Ask the Author: Allison Epstein
What would you like readers to know about you?
I’m a writer, editor, and theater nerd living in Chicago, and I’ve wanted to be an author since the day I first read Charlotte’s Web at age five. Historical fiction and fantasy are my reading happy places, and I have loud opinions about most of the former kings and queens of England. (Anne of Cleves is the best, and if time travel were possible, I would like to buy her a drink.) I enjoy terrible puns, piping-hot french fries, and going to bed early.
What is your book about for those who haven’t read it?
A Tip for the Hangman is a historical fiction novel-slash-spy adventure about the Elizabethan poet and playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe. When the novel begins, Kit is a graduate student on scholarship at Cambridge, trying to skate by with his degree and pursue his passion for poetry. However, all his plans go out the window when he is approached by Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster. Kit, always a bit disreputable at the best of times, is recruited to be one of the queen’s spies. His first mission: infiltrating the household of the queen’s treacherous cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots.
Kit is a more successful spy than anyone expected, and he finds himself drawn deep into the uncertain world of espionage, conspiracy, and high treason. But as he becomes enmeshed in the very plots he sought to uncover, he realizes that everything he worked so hard to attain—including the trust of the man he loves—could vanish before his eyes.
What has been your inspiration for writing it?
I’ve had a longstanding passion for Elizabethan England: Shakespeare’s plays were my intro, and as a research nerd, I followed just about every rabbit hole I could find from there. The minute one of my college professors introduced me to the story of Kit Marlowe, I knew I wanted to learn more about him. His character instantly jumped out at me: modern, daring, dangerous, creative, and yet—at least in my view—frightened, insecure, and deeply human beneath it all. Kit was a person I wanted to spend time with from the jump, and the story sort of shaped itself from there.
What was your favorite scene or part of your book to write?
There’s a scene toward the middle of A Tip for the Hangman where Kit and his London friends go to the famous Mermaid tavern to celebrate the successful launch of one of Kit’s plays. I loved getting to imagine what some of the most famous players in the early modern theater scene might have gotten up to in their off-hours. What was William Shakespeare like in his early days as an actor? Could Ned Alleyn hold his beer? (No.) That whole milieu is so vibrant and exciting, and I had a fantastic time jumping in and putting my own spin on it.
What books or authors inspired you to become a writer?
I had a professor once who described the idea of having a “mental committee”: the writers whose works you turn to when you get stuck, and whose tricks you try to learn from. (Thanks, Reg, it’s a great metaphor.) These days, my committee members are Kate Quinn, V.E. Schwab, Madeline Miller, Maggie O’Farrell, Susanna Clarke, and Erin Morgenstern. As a kid, it was Tamora Pierce, J.R.R. Tolkein, Cornelia Funke, and every single book in the Dear America series, but especially the Titanic one.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors who want to write a book?
Don’t go it alone! Writing is a solitary pursuit, and for the longest time I thought that meant I couldn’t rely on anybody but me to get a book across the finish line. Now I know that couldn’t be further from the truth. I have a group of writing friends I regularly send chapters to for feedback, who help hold me accountable for meeting deadlines, who will bounce ideas back and forth, and who will get excited with me when I’m starting something new and intimidating. And I do the same for them! Knowing there are people rooting for you is so important, and it can get you through the most frustrating parts of writing.