INTERVIEW WITH BERNARD CORNWELL FOR THE EMPTY THRONE

Empty Throne

Empty Throne

It is well known that I am one of Bernard Cornwell’s most devoted fans, so it is with great pleasure that I am able to post this interview with BC upon the publication of his latest book in his Saxon series, The Empty Throne.   I’d always assumed that his Sharpe series would remain my all-time favorite, but then I encountered the war lord, Uhtred, in The Death of Kings.  I am not sure how I had not yet read any of the Saxon books, but after I chose The Death of Kings for an article I was doing for NPR about the Best Historical Fiction of 2011, I fell completely under Uhtred’s spell.   Needless to say, real life screeched to a halt while I scrambled to get the first five books in the series and then happily immersed myself in 9th century England with Uhtred as my guide.

He is a marvelous character—clever, courageous, stubborn, sardonic, and reckless.  He is a man of honor, loyal to the oath he swore to the Lady of Mercia, Athelflaed, his long-time lover.   He is also so very human;  often in the books, he is faced with the temptation to do something rash, like braining an annoying priest.  He knows very well that he shouldn’t do it, that it will cause him no end of trouble, but more often than not, he goes ahead and does it anyway.  Like Richard the Lionheart, he is all but invincible in battle, but none of us can defeat time and he has begun to feel his years.  As difficult as this is for Uhtred, it is a challenge for his creator, too, and BC deals with this inevitable aging by letting Uhtred’s now-grown children spend some time on center stage with him.   The Empty Throne is a splendid book, Bernard Cornwell at his best, which is very good, indeed.   And so, without further delay, I give you the best historical novelist writing today.
Q.: You have now written eight books in the Saxon Tales series. How many more are planned?  What is next in store for the characters?
I wish I knew!  I can’t plan a book, let alone a series, so every new tale is an adventure. I’ve always thought the joy of reading a book is ‘to see what happens’, and that’s also the pleasure of writing one. I usually have no idea what will happen in the next chapter, and the only way to find out is to write it! That said, there are one or two obvious pointers in the books so far – Uhtred will regain Bebbanburg and a new country, called England, will emerge from the long wars. Essentially the Saxon series is about that; the creation of a nation. Americans have a precise birthdate, July 4th 1776, but the English have no such luxury and are strangely ignorant about how their nation was formed.
When you start out writing a history-based series, do you know where the chronicle will go, or does each novel take shape as you write it?
I wish I could plan a novel; it would probably make life a lot easier. It seems to me there are two basic methods of novel writing; those who plan their books meticulously and have this wonderful outline to flesh out, and those like me who just start and stagger on till the story is told. I think it was E.L. Doctorow who said that writing a novel is like driving at night down an unfamiliar country road and you can only see as far ahead as your rather dim headlights allow. That’s me. Dim. I reached the last chapter of The Empty Throne and genuinely had no idea what would happen, but was delighted when I found out!
Q.: Unlike in your Sharpe or Starbuck series, here you are writing about a historical period that is much less documented. How do you conduct your research?
Read, read, read, then read some more.  Research takes a lifetime of reading. I suppose you soak yourself in a period until it exists in the imagination.
Q.: Is this lack of historical data a handicap or does it free you as a writer of fiction?
It’s wonderfully liberating! I love the shadowed parts of history that have no explanations because that gives me the freedom to fill in the gaps. For instance we know that someone called Uhtred was the lord of Bebbanburg in the 9th Century, and we know he was Saxon even though all the land about him was ruled by the Danes, but beyond that nothing! So how did he keep his land? The true answer, probably, is that he collaborated, but that’s dull so I can invent other explanations.
Q.: One of the seminal questions at the heart of THE EMPTY THRONE is will Athelflaed, sister to King Edward of Wessex, widow of Æthelred, become Queen? Do you think history would have been different if she had been Queen?
She was effectually the Queen of Mercia, so no, I don’t think history would have been different.  She ruled Mercia very successfully, but always in concert with her brother who was the King of Wessex. History might have been different if she had started a dynasty, but her only child was a daughter who appears to have inherited none of her mother’s abilities. I think the sad thing about Æthelflaed is that she’s been forgotten. She took a crucial lead in the creation of England and deserves to be remembered for that.
Q.: One of the themes in the early books was Uhtred of Bebbanburg’s resistance of Alfred’s Christianity. Now that Alfred is dead, does religion still play a role in this new book?
Probably! The wars that ravaged Britain in the ninth and tenth centuries were not just about land and who should rule, but were also religious. The Danes and the Norsemen were, by and large, pagan, the Saxons (and Angles) were Christian, and the Christians undoubtedly saw their struggle as a crusade. They were doing God’s work! In the end, of course, Christianity prevailed and that did not stop the wars, but they were not to know that. And Uhtred, stubborn as he is, will not abandon his paganism so yes, the religious themes will continue!
Q.: The Saxon Tales, like most of your fifty-plus books – from the Sharpe books and the Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles to your stand-alone novels – are centered on war and set on the battlefield. What attracts you to viewing history through the lens of war?
War is a wonderful background for any adventure story, mainly because history provides you with a ready-made background of mayhem and conflict. What interests me more is the character’s reaction to war. Every society has a moral basis, and almost all condemn murder and manslaughter (‘Thou shalt not kill’), but those moral constraints are lifted by wartime and men (mostly men) are encouraged to flout this basic rule. So how do they react? Some misuse the freedom it offers, other have a more nuanced reaction, and that offers enormous scope for storytelling.
Q.: It was recently announced that the Saxon Tales will be adapted for television by BBC America. How far into the series will the adaptation go?
I have no idea! I guess I depends how successful the first series is.
Q.: Are you involved in the adaptation and filming?
Not even slightly, nor do I want to be. I worked in television for a decade, as a producer of News and Current Affairs, and I learned that I know nothing about producing television drama, so I stay well away. Leave it to the experts!  If they want me to be a cheerleader for them then I’ll happily get out the pom-poms, but other than that? Nothing.
Q.: You are soon publishing your first non-fiction book, Waterloo. Did you find it different writing history as non-fiction rather than fiction?  How so?
The biggest difference was not having to devise a plot!  Plot drives a novel and the hardest thing about writing a novel is discovering that plot, but that burden is entirely taken away. The book still needed shaping, but the story of Waterloo is so compelling that essentially it shapes itself – it all takes place in a very short time (the campaign is just four days), and in a very small space (the battlefield was very restricted) and it has compelling major characters; Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington who were acknowledged as the two greatest soldiers of the age, but who had never fought against each other.  The story of Waterloo has everything, even an amazing cliff-hanging ending. So the ‘plot’ was handed to me on a plate by history, so the hard work was to discover memoirs, diaries and letters that conveyed the real horror of that dreadful day, and I wanted those eye-witness accounts to come from all sides, French, Prussian, Dutch and British, so there was an enormous amount of research and editing to do. I love the book, but am not sure I want to write any more non-fiction!
Bernard, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview.  It is very reassuring to know that we can look forward to more Uhtred adventures.
January 7, 2015

37 Responses to “INTERVIEW WITH BERNARD CORNWELL FOR THE EMPTY THRONE”

  1. Richard tearle Says:

    Wonderful interview, well thought out questions and great answers. With the greatest respect, he is my favourite HF author - I feel as though I am in the same world as Uhtred. And he is right about Aethelflaed - she needs to be written, Sharon!!!

  2. Nancy Parkes Says:

    Bernard Cornwell is a brilliant storyteller - his depictions of bygone wars and the men who fought them are inspired. I am glad to hear that we will have more of Uhtred. I look forward to reading how he finally regains Bebbanburg.

  3. Leonie Coleman Says:

    Bernhard Cornwell’s books are always enormously pleasurable to read. I enjoy learning from them, as indeed I did from Agincourt. Even bought a copy for a relative! Bernard grips your senses from beginning to end and takes you vividly into the scenes, so that even battles are very real, where you can see the blood, hear the cries and smell the war-torn countryside around. Love his characters, who always appear very real.
    I was fascinated to learn he doesn’t plan his books, they just unfold as he writes. (My words, not his.)

  4. Kasia Says:

    I think I will add the Uhtred series to my ever growing TBR plie :-) Thank you for a fascinating interview.

  5. Gabriele Says:

    Kasia, you definitely should. And then get a house with a higher ceiling. :P

  6. skpenman Says:

    It is a wonderful series, Kasia. Is it as cold in Poland as it is in the US?

    I hope you all are keeping warm–except for my Australian friends, who are sweltering an a summer heat wave.
    Here is some Game of Thrones news–it will start the new season on April 12th; seems a long way off, doesn’t it?
    http://www.nytimes.com/…/game-of-thrones-takes-a-trailer-of…

  7. Joan Says:

    Fascinating interview with a wonderful introduction to it. We can see that Uhtred has found his way into your heart, Sharon, & into so many others, including myself. I love when writers are as delighted with the outcome of their story as we readers are! Bernard Cornwell’s books are a treasure.

  8. skpenman Says:

    This is my Facebook note, so the favor I asked does not apply to you guys. But I wanted you to have the link to the book trailer.

    In case there are any of you out there who are not tempted to read Bernard Cornwell’s newest in his brilliant Saxon series, The Empty Throne, take a look at this book trailer for it, which is not only dramatic but cleverly works in a reference to Game of Thrones. I also have a favor to ask. A number of you have posted on my Facebook pages about how much you are looking forward to reading The Empty Throne or how much you enjoyed it. Could you go over to my blog and post your comments there, too? I thought BC might enjoy reading them, and if they are on the blog, I can just send him the link. Thanks! And here is the link to the book trailer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HkwIqto8-M&feature=youtu.be
    http://sharonkaypenman.com/blog/?p=488

  9. Yvonne Says:

    I have loved the earlier books in this series and am so looking forward to reading the new book! I’ve been on a bit of detour in the genres I’ve been reading, so this is a great excuse to get back into a first-class historical novel. Loved the great interview, Sharon!

  10. Valerie L. Says:

    When the Sharpe series came to PBS in the 1990s, I watched them all (and developed a profound respect for Sean Bean as an actor). The series also made it imperative that I read the books. I did and enjoyed them so much. Then I shared them with my two young sons.

    Since then, I’ve read all the Bernard Cornwwell books as they came out, and the Saxon series is just as compelling and well-written as the ones that have come before it. And Uhtred is just as compelling a character as Richard Sharpe.

    Too many times long series weaken as they go along. It is not the case with the Saxon series. The Empty Throne is as exciting as the very first book and makes me want to read what comes next right now. Those of you who have not read this series will have the luxury of reading then without a waiting period in between - enjoy the experience.

    Thank you, Mr Cornwell, for this interview and for the wonderful books you have written and will write.

  11. Joan Says:

    The book trailer is smashing!!!

  12. Stephanie Says:

    Here is the review I posted of Empty Throne to Goodreads. It’s nothing earth shaking, but I thought I’d share it anyway: The guy can write. What more can I say? Though the previous book was enjoyable as all in this series are, this one was much, much better. You just can’t go wrong with Uhtred, and Cornwell is shaping things up very nicely to continue this series, though I’ll say no more so as not to write a spoiler.

    On a side note, I have to attribute my knowledge of shield walls to BC. When I was at the theater to see the latest Hobbit movie, I nearly shouted out, “Hey, they’re doing a SHIELD WALL!” when the dwarves face the Orc army. I wouldn’t have known about shield walls except for BC’s Saxon books. I didn’t shout it, by the way, in case anyone was wondering.

  13. Mike Isle Says:

    As you adroitly point out there are common themes to most of Bernard’s books. There are also common themes to the man himself: lack of ego, talent of course, and real respect for his readers. You two are twin treasures.

  14. Mary Glassman Says:

    Badgering by certain persons that will go unnamed . . .had me immersed in the world of Uhtred in 2014. I had never read any BC before and it was quite an eye opener to read about 9th century “England”. Thank you Sharon for another enjoyable interview with a fellow HF author. Can’t wait to read this latest book in the series!

  15. Cristina Says:

    Wonderful interview Sharon! Thank you for sharing it with us! :)

    I immersed myself in Uhtred’s latest tale on Friday… and was finished by Saturday evening. Couldn’t put it down! I never tire of reading about Uhtred’s adventures, I can’t wait to see how he’ll reclaim Bebbanburg!

    I was pleasantly surprised when the introduction gave us a new narrator, and with the fact that Uhtred’s older children and Aelflaed got more “page” time here. She was a truly amazing figure, more definitely needs to be written about here! ;)

  16. Joan Says:

    Stephanie, I’m going to try to find your review on Goodreads, & BTW, I’ve wondered if you’ve picked up your own work in progress. Well I laughed at your Hobbit comment! I haven’t seen The Battle of the Five Armies yet & am sure I would actually have shouted it out. I’m totally intrigued with Shield Walls, they’re the coolest thing. My 7 year old granddaughter has no qualms about shouting out as she sees fit. We saw a great stage production of Charlotte’s Web on Boxing Day & when Charlotte died, Leila stood up & tearfully burst forth with “Why does it have to end this way?!?”

  17. skpenman Says:

    Some of you signed a petition asking the Serbian government not to shut down a dog sanctuary on Christmas; there are few resources in the country for animals in need. I am happy to report that over 250,000 people signed the petition and it has had an impact. The sanctuary has been given a reprieve, at least for now. http://www.care2.com/causes/care2-success-almost-250000-people-save-dog-sanctuary-from-eviction-on-christmas.html

  18. gail miller Says:

    I am so glad there is going to be a new novel out, just at the time I will be able to read it. I had eye surgery and now can see almost 100%. my husband has bought me all of Mr. Cornwell’s books in the Saxon series. Thank you for being such a great writer. And that goes for you too Ms. Penman.

  19. Sharon Kay Penman Says:

    Some of you may have read about Noah, the German Shepherd who gave his life for his family when they were caught in a crossfire. Here is the full story, which is remarkable. I was very touched by the father’s grieving for Noah, and by the generous gesture of a woman who’d read about their loss. http://www.aol.com/article/2015/01/09/meet-noah-the-hero-german-shepherd-who-took-a-bullet-to-save-hi/21127551/?icid=maing-grid7|main5|dl17|sec1_lnk2%26pLid%3D596057

  20. Sharon Kay Penman Says:

    I hope all my friend and readers in Britain are coping; I understand you are being hit today with a very nasty storm.
    Here are some truly spectacular photos of New York City at night; the city looks magical.
    http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/new-york-glows-stunning-high-altitude-night-views-n286546

  21. Stephanie Says:

    Joan, I’m amazed you remember! Yes, I’ve kept working on it and am much closer to being finished. Thanks for asking!

  22. Julie Says:

    I’m currently having vision problems, but that’s not going to stop my buying the book next month, lol. And I have all the rest of the series crying out to be read (except the first which I managed to finish last year). I also have several more of his books, some finished, some not. I cannot wait to be able to see clearly again!!

  23. skpenman Says:

    I am sorry to hear you are having vision problems, Julie; I hope you’re soon on the mend. As a young woman, my mother lost her eyesight for five months due to an infection, and she always said those were the longest five months of her life as she waited to see if her eyesight would be restored; thankfully, it was.

    January 16th, 1245 was the birthdate of Edward I’s younger brother, Edmund, whom I enjoyed writing about in Shadow and The Reckoning—Edmund, not Longshanks!
    And to cheer you all up at a time when we desperately need a few moments of pure pleasure, here is a link to the most spectacular fireworks display I have ever seen, a New Year’s Eve celebration in China. https://www.youtube.com/embed/_LpMB1OZ53g?feature=player_detailpage%22%20frameborder=%220%22%20allowfullscreen%3e%3c/iframe%3e&autoplay=1

  24. Joan Says:

    Thank you for the above, Sharon. Yes, we desperately need to transcend the insanity we find ourselves living with. Thank heavens for the beauty & inspiration of art in all its forms.

    Stephanie, sometimes my memory amazes me too!! I obviously hooked onto something in the passage(s) you shared here, not to mention my interest in novice authors.

  25. skpenman Says:

    Nothing on the medieval calendar today that drew my interest; happily Rania will take up the slack when I am feeling lazy. At least I can share these amazing photos; they have to be seen to be believed. It is like Mother Nature got drunk and then went out with paint and a brush and created these colorful masterpieces.
    http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/25/travel/gallery/world-most-colorful-landscapes/index.html

  26. skpenman Says:

    January 19, 1486 was the wedding day of Elizabeth of York and Henry Tudor. She seems to have been both kind-hearted and pragmatic, for she managed to make the best of a forced marriage to the usurper, and the utterly unsentimental Henry actually mourned her death. But this could not have been a happy wedding day for her, a young and beautiful woman shoved into bed with the avowed enemy of her House, a man whose official portrait looks like a wanted poster and who displayed all the warmth and charm of a Bill Belichick press conference. I hope she found happiness in her children, though she had to endure the tragic loss of her eldest son, Arthur. Her second son, Henry, was said to have adored her, and I wonder if she might have been a settling influence upon him if she’d not died so young.

  27. Elaine Cougler Says:

    Sharon, I loved Bernard Cornwell’s book trailer. Thanks for putting it on Goodreads!

  28. Malcolm Craig Says:

    . . . but Belichick is very competent, and he has never murdered anyone.

  29. Jen Says:

    Hi Sharon, thanks for posting the book trailer. I just finished reading The Empty Throne - it is brilliant, one of the best in the series :) I love the whole series and can’t thank you enough for recommending it! I’m really looking forward to the TV adaptation too!

  30. Stephanie Says:

    Joan, memory is a funny thing. Sometimes nuggets of nothing stick with me when I forget the obvious. Who can explain it? So what novice authors have you found that you’ve enjoyed and been delighted by?

  31. Joan Says:

    Stephanie, I love that….”nuggets of nothing”. Must remember that one when my sisters & I are having one of those days.

    My 2 fave debut novels are written by Sharon Penman & Jane Austen. Others, brilliant in their own unique ways & have stayed with me are….Priya Parmar’s Exit the Actress, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us, Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean, Miriam Toews’s Summer of my Amazing Luck. And some older ones like Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, Gabrielle Roy’s Bonheur d’Occasion (English title is The Tin Flute) & Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Man Descending. I thought Delirium (author ?) was her first…..it isn’t but it was my debut with YA, my niece’s suggestion, & it stunned me! Couldn’t get it out of my head/heart/soul for ages but haven’t been able to read the next 2 in the trilogy for fear the pain of the 1st will come back again.

    On my tbr list is Judith Starkson’s Hand of Fire. And further down the road, Stephanie’s “? ? ?” I wish you luck with it, so very thrilling.

  32. Stephanie Says:

    Interesting list, thanks for taking the time to list them, Joan! Mine is also YA, so I’m glad you took an interest in YA already! Far too early to give you any possible reading dates. The book is merely a manuscript on my computer at this point, waiting for somewhere/someone to give it to.

  33. Pauline Toohey Says:

    Uhtred has long since been my pinup boy. If posters were to be made, they’d sit on my wall (via the use of 2-sided tape) beside the Bay City Rollers and ABBA. I cringe that Uhtred is aging in the series. His passing will not be easy to take. Bernard certainly is one fantastic entertainer.

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