November 2018

Virginia Boecker

Lies, murder and star-crossed love
Interview by

A beach vacation is supposed to be a relaxing, work-free endeavor, but for author Virginia Boecker, it was the source of inspiration for her newest young adult novel, An Assassin’s Guide to Love and Treason.

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A beach vacation is supposed to be a relaxing, work-free endeavor, but for author Virginia Boecker, it was the source of inspiration for her newest young adult novel, An Assassin’s Guide to Love and Treason.

Boecker’s previous novels, The Witch Hunter and The King Slayer, are paranormal fantasies that draw inspiration from historical English witch trials. This time around, it all started with her rather unusual choice in beach reads: “I was reading The Watchers [by Stephen Alford]. It’s about Francis Walsingham, who was the secretary of state to Elizabeth I, and he’s considered the founder of modern spycraft,” Boecker excitedly tells me during our phone call. For the history junkie with a deep love for England’s grandiose and tumultuous political landscape, this history was pure gold, and she was quickly caught up in “the coding of all the letters, the spy networks [Walsingham] used, the people he would recruit to be in these networks . . . writers like Anthony Munday and Christopher Marlowe that he trained in cryptography.”

Then it clicked, and her novel started to take form. “I was sitting on the beach, book in one hand, notebook in the other hand with a highlighter and pen, writing down all these notes. There are spies, there’s theater, there’s Marlowe . . . all this religious conflict, Queen Elizabeth—and I love all these things, so I’m thinking, how can I mash all these things together and turn them into a story that’s my own?”

Boecker successfully does just that in her thrilling story An Assassin’s Guide to Love and Treason, which follows two London teenagers during the fall and winter of 1601, when Queen Elizabeth’s vicious struggle to maintain Protestant control over Britain—and to keep her Catholic enemies in France and Spain at bay—was at its peak.

“That period of time is so crazy,” Boecker says. “All these things happen, and it almost reads like a real-life ‘Game of Thrones.’ You don’t really need ‘Game of Thrones,’ you could just go back in your actual history books and these crazy, crazy things happened. I think that’s what draws me to historical fiction.”

Toby is a cunning orphan who harbors a dream of becoming a famous playwright like the late Marlowe, his former mentor and the object of his unrequited love. Instead, he’s now Queen Elizabeth’s most trusted spy. He’s adept at seamlessly blending in with rough crowds and taking on identities to sniff out traitors and send them to the Tower of London. His heart isn’t really in his job as an agent of the Crown, but he soon intercepts a coded message that outlines a Catholic-led plot to unseat the queen. He is subsequently tasked with luring the conspirators out of the shadows.

His inventive solution is to set a trap: He will collaborate with the one and only William Shakespeare on a lightly treasonous play—to be privately performed for the queen, naturally—and wait for an actor with alternative motives to show up. Cue Lady Katherine, a secret Catholic from Cornwall who wants to get serious revenge on the queen—even though the mission would be suicide. Freshly orphaned herself, she’s been on the run, posing as a stable boy named Kit, and when her co-conspirators hear rumors of a play centered on the religious Twelfth Night feast, she knows she must secure a role to sink her dagger into the queen.

“I needed the right Shakespeare play, and I knew that I wanted a cross-dressing play. He’s written a number of those—The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It [and] Twelfth Night are probably the best known. Those three in particular are the plays where a girl dressed as a boy is central to the complication and the resolution of the plot. I was also looking for something that had Catholic undertones. . . . There’s this whole idea that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic. Twelfth Night has those Catholic undertones, so that sealed it for me, and of course, you have Viola in disguise as a boy for her protection, the [same] way Katherine ends up. That just worked for me.”

Kit wows Toby and Shakespeare with a polished audition—one that’s a little too good for a self-proclaimed poor stable boy. Thus, Toby gains another actor and suspect, but the more he tails the hard-to-read, whip-smart, hilarious and alluring Kit, the more things get complicated for the closeted bisexual teen. And of course, the more time Kit spends around the sharp, blue-eyed Toby, the more her plans to keep her head down and her true identity a secret go by the wayside. And the closer the pair becomes, the more Kit’s resolve begins to waver.

“Katherine is this character who is bent on revenge. She wants to avenge her father’s death, which she believes is the fault of the queen. It’s the thing that brings her to London, it’s the thing that puts her in disguise, trains her to kill [and] gets her on stage before the queen to do it,” Boecker says. “But . . . you can’t get revenge on someone for doing to them the same thing they did to you. There’s that saying: ‘Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it.’ That’s a really powerful message.”

Readers will be eager for Katherine and Toby to admit their true identities—but can they also admit their true feelings for one another before the play’s opening night, and before the trap closes?

As Boecker’s writing process for Assassin’s Guide started on a beach in Mexico, it only seems fitting that’s she’s aiming to end it there as well. “You know, I think I’m going to Cabo with some girlfriends. That’s my pub day celebration!”

 

This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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