Best-selling historical novelist Bernard Cornwell, creator of the Sharpe novels which were adapted for television starring Sean Bean, talks about his unhappy adopted childhood, his life in the US and how his love of acting has slowed down his writing career, as his latest novel, 1356, is published.
By Hannah Stephenson
Bernard Cornwell has admitted in the past that he doesn't do small talk. Indeed, pleasantries are short and sweet before we settle down to the business of discussing his 50th novel, 1356.
The London-born writer is visiting the UK from his home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where he writes his gripping historical tales featuring epic battles, violent duels and a smattering of romance against real backdrops.
His most famous works are the 24 books in the iconic Sharpe series charting the life of swashbuckling soldier Richard Sharpe in the Napoleonic Wars, which was made into a TV series starring Sean Bean, but he has also written books about the American Civil War, Arthur's Britain, the Hundred Years War, contemporary thrillers and stand-alone historical novels.
In the UK alone, 15 million copies of his books have been sold and his work has been translated into 20 languages.
Fans will not be disappointed with his latest offering, focusing on the Battle of Poitiers during the Hundred Years War.
It sees Edward, the Black Prince, lead a chevauchee (a destructive raid) through France, with a battle in which the English were outnumbered by the French by two to one and yet went on to win.
The plot features Thomas of Hookton, the leader of a mercenary company of archers, and his quest to retrieve La Malice, a sword of mythical power guaranteeing victory to its owner.
Cornwell spins a great yarn set against a factual backdrop, featuring duels, battles and much bloodthirsty detail. Within the first few chapters men have had limbs severed and ribcages opened, eyes have been pecked out by crows. It's not for the squeamish.
But then life in those times was violent, Cornwell reflects: "I think if anything, I leave things out rather than put things in. It was an incredibly brutal age. They took the brutality for granted. Whatever totally disgusts me just gets left out.
"The only check on it is chivalry, which is at best a feeble check. I don't want the violence to be all over the place, but it has to be there."
His 50th novel wasn't a milestone, he says. He didn't sit back and crack open the bubbly or light a cigar, because he's already on to the next book, although he only writes one a year now because he's found another career - on the stage.
Cornwell also says he doesn't have a formula for writing, and never knows how a story will turn out. He just sits at his desk in his office, surrounded by stacks of books and historical artefacts, including Sharpe's sword, and writes.
"Somerset Maugham said there are three rules to writing a novel, but unfortunately no one knows what they are. I do it my way.
"Part of the joy of reading a book is to find out what happens, but for me part of the joy of writing a book is to find out what happens. I make it up as I go along, with a destination in mind."
In the summer he takes a break from writing to tread the boards with a local theatre company. He's been with them for seven years, after meeting the theatre director whom he says was probably beguiled by his English accent.
"It's nice working in a company, as part of a team and talking to people. Being a writer is very much a solitary vice. So I try to finish my book around April and start learning my lines in May."
While he's pleased that the TV adaptation of his Sharpe novels raised his profile, he has no intention of veering towards film production.
"My job is to put books on shelves, not pictures on screens. If my ambition was to put pictures on screens, I'd be a scriptwriter or a producer. I think the Sharpe adaptation is wonderful, I cashed the cheque. Sean Bean made a terrific Sharpe."
Cornwell, 68, was born of a wartime fling between a Canadian airman and a British woman who already had children and was waiting for her husband to come home.
His mother dumped him in an orphanage, from which he was retrieved by a couple who belonged to a religious sect called the Peculiar People, a cult of evangelical fundamentalists.
"My childhood wasn't a very happy one," he recalls. "There was a whole list of things that thou shalt not do, whether it was reading comics, cinema, television, classical music. The Peculiars believed that they should be apart from the world."
He studied theology at London University, to give himself enough intellectual ammunition to fight them, and became an atheist.
Years later, when Cornwell was in his 50s, he found his biological parents. "It was a capricious decision. I happened to be in British Columbia and knew my father was living there and I found him through a Vancouver newspaper.
"I can remember the first meeting with him in Victoria. We got on just fine. He looked exactly like me. Then I met my mother a couple of years later in England. They've both since passed away. I'm glad I did it because you learn a lot about your ancestry."
He's lived in the US for more than 30 years, after falling in love with his American wife, Judy, a travel agent to whom he's been married for more than three decades.
"I saw her walking out of a lift in Edinburgh and that was it. I knew she was the woman I was going to marry. We fell in love and it was going to be very difficult for Judy to move to England for family reasons and it wasn't difficult for me to move to the States."
At the time he was a BBC TV producer in Northern Ireland, but when he moved to the US he couldn't get a Green Card, so decided to have a go at writing a novel, which turned out to be his first Sharpe book. The rest, as they say, is history.
He has a daughter from "a previous mistake" and Judy has three children from her previous marriage. Their relationship seems to work on the basis of opposites attract. She reads his books but he says it's only out of wifely duty and she has no particular interest in military history.
His love of CS Forester's Hornblower series inspired him to create Sharpe, but his first manuscript was initially rejected by a London literary agent on the grounds that "no one wants to read about the British Army". The rejections didn't last - he soon found another agent and clinched a seven-book deal.
Today, he says he misses England - decent beer, rugby and cricket, Radio 4 - but he returns twice a year to get his fix. And, he has no thoughts of retirement.
"I retired 30-odd years ago," he says, laughing. "Writing's much better than working. You sit down and you tell stories. It's fun."
:: 1356 by Bernard Cornwell is published by HarperCollins, priced £18.99. Available now