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Interview with Bernard Cornwell

As a longstanding fan of the writing of Bernard Cornwell, I was delighted when he agreed to answer some interview questions. The profile of his writing has been raised most recently by the television adaptation of The Last Kingdom and its scandalously irreligious hero Uhtred.

However, his output of historical fiction is truly prolific, drawing on material spanning several millennia. There are series like the Sharpe books about the peninsular war and the Starbuck series covering the American Civil War. Alongside this there are standalone tales like Stonehenge: 2000 BC and also The Fort – covering a little-known siege in the American War of Independence.

So, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions and, without further ado, here they are.

1. HISTORICAL FICTION AND FANTASY

The Winter King (cover)FF: While historical fiction and fantasy may be considered quite distinct genres, there are points where they do bump alongside each other.  G.R.R. Martin’s Starks and Lannisters and their internecine battles were inspired by the struggles of the Yorks and the Lancasters in the Wars of the Roses. The great wall of ice is basically Hadrian’s wall made taller and longer and older and colder. At the same time in your own Warlord series and also the Grail series there is a hint of magic and divinity at work alongside the raw historical facts.

How far do you see the boundary between the two genres as blurred and mutable or clear and distinct?

BC: I think it’s totally distinct! I’m not disparaging fantasy writers, but they have a freedom which an historical novelist doesn’t enjoy. I can’t have magic swords or invisible beings or anything which isn’t grounded in boring old reality. Yes, there is a hint of magic in some of my books, but that merely reflects the superstitious attitude of the characters themselves – in a pre-scientific, pre-technological age the only explanations for the apparently inexplicable were to blame the gods or malign fate. That isn’t magic, it’s understandable ignorance. A fantasy writer might well ground his or her work in a real historical background, but they have no duty to that history. The historical novelist does!

2. REALISM AND RESEARCH

FF: Fantasy writing and writers strive these days for realism, to shrug off the chainmail bikinis of the 80s and the magic swords which render expensive plate mail as useless as wet tissue paper. Your depictions of warfare, be it Derfel or Uhtred, Sharpe or Thomas of Hookton, are unfailingly gripping.

How far are your battle scenes a product of research into the eras concerned, and how much of that research finds its way into the detail of the story?    

BC: The battle scenes? Well, there’s a good deal of research. It helps verisimilitude not to have General Purpose Machine Guns at Agincourt, but most of the scenes are imaginary.

3. BIG STORIES AND SMALL STORIES

Stonehenge: A Novel of 2000BC by Bernard CornwellFF: You have described historical fiction as a mix of the big (historic) story and the little (personal) story. James Cameron’s Titanic might be considered one example that fits that model of the big shipwreck story and the small Jack and Rose love story.  Your own historical writing covers a huge breadth of periods of history, from Stonehenge in 2000 BC to the American Civil War.

What draws you to a particular “big” story and how do you decide what “little” personal story to weave within it?

BC: I wish I knew! Seriously I don’t. It’s a capricious choice. I suppose I select the big story because the particular period or event interests me.  I can’t get interested in the Victorian era, so I won’t choose that. As for the little story – it emerges as you write the book. No one ever believes me, but usually I have no idea what is going to happen in the next chapter! There’s no rhyme or reason to this . . . I wish I could claim that a vast amount of thought goes into the planning of a book, but it doesn’t. I write to find out what happens!

4. PLANNING AND PLOTTING

FF: How are you able to reconcile hanging your story on the known fixed points in history, with genuinely not knowing what is going to happen next?

BC: Well, the story you write is constrained by the real events. That’s inescapable, so whatever you invent has to fit inside that framework. If it doesn’t? You junk it and try again!

5. ARMY AND NAVY

Sharpe's Tiger by Bernard CornwellFF: I understand that your initial inspiration to write came from reading the Hornblower novels of C.S.Forester. However, you saw a genre that was nearing saturation (Alexander Kent’s Bolitho, Dudley Pope’s Ramage with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey & Maturin hot on their heels) and instead pivoted to the world of the foot soldier. Hence the Sharpe series became your first venture, although you still gave Sharpe a bit part in the greatest battle of the age with “Sharpe’s Trafalgar.”

I have seen other writers express skepticism about sea journeys as a hindrance to a pacey, fluid story. Patrick Rothfuss in The Wise Man’s Fear dismissed months of sea travel in a single line “in brief, there was a storm, piracy, treachery, and shipwreck, although not in that order.”

What differences, if any, do you see in the challenges and opportunities between writing ship based or land based stories?

BC: The biggest difference is that you can’t separate the characters! That imposes real difficulties in plotting . . . everyone in the novel is living in close quarters to everyone else. In a land-based novel you can have people disappear for a chapter or two – almost impossible when they’re trapped on the same ship.

6. BOOKS AND TV ADAPTATIONS

The Last Kingdom by Bernard CornwellFF: Some writers keep a tight grip on the integrity of their story and how it is presented on screen (J. K. Rowling). Others find the adaptation has outrun its own source material (cough G.R.R. Martin).   Despite having worked in television and with actors you have taken a fairly laid back approach to the small screen adaptations of Sharpe and The Last Kingdom, leaving the producers to work their magic free of authorial prompts.

  • How far can or should screen adaptations go beyond being different experiences or representations of a story and become different stories themselves?
  • Could you ever envisage a point at which you might say “enough is enough” – for example if any of your books was given the “Peter Jackson and the Hobbit” treatment?

BC: Nope. I’m just grateful that a production company is making the series. I worked in television long enough to learn that I know nothing whatever about producing TV drama, so I don’t interfere. And you have to trust them, they’re not idiots! They bring their own creativity to the project, and that’s added value. I assume, if they spent money buying the stories, they liked them, so they’re not likely to take the adaptation far away. If they do? I assume they have good reason – like budget constraints.

7. READING AND WRITING

FF: You have described your own work regime as being one of systematic daily routine – an approach that is professional not precious and in which “writer’s block” has little place (apart from those writers taking their first uncertain steps in writing with all the insecurities that entails).

Other advice given to new writers, is to read, to read widely and critically as – I guess – the equivalent of a boxer sparring in a gym.

Your list of books read on Goodreads is something of a snapshot but hints at more non-fiction than fiction.

  1. What are you own reading habits and preferences?Excalibur by Bernard Cornwell
  2. What writing – fiction or non-fiction – has inspired you the most?
  3. What has moved you the most?

BC: I read voraciously. I wouldn’t take much mind of Goodreads, I’m not sure I ever update that. I mostly read politics and history. I can’t bear reading historical fiction, mainly because I write it, so why would I want to read it after a day’s work? I do love a good police procedural (John Sandford).

Inspired me? Lord knows! Probably the poetry of W.B. Yeats.

Moved me the most? None of your business, but she’s beautiful.

8. EXCALIBUR AND THE WARLORD

FF: As I said, I think it is the warlord trilogy about Arthur where your writing comes closest to traditional fantasy. The Winter King, Enemy of God and Excalibur offer a take on the many Arthurian traditions which is at once familiar and yet very different to what a reader might expect. You have drawn on the very scant historical evidence provided by Gildas and Nennius along with complaints of a number of celtic saints to produce a magnificent story.

Authors, like parents, are not supposed to have favourites, but which of your heroes do you prefer – Uhtred (The Saxon brought up by Danes) or Derfel (The Saxon brought up by Celts)?

BC: My favourite hero is always whoever I’m working on at the moment!  I like them all, otherwise I couldn’t spend so much time with them. I suppose, because the Saxon tales aren’t finished, I do enjoy Uhtred, and especially how he rattles the clergy’s cage.

9. WRITING AND ADVICE

FF: You have been generous in your advice to other writers, through interviews and pages on your website.  However, you have also quoted Somerset Maugham who said “There are three rules for writing a novel, unfortunately no-one knows what they are.”

Nonetheless, what is the best advice you ever received as a writer – and what other piece of advice would you yourself add to that?

BC: The best advice? Sit down and write! The other advice I’d give, and this will be unpopular with a lot of folk, is to avoid ‘Writers’ Groups’. You write first for yourself. A new writer, unsure of her or his ability, can go to a writing group where she or he will receive criticism, but the criticism too often is delivered by some egotistic soul who believes he (usually he) knows all the answers. They don’t. Lack of confidence is the biggest threat to a new writer, so don’t expose your work to the criticism of anyone who isn’t an agent or a publisher. You write for yourself, hope that an agent or publisher will like it, and that the wider reading public will like it. And remember, every writer, including the most successful, began thinking they were embarking on a hopeless task, that it wouldn’t work, that they couldn’t write, that their style was hopeless, etc etc etc. Join the club, sit down and write!

The Fort by Bernard Cornwell10. PUBLISHING: THEN AND NOW

FF: The Sharpe novels, like G.R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire were something of a slow burn, taking time to pick up readers and momentum.

  1. Do you think routes to publishing success are different now to how they were then?
  2. Do you think your own approach and writing would have to have been adapted if you were pursuing publication now?

BC: I have no idea! Most of us write because we want to, because we enjoy it, because it’s better than working! I leave the intricacies of publishing to agents and publishers, and they leave the business of writing to me. It’s a good arrangement. The one thing I would say is that despite the changes in publishing over the last 20 or 30 years a good story will still survive – witness the well-deserved success of Mick Herron. It really doesn’t matter how you publish – old-fashioned way or e-book – the basic product – a good story – hasn’t changed.

11. SEAN BEAN AND SHARPE

FF: Sean Bean is renowned for his repeated and progressively messier mortality on both the large and the small screen.

Surely this means there is one book at least still to write: ‘Sharpe’s Death‘?   

BC: There is another Sharpe book to be written, maybe more than one, but none of them will be called Sharpe’s Death!

He’s immortal.

12. HISTORY AND THE FUTURE

FF: History is such a rich source of true-life stories, many of them too fantastic to make for believable fantasy.

Where will history take your writing next, after Uhtred and Sharpe?

BC: I’ve just finished a book, Fools and Mortals, which is set in late 16th Century London, and is about the nascent theatre scene. Now it’s back to Uhtred. And after that?  I haven’t the faintest idea!

13. QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

FF: What question are you most glad you have not been asked and how would you have answered it?

The question you just asked me, and I have no clue how to answer it!

Thank you once again for taking the time to answer these questions and also for writing so many books which, for so many of us, are the absolute benchmark of quality historical fiction as well as enthralling reads in their own right.

Bernard Cornwell was born in London in 1944. His father was a Canadian airman, and his mother, who was English, a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. As a child, Cornwell loved the novels of C.S. Forester, chronicling the adventures of fictional British naval officer Horatio Hornblower during the Napoleonic Wars, and was surprised to find there were no such novels following Lord Wellington’s campaign on land. Motivated by the need to support himself in the U.S. through writing, Cornwell decided to write such a series. He named his chief protagonist Richard Sharpe, a rifleman involved in most major battles of the Peninsular War.

Cornwell is the author of multiple bestselling historical fiction series and standalones, including: The Warlord Chronicles, The Saxon Stories, Sharpe, Azincourt, Stonehenge: 2000BC, and the Grail Quest. His next book will be titled Fools and Mortals, and follows the young Richard Shakespeare, an actor struggling to make his way in a company dominated by his estranged older brother, William. It’s set to release in October 2017. Visit his website for more.

Bernard Cornwell

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3 Comments

  1. Davieboy says:

    Great interview! The Sharpe TV series was outstanding and led me directly to the books. These led to the Warlord Trilogy. That was even better and it was the quest to find something as good that led to GRRM’s ASoIaF which was being touted as being in a similar vein. That was some, what, 15 years ago? It was funny to see Sharpe turn up as Stark….
    Any fan of GRRM, Abercrombie and the like (not that there are many of those writers’ calibre) would really enjoy The Winter King and its sequels. And unlike the Saxon series, 3 books and you’re done!
    Thanks BC for leading me to many years of great reading.

  2. Lanko says:

    Fantastic interview. He was the one who got me into knights and stuff, and in a way into Fantasy later.

  3. A S Warwick says:

    There are more Sharpe stories to come? Wow, awesome. I had thought he had done with that series.

    The Sharpe series was a big influence on my writing I must admit.

    Oh, and if you haven’t read his non-fiction book on the Battle of Waterloo, it is well worth a read.

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