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Bernard Cornwell: “I always had the insane ambition to be a novelist”

The bestselling author on how to start writing, his upbringing with the Peculiar People, and why he brought back Sharpe.

By Leo Robson

“It’s a funny business – starting a book,” the novelist Bernard Cornwell told me, when we spoke via Zoom earlier in October. By this point, more than 40 years after he set to work on Sharpe’s Eagle – the first book he wrote in his series about a brave, irreverent British soldier – it is a challenge which he has confronted on dozens of occasions. Every time he sits down, however, he finds himself thinking, “What the fuck am I doing?”. He has never written a plot synopsis before beginning a novel, so finding a first sentence can prove a major breakthrough. That places a firm limit on the narrative possibilities. Then, as Cornwell puts it with typical matter-of-factness, “you just keep going”.

It helps that his characters occasionally take the reins. When the series’ protagonist, Richard Sharpe, settled in Normandy, Cornwell said, “he had no idea he was going to do that”. At a certain point in the process, not knowing what’s going to happen is no longer paralyzing and becomes exciting. “I can never see very far. I’ve started the last chapter of a book and been not quite sure how it will end.”

Cornwell said that he had always harboured “the insane ambition to be a novelist,” but when he started writing in the late 1970s his more immediate aim was just to get by. He had quit his job as a television producer, and had moved to the US to live with his second wife. “It occurred to me that there were several guys making a very good living out of the Royal Navy. Obviously CS Forester. Patrick O’Brian. I thought, ‘Why is no-one doing this on the army? This is a gap on the bookshelf.’ It was unashamedly an attempt to do Hornblower on land.”

But Cornwell also needed an occupation that didn’t require a US visa, and being a writer fitted the bill. (He now divides his time between Cape Cod and South Carolina.) It’s a well-known origin story. I asked if that had really been the decisive factor. “Absolutely, yeah. I’m sure of that.” After the appearance of Sharpe’s Eagle, Cornwell continued to write about Sharpe, an orphan born in the late 1770s who enlists in the British Army and rises to the rank of lieutenant colonel. His new book, Sharpe’s Assassin, which takes place in Paris shortly after Waterloo, was published in September and is the 22nd in the series. (Between 1993 and 2008, 16 of the books were adapted for ITV, with Sean Bean in the lead role.)

Cornwell was born in London in 1944 and adopted by a family that belonged to a Christian sect called the Peculiar People. “I think I was seven years old when my mother said, ‘I wish we hadn’t adopted you,’ a sentiment I agree with. It just didn’t feel right.” He quoted his definition of a puritan – a person haunted by the idea that someone somewhere might be happy. “That more or less sums it up.” And so Cornwell found himself attracted to anything of which the Peculiars disapproved – “a wish-list” that included alcohol, tobacco, blondes, cinema, television and fiction. One thing he is grateful for, he said, is the “incredibly strong grounding in the King James Bible. If you want to learn how to write prose, there isn’t a much better place to start.” 

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Almost 20 years ago, during a book tour of Canada, Cornwell met his birth father, and among other discoveries learned that he was a descendant of Uhtred the Bold, the eleventh ruler of Northumbria. He ended up writing a 13-novel sequence about Saxon England which has been adapted, first by the BBC and then Netflix, under the title The Last Kingdom. The new instalment of Sharpe is the first since Sharpe’s Fury in 2006. He said that the character “just sprang back into my brain”. But, he added, he never went “very far away”. Cornwell kept up his reading, notably Andrew Roberts’s vast biography Napoleon the Great. “I could feel Sharpe nudging me, saying, ‘‘I want to be involved in this’”.

But during the lengthy break, Cornwell didn’t only consume work about the period. He made a substantial contribution of his own – Waterloo, which was published in 2014, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the battle. Again, there was an entrepreneurial component. The question posed in his opening sentence – “Why another book on Waterloo?” – was easily answered: the last general popular account was David Howarth’s A Near Run Thing, had appeared in 1968. Cornwell told me that this was the only non-fiction project he could conceive of doing, in part because it furnished him with a plot – as he put it in his subtitle, “Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles”. His aim was to propel the reader forward, or – his own test – leave them unable to put the book down at the end of the day.

A gripping story – with an intriguing backdrop – is what Cornwell hopes to offer. He told me that he wouldn’t think of putting himself in the same terms as a historical novelist such as Hilary Mantel. “I basically consider myself a writer of adventure stories,” he said, whereas Mantel managed to go “inside somebody’s head so completely that it’s almost like reading an autobiography”. Mantel brought her Thomas Cromwell trilogy to a close last year. Cornwell isn’t sure whether he will write another Sharpe book. He wouldn’t want to return to him “full time”. But there are still, he says, a “couple of gaps” in the Sharpe mythology– a couple of last gaps on the bookshelf.

[See also: Your very own Sylvia Plath]

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