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A CONVERSATION WITH BERNARD CORNWELL

January 19, 2012
CornwellMartin GRRM: It has long been my contention that the historical novel and the epic fantasy are sisters under the skin, that the two genres have much in common. My series owes a lot to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E Howard, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, and the other great fantasists who came before me, but I’ve also read and enjoyed the work of historical novelists like Thomas B. Costain, Mika Waltari, Alfred Duggan, Nigel Tranter, and Maurice Druon. Who were your own influences? What writers did you read growing up? Was historical fiction always your great passion? Did you ever read fantasy?
BC: You’re right – fantasy and historical novels are twins – and I’ve never been fond of the label ‘fantasy’ which is too broad a brush and has a fey quality. It seems to me you write historical novels in an invented world which is grounded in historical reality (if the books are set in the future then ‘fantasy’ magically becomes sci-fi). So I’ve been influenced by all three: fantasy, sci-fi and historical novels, though the largest influence has to be C.S. Forester’s Hornblower books. I read them as a teenager, was consumed by them, ran out of reading material after the last one of the series and so began to read the non-fiction histories of the Napoleonic period. That led to an obsession with Wellington and his army, which led directly to Sharpe. Maybe if I had read Tolkien before Forester then I’d have taken that route (and it tempts me!), but we all write what we want to read and I was always an avid consumer of historical novels … and, of course, of STORIES! I devoured all the classic SciFi writers, Asimov, Heinlein etc., and they taught me how important story is, but the big debt is still to C.S. Forester (another master-storyteller.)
GRRM: Fantasists enjoy certain freedoms that historical novelists do not. I can surprise my readers by killing kings and other major characters, but the fate of the kings and conquerors in the real world is right there in the history texts, we know who lives and who dies before we ever crack the novel open. When battle is joined at Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields in Tolkien, or on the Blackwater Rush and in the Whispering Wood in my own fantasies, the outcome of the fight is unknown until the author reveals it on the page, but the historical novelist is bound to trod the road laid down by history. How do you deal with the challenge of making Waterloo or Bull Run or Agincourt suspenseful and exciting when most of your readers know the outcome beforehand?
BC: ‘I can surprise my readers by killing kings and other major characters’. Oh yes, you can and do! I still haven’t forgiven you for Ned Stark’s execution, but BC: I’m learning to live with it! I never think it matters if the reader knows the outcome of the story before they reach the end – we all, as children, wanted the same stories told to us over and over even though we knew the wolf didn’t get to gnaw on Little Red Riding Hood. I always think of an historical novel as having two stories – the big one and the little one – and the writer flips them. The big story in Gone With the Wind is whether the South can survive the Civil War and we all know how that went, but the little story is whether Scarlet can save Tara, and that little story is put in the foreground while the big story goes into the background. I suppose the suspense is the little story – will Sharpe survive Badajoz (well, the reader knows he will, I suppose!). And I think readers find a fascination with the unfolding of a story. Most English folk know the Battle of Agincourt – it’s deep in the nation’s consciousness – but hardly any know what really happened there. History rapidly turns into myth (the myth of Agincourt being that the arrows won the day, which they decidedly did not, though God knows Henry would have lost without them) and perhaps one of the pleasures of reading an historical novel is to discover the truth behind the myth.
GRRM: Historical fiction is not history. You’re blending real events and actual historical personages with characters of your own creation, like Uhtred and Richard Sharpe. How much “poetic license” should a novelist have when dealing with the events of history? How accurate is he obliged to be? Where do you draw the line?
BC: I can’t change history (if only), but I can play with it. The answer slightly depends on what I’m writing. I did a trilogy on ‘King’ Arthur and there’s almost no real history to rely on, so I could do more or less what I wanted. With the Saxon books I have a skeleton history thanks to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and few other sources, but there’s not much meat on those bones so I have a lot of freedom. If I’m writing about the American Revolution then I have almost no freedom because I’m trespassing on the high ground of American legend and I must stick to the real history if the book is going to persuade the reader of the story’s viability – so in Redcoat I changed only one event by bringing it forward 24 hours. And then I confess my sins in an historical note at the book’s end. Occasionally I change more drastically; Sharpe’s Company tells the story of the dreadful attack on Badajoz and, in brief, a feint attack that was only intended to draw French defenders away from the breaches succeeded in capturing the city while the main attacks, on the breaches, failed disastrously. It seemed to me that the drama of that night was in the breaches, so Sharpe had to attack one of them, and if Richard Sharpe attacks, he wins (he’s a hero!). So in the novel I allow the attackers to get through a brach (which didn’t happen) because otherwise the story wouldn’t work. But again, I confessed the sin at the book’s end.
GRRM: I’ve written as much science fiction as I have fantasy over the years. An increasingly popular subgenre in SF is the alternate world novel — sometimes called “counterfactuals” by historians, and “what if” stories by fans. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost… but what if the nail wasn’t lost? What if Napoleon won at Waterloo? What if the South won the Civil War? What if the Roman Empire never fell? What do you think of such stories? Have you ever been tempted to write one yourself?
BC: Never! Maybe it’s just me, but alternative history has no appeal. I remember a crazy movie from way back in which F-16′s of the USAF suddenly appeared over Pearl Harbor. Yeah right. We began by agreeing that ‘fantasy’ novels and historical novels are twins and it seems to me that mixing the two is incestuous and, unlike Jaime and Cersei Lannister, I’m not a fan.
GRRM: Speaking of battles… I do believe you do the best battle scenes of any writer I’ve ever read, past or present. And from where I sit, battles are hard. I’ve written my share. Sometimes I employ the private’s viewpoint, very up close and personal, dropping the reader right into the middle of the carnage. That’s vivid and visceral, but of necessity chaotic, and it is easy to lose all sense of the battle as a whole. Sometimes I go with the general’s point of view instead, looking down from on high, seeing lines and flanks and reserves. That gives a great sense of the tactics, of how the battle is won or lost, but can easily slide into abstraction. But you seem to be able to do both, simultaneously. The arrows at Agincourt, Uhtred grunting and shoving in a Saxon shield wall, Sharpe leading a forlorn hope… you give us all the sounds and smells and blood, and yet the battle tactics always remain comprehensible as well. How do you do it? What are the building blocks of a great battle scene? Of all the battles that you have written, do you have a favorite?
BC: I do have one huge advantage over you, which is that my battles were all fought and the survivors left accounts, and some have been comprehensively described by military historians, so I’m given a framework that you have to invent. I also hate reading a military history and getting confused, usually by Roman numerals (‘XV Corps moved to the west while the XIV Brigade was redeployed southwards’ and so on) which means you’re constantly having to refer to a map, or maps, and try to remember who XV Corps are . . . so I try to give the reader a framework before the battle begins – where are they fighting? What are the salient landmarks? Which units are important? I don’t want the reader to stop and refer to a map … though I’m sure I fail. That done I do try and switch the point of view, just as you do, between the close-up and nasty and the more distant overview of the fighting. John Keegan’s The Face of Battle is a marvellous book to read and discover just how men experience battle, and that was a great influence. I have invented battles from scratch – and the one I’m proudest of is Mount Badon in the Arthur books. The battle did happen, but we know nothing of what happened (or even where it happened), so I used Wellington’s tactics from the battle of Salamanca and they worked perfectly! And of all the battles? Probably Salamanca in Sharpe’s Sword.
GRRM: A familiar theme in a lot of epic fantasy is the conflict between good and evil. The villains are often Dark Lords of various ilks, with demonic henchmen and hordes of twisted, malformed underlings clad in black. The heroes are noble, brave, chaste, and very fair to look upon. Yes, Tolkien made something grand and glorious from that, but in the hands of lesser writers, well… let’s just say that sort of fantasy has lost its interest for me. It is the grey characters who interest me the most. Those are the sort I prefer to write about… and read about. It seems to me that you share that affinity. Your protagonists have moments of heroism, but they have flaws as well. Much as I enjoy reading about Uhtred, there’s more than a little darkness to him, and Richard Sharpe was not a man to cross. You even went so far as to make the protagonist of your American Civil War novels a copperhead, a Northerner fighting for the South… not a group that usually engenders much sympathy. Your villains are just as human, not a cardboard monster among them. And you are often less than reverent when depicting some of the established heroes of British and American history. Paul Revere and Alfred the Great come to mind. What is it about flawed characters that makes them more interesting than conventional heroes?
BC: Maybe all our heroes are reflections of ourselves? I’m not claiming to be Richard Sharpe (God forbid), but I’m sure parts of my personality leaked into him (he’s very grumpy in the morning). I once wrote a series of forewords for the Hornblower books and had to deal with the perennial question of who was Hornblower based on? Some said Cochrane, others suggested Edward Pellew (both outstanding frigate captains of the Napoleonic Wars), but it was obvious that Hornblower was the person Forester himself wanted to be. Hornblower was Forester, without some of Forester’s less attractive traits. Most of my heroes are outsiders . . . maybe because I felt that way growing up (long story, let’s not tell it here), and which is why my favorite characters of yours are Arya and Jon Snow. And perhaps flawed characters are more interesting because they are forced to make a choice . . . a conventionally good character will always do the moral, right thing. Boring. Sharpe often does the right thing, but usually for the wrong reasons, and that’s much more interesting!
GRRM: When Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings, it was intended as a sequel to The Hobbit. “The tale grew in the telling,” he said later, when LOTR had grown into the trilogy we know today. That’s a line I have often had occasion to quote over the years, as my own Song of Ice and Fire swelled from the three books I had originally sold to the seven books (five published, two more to write) I’m now producing. Much of your own work has taken the form of multi-part series. Are your tales too ‘growing in the telling,’ or do you know how long your journeys will take before you set out? When you wrote that first Sharpe book, did you ever imagine how long and how far you would march with him and Harper? Did you know how many books Uhtred’s story would require, when you first sat down to write about him?
BC: No idea! I don’t even know what will happen in the next chapter, let alone the next book, and have no idea how many books there might be in a series. E.L. Doctorow said something I like which is that writing a novel is a bit like driving down an unfamiliar country road at night and you can only see as far ahead as your somewhat feeble headlamps show. I write into the darkness. I guess the joy of reading a book is to find out what happens, and for me that’s the joy of writing one too!
GRRM: I have met thousands of my readers face to face, not only on book tours, but at SF and fantasy conventions, where there tends to be considerably more interaction between writers and readers than is customary in other genres. I used to answer all my fan mail, in the days when readers still mailed letters care of my publishers. (It was easy; there wasn’t much). Email has increased the amount of letters I receive a thousand-fold, well beyond my capacity to keep up, but I still try to read all the mail that comes in, even when I cannot answer it. I don’t do Facebook or twitter, but I do blog (on Live Journal), and my email address can be found easily enough. But there are perils to being so accessible, as I have discovered in recent years. The vast majority of my fans are amazing people, perceptive, intelligent, supportive … but there is a small but vocal minority who can be vexing. How have you related to your own readers over the years? Do you feel a writer owes anything to his readers, beyond the work itself? Do fans send you suggestions about how they want your series to end? Send you artwork, gifts? Name children and pets after your characters? Write “fan fiction” using your characters? Do you ever find yourself being influenced by the reactions of your readers to a book, or a character?
BC: I’ve found my fans to be terrific. There’s a miniscule handful who want to nitpick over details (and yes, of course there are mistakes) and once, on my website, I begged one such reader to please find another author to read. But the vast majority are fun to meet and it’s vitally important to listen to them. I did a book tour once and three people separately told me it was time Sharpe had some high-class totty! I hadn’t realised he’d been consorting with rough trade for so many books, so I responded by giving him Lady Grace in Sharpe’s Trafalgar and she remains my favorite heroine. She’d never have existed without the fans!
GRRM: Both of us have had the privilege of seeing our characters brought to life on television. Sean Bean was Richard Sharpe long before he was Ned Stark. (And truth be told, he was Ned Stark in no small measure because David Benioff, Dan Weiss, and I had all seen how masterfully he played Sharpe). How did you feel about the BBC series? To what extent were you involved with it? Will we ever see any of your other characters on screen? If so, would you want to write the screenplays yourself? What do you think makes for a good adaptation? And will we ever see Sean Bean as Sharpe again?
Death of Kings BC: I thought the Sharpe TV series was great! Of course they changed the books, they had no choice. You and I can wheel on 100,000 men and it costs us nothing, but every extra is a drain on a TV budget, but they dealt very well with that constraint and Sean, of course, was a marvellous Sharpe and a great Ned Stark (who should have lived, damn you). So far as I know there aren’t any plans for another series. There’s talk of making Agincourt into a film (I’m not holding my breath) and a TV series about Uhtred (which would be nice, but again I’m still breathing). I want nothing to do with any such production, other than being a cheerleader. I worked in television for eleven years and learned enough to know I know nothing about producing TV drama, so I’m happy to leave it to the experts. And I doubt I could write a script – I’ve never tried and would rather write a novel.
GRRM: Last question. What’s next for Bernard Cornwell? You’ve done the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, the Hundred Years War, King Arthur, the Saxons and Danes. Will you be returning to any of those eras, revisiting any of your great series characters? Or are there other eras of history that you mean to explore?
BC: There’s one period I’m desperate to write about (forgive me if I don’t say which because I don’t want someone else muscling in on it first!). But next is another novel about Thomas of Hookton in the Hundred Years War, then it’s back to Uhtred and the Saxons.
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