Is there a book that feels like it was written for you? A book that seems to know you in some soul-deep way? A book that seems—somehow—to love you as much as you love it?
When I set out to write A Study in Drowning, I wanted to write about that feeling. About stories that see us, stories that save us. There is something precious and beautiful about that, but also something complicated. It creates a number of very thorny questions about authorship and possession—the questions that Effy is faced with over the course of the book.
Though these issues surrounding who has the right to tell a certain story feel very contemporary, my way into A Study in Drowning was actually through a centuries-old debate: did Shakespeare really author the works attributed to him? Did he even exist at all? While largely discredited today, historically these hypotheses (often collectively referred to as anti-Stratfordian theory) were taken quite seriously by academics and intellectuals. People dug up graves and invented entire cipher machines with the aim of proving (or disproving) the idea that Shakespeare was a fraud.
The debate was fierce, fulsome, and obsessive, and I was intrigued by the passion of both sides. I also began to think about how the world would grapple with such a revelation. Even today, Shakespeare is an indelible symbol of Western cultural heritage, and particularly English national identity. Such national mythologies drive culture, politics, and even economics. The revelation that he was a fraud would be devastating—maybe not enough to provoke literal warfare, as in A Study in Drowning, but monumental nonetheless. How great an impact would it have? What about the scholars who have dedicated their lives and careers to him? What about the individual people who have loved his works in that soul-deep, vital way?
I wanted to write a novel that, in some way, processed the gravity of the Shakespeare authorship question: its large-scale political, social, and economic implications, but more than anything, its impact on one girl, clutching her favorite book to her chest while this tempest of warring ideologies swirls around her.
Ultimately, passion is at the heart of A Study in Drowning—whether it is the passion of a pining lover for their object, of a reader for their story, a scholar for their subject, an author for their opus. These are the emotions that keep us alive, that make us painfully and wonderfully human.
To Effy, books are a lighthouse, shining out over dark water, giving her ship a safe harbor. I hope this book is that book for some of you. And if you do love A Study in Drowning, I promise it loves you back.