B.Ernard Cornwell, one of the world’s best-selling historical writers, author of more than 50 books with 25 million sales worldwide, wrote his first book because he couldn’t get a green card. At that point, Cornwell, the BBC’s current affairs director in Northern Ireland, had quit his job out of love after returning to the United States, Judy, an American he fell head over heels for.
“I used to have a real job,” Cornwell says on the phone from Cape Cod. “And 40 years ago I tossed it up and said to Judy, ‘Don’t worry, honey, I’m going to write a novel. ‘“With a clever sense of humor, he adds: can write a novel. “
Cornwell was one of the journalists who actually could. As a big fan of CS Forester’s Hornblower, Dudley Pope, Alexander Kent and Patrick O’Brian, he realized that “all these people make a living from telling how the Royal Navy beat up Napoleon.” Why didn’t anyone do it for the army? So he created Richard Sharpe, a soldier, hero and villain who was born in poverty and who fights his way up the ranks of the army. His face “was mockingly looked at from the scarred left cheek”. Today the bestsellers – and the TV adaptation with Sean Bean – have given Sharpe an unassailable place in our literary canon. In 1980, however, Cornwell landed a bit arbitrarily on the name of his hero by adding an “e” to the name of the English rugby player. (“I thought as soon as I got the real name I was going to thwart Richard Sharpe, but he stuck.”)
While he was writing a book, he found a substitute after molesting Toby Eady, a literary agent he met by chance at a Thanksgiving party in New York. “He said, ‘It must be a hell of a terrible novel,’ and walked away, but I walked up to him again, almost on my knees, and said, ‘Please, please, will you read my book?'” Eady finally agreed and ended up signing seven books with HarperCollins in a matter of weeks, and the rest is history: HarperCollins is still Cornwell’s publisher, and Eady was his agent until his death two years ago.
“I look back and think that’s crazy. First, moved to America with no work, and second, I am at the mercy of writing a novel. But here I am 40 years later, ”he says. “And Judy and I have been married for 40 years too, so it seems to have worked out fine.”
Cornwell wrote and made his way through the lock. The world was just closing in March when he put the finishing touches to War Lord, the final book in his The Last Kingdom series, on Alfred the Great’s dream of uniting the four Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria, England.
Cornwell has told the story of Uhtred, the English heir of Bebbanburg (or Bamburgh), through 13 books; After being captured and raised by Danes, he serves Alfred and eventually struggles to regain his home. War Lord, who concludes the series, sees Cornwell in his typically intelligent and brutal manner as he focuses on the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 AD, after which the Saxons moved Northumbria into their own land and England – England, land of the Angle in which novels – emerged. The novel is dedicated to Alexander Dreymon, who plays Uhtred in the BBC and Netflix adaptation of The Last Kingdom, which has just been renewed for a fifth season. (Cornwell loves it, though he had no involvement other than having his throat cut in an episode of Uhtred.)
The author, who studied history at UCL, has long wanted to tell the story of the creation of England. “It always seemed very strange to me that it wasn’t better known,” he says. “I think I got a very good education in history growing up in England, but no one ever told me. Elementary school kind of taught me about King Alfred, but basically all you’re told is that he was a very bad baker. Somehow we somehow forgot the Anglo-Saxon era. “
A family reunion put him on the right track. Cornwell was adopted and raised by a family in Essex belonging to a religious sect called the Peculiar People. His birth father was a Canadian aviator and his mother was part of the British Auxiliary Air Force for Women. While on a book tour in Canada, he found his father, whose last name was Oughtred. He showed Cornwell a family tree that goes back to the 7th century.
“I saw that name Uhtred. He said they lived in Bamburgh Castle. When I realized I was descended from this man who was Lord of Bebbanburg, it was, ”says Cornwell. “I had to write a book about the creation of England. Most historical novels have a big story and a small story, and the big story is the real story. I didn’t see a way into this little story until I met my real father. “
Like all Cornwell books, War Lord ends with a historical note that sets out the true story of his story. This deals with the ongoing search for the actual location of the Battle of Brunanburh and the evidence found by Wirral Archeology that firmly places them on Wirral – or, as Cornwell writes, rather gratifyingly: “The quickest way to locate the battle site is If If you are driving north on the M53, the slaughter took place north and west of junction 4. “
“It is extraordinary that no one has known where Brunanburh was fought for hundreds of years,” says the author, who went to the Wirral last summer to meet the archaeologists who work there. “I’m pretty sure you found the page.”
He admits that most of his books are written the same way – big stories in the background, small ones in the foreground. “However, sometimes you are in such big trouble that you just make a little story out of it and hope the background is authentic,” he says. “I sometimes play happily with the story, but I always admit it. I think you have to. Historical fiction is a gateway to real history, and I think you owe it to the reader to say, look, you can find out more by following these pointers. “
It’s a strange, sad feeling to say goodbye to the characters he’s brought to life for so long. “I’ve been living with Uhtred for almost 15 years now and suddenly he’s no longer on my mind. It’s a strange feeling. I liked the man a lot, ”he says.
There will be no more Uhtred stories, but Cornwell is currently writing another Sharpe novel, the first since Sharpe’s Fury in 2006. “I’m enjoying it! I’m telling the story of what happened immediately after Waterloo, so it will bring Sharpe to Paris. He’s in pretty good shape, ”he says. “I think there might be another couple after this one – I left some gaps in his life that can be filled.”
Cornwell starts writing around six in the morning and works through five. He just takes a break for lunch and a dog walk. “As long as I live, I will certainly want to keep writing,” he says. “Though part of me dreads the thought of starting another series. I mean i’m 76! And I’d have to do 10 books – that brings me to 86, and it would be a shame to start a series and not end it.
“But think about what my job is. I tell stories, it’s lovely. The joy of reading a book is figuring out what’s going on, and for me that is the joy of writing. I find out what happens too. I have Sharpe in the middle of chapter three right now – I really don’t know what he’s going to do next. “
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