Ancient and Modern

Historical Fiction: A Conversation Between Bruce Holsinger and Nancy Bilyeau

Novelists Bruce Holsinger and Nancy Bilyeau discuss the joys and pitfalls of scrupulously researching the past and then turning it into fiction.

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Who writes historical thrillers, those thick suspense stories filled with atmosphere and detail? The answer is, people like Bruce Holsinger and Nancy Bilyeau, who each have novels out now. Holsinger, a medievalist who teaches in the Department of English at the University of Virginia, wrote A Burnable Book, a thriller set in 1385 London. Nancy Bilyeau, a journalist and the executive editor of DuJour magazine, is writing a series of mysteries whose main character is a Dominican novice in the reign of Henry VIII. The second book, The Chalice, recently came out in paperback. Holsinger and Bilyeau met on the writer’s conference circuit and discovered they were kindred spirits. While Holsinger was on tour for A Burnable Book, he stopped in New York City, where the two of them met to talk about all things medieval—and how thick a skin you need to be published today.

Nancy Bilyeau: I learned about your book at Thrillerfest last year in New York. That’s my favorite writer’s conference. I was in the audience for one of the panels, and the other four authors talked about their protagonists: cop, forensic pathologist, ex-CIA, whatever. And when it was your turn, you said, “The main character in my book is John Gower, a medieval poet who was a close friend of Geoffrey Chaucer’s.” Then you read a poem of Gower’s and it was utter bleakness. I was so excited! What drew you to John Gower as someone who could be the main character of a novel?

Bruce Holsinger: It came from my teaching of medieval literature. I’ve read all of Gower—he wrote in Latin, French, and English. He’s always been an interesting figure to me: contradictory, preachy but with strains of nihilism. Chaucer refers to him any number of times in his work, and at the end ofTroilus and Criseyde, he basically dedicates the book to him: “Oh, moral Gower, this book I direct to thee.” He’s always had this reputation as a very moral poet, this kind of schlubby, moralistic contemporary of Chaucer’s, and in Shakespeare’s Pericles, Gower is the voice of the chorus. But I’ve always felt that what Chaucer said about him at the end of Troilus was a little bit tongue-in-cheek. I wanted to imagine a somewhat darker Gower.

NB: I’d like to switch to the prostitutes. In A Burnable Book, you do an amazing job of depicting the lives of London prostitutes in 1385. It felt so real, it was as if I were working the streets, too. How did you find all of the details?

BH: I began with secondary scholarship. I read a wonderful history of medieval English prostitution, and then I drew on some of the documents the author looked at. The most provocative one is an interrogation of a male transvestite prostitute from the London Guildhall in the 1390s. It’s an actual document from one of the record offices. It describes his life as a prostitute, the streets he was on, his clientele—which included priests, friars, businessmen, and women.

NB: So one of the prostitutes in A Burnable Book is based on an actual medieval transvestite?

BH: Yes, and one of the things I did craft-wise was, when Edgar is dressed as a man, I refer to the character as a “he.” When dressed as a woman, Eleanor is a “she.” Once or twice, that changes within the course of a single chapter.

NB: What a fun character to write. I’m jealous.

BH: Now tell me about the community of women you wrote and imagined in The Chalice—a priory of Dominican nuns.

NB: I didn’t have Guildhall interrogation documents, unfortunately. But I worked on my first novel for five years, researching the lives of nuns in England in the early 16th century, reading all the books I could and digging up letters and wills. Once I found out what a nun from that period would have to do—their routines revolved around set times of prayer—I could build my characters’ daily lives. It’s the little things, though, that you need to build a scene with convincing detail. What was the material of the novice habit, what kind of incense did they inhale, what was on the plate at dinner.

BH: And you flesh out those aspects of daily life with remarkable skill, without a lot of hand waving or showing off of historical details. I actually struggled a bit with this at first. I knew the medieval period in terms of its literary history, but in terms of the details of everyday life, that was a brand new learning experience. I had to go back and relearn a lot of what I thought I knew. There are so many passages in the literature that will tell you about, say, the food at a feast, but I never really paid attention to those until I had to figure out what people ate in a scene I was writing.

NB: Exactly! I was never happier than when a curator at the Tower of London scanned in a diet sheet of an aristocratic prisoner in the 1540s and sent me a PDF. I had every detail down to how many pigeons eaten a week. It occurs to me we are both writing about societies in fear of their kings.

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BH: Yes. Medieval London gives us a particularly rich site in which to explore those kinds of issues, particularly as they pertain to issues of authority, jurisdiction, tyranny and so on. In 1385, England is just about to enter a period that some historians have characterized as the “tyranny of Richard II”—he’s coming into his majority, and he’s just starting to get a bit capricious and arbitrary when it comes to the exercise of his power.

NB: Prophecy is the key source of mystery and danger in our books. I made mine up, although I based it on a real prophecy that was current at the time: “When the cow doth ride the bull, then priest, beware thy skull.” That was interpreted at the time as meaning that Anne Boleyn’s dominating King Henry VIII—convincing him to divorce his royal Spanish wife and marry her—that would lead to the overthrow of the Catholic religion.

BH: I also wrote the prophecies in A Burnable Book. In fact, I wrote them in Middle English, and then I modernized the spelling and grammar to make them more compatible with contemporary sensibilities. I modeled them on the poetry of William Langland and the Gawain poet: lots of alliteration, four-stress lines rather than the five-stress lines we find in Chaucer’s early version of iambic pentameter.

The prophetic language and the cryptic riddling are modeled directly on medieval prophecies of the sort written by Dante and others. If prophecy didn’t have the power to bring down kings, it certainly had the power to make them and their inner circle paranoid, and that’s part of the atmosphere I’m trying to explore.

NB: I’ve read that there’s often a surge of interest in prophecies when any society is under extreme strain. That’s what I try to capture in my second book. The nuns and monks and friars have been thrown out on the streets, the monasteries demolished or given to the king’s cronies. It’s a frightening and confusing time. People grab hold of prophecies and are more susceptible to plots and conspiracies. Yet that is when Henry VIII cracks down on dissent even more savagely. It’s a cycle.

BH: And this happens on the more local level as well. The city of London, with its corrupt and often thuggish mayors, also dealt quite severely with criminals, curfew violations and so on. The butchers, who play a key role in A Burnable Book, are a great case in point. They’re heavily regulated by the city but they also constantly violate regulations and in the records they’re found tossing filth in the river and along the streets.

NB: The details of what really happened are always so intriguing. And I think the poetry and fiction of the medieval period is more emotionally engaging than what some people might think. Did you find many “thriller” type stories in your research?

BH: A great question. There’s lots of hard-hitting crime fiction in the medieval period, and I’m very influenced by the language of accusation and punishment we find in works like the Canterbury Tales. Of all the thrilling and suspenseful moments in literature, probably my favorite is this incredible scene in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the late 14th century. We’re near the end of the romance, and Gawain is riding along to meet his fate at the hands of the Green Knight, who has vowed to chop his head off. As Gawain rides along the bank of a creek, he hears this sickening sound ringing from above. And he soon realizes it’s sound of an axe being sharpened, the very axe that he believes will soon behead him.

NB: That is chilling. I love it. You’re familiar with so many fantastic stories. I think academics are awarded instant respect by the book-buying public but genre writers … not so much. How has it been for you, to plunge into the fray of writing thrillers?

BH: I’ve always been an avid reader of thrillers, and my first “drawer novel” was a contemporary thriller about terrorism, though with a medieval background. A Burnable Book is something of a hybrid: It’s bibliofiction—that is, it’s a book about books—and has a somewhat literary bent given the story about Chaucer and Gower. But at heart it’s a thriller pure and simple, and I’m quite unapologetic about that. Some of the best fiction writing right now is genre writing!

NB: Oh, I agree with you. But not everyone has gotten the memo. Genre snootiness comes from unexpected places. I remember with my first novel, The Crown, the editor in chief of a certain women’s magazine didn’t want to cover it because she preferred “more sophisticated fiction.” Meanwhile, the magazine itself ran stories on how to remove stains from clothing and lose five pounds fast. I just didn’t know what to make of that. OK, to the point of your novel’s description, I see that A Burnable Book is often called a “literary thriller.” Is that because of the literary attention to character and theme? How does that … happen?

BH: No, I think it refers to the novel being self-conscious about the bookishness of itself and its subject. In this case a literary thriller is a book about a book.

NB: Like A.S. Byatt’s Possession?

BH: Exactly.

NB: Except that I’ve seen The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco called a literary thriller and that is a straight-up murder mystery set in a 14th century Italian monastery.

BH: In many ways The Name of the Rose fits the category, too: lots of references to book culture, medieval philosophy, and so on.

NB: Hmm, maybe you’re right. A lot of nasty things happen in the Benedictines’ scriptorium.

BH: Yes.

NB: I have to say, you seem much calmer than many other authors with a debut novel out. Is that because you’ve published nonfiction books and a lot of journal articles and papers? The academic world does have the reputation for sharp elbows.

BH: Academic criticism, and I’ve written a lot of it and taken a lot of it, is a whole different level of severity. It could be because of that being my profession, I have a pretty thick skin. The life of a novel, just like the life of an academic book, is much longer than the first few weeks or months of publication, and even as A Burnable Book is debuting this month I’m thinking about what I want to be writing five years from now. At the moment I’m working on the sequel, set the next year and beginning with a mass murder and a pile of bodies in the London privy channels. What’s next for you?

NB: I’m finishing the third book in the series: The Covenant. It is set in 1540 and some of the action takes place in Whitehall Palace, the one that burned to the ground in 1698. Which means, of course, I can’t look at it. I found an in-depth book on its construction, and then, after reading a lot of letters from the time and studying John Stow as never before, I was able to re-create it all on my kitchen table: the palace buildings, the gardens, the tiltyard, the gatehouse, the river stairs. The kids had to eat to the side for a while.