By David Healey
Long before there was the Walther PPK or the Glock—long, long before—there was the handgonne. In an age of swords, knights in armor, and pikes, the arrival of firearms was both world-changing and sinister.
Though primitive by today’s firearms standards—handgonnes resembled metal pipes attached to broom handles—and so unwieldy that two men were required to fire them; they were deadly nonetheless.
When several bodies are discovered in London with strange new gunshot wounds in the year 1386, it falls to “middling poet” and purveyor of secrets John Gower to investigate the case. What are these strange new weapons, who is wielding them, and what secrets are at stake?
This is the premise of Bruce Holsinger’s intriguing new historical novel, THE INVENTION OF FIRE, recently selected as an Amazon Best Book of the Month. The novel follows on the heels of 2014’s A Burnable Book, in which readers first met the main character.
Though fictionalized, Gower is based on a real person, a fourteenth-century man of law and letters who was a close friend of Geoffrey Chaucer. Much more is known about the author of The Canterbury Tales, of course; and Chaucer figures prominently in both books. To put these novels in historical context, it may help to know that they are set during the reign of Richard II, near the onset of the Hundred Years War.
It is an era that Holsinger knows well. As a professor at the University of Virginia, where he teaches medieval literature, making a six-hundred-year leap of the imagination come naturally.
“I love writing about London,” he said during a recent interview. He noted that today’s London looks very different from the one inhabited by Gower and Chaucer. The Great Fire of 1666 destroyed most of the city’s oldest structures. “There’s so little of the medieval city left.”
However, one feature that does survive is the Southwark Cathedral located in the neighborhood where Gower once lived.
Something else that has changed quite a bit over the centuries is the language itself. Over the phone, Holsinger recited some verses from The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. A modern listener might pick up on every third word or so, all the while noting that Middle English sounds a great deal like a stream of mostly unfathomable words delivered in a thick Scottish brogue. For example, handgonnes is pronounced something like hund-gun-ness.
“We’d be able to understand a little bit,” Holsinger said.
One of the challenges of writing a historical novel in which characters would have spoken Middle English is to keep the dialogue authentic without bogging it down with phonetic pronunciation or unfamiliar words.
“You don’t want people to be distracted by your dialogue,” he said. Using his own knowledge of the language of the day and research into particular words, he tried to work in just the right language to convey readers to the fourteenth century.
Another challenge was depicting the details of everyday life in long-ago London. Holsinger recalled being momentarily stumped when asked if people ate with forks.
“A lot of the details of everyday life I had to look up,” he said.
Holsinger’s own interest in the medieval era comes from having been a musician early in his academic career. Also, he noted that it helped to play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons.
He has learned to juggle his academic and writing career by adhering to a schedule that seems, well, rather medieval and monk-like.
“I tend to do my best fiction writing very early in the morning,” he explained. How early? “I get up at four-thirty or five.”
“I don’t write at a desk,” he added. “I tend to do my writing in coffee shops or the couch.”
These days, when researching academic work, his mind sometimes strays into novel-writing mode: “I’ll find myself sneaking off in the middle of the day just to write a paragraph.”
Holsinger will be teaching in London this summer, when he plans to do further research into the medieval world.
Bruce Holsinger, an award-winning novelist and literary scholar, is Professor of English at the University of Virginia. The New York Times Book Review has praised his debut historical novel, A Burnable Book (HarperCollins), for “delivering up a world where even the filth is colorful,” and hails its protagonist as “the perfect narrator and amateur sleuth.” His second novel, The Invention of Fire (out in April), imagines the beginnings of gun violence in the western world. Holsinger’s scholarly work has been recognized with a Guggenheim Fellowship and other major awards. He has written for The Washington Post, Slate, The Nation, and other national publications, and appears regularly on NPR.
To learn more about Bruce, please visit his website.