Most of us live in the present, pretty much all the time. We are not like Bernard Cornwell, who spends hours most days immersed in a realm and a time consisting of two parts history and one part fantasy.
The prolific English author of historical fiction, including the Warlord novels, Grail Quest novels, Saxon stories, Starbuck chronicles and Richard Sharpe stories, divides his time between Charleston and Cape Cod.
Cornwell, 74, will participate in the Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival, interviewing Charles Spencer, brother of Princess Diana, at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10, at the Dock Street Theatre. Spencer has written "To Catch a King: Charles II's Great Escape."
That seems right up Cornwell's alley.
Q: You are a prolific writer of historical novels that are rich in detail. I suppose significant research is involved. Describe your writing routine. How do you gather material? How many hours do you write each day? How do you organize your book projects?
A: I think of myself as being wretchedly disorganized, lazy and chaotic, yet somehow the books get written. Yes, there is a lot of research, but that’s a lifelong process. I became fascinated by history when I was a child and I’ve been reading the stuff ever since, and all of that reading is research. Once I decide on a book, then the research has to be focused. I probably studied Shakespeare’s life and theater for three years before writing "Fools and Mortals," and then threw away 95 percent of the research (it is ever thus).
I like to start early, around 5:30 a.m., take a pause to walk the dog, work till lunch, start again, walk dog again, stop around 5:30 p.m. Of course, a lot of that time is spent staring vacantly into space and wondering whether chartered accountancy might not be a better profession. How do I organize my book projects? I wish!
Q: And what about your method? Your books, the vast majority of them, are fiction, allowing you leeway to play with history and craft compelling tales. Where do you draw the line between fiction and fact? How far into fantasy do you allow yourself to go?
A: I’m not an historian, I’m a storyteller, so fiction always wins. Which doesn’t mean I’m careless with the history, but I can’t allow it to dictate the story. The history has to be authentic, but the adventures of the men and women in the story are imagined. And sometimes that dictates that the history has to be ignored, though I do try to confess my sins in a historical note at the end of each novel.
The best example is in "Sharpe’s Company," which describes the ghastly siege of Badajoz in 1812. The British made three breaches and every assault on those breaches failed, while a feint attack succeeded. The drama of that awful night was the carnage in the breaches, so Sharpe, my hero, proved heroic and did get through a breach. That was fiction, but it made for a better story. As for fantasy? I try to avoid it, though I confess it crept into my trilogy on Arthur mainly because Merlin insisted on it. Characters can do that to you.
Q: I suppose it’s safe to assume that in English history (and, more broadly, the history of Western European conflict) you have found your passion. What lessons have you drawn from what you have learned along the way? What events of the past offer insights into present-day conflict?
A: I suppose the main lesson I’ve learned is best summed up by a quote from (Friedrich von) Schiller: "Against stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain." You can make of that what you will. I also like Samuel Butler’s observation that "to those who feel, life is a tragedy, to those who think, a comedy." Nothing changes! I suppose the problem of the present is that we only see the trees, not the forest. We can look back at history and discern a pattern, but it’s hard to discern a pattern in the present, which is my way of dodging your last question.
Q: You will discuss the experiences of Charles II with historian Charles Spencer at the Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival on Nov. 10. Charles II escaped Oliver Cromwell’s dictatorial Republic, only to be invited back after Cromwell’s death. The Merry Monarch was a tolerant fellow who sought a degree of religious freedom for his subjects, and endured significant push-back. He was on the throne when the Tories and Whigs came into existence, political parties whose persistent influence can be felt today. To what extent do we owe our modern politics, in England and in the U.S., to Charles II?
A: I’m not sure we owe too much to Charles II, who was the only decent Stuart monarch. We owe a lot to the other three who were all on the wrong side of the great 17th-century debate, which was "Who rules?" Is it king or parliament? A war was fought over that issue and a second revolution, the Glorious Revolution, more or less settled it in favor of parliament in 1688.
The American revolutionaries fought initially for their rights as British citizens, and those rights had largely been codified at the Glorious Revolution and the rebels were right to fight for them. They established a Congress instead of a parliament, and though George Washington warned them and us about the dangers of factionalism, perhaps factionalism was inevitable.
We’ve got it, whether we like it or not, and right now it is noxious, tedious and dangerous. Charles II, bless him, was far more interested in his spaniels (I own one) and his mistresses (not guilty), and no wonder he was called the Merry Monarch. I’d vote for him.
Q: You show no signs of slowing down. Books appear at least annually! Do you permit yourself to have any fun? What do you like to do when you are not writing?
A: Writing is fun! Honest! I spend my day making up stories and it’s a wonderful way to make a living. In the summer, my wife and I flee Charleston’s heat for Cape Cod where we keep a sailboat and spend too much time on Nantucket Sound. I also make an idiot of myself in a summer stock theater. This year I played Jaques in "As You Like It" and got beaten up as Signor Geronte in "Scapino."
Both Judy and I are avid theatergoers and usually make a couple of trips to my hometown of London to see shows. We saw the London production of "Hamilton" last month and I was delighted that a survey showed that 25 percent of the London audience are Americans. But even the Brits cheered when the American Revolution was won! And, here’s a piece of trivia: There’s a statue of George Washington in Trafalgar Square. Are we good losers, or what?
Q: You live part-time in Charleston. How has the city inspired you, and in what ways does it make an appearance in your work?
I adore Charleston! I keep thinking I’d like to use it for a novel, but so far the essential spark hasn’t been struck. Who knows? Maybe one day.
Q: What’s next for your legions of fans?
A: I’ve just published "War of the Wolf," which is the 12th book in the series about Uhtred of Bebbanburg. He’s a Saxon and the background tale of the series is the making of England, a process that is curiously unknown in Britain. Right now I’m working on the follow-up novel to "War of the Wolf," but I’ve only just begun, so it has no title and I haven’t a clue what will happen in the next chapter. Meanwhile, the third TV series about Uhtred, called "The Last Kingdom," will come to Netflix on Nov. 17. I have a cameo appearance, wearing hair extensions and fake scars, in episode seven. So I guess that’s next.