, playwriting, swordplay, sex, and song. But the rumors about his life are so tantalizing: that he was a spy, that he sometimes disguised himself as a woman, that he was actually a double agent, that he wrote Shakespeare’s plays, and, best of all, that he didn’t die in Deptford as the historical record would have us believe. He was allegedly bested by Ingram Frizer, a vastly inferior fighter, and stabbed in the eye. There was so much blood on the dead man’s face, and that face was so disfigured by the wound, that the primary evidence of his death was the testimony of Frizer himself and the fact that the dead body had on Marlowe’s clothes. A month later Frizer was free without any further investigation, and the corpse had been cremated (or buried in an unmarked grave, depending on which account is read). And after that Shakespeare’s plays suddenly dominated the London theatre scene. And of course if Jim Jarmusch is to be believed—and I don’t know why he wouldn’t be—Marlowe survived for a very long time as a vampire. He may even, in fact, be writing the screenplay for this very book.
What other characters did you particularly enjoy writing about?
I like Dr. Rodrigo Lopez. He was a Portuguese Jew who was forced to convert to Christianity in London and became Queen Elizabeth’s personal doctor; saved her life several times. For his ministrations Elizabeth gave him sole control over the importation of aniseed and sumac, which made him a fantastically wealthy man. Then, at the height of his favor, he was denounced as having plotted to poison the queen, arrested, tortured, and executed in a manner that was harsh even by the standard of the time. I really want to know what happened.
What kind of research did you do for the book, and what is your writing process like?
I read every book I could find (twenty-seven) on Elizabethan England and the Elizabethan world order. A favorite volume was Anthony Burgess’s SHAKESPEARE, which really personalized the character of Marlowe and gave some great insight into the bizarre and complex machinations of the royal court. But as I mentioned, I’d been deeply involved in the study of that world for quite a while theatrically. As an added bonus, by wife happened to be working on a play about the commissioning of MACBETH at the same time as I was writing A PRISONER IN MALTA and we were able to share a lot of research. As to my process, I write every morning, and have since 1965, without fail.
And when I wake up I can’t wait to get to it. There are only three things I love more than the process of writing. I’m aware of the cliché that some writers don’t like writing, they like having written. I’m not one of them. The same holds true for theatre, now that I think about it. I love the process of creating the world of the novel or the play, the rehearsal is more important than the performance, to me.
You have an extensive background in writing and theater. What’s one of the first things that you can remember writing?
I began writing poetry when I was 14 and the first one I wrote was an attempt to make a girl like me. Alas, I don’t mean any specific girl, exactly. I gave the same poem to three girls at the same time. They all did like me for a moment, but two of them were best friends and when they found out that I’d given them both the same 10 lines, they wouldn’t speak to me. The third person lived in a different part of town. I continued to write and publish poetry for many years, but I also began writing plays (one of the first was a radio play in 1971 that replayed for nearly two years, on and off). I didn’t write my first novel until the early 1980s.
What authors have inspired you the most in your writing, and in life?
Jorge Borges is, for me, the greatest writer of the 20th Century, and a great inspiration. I would also confess that the John Fowles novel The Magus changed my life and my ideas about literature. (In fact many years later John Fowles changed my ideas about literature again with a novel—or, really, a new kind of fiction—called A Maggot.) I first tried to write poetry like Wallace Stevens, at which I naturally failed. The Alan Watts book on ZEN was a huge influence on me personally. And finally I will say that I re-read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas about every five years; it just keeps getting funnier every time
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
The Magus, as mentioned above.
Have you read any good books lately? Anything you’d recommend?
When I’m working on several fiction projects at once, as I am now, I read non-fiction mostly. I’ve really enjoyed Ben Macintyre’s books Agent Zig Zag and Operation Mincemeat. I really liked Patty Smith’s Just Kids. I’m also reading several books by Thích Nhất Hạnh.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?
As I mentioned, I’m occupied with several things right now. The second book in this Marlowe series is in the works. I’ve written a play, Foxglove, set in Appalachia and based on the Tristan and Iseult mythology. And the Alliance theatre has commissioned a new musical called Nick’s Flamengo Grill about a desegregated nightclub in the 1950s. I’m also working on a small performance piece with several other people, actors and musicians, which promises to be a lot of fun. Or, if not fun, at least short.
Keep up with Philip: Website
About A Prisoner in Malta:
In 1583, the nineteen-year-old Christopher Marlowe—with a reputation as a brawler, a womanizer, a genius, and a social upstart at Cambridge University—is visited by a man representing Marlowe’s benefactors. There are rumors of a growing plot against her majesty Queen Elizabeth I, and the Queen’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, has charged young Marlowe with tracking down the truth. The path to that truth seems to run through an enigmatic prisoner held in complete seclusion in a heavily guarded dungeon in Malta. Marlowe must use every bit of his wits, his skills, and his daring to unravel one of the greatest mysteries in history and help uncover and unravel scheme of assassination and invasion, one involving the government of Spain, high ranking English nobles, and even Pope himself.
Christopher Marlowe—Elizabethan playwright, poet, and spy—is one of the most enigmatic figures in Renaissance England. The son of a shoemaker from Canterbury, he attended Cambridge University on scholarship and, while frequently in trouble, was bailed out through the intercession of Queen Elizabeth I’s Privy Council. Long rumored to have been an agent on behalf of the Queen’s spymaster, Edgar Award winner Phillip DePoy’s new series brings Marlowe and his times to life.