Bernard Cornwell: Britain's master of historical fiction is big in Rio
Sean Bean, centre, took the lead role in ITV's dramatisation of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe books. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features
Bernard Cornwell takes his responsibility to his public seriously. "Never in the history of the world," he says, describing his recent experience at the Brazil Biennale, "has an elderly Anglo-Saxon male been kissed by so many Latino chicks."
Cornwell, who says he is treated "like a rock star" in Rio, and regularly tops the German and Scandinavian bestseller lists, is probably the most successful British author you've never heard of. His oeuvre will take up several feet of shelf space in any local Waterstone's or Barnes & Noble, but the writer himself is invisible here, absent in America, where he has lived for the past 30 years.
In that time, often publishing two books a year, he has written no fewer than 21 Sharpe novels, from Sharpe's Eagle to Sharpe's Waterloo (also adapted for television, starring Sean Bean); the Starbuck Chronicles; the Warlord trilogy; the Grail Quest series; some yet-to-be-completed series, such as the Alfred sequence (Sword Song, the Last Kingdom, the Burning Land), and another bestseller about Henry V, Azincourt.
And when the time hangs heavy, he'll indulge a burst of co-authorship with Susannah Kells (aka Judy, his wife). Just to contemplate the inventory of his output is to invite a spontaneous wave of literary exhaustion. Cornwell's latest, the Fort, the fruit of an eight-year obsession with a forgotten engagement from the American War of Independence, has just been published.
Ask him how many readers he has and he shrugs: "No idea." But he does concede some 20 or more translations, which puts him in the premier league. Take in the houses (Cape Cod and Charleston); the charitable foundation (supporting an African Aids project); and the discreetly comfortable lifestyle, and you are looking at a man whose readers must be numbered in the millions worldwide.
In person, this literary dynamo comes across as pretty much what he used to be: a pre-John Birt BBC producer, urbane, relaxed and convivial, with an eye for a good story. Pass him in the street and you might mistake him for an elvish character actor from Lord of the Rings. before he set out to make his fortune as a writer of historical fiction, he ran the current affairs department of the BBC's Northern Ireland office with the help of two bright young things named Gavin Essler and Jeremy Paxman.
But where his talented juniors went on to climb the greasy pole in Television Centre, Bernard Wiggins (as he was before he fired up his Olivetti typewriter) set out to make a career as a literary entertainer, keeping up a punishing routine of eight- or nine-hour days. "I generally get started by 7am," he says. Following CS Forester, he put his soldier hero Richard Sharpe in the front line of the Peninsular war. Cornwell concedes: "Forester was the wind behind my early books. I wrote historical fiction because I loved reading historical fiction." within a very few years his success was ruffling the feathers of the old guard. Patrick O'Brien, rival author of the Master and Commander series, grumbled that "the trouble with Cornwell and Forester is that they're all plot and no lifestyle", a rebuke that Cornwell takes as a huge compliment.
Actually, it's hard to praise Cornwell, to get him to acknowledge his staggering output, or to analyse his seamless transitions from Revolutionary America and Napoleonic Spain to Anglo-Saxon England. Ask him how he changes historical gear, and he laughs. "Oh, I just do, you know. It's a capricious process. you get interested in a subject and eventually something comes, you hope." Having batted away this line of inquiry, he now opens up with: "My Anglo-Saxon ones are fun. you see, they come directly from my real father."
Aha, so here's a window on the inner man. Cornwell, born in 1944, is the product of his WAAF mother's disastrous wartime love affair with a Canadian airman, and given up for adoption at birth. "Bill, my real father, came from a family which could trace its line back to sixth-century Northumbria. I had long wanted to write the story of how England was made. It's an amazing story, and no one knows it. Alfred and all that."
As well as Alfred, he's also written about another great chivalric hero, King Arthur, in his Grail Quest series. Sharpe or Arthur? It's all one to Cornwell. "I said to my editor [Susan Watt of HarperCollins], do you want a Sharpe this winter, instead of an Arthur? [The 30th anniversary of Sharpe falls in 2011.] If you want, I'll do you a Sharpe."
His explorations of US history have been confined to the American civil war so far, and he does not expect to do another American series. "I hear English voices when I write," he explains. Inevitably, the conversation turns to Barack Obama. "Every Democrat president gets a rough ride in the mid-terms. Look at Clinton in 1996. in some ways that turned out to be the making of his presidency. the Republican party is going so far to the right that a lot of Americans who used to support decent, humane Republicans can no longer support the GOP as long as this nativist, anti-abortion, in-your-face Christian morality is dominant. If the Republicans eventually decide to run Sarah Palin, that will guarantee Obama's second term."
Ask Cornwell why he does so well in places such as Brazil and Japan, and he'll say, "No idea", and blame a hot local website that sent sales of his books into a viral frenzy. "I went to this event at the Brazil Biennale at nine in the morning. there was this line snaking round the block. Thousands of people. 'That's for you,' they said. and my event wasn't till 7.30 that night. It's crazy."
The Brazilian fans were probably not disappointed. "Any event you do," he instructs, "should be in the nature of a standup routine. I have no fear of public speaking, and my job as a writer is to amuse, and send them away entertained and wanting more."
In America, he does plenty of performing, with commencement addresses and book signings. Lately "fallen among thieves", he now spends most summers performing with the Monomoy theatre group from Ohio, a semi-professional troupe who play to Cape Cod audiences. Is he an actor manqué? "Oh God, yes".
Thespian distractions have slowed his output, but not by much. the Fort still weighs in at close to 500 pages and narrates in impressive detail, and with few elisions of historical fact, the disastrous expedition launched in 1779 by an American marine task force, including Paul Revere of "midnight ride" fame, against a British garrison involving, among others, a young Lieutenant Moore, later celebrated as the Sir John Moore whose death at Corunna became the subject of a famous poem by Charles Wolfe.
The Fort is probably not vintage Cornwell. for one thing, it's a claustrophobic, serious-minded narration of a military catastrophe, loosely patterned on Iraq and Afghanistan. the Fort has a plot, but it's the linear account of a siege, with intermittent surprises. Cornwell the bestseller is most at home as an inveterate plot-maker, and narrator of military action. "Putting together the plot is the hard work," he says, "and 90% of the effort. my job is to make sure there are no obstacles in the way of the reader's enjoyment."
This makes Cornwell a strangely Victorian figure, a writer in the boys' magazine tradition of Henty, Stevenson and Conan Doyle, with an audience to satisfy. "I entertain," he says several times in this conversation with the Observer, stressing his relationship with his readers. "I spend my day putting doors into alleyways," he says. "In every single book, you'll find Sharpe trapped in a blind alley with no way out. His sword is broken, his gun is out of ammunition, and he's faced with 20 malevolent Frogs who want to kill him. at that point, when the game seems up, magically, a doorway appears beside him and he steps through it to safety. Now, your readers won't accept that, so you have to go back 10 chapters and establish the door in that future alleyway without the reader noticing. This is always a huge amount of work."
Cornwell believes he has benefited from a publishing system that's now running on empty. "I was lucky. Susan Watt said: 'It will take four or five books to establish you.' HarperCollins sat out those first books, and the fifth Sharpe took off. I really don't know if publishers would have the patience to do that in the current climate."
Though infinitely better off than most writers, Cornwell is troubled by the winds of change sweeping through the book trade. "It's become an unforgiving system. the tyranny of the Epos [computerised book tracking] can make it very difficult for the beginner."
Could he imagine self-publishing, as some big names are now starting to do? "Don't meddle with a winning process. But if I was dropped by HarperCollins, I suppose I'd self-publish with Amazon." He sounds uncertain. like everyone else in the business, he has become used to a modus operandi that has functioned pretty well for more than 100 years.
Few writers have done better from the trade than Cornwell, who views its idiosyncrasies with an ironic eye. "There was a book out last year that had [on the cover] 'Better than Bernard Cornwell, or your money back'."
Explosive laughter. "That's all right. It's my name on his book. His name ain't on my book." Besides, as a popular commercial writer who loves to earn big royalties, he insists: "I'm not aspiring to literature. I'm not in the posterity stakes. my job is to entertain people."
■ Born 3 February 1944 and adopted by members of the fundamentalist Protestant sect, the Peculiar People, with strict prohibitions on most forms of entertainment and medicine.
■ Tried to enlist in the armed forces three times but was turned down due to poor eyesight – he read theology at university instead.
■ moved into broadcasting, becoming head of current affairs at BBC Northern Ireland, and then editor of Thames News.
■ Moved to US where, unable to secure a green card, Cornwell started to write novels, resulting in the hugely successful Sharpe series.
■ Awarded an OBE in the Queen's 80th Birthday Honours list in 2006.