ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Bernard Cornwell

*Bernard Cornwell wrote his first book, Sharpe’s Eagle, in 1981. The British novelist’s nearly fifty books have sold something on the order of 9 million copies. We caught up with the man USA Today called the “alpha male of testosterone-enriched historical fiction.” *

1. Tom Clancy once said that while he just sits down and starts writing, going wherever his imagination takes him, Frederick Forsyth crafts meticulous outlines and conducts exhaustive research, virtually finishing the book before he starts. Where do you fit on the spectrum?

I never know what’s going to happen when I start a book! And I can’t plan books: if you do then sure as eggs some character will start doing something you hadn’t envisaged, and there goes all that planning! So it’s much the best thing to explore the story as you write! Much of the enjoyment of reading a novel is to discover what happens, and that’s also part of the joy of writing one. For me (but maybe not for other writers) imagination doesn’t work when I’m researching; it’s when you’re writing and the characters seem real that the imagination kicks into gear. Of course I do have a vague idea of where the book is going. Most historical novels have a big story and a little story. Think of Gone With the Wind: the big story is who will win the civil war, and the little story is whether Scarlett can save Tara, but the trick is to invert the two and place the big story in the background and bring the little story into the foreground. I usually know what the big story will do, because that’s real history. It’s the little story that I can’t plan and write to discover

2. You became an Officer in the Order of the British Empire in June 2006, an honor bestowed by the Queen of England. What did this honor mean to you? Did it cross your mind that men like those you write about in the Sharpe series undoubtedly were awarded similar honors two centuries before you?

It was a wonderful frippery. I certainly don’t want to demean it, and I was delighted to receive it, but in the long run of things it has very little impact! Michael Winner (the film director) turned down an OBE on the grounds that it was the medal given to people who had cleaned the toilets at Kings Cross Station for 25 years, which is exactly why I was so pleased to accept it. The honor is given to tons of people who do unglamorous, selfless jobs, and do them loyally for years; usually in education or social services, and if you’ve served school dinners for 25 years, and done it well, (or cleaned the loos at Kings Cross) then it’s wonderful that the Queen recognizes your services and you and your family get a day at Buckingham Palace! Any American who worked selflessly for their community deserves a handshake at the White House! I don’t think I was nearly so deserving as most of the people at my investiture, but it was a great experience, and my American wife loved it . . . because Americans are far more royalist than most Brits! Poor Sharpe would never have got an honor – no medals in the British army then, though he might have got a knighthood which would have pleased the rogue.

3. The most successful fiction authors, it seems, never emerge out of academia as professionally trained writers. You and Forsyth worked for BBC, Clancy sold insurance, Grisham was a lawyer. What explains this? How important is real-world experience?

James Hall emerged from academia? There must have been others, but I suspect you’re right. I wish I knew the answer to your question, but I really don’t. Yes, real-world experience is a sine qua non, but are you suggesting that academia isn’t the real world? I’d love to provide an answer to that question . . . I won’t (but I am SO grateful to the MLA for the unending source of hilarity it provides). I have a firm belief that courses in Creative Writing are about as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike, to which defenders will instantly respond by pointing out how many successful writers are graduates of such courses, but so what? Any young person today who wants to be a writer will almost certainly enroll in a CW course, simply because they suspect it will help them achieve their ambition, but long before there were any such courses the writers emerged anyway, and so would any young person today who has the talent. Writing, remember, is a solitary vice! I think I have drifted from the purpose of your question, so will shut up.

**4. Sharpe is set in the Napoleonic Wars, Starbuck in the Civil War, Grail Quest in the Hundred Years’ War – you’ve got stuff on Arthur and the Vikings. How do you do your research for such an eclectic range of interests? How accurate do you try to be? And when do you decide to end a series (Starbuck, Grail, etc.) and when to keep it going (Sharpe)? **

How do I do the research? In between books and over a lifetime. My favorite reading is history, so in one sense the research never stops. I do dedicated research before each book, but get bored with it very fast. Yet I do try to be accurate, and don’t always succeed. My primary job is to be a story-teller, not an historian, but of course I choose periods that interest me, and so probably, long before I ever decide to write about, say, the Saxons, I’ve been reading about them for years. As for when to end a series? Totally capricious. Don’t think about it!

5. The idea that one man can determine the course of events is often pooh-poohed –geography or broad societal forces are often deemed to have more explanatory power. Why, then, is the hero of the Sharpe series a man instead of, say, an island?

Islands are so bad at falling in love, or wanting revenge, or feeling grumpy in the morning. And islands can’t read! If they did, and could buy books, then I’d be writing my heroes as islands, but most of my readers are looking for vicarious adventures and so I reflect the reader in the characters. Can one man change history? Yes, yes and yes. Bonaparte? Hitler? It’s true, of course, that such men ride currents, but they had the dark-genius of knowing how to channel and direct those currents. A man at Sharpe’s level of events? No, probably not. He’s an eddy in the current.

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