Let’s start with the good news before we get to the complicated feelings: my debut novel Lightborne is coming out next year. And I am ecstatic!
Lightborne is a historical novel about Christopher Marlowe, an Elizabethan playwright and contemporary of Shakespeare who died violently and young, under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Rumored to have been a government spy, famously brash and outspoken, the author of the first play in English to feature an explicitly queer relationship between men – I fell in love with Marlowe the first time I discovered him, at thirteen or fourteen, and from that point on it was only a matter of time before I tried to write a book about him.
I could not possibly have known, when I finally got started in my senior year of college, that I would spend the better part of the next twenty years writing about Marlowe.
The thing is, I misspent my youth writing “novels” – practice novels, I think of them now – one after another, often only to chuck them in a drawer after just three or four drafts. Lightborne, however, was different. Over two decades – half my life, really – I compiled hundreds of hours’ worth of research, wrote and scrapped something like five different novels about Marlowe, made forty-plus revisions to Lightborne, and slogged through rejections in the triple digits. To say Lightborne was “a labor of love,” as I’ve been saying repeatedly ever since the good news became public, feels like understatement.
I had plenty of opportunities, and every reason, to stop. Put it in the drawer. Work on something else. So why didn’t I?
Love did have something to do with it. I loved Lightborne, and I loved writing it. I loved “my boys,” as I often refer to the three main characters, despite having done a great deal to torment them. For years on end, I’ve agonized over these (mostly) made-up people’s lives, at my desk, on the couch, wide awake at 4am, lying on a beach, wandering around the supermarket… They say, “A writer never stops writing,” and that is devastatingly true. All other thoughts become intrusions, as does life. Only love makes you that stupid.
But it was also labor, with all the pain that implies. I’ve lived so long now with the anguish, not of disappointment or failure, but of hope – terrible, all-consuming, sadistic hope – that I don’t quite know what to do without it. A writer never stops writing – and part of that is convincing yourself that it will all be worth it one day: that one day, finally, you will stop.
So this is the end. After two decades, I’ve stopped writing Lightborne. This is a celebration, but it’s also a eulogy: for the work, for the hope, for the task I just had to complete, which began as all eulogies do, with death.
Twenty years ago, this October – a few months before my first attempt to write a novel about Christopher Marlowe – my friend died. At the time, I was already working on an undergraduate thesis about Marlowe’s play Edward II, and the queer canon, and the task of finding ourselves among the dead. Then my friend died. Soon after, my thesis began spilling over into a novel on the side – nothing at all like Lightborne as it stands now, except perhaps in two key ways: that it was about a young, queer man who dies far too soon; who, in life, was widely loved but misunderstood, and sometimes vilified. And, it was about bearing responsibility for his death.
I dedicated even that first messy, embarrassing draft to my dead friend. “In memory of.” Through all those years, for each new draft or entirely new version of the story, the first thing I would do upon opening a blank document was copy/paste that dedication. Looking at it, I could imagine the words printed in a book, with some stranger out there holding it in their hands, reading my dead friend’s name. If nothing else, the dedication page was a way of holding onto the original impulse that brought me to tell this story – to always be writing, but to always be writing towards an end.
The thing about the dead is, they are never satisfied. Never appeased. For us, they exist in a state of arrest, with the last thought, the last gesture, the last sensation frozen in time. I think one of the reasons why we write is to capture every fleeting thought or action as if it were the last, to nail the seconds to the wall so we might pore over them from every angle: catalogue every detail, ask every question, draw a circle around every mystery. Of course, the final stage of writing is to let all of that go and give the story to whomever wants it, for them to envision and interpret as they see fit. Which I suppose is a kind of resurrection, a kind of life.
That’s the joy, amidst all this excitement and terror and uncertainty: the joy of knowing there will be life for this story beyond my little brain, there will be life for my boys. One day – surely sooner than it seems to me now – a stranger will open a book that says Lightborne on the cover, and their eyes will glance briefly over the name on the dedication, “In memory of”: multiple names now.
And then they will turn the page.
Lightborne will be published in the spring of 2024 by Atlantic Books UK.