Up until last year, I used to have a devilishly bad commute to work and back. On those long, stressful drives, I found that listening to music or my favorite radio shows just didn’t do it for me. A friend suggested that I listen to audio books, so I went to my local library and borrowed a few. Looking back, I can honestly say that this probably saved both my sanity and my life. It didn’t seem to matter what kinds of books I listened to. I think at one point of time, I was getting through a book a week, ranging from non-fiction to humor, the classics, adventure, mystery, and of course, historical fiction. And that is how I discovered Bernard Cornwell.
Cornwell could possibly be one of the better writers you’ve never heard of. His particular niche is British history, but within that segment, he has several different settings for his novels — the Napoleonic wars in the early nineteenth century, the Hundred Years war in the late medieval period, the Saxons of the 9th century, and even the post-Roman period of Arthurian legend.
For me personally, the history in itself is not the main attraction of his books, nor is it always likely to be of general interest. Instead, what makes Cornwell so readable is his gift for letting these stories unfold through the eyes of characters we can identify with, and imbuing his writing with a descriptive quality that makes you feel like you have a ring-side view of the action. The Cape Cod Times agrees: “A New York Times best-selling author of dozens of works, Bernard Cornwell’s novels are detailed and cinematic — you can almost hear the chain mail rattle on the battlefields; see the breath from the horses’ nostrils in the cold battlefield.”
Cornwell is a writer who clearly loves his craft, and it shows. And, unlike some other writers, he is able to articulate that craft just as well as he writes his novels. For those who appreciate good writing and have an interest in the act of writing itself, Cornwell’s reflections on his work are well worth a read (here’s a link to one of his interviews).
On what to write about
“I write best when I’m writing about what I know, and that is British history. I still hear British voices in my head.”
On how to write
“Approach the work of writing with unabashed pleasure. It’s fun. I sit down every day and tell stories. Some folk would kill to get that chance.”
On what makes his books tick
“The quality of the story-telling. A good story transcends national boundaries.”
On the process of writing
“Writing is a solitary occupation. If you can’t do it on your own then you probably can’t do it.”
“I’m a success inasmuch that I enjoy my life, which is an enormous blessing and that doesn’t depend on commercial success.”
All in all, I found Cornwell’s take on writers and writing to be thoughtful, clear-eyed and down-to-earth. He strips away the mystique and dispenses with the hand-waving but manages to do so without getting all reductionist and making you think that writing is just another humdrum occupation with a job description.