Interview with Simon Stirling


Simon Stirling hails from Birmingham, England.  He went to Glasgow University, but left early to take part in a new play on the London fringe (written by John A. Bird, who went on to found The Big Issue).  Simon then spent three years training as an actor at LAMDA, during which time he got his first literary agent.  For the next decade or so he wrote scripts for theatre and various television drama series, picking up a Writer’s Guild Award for his work on “Between the Lines” and writing what is probably the rudest episode ever of “Casualty”!  In more recent years he has worked as a script consultant and scriptwriting tutor, and for two years he was Youth and Community Director at the Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury.  Many years of research went into his first two historical nonfiction books, The King Arthur Conspiracy (2012) and Who Killed William Shakespeare? (2013) – both published by The History Press – and his current project, “The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion” for Moon Books.  He now lives in Worcestershire, in the heart of Shakespeare country, with his wife Kim, who was born in Stratford-upon-Avon. They were married on the Isle of Iona in 2002.

Simon keeps a blog with regular updates on his research and adventures in publishing:

Stephanie: Hello, Simon! Thank you for chatting with me today! As a Shakespeare enthusiast, I am always intrigued with anything to do with him and was delighted you wrote a book about him. Please tell me a little about your book, Who Killed William Shakespeare?

Simon: Hello, Stephanie!  “Who Killed William Shakespeare?” was first published last year by The History Press.  It’s my second book for them.  I’d spent a little over 25 years researching Shakespeare’s life and times – starting with a particular interest in the character of Lady Macbeth (where did she come from?) and then gradually widening out from Shakespeare’s middle years to take in his youth and retirement.  When I met up with my editor at The History Press to discuss the publication of my first book (“The King Arthur Conspiracy” – 2012) I was hoping we’d have time to chat about the Shakespeare project I’d mentioned to her.  We didn’t, but I did notice that she had written in her notes, “Who killed William Shakespeare?”

When I’d first mentioned the project to her, I’d outlined very briefly what I had discovered about Shakespeare’s life and the three stages (childhood and youth, middle age, retirement and death) which I was keen to cover.  The fact that she had zeroed in on his sudden death told me that this was what the publishers would be most interested in (although I still managed to cover the rest of his life in the book) and, whether she realized it or not, she’d given me my title!

who killed ws

Stephanie: That is really intriguing. Your research must have been quite extensive. Could you tell me a little about it? Was there anything you discovered that you did not know before?

Simon: The research started the traditional way: reading any books I could get hold of about Shakespeare.  But I found them all rather disappointing.  None of them really told me who Shakespeare was.  After many years, I began to realize that this is one of the great stumbling blocks in Shakespeare studies.  We know quite a lot about Shakespeare, but many scholars prefer to pretend that we don’t.  And that got my antennae twitching.

I combined what you might call “mainstream” or “orthodox” Shakespeare research with more detailed investigations into the region he came from – which also happens to be my home region.  Most Shakespeare biographers pop up to Stratford to look around and then head straight back to London.  They’re really only interested in Shakespeare-in-London.  But the best material about him, his contacts, his family network, his background, etc., is to be found in the Midlands.  For example: we know that the 18-year old Shakespeare was first given a special license to marry “Annam Whateley” of Temple Grafton (a parish near Stratford), and that the next day a license was issued stipulating that Shakespeare would marry “Anne Hathwey” of Stratford.  For years, scholars have insisted that Anne Whateley (his first betrothed) didn’t exist – but a search of local records turned up a will which names her.

The biggest surprise came in the form of a skull.  I had been chasing up a local story, published by a Victorian clergyman, which insisted that Shakespeare’s skull had been stolen from his grave in Stratford and ended up in a private family crypt under another church altogether.  But it was only when I’d started writing my book that I discovered that this skull really did exist.  What is more, it shows various injuries which match those visible on the portraits of Shakespeare.  And these injuries both confirmed and added to the theory I had already formed about how Shakespeare died.  So that was a shocking moment – discovering that the Victorian vicar was (partly) right.  Shakespeare’s skull is NOT in Stratford!

Stephanie: Now that is really interesting! How long did it take you to write, Who Killed William Shakespeare? And what was your inspiration?

Simon: I’m not really sure how long it took.  For years, I was trying to write a sort of detailed novel about Shakespeare in 1605-6.  It would have covered the Gunpowder Plot (to which Shakespeare was connected in a number of alarming ways), the birth of his illegitimate son, Sir William Davenant, and the writing of “Macbeth”.  Then, little by little, I extended the scope of the project and decided to write it as non-fiction.  There were dozens of false starts.  But the manuscript for the final book actually took about nine months to write.  Some of that time, though, was spent doing very detailed comparisons of the skull, the Shakespeare portraiture, and a death mask which was probably of Shakespeare and is now in Germany.  I reckon I must have spent about two months in all, studying the similarities of these various images and objects and creating graphics which point up the comparisons.

As for the inspiration, that’s kind of complex.  I ended up believing that an enormous injustice had been done to Shakespeare, and it continues to this day.  He wasn’t alone in this: many of his friends, relatives and associates were Catholic, and they suffered horribly.  So if anything drove me in writing the book, it was the desire to right a dreadful wrong.  Shakespeare was murdered (in fact, I’ve since discovered that this was anything but secret), and the facts of his life have been systematically covered up since in order to invent a false Shakespeare, a patriotic Protestant.  That’s why so many scholars pretend that we know very little about him.  The truth is more shocking – but it also explains the man and his work, as well as his violent death.

Stephanie: Well, I am glad you wrote it as non-fiction and that is no easy task. I can’t wait to read your book! I agree with you. I have heard many stories of injustice about him and it is infuriating at times, I admit.

Have you read all his plays? His sonnets?

Simon: One way or another, yes (including a “lost” play of his).  But for the book itself, I didn’t really bother very much with his history plays (they weren’t terribly relevant), and there are others I left out because they would have cluttered up the narrative.  A few poems (“The Phoenix and the Turtle”, for example) were also side-lined, but that was really just because of space, or the lack thereof.

Stephanie: Which sonnet is your favorite?

Simon: The sonnets are fascinating – they’re more personal than letters, though I sometimes felt that I was reading somebody’s emails!  Picking a favourite is very difficult: they cover such a long span (from about 1592 up till at least 1606), and the subject matter is so varied.  If I had a favourite, it would probably be Sonnet 126, which is “unfinished” (the final couplet was never published) and was, I think, addressed to his infant son or godson, William Davenant, who was illegitimate, but whose birth in late February 1606 made up for the death of Shakespeare’s son and heir, Hamnet, ten years earlier.

Stephanie: My favorite play is the Twelfth Night and Hamlet. Which one is yours and why?

Simon: I ought to say “Macbeth”, because that was the starting point for so much of my research.  But the fact is that it took me many years to learn how to enjoy reading Shakespeare (the key was to understand his latent Catholicism: suddenly, every poem and play became very readable, and intensely emotional, once I’d latched on to that forbidden information; I remember watching a very good movie version of “Titus Andronicus” and having my usual response of, “Well, that meant nothing to me” – and then spending a year or so researching Catholicism in Shakespeare’s England, and then watching the same movie again, and I was in floods of tears throughout).  The play I found myself enjoying the most when I was working on “Who Killed William Shakespeare?”, though, was “Pericles”.  I found it a really colourful, heart-warming experience.  It was the first of Shakespeare’s plays of reconciliation, the first of his “romances” or tragi-comedies, and it was hugely popular with the Catholic community.  I think I can see why.  It promises salvation, of a sort, after many horrors.

Stephanie: Now, about you and what you read for pleasure. Who are your influences?

Simon: Well, I’m a pretty big fan of William Shakespeare!  But while I was growing up, the stories of Alan Garner really grabbed me.  He always wrote brilliantly, and his stories became more mature as he went on (he’s still alive, I should add).  In my teens, I discovered his very short novel, “Red Shift”, which remains my personal favourite.  Nobody – apart from Shakespeare, perhaps – has ever managed to squeeze so much meaning into so few words.  That book taught me that you should never go overboard with description.  Keep it simple and to the point.  Too much description cheats the reader.  Less is more.

Stephanie: I agree about going overboard with description and less is more. It certainly is an art to write that way.

How often do you write and where in your home do you write?

Simon: I write every day, if I can.  Using a laptop, I can write pretty much anywhere.  But we only have a small house, and my main work station is in the main room.  I have my back to the television, but if I’m working late into the night I’ll often have the TV on in the background, just so that the room isn’t too quiet.

Stephanie: Coffee or tea?

Simon: Coffee in the morning, and plenty of it: strong and black (I broke my old cafetiere a few days ago, and my wife made sure she’d bought me a new one by the following morning; she knows how important it is to me!).  But in the afternoon or evening, tea.  I have a very big mug, about the size of two normal mugs, which I drink my tea out of.  And I only have a splash of goat’s milk in my tea.  Cow’s milk really isn’t very good these days.

Stephanie: Historical fiction or non-fiction? Or both?

Simon: Non-fiction.  Most of my reading is research, one way or another, and while you can soak up atmosphere from fiction, I prefer hard facts.  The other problem is that my background as a dramatist means that I still mentally “adapt” novels for the screen whenever I’m reading them, which is annoying.  But I suppose the main thing is that I see reading as ongoing education.  Novels are a form of escapism, which means that I don’t really trust them.

Stephanie: Favorite read(s)?

Simon: Depends what I’m working on.  Sometimes, it’ll be something scientific (Simon Singh’s “Big Bang”, for example, which is a brilliant history of cosmology; I wrote a script for the Open University, here in the UK, back in the 90s, and we introduced the nation to the COBE satellite and the discovery of cosmic background radiation – it was good to read about how that all fitted in to the history of our understanding of the universe).  I also find biographies intriguing, because they’re so difficult to do well, and so when I find one I think is really excellent (like Kate Williams’ “England’s Mistress”, about Emma, Lady Hamilton, or W.H. Murray’s “Rob Roy MacGregor”) I’ll tend to recommend it.  Also, I would always recommend Evelyn Farr’s “Marie-Antoinette and Count Fersen: The Untold Love Story”.  That’s a book I’d love to have written.

Stephanie:  What would you like to say to your readers?

Simon: The research (into King Arthur and William Shakespeare) isn’t finished.  I’m expecting to unveil a “new” Shakespeare portrait during a public lecture I’ll be giving at Goldsmiths, University of London, in March, and that portrait appears to confirm what my research has revealed about Shakespeare’s death.  Plus, we’ll be able to access the actual skull, later this year, so there’s a lot more news to come.  Both my books could be thought of as primers – they’re introductions to the subject, and they both present a very different story to what you’ve heard previously, but most exciting of all is the fact that, as the research continues, more and more details get filled in, and I really look forward to updating my readers on the outcomes of these investigations.  So if you want a head start – read the books, and you’ll be ready for the new information as it emerges!

Stephanie: Where can readers buy your book?

Simon: There seem to be quite a lot of places around the world that are stocking it – you can even buy it in Lagos!  But there’s always Amazon, of course, and it is available both in hardback and Kindle.


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