Hi all, I'm running around like a headless chicken at the moment preparing for some pretty big changes in my life. As such i didn't want to post a half-finished interview (not fair on author or on you), so instead I have decided to repost an old interview with one of my all time fave writers, because reading it once just isn't enough.
Normal service will be resumed soon!
Bringing History to Life
An Interview with Bernard Cornwell
photograph (c) Chris Clarke
It was my dad who first introduced me to the works of Bernard Cornwell, long before I fell in love with Richard Sharpe (well, okay, Sean Bean) as he strode around on TV looking very fetching with a rifle and a green jacket. I was a history buff as a kid, but that love had not crossed over into my reading habits. Until I read Sharpe’s Rifles. From that day on, Bernard Cornwell has featured very high on my list of favourite authors. I love it when he releases a new book. It means I don’t have to think of a present to buy Dad for his birthday.
Of course, it isn’t just the Sharpe books, based around the Napoleonic Wars, that Mr. Cornwell is famous for. The Starbuck Chronicles are set in the American Civil War, the Winter King Trilogy tell the tale of King Arthur, and his latest offering, The Burning Land, is book five of the Viking Saga, which are based in the times of Alfred the Great. Then there are his stand alone novels, like Gallows Thief and Azincourt. In terms of historical fiction, Bernard Cornwell writes incredibly well in a diverse range of periods.
So when I got the email back from Mr. Cornwell’s assistant saying that he was happy to answer my questions, you can forgive me for jumping up and down for a solid five minutes while squealing incoherently. Then I phoned my dad. He didn’t squeal, but I like to think he was as chuffed as me.
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions. You are widely regarded as the greatest writer of historical adventure books of our time; how do you feel about this label? Did you set out to be the “best”?
I don't believe it! There's Robert Harris writing his trilogy on Cicero, C J Sanson's wonderful books about Matthew Shardlake, and let's not forget Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall! Wow, I'm way down the list. I simply set out to write entertaining books!
Most people know that they want to write long before they actually start; was this the case for you? What made you put pen to paper and begin writing?
I wanted to write from way back, probably from when I was a teenager (oh god, so long ago). I'm not sure I ever would have taken the plunge - I had a perfectly respectable job with BBC TV, but then I met an American blonde and she couldn't live in Britain for family reasons, and I had no strong ties so decided to emigrate. The US Government, in its wisdom, denied me a Green Card (work permit), so I airily told her I'd write a book. Which I did, and thirty years later I'm still writing books and, much more important, still married to the blonde.
Out of all the books you have written, do you have a favourite? If so, what makes that one stand out above the others?
This feels rather like being asked 'do you have a favourite child', a question which probably has the answer 'yes', but everyone denies anyway. My favourites are the three Arthurian books - starting with The Winter King. They were simply a joy to write . . . at the time it felt as though they were writing themselves. I've enjoyed writing most of the books (why do it if it isn't enjoyable?), but those three stand out.
Your latest book, The Burning Land, has just been published and is the latest in the Alfred Series. How does writing in this period differ from the Sharpe books? What period is your favourite to research / write in?
I suppose the main difference is that the real history is so obscure. We have an enormous amount of material on the Napoleonic era, and know a vast amount about what really happened, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle can be maddeningly obscure . . . events are mentioned, but without any details. So I'm freer to use imagination (good), but more likely to get things wrong (bad).
What are you working on now?
A book set in the summer of 1779, during the American Revolution, when the British established an outpost on the coast of what is now Maine and the State of Massachusetts sent a large fleet and a militia force to dislodge them. The campaign is very little known, but curiously features two men who became very famous. On the British side a very young John Moore fought his first action, while Paul Revere was in charge of the American artillery. It's a fascinating tale, and you'll have to wait to find out more.
How long into your career was it before you could effectively write full time? What advice do you have for anyone who aspires to be a full time writer?
I started writing full time the moment I emigrated to the States - I really had no choice! Advice? Just do it! I do have a real mistrust of writing groups, which a lot of people join thinking, maybe, they'll find encouragement. The only opinion that matters in the first place is your own, and then that of an agent or publisher, and finally the reader, but writing is a solitary vice, so my recommendation is to sit down, shut the door, threaten the kids with blue murder if they interrupt you, and get on with it.
Historical fiction is a popular genre but, as with everything, is subject to changes and trends in the market. What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the historical fiction market?
I'd tell them to ignore the trends and write what they want to read themselves!
New writers can struggle to get the balance between historical fact and the actual story right. How do you approach this problem?
By refusing to see it as a problem. My job is to be a story-teller. I'm not an historian. If someone wants to know about the Peninsular War, then I'd recommend Professor Charles Esdaile's brilliant book, but I'd venture to suggest that his book doesn't have the same suspense as, say, Sharpe's Company? I do try to get the history right, but if there's a conflict between history and story, story always wins.
You are definitely one of the more accessible authors out there; do you think that it is important for writers to engage with their audience beyond their actual books?
I guess that's up to the author? I like doing it, but I can quite imagine that some people don't, and their first job is to write the books. Nothing is really important beyond that!
Agents tend to be regarded with mixed feelings by new writers. What are your experiences of literary agents? Do you think that they are worth having?
If a new writer can understand the complexities of a publishing contract and negotiate like a junkyard dog, then of course they don't need an agent. But I do, and I like mine and I'd recommend that every writer has an agent. I don't understand 'mixed feelings'. The agent is on your side!
And finally, can you sum up a key piece of advice for new writers in one sentence?
Everyone who is on the best-seller list was a scared new writer once. So just do it!
Many thanks to Mr. Cornwell for getting the Literary Project’s new year off to a fantastic start! Bernard Cornwell’s website can be accessed here, and for those of you obsessed by all things Sharpe, there is a great fansite accessible at this address. Bernard Cornwell’s newest novel, The Burning Land, is out now.
I have finally stopped jumping excitedly up and down in my seat long enough to get this post uploaded and the links sorted out; but for those of you that follow me on twitter, I really am sorry. I promise I’ll stop bragging now.
Just after I’ve gone and phoned my dad.
Just after I’ve gone and phoned my dad.