U.Va. Medieval Scholar Expands Historical Fact into Fiction in ‘A Burnable Book’

February 25, 2014

What is a “burnable book”?

University of Virginia English professor Bruce Holsinger can tell us, because he made up the term. He created it to describe a written work in the Middle Ages that is politically subversive and could get the author in legal – or even deadly – trouble.

“A Burnable Book” is also the title of Holsinger’s new historical thriller, set in the 14th century, with Geoffrey Chaucer as one of the main characters – “medieval noir, you might call it,” he said in a recent interview.

On the U.Va. faculty since 2005, Holsinger has garnered awards for his academic books, which most recently concern the persistence of the medieval period in the modern imagination.
He’s also been writing fiction for about 15 years; he admits to being one of those people with a novel in the drawer. He doesn’t have to keep his fiction tucked away anymore, however.

Perseverance has paid off. “A Burnable Book,” his debut novel, resulted in a two-book contract. It began appearing on bookstore shelves last week, and favorable reviews are mounting.
Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review, writing, “Holsinger delivers a first novel whose zest, breadth and color evoke ‘The Canterbury Tales’ ... the intricate plot, sharp characterizations and sweeping depiction of medieval England make this a memorable fiction debut.”

“Holsinger is a graceful guide to the 14th century,” Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles wrote, “lacing his thriller with just the right seasoning of antique words and all the necessary historical detail without any of the fusty smell of a documentary.”

The story takes place in London and its suburbs, Southwark and Westminster; the year is 1385. Chaucer, who had yet to write the “Canterbury Tales,” works as a public servant for the English court and calls upon his friend, John Gower, to help him find a missing book of poems that contains a prophetic threat to young King Richard II’s life.

The people were real, as are many of the details and descriptions – it is historically accurate that Chaucer and Gower, also a poet who never achieved Chaucer’s fame, were friends – but the book of poems in question springs from Holsinger’s imagination.

The novel follows Gower as he tracks the mysterious manuscript from London alleys to the outskirts of the city to the royal court. Early on, it falls into the hands of prostitutes who are unable to read it, but are trying to sell it. Several subplots and themes are woven into the basic storyline, one of them being the friendship between Gower and Chaucer.

Holsinger said he wanted to explore their literary friendship, to imagine how it might have gone through shifting contours and difficulties, involving the shadowy sides of the two men. Gower doesn’t completely trust what Chaucer has told him – and not told him – about the book.

Being steeped in medieval literature and culture from his academic study influenced his desire to write fiction and use that time period, Holsinger said. “There’s a wealth of stories of such variety, and many different ways of telling them,” he said. “They speak to big themes – sin, jealousy, rivalry, love, difficult relationships. All kinds of wonderful, horrific things are in there, and modern storytelling derived from it.

“Some historical fiction glorifies the past and paints it in brighter hues – the ‘merry old England’ sort of thing – but I wanted to show the darker side,” he said. “Medieval people were every bit as complicated morally and ethically as people are today,” he said.

“Historical fiction allows you to tell big, sweeping stories about the past, yet forces you to ground these stories in the difficult intricacy of human relationships and rivalries,” Holsinger wrote in an essay for the HarperCollins crime-fiction blog, “Killer Reads.”

Writing fiction, he said, is so different from academic research and writing that they require using different parts of the brain. And as different as teaching is from writing, he likes to use “the power of storytelling” in his lectures, he said.

Holsinger seems able to switch easily from one mode to the other. Along with writing the novel – and now its sequel, which he hopes to finish this summer – he’s working on two academic projects. One of them explores the making and use of parchment and the other examines the role of liturgical culture in the history of literary and vernacular writing in the Middle Ages.

His writing and teaching topics came together last semester when he taught a massive open online course, or MOOC, on “Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction,” described as “an introduction to the genre and craft of historical fiction.” He taught some of the genre’s classics and also invited five authors of historical fiction to lecture and interact with students via teleconference.

The hard part about writing “A Burnable Book” was keeping all the subplots together with the main plot, Holsinger said.

One surprise has been hearing his words professionally read aloud for the audiobook version. Holsinger wrote an article about the experience with Simon Vance, the reader of the American edition (published by William Morrow), for the online magazine, Slate. Narrator Tim Bruce reads the British edition from HarperCollins.

In a recent entry on his blog, “Burnable Books,” Holsinger noted “the unique abilities of audiobooks to bring historical characters and settings alive in ways unavailable through the written text alone.

“To listen to Tim’s rendition of Gower’s voice is for me a haunting and unsettling experience: for the first time I’m listening to the voice of one of my characters through the voice of another person rather than solely in my head.”

Holsinger will read from the book in his own voice more than a dozen times in the next several months as he crisscrosses the U.S. on a book tour, including an appearance at the Virginia Festival of the Book on March 22 at 2 p.m. in the Omni Hotel, ballroom C, part of the event, “Crime Wave: When History Involves Murder.”

EXCERPT, in the voice of protagonist John Gower

With the sour ale on my tongue I surveyed the undercroft tavern, lit weakly by a row of lanterns dangling from heavy beams. The tables were nearly empty, just two groups of men clustered along the hearth. Masons, fresh from work on the bridge. I got a few sullen looks. Steam rising from damp clothes, the muffled clatter of boots overhead.

In the far corner my friend sat alone, frowning into his jar as his finger traced a slow arc around its mouth. He seemed coiled on the bench, his brow knit, his eyes narrowed in concentration, the whole of him tensed against some unspoken thought.

“Geoffrey,” I said, and moved forward.

Half-turning with a start, he rose, his face blossoming into a smile. “Mon ami.” He spread his hands.

As my arms wrapped his frame I felt the familiar surge of anticipation: for court gossip, for poetic banter, for news of mutual acquaintances. Yet beneath the thin coat I also felt ribs, hard against tightened skin. Chaucer had lost a couple of stone that winter; there was less to him since his latest return from abroad, and his unfashionable surcoat, of undyed wool cut simply with straight sleeves, lent an almost rural aspect to his bearing. Normally he would dress like a bit of a fop. I wondered what explained the change.

For a while we just drank, saying nothing, two hounds sniffing around after a long separation.

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Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications