Q and A with Grace Tiffany, GUNPOWDER PERCY
1. Tell us a little about your new novel.
Gunpowder Percy is a tale of early-modern intrigue, religious obsession, and Machiavellian statecraft intertwined. Shakespeare’s plays are central to the action. Performed in a seedy part of London – as they were – the plays become a focal point for an unhappy Catholic gentleman named Thomas Percy, who comes to believe Shakespeare is speaking to him through his plays, and finally, insanely, that he is the reincarnation of the dead warrior Hotspur from Henry IV, part 1. Hotspur’s called “gunpowder Percy” during the course of one of the plays, and this becomes – in this fiction – the seed of the treason that became the famous Gunpowder Plot, wherein a group of Catholic gentry attempted to blow up the House of Lords with the Protestant king in attendance.
2. You include so many impressive details about the Jacobean age in which this novel is set; I know that many are authentic (and some, interestingly, are fabricated). What research did you do before writing Gunpowder Percy?
I read quite a bit of primary and secondary material related to the Gunpowder Plot, though I stayed away from other fictions based on it. I also immersed myself in the plays that were being performed at the time, since my premise is that the history plays – which were very popular among disaffected gentry – contributed to the zealotry of the plotters. And the plays also contain a wealth of cultural detail.
3. I found Thomas Percy to be a sexy character but he's also kind of a bumbler. How realistically do you think you were able to portray the man he actually was?
It’s hard for me to tell just what he was like, from the sparse descriptions of his actual personality that are available. He might have been as quirky, odd, and rough around the edges as I’ve made him, or he might have been much more elegant. We know he was unusually tall and physically prepossessing, and he must have been rather charismatic, given the role he played as one of the ringleaders of the Gunpowder Plot. He was, interestingly, a bigamist, an aspect of his character which I romanticized (that’s probably the right word) in my story. But I believe I muted whatever charisma he probably had, making him subordinate in charm to the other ringleader, Robin Catesby, who in my tale is all elegance, next to Thomas’s somewhat pathetic roughness. I was interested in the possibility that Percy, unlike his partner Robin Catesby, was never entirely comfortable among the higher gentry with whom he consorted, and that his imitation of the medieval heroes he saw on stage emerged partly from his yearning to be a true member of a noble house, rather than a poor relation.
4. You've mentioned that Hilary Mantel is a writer you greatly admire. Aside from Shakespeare, who are some of your other influences?
Hilary Mantel is not really one of my influences, probably because I only recently discovered her. She’s just someone I think is great. In fact, I have corresponded with her and we agree that we cannot read other historical novelists while we’re writing historical fiction, in order to avoid their influence. So what influences actually come to bear on my writing? Well, I know how strange this is going to sound, but the person who comes to mind is Flannery O’Connor. When I write fiction set in the Renaissance – which isn’t all the time, I’ve written other kinds of fiction – I try to catch the rhythms and texture of early modern English speech, and for this my prime sources of inspiration are the plays not only of Shakespeare, but of Ben Jonson and John Marston, among others. And that speech can sometimes be ornate.
But as far as narrative description is concerned, I strive to be simple and straightforward. I admire writers who call things what they are and describe their characters’ behavior – no matter how strange it is – without embellishment or complex explanation. Of course there is a kind of great writing that does include detailed dissections of characters’ interior lives -- Jane Austen, George Eliot. These are great novelists. But as for me, even when describing a character’s thoughts, I try to keep those explanations minimal and spend more time recounting behavior and the way the physical world looks to him, or to her, in as simple a language as I can muster. There’s a line in one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, describing a character viewing her surroundings, which is one of my favorite lines in literature: “Everything looked like itself.” Wow. What did the cow look like? A cow. What did the house look like? A house. I want to write like that!
5. You've written other novels set in the Elizabethan age that also were influenced in some manner by Shakespeare's plays, and you also write scholarly work that concerns the Renaissance - what is it about this era that first drew you to it and continues to inspire you?
I chose to get a doctorate in literature, and then to focus on Shakespeare because Shakespeare was the generally acknowledged pinnacle. My knowledge of and love for his plays really grew, then, out of the kind of immersion in them, and in the other literature of his time period, which I underwent in order to teach Shakespeare. I think any period of history becomes fascinating to you if you spend a lot of time studying it. The Renaissance has it all – treason and drama and political spies and religious controversy and overwhelmingly beautiful, imaginative, rich language – but then, so does every other period in English history! This is just the one I know most about.
6. What are you working on now if you don't mind disclosing it?
I am translating Jorge Luis Borges’ writings on Shakespeare. I am having a wonderful time. And Borges is another influence on me. He shows us that plot is everything. (Aristotle was right about that.) He’s another one of my influences, if I can use that word to mean people whose writing I consciously emulate. I’m not Borges and I’m not Flannery O’Connor, but I aim for their standard of elegance, precision, and honesty. It’s important to watch what you read, and to aim high.
Grace Tiffany is a professor of English Renaissance Literature at Western Michigan University. She has edited Shakespeare's The Tempest, and authored two books on English Renaissance literature and culture, as well as six novels, including My Father Had a Daughter (Berkley, 2003), listed as a best book by the independent booksellers' association Booksense 76; and Ariel (HarperCollins, 2006), listed as a best book by the American Library Association. Her latest work of fiction is Gunpowder Percy (Bagwyn Books, 2016).