Bernard Cornwell Brings History to Life [3]

The author speaks to BTW about writing, green cards, and the Holy Grail

Author Bernard Cornwell shares one thing in common with Thomas of Hookton, the hero of his latest historical novel, Vagabond (HarperCollins), the second book in the Grail series: Both made decisions that, at the time, didn't seem too smart, but, in the end, proved fateful. Thomas of Hookton, the 14th century protagonist, decided against the relatively safe life of the priesthood to become an archer in the English army. Cornwell's choice came when he left a good job at the BBC to become a novelist.

Cornwell, the author of over 35 historical adventure novels, always wanted to write, but, until he met his wife, it wasn't something he thought he would do for a living. The 58-year-old British-born author first worked as a teacher, and then moved to Northern Ireland where he worked for BBC Television in Belfast for 10 years. It was while in Belfast that Cornwell met a visiting American named Judy, whom he would marry in 1980.

For family reasons, Judy couldn't move to Belfast, so Cornwell decided to move to the States. There, he was refused a green card, making it illegal for him to hold most jobs. However, one occupation this decision did not rule out was writing. For that reason, Cornwell made what he jokingly referred to as the "daft decision" to become a novelist. "I always wanted to write, and it was the only way to make a living," the affable author, now a U.S. citizen who lives with his wife in Cape Cod, told BTW in a recent phone interview. "I thought, Why not? I'll just throw all my eggs in one basket."

Millions of readers are certainly happy that Cornwell did. Since the publication, in 1981, of Sharpe's Eagle (Penguin) -- the first book in the popular Sharpe series, which details the adventures of a British soldier during the Napoleonic wars -- Cornwell has garnered a loyal readership, and has earned the praise of critics as well. The Washington Post called Cornwell "perhaps the greatest writer of historical adventure novels today."

That Cornwell decided to write historical adventure books is not surprising, considering that he's been a history buff since childhood. "I've been reading it for 40 years. I studied it in college [at London University], though I'm not sure what good that did me," he said with a laugh.

The author's latest, Vagabond, continues the tale of Thomas of Hookton, an archer for the English army during the Hundred Years' War. In the first book of the series, The Archer's Tale (HarperCollins), a man known only as the Harlequin kills Thomas' father. Though Thomas' father wanted him to study to become a priest at Oxford, Thomas is determined to become an archer for the English army. The decision proves fateful. He succeeds, and, in 1346, he is fighting for England in Northern France. It is there that his purpose becomes clear -- to seek and find the Holy Grail. Vagabond details Thomas' reluctant quest for the Grail.

Even though Cornwell's story is set over 600 years ago, his characters don't seem all that distant from us. They crack jokes, get drunk, fall in love, they lust, and oftentimes, they fail. Readers can identify with the characters because, like us, they have flaws -- they're human.

And that was Cornwell's intent. "I have a firm belief that human nature doesn't change, though the people might have just had different circumstances," he explained.

Furthermore, the historical backdrops to Cornwell's books are accurate -- the author does not take liberties except when absolutely necessary. In the 400-plus-page The Archer's Tale, for instance, he noted, "Only two actions in the book are pure invention." Not surprisingly, he spends a great deal of time doing research for his novels. For the Grail series, Cornwell said he spent "a little time in Northern France. I do try to go to the places where I write…. But I do a huge amount of reading."

In his 20-plus year writing career, Cornwell's novels have covered time periods ranging from the year 2000 BCE to the Dark Ages, to the Hundred Years War, to the Napoleonic War, the American Revolution, and U.S. Civil War. When asked if there was another period in history the author would like to tackle in the future, Cornwell replied, "I've got so many damn series going at the moment, I should probably concentrate on that rather than do something else!"

Cornwell noted he is working on the third, though probably not final, book in the Grail series, Heretic. Moreover, he will conduct a U.S. book tour promoting the next book in his popular Sharpe series, Sharpe's Havoc, which is due to be released in April 2003. However, Cornwell noted that the Sharpe series "may be coming to an end," after two or three more books. --David Grogan [5]