An interview with Bernard Cornwell

In an exclusive interview, Books editor Sam Huckstep and writer Bernard Cornwell discuss the Hornblower stories, a writer's moral duty, and the influence of success (among others).

Bernard Cornwell Portrait by Rachel Cripps

Most famous for his 24 novels about the Napoleonic War-era rifleman Richard Sharpe, Bernard Cornwell is perhaps the world’s best-known historical novelist today. Fantastically prolific, Cornwell has over 50 novels to his name, and has sold millions of books to fans across the world. He regularly tops bestseller lists in Germany and Scandinavia, and is, much to his bemusement, afforded rock star status in Latin America. A recognised master of both grand war and the individual do-or-die decisions present in the lives of many of history’s less celebrated figures, Cornwell’s books mostly deal in the high-octane environments found where arrows whir or cannons pound: he declares himself to be primarily an entertainer. The Saint talked to Bernard Cornwell over email, as part of a long-running project aspiring to discuss the same set of interesting topics with writers of different backgrounds.

The Saint: To what extent do you think a reader can read one of your books, or a book of any writer, and come to understand the writer as well as the book? How much of “you” goes into any piece of work?

Bernard Cornwell: Oh God, you’d be better off asking my wife about that!  How much of “me” goes into any piece?  A lot, I suspect, but it isn’t a conscious self-portrait, indeed it probably isn’t any kind of “selfie.”  Some years ago I wrote a series of forewords for new editions of Forester’s Hornblower series and did some research into the man himself.  One of the questions that haunts Forester’s fans is “who is Hornblower based on?” and various answers are put forward plausibly Lord Cochrane or, more likely, Edward Pellew, but it finally struck me that Hornblower was, of course, based on Forester himself, not the Forester the world saw, but rather the person Forester wanted to be.  So yes, we all put ourselves into our books to a greater or lesser extent, but transmute the picture with imagination, hope and (I assume) charity. That said, Richard Sharpe is incredibly grumpy first thing in the morning and so am I.

TS: What motivates you to write? Or to put it another way what prevents you from not writing?

BC: I used to say “the mortgage,” and there’s some truth in that, though that motivation has long ceased to exist.  So while I think what to answer you I’ll quote from the opening monologue of Neil Simons’s The Good Doctor . . . the narrator (unnamed) is Anton Chekhov . . . and I’m quoting from memory . . . “What force is it that compels me to write day after day, page after page, story after story?  And the answer is quite simple, I have no choice, I am a writer. Sometimes I think I must be mad. . .”

To claim that for myself is a bit pretentious so my usual (glib) answer is that writing is better than working.  So what motivates me? I enjoy it! I make up stories, I live in a world of my own devising and I’m lucky enough to have readers. There is a responsibility towards those readers. They want a new book every year and I see no reason to deny them. And I can’t imagine what on earth I’d do with my time if I didn’t write!  Am I driven by some mysterious force? No, but I’m not trying to write literature. I write adventure stories. My only cause is to entertain and, I hope, amuse my readers. That’s not very elevated, but, trust me, it’s better than working.

TS: What do you consider success to be — by what metric do you say whether you consider a work successful? How does your view on success and life outside of your work influence your aims within your work?

BC: You know! You just know! We are each of us our own most perceptive critic, or I should  hope we are! Success is to be happy with the end result. Of course it helps if the book sells; there’s little so debilitating as nagging poverty, but I take no notice of sales figures.  You might say I don’t need to, and you’re right, but the only metric for me is knowing I succeeded in doing what I set out to do. Did I enjoy writing the book? Then probably the reader will enjoy reading it.  My view on success and life outside my work? I’m fortunate in a most happy marriage, good friends, a (relatively) clear conscience, a quite wonderful dog and a good supply of Irish Whiskey.

Bernard Cornwell Portrait by Rachel Cripps

TS: Why do you work in the mediums in which you do? What draws you to them, and makes you prefer them to the others available?

BC: I suppose we write what we want to read? As a teenager I loved the Hornblower stories and that led to a love of historical novels and I never really thought of writing anything else. I’m not clever enough to write analyses of the human condition, I’m not a great reader of literary novels (whatever the hell they are, and yes, I do read some which probably qualify) and though I love and collect poetry I don’t have the first idea how to write it, I can’t paint, I’m tone deaf, and wtf is left? Many years ago I saw a blonde walk out of a lift in Edinburgh and said to my companion, ‘I’m going to marry that one.’  Well, she was an American, I was British and she couldn’t live in the UK for family reasons and I couldn’t get a work permit in the States so I said ‘I’ll write a book’. Thirty-nine years later we’re still married. Desperation drove me to write that book and, as it happens, it was the only kind of book I could write. Not much choice, really!

TS: As a writer, you have what some might call a very privileged position of access to the reader on a personal level. Do you feel like you, and writers generally, ought to use that position to advance what you consider to be right, whether through your writing or outside it?

BC: My moral duty as a writer? Oh dear God, I write adventure stories! I suppose I could be accused of glorifying war (I hope not), and my rather specious response is to say that Agatha Christie wasn’t glorifying murder.  We certainly have a moral responsibility, but so does every person alive, though I accept that our access to a large number of readers deepens our responsibility. I try to be good! I also try to entertain my reader without corrupting their morals. Up to a point, anyway.

TS: To what extent do you think the reader or critic ought to consider the author and the author’s intentions and beliefs when they read something written? Do you ever feel like your original intentions are being misconstrued in any way — and do you think it matters if they are?

BC: Oh I don’t think that I, as a writer, have the right to demand anything of the reader!  And yes, I have been misconstrued.  Some years ago a white supremacy group took some of my words out of context and splashed them all over the home page of their website. I demanded that they take the quote down (which was taken from a novel set in the 10th Century about the making of England and was hardly relevant to 20th Century Bradford), which eventually they did, but only after giving my email address to their members and for two or three months I was a target for scores of morons. It got tiresome after a while, but so it goes. It’s stopped now.

TS: Ernest Hemingway declared that ‘The writer’s job is to tell the truth.’ What, for you, makes a novel, a poem, a play —– any piece of written work — a good one?

BC: Did I enjoy it?

TS: What have you found to be the greatest challenges in making your own work good by that standard, and how have you sought to overcome them?

BC: Making the plot work is the hardest thing. I’ve heard it said that writing is easy, writing well is a bit harder, but knowing what to write about is really difficult. I think shaping the narrative is the challenge. It’s all about motivating the characters and manipulating their environment so that the choices they make convince the reader that it was the best choice in the circumstances. But all I’m doing is writing stories! I read, say, Annie Proulx (and yes I do!) and understand that she’s shooting at a very small target a long way off while I’m shooting at a barn door with a shotgun at five paces. Even so, making the plot work is hard!

TS: How would you like your legacy to be looked upon?

BC: I’m not running in the Posterity Stakes! There won’t be a legacy.

TS: What is the work of which you are most proud — and similarly, if only one of your works could survive for posterity, which would you choose to save?

BC: Probably Fools and Mortals.  It’s my most recent book and I do like it. It’s very different to everything else I’ve written . . . a fictional tale about the first production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I spend my summers acting in a Summer Stock theatre on Cape Cod so the book springs out of that experience and from a love of Shakespeare.  I can’t think of another novel that has tried to describe the atmosphere and excitement of London’s first professional theatres, and I think I managed to write Will Shakespeare some dialogue without making a complete ass of myself.

TS: If there was anybody from history that you would wish to be pleased by, or proud of, your books, who would it be?

BC: Nell Gwynne. She was as generous as she was lovely. [Ed.: Eleanor “Nell” Gwyn, who lived from 1650 to 1687, was among the leading actresses of the English Restoration period, and was for many years the mistress of Charles II].



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