Interview with Bernard Cornwell, author of 1356

Bernard Cornwell has been a force in historical fiction since the 1980s with the release of Sharpe’s Eagle, the first in his series about a British soldier during the Napoleonic War. Since then he’s written around fifty historical novels. His most recent is 1356, a novel of the battle of Poitiers. Cornwell stopped by to answer a few of my questions about his prolific writing career.

DevourerofBooks: Can you give us the one sentence synopsis of 1356?

Bernard Cornwell: 1356 is an historical novel postulating a series of unlikely events that culminated in the battle of Poitiers which took place, unsurprisingly, in 1356.

Dob: Why the Hundred Years War, and the Battle of Poitiers in particular?

BC: I wrote a trilogy set in the Hundred Years War and 1356 is really the fourth book of that trilogy!  I was born and raised in England (but have spent most of my adult life in the States), and the English tend to define their history by the long rivalry with France. The most famous battles of English and British history are all against the French; Hastings, Crecy, Agincourt, Trafalgar and Waterloo, yet Poitiers was just as decisive and in some ways more astonishing than Agincourt, but strangely it is a little known event.  It’s also a magnificent story, how a small English army is trapped by the French King, how they attempt to surrender, have their terms rejected and so are forced to fight and, in so doing, win a crushing victory which ends with the French King in English captivity.  Fact, they tell me, is stranger than fiction, and Poitiers stretches credulity, but it’s all true and is, as well, a terrific story!

DoB: What is it that drew you to historical fiction as an author? Have you always been interested in this genre?

BC: We write first for ourselves, and so we write what we want to read. From a child I loved historical fiction and so when I gave up my proper job (I was a television producer with the BBC) I naturally wrote what I wanted to read. Initially that was the Sharpe series about a British rifleman fighting against Napoleon, which was a rip-off of the Hornblower books, but the repertoire has expanded since those early days.

DoB; After approximately 50 books, how do you continue to find new topics to write about?

BC: The difficulty is not finding new topics, but winnowing down the vast number of possibilities that history offers. I have enough ideas to keep me going for at least another hundred years, but tobacco, whiskey and other joys will ensure that I won’t last that long.  The ancient classical aphorism is right, ars longa, vita brevis, and I’m not saying what I do is ‘art’, but it certainly takes a long time and life is, indeed, short. A book takes, roughly, six months to write and while I used to write two a year I have given up one of those to appear on stage in a summer-stock theatre each year. So one idea a year?  Out of all history? Out of the long centuries of conflict and drama and passion and cruelty and disappointment and ecstasy? There’s no shortage of topics!

DoB: What books are you reading right now, or what books are on the top of your to be read pile?

BC: I’m reading Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, who wrote the magnificent Will in the World, which is one of the best books about Shakespeare. Swerve is about the rediscovery of Lucretius’s poem de Natura Rerum and its effect on Renaissance thinking, which sounds fairly dry, but Stephen Greenblatt is incapable of writing a dull book. It’s a book about the birth of modern thinking, and it’s terrific!  I’m also reading Sam Willis’s In the Hour of Victory, which is a fascinating redaction of the dispatches sent to the Admiralty by Royal Navy commanders during the Napoleonic Wars (shades of Hornblower).  Next on the list, and much anticipated, is Stuart MacBride’s Birthdays for the Dead. I’m a huge fan of police procedurals and love Stuart’s books (Scottish noir). His series beginning with Cold Granite is, for me, a must-read!

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The King’s Mistress by Emma Campion – Book Review

The King’s Mistress by Emma Campion

Alice knows she is lucky when she is lucky when her father chooses Janyn Perrers for her to wed. Although he is a good deal older than she is, she finds he attractive and he has never been anything but gentle and kind towards her. For awhile, they have a lovely, happy life together, until it becomes clear that he and his family have a dangerous secret involving the Dowager Queen Isabella. When Isabella passes away, Alice ends up under the protection of King Edward III and Queen Philippa, only to become Edward’s long-time mistress, reviled by much of the country.

First of all, let me just do a little cheer that “The King’s Mistress” is English historical fiction that is not about the Tudors, the War of the Roses, or Eleanor of Aquitaine. Hooray! Originality!

Alice Perrers is a fascinating woman, and I am glad that Campion decided to take her on as a subject for this novel. A merchant’s daughter, she neither wanted nor expected to spend any time with the royal family, only to end up as a royal mistress and mother to three of the king’s children. Of course, the higher someone is raised, the more enmity they attract (Tudor fans, think Wolsey and Cromwell). Indeed, Alice ends up vilified by many of those around her, accused of taking advantage of the aging king in his growing senility during their final years together.

Although the beginning was a bit slow, I thought that Campion’s writing was quite good. I thought that, overall, she let Alice’s story unfold very well and very naturally. The only minor thing that annoyed me was Alice’s italicized musings at the beginning of each of the four sections. They all ended with “When had I a choice to be other than I was?” Yes, there was a certain degree to which Alice’s fate was really being decided for her by other people, but I disliked that strong current of helplessness from Alice in these sections, particularly because I found her to be a rather strong character in the book as a whole, working for what she felt was right or what she wanted whenever it was possibly in her somewhat powerless position.

Despite a couple of minor flaws, this was a great work of historical fiction, and I would highly recommend it to people looking for something other than the same old Tudor and War of the Roses historical novels.

Buy this book from:
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*

I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour.  Check out some of the other tour hosts for more reviews.  Links go to the host’s site, not to their specific review.

Tuesday, July 6th:  Life in Review

Wednesday, July 7th:  Luxury Reading

Thursday, July 8th:  Life is a Patchwork Quilt

Friday, July 9th:  Hist-Fic Chick

Monday, July 12th:  The Tome Traveller

Tuesday, July 13th:  Novel Whore

Wednesday, July 14th:  Rundpinne

Thursday, July 15th:  Stiletto Storytime

Thursday, July 22nd:  Ask Miss A

Thursday, July 22nd:  The Book Faery Reviews

Monday, July 26th:  Chaotic Compendiums

Monday, July 26th:  The Feminist Review

Wednesday, July 28th:  Devourer of Books

Monday, August 2nd:  S. Krishna’s Books

Wednesday, August 4th:  Peeking Between the Pages

Friday, August 6th:

Thursday, August 12th:  Enchanted by Josephine

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