21 November 2011

A Personal Tribute to Bernard Cornwell

Bernard with his wife
by Helen Hollick

I met Bernard Cornwell at a re-enactment weekend at Kirby Hall in 1999. Richard Lee of the Historical Novel Society, and some good friends of mine, had organised this ‘side event’ as an extra to all the skirmishing going on outside by a host of re-enactors from Roman to WWII via US Civil War. We were there to talk about our books to a (hopefully) interested audience. 
The third of my Pendragon's Banner Trilogy had been released, and I was a nervous unknown writer. Bernard was a confident very well known writer. He had a room full of eager people, standing room only. I had about three, who probably only came in because it was a chance to sit down.
I remember very little of the weekend – nerves getting the better of my not very good at the best of times memory. I recall Bernard saying that most people had only turned up because they were interested to hear about Sean Bean, to which we all politely laughed, although as Bernard had predicted, there were the inevitable questions about the TV series and the star actor. And I clearly remember what a lovely, generous man Bernard was – is.
We chatted briefly, not much time to talk at length. I had sent him my first novel, The Kingmaking, but busy writing his own King Arthur series, he had been unable to read it himself, so his wife had read it.
So gracious a man is he, he laughed and confessed that she had reported that mine was better than his. I didn’t believe a word of it, but it’s a fabulous anecdote!
 We did chat about the merits of Merlin, who doesn’t feature in my Trilogy. I deliberately went back to the early pre-Norman legends of Arthur, the ‘what might have really happened’ story. Bernard said he had tried his story without Merlin, found it didn’t work and put him back in again. I recall that bit of the conversation clearly because I grinned at him and said (boldly) “Well my books work without Merlin!”
To this day I’m proud to boast that I have achieved something Bernard didn’t. I managed a story about Arthur without Merlin!
*Laugh* although maybe that’s another reason why his sell better than mine!
I share some other things with Bernard. Like him, I was born in London. Like him I am an Essex person. As he is with Harper Collins, I assume he knows Lynne Drew, my ex-editor who started me on my writing career when she was with Random house.
Like many another, I ‘discovered’ Bernard’s books because of the TV Sharpe I think we all fell in love with Richard Sharpe from that very first episode (and the light is kept burning by the countless re-runs – huzzah!) I was intrigued enough to buy a couple of the books, which led to getting the entire series. The book version was so much more enthralling than the TV. The detail for one thing, that shows how well Bernard knows his subject.
I’m devouring the Sharpe books again because I need inspiration for my Sea Witch Voyages – details of how gunpowder smells, what it is like to be on campaign, fights, battles… 
I can’t get to Spain or Portugal, I need to think myself back to that period. Good, well written novels are such a help. (I hastily add as a means of focusing the mind and jerking an uncooperative inspiration into working gear, not for stealing ideas and scenes!) My Sea Witch series is historical adventure fantasy set a century before Sharpe, with the main protagonist, Jesamiah Acorne, an ex-pirate who gets into all sorts of scrapes. I describe him as 'a blend of Hornblower, Indiana Jones and Sharpe'. Most of the books I read are historical fiction by women writers – Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick - I find Bernard’s book so useful for helping my creativity settle into a man’s mindset; the Sharpe plots are male orientated, very useful for a female writer.
Another confession: I have not read Bernard’s Alfred series because one day I would like to write my own novel about Alfred, or at least, his daughter. Lady of Mercia, so I don’t want to be influenced. (Don’t take it personally Bernard – I haven’t read any novels about Alfred!)
The Sharpe novels have been around for thirty years, (my own for nearly eighteen, only another twelve before I might be able to reach somewhere near the same level of distinction!) Bernard’s latest book Death of Kings is about to be released, and I am looking forward to being able to personally say thank you for being such a splendid, entertaining writer and such a lovely guy, on Thursday 29th at the London venue of his UK book Tour. (details below)
But there is one special thing that I am thrilled about, for which I want to personally say thank you. A short while ago I contacted Bernard and asked if he would be kind enough to consider giving me an endorsement for my novels. I mentioned that we had met, all those years ago, at Kirby Hall, assuming that he would not remember a small time writer who is still, these years later, attempting to be noticed.
His answer? A beautiful quote and, “Of course I remember you Helen, I’d be honoured to help out.”
Bernard is a fabulous writer, but you know what really sums him up?
He is one of the world’s rare, genuine gentlemen.

Images stolen from: Bernard's Website

An Addendum to the Above

An evening with Bernard Cornwell
  Thursday 29th September - Waterstone's Piccadilly

Adding to my article above - what a delightful speaker Bernard is! 
I met up with my UK publisher, Helen Hart from SilverWood Books for a meal first (anyone know where Garfunkels in Piccadilly has disappeared to? Blowed if we could find it!) 
Meal and "comfort stop" seen too, we made our way to the 6th floor of Waterstones, to be greeted by a charming member of staff who offered free wine (worth going just for that!) and took our seats in the front row amidst a fine gathering of enthusiastic Cornwell fans.
Enter the man himself and his sidekick, Toby Clements Literary Critic for the Telegraph. Toby's role was to keep the conversation going by asking questions - except Bernard is so exuberant he answered about half of them before Toby got a chance to say anything more than "Hello".
As an opportunity to listen to how such an accomplished author writes - the background details of his books etc, Bernard is brilliant, his entire talk was thoroughly interesting and entertaining. He had us laughing from the moment he started off.
As a writer myself I was interested in his technique of working - so glad to discover he makes the plots up as he goes along, never being quite sure what the next chapter will reveal. That's how I work. Yes, there is a rough plot of course, the road map of where we are heading and what stops will be made on the way, but nothing too structured or written in stone. It is nice to turn off down unexpected side lanes to discover what is of interest down there, explore a bit, then return to the main road. My characters are always going off at tangents - it is sometimes irritating as I then have to get them out of the trouble they've landed in - but its hugely exciting, because I don't know what's going to happen next!
Bernard also explained that his books are the "little picture". The small story behind the big one. He explained that in history there is the Big Picture - i.e. King Alfred and his struggle against the invading Danes. He looked at what else was going on at the same time - came up with the smaller story of Northumbria and Uhtred. In the same way, of course, the Napoleonic War is the Big Picture - the adventures of Richard Sharpe is the smaller story. 
I suppose I do that with my Sea Witch Voyages - historical adventure running parallel with the historical "facts" of the day. Jesamiah's adventures against the main things that were happening. I like that idea!
I was also delighted to discover that I now have two things that I can do and Bernard doesn't! 
I managed my Arthurian series without Merlin..... and Bernard admitted that he didn't feel very comfortable writing Sharpe's Trafalgar, because he felt too constricted by the small space of writing a plot about being on board a ship. Hah! Got you Bernard! I'm more than happy to write about ship-board adventures! Three written already, Voyage Four half written and at least two more to come. Restricted by the small size of a ship? Not Me!
After the delightful talk we all queued up to get our purchased books signed (His latest: Death of Kings) I had a little gift for him (two of my books of course - ones that do not clash with his own writing, Harold the King and Sea Witch) they were as a personal thank you for his kindness and support. 
It was so nice to receive a genuine kiss and a hug in return - not a put-on act of pretending he remembered me!
I have always admired Bernard - I think I'll extend that now. 
I'm in love!
One final thing. One of the questions from the audience was: "Will there be any more Sharpe novels?" Bernard's answer made us roar with laughter:
"As long as there are French for him to kill, there will be Sharpe."

Thank you Bernard, for a delightful evening, for being a terrific writer, and for being such a lovely man.

my publisher Helen Hart, Bernard, Me

7 comments: from original post

Daphne said...
We love his Saxon series and are eagerly awaiting "Death of Kings" (I ordered it from the UK so we didn't have to wait until January). I learned this weekend that Cornwell wrote a few books about the US Civil War - hubby really likes that time period as well so I got the first book for him to see if he likes it. And if you ever write books about Alfred, they will definately be on my list to read!!
Susan Gourley/Kelley said...
I am so envious. Like you, Sean Bean attracted me to the Sharpe series and led me to the books. I just started so I have lots to go.
M.J. Fifield said...
I love Bernard Cornwell's novels. He's a brilliant writer. I can't wait for Death of Kings to be released.
Cathy Helms said...
Cornwell is one of my all time favorite writers! Before I discovered your PB Trilogy, I'd devoured his Arthurian books and I also very much love Sharpe. One thing that stands out for me in Bernard's writing is his particular gift of detailing battle scenes. He's brilliant at it. I always feel I'm right in the middle of the fighting...perhaps it is that male perspective...but no one writes a fierce battle sequence like him! I am so very glad to hear that he's down to earth, open and genuinely kind. That is wonderful! And Helen - you are every bit as brilliant a writer as he is!!! You characters are rich and vibrant and endearing...easily equal to Sharpe on any day! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Cornwell and the writing process...interesting to hear what you both think and how you both process your stories.
Helen Hart said...
A great original post and a wonderful, thoughtful an thought-provoking follow-up. It's so interesting to hear how other writers work. I agree with you, Helen, that Bernard was exuberant and brilliant (I thoroughly enjoyed the evening) and I'll second what Cathy said... you're every bit as good a writer!
Helen Hollick said...
Must add a PPS! Bernard mentioned the trials and tribulations of having two titles for one book - US & UK. *rolls eyes* _Tell_ me about it Bernard! (Thank you Cathy & Helen Hart.... I think my battle scenes are almost as good as Bernard's :-) But then I learnt from his books, so they darn well should be!
Richard Denning said...
Sounds a wonderful evening. I went to a talk BC gave in Waterstones Brum - oh 5 years ago with my father. I recall the main thrust of the talk being the difference between shooting a Frenchman with a musket and a longbow. All good stuff. My father (aware I was mucking abut writing at the time) asked for a tip. BC talked about if your hero is in a tight corner with no way out, going back a few pages and slipping in a reference to a door.
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