Fiction Book of the Month: Steven Veerapen on The Queen’s Fire

The author talks about his latest Christopher Marlowe thriller.
Home » Author interviews » Fiction Book of the Month: Steven Veerapen on The Queen’s Fire

The Queen’s Fire is the third instalment in the Christopher Marlowe series, how does this novel differ from the first two in the collection?

The difference between this book and the previous ones is two-fold, I think. For one, Christopher Marlowe is, for once, dragged reluctantly into the central drama (whereas in the previous adventures, he was very much thirsting for adventure!). For another, this novel takes place against a real historical event – the arrival and scattering of the Spanish Armada. This meant that I was in some ways confined to a real time-line; we know when the Armada was first spotted, when the battles at sea were fought, etc.

What influenced you to write about the playwright Christopher Marlowe? How much of his character is pulled from the historical figure?

I’ve been teaching Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus for years and I’ve always been interested in the man himself. He’s such a fascinating figure – mainly, I think, because those scraps of evidence we do have about his private life suggest that he wasn’t entirely likeable (if they’re true) and that he was very probably willing to engage in dubious government intelligence work. So much is missing in our knowledge about his life, as with many jobbing playwright/poets of the day. That leaves lots of room for novelistic interpretations…

What is your process for writing historical fiction? 

I will generally come up with a protagonist and a set of supporting characters (based on types of figure that did or could have existed), and then I’ll fix upon a specific year. Following that, I’ll research what went on during that year and then find a backdrop I think would work (whilst noting down real-life figures who were about at the time, as I do love a cameo!). After that, it’s a case of considering what kind of scrapes the characters could get into. Sometimes history helps – there might be real-life plots or schemes or events which can offer a helping hand. Beyond that, it’s a case of letting the characters react to incidents and events – letting their personalities dictate how they might make matters worse for themselves!

The novel is very dutifully researched – how did you go about your research?

I’m lucky enough to have studied this period for years, so I have a lot of books. What I usually try and do is read biographies of all the real-life characters who will appear (Walsingham, Dr Lopez, etc.) and as many as possible on the central events of the time period I’m setting the novel in. The more you read, the more little nuggets you pick up.

What most interests you about 16th century Britain, and the Spanish Armada? Why did you choose this epic setting for your novel?

I’ve always loved the 16th century, and the Armada is one of those totemic moments. It’s so iconic that it’s easy to forget that nothing happened, at least in England – there was no invasion. Yet no one at the time could have predicted this, in England or elsewhere. The rest of the world expected Philip’s Armada to land. Additionally, despite the lack of Spanish landfall, the event gave us so many famous moments: the beacons being lit, the defences being mounted, and of course the famous Armada speech by Elizabeth I.

Are there any aspects of the period, uncovered during your research, that you found surprising, or that would go against general public understanding of the Spanish Armada?

One thing that has always surprised me is how often the Armada is portrayed as a great English victory – almost a turning point. To give the English sea forces their due, they certainly outmanoeuvred the Spanish vessels and did some damage (and caused confusion and disarray), but it was the weather and Spanish failings in pre-organisation of communications that did for them. Further, the failing of the Armada wasn’t the end of Spanish attempts at invasion; two more Armadas would make the attempt in coming years, though again the weather would be against them. Finally, the iconic image of Elizabeth being a great queen to her soldiery at Tilbury is belied by the fact that she and Burghley did little for them after the crisis was over. The forces were disbanded the day after the Tilbury speech and Burghley, always one to weigh up pros and cons, wrote of the benefits of leaving them to starve to death: ‘by death, by discharging of sick men and such like, there may be spared something in the general pay’. In other words, the government would save some money by letting those it had demobbed starve.

The novel portrays a gritty view of spies in the 1500s. What did espionage really look like during the period?

It was, I think, both surprisingly effective in terms of organisation and surprisingly disorganised at the same time. What I mean is that the networks and reach of intelligence officers was really international: Walsingham had agents all over Europe and into Turkey. Yet at the same time, I’m always struck by how loose things were – there was no such thing as a professional spy, in the sense that no one had a secure job. Agents would be recruited and tested, employed on specific jobs or paid for specific information, and then they might change employers (going over to the ‘enemy’ side) without a thought. There was little loyalty between spymasters and spies, and so none going the other way. It often worked well and all kind of ingenious methods were used, but it would take a brave person to chance indulging in what was called ‘spiery’.

What are you working on next? Can we expect more from Christopher Marlowe?

I’m afraid Marlowe has retired – at least from spying. Real-life gets in the way from 1588 onwards, as his literary career took off. I’m currently looking forward to a non-fiction release – The Wisest Fool: The Lavish Life of James VI and I, and considering which parts of the sixteenth century I’ve yet to touch!

Steven Veerapen is the author of The Queen’s Fire, published by Sharpe Books. You can listen to Steven chat with our editor on the Aspects of History Podcast. Interview by Alya Magness-Jarvis.