The Big Idea: Kathe Koja
It is sometimes said that someone is a person of their time — which may make you wonder what might happen to that person in different times, and what those times would do that person. Kathe Koja might, anyway, and it’s one of the reasons her novel Christopher Wild exists.
Come over here. There’s someone I want you to meet.
He’s a London guy, but he’s been around the block, he knows a lot of people and a lot of people know him. They say he’s a scholar and a poet, they say he’s a spy, they say he likes guys; he says he likes guys, and likes smoking, and thinks religion is all about control, not love, among other free-thinking opinions. Some people—most famously a dude named Dick who ratted him out to the authorities—suggested that the “mouth of so dangerous a [man] should be stopped.” And the authorities agreed, and had him killed.
But he was, he is, a writer. And so his work kept on speaking in tandem with that brief, steep, outrageous life—as I write this, this guy, this Christopher Marlowe, this Kit, is studied in universities around the world, his plays of turbulent men with violent ideas are produced and debated and relished, and he’s stealing the show in a show called Will.
There are more than a few Marlowe biographies and novels: you may have met him there. Anthony Burgess’ gorgeously written A Dead Man in Deptford was my own introduction to Kit, and the life pointed to the work—I’d heard of Faustus, that soul-selling literal daredevil, but the other plays (like Edward II and Tamburlaine) were ravishingly new to me. And the poems, sexy, erudite, unforgettable poems . . . I thought, who is this guy! I thought, oh god this guy. I thought, I have to write about him too.
And so my newest novel, Christopher Wild.
But befitting its subject who loved to challenge, this book was such a challenge that I was bewildered how to even begin. I don’t write about real people, I write fiction that works to make characters seem real. And no one is ever going to write a better, more beautiful bio novel than Burgess. So how could I reincarnate this man?—whose voice I was crazy in love with, and whose life has resonance not only with his own time but every era where power seeks to throttle truth, and fear sits side by side with stifling caution; which is to say, every era . . . And most of all, first and last of all, he’s a writer, a gloriously original and badass writer, how could I do him full justice on the page? All I had was doubt, and a giant pile of notes and research reading.
But I wanted to hang out with Marlowe.
So I took the leap, I plunged: I planned the structure of the novel then threw that structure totally away, I found a new way, I found that the way to show his contemporaneity was to place him in places where silence shouted loudest, where danger was deepest for a man who can’t keep his mouth shut, ever: places like his own grimly glamorous Elizabethan world, then a tense and humid McCarthyesque mid-20th century, then a darkening future just slightly past our own horizon, where punishing surveillance is the 24/7 norm.
The voice that flowered in those ages, and my pages, was a confident one, a fierce and passionate one, one that I followed every bit as much as I led: I knew him better then, I learned as we went on. Is it the book I expected I’d be writing? Not at all. But that’s what it’s like when you hang with a bold new friend, he takes you places you didn’t imagine you’d go.
Which is why I opened up the process to early supporters, who received a monthly email with research notes and cool or silly factoids (Kit Harington plays Faustus! Sniff a Marlowe perfume!), along with excerpts from the novel in progress—another thing I’d never done before, or contemplated doing.
And then all the writing was done, and Marlowe was ready, again, for his close-up, he was climbing into a big-finned yellow Buick, he was heading up the crusty subway stairs, he was striding down a slick and cobbled alley where life and death murmur together, telling eternity’s everyday secrets; he was here again, with us again, because he’s never left . . . If you’ve met him already, lucky you (and why the hell didn’t you tell me sooner?). But if you haven’t, oh then please grab a seat, get a drink, let me introduce you and we can all go wild.