Atheism, Book Review, Christopher Marlowe, Historical Fiction, Kathe Koja, LGBT, Novella

Christopher Wild by Kathe Koja

Anna Quindlen once wrote, “[books] are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” It is hard for me to find a better example of this adage than the works of Kathe Koja. The act of reading her stories is not just an experience, but an event. Every time I begin a new Koja novel, I wonder, “can I really go home again?” There is a fear in the first pages, a desperate hopefulness that Koja will not have abandoned me as a reader. But the answer to that question has repeatedly been, yes. In reading Kathe Koja, I come home.

Christopher Wild is a remarkable trilogy of novellas that reimagines the life of Christopher Marlowe as it was in the 1590s and as it could have been in more recent times. The first novella, written in the passionate, fluid, Elizabethan style that will be familiar to fans of Under the Poppy, pays great homage to the historical life of Marlowe and his contemporaries. Included in the tale are a number of familiar characters, including Shakespeare and the University Wits. Koja adeptly tackles the myth of the man and weaves into it the facts as we know them, recreating a believable identity for this spy, lover, and dramatist. In the second tale, Koja imagines Marlowe in a near-contemporary society. How would this man navigate city life, intrigue, sexuality, and his writing if he lived in a time and place more similar to our own? Some of the characters from the first novella reappear again with different names and roles, but they—most of them—fulfill their prophecies. The third novella imagines a near-future, one that seems dystopic in many ways but which, unfortunately, becomes more and more probable all the time. An intrusive government that can control anyone’s every move; a nation of closed borders and constant surveillance; a paranoia about free thought and free speech, both of which are stifled by a police state that employs its creative citizens or destroys them when they do not comply. Amidst this darkness is a poet who dares to defy the system and who will speak the truth, whatever the cost.  

Holding all three novellas together is the idea of the writer-activist. What responsibilities does a writer have to truth? How does the poet hold an oppressive government to account? Can words wake us up from our lethargy and apathy? In each case, Christopher, or Chris, or X04, or Kit, or Merlin, personifies the answer to these questions. To be bold and brazen. To be honest and courageous. To be independent of mind and heart and spirit. These are the necessary qualities of the poet, the individual, the rebel, the titan. And what sustains him? Love. Sure, Koja eagerly and truthfully draws a man who is liberal in his lusts and passions, for drink and for men. In all three novellas, the Marlowe character gives and takes of the body with abandon and without apology. And yet, the sexuality is never tawdry, never gratuitous. It reflects the character of the man, the vibrancy and virility of his existence, and his constant state of awareness, the recognition that his time is short. In whose hands could these sensibilities, this anchored sensuality, be more powerfully and delicately crafted? I’m reminded only of Anthony Burgess and Henry Miller—satirical surrealists—who express the balance of mind and body not only in the stories they create, but also in the language they craft to tell them. Koja is undeniably in this company.

Many have noted that this work is an ode to Christopher Marlowe. Koja’s knowledge of Marlowe comes across loud and clear, and her passion for the man, his talent, and his lifestyle are treated with deserved reverence. What this unique work does for me, however, even as a fan of Marlowe, is much bigger than a love letter to one Elizabethan playwright: it is a love letter to writing and to writers. In reading the three novellas, one notices common themes arise over and over again. At the heart of these is the river of time that connects all of us and all of our stories, and how its mythos cannot be outrun or over-imagined. This becomes clear in the way Koja ends each of the three Marlowe tales. The second, which takes place in a near-present time, is the most hopeful. It seems to me a powerful message about the role of the writer as s/he exists in the present. The past cannot be changed and the future is unclear, but if anyone has the ability and audacity to dare plumb and dam and navigate those rivers, it is the writer. And if anything has the power to move hearts and minds, to stir men and women to action, it is the voice of the poet. Kathe Koja, in honoring a literary and cultural hero and phenomenon, reminds us that Marlowe is much more than a man; he is an idea. The charge of that idea, the electricity of it, is so palpable in the way Koja crafts and caresses Christopher Wild, that it brought this reader, and writer, out of a months-long slump. Koja has made a writer want to start writing again, and I can’t think of any idea more profound than that.

Notable Quotes

“The small feed as they can, the large as they will, whether the meal suits them or no. there is the world” (22).

“What does it matter, that first fulcrum point, if the mind resolves to move the world?” (24)

“Was there concomitant comfort in the promise of rewards, pearly gates and eternity of rest among the blessed, safe forever from the outer darkness of freedom and sin, or only the fear of that dark?” (155)

“But for himself the point was and is still the brute beauty of it—attended by power, yes, sheer playful aggression, and that live-wire rush when the writing comes right, nothing in the world to better it, as if the gears of the universe have for one perfect moment fallen into perfect place” (209).

guest post, Kathe Koja

A Visit from the Incomparable Kathe Koja

Today, I’m very excited to welcome back a brilliant writer and wonderful person, Kathe Koja! Kathe’s here to share a bit about Christopher Marlowe and her new book, Christopher Wild (Roadswell 2017). Oh my GOSH, I cannot wait to read it! 


by Kathe Koja

Cover Art: Rick Lieder

In his lifetime, Christopher Marlowe was notorious for a lot of things: bold and brilliant plays and poems that were the talk of Elizabethan London, and equally bold behavior—as a gay man, as a freethinker—that dangerously challenged the authorities, until he was murdered in what was called a drunken brawl in a tavern, and buried so quickly no one can say for sure where his body lies.

But his badass spirit is still very much alive.

His plays continue to be performed all over the world, and taught in universities alongside his poetry. The TNT series WILL prominently features Marlowe—as a riotous, rivalrous colleague to newcomer Shakespeare—and viewers have already called for a spinoff Marlowe show.

And in fiction, there are all manner of Marlowe bio-novels. The one that blew me away was Anthony Burgess’ insightful and superbly written A DEAD MAN IN DEPTFORD, my first introduction to Marlowe’s life and work, work I read in a wild binge and emerged ravished and determined: Oh my god, I have got to write about this guy.

So I did.

CHRISTOPHER WILD is three lives, one man: we meet Marlowe in his own era, then the gritty mid-20th century, then a dark near-future where surveillance is everywhere. He makes his way with his words, makes friends and enemies, finds lovers, and flees those authorities who try to use him, or silence him, every time.

And he lives his life, his lives, like a Roman candle: all heat and spark, daring the darkness, throwing light. If you run with him you’ll be dazzled or burned, or maybe both, but you’ll never, ever be bored.

That’s how it was with CHRISTOPHER WILD, its research and its writing: enthusiastic early backers supplied funding, and in return I sent them emails with research snippets and excerpts as the book took shape. I was nervous—I’ve never shown my WIP before, not even to my beta readers—but Marlowe’s inspiration made me bold. (Check Out What Cory Doctorow Had to Say)

And the book’s launch events are scheduled at parties and in bars (NYC, Detroit, Chicago, with more cities on the horizon), because Marlowe was always joyfully, thoroughly drunk on words, and who wants to sit quietly in a folding chair when you can declaim or argue poetry over a drink?

I’m hoping that readers who know Marlowe and those who’ve never met him will join the party with this book, this man, who always seems to get the last word:

How’s your nose?

Fine, fingering the tape, eyes still bruised. You broke it, you know.

 I know.

That wasn’t exactly fighting fair, was it?

No, it wasn’t.

Well . . . My pop always said, if you can’t kick a man’s ass, make him your pal.

 We’re not pals. The last swallow of beer as flat as tap water, he sets aside the bottle with a smile unfeigned—Icarus still rising, the sun’s heat to his upturned face, what would that be like? to fly, know the fall was imminent, fly anyway—and Come on, he says, turning that smile on Jay Reeder, let’s live a little. Drive us someplace, I’ll buy you a drink.


Check out the beautiful book trailer below & then get your copy!

Giveaway, guest post, Kathe Koja, Literary Others Event

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. 

Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, GLBT, guest post, Kathe Koja, Literary Others Event, Monthly Review

Guest Post: Kathe Koja, Author of Under the Poppy! (#OthersLitLGBT)

Ladies & Gents:

I am pleased to introduce to you the incredibly interesting, devastatingly talented, wholly terrific author of my favorite read of 2011, Kathe Koja!

Kathe is here today to celebrate The Literary Others and to talk a bit about her book, Under the Poppy; more specifically, she’s here to talk about love, both in the story and in the world.  Please give her a warm welcome!


Kathe Koja

Only Rupert is real, has ever been, through all the cold boyhood nights, the young men’s journeys, the play upon play upon play; and Rupert is gone.

This is the heart of my novel UNDER THE POPPY: the love story of Istvan and Rupert, the way love makes another person, once a stranger, so joyously, terribly real that to suffer that person’s loss is to suffer the end of the world. Loving so thoroughly makes the lover real in a new way, too, brings out tenderness or fury or some other qualities entirely; anyone who’s ever loved knows this is true.

Is UNDER THE POPPY a gay love story? Yes. And no. Yes, because the two true lovers are men; no, because any real love story is universal, the sweep of pleasure and loss is the same for us all. What can and does change is how that love will be experienced by that particular character in that setting in that writer’s hands: and that’s the business of fiction, of creating people who are people, whom we readers can feel for, root for, be exasperated by, yell at on the page.  And if, in the story’s time and place, it’s difficult or forbidden for one man to love another openly, then that becomes part of the story, and of the love as well. But not because the men are gay: because the society insists on their separation. That same separation might affect two young people in warring Verona, a star-crossed pair, say … Does it change the story, if Romeo’s a boy and Juliet’s a girl? For sure. Does it change the love? Not at all. Because love in all its manifestations is universal at its heart.

Rupert’s smile is slower, but sweet to Istvan when it comes, Istvan’s gaze a boy’s when he murmurs as sweetly, “Shall I come to you? Later on?” Rupert’s look in return is one of helpless heat, and cherishing, calamity and love …

 That’s love.  That’s human. That’s real.

Kathe Koja has another special gift for us! She is going to be giving away one SIGNED copy of her book, Under the Poppy, to a lucky participant of The Literary Others event. All you need to do is leave a comment on this post, saying you’d like to win. Please also leave your email, in this format: roofbeamreader(at)gmail(dot)com. The giveaway is open until Sunday and Kathe is willing to ship Internationally!

Belgium, Book Review, Brussels, Fiction, Gay Lit, Historical Fiction, Kathe Koja, Romance, Secret Societies, War

Review: Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja

Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 1

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

If you can imagine a marriage between the coy, tongue-in-cheek, clever mysteries of Agatha Christie and the melancholic, whimsical, romantic lyricism of Shakespeare, then perhaps you have an understanding of what Kathe Koja has created with Under the Poppy.  The place is 1870s Brussels, amidst what one assumes is the beginnings of the Franco-Prussian War (at least, this reader assumes, as he is unfamiliar with any other war of this time and place).  The book’s main players – Rupert Bok and Istvan – are life-long lovers, drawn together in boyhood, pulled apart by circumstances.  The two, in their youth, somehow became entangled with the darkest, most powerful and secretive of high-society.  That entanglement, coupled with the two’s dangerous romance (never spoken aloud, but so clear to all), results in a perpetual cat-and-mouse game between the story’s antagonists (de Metz and his servants – the General, in particular) and the puppeteer-players.  The somewhat under-explained history between the two puppeteers (primarily Istvan) and their former masters is what drives the drama onward, resulting in feints and volleys, dashes and escapes, relationships severed and deepened, and, ultimately, wounds scarred, but healed. 

3 – Characters well developed.

What certainly shines in terms of characterization in this novel is the genuine presentation of the main characters, who happen to be homosexual.  In another story, as written by another author, it is likely that these two men (and some of the minor characters as well) would have quickly turned into grotesques – exaggerated stereotypes for the larger perception of “gay man.”  Instead, Koja allows each to be an individual, and both are strong in their own ways, talented in their own ways, and equally devoted to the other, in his own way.  Realizing that the portrayal of these two characters was going to allow for not a “gay historical romance” but just a historical romance, period, quickly afforded me enough peace of mind to truly immerse myself in the story.  The one less-than-perfect aspect to be found in this book, at least for me, is the somewhat shallow characterization and character development.  Now, to be clear, the characterization in the book is good – it just wants deeper and more thorough development.  What is interesting and unusual is that each of the major players – Istvan, Rupert, Benjamin, Isobel, Lucy, Ag, and even Mr. Arrowsmith, are so incredibly recognizable and distinct, and yet still under-developed.  The disappointment, in large part, is not due to the fact that these characters are poor, because they are, in fact, rather fantastic; however, with these characters, there seemed so much more room to grow.  Knowing more of their histories, for instance, their previous interactions with one another – the “how” and “why” of their relationships – would bring so much to the story, enriching it with a deeper substance that just was not present, because these relationships and histories remained largely a mystery.  Of course, the sense of mystery allowed for a dramatic effect, overall, which speaks largely to the book as a play – which, perhaps, is right on point, considering the subject matter and the intent to mirror the puppeteers with their puppet-masters with the string-pulling of the narrative itself.  So, ultimately, one is left not so much with a disappointment in the characters (because who could be disappointed in these beautiful, sad, lonely and heroically tragic creatures?) but in a craving for more – and knowing that the more was there to be had, if only…

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

This particular section has been a point of contention for me, but I am erring on the side of the artistic, and forcing my personal structural preferences out of the picture in hopes of relaxing and enjoying the aesthetic aspect of the novel, in lieu of proper form.  Of course, one must do this on many occasions with creative works, particularly those with an artistic function and subject-matter (like the stage!).  Still, I will be up front in saying: I like grammar.  I enjoy quotation marks and separated dialogue and internal monologue.  I prefer different speakers to be distinguished by paragraph (or at least line) breaks.  And none of this happened in Under the Poppy.  At first, this made it very difficult for me to sink into the story – until I realized that the point is to let go.  Then, my goodness!  The artistry of the prose, the fluidity of the language, the sensuality and connectivity of the descriptions – no reader could ask for more, particularly from such an intensely romantic novel, which takes itself seriously by virtue of beauty and honesty alone.  There is something strangely cohesive, too, between the relationship enjoyed (ever-painfully) between Rupert and Istvan, and the prose of this work – it is almost as if Rupert and Istvan are whispering their story, and those whispers scrawl themselves across the pages, so that thoughts and feelings, actions and desires, all pour out in series after series of emotional memory. There are points in the story when it almost seems like the words – the passions- are moving right through you, and out the other side, so, suddenly, you are the story and you feel it in every inch of your being.  This is almost impossible to describe, but when a grammatical linguist can become enthralled and moved by a type of free-verse prose, well, that is a laudable accomplishment, indeed. 

Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

If ever the phrase “all the world’s a stage / and all the men and women merely players” were to fit a novel – this would be that novel.  Koja leaves the reader stunned by the brutal honesty of the story – no punches are pulled, and yet the tale is told so beautifully, so passionately, and so artistically, it becomes hard, at times, to pull one’s self off of this stage and remember that we are only the audience to this bittersweet drama.  Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this novel is its decorum.  How is it conceivable that a story about a saucy and crafty puppeteer, coming to live with his male-lover in a brothel, will turn out to be nothing but heartrendingly sweet and heroic?  In the style of Dumas, less swashbuckler, or Austen, more twisted, it is so;  this incredible tale, which starts off with perhaps one of the most memorable scenes I have ever read, quickly defines itself as a serious, old-fashioned, romance-mystery, the likes of which the Bronte sisters may have admired.  A story like this could have easily become trite or even bawdy, but Koja manages to keep it delicate, tender, and truthful.  Overall, this reader was incredibly impressed with Koja’s performance – the story certainly lives up to the romance of the book’s cover art, which originally drew me to it.  Bravo! Merde! And may the show go on!
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult

Interest: GLBT, History, European History, Belgium History, Puppetry, Theater, War, Secret Societies, Romance