Bernard Cornwell Q&A

Last Update: 01 September 1997

On August 29, 1997 Bernard Cornwell very kindly agreed to answer questions from members of the Bean Zine mailing list. Here are some of those questions, and his responses.

Q: To what do you attribute your relatively subdued success in the USA? I think you mentioned that your books don't sell that well here so you don't often do book signing tours. I've only seen hardcover copies of the books in two libraries and a few trade paperbacks in bookstores. Since I've read everything of yours I can find, I'm curious.

BC: I'm curious too, but don't really know the answer. I guess I just don't appeal to American readers as I do to British ones. That's understandable with the Sharpe series, which is very British based, and maybe that image sticks.

Q: Has there ever been any Hollywood interest in making a movie from any of your works?

BC: Not a nibble. Not enough children in my books, and those that there are, get killed.

Q: I came across something while reading a book last week and it drove me nuts because I can't remember where I heard this before. The book was about the Napoleonic Wars and there was a chapter in there about a Captain John Kincaid and his regiment, the 95th Rifles. Was this the guy you based Sharpe on? This guy was in all the same battles as Sharpe, and sure sounded like our boy - bold, brash, brave, etc. I swear somewhere in the past year, someone, somewhere in SharpeLand has mentioned this.

BC: I've read Kincaid, but truly Sharpe was not based on him. It's hard to base a fictional character on someone real, because then you're stuck with their chronology and that might, in fact will, get in the way of the plots.

Q: Will you be writing a series on the life of Lassan - my favorite character of the Starbuck series? Please, please, please! How could it miss? A fascinating hero and a great way for us all to learn more about 19th century European history through the eyes of someone we love and admire.

BC: I was about to kill Lassan in the next Starbuck book, but you've made me reconsider. I promise I'll let the ugly sod live, but whether he'll get a book of his own? Don't know.

Q: Will the Starbuck Chronicles be continued and will Sharpe's son return in them?

BC: Yes they will, and yes he will, and so will Sharpe's grandson who will have quite a large part to play.

Q: Who was your favorite among Sharpe's lovers/wife in the television series, not necessarily the actresses but the way the characters were developed and acted?

BC: I like them all, he said diplomatically, but I especially liked Teresa and Lucille.

Q: What do you think would have happened if Wellington, born earlier, had been put in charge of containing the colonial uprising? (Yikes! Maybe you never would have had to create Sharpe...)

BC: The Colonial uprising would have been subdued, I suspect, for he was a genius. But, interestingly, the Duke was asked, in 1814, to take over the British forces then fighting in North America and he refused, on the grounds that a war there was unwinnable - the US having too much ground that they could always trade for time - just as the Russians did in defeating Napoleon and Hitler. He warned against fighting in the US, sensible man, but it's still an intriguing question. Certainly he was far more sensible than any of the British generals who fought in the was of American Independence, and a far greater soldier, so undoubtedly he would have made a difference, though I suspect, like Sir William Howe, his basic sympathies would have been with the rebels.

Q: If and when you decide not to write any more about Sharpe, will you be tempted to kill him off? Since you gave him life, as it were, I wondered if you feel you want to choose his death, rather than leaving him drifting into old age and an unknown future.

BC: He dies of old age, in his bed, surrounded by family. I, as his creator, can give him that, and he deserves it, because he's paid my mortgage off.

Q: I know you have expressed admiration for Sean's portrayal of Sharpe, but how did you feel when you FIRST heard who was to play him - Sean is, after all, somewhat different from the original. Surely you had some misgivings?

BC: No misgivings at all. It is a foolish author who complains about his or her books being translated onto television or film. I never expected the producers to slavishly copy the books, they couldn't, so I was quite ready for any changes they made (except to Sharpe's Gold, which left me gobsmacked), and I was utterly delighted that it was to be Sean Bean.

Q: I wondered what it was about Sean's portrayal of Sharpe that pleased you so much. You must have been very impressed to model Sharpe on him in both Battle and Tiger.

BC: I suppose it's the grittiness of his portrayal. In truth he made a new Sharpe, but one that I liked, so I simply used it. He looks right, he sounds right and, so far as I'm concerned, is right.

Q: Do you mind terribly that Sharpe looks like Sean Bean now and not like you imagined him to look, or is this better for writing about Sharpe?

BC: I don't mind at all. As for writing Sharpe, I think I tend to write from Sharpe's point of view and so, except on the rare occasion when there's a mirror around, I don't worry about his looks.

Q: Is it difficult for you to watch some of the Sharpe films where many of your characters and storylines have been altered, not particularly for the better? For example - the elimination of Hogan and the entire film of Sharpe's Gold. Do you have any creative control over scripts?

BC: I have no control, and didn't want it, because I know nothing about transforming novels into screenplays, and any objections I might make can only be an obstacle to the film-makers, and it is a very stupid author who puts obstacles in the way of people trying to make films of their work. Sharpe's Gold, neveretheless, left me astonished.

Q: Did it bother you when the series took license with the Sharpe Character? Sharpe's Rifles (the book) starts off with Sharpe looking after the men by gathering ammunition. He's doing his duty. By Sharpe's Company - the series, he's complaining about Lists. There are many other examples of this not to mention the birthplace and accent of the character.

BC: The film-makers are going to change things. That's inevitable. And it's no use me worrying about it. On the other hand you get two versions - for the price of one!

Q: Wouldn't it be ironic if after years of ignominy, Richard Sharpe turned out to be the son of an aristocrat?

BC: What I've always thought, privately, but have never put into print until this moment, is that Sharpe's father (horror) was a bloody Frog! A Frenchman on the razzle in England. But I don't think that can be right, and, just in case it is, I think Sharpe's parentage is best left a mystery.

Q: My only question is whatever happened to Teressa's daughter? Why does Richard S. never mention her or see her etc......?

BC: She does disappear, doesn't she? I honestly don't know what happens to her. Maybe one day we'll find out.

Q: What type of computer do you use?

BC: Dell Dimension. All the memory in the world.

Q: Do you still have the Jeep that is in that antiquated jacket photo?

BC: A Range Rover, thanks to Richard Sharpe. The jeep's carburretor kept screwing up.

Q: Do you ever have writer's block and how, if you do, do you get past it?

BC: I don't believe writer's block exists. How can it? Are nurses allowed a block? Or teachers? Or lorry drivers? "Sorry, boss, can't come to work today, I've got a block." How long would your job last? It's a whining excuse that writers give when they're feeling under the weather, and it is calculated to make them appear special - so special that their job depends on some kind of supernatural intervention without which, deep sigh, they can't work. We all have bad days, and you just work through them.

Q: How do you write the fight scenes? Do you check with a specialist that the fight would go that way or do you just imagine the scene and then let your pen (fingers on the keyboard) run riot.

BC: Imagine and let my fingers do the fighting, though remember I can revise, so that if I back Sharpe into a more than usually impossible situation I can always hit the reverse button and rewrite. And do, all the time. But I try to make it realistic so that you, the reader, knows what is around him and what circumstances prevail, and that helps, I hope, to make the fights realistic.

Q: Is there any possibility of a Sharpe story showing how Sharpe met up again with Captain (later Major) Morris. We know from 'Company' that Hakeswell said that Morris was in Ireland. Did Harper meet him at all?

BC: He meets him in Sharpe's Tiger and, of course, the delicious Sergeant Hakeswill again.

Q: In Sharpe's Company Sharpe mentions that Hakeswill and Capt. Morris were responsible for his flogging and that Morris is in Ireland. In Sharpe's Enemy we all know that Sharpe settles the score with Obadiah. In Sharpe's Devil Sharpe mentions that he hasn't seen Sgt. Harper since he traveled to Ireland three years ago. Was that trip to settle the score with Morris and if so could another book be written to fill in that time period between 1815 and 1820 where Sharpe encounters and settles the score with Morris?

BC: What a good idea! I hadn't even thought of that! It might even get written one day.

Q: Why did you change the reason for Sharpe's flogging in Tiger? Originally it was because Sharpe stopped Hakeswell and Morris beating up an Indian and they put the blame on to him. Now it is because Sharpe has hit Hakeswell and broken his nose. Why change the storyline?

BC: Because the old reason (I forget which book it was in) simply didn't work as well as the new one. That's the problem with writing a series, then going back to the beginning - I found that lots of things wouldn't quite work and so had to be changed. For instance I always said Sharpe learned to read in the dungeon at Seringapatam, but found, once he was there, he hardly had time to learn C A T, so I had to fudge that like crazy. I hate changing the details, but if they help to make a story move faster, I will.

Q: When did Sharpe meet Harper? In the book 'Sharpe's Rifles' you imply that Sharpe and Harper have known each other for about 6 months but in 'Sharpe's Eagle' he says they had been friends for 3 years.

BC: Sounds like a mistake to me. Why did you have to spot it?

Q: What happenned to Jane and the baby she was expecting after Waterloo?

BC: Nothing good, I hope.

Q: Do you ever have doubts about your characters' authenticity?

BC: I think if I did I couldn't write them, though I'm always aware that I'm writing entertainment,not literature. Yet they still have to be believable, and I try to make them so.

Q: Do you find that Cape Cod resembles East Anglia, Essex in particular, and if so, is this an inspiration for you or do you have to go back to the UK to get back into the mood for writing about Sharpe and the South Essex Regiment?

BC: I don't find Cape Cod resembles East Anglia at all - it's sand and pine trees, mainly, while south Essex is clay, bricks and mud. The sailing is good in both places, and, of course, they share dozens of place names because the 17th Century settlers mostly came from East Anglia. No, I don't need to go home to England to get inspiration, but I say I do and thus go often.

Q: What books might you recommend in the historical fiction genre?

BC: Mine. But I consume Patrick O'Brian, think Gore Vidal's Lincoln probably the best historical novel ever written, and have a soft spot for Lindsey Davies's series set in ancient Rome.

Q: My interest in the Napoleonic era was the result of happening across the Hornblower series in the early '80's. C.S. Forester, much to my dismay, chose to kill off William Bush (Hornblower's #2, but you knew that!) late in the series. You don't plan on doing the same with Patrick Harper, I hope?

BC: I promise I won't.

Q: How did you become interested in the Penninsula wars and why not the First or Second World War?

BC: Because the Peninsular War is far enough in the past for it to carry no great emotional baggage, and because it was one of the last wars in which high romance was still possible. Men struggling in mud don't appeal to me.

Q: Did you give Sharpe some features of your own personality or Sharpe is character you yourself would like to resemble?

BC: A bit of both, I suspect, though probably my wife is the person to ask that question.

Q: Why did you let both Hagman and Harris die in last battle while left only Harper alive?

BC: I honestly can't remember now, I wrote it too long ago, but I've always liked to kill off unlikely characters to keep the reader on their toes.

Q: The name Richard Sharpe is so simple, yet so exactly right for this character. How did you settle on this name and were there any "runner-up" names you considered?

BC: I wanted to give him a complicated name like Hornblower - something like TrumpetWhistler, perhaps, but I couldn't think of the right name and so, just as a temporary measure, I named him after the greatest fly-half who ever played rugby for England, and of course, the name stuck for evermore.

Q: Would you ever consider writing a companion novel (or perhaps just devote a portion of a regular novel in the Sharpe series) to telling Patrick Harper's early history?

BC: Probably not.

Q: I am curious as to what happens to Sharpe between India and the Peninsula. (I have heard that the next two novels planned also take place in India.) Do you ve any plans for writing about Sharpe's "in-between" adventures, maybe on the abortive expedition to Argentina or the Denmark campaign?

BC: Not Argentina, but I very well might take him with Wellesley to Copenhagen. I'm not sure of that, for I haven't done the research, but the idea is lurking in the back of what passes for my mind.

Q: Do you find, as some other authors do, that your characters take on a "life of their own," doing and saying things you did not plan that then take the plot off in another direction? Or do you outline the plot so that this cannot happen?

BC: They take off on their own and I follow, and when they go wrong I rescue them. I wish I did know the end of the books when I begin them, but I never do (or rarely). That's probably quite right. Each story is new, and if you know it before you write it, it won't be fresh, but I know lots of authors disagree, but for me it works best when I let the story happen as I write.

Q: Did you model Sharpe (physically or personality-wise) on someone you know in life, or is he entirely a product of imagination?

BC: Imagination only.

Q: In Sharpe's Tiger there seemed to be a change in scale from the other Sharpe novels - things were seen much more from a "lower" or more personal level, rather than the grand overviews you sometimes get in other Sharpe books. If that was intentional because Sharpe is only a private, understands less and can't see as much, I think it works very well.

BC: That's nice of you to say as much, but it wasn't intentional, nor was the siege of Seringapatam particularly complicated, so you don't really need a bird's eye view. But you will at the battle of Assaye in his next book, but by attaching Sharpe temporarily to Wellesley's staff (as an orderly, nothing grand) you get the general's eye view of the battle.

Q: Someone else I was discussing this with remarked that she had the impression that Sharpe had taken over in "Tiger"; whereas the other books were more explanations of the campaign with a hero to anchor it down, this one was Sharpe's adventure all the way through.

BC: Probably some truth there.

Q: It's very noticeable how the character of Sharpe has changed as your own ideas about the character have deepened. Have you yourself noticed your writing style changing over the years as the character of Sharpe has developed, particularly with Sharpe's Tiger? Did the character change in your mind after Sean took on the role? And if so, was this was a conscious decision, just a natural development, or a mixture of both.

BC: I hope my style has changed - it ought to! Practice makes, if not perfect, at least better. And yes, the character did change a little after Sean, but not in any drastic way. It seems to me that most people will first know Sharpe through Sean so it was foolish to pretend he didn't exist, and so I've tried to make my Sharpe a bit more like him.

Q: What are your plans for the future now that S's Tiger is out and you are well into the Arthur legends?

BC: The Arthur trilogy is finished - the last book comes out in Britain this October. After that it's more Sharpe, more Starbuck, and one or two other ideas.

Q: Was there any particular screenwriter or any particular episode that seemed more than any of the others to bring the essence of Sharpe to the screen?

BC: Charles Wood, in Sharpe's Company. My favourite.

Q: Have you ever considered a followup to Sharpe (as opposed to all these "pre-quels") that has his daughter in Spain in some type of danger so he must return there and reconnect with his past and with her? She more-or-less disappeared, and this would be a way to tie up a lot of loose ends....? (especially interesting to pair up the ghost of wife 1 with the reality of wife 3).

BC: I haven't, but I will.

Q: When you set out to write a new novel, do you work from an outline, or do you sit down with your research and bang out a first draft working from just your thoughts? How do you do the next drafts? Do you write an entire first draft and then go back and rewrite, eventually emerging with a second draft? Or do you revise as you go, so that the finished draft becomes the copy that you send off to the publisher? Do you write directly onto the computer, or do you write first drafts by hand?

BC: I never know what's going to happen, so I just write and rewrite and rewrite, so there's never a pure first draft, but an eventual draft some of which has been done ten times and some only once, and then I rewrite the whole thing yet again. I think writing a book is like climbing a mountain that's never been climbed before - you get halfway up, get stuck, look back, see a much better route, so you have to go down to the bottom and start all over again. And again. And again.

Q: How long does it take you to write a typical Sharpe novel, including research, writing and editing time?

BC: Six months.

Q: How do you keep track of all your research? Do you fill notebooks with notes, do you have it all on recipe cards, do you have stacks of books with bookmarks, or do you have it all organized on a computer?

BC: All of the above. It's a mess.

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