INTERVIEW WITH BERNARD CORNWELL
I am delighted to have this opportunity to interview one of my favorite authors, Bernard Cornwell. Since I discuss his books often on my Facebook pages, I know that he is a great favorite with my readers, too, and several have asked if they could submit questions of their own. So this meeting of the unofficial Bernard Cornwell Fan Club now comes to order!
Bernard, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Your American fans have been waiting impatiently for The Pagan Lord to be published on our side of the Atlantic and this finally happened on January 6th. I have yet to read a book of yours that I did not greatly enjoy: your Sharpe series, your Grail Quest books, stand-alone novels like Agincourt, just to name a few. But I confess that it is your Saxon series which resonates the most with me, for Uhtred is simply magnificent, as mesmerizing as he is unique. He is the ultimate outsider, a Saxon raised by Danes, a man of conflicting but fierce loyalties, impulsive, hot-tempered, swaggering, skeptical, sardonic, and always highly entertaining. I would wager that he is the most popular of all your characters, even though you’ve created some memorable ones in other books.
Q. How did Uhtred come into being? Did he spring fully-formed from your head like Minerva? Or did he gradually assert himself, finding his own voice as the writing progressed?
A. I’ve never been able to plan anything; neither a book nor a character. The only way I know how to write is to begin at the beginning and see what happens! So he emerged slowly. I did know from the start that he would choose paganism over Christianity, which gives him a certain orneriness (not that he needs more). I suppose it’s a fairly common theme in my books; Sharpe is an officer up from the ranks which puts him at odds with the more privileged; Starbuck is a northerner fighting for the south, and Uhtred is a stubborn pagan in a very orthodox Christian setting. As for the rest? He just muscled his way onto the page.
Q. Did you start out with a road map, knowing from the first how Uhtred’s story would end?
A. Oh, I wish! I don’t even know how the chapter I’m writing now will end! In fact it’s a complete rewrite. I finished chapter three of the new Uhtred story last week and realized that he said, ‘You see? Nothing happened.’ And he was right, nothing had happened, so I hit the magic delete button and have started again. The only glimpse of a road map is the Battle of Brunanburg which took place in 937AD and is really the end of Uhtred’s story because it’s that battle that establishes England as a country (and the series is about the making of England). So I have a destination, but the map in between is murky (‘here be dragons’). And Uhtred will be so old by 937 that I’ll have to make some awkward decisions before then. It was E.L. Doctorow who said that writing a novel was rather like driving on an unknown country road at night, the way ahead illuminated only by very feeble headlights, and that’s true for me. I envy writers who can plan a whole book (or series) then write to the plan. I stagger from one crisis to the next!
Q. Our fellow historical novelist, Priscilla Royal, would like to know if you intend to carry the story into the reign of Athelstan?
A. Very much so! Athelstan was the victor of Brunanburh and the first man who could legitimately claim to be the King of England, so yes!
Q. Priscilla is much more knowledgeable about this period of English history than I am; I confess that I am learning as I read your books, and I tend to accept Uhtred’s views as gospel. So naturally I am not all that fond of Alfred. I think you’ve been scrupulously fair, though, in your depiction of Alfred, and I am curious about your own feelings for the man?
A. I hope my admiration for him shines through Uhtred’s rather sour view. The standard view of Alfred is a warrior king, witnessed by the statues of him which show a man built like a linebacker, clad in mail and carrying a huge sword. In truth he was a very sickly man whose chief passion was Christian scholarship. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a warrior, but it does suggest that the truth might be more nuanced. My take on him is that he was a very good man, a very very intelligent man, and an honest one. He was also a puritan and Uhtred, like me, has a strong distaste for puritanism. On a beam over my desk I painted in letters of red and gold Sir Toby Belch’s admonition from Twelfth Night; ‘Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?’
Q. This is from Shelly. Is AElfwynn Uhtred and Aethelflaed’s secret love child?
A. No, sorry!
Q. This is from Jo, who says she has always wondered what or who inspired the “fabulous character” of Skade?
A, I really have no idea. I wish I could suggest something exotic. But I do like my female characters to be strong (and Skade certainly qualifies). One of the things that annoys me is the inevitable sequence in a film where a man and woman (or boy and girl) are running away from the villains, and you know, sure as eggs, that the woman will trip over. That is such garbage, and I try to avoid it.
What’s emerging in the new book is a much stronger treatment of Aethelflaed, Alfred’s daughter, who successfully ruled Mercia after her husband’s death at a time when female rulers were as common as hens’ teeth. We know she led campaigns against the Danes, so she was a considerable warrior, yet somehow she’s been forgotten by history and she deserves to be better known.
Q. This is Stephanie’s query. “How old could a successful warrior (and by successful, I mean one who has not yet been killed or seriously maimed) expect to live? How many reasonable fighting years does Uhtred have?” She confesses that she is just trying to get a better idea of how many more books are left in the series!
A. I think the sensible answer is that if a man survived into his 50’s he had far exceeded the average life expectancy, though we know some folk lived on into their 80’s and beyond. Stephanie has touched on a problem I’ve yet to solve, which is what to do with Uhtred as he gets much older. I really don’t have an answer yet, though I’ll have to find one soon.
Q. I am convinced that no writer does better battle scenes than you do, whether it be in Uhtred’s scary shield wall, with the Black Prince’s lethal archers, or in the Spanish hills with Sharpe and Harper. So Paula’s question is mine, too. She says, “When I read the battle scenes, I feel like I’m there with Uhtred in the shield wall. I am walking step by stealthy step and jabbing upwards with my sword. Where do you think this comes from? Is it years of research, a vivid imagination, or a bit of both?” I would add another question, asking if you’d rather fight battles with Uhtred, with Thomas of Hookton and his archers, or with Sharpe and his Chosen Men? Which of these wars is the most fun to write about?
A. Years of research? Yes! But perhaps the greatest influence was Sir John Keegan’s book The Face of Battle. John was born with a deformed foot so could not serve in the armed forces, yet at heart he was always a soldier. He became a military historian and lectured at Sandhurst (Britain’s West Point) and was ever curious about what was it really like to be in combat? That was an experience he had been denied and many of his friends, who had served, were reticent. The books didn’t help much – most military histories were very dry and full of technical stuff, so he wrote The Face of Battle to find his answer. The point he made is that it’s impossible to understand any conflict without comprehending what the men (mostly men) involved experienced; what they saw, felt, smelled, touched and heard. I try to remember that, and that, of course, means imagining the answers. I was struck recently by an archaeological report from Towton where England’s bloodiest battle was fought in 1461. A forensic scientist examined many of the bodies found in the grave-pits and discovered that the men were so terrified by the experience that they had shattered their own teeth by gritting them too hard. That’s a frightening image, and one backed up by one of the chroniclers of the battle of Poitiers who reported the same thing. I suppose if I had to make a choice I’ll go with Sharpe, only because there’s going to be much less hand-to-hand fighting. The experience of a Saxon shield-wall, or the clash of men-at-arms in a mediaeval battle is truly horrifying; think of an NFL player encased in armor coming at you with an axe. No wonder that many accounts suggest that men were often drunk! As to which era is most enjoyable? Whichever one I happen to be writing about at the time!
Q. Historical novelists often have to risk alienating or shocking their readers, for while I do not think human nature has changed over the centuries, beliefs and superstitions and society’s expectations obviously have. Some writers try to soften the harsh edges of historical reality to make their books more palatable for today’s readers; for example, writing a novel set in the Ante-bellum South in which the major characters are all secret abolitionists, or having a female character in a medieval setting be a dedicated feminist or determined to marry for love. You never fall into these traps, presenting Uhtred’s world as it was—hard-scrabble, brutal, and often bloody. Have you ever been tempted to take the modern sensibilities of your readers into consideration when writing a scene likely to trouble them? Maybe easing back a bit on the throttle? I confess I can’t find any evidence of that, though!
A. I have, yes! I sometimes think I’ve gone over the top and I’ll delete . . . . and for some reason I’m reluctant to use the efficacious word even though it was certainly the commonest word in Sharpe’s time. I’ve always been amused by the objections people have to the F word, but they happily accept blasphemy. Why? Sharpe can take the name of God in vain a hundred times and no one notices. Oh well.
Q. I could think of many more questions, but you have things to do, places to go, and most importantly, books to write. So I will conclude by asking the question we all want to know.
Can you tell us how many more books remain before you end the Saxon series? Is this negotiable? And is there any chance at all that Richard Sharpe might march again?
A. Again, I wish I knew! At least about Uhtred. Certainly another four or five? Maybe more? I just don’t know! I do have an idea for one more Sharpe book – I kept back the Battle of Sorauren for my old age, though God knows I’m in that already. I’ve just finished my first (and only) non-fiction book, the story of Waterloo for the bicentenary in two years, and I was VERY tempted to write Sharpe straight afterwards, but resisted the temptation and launched into another Uhtred instead. I do miss Sharpe. I once started a Sharpe book with the words ‘Sharpe was in a good mood,’ and of course it didn’t work, but I really hope the grumpy bastard will march again soon!
Bernard, thank you again for stopping by. I loved The Pagan Lord, of course, and Uhtred continues to dazzle readers, even if he will never be named Father of the Year! The only downside to a new Bernard Cornwell novel is the realization that there will be a long wait until the next one.
January 14, 2014