An Interview with Cape Cod Author Bernard Cornwell

An Interview with Cape Cod Author Bernard Cornwell

HIS BIO: Bernard Cornwell was born in London in 1944, an illegitimate ‘war baby’ whose father was a Canadian airman and mother 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 programme 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.

As a teenager, Bernard loved the Hornblower novels by C. S. Forester and had
always dreamed of writing. When he and Judy first met in 1980, Judy was unable to
live in England for family reasons so Bernard moved to America where he was
refused a Green Card. It was then he decided to act upon his dream and do
something which did not need the government’s permission – to write a novel. He
and Judy are still married and Bernard is now an American citizen.

Bernard Cornwell has since published over 40 books, most of them translated into
more than a dozen languages. The Sharpe series, of which there are now twenty,
was made into a TV series by Carlton Television, and shown in the US on
Masterpiece Theatre. The latest, Sharpe’s Escape, is set at the beginning of the
Peninsular War and, like the rest, is firmly grounded in real history. He is also the
author of the acclaimed Arthur books, The Warlord Chronicles; of the Starbuck
Chronicles, set during the American Civil War, and of the Grail Quest Series, tales of
the 14th Century. He has also written Stonehenge, 2000 BC; Gallows Thief,
Redcoat, which is about the American Revolution; and five contemporary sailing
thrillers. He lives and writes from his home in Chatham, Cape Cod.

-Christopher Seufert Interviews Bernard Cornwell-
Christopher Seufert: I was astounded to find that you’ve sold over 12,000,000
copies world-wide of the Sharpe Series, 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?

Bernard Cornwell: 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.

CS: 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?

BC: 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.

CS: 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, including 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?

BC: 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 story-telling, 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.

CS: 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 6 months.

BC: 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.

CS: 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?

BC: 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, travelled 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 recognise that it would help sell books – so I
dunno what I shall do.

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

BC: 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’.

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

BC: I don’t have a mentor. I have a terrific, marvellous, 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.

CS: 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 surprised 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?

BC: 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
cashflow 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 coloured
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.

CS: How do you approach the work of writing?

BC: With unabandoned pleasure. It’s fun. I sit down every day and tell stories. Some
folk would kill to get that chance.

CS: 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 9 to 5 job?

BC: I start early – usually by 5 am, and work through to 5 pm, 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.

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

BC: Research is a lifelong occupation so it’s hard to factor it in, but I reckon most
books take 5 months from start to finish.

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

BC: 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.

CS: 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?

BC: 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.

CS: 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?

BC: 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.

CS: 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?

BC: 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.

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

BC: 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.

CS: Do you ever get sick of working in your office, grab your notebook and hit a
coffeeshop?

BC: 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.

CS: Where’s your favorite place in Chatham to depressurize?

BC: 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.

CS: How do you celebrate a novel’s completion?

BC: 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.

CS: 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?

BC: Not in the slightest.

CS: 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.

BC: 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.

CS: 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?

BC: 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.

CS: Do you like living in Chatham?

BC: 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.

CS: 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.

BC: 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.