Interview with Bernard Cornwell

Interview by Christopher Seufert

Bernard Cornwell was born in London in 1944, an illegitimate “war baby” whose father was a Canadian airman and whose mother was in Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. He was adopted as an infant and raised in Essex by a family belonging to a religious sect (now extinct) called the Peculiar People. They forbade alcohol, cigarettes, dancing, television, and conventional medicine. After an unhappy childhood, he escaped to London University, worked briefly as a teacher after graduation, and then joined BBC television. He started as a researcher in the Nationwide program and eventually worked his way up to Head of Current Affairs for BBC in Northern Ireland, and became editor of Thames TV’s News division.  It was while working in Belfast that he met his wife, Judy, a visiting American, for whom he moved to the United States. You can Bernard Cornwall’s books here.

I was astounded to find that you’ve sold more than 12,000,000 copies of the Sharpe series worldwide, which is just a fraction of your catalog. Furthermore, the Boston Globe recently stated that you were perhaps “the greatest writer of historical novels today.” Are you a success by your own standard?

I’m a success inasmuch that I enjoy my life, which is an enormous blessing and that doesn’t depend on commercial success (though I wouldn’t be such a fool as to deny that it helps). What I mean by that is that the point of life, as I see it, is not to write books or scale mountains or sail oceans, but to achieve happiness, and preferably an unselfish happiness. It just so happens that I write books, and I’m amazingly lucky that the books sell well all across the world, but even the biggest financial success will not compensate for an ill-lived life. I’m fortunate that the books sell, but even more fortunate to live in Chatham, to be very happily married and to have, on the whole, a fairly clear conscience. Anyone who claims to have an entirely clear conscience is almost certainly a bore.

The Boston Globe also pointed to the irony that “There are places where Bernard Cornwell is a household name. His adopted home here on Cape Cod isn’t one of them.” I get the sense that they’re correct, that you do in fact walk the streets of Chatham in general anonymity, as opposed to similarly successful Chatham residents. Would you say this is true?

Absolutely true, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Mind you, even in places where I’m much better known, I walk in anonymity, mainly because folks know authors’ names, but not their faces. I did a TV series for the British History Channel a few years ago and for a few weeks afterwards I was accosted by folk in Britain wanting to talk, which was flattering, but the memory faded and blessed anonymity returned.

Sharpe’s Havoc, published in 2003, was the first of your many novels to reach the New York Times best-seller list here in the U.S. Meanwhile in Britain, you’ve already had many best-sellers, [plus] the Sharpe series going to television. To what do you attribute this discrepancy? Do you see your popularity in the United States increasing with your increasing publication of stories based on American history?

The discrepancy is entirely based, I think, on the fact that I write best when I’m writing about what I know, and that is British history. And though I’ve lived in the States for over 25 years and am now an American citizen, I still hear British voices in my head. Writing British dialogue is easy, writing American is harder, and I feel much more confident writing about Brits. So the books have a greater appeal to a British audience, but that hasn’t stopped them making best-seller lists in places like Brazil, Japan, and at least a dozen other countries. In the end their appeal is not necessarily the history, but the quality of the storytelling, and a good story transcends national boundaries. I still have to crack the French market, though that isn’t entirely surprising considering that the Sharpe novels are endless tales of French defeat.

You’ve been a resident of Chatham for some years now. When you moved here, as the story goes, you didn’t have a work permit and so, began writing for a living. Were you surprised that it worked out as that practical a solution? I’d imagine many who came to that solution would end up back in England in six months.

I was astonished! Actually I moved to New Jersey in 1980 and didn’t discover Chatham until 1990, by which time the books were selling, but it was still a daft decision, based solely on love. Judy couldn’t move to Britain for family reasons, so I had to come to the States, and the U.S. government wouldn’t give me a green card, so I airily told her I’d write a book. Well, it worked, and I’m still here, and so’s she, and ain’t we lucky?

Looking back, of course, it was irresponsible, mad, forlorn, idiotic, but if you don’t take chances then you’ll never have a winning hand, and I’ve no regrets. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the first book had not sold—doesn’t bear thinking about, but I suppose we’d have made it work somehow.

Prior to 1980 you were a television producer with the BBC. Do you miss working in that medium? Do you find there’s a simplicity to writing that wasn’t there previously in your work as a television producer?

I don’t miss it at all. Television is a young person’s medium. I had ten great years in it, had an enormous amount of fun, traveled all over the world, and got out. And yes, there’s a simplicity to writing books because you’re not a member of a team, so you make all the decisions yourself instead of deferring to a committee. I get asked to appear on television—at the moment I have two invitations from Britain to present long military history series, but I’m not sure whether I really want to do it—I fear the seduction of vanity, but recognize that it would help sell books– so I dunno what I shall do.

Do you have a local writing community or fellow writers that you look to for support and advice?

Writing is a solitary occupation. If you can’t do it on your own then you probably can’t do it. So no, no local writing community. At risk of sounding foully pompous I think that writers’ groups are probably very useful at the beginning of a writing career. Not that I’ve ever been in such a group and the only time I was ever invited to one I left in disgust because they were pushing the idea of “writing as therapy.”

Did you have a writing mentor? Do you mentor others here?

I don’t have a mentor. I have a terrific, marvelous, unbelievably helpful editor in London and she has the biggest influence, but even so we disagree as much as we agree. I’ll happily mentor anyone who wants mentoring, and most of that goes on by Internet rather than face to face. The one thing I will not do is read other peoples’ unpublished work. The reason for that is that it doesn’t help. I’m not in a position to publish them or act as an agent for them, so instead I put them in touch with an agent whose job is to read unpublished work. I know that sounds churlish, but right now, on my desk, there are four books waiting to be read whose publishers want me to give them a “puff,” two books I’m reviewing for newspapers in London, one book I desperately need to read for research, and a couple more for pleasure, so I simply don’t have time to read more. Agents will read unpublished work because they might make money, and that’s their job. It isn’t mine.

You’ve written an admirable and ungodly number of books, about forty I read in my pre-interview research, which makes almost two books a year. I’m suprised that your publisher can handle that kind of output, frankly. What is their overall strategy and are they able to put the time and attention into it that each book deserves?

So far it’s 43 books in 25 years. Publishers don’t mind! Publishers like “established” authors because they can pretty much anticipate sales and therefore cash flow in an otherwise uncertain industry. The strategy differs from place to place—in London we produce a book for the Christmas market (i.e., published in October), while New York prefers to wait for the New Year when a book has a greater chance of making the New York Times list. If there’s a second book then we put it out in April and these days that’s almost always a Sharpe novel. Paperback launches are usually in early summer (to get the vacation market) and have a lighter colored jacket than the Christmas version—and so it goes on. But publishers are in the business of making profits, so they love getting two books a year. They’d have three if they could.

How do you approach the work of writing?

Cover of Bernard Cornwall's The Last KingdomWith unabandoned pleasure. It’s fun. I sit down every day and tell stories. Some folk would kill to get that chance.

What does a typical writing day look like for you, from waking to turning in at night, and how does it compare to a conventional nine to five job?

I start early—usually by 5 a.m., and work through to 5 p.m., with breaks for lunch, boring exercise, etc., etc. But it’s usually a full day. It’s better than 9 to 5 because I’m my own boss so I can take off when I want to, and the dress code is non-existent and the commute is terrific. I enjoy it, so there’s no discipline involved, and I’m not a subscriber to the idea of “writer’s block,” or rather I subscribe to the notion that on the day a nurse can telephone a hospital and be excused work on the grounds of “nurse’s block” is the day I’ll start suffering from writer’s block. I volunteered for this life, wanted it, and am not going to bitch about it now that I’ve got it. Of course some days are easier than others, but my worst day is better than being in most humdrum occupations.

How long does it take you to write a typical novel, including research, writing, and editing time?

Research is a lifelong occupation so it’s hard to factor it in, but I reckon most books take five months from start to finish.

Does your wife get involved in your writing and research trips or is she sick to death of it by now?

She likes the research trips—who wouldn’t? Spain, Portugal, India—lots of the English countryside. Other than that she doesn’t get involved, but I don’t think I’d survive as a writer without her. She has a busy time as a yoga teacher and hospice volunteer and doesn’t want to get involved with the writing which is, I have to keep stressing this, a solitary vice.

Your books are successful enough now to give you the freedom to essentially do what you want. Do you see yourself giving less time to writing in the future?

I’d like to cut it down to three books in two years instead of two a year—but whether that’ll happen I don’t know. I took time off last year to sail the Atlantic, and if I got more opportunities for blue-water cruising I might take them. Not sure.

In addition to the books you’ve already published, I’d imagine you have many more that are in various stages or other of completion. Is this true or do you tackle one book at a time, research it, write it, publish it, and move on?

One book at a time—though I’m usually doing the research for others while I’m writing, but that sort of research is fairly desultory and I like to stick to the book being written—and writing a book concentrates the mind so the research is more productive. Then you start another book and suddenly the galley proofs of the last one come in and you have to wrench your attention away from what you’re writing and try to remember what you were thinking when you wrote the previous one.

After the great success of your Sharpe series on British television, do you have any more novels that are being considered for television series or films?

I think they’ve all been optioned—but whether any will actually be made? I doubt it, and certainly don’t lose sleep over it.

Do you take vacations or do you find that your book tours and historical research give you enough travel?

Book tours and research provide a lot of travel—too much, I sometimes think, but we do take vacations. Judy is inordinately fond of the Far East so we try to go there every couple of years, and I make a pilgrimage to England every rugby season. I’d like to make a similar pilgrimage in the cricket season, but it coincides with the sailing season on the Cape and sailing wins every time.

Do you ever get sick of working in your office, grab your notebook and hit a coffee shop?

No, never. Not sure what I’d so with a notebook other than swat flies. If I want a break I’d rather go down to Stage Harbor and talk boats.

Where’s your favorite place in Chatham to depressurize?

Stage Harbor and adjacent waters. We have a gaff-rigged topsail cutter, which sounds much grander than she really is, but she’s exquisitely beautiful and shamefully slow and we spend a lot of time aboard when we can. But there’s no better place to relax.

How do you celebrate a novel’s completion?

Not sure I do any more, other than a general feeling of relief modified by the thought that another one will have to be started soon. I’ll probably have an Irish whiskey.

I haven’t seen much in your past interviews about the production of your audio books, which I shamefully happen to really like. Are you involved in the production of those as well?

Not in the slightest.

Why didn’t you narrate the audio books yourself? I would think actor Sean Bean, who played Richard Sharpe so dynamically on television, would also be in the running.

Sean did narrate some of the earlier ones, but I imagine his fee has become too steep for the producers, or perhaps he doesn’t enjoy doing it. I’ve never been asked to do it, and am not sure I’d want to.

I’ve read that there may be a new productions of your Sharpe book series coming to television and that you’re one of the producers. Is that looking like it will happen?

It looks as though they’ll be filming in India this winter, but it isn’t guaranteed. Say 95% certain?? I’m definitely NOT one of the producers, and don’t want to be. I know nothing about producing TV drama and any involvement on my part is liable to prove an obstacle to the producers, so I prefer to be a cheerleader and let them get on with it.

Do you like living in Chatham?

I love living in Chatham. It’s a huge privilege and a constant pleasure, and I don’t want to live anywhere else, and probably won’t.

Any plans to have a book set right here, somewhere in the rough-and-tumble maritime history of Chatham? The Monomoy Lifesavers had some pretty charismatic characters and of course, the British were in our harbors in both wars.

Probably not, but it’s dangerous to say never. There are some terrific books already about Chatham—I especially love the stories by Rose Connors—but I’m best known for military history fiction and it’s probably wise to stick to that and let Rose write Chatham’s portrait.

Christopher Seufert is a documentary producer and author based on Cape Cod.