Last night I made the trip down to Cape Cod to see Bernard Cornwell speak at the Osterville library.
I was slightly surprized by the venue. Osterville has the look to me of my village of Moira back home: The sort of one-street hamlet where upper middle class ladies go on a Saturday afternoon to get their hair done, look at expensive clothes and then have a cup of coffee and a bun. The library is an impressive, new building but it is still not exactly the venue you would expect to see a best-selling author with the reputation of Cornwell in. The room was understandably packed though there must have been no more than forty or fifty people there. It is rare enough to get the chance to listen in person to a man who could well be described as the master of modern Historical Fiction, but to listen to him speaking in a small room to such a small group of people was unique. In the UK Bernard Cornwell could easily fill a space the size of the whole library and draw a crowd ten or twenty times that size, so it was a great opportunity to listen and ask questions. Not only that but there were juice and cookies supplied!
Cornwell was a tremendously entertaining speaker, talking for over an hour and a half, completely off the cuff, fielding questions and keeping his audience enthralled and amused throughout. The official theme of the talk was supposed to be Cornwell’s book 1356 (or “four minutes to two” as he repeatedly referred to it, much to the bemusement of the American audience). The book has just been launched in the USA, however he ranged over a wide range of topics from how he first got published to fascinating insights into his writing process.
Someone with the writing track record of Bernard Cornwell has every right to blow their own trumpet, but despite his declarations of self-promotion, I found him in many ways quite modest and self-deprecating. Through snippets and stories about his life and career glimpses of the sheer depth of the man’s historical knowledge became clear, as well as the lengths to which he is prepared to go in the name of research. At one point he waded into an Indian river to judge its depth and see whether Sharpe and his men would have had to hold their equipment over their heads. The fact that no one beyond the residents of the nearby village would actually know how deep that river is says a lot about his commitment to veracity.
For someone like me who has been a long term fan of Cornwell the evening was a veritable cornucopia of information, like how Richard Sharpe got his name (after an English rugby player), why there is a rifleman Dodd in Sharpe’s squad or why he really stopped writing the Starbuck stories, along with hints and tips about how he got where he is today. Some things he said that particularly stick in my mind are: It’s not that hard to write something. It’s harder to write well. It’s very difficult to write something that people are interested in reading. Also, there is no such thing as writer’s block. Can you imagine a nurse phoning into Cape Cod hospital and saying I can’t come to work today because I’ve got nurse’s block?
At the time, it came as surprise to me that Cornwell is one of those writers how doesn’t plan his stories. He just sits down and writes them. However on reflection, having witnessed the man in action, it is obvious he was born with a genius for story-telling, whether it be about walking his dog passed a civil war commemoration in Charlestown or a series of books about Dark Age Britain, there is no question that Bernard Cornwell keeps his respective audience thoroughly entertained (and-dare I say-a little bit educated too).
Exciting news came in the form of his upcoming works: A non-fiction book about Waterloo then a whole new series kicking off next year.
After it was over he did not simply rush away but made time to speak to everyone, sign books and briefly chat, no matter how inane the questions or comments were from awkward, slightly tongue tied fans (like myself).
At one point in his talk, Cornwell touched on the current crisis in the publishing industry and likened it to what has already happened in the music industry. “Musicians can still get by though as they can tour,” he said. “But no one is going to pay $150 to listen to listen to me talking.”
After last night’s performance, I for one wouldn’t be too sure.
The event was organised by Books by the Sea , the excellent independent bookshop in Osterville, and I would like to thank both them for going to the effort and Bernard Cornwell for providing such an entertaining and enlightening evening.