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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Historical Halloween Treats

As you may know, I am one of the writers for the SheKnows Book Lounge. I get to write all sorts of fun things over there, but one of my favorite is a relatively new feature I’m calling Historical Fiction Beyond Anne Boleyn. Basically every month I’m writing a themed list of great historical fiction novels. So far I’ve written about Wars of the Roses books and books featuring classic authors.

This month my column is getting in the Halloween spirit and I’m writing about historical fiction featuring witches and witchcraft. There’s a great variety of books on the list (if I do say so myself), both strict historicals and those with a bit more fantasy in them. Jessica Spotwood’s Born Wicked and Mary Sharratt’s Daughters of the Witching Hill are both on my list. If you want to learn more about them, or see what other four books make the cut, check it out.

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BOOK CLUB – The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrienne Sharp

Welcome to BOOK CLUB, which I run with co-conspirator Nicole from Linus’s Blanket. Today we will be chatting about The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrienne Sharp, which is being released in paperback by Picador on October 25th (website | twitter | facebook). For those of you reading this post, please remember that this discussion is likely to contain spoilers.

Here is the synopsis of the book I wrote for my review:

Little K was a prima ballerina, the lover of the last Russian tsar. A woman whose determination brought her into the beds of many members of the imperial family, but whose brilliant future was derailed when Russia as she knew it began to disappear, along with her beloved Tsar Nicholas II, and something where the concubine of the Romanovs was a dangerous thing to be. But perhaps it would be best to let Little K introduce herself in her own words, as this is a story she has been endlessly remembering for the past 50 years:

My name is Mathilde Kschessinska, and I was the greatest Russian ballerina on the imperial stages. But the world I was born to, the world I was bred for, is gone, and all the players in it are also gone – dead, murdered, exiled, walking ghosts. -p. 3

Before we get started, here are some of the reviews of readers who will be participating today:

Devourer of Books

Reviews by Lola

If you plan on participating in today’s BOOK CLUB, please consider subscribing to comments at the bottom of the page (please use the TOP subscription option, the second option will subscribe you only to replies of your own comments). I will be updating this post with new questions and ideas over the course of the day.

Here we go…

  • First off, what were your general impressions of the book?
  • Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club?
  • Near the beginning of the book, Little K makes this somewhat provocative statement  about Nicki’s marriage to Alix. Do you think, based on the events of the book, that she was correct about this?
    And what kind of wife would I have made him? Could I have stood his future – imprisonment and

    a martyr’s death? I can assure you this: if I had been his wife, that would not have been his future. -p. 23
  • What do you think was the root of Little K’s determination to be part of the tsar’s life? How did you feel about the way she positioned her son?
  • Do you think that Little K fully understood the causes of the revolution? What helped or hindered her in this?
  • Do you think that Sharp made the causes of the revolution clear to the reader?

12 review copies of The True Memoirs of Little K were provided by Picador in order to facilitate this discussion. Thank you!

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For the King by Catherine Delors – giveaway

Just in time for Bastille Day, Catherine Delors’ story of post-Revolutionary France, For the King is coming to paperback. As you may remember from last summer, I loved For the King, so I am thrilled to be able to offer two copies for giveaway to readers with US addresses, courtesy of Penguin.

If you want to know more about the history behind For the King, please check out the guest post that Catherine Delors wrote about the revolutionary group depicted in her book: “The Chouans and the Downfall of Napoleon.”

To enter, please fill out the form below by Sunday, July 10th at 11:59pm Central.

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Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon – Book Review

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon
Published by Delta, an imprint of Random House
This is the 2nd book in the series, review may contain spoilers for earlier books

Claire and Jaime are back again, trying now to prevent the battle at Culloden Field, in which Claire knows thousands of highland men will die. In an attempt to change history, they travel together to France to try to subvert the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

“Dragonfly in Amber” has perhaps the most confusing opening of any book I have ever read. When we last left Claire at the end of “Outlander,” she had decided not to go back to her own time, but to stay with Jaime. At the beginning of “Dragonfly in Amber,” she is back in the present with a grown daughter, trying to find out who of all of the men she had known made it alive through the battle at Culloden Field. I wondered if I had skipped a page in “Dragonfly in Amber,” or whether I had misinterpreted or misremembered the end of “Outlander.” Before too long, though, it all made sense again, and I was happy to be back, drawn into the lives of Claire and Jamie once more.

As with “Outlander,” I felt that “Dragonfly in Amber” was just a bit too long. And really, it is a testament to Gabaldon’s writing and storytelling that her 800+ page books are only a little too long, and not painfully too long. Still, though, it makes me hesitate a bit to get to the later books, which are even longer. Even so, I am loving these books and have no plans to stop the series any tiem soon.


Buy this book from:
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Source: Personal copy.
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