The Art of Telling A One Thousand Year Old Story: An Interview with Bernard Cornwell
Bernard Cornwell’s newest novel, The Flame Bearer, is the tenth novel in his wildly popular Saxon Tales series. The tale follows the unification of the Saxon kingdoms into England through the eyes of the great Saxon warrior Uhtred Uhtredson. It’s also a BAM buyer’s pick novel.
We spoke to Cornwell about his process, his stories, and where Uhtred’s story goes from here.
BAM: First off, we love book recommendations from our favorite authors. What books and authors are you reading now?
Contested Will, by James Shapiro, which examines the nonsensical but persistent idea that William Shakespeare did not write William Shakespeare’s works. Shapiro, who also wrote the wonderful The Year of Lear, nails the nonsense, but doubtless it will persist! I think it was Schiller who said ‘Against stupidity even the gods struggle in vain.’ I just finished Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl, what can you say? He’s brilliant and, as usual, I laughed. I’m a great fan of John Sandford . . . . and can’t wait (must wait) for his next Virgil Flowers novel.
BAM: You’ve told a lot of stories. Which is your favorite, and why? Do you have a favorite character?
The best answer is that my favorite is whatever I’m writing! It has to be, if I didn’t love whatever story I’m working on then the reader probably won’t like it either. But probably the three books I’m most fond of are the three Arthurian stories – The Winter King, Enemy of God and Excalibur. They were a joy to write, the story almost told itself and I was sorry when the trilogy came to an end. As for a favorite character? I’m very fond of Ceinwyn in the Arthurian trilogy, I do like Uhtred’s company and, of course, I have a sneaking liking for Richard Sharpe!
BAM: A lot of your work is set in a period where historical details are nonexistent. How do you research a period where details are scarce?
By reading whatever is available, and then using a lot of imagination! For the Saxons there is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and a large body of poetry, both of which tell us a lot about their society. There are archaeological reports, but in the end a lot of it is up to the imagination!
BAM: In your writing, how do you find the right balance between historical fact and fictional detail?
To be honest? I have no idea. I’m a story-teller, not an historian, so my priority is to tell a story and not, definitely not, to educate people! There are good history books for that. Usually (not always) the story is fiction, but behind it is a much larger story about reality. In Gone With the Wind the large story is the Civil War, but that is pushed into the background by the compelling fictional tale of Scarlet and Tara. So, I suspect, there isn’t any calculation needed. When you’re writing your story you let it unfold from the imagination, but of course there’s a duty to stay true to the larger story of the reality behind the fiction.
BAM: Your characters are complex. They have distinct personalities that don’t fit an archetype, and they grow, develop, and mature over time. Uhtred, for example, feels like a much different person in The Flame Bearer than in The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horseman. Where does your inspiration for characters come from and how do you ensure they evolve as time progresses and plotlines develop?
I wish I did ensure it – truly! It isn’t something I’ve ever thought about. Uhtred is now a lot older and he’s lost some the impetuosity of youth, I won’t say he’s wiser, but he is a lot more experienced. Character do tend to lead their own lives. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Plainly it’s the sub-conscious at work, but I’m often, frequently, astonished by choices made by a character which I hadn’t foreseen. They don’t always work (they might totally screw up the plot) in which case they have to be smacked back into line, but usually those sub-conscious choices are good ones! I don’t know that every novelist works that way, I’m envious of writers who plot their whole book in advance, but I can’t do that. I write a book to discover what happens!
BAM: You often write about pagan characters, like Uhtred and Derfel Cadarn, who are critical of fundamentalist Dark Age Christianity. But they are also accepting of other Christian characters who are less fundamentalist in their approach to their religion. Are you using this as a tool to create friction in the plot or are you making a statement about fundamentalist religion and attitudes overall?
Probably a bit of both, but the device is well justified by history. Both in Arthur and Alfred’s time the British Isles were suffering not just a political war, but a religious one too. Am I making a statement about fundamentalist religion? Let me answer with H.L. Mencken’s wonderful definition of a puritan – a person ‘haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.’ Nuff said.
BAM: In an interview with Toby Harnden at the Telegraph in 2011, you said historical novels have a big story and a little story. How do you come up with little stories that make sense in the historical period but are also engaging to modern audiences?
I wish I knew! I think we all write for ourselves first and then hope that other people will like the story? If I could be methodical and plan it all out then maybe I’d discover a formula, but the only one I know is to start on page 1 and keep going!
BAM: Where do you see Uhtred’s story going from here? I won’t ruin the story for our readers, but how much further does an aging Uhtred go?
Well, the ‘big’ story behind Uhtred’s story is the creation of England, and we can date that to 937 AD when a West Saxon and Mercian army comprehensively defeated an army of northern Danes, Viking forces from Ireland and the Scots. Northumbria accepted Aethelstan as king and, for the first time, there was one Saxon kingdom in Britain which was called England. It hadn’t existed before, but despite many vicissitudes, it has never ceased to exist. So I guess poor Uhtred will have to live that long – he’ll be incredibly ancient and decrepit, but so am I so that’s all right.
BAM: There are a few hundred more years of friction between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes before William the Conqueror enters the scene. Is there another opportunity for stories in this period after Uhtred or are you finished once he is?
Well, there’s just under a century of friction . . indeed the Danes conquer England! But it’s too late to establish it as Daneland and Canute, the Danish king, more or less went native. There are loads of good stories in that period, but I doubt I’ll tell them, I have other fish to fry!
By John Burleson, Contributing Writer
You can find Bernard’s newest book, The Flame Bearer, on sale now at Booksamillion.com, by clicking the button below.