Booksquawk interviews Simon Andrew Stirling, author of "Who Killed William Shakespeare?"
Interview by Hereward L.M. Proops
Booksquawk: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your books.
Simon Andrew Stirling: I’ve been writing since I was a child. What started as a form of escapism (growing up in the suburbs of Birmingham, England, wasn’t all that exciting) became kind of fixed during summer holidays in Scotland. That’s when I began to develop a fascination with history. But I also wanted to act, and so writing became a spare-time activity for when I wasn’t acting. I went to drama school and got my first literary agent while I was there, and one of the directors at LAMDA got me two of my first writing commissions (one was adapting the libretto of a Danish comic opera into English – I don’t even speak Danish). I wrote television drama scripts for a few years, but had a longstanding desire to write a book about Shakespeare.
My wife and I were married on the Isle of Iona in Scotland in 2002, and I think that spurred me into resuming my historical studies. I began with my non-fiction history book about Arthur – which had a significant Scottish dimension – and then finally got started on my Shakespeare book. My wife was born in Stratford, and we live just 15 minutes away from the town, so I think location has played a major part in both the Arthur and Shakespeare projects.
BS: How do you come to write "Who Killed William Shakespeare?"
SAW: Many years ago, at Glasgow University, I was in a production of Tom Stoppard’s "Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead", which is really a kind of inside-out "Hamlet". A few months later, I stumbled across an old one-Act play, which was also based on "Hamlet". I thought to myself, if I were to take a Shakespeare play and mess around with it, which one would I choose? Straightaway, I knew that it would be "Macbeth", and that the character I was most interested in was Lady Macbeth.
I started reading up on Shakespeare, trying to figure out where the character of the Lady had come from. That led me to study the Gunpowder Plot – the 9/11 of its day – and to trace Shakespeare’s connections to that conspiracy. Little by little, I began to have my doubts about the standard biography of Shakespeare. But I was also hugely frustrated because, even though I had been an English Literature student, a trainee actor and a professional dramatist, I could barely make head-or-tail of his plays.
The breakthrough came six or seven years ago, when I began to study the Catholic references in Shakespeare’s works, and how Catholics were treated in Shakespeare’s England. That proved to be the key. Unless you have a grasp of the Reformation and its effects on Shakespeare’s period, you can’t really make sense of his writings. But when you factor in the appalling persecution, the lawlessness, the incessant propaganda, the paranoia, the bigotry and hatred, suddenly his work becomes clear as crystal.
By then, I had also started looking at the circumstances surrounding his retirement and death. It took a long, long time, but a picture gradually emerged. And when I told The History Press that I was eager to write a book about Shakespeare, it was the strange nature of his sudden disappearance and the silence which followed that intrigued them. After I’d pitched some of the material to my editor, I noticed that she had scribbled on her notepad, "Who killed William Shakespeare?" So that became the title.
BS: Do you have a particular routine for writing?
SAW: On a good day, I’ll get up, switch on my laptop, make a pot of coffee, check my emails, and then get down to work. Too many distractions in the early part of the day can make it very hard for me to get much done. I used to work through the night, very often, and go for extremely long walks to get my brain going. Now I just like to get started as quickly as I can.
I try to write every day, although that’s not always possible. But if I’m working on the first draft of something, I have very little choice. For me, the first draft is all about bulldozing through and keeping going whatever happens. If I lose a day or two, I’ll probably have to go back to the beginning and start again.
It gets easier after the first draft, because the thing exists and now I just have to keep working on it till it shines. Whether I do a couple of hundred or a couple of thousand words a day, it doesn’t matter so much when I’m editing and revising.
BS: You’ve clearly climbed mountains of research in creating this book. At what point did you think "I’ve read enough, time to start writing ..."?
SAW: I quite like researching while I’m writing, or writing while I’m researching. I still like to think of writing as a journey of discovery, and it’s only when I’m working my way through the material that I find out some of the things I need to research.
It’s a hideously inefficient way of working, of course – which is probably why it took me 25 years to write the Shakespeare book! Generally, though, I do my background research, so that I know roughly where I’m going and what the structure of the project will be, and then I start writing, researching as I go along. After a while, I’ll have to go back to the start because the fresh discoveries require a rethink. I like to think of it as an organic process, even though there can be countless false starts, because the story is revealing itself to me as I go along.
My guess is, if I did all my research and then started writing, I’d be locked into a certain way of seeing the story. The method I’ve evolved is expensive in terms of time and energy, but it allows for the story to change, often quite radically, in the light of new information. A great many preconceptions might have to be jettisoned along the way. But that’s a good thing. It stops you falling into the trap (all too common among historians) of simply repeating what previous writers have said.
BS: What has the reception to "Who Killed William Shakespeare?" been so far?
SAW: It’s still early days. Local journalists kept telling me that the Shakespeare experts in Stratford scoffed and sneered at the theory that Shakespeare was murdered, but since none of them had read the book – and nobody has ever really explained how he died – I thought their reaction was a little premature.
The response in the trade (retailers, distributors, etc.) has been extremely positive. And I’m pleased to say that family members who kept quiet about my Arthur book have been raving about the Shakespeare.
BS: What is your favourite work by Shakespeare and why?
SAW: I’m very fond of his poem, "A Lover’s Complaint". I think it’s an extremely personal and autobiographical piece of work which relates directly to the great love affair of his life. And I’m sure that at least half of it is missing, so that what we have is a bit like an old sepia photograph which fixes a moment in time but can only hint at the bigger story.
Of his plays, I was quite surprised to discover how much I enjoyed reading "Pericles". It’s the first of his romances, or tragi-comedies, and he was experimenting with a whole new style and approach. It appealed to my visual sense (I’d love to make a movie version of it) and it affected me emotionally. Interestingly, it was one of his most successful, at the time, and was particularly popular with Catholic audiences. I’m not Catholic, by the way, but I think that our inability to make sense of Shakespeare because we try to pretend that he wasn’t a Catholic has blinded us to the virtues of "Pericles".
BS: Have you got a favourite performance of a Shakespeare play on stage or screen?
SAW: I once saw a Zulu version of "Macbeth" at the Globe in London. That was quite something. A bit more African dancing than you usually get in Shakespeare’s tragedies!
Otherwise, one film adaptation that really stands out for me is Julie Taymor’s "Titus" (1999), starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. It’s not one of Shakespeare’s easiest plays – in fact, it’s usually dismissed as an immature piece of work, as if young Will was going through his Tarantino period – but it’s certainly one of his angriest. It’s a faithful adaptation, and visually striking, but I’m especially fond of it because I saw it twice: once before I started studying Catholicism in Shakespeare’s time, and again afterwards. The first time was like every other Shakespeare production I’d seen (including the Zulu one) in that I could hardly understand a word. The second time I was in tears throughout: it was an emotionally draining, devastating experience. That taught me an important lesson – put Shakespeare back in the context of his times and he’ll speak directly to you. It’ll all be very clear, and probably heartbreaking.
BS: What other writers of fiction and non-fiction do you admire?
SAW: I grew up on a diet of Ian Fleming and Alan Garner. I kind of grew out of Fleming, but Garner still fascinates me as a writing technician. His "Red Shift" is – for my money – one of the most brilliant novels ever written.
With non-fiction, I rate John Prebble very highly: his Scottish history books often read like novels. And Kate Williams wrote a fantastic biography of Emma Hamilton – "England’s Mistress" – which I think of as a bit of a biographical benchmark. But the history book that really changed my life was Dee Brown’s "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee". It was probably that book which made me want to write history. More to the point, it made me want to expose the lies and the horrors of the past. Brown forced everybody to rethink the history of the American West and the Indian Wars. We need something of that standard that will make us rethink our history here in Britain.
BS: What is next in the pipeline? Are you in the process of writing anything else?
SAW: I actually made myself a promise in 2006 to write and publish my Arthur and Shakespeare projects. Which meant that, as I was finishing work on the manuscript of "Who Killed William Shakespeare?" in the summer of 2012, I began to panic. What was I going to do next? I hadn’t got a plan!
I’ve been lucky, though, in that Moon Books offered me the chance to write a new book one chapter at a time, publishing each chapter as a monthly instalment on their blog, the aim being that they’ll publish it all in paperback next year. The title is "The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion", and working on it has allowed me to take my Arthur research a little further and a little deeper, building on and branching off from "The King Arthur Conspiracy・(The History Press, 2012). It痴 also given me time to work out what I want to do for my next project ・which, with any luck, will be a history of the Jacobite rebellions.
I think I’ll enjoy writing about the Jacobites in the year of the Scottish independence referendum.
Read the review of Who Killed William Shakespeare here.