In The School of Night, Bayard crafts a complex thriller centered on an obscure Elizabethan society of poets and scientists.

How did you learn about the School of Night?

Professor Google. Who, in addition to being a useful time-suck, is a very useful idea generator. Somehow or other, I landed on a page about the School of Night, and it was the name itself that captured my attention. And the more I learned, the more intrigued I was. Thomas Harriot, an author, astronomer, and mathematician, became my protagonist because, of all the school's purported members, he was the least likely to have his own book.

How has your work in politics and your current work as a critic affected your fiction writing?

I gave up working in politics a while back, and while I have strongly held beliefs, I try very hard not to let them seep into my work. By contrast, I think being a critic is pretty central to my fiction because my books tend to read other books. Mr. Timothy, to pick the most obvious example, is my alternative reading of A Christmas Carol. Even The Black Tower is a response to Vidocq's memoirs, which are really the first detective narrative in any language.

Why did you move from writing straight historicals to the bifurcated format of The School of Night?

It didn't seem like a jarring switch for me, because my first two books were very topical, urban, modern-day. I had expected the present-day strand to have the same amount of gravity as the historical strand, but for some reason, it kept insisting on being lighter and more larkish. One of the models I kept falling back on was The Maltese Falcon, which, to my mind, is a comedy: smart, literate, evil people sitting around and negotiating. I've always been intrigued by the way the barriers between past and present collapse. That's something I try to do in every book, I think. Poe, Vidocq, and Harriot—the leads of my last three books—were all outliers, and for a very good reason: they were all ahead of their time, which makes them a useful bridge between past and present.

What effect do you think Dan Brown has had on the writing of thrillers centering on long-lost secrets?

Dan Brown is definitely the elephant in the room, but that particular genre or subgenre has an older provenance. Go back to 1988 and Katherine Neville is writing The Eight. Go back a century earlier, you've got H. Rider Haggard and Robert Louis Stevenson and Conan Doyle. Half a century earlier, you've got Poe and "The Gold Bug." Nothing new under the sun.