I’ve visited a lot of book clubs in the year since The Bookman’s Tale was published in hardcover and I always enjoy hearing readers’ take on the story of Peter and Amanda and William Shakespeare. Here are some short answers to the questions I hear most often.
10. Have you always been a Shakespeare enthusiast?
I first encountered Shakespeare as a middle school student when our fifth-grade class saw a production of The Taming of the Shrew. I loved it and immediately tried to motivate my classmates to do our own staging of Romeo and Juliet (a short-lived project only partly motivated by a crush I had on a girl). Since then I’ve seen scores of Shakespeare productions, read the plays for classes and for pleasure, acted in Shakespeare, and even used Shakespeare as a jumping off point for several of my children’s plays. I got to play the lead in Measure for Measure, but my favorite role was Feste, the clown, in Twelfth Night. I love that show, and I got to end every performance with a song. What could be better? When I came to write about Shakespeare in The Bookman’s Tale, I brought all my experiences (as an audience member, an actor, and a playwright) to the project.
9. Who do you believe wrote Shakespeare’s plays?
I like to say that though I have a cottage in Oxfordshire, I remain a staunch Stratfordian. In other words, I believe the plays were written by William Shakespeare of Stratford. There is one way of wording the principal called Ockham’s Razor that goes like this: the simplest explanation is usually the best one. I’m inclined to believe that—I am not naturally a conspiracy theorist. One reason I side with the Stratfordians is that the number of people necessary to keep a secret Shakespearian identity hidden would have been impressive and would have included actors, theatre managers, printers, and even royal officials. All of these people would have had to have been involved in a conspiracy and all of them would have had to keep their mouths shut. In my experience, people aren’t that good at keeping their mouths shut. So, unless hard evidence convinces me otherwise, I’ll stick with Mr. Shakespeare.
8. Did you do a lot of research?
If you look in the acknowledgements of the book you’ll find the titles of some of the books I consulted when working on the historic part of the novel. Many other reference sources are mentioned in the text itself—particularly the Dictionary of National Biography. However, much of the information about rare books I gleaned from many years as a collector (and several as a rare book dealer). I also believe, as another historical novelist and friend once said, that it’s possible to do too much research. A novel, after all, is fiction, and first and foremost it must function as a work of fiction. So, while I worked hard to get the details of the different time periods correct, I was perfectly happy to treat historical characters (like William Henry Smith for instance) as fictional characters and have them do things they almost certainly did not do in real life.
7. What is you book collecting “Holy Grail”?
I always say that my Holy Grail is some book that nobody knew existed—some previously unknown pamphlet by Lewis Carroll for instance (he is the focus of my collection). But as far as items that we know existed at some point in history, I think I would have to say that my Holy Grail would be the four missing volumes of Lewis Carroll’s adult diary. The were still in existence in the 1920s and nobody knows what happened to them. While they would, by all rights, belong to the British Library (to whom the family donated the rest of the diary volumes) it would be amazing to be the person who opened up an old box and found those missing diaries.
6. Did you know the ending when you started writing?
I didn’t. When working on a novel I like to first get grounded in a place. I knew the worlds of Kingham and Ridgefield well before I started writing. Next comes character, and while I learned a lot about Peter, Amanda, Liz and others through the writing process, I had a good idea of what the major characters were like fairly soon. Last for me comes plot or story. I had a general idea where the book was going when I started, but I do not like to work from an outline. I like to leave myself room to change plans or add in new ideas that come up during the process. As I get near the end of the first draft, sometimes I will make a rough outline of all the things that still need to happen. Once the first draft is done and I have a solid story, I begin working on revisions to hone that story and the characters who enact it.
Stay tuned for my top five questions, next week!