Ros Barber has won an army of fans in the past 12 months – and more than a few enemies. The reason? Her debut novel – proof, were it needed, of the enduring power of stories.
In choosing to explore the contentious topic of Shakespeare authorship, the 48-year-old knew she had picked a literary hot potato – that was half the point.
She needed a big idea to win funding for a creative writing PhD and it arrived when watching a TV documentary on the theory William Shakespeare’s work was in fact penned by his contemporary Christopher Marlowe.
What a ludicrous idea, said one of the scholars interviewed, but what a great story!
“It set me alight in a way nothing else had previously,”
says Barber, as we sit in her rambling home on Western Street, Hove. “Imagine if you were the author of the greatest works of literature of all time but couldn’t get credit for it – what psychological torture!”
She won the funding, completed the PhD and, after four years (“I wouldn’t say every hour at my desk was spent writing; I played a lot of Spider Solitaire”), The Marlowe Papers was published.
The original premise had grown into an even bolder story, that Marlowe was not killed in a “tavern brawl” in Deptford but instead spirited away by colleagues in the secret service to live in exile across the Channel, where he took the name William Shakespeare and wrote the plays we believe to have been written by the “Bard of Avon”. For good measure, Barber also wrote the entire novel in blank verse.
“I like writing things that are on the edge of what’s being written and aren’t quite like anything else,” she says, “It seems to mean my work excites editors and baffles marketing departments.”
A “literary black comedy”
about a eunuch is one of three previous novels that didn’t quite make it to publication.
But her extensive research on the Marlowe/Shakespeare question convinced Barber the theory was not fantasy.
She points to the lack of evidence: “There’s no literary paper trail on Shakespeare. We have the names on the plays but there were other people called William Shakespeare.
Other writers of this period are part of a writing community, there are letters to other poets. There’s no doubt he was a theatre owner and we have evidence he bought and sold land. But if you were completely neutral on the subject, you’d think he was a businessman.”
The novel has been critically acclaimed and praised by figures including Benjamin Zephaniah (who called it “the best book I’ve read for a long time”) and Fay Weldon. It was recently shortlisted for The Guardian’s book of the year. But others have reacted less enthusiastically.
“A lot of people have real issues with the idea Shakespeare might not be who we think he is,” says Barber, who is currently dealing with a hacker who targets her website on an hourly basis. “In a secular society, Shakespeare is God, so to doubt his authorship is much like Darwinism in the 1850s – it’s that upsetting.
I’ve got a lot of people’s backs up. But while I was careful to use historical evidence to form the skeleton of the book, it is a work of fiction. You don’t have to believe it to enjoy the story.”
The book’s success marks a turning point for Barber, who has been writing almost all of her life, originally as a coping mechanism for self-diagnosed “social incompetence”. When she opened her mouth, things would come out wrongly.
Writing offered a means of saying what she wanted to in a way she could control.
Aged six she found further impetus when she won a box of Smarties as a writing prize.
“A box, not a tube! Mum never got us things like that.
I thought, ‘This is good! I do this and people give me sweets!’” At nine, she sent a collection of short stories typed up on her mum’s typewriter to Puffin.
But commercial success eluded Barber. She took a year out of university to write – “I earned precisely £30 and I thought, well, this isn’t going to work. Then I was married to the wrong person and didn’t write a thing for eight years so most of my 20s and early 30s were thrown away… it’s taken me a long time.”
Part of the problem was her talent for poetry, a form she claims no one wants to read any more. She has published three collections – one of which was awarded a Poetry Society Recommendation – and has been commissioned to write works (somewhat improbably) for cycle paths, beaches and Brighton landmark Embassy Court (she composed seven sonnets imagining the building as the rise and demise of a beautiful woman).
She worked as an IT programmer and systems analyst, completed an Open University literature BA and taught creative writing at the University of Sussex. She advises all writers to teach: “It’s the best way to learn. I hadn’t written a thing for eight years and found myself teaching things I’d not done before, such as form. I thought if I was going to teach it, I’d better understand it first. Now I write so much in form. It was essential to my development.”
Her publishers have now commissioned a second novel – she was not prepared.
“They asked me what I was working on next and I had no idea. I thought I’d better go and walk the dog. Good ideas always come to me when I’m walking the dog, in the shower, on a train…”
Barber was conscious of the need to write something far removed from her previous novel but with the same clout and eventually struck on the idea of a young woman “named by parents ashamed to be ordinary” who goes on to makes them anything but by committing a terrible act.
Unlike The Marlowe Papers, for which Barber demanded monk-like solitude (“I’d be locked in my study, which has no windows, lights off, in complete silence”), the new book is being written far more freely. Look out for her in Jubilee Library, local cafes – happily surrounded by people, noise and natural light.
“I’m not as precious about how I write now. I can’t afford to be. Everything is focused on this next novel.
I’ve wanted to be a novelist for so long – I won’t let the opportunity slip away.”
*The Marlowe Papers is out now (Sceptre, £20) *For more information on Ros Barber visit rosbarber.com