Thursday, 1 May 2014

Interview with Author BRUCE HOLSINGER

Author, Bruce Holsinger
What better book to whet the appetites of readers of history and lovers of books, than a book about a book set in the volatile era of late fourteenth century England? Is there better? I do not think so. I am biased though. Given my tastes for historical fiction and the like.
As one of those readers and history lovers, I was very excited by the prospect of sinking my teeth into A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger when it finally manifested, appearing in book stores and libraries worldwide. 

Of course, the cover leaps out at you long before you set eyes on the premise, and that alone makes it a book hard to forget. But when I do flip it over and read the blurb, my breath catches in my throat for - as a borderline bibliophile and history addict – to find a book about a book set during the 100 Years' War....Well, lets just say I was like a moth to a flame. And I have seen plenty of other readers go down to its wiles since. We cannot help ourselves. Books about books. Ohh how delightful.

Given the chance to interview the author, Bruce Holsinger, I was inspired by a thousand questions regarding, especially, the history, but I showed some restraint and whittled them down to nine.
Bruce has risen to the challenge of my nine probing enquiries, and I hope you all, lovers of books and maybe of history too, enjoy the end result, and then go on to enjoy the book too.

A question I ask first in every interview..Do you think it is important to be as historically accurate as possible in an historical fiction novel?
Yes, I do--though accuracy and plausibility are two very different things. First, in order to be worthy of the designation, historical fiction shouldn't mess around with the historical record to any degree. If there is a departure from or violation of known historical fact (chronology, sequence, and so on) there should be a good reason for it, and it should be explained in an author's note. Second, though, historical fiction can't be satisfied with the known facts of history. In order to write a compelling story, an author has to make things up--has to lie about history, in other words! But these lies have to be plausible. I know for a near certainty that there wasn't a book called "Liber de mortibus regnum anglorum" floating around in late-medieval London: I made this book up for the purposes of my novel. But I also know and have learned enough about the history and literature of late medieval England to be confident that the existence of such a book is perfectly plausible--and that the story I've concocted around this fictional book is a feasible one. Perhaps it's in that space between accuracy and plausibility where the magic of historical fiction happens...

Where did your setting for A Burnable Book come from? For example, did you have an interest in that specific period of history and those geographical areas first or did you choose them after deciding to write a novel?
I teach medieval literature as my day job (I'm an English prof at the University of Virginia), so I've always been enchanted by the poetry of late medieval England, particularly the circle of Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and other poets of the Ricardian age. But I wrote a few other novels before "A Burnable Book" that didn't get published, and those were set in the present, though with medieval background stories. I guess the honest thing to say is that my fiction writing over the last fifteen years led me to this period and setting, and when I set out to write a third novel with two unsuccessful ones in the drawer I vowed to tackle an era I knew something about--though as I write in the historical note at the end of the novel, I was also ignorant about a lot of this period I thought I knew so well.

Why Geoffery Chaucer and John Gower? What is it about these two real life friends that made you want them both as your major characters?
At the ending of his great poem "Troilus and Criseyde," Chaucer dedicates the work to Gower: "O Moral Gower, this book I direct to thee..." That's a pretty strong statement of friendship, though how we read it has always been open to debate. I personally read that statement as a bit tongue-in-cheek, and when I set out to write the novel I wanted to explore the darker side of this well-known literary friendship. One of my good friends who read the novel said that the relationship reminded her of the Mozart/Salieri dynamic in "Amadeus"--though of course those composers weren't friends, while we know Gower and Chaucer were. It's one of the clearest and most provocative instances of a male literary friendship in the Middle Ages, too, and it allowed me to explore a lot of themes that I wouldn't have been able to otherwise: the power of literature, friendship vs. family, and so on. One of my favourite relationship in historical fiction is the Aubrey-Maturin friendship in the Master and Commander series of Patrick O'Brian, and I suppose I have that  in mind as well as I flesh out the poetic friendship between Chaucer and Gower.

Your book is set against the tumultuous backdrop of fourteenth century England. The second stage of the 100 Years’ War has kicked off and your setting of 1385 is lodged between the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 and the treacherous Lords Apellants’ moves against Richard II which really gained its momentum in 1386. Can the reader expect to feel the intensity of that climate in your tale? Or does your story speak more to a politically oblivious London sub culture?
Great question! Yes, the intensity is building between the factions, and there have already been a lot of nasty Game-of-Thrones-type moves between Richard II and John of Gaunt: alleged conspiracies, open assaults, and so on. This particular moment, spring of 1385, was a really interesting one, falling just after the death of John Wycliffe and just before Richard's disastrous campaign in Scotland that summer. Since you asked, the sequel will be set in 1386 in the thick of the Wonderful Parliament, and in this case the machinations of the appellant lords against the king's faction will be at the center of the novel. "A Burnable Book" is very much a story of town-crown conflict, too, and the city bureaucracy is very much aware of the power struggles among the upper aristocracy. At the same time, it's a story of the London streets: butchers, prostitutes, pickpockets, and so on, so I suppose the political obliviousness is part of the story, but only for a portion of the characters and subcultures explored in the novel.

By all appearances, you seem to have gone to great lengths to inject a sense of realness into your book by using real life characters and a realistic social fabric. Has this been difficult and do you ever long for the freedoms offered by having purely fictional characters?
Yes I do! Staying true to history means staying true to the known facts of historical personages, and this can be a really tricky balance. In some ways it's easier to make up a character out of dust and nothing than to invent around the known facts of biography and chronicle. But I love this kind of creative challenge, and I'm eager to hear reactions to the various types of characters from readers. Are the real-life reincarnations (Gower, Chaucer, Swynford) as strong as the completely made-up characters? Are there other ways in subsequent novels that I might flesh out these characters, whether historically or otherwise? Character is a notoriously difficult part of fiction writing, and I'm just a beginner in many ways.

Are there periods of history that you would love to write in and why? And do you think you will one day?
I think so. I'm particularly intrigued by Roman Britain and have given some thought to setting a novel in that era, exploring the decline of Celtic culture in the face of Roman incursion. I'm also determined to write a present-day novel, though I'm not sure what form or genre that would assume.

You are working on a follow up to A Burnable Book. Will this be a sequel in final form? Or are you planning a multi book series?
I'm under contract to write a sequel (I have a two-book deal), but I would absolutely love to continue this as a five-book series. I already have a vision for it, and know exactly what Book 5 would do. So if "Burnable" and its sequel do well enough I'll hope to continue the series with three more books. More Gower, more Chaucer, more Edgar/Eleanor Rykener...

Is A Burnable Book written with a mind on the reader familiar with Chaucer and Gower? Or can the novice - who knows nothing or little about these men - pick this book up and relate to it do you think?
A novice should definitely be able to pick up the book and enjoy it. I assume no knowledge of the period or of these poets: it's a thriller, with a storyline that I hope keeps the reader turning pages without knowing anything about the Middle Ages, let alone about the life and career of John Gower. That being said, if you *do* know a lot about medieval literature you'll be able to catch a number of allusions and "inside jokes" that will make the story all the more entertaining--at least I hope so!

And now to the question I close every interview with..
Do you prefer ebook or paper?
This is an interesting question for me right now, as I'm in a somewhat transitional period. There's nothing I love more than curling up with a trade paperback, but I find myself increasingly drawn to e-readers for pleasure reading--and even for work. I did one of the near-final edits on "A Burnable Book" on my Kindle, sending it to myself as a Kindle doc and using the highlight function to bring out passages I wanted to come back and change. This was a really great way to see my own prose in a different light, and it worked wonders for my revision process. So I'm definitely a fan of e-readers, though as a scholar of manuscripts and early books I hate to think about the decline of print!

Thankyou for taking the time to do this interview, Bruce. I am sure that as people read this interesting novel, they will appreciate the insights and value the time you took to give them.
And thank you, Terri, for the wonderful opportunity to talk about the novel in this forum. I hope your group readers enjoy it and that they'll feel free to ask me any questions and make any comments they'd like!


Bruce Holsinger's Website can be found here:
On social media the author can be followed via;
Twitter - and Facebook -

- MM

nb* apologies to readers on any font formatting that looks weird. Blogger does this of its own accord and it isn't fixable.

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