Bernard Cornwell Talks The Pagan Lord, The Challenges of Historical Fiction, And Future Plans

Hanna Lafferty ‘16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Bernard Cornwell. Photo provided by Harper Collins.
Bernard Cornwell. Photo provided by Harper Collins.

Bernard Cornwell is a New York Times bestselling author of historical fiction who has written over fifty novels. Among his most famous series are the Sharpe series, which takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, and currently the Saxon Tales, which details the long battle between the Danes and the Saxons during a series of battles that would determine the formation of England.

With the release of the Saxon Tales’ newest installment, The Pagan Lord, Emertainment Monthly discusses (via email) Cornwell’s relation to Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the challenges of historical fiction, and his future plans.

Emertainment Monthly: The Saxon Tales’ Uhtred of Bebbanburg is said to be modeled after one of your own ancestors. Do you feel a greater attachment to this character because of this relationship?

Bernard Cornwell: There was someone named Uhtred who lived in the late 9th and early 10th centuries, and I am descended from him, but I don’t feel any particular attachment, probably because I only discovered the attachment late in life. I think he’s too remote and, frustratingly, we know very little about the family’s activities.  But discovering the relationship was a catalyst, and this really answers your next two questions! When did I first want to write about the Danes and Saxons? Oh, forever! Years ago, when I was at university, I discovered Anglo-Saxon poetry and became hooked on that strange and often melancholy world. For some reason the history of the Anglo-Saxons isn’t much taught in Britain (where I grew up) and it struck me as weird that the English really had no idea where their country came from. Americans know, they even have a starting date, but the English just seemed to assume that England had always been there, so the idea of writing a series about the creation of England was in my head for a long time. But most historical novels have two stories; a big story and a little story. Think of Gone With the Wind – the big story is the Civil War, the little story is can Scarlett save Tara? The trick is to flip the stories, putting the big one in the background and the small one in the foreground. So I had my ‘big’ story, the creation of England, but no little story. Then, when I was in my 50’s, I met my birth father for the first time; his name was Oughtred and the family are descended from the Saxons who took the name Uhtred. They had owned Bebbanburg (now Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland) and somehow held onto it through the Danish invasion and occupation of northern Britain – and that, of course, became the ‘little’ story; the tale of Uhtred and his stolen land.

I suppose if I’d grown up knowing I had such a distinguished ancestry I might feel much closer to the family, but finding them so late is really just a curiosity, though a nice one!

The ending of The Pagan Lord is a great lead in for the rest of Uhtred’s adventures. How many more books are you planning to write for the Saxon Tales?

I wish I knew!  I don’t know how the chapter I’m writing now will end, let alone the book, and the series? No idea!  I suspect there will be a few more; I just heard that BBC Television have commissioned a series that will follow Uhtred’s escapades. The company that makes Downton Abbey will make the programs, which is wonderful, and I’ll need to keep them supplied with stories (I hope). So? Six more? Eight more? I just don’t know.

What are some of the challenges and rewards of writing historical fiction? Is there any aspect of historical fiction that you do not enjoy?

Well the biggest reward is to enjoy writing the books! That’s it, really. If I didn’t enjoy doing it, I wouldn’t. As for challenges? I suppose I could say that getting the history right is a challenge, but as I enjoy the research and love history it’s a fairly feeble challenge. The truth is that I’m extremely fortunate to have spent the last thirty-something years doing something I’d always wanted to do, which is to tell stories, and if there’s a challenge involved it’s very slight; nothing to compare with, say, the challenges of a nurse’s life or a teacher’s!  What do I not enjoy? Well, I suppose we all write what we want to read, and I was a huge fan of historical fiction before I became a writer of it, by which I mean that if you spend eight or more hours a day creating the stuff then the last thing you want to read in your leisure moments is more of the same. So it’s rather spoiled my appetite for reading historical fiction, which is sad, though I do make exceptions for CJ Sansom (I love his Matthew Shardlake novels), Hilary Mantel (a goddess) and Sharon Kaye Penman (I wish I’d written Lionheart!)

Have you ever felt the desire throughout your career to “change” the outcome of history in any of your novels?

Oh, I suppose so, but it’s impossible, so don’t do it!  I do change minor things. For instance in Sharpe’s Company I have Sharpe going through a breach at Badajoz and in reality no British soldier succeeded in doing that, but the drama of that real story was in the breaches so Sharpe had to do it.  Then I confess my sin in the historical note. Of course it all depends on what period you’re writing about. The earlier it is the less we know, so I really have no idea what liberties I’m taking because there’s no solid base of evidence about, say, late 10th Century battles. The nearer I get to the present the more evidence and so fewer liberties. And sometimes it depends on the subject. I don’t mind messing about with the Napoleonic Wars because they’re ‘my’ history, but in the two books I set in the American Revolution I did no messing at all, perhaps because that seems like sacred ground!

Is there any advice you can give to aspiring writers of historical fiction?

Read lots! Then read more!  Then write the book you want to read yourself.

Do you have any ideas for your next project? Is there another period in history you would like to explore?

As I said earlier, I don’t know how the chapter I’m writing now will end! So ideas for the next project? Not really, though I would like to write about Tudor England some day – if I live long enough!

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