Word-lover interview: Bruce Holsinger, author and scholar

We’ve been speaking to Bruce Holsinger, who as well as being a successful novelist, is also Professor of English at the University of Virginia, where he teaches courses on medieval and modern literature. You can read more about Bruce and his work at www.bruceholsinger.com as well as following him on Twitter at @bruceholsinger.

If you like this interview, do check out more in the series at the bottom of the page.

Latest book you have published:
A Burnable Book, a historical thriller set in Chaucer’s England.

Favourite language:
Middle English.

Favourite word:
“Thinglikeness,” an important term in the study of legal history.

Favourite non-mother tongue word:
Celeuma, an old Latin word for the rhythmic calls of a bosun to the rowers on a ship.

If you were stranded on a desert island with three books, what would they be?
(1) Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (my favorite and most formative book); (2) the King James Bible (just in case) and (3) Edwin Monk’s How to Build Wooden Boats: With 16 Small-Boat Designs (not sure why I picked this one).

When do you remember realising you loved words? Any early wordy memories?
One of my earliest memories is of my mother teaching me to read in a Montessori school she ran out of our basement. We used cardboard letters in blue (consonants) and red (vowels), and I distinctly remember a proud fascination with my own ability to create new words out of letters once I knew their phonetic sounds. For me, then, learning to read meant learning to love words as malleable, colorful things that you could hold in your hand—or bend, or rip, or break, or even chew…

What do you wish for other people to experience, enjoy or get out of words?
When I talk about my own use of words in fiction writing I like to use the image of the archive: every word is an archive unto itself, with depths of undiscovered meaning and resonance that can only be discovered through continual investigation and use. Words are also edible, as the Middle Ages recognized. The great historian Bede tells of a man named Caedmon chewing the words of scripture just as a cow chews its cud, and theologians of the period often wrote about texts as food.

What is your most hated word or grammar mistake?
I despise comma splices, I see them all the time in student writing, they really annoy me, nothing makes me wince more violently than a comma splice, gosh I hate them.

What is your favourite obscure word?
Saltpetre, the early English term for potassium nitrate—a crucial component of gunpowder.

What is your least favourite word?
Mealy.

Thanks to Bruce for taking the time to answer our questions. It is great to have a medieval perspective on English literature. We will also try to avoid too many comma splices in the future as well!

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