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Imagine the successful novelist, struggling over semicolons and dangling participles in his garret. He stops occasionally to mop his brow with an oversized linen handkerchief, then returns to sweating over the balance of thoughts versus ideas. If you've imagined this properly, you're not getting a picture of Bernard Cornwell. At all. The author of 18 historical novels doesn't seem to struggle so much as lilt. "It's much better than working," Cornwell says of his craft. "You sit down and you tell stories. It's fun. I would say that 99 per cent of all journalists and 80 per cent of all teachers want to be doing what I'm doing. And I'm gonna say it's difficult? No! They're right. My great fear is that I'll be caught out."
If his candor is refreshing, it's also slightly misleading. Cornwell's books don't seem formulaic: despite his protestations that they are. In a Cornwell novel, ships sink, battalions end up bloody and revenge is sweet, especially when served cold. His characters are believable and memorable and the loose ends are always properly tied up. What has endeared him most to readers -- and reviewers -- is his attention to historic detail and the way he can bring that history so vividly to life.
But to listen to him tell it, writing these searing -- and bestselling -- novels is about as challenging as walking in the park. "I think I'm as lazy as hell. What I'm doing is not very difficult. I mean, I'm not Sebastian Faulks, right? I'm not Jane Smiley. I'm not writing books about the human condition. I'm telling stories. Adventure stories. And having a lot of fun doing it."
His latest bit of fun is Sharpe's Prey, the 18th book in the Sharpe series. Sharpe's Prey begins in London in 1807 and sees Lieutenant Richard Sharpe back in England and ready to leave the army. It's not as simple as that, however: Sharpe is offered one final assignment. He must go to Copenhagen to protect a corrupt politician. Sharpe finds himself in the middle of a battle of espionage that may lead to full out war.
Sharpe's Prey is different from the other Sharpe novels in that they usually start "smack into chapter one into a fight. So you kick off with a battle: 15,000 words. That gets the book off to a nice, fast start, lots of dead Frogs. Introduce plot, all right? Plot begins to sag. Wheel on 40,000 Frogs and start slaughtering them." This gets you to the center of the book, says Cornwell, in order to "keep it moving, right? Then you finish off the plot in chapter six or seven. And then you've got 50,000, 60,000 words of the battle at the end at which you kill the four villains. Easy," he laughs. "It works every time."
Bernard Cornwell was born in England but has made his home in the United States since the late 1970s. He lives on Cape Cod with his wife Judy and his boat, the 24-foot Cornish crabber, Royalist. His fans can expect many more Cornwell-penned tales. After all, he likes it so much, it seems unlikely he'll ever stop.
Linda Richards: I understand that you were forced to become a novelist.
Bernard Cornwell: Well, yes. But nobody put a gun to my head. I had a perfectly respectable job as a television producer. I met this American lady and, to cut a long story short, she didn't care to live in Britain. And I could go to America, but I couldn't get a green card so I airily said: I will write a novel. And I'm still married and I'm still writing.
It all worked out quite well, though. Because a lot of people say they're going to write a novel and it doesn't really...
Well, I will confess I always wanted to do it. I'd had it in mind for a long time. But I think, like a lot of people, I was too lazy. And also I had a perfectly good, respectable job. I have huge admiration for people who can work a full day at whatever -- teacher, truck driver, housewife, whatever -- and write novels in the evening. And I don't think I could have done that. So it took a desperate upheaval of [my] life to make me do it. It's called love.
And you live in the United States now?
Yeah. Cape Cod. And I was terribly, terribly lucky. I was lucky in meeting Judy. Lucky that the first book worked.
And the first book did work?
Yes. The first Sharpe. I got a seven book contract out of that.
Which book was that?
That was Sharpe's Eagle. It's not the first in the chronological order, but it was the first one written. I wrote it in 1979 and it was published in 80, I think.
I think you must have a tremendous work ethic to keep producing books at the rate you do.
Look: It's not a work ethic. I think I'm as lazy as hell. What I'm doing is not very difficult. I mean, I'm not Sebastian Faulks, right? I'm not Jane Smiley. I'm not writing books about the human condition. I'm telling stories. Adventure stories. And having a lot of fun doing it. Now, some of those people I mentioned, if they write a book that doesn't quite work, it's still worth reading: it's still interesting. Because they're aiming at a small target a long way off and even a near miss is a damned fine thing to achieve. I'm shooting at a barn door at five paces.
But, come on: I think you're selling yourself short. And I think the many, many people who read your books would think so too. I mean, there's got to be a lot of research and...
Look, look: it's just that there's this myth that writers have it difficult. And, yeah: if you write for therapy you have it difficult. But then everything is difficult in your life. Getting up in the morning is difficult. I volunteered, right? No one put a gun to my head and said: Sorry Bernard, this is it. Give up being a television producer and be a writer. Oh no, no! Anything but that! I wanted this. I mean I dreamed of doing this. From the time I was 14, 15 [it was] all I wanted to do. I thought it would be great: better than working. It's true, it is. It's much better than working. You sit down and you tell stories. It's fun. I would say that 99 per cent of all journalists and 80 per cent of all teachers want to be doing what I'm doing. And I'm gonna say it's difficult? No! They're right. My great fear is that I'll be caught out.
Your candor is refreshing.
But it's true. Writer's block is nature's way of telling you you're not a writer. If a nurse could have a block, then I could have one: that's how I feel. Nursing is much more difficult than what I do. And they're not allowed to phone up and say: Awfully sorry. I've got nurse's block today. That's all right. If you've got nurse's block you can't work.
But not everyone is a good storyteller.
Oh well, that I grant you. I don't know if I am. We all just do our best and, in the end, if you get away with it -- if the publisher keeps coming back for more... but that's writer's block, isn't it? If you can't do it -- and again, if you're Sebastian Faulks (I keep using him as an example, but he's a friend of mine so I can produce him as much as I like) if you're writing about the human condition, maybe you do get writer's block because what you're doing is very, very difficult. If you're Van Gogh painting sunflowers you're allowed to have your moments of agony and difficulty. If you're doing it for Hallmark cards, there's no bloody way: you get on with it.
You're exceptionally lucky to have found the thing you love so much.
Oh sure! Absolutely! I agree.
And it's fun to hear you having fun with it. I've interviewed a lot of authors and most don't share your ease, I think. For instance, it takes Tom Robbins about four years to write a book.
If I was Tom Robbins I'd be looking into careers in banking [Laughs]. I'd be looking for a career that gave me joy and time off to go sailing. I'd think: What am I doing this for?
But then there's always the tortured artist that says: I'm driven to this.
Well that's fine. But that's my exception, you know, when you're talking about the human condition. If you're Van Gogh you're allowed. If you're doing it for Hallmark, you're not. That's the difference. I'm doing it for Hallmark cards. I mean, Tom Robbins is a much better writer than I am. A more serious writer than I am. I'm not sure what the last one was entirely about [Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates] but some of the other ones, you know: he's shooting at a smaller target a longer way off. He's in the posterity stakes. I'm not.
Why did you choose to write about this particular period in history?
I think probably because of [Cecil Scott Forester's] Hornblower. When I was a kid reading Hornblower, that period went into my soul. There's just a wealth of good stories from that period.
Yeah, that's right. And all of those ridiculously gorgeous uniforms and swords and lances and it's cavalry and plumes and all that good stuff. Dead Frenchmen everywhere, wonderful [Laughs]. When there are no ghosts, nobody cares. It's not like if you write about the American Civil War, or the First World War, Second World War: there are still ghosts. There are none from the Napoleonic wars.
You've also written about the American Civil War. What is that series called?
You've been doing that for a number of years also?
No. I sort of stopped when I went back to doing Sharpe because I thought Sharpe had finished and then it came onto television and it was sensible just to start beating more books into the market for obvious reasons. And I can really only do one battle book a year [Laughs]. I didn't want to do a Sharpe and a Starbuck, so poor Starbuck got rather left behind. And I get letters all the time saying when am I going to write another, so I think I'm going to have to do one quite soon.
And Harlequin is the beginning of yet another series.
Yea. But I don't think it will be a long series. Three or four, maybe.
The publisher sent a copy out but I haven't had a chance to read it yet.
[Laughs] A treat in store. [His voice lacerated with irony.]
Hey! I love historical stuff.
It's all right. The battle's good.
You said you thought you had finished with the Sharpe books. Which book did you think you'd finished with?
Well, [Sharpe's] Waterloo really was the original end. Then there was one after that which I probably shouldn't have done.
Which one was that?
Sharpe's Waterloo. I thought that was the end. But then when the television series started it was just obvious to give people more Sharpe.
Where was the television series aired?
In Britain. I can't remember when it was: It must be six, seven, eight years ago.
Did you like the series?
Yeah. So would you, if you got two hours free advertising a week on [television].
But did you like watching it? Was it fun?
Yeah. I'd worked in television so I knew it was not going to be an exact reproduction [of the story]. And there were some things I didn't like, but some of it I thought they improved. There are some things I probably would have done differently but, you know, if they'd have written the book there would have things they would have done differently.
What did you do [when you worked] in television?
I was a journalist. When I met Judy, who is responsible for all of this, I was Head of Current Affairs Television BBC in Northern Ireland. They loved acronyms and I was HCATVNI.
It doesn't spell anything though.
No. But I remember they did appoint an assistant regional sound engineer. A-R-S-E: they put it on the door. His job description was changed about an hour later. [Laughs]
And that's where you met Judy? Working for the BBC?
Yeah. She was an American travel agent. The Northern Irish Tourist Board -- in a moment of complete madness -- decided to bring a party of American travel agents to Ulster as a tourist destination. And [that] was the second worst year of the trouble -- and I hope it stays that way. It was 1978. And there were bombs going off everywhere. I thought it was a joke, I thought I'd film it. And Judy was one of the travel agents. And I saw her. She walked out of an elevator and I said to my reporter: I'm going to marry that woman. So that's how it happened.
But you were kidding.
I don't know if I knew.
You must have known if you said it.
Oh no: I did say it.
So you must have known.
Well, no. The question is: How many other women had I said it about? [Laughs] But actually, I can't think I did.
And that was in 1978?
Yeah. We met in 1978. We married in 1980.
Television must also have been a fun job.
Yes. But it was also a young person's job and then in the year after I met Judy I went back to London and became editor of Thames News and that was a perfect example of the Peter Principle at work. You know: where you get promoted to the level of your incompetence. I was actually very competent at making programs and live directing and all that stuff. The moment I had to run the division with 180-odd people working for me [makes a raspberry noise] I fucked it up. That's all right. I knew I was going to America to marry Judy anyways. They didn't know it, but I did. And that was a well paid job and that basically gave me the money to go to the States and by that time I'd learned that I couldn't get a green card so I thought: I'd better put some money together fast. I put enough money together to write for about a year.
Do you have any children?
No. I have a child by a previous mistake and she has three. As I always tell her: I learned from my mistakes. I stopped. I had one.
How big a change was it? Moving to the States from the U.K.?
I think I'm probably a sort of dyed-in-the-wool Brit. I've now lived [in the States] for 22 years and the longer I live there the more British I get. Obviously I like it, or I wouldn't be there. But it's just the stupid things you miss: Like decent beer. Cricket. Rugby. Really stupid things. Nothing terribly important. But the sailing in Cape Cod is terrific, I can't complain.
Do you do a lot of research [for your books]?
I'm bound to say that, aren't I? I'm not going to say: No. I do as much as necessary and probably not enough. But yeah: a lot. I talk at a lot of these conventions for people who want to write which I like doing because, you know, I got help when I started and I think you owe it. And every time, someone will come up to me and say: Oh, I'm writing an historical novel. And I'll say: Oh good. How's it going? And they'll say: I'm still doing the research. Well: How long has it been? Answer: Two years. And I think: It'll never get written. I know there are some obvious things [you'd better get right]. There were no Bren guns on Victory, nothing like that. But, beyond that, you've got to get on and do it. Write the story. And then, when you do that, you're going to find out what you need. And I've been reading this stuff since I was 15, 16 and I've got a huge library.
And a huge internal knowledge.
Yeah. Huge internal knowledge. I never think about researching these Sharpe books. I'll research the campaign -- in this case Copenhagen -- but that's easy. It's simple. But the book I'm writing right now is actually an interesting example because it's set two years after Waterloo -- and it's not a Sharpe book -- and it's set in England. Basically set against the Bloody Code which was when there were over 150 offenses for which you could be hanged. And they were hanging away -- oh, I don't know -- 2000 a year. So I had to do an immense amount of research on that. And then, having done that, I thought: All right. Let's write the damned book. And then, as I was writing it, I then found I needed two things I didn't know. One was a lot more knowledge of London -- 18th century. Well, that was actually pretty easy to find. And then, curiously, I needed to find out how cricket was played in 1817. Then, by a sheer stroke of luck, a television company wanted me to go over and appear on a This Is Your Life program and they were going to fly me over and I got them to give me an extra day and I went down to the cricket museum and spent a day with the curator and got everything I needed.
My point was that by waiting until you're actually half way through the book to find out where the gaps are you don't waste time researching everything. But you can research what you actually, really need.
And the other thing I do which I tell other people to do is: You have to do some specific research, yes. You know, cricket in 1817. But just read about that period. Anything about it. Because you're going to get little gems. I mean, don't research, just read about the painters in the regency. Carriage making. Anything. Just read. You're not researching, you're just reading.
That's probably part of why your novels have such a big following and are so well loved. Because sometimes historical novels can be over-researched and you can fall in love with your research and bring that into your work and it's just a tome.
Yeah. And you read it and it's [tedious].
But it's always about human stories, isn't it? It's not about the research or the details or did he button his coat left to right, it's really about humans.
Now you've got me worried about left or right. You really have, I've got to think. I'm not going to sleep now until I find that out! Because I read something about that not long ago. [Laughs] But it's nice of you to say so. I always say it's stories. It's not fact. If you want to know what happened at the Siege of Copenhagen, don't read me.
But what you're doing -- whether you mean to or not -- is piquing people's interest.
Oh yeah, I hope so. Because that's what happened to me. I read the Hornblowers and when there were no more Hornblowers the only thing left to read was a non-fiction history. I lot of people write to me saying: You've made me interested and I've gone and read these books. Which is nice. I like that.
Whose work have you enjoyed? In this genre.
It's a terrible thing to say but I've stopped reading historical novels. Since I write them. The only two exceptions -- and I can now think of three or four as I say that -- I would read Patrick O'Brien. George MacDonald Fraser: I'll read anything he writes. He's wonderful.
You know, when I wrote the [King] Arthur books I actually never did read an Arthur since T.H. White. I never did read Mists of Avalon partly because I did know I wanted to do it.
You're done with the Arthur books?
Sadly. I loved them. Best thing I've ever done. But there were only three books. There were no more. That was it. It came to an end.
When were they?
The last one came out about four years ago. And they were fun. They were just fun. I mean, you sat down to write and wrote all day and night. It was glorious.
Do you work at long stretches?
I do office hours. Boring. I start most mornings at half past six. Work through until midday, take an hour or so off. Start again, work through until fiveish.
And you do a novel a year, generally?
Two. And take time off to go sailing. And travel.
Do you do two book tours a year also?
I have been, in Britain. But I won't do another one this year after this one.
You said you were working on something set two years after Sharpe's Waterloo?
Yeah. The Gallows Thief. The hanging one. This is actually how I think good stories should start. I was reading a book -- I told you to read 'round [your topic]. I read huge amounts of history. I also have a passionate hatred of the death penalty. A wonderful book came out about four or five years ago that was basically a history of the Newgate Gallows. A very serious history: quite hard going. But there was this wonderful footnote -- and it was only a footnote -- and he was discussing the whole machinery of petitions and how petitions were dealt with. In the footnote he just said: Very occasionally an Investigator -- capital "I" -- was appointed to look into the facts of the case. And I thought: That's my hero. This is the first detective. I mean, there'd been no detective stories -- the real thing -- doesn't go back beyond the middle of the 19th century and there was the footnote to prove that they actually had them in 1817, 1819, 1820. I thought: Great. That's him.
So it's a mystery?
Well, we have a guy who is going to be hung. The petition. And we've got one week to plan it and be rid of him. It's great. It's fun. I'm enjoying it.
That's a whole new series?
I would like it to be a series but what happened,to be honest, is I was doing the second Harlequin and I couldn't make it work. And I knew it needed more time and reading. And I had promised a book for by the end of this month. So I told the publisher: You're getting something different. I had to promise I'd do that follow-up to Harlequin next but I [now] know what to do with him.
Are you finished The Gallows Thief?
I've got about three weeks to go on it, actually. I'm on the penultimate chapter. We're about to find out who did it. I've never written a detective story before: you don't actually know who did it yourself. It's great fun.
You don't know who did it?
I do now.
Are you writing while you're on tour?
I can't do it. I wish I could, actually. I think when I started -- before I became hopelessly stuck-up -- I could work anywhere. But now I've got -- you're going to be really jealous -- a 600-square foot, purpose-built library/study. Trees standing, amply gardened, with its own bar. Broad, hardwood floors, library stacks. [Laughs gleefully]
And it's on Cape Cod. Do you see water?
No. I see trees. I can work in it, it's great. So you go back there and I've got a huge reference library, one computer has got all the research on it, the other one you write on. Tough life. [Laughs]
Did I read somewhere that Sharpe is based on a real person?
No. Somebody has been pushing that around, but it's not true. And I don't know where it came from, because I didn't base him on anybody. I based his promotion from private to lieutenant colonel on a real person who went from the ranks to lieutenant colonel in the same period. And I didn't base [Sharpe] on him, I basically was cheered up by the fact that he had done so when people said it was impossible, [Sharpe] couldn't possibly have done it, I could say: Piss off, yes he did. And here he is, he did it.
But Sharpe gets involved in real events.
Oh yes. Some are and some are not. Two of them are totally made up. I always tell people that this is the simplest thing in the world because the Napoleonic wars, which provide any number of enormous battles -- and I've written 18 and I've still got four or five battles left that are huge, interesting and different. If I can't spin a battle out to 50,000 words there's something wrong. Really something wrong. Now, all a Sharpe fan wants is they go smack into chapter one into a fight. So you kick off with a battle: 15,000 words. That gets the book off to a nice, fast start, lots of dead Frogs. Introduce plot, all right? Plot begins to sag. Wheel on 40,000 Frogs and start slaughtering them.
Wheel on what?
Wheel on 40,000 more Frogs in the middle of the book and start killing them, right? That lifts the center of the book up, keep it moving, right? Then you finish off the plot in chapter six or seven. And then you've got 50,000, 60,000 words of the battle at the end at which you kill the four villains. Easy. [Laughs] It works every time.
And I had all this trouble writing Harlequin, because it was meant to be more like the Arthur books and, in the end, I thought: To hell with this. And, you know, we just wheeled on the Frogs at the beginning, did the plot, had a battle in the middle, more plot and a battle with a crest at the end. It's a Sharpe book with a longbow. It worked. And I tried with the second book to do things different, realized it wasn't working, so I had to go away and find out why and then it was time to do another Sharpe book.
When can people expect to The Gallows Thief in print?
October in England.
Do you know when in the U.S.?
Oh God knows. Sharpe's Prey won't come out for another year. They're producing Harlequin [in the U.S.] in October: they're calling it The Archer's Tale, which I hate. [They said:] Oh, we can't call it Harlequin, people will think it's a romance. And I said: Great. Then they'll go out and buy it, wouldn't they? A lot of lonely women will go out and buy it. It would be the breakout book. | July 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.