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The Last Kingdom: An Interview with Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell is one of the most famous authors of historical fiction, having penned over fifty books, including bestselling series about Richard Sharpe, a British soldier during the Napoleonic War, and The Saxon Stories, now at nine novels, which is set in ninth-century England during the reign of Alfred the Great.  The first novel in that series, The Last Kingdom, has been turned into a TV series airing on BBC 2 in the United Kingdom, and BBC America in the United States. Muffet Jones of Boise State University, who is reviewing the series for Medievalists.net, had a chance to interview Bernard Cornwell to learn more about him, his writing, and the TV series:

Muffet Jones: So here we are on the eve of the BBC America premiere of The Last Kingdom, based on your novel of 2004.  First I have to tell you what an honor it is to be communicating with you since I have read most of your novels and continue to look forward to the rest.  Oddly, I read the Saxon Novels of which The Last Kingdom is the first out of order and had just started TLK when I heard about the series.  I was beyond excited to see it brought to the screen.  I know the Sharpe novels were made into a very successful series in the ‘90s.  Were you a screenwriter for any of the episodes in The Last Kingdom or Sharpe episodes? 

Bernard Cornwell: I wrote none of the Sharpe scripts and none for The Last Kingdom either . . . and had no wish to try!

Muffet Jones: Television, movies or theater are generally collaborative media.  Is that a challenge after you’ve had sole ownership of everything that happens to a character on the page?  How much control did you have over the TV series?

Bernard Cornwell: Absolutely none, and I didn’t want any. I worked in television for a decade and learned that I know nothing about producing TV drama, so any interference by me is likely to be obstructive. Besides, the producers, casting directors, directors, actors all have their own creative contribution to make and why not let them do it? The result might be an improvement on the books!

Muffet Jones: One of the things I most enjoy about Uhtred is his disdain for, and sometimes downright hatred of, Christianity.  Will that also be a part of the television show?  I hope so, because many of his best lines in the books are at the expense of the Christians.  It always seemed mischievous and mostly light-hearted to me (except when he does one of the monks in, but they always deserve it).

Bernard Cornwell: I don’t know! I haven’t seen the series! I’ve watched the first episode and that stayed remarkably true to the books so I assume that they will reflect Uhtred’s disdain for Christianity. I hope so!

Muffet Jones: I think most medievalists have a pretty clear grasp of the realities of life during that period.  Your books never pull any punches when it comes to depictions of violence or how difficult it all was, romance not-withstanding.  What do you find most compelling about the period and would you have liked to live then?  I think most medievalists would say yes, even with the lack of antibiotics.

Bernard Cornwell: I’d have hated it! Bring on the antibiotics! What I find most compelling is the struggle to create a country which became England, a struggle that must have seemed hopeless at times and which roiled Britain in constant fighting. We think of England (especially) as a peaceful landscape, but in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries it was horribly brutal and merciless.

Muffet Jones: I wonder if you could tell us a little about your background?  What drew you to history and especially military history?  Were you in the military?

Bernard Cornwell: I was not! But I was adopted by fundamentalist Christians who, among many other things, disapproved of military service. I’m afraid that all of the things they disliked became my wish-list . . . and that’s where my interest in military history began . . . it was forbidden fruit!

Muffet Jones: I find even your early novels really accomplished.  The voice, of course, differs from book to book, and Uhtred’s is particularly vivid for me.  Did you write other things when you were beginning?  Junior or wanna-be writers always want to know the foundation stories of our literary heroes and heroines.

Bernard Cornwell: I began by writing Sharpe! And that was an accident . . . I fell in love with an American, was denied a Green Card (work permit), so told her I’d make a living by writing a book! It was a crazy decision, of course, but worked out ok! We’re still married 35 years later. So writing was a desperate attempt to make a living. The Sharpe books, of course, are derived from Hornblower (though Sharpe and Hornblower are very different characters). You could say I learned my trade with Sharpe?

Muffet Jones: :In many ways, The Last Kingdom and other books in the series are also very much about Alfred the Great, although seen obliquely through Uhtred’s eyes.  Uhtred is certainly ambivalent about him; did you find it difficult to create a psychological character that felt true to you and still mirrored the historical figure of Alfred?  Do you find him admirable?

Bernard Cornwell: I do find him admirable! And I enjoyed writing him. Alfred was a great man, but almost certainly he was not a great warrior . . . he suffered from a chronic disease for his whole life (probably Crohn’s disease), and we know from his own writing and from Bishop Asser’s biography, that his passion was for literacy and the church. He was also a very intelligent man and, forced to fight to save his country, he used his intelligence to defeat the Danes. He was also, of course, extremely pious, which is bound to irritate Uhtred who, like me, has no tolerance for puritanism!

Muffet Jones: I’d like to ask you a little about your process.  I’m sure you have researchers, but in the earlier books, how did you begin?  I love that you give credit to your sources, but wonder how your translate all of that information into narrative?

Bernard Cornwell: Researchers? I wish! No, I do it all myself. And I never forget that I must be primarily a story-teller, not an historian. The history will always take second place to the plot. I suspect (hope) that people read historical novels for entertainment, not education, but they can still be portals to history. A good historical novel should entice some readers to discover more, but it isn’t my job to educate!

Muffet Jones: You are very prolific, and your fans are very grateful for that fact.  Do you write every day?  I know you spend part of your year in Cape Cod – it’s in your bio in all the books so not giving anything personal away. Do you write there or in England or elsewhere?

Bernard Cornwell: I do most of my writing in Charleston, South Carolina, where we have a winter home. I do some in Cape Cod, but my summers there are mostly spent on stage at a repertory theatre which leaves no time for writing! And yes, you write every day, there isn’t another way!

Muffet Jones: I was sorry not to see a fifth Starbuck novel.  Could you tell us if we might read more of him in future?

Bernard Cornwell: I somehow doubt it . . . though if I live long enough I might return to him.

Muffet Jones: You have written about 6th century England, Saxon England, England and France during the fourteenth century and Sharpe’s Napoleonic period, Revolutionary America, the Civil War period in America and more.  Is there one period that you feel most at home in?  England or America?  Chateaubriand wrote that in America nothing is old but the trees, but to most of us Americans the Revolutionary period and the Civil War feels old to us.  Wars seem to bring people and history alive – is there another period you’d like to write about?

BC:I think my stories are rooted in British history, mainly because I know Britain’s history best and hear British voices. Fans constantly ask me to write about other places and eras, the other day someone pleaded with me to write the story of the Slavic tribes, but hell, I’d need to learn languages first, let alone discover the geography and all the nuances. Yes, I’d love to write about late 16th and early 17th Century London . . . it will happen!

Muffet Jones: You wrote that you were annoyed with the publisher in America who changed the name of the first Grail Quest novel from Harlequin to The Archer’s Tale because of possible confusion with the romance Harlequin novels.  As you pointed out, there is an abundance of romance and bodice-ripping in the Grail Quest novels.  But one of the things I most appreciate about your books is that they are romantic and sexy without being graphic.  I’m guessing that the BBC version will have to be a whole lot more explicit in their interpretation of Uhtred’s relationships for the cable demographic.  Are you happy with that aspect of it?  

Bernard Cornwell: I’m happy with whatever they do! I have enormous faith in their skill and taste!

Muffet Jones: What else would you like your enthusiasts to know about The Last Kingdom?

Bernard Cornwell: I just hope they enjoy it!

Muffet Jones: Again, thank you so much for entertaining these questions.  I know the readers of Medievalists.net will read your thoughts with great interest and I can’t wait for the show!

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