Acting Like Yourself #TheLiteraryOthers

Today, I am honored to welcome back to the blog, Kathe Koja!

Kathe is one of my favorite writers (who happens to have written one of my favorite books). If this is your first introduction to her, you’re in for a treat! Please enjoy this brilliant piece, and be sure to read through to the end for a special treat! 

Acting Like Yourself: Christopher Marlowe, Talk and the mecs

Kathe Koja

We are who we are: that’s determined by genes, by sexuality, by the attributes and traits that combine to make personality; the self is a given from day one.

But how we self-define and then choose to reveal and present ourselves to the world—how we act—that’s mutable, and responsive to circumstance. Enacting the truth of the self is a lifelong gift and task; and easier for some of us than for others, especially if our earliest days were shaped by the pressure to conform, or by fear that made it seem safest to hide who we really are.

As a writer, I work hard to understand my characters—I need to know who they truly are before I can make them real in a novel. And in some of my novels, it’s theatre and the stage, the enactment of roles, that have helped to reveal or highlight those characters’ deepest selves.

talk_pbTalk pivots on a high school performance of a controversial play. Kit Webster has been hiding who he is, unsure how to tell his friends, his parents, his world, that he’s gay, and it’s the action of performance, playing the male lead in the play called “Talk,” that opens him up, from silence to talk, from a fairy tale crush into real first love: “What would he do if he knew? about me, about how I feel for him? What would I do, set free with something bigger than relief—release, into that room where everything is, everything I want?” Losing himself in the role is Kit’s way of finding himself for good, in every sense.

In the Under the Poppy trilogy, the stage is everywhere, on the open road, in a grubby brothel or a Victorian townhouse, and everyone is acting, piling role upon role, sometimes using the mecs, puppets, to perform in outrageous or confrontational ways. But it’s the novels’ heroes, Istvan and Rupert, whose lifelong love is fed, tested, and ultimately enriched by the performance they enact together on the stage of the world, in their comradeship, feints, and deceptions. And both come to know that it is “foolish to call the play at all, for comic or tragic, while the curtain are still parted; always there may be a twist to the story, a coup de maître, a masterstroke.”

Book cover illustration
Book cover illustration

And writing a novel (Christopher Wild) about the trailblazing Elizabethan writer Christopher Marlowe has led me deeply into Marlowe’s dark impassioned view of human nature, its greeds and furies and love of power. His worldview was informed by what he learned as an operative for the Queen’s spy network, itself another kind of performance, with human lives and nations at stake. And Marlowe brought a forthright gay sensibility to his poetry and plays, perhaps most movingly in Edward II, where the king is asked point blank about his lover, Piers Gaveston, “Why should you love him whom the world hates so?” and replies as directly “Because he loves me more than all the world.” Marlowe was as honest about his own beliefs and desires in an era when the wrong words could mean imprisonment and torture, especially for a man who lived so vividly in the public eye.

The stage seems a place of pretense, but sometimes it’s where the literary others find themselves most truly at home, in the words they write or speak, in the masks that show their own true faces to the world. We all are exactly and forever who we are: let none of us ever be unwilling or afraid to act the part.


Kathe has generously offered one autographed copy of her brilliant and beautiful novel, UNDER THE POPPY (find my review here).

To enter: please leave a comment on this post engaging with the topic. What do you think about character(s)? Performance? Have you ever felt you were “acting a part” in life? Do be sure to leave your email so that I can contact the winner.

Giveaway open until October 31st at 11:59PM CT. 

2 Comments on “Acting Like Yourself #TheLiteraryOthers

  1. Just posting here to say I really recommend Under the Poppy! I was lucky enough to win it during the previous Literary Others event (I think), and it was great (although I really, really need to reread it)


  2. Really interesting discussion. I think it harkens back to the age-old discussion of what the essential self is: are we more ourselves when we’re alone, or when we’re surrounded by others, in society and in company or even on stage, where a monologuing actor is simultaneously alone AND in company? Is there a such thing as an essential self at all, for theatre to mask or reveal? Maybe what theatre does, in literature or in real life, and why it has such power for subversion, is dismantle the assumption that there is a fundamental self at all–or, for that matter, distinctions between performances.

    Thanks so much for this post! It would be exciting to win, as I really love Koja’s Poppy series and don’t yet have a physical copy, but either way!


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