Saturday, February 13, 2021

Allison Epstein

photo credit: Kristin DiMaggio
Allison Epstein earned her M.F.A. in fiction from Northwestern University and a B.A. in creative writing and Renaissance literature from the University of Michigan. A Michigan native, she now lives in Chicago, where she works as a copywriter. When not writing, she enjoys good theater, bad puns, and fancy jackets.

Epstein new book, A Tip for the Hangman, is her first novel.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The goal of the title was to sweep the reader up into the dangerous world of Elizabethan espionage: full of secrets, impossible choices, and people who can be swayed for the right price. A Tip for the Hangman is a pun to that effect. (My friends know I'm an incorrigible pun-lover.) On one level, my spies are searching for heretics and traitors, so the secrets they uncover will tip off the hangman about his next victim. On another, it was customary at the time for condemned prisoners to pay a monetary tip to the executioner—a weird, grim factoid that hints at how some of my characters seal their own fates.

I love the title, but it was a mess getting there: my team and I had a document with 75 options, and we went back and forth for weeks. The working title was The Devil and the Rose, which my agent loved but others thought wasn’t specific enough. Now, though, I can’t imagine this book with any other name.

What's in a name?

Since 90% of the characters in my book are real historical figures, I didn’t have to think much about naming them! In the case of Kit Marlowe, the name fortunately had the perfect feel for the character I was shaping. “Kit,” as a nickname for Christopher, feels both of-the-period and modern. It rolls off the tongue like a stage name—perfect for a playwright and a spy. And the single syllable feels full of energy—perfect for a fast-thinking liar, and also great to snarl at a guy who’s just done something stupid.

There’s a drawback to this approach, though. 60% of sixteenth-century men had the same three first names, which is why my book has five Thomases and five Roberts. There’s one scene with so many men named Thomas it almost broke me and my copy editor both.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

I read mostly high fantasy as a teen, so I might have expected my book to feature more elves and/or vampires than it does. Then again, I was a Shakespeare nerd even in high school, and I have fond memories of getting cast as Iago in junior-year English, so the turn to Elizabethan historical fiction does track. The way A Tip for the Hangman thinks about sexuality probably would have surprised me more, as mine wasn’t something I figured out until much later.

To be honest, teenage me would also be surprised there’s cursing and sex in this book. I was a very well-behaved young person.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

It’s funny, but the beginning and the end of A Tip for the Hangman barely changed from draft to draft. It always started and ended where it now starts and ends, and the last three chapters in particular are virtually unchanged from when I wrote them at one in the morning six years ago. It’s the darn middle that gets me. There are thirteen separate drafts of pages 175 to 275 saved on my computer right now. I won't explain exactly why in order to preserve my authorly mystique, but suffice to say I had to write it wrong many times before I could write it right.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Oh, there’s a lot of me in Kit, for sure. What is it people say, the first novel is always autobiographical? Mine isn’t exactly—for one thing, I would be a really awful spy—but Kit and I are motivated by a lot of the same things. We share a desire for recognition and respect that we’re both a little ashamed to admit, and his complicated relationship with authority is definitely drawn in part from mine. We’re worlds different too: it’s great fun for a shy person to write a character who wouldn’t know shyness if it shook him warmly by the hand.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I tell people the two pieces of art that shaped A Tip for the Hangman the most were the movies A Knight’s Tale and Shakespeare in Love. I love historical fiction that smashes together new genres and makes the past feel deliberately and immediately modern. (Do not get me started on Shakespeare in Love’s portrayal of Marlowe, though. That’s a whole separate post.) I also listened to an embarrassing amount of Hozier while writing, which deepened and reinforced my love for somewhat-spooky religious imagery.
Visit Allison Epstein's website.

My Book, The Movie: A Tip for the Hangman.

The Page 69 Test: A Tip for the Hangman.

--Marshal Zeringue