George R. R. Martin Interviews Bernard Cornwell
We're happy to share this interview between George R. R. Martin and Bernard Cornwell, whose new book, Death of Kings, goes on sale today.
GRRM: It has long been my contention that the historical novel and the epic fantasy are sisters under the skin, that the two genres have much in common. My series owes a lot to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and the other great fantasists who came before me, but I've also read and enjoyed the work of historical novelists. Who were your own influences? Was historical fiction always your great passion? Did you ever read fantasy?
BC: You're right - fantasy and historical novels are twins - and I've never been fond of the label 'fantasy' which is too broad a brush and has a fey quality. It seems to me you write historical novels in an invented world which is grounded in historical reality (if the books are set in the future then 'fantasy' magically becomes sci-fi). So I've been influenced by all three: fantasy, sci-fi and historical novels, though the largest influence has to be C.S. Forester's Hornblower books.
GRRM: A familiar theme in a lot of epic fantasy is the conflict between good and evil. The villains are often Dark Lords of various ilks, with demonic henchmen and hordes of twisted, malformed underlings clad in black. The heroes are noble, brave, chaste, and very fair to look upon. Yes, Tolkien made something grand and glorious from that, but in the hands of lesser writers, well ... let's just say that sort of fantasy has lost its interest for me. It is the grey characters who interest me the most. Those are the sort I prefer to write about... and read about. It seems to me that you share that affinity. What is it about flawed characters that makes them more interesting than conventional heroes?
BC: Maybe all our heroes are reflections of ourselves? I'm not claiming to be Richard Sharpe (God forbid), but I'm sure parts of my personality leaked into him (he's very grumpy in the morning). And perhaps flawed characters are more interesting because they are forced to make a choice . . . a conventionally good character will always do the moral, right thing. Boring. Sharpe often does the right thing, but usually for the wrong reasons, and that's much more interesting!
GRRM: When Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings, it was intended as a sequel to The Hobbit. "The tale grew in the telling," he said later, when LOTR had grown into the trilogy we know today. That's a line I have often had occasion to quote over the years, as my own Song of Ice and Fire swelled from the three books I had originally sold to the seven books (five published, two more to write) I'm now producing. Much of your own work has taken the form of multi-part series. Are your tales too 'growing in the telling,' or do you know how long your journeys will take before you set out? Did you know how many books Uhtred's story would require, when you first sat down to write about him?
BC: No idea! I don't even know what will happen in the next chapter, let alone the next book, and have no idea how many books there might be in a series. E.L. Doctorow said something I like which is that writing a novel is a bit like driving down an unfamiliar country road at night and you can only see as far ahead as your somewhat feeble headlamps show. I write into the darkness. I guess the joy of reading a book is to find out what happens, and for me that's the joy of writing one too!
GRRM: I have met thousands of my readers face to face, not only on book tours, but at SF and fantasy conventions, where there tends to be considerably more interaction between writers and readers than is customary in other genres. I used to answer all my fan mail, in the days when readers still mailed letters care of my publishers. (It was easy; there wasn't much). Email has increased the amount of letters I receive a thousand-fold, well beyond my capacity to keep up, but I still try to read all the mail that comes in, even when I cannot answer it. I don't do Facebook or twitter, but I do blog (on Live Journal), and my email address can be found easily enough. But there are perils to being so accessible, as I have discovered in recent years. The vast majority of my fans are amazing people, perceptive, intelligent, supportive ... but there is a small but vocal minority who can be vexing. How have you related to your own readers over the years? Do you feel a writer owes anything to his readers, beyond the work itself? Do fans send you suggestions about how they want your series to end? Send you artwork, gifts? Name children and pets after your characters? Write "fan fiction" using your characters? Do you ever find yourself being influenced by the reactions of your readers to a book, or a character?
BC: I've found my fans to be terrific. There's a miniscule handful who want to nitpick over details (and yes, of course there are mistakes) and once, on my website, I begged one such reader to please find another author to read. But the vast majority are fun to meet and it's vitally important to listen to them. I did a book tour once and three people separately told me it was time Sharpe had some high-class totty! I hadn't realised he'd been consorting with rough trade for so many books, so I responded by giving him Lady Grace in Sharpe's Trafalgar and she remains my favorite heroine. She'd never have existed without the fans!
GRRM: Both of us have had the privilege of seeing our characters brought to life on television. Sean Bean was Richard Sharpe long before he was Ned Stark. (And truth be told, he was Ned Stark in no small measure because David Benioff, Dan Weiss, and I had all seen how masterfully he played Sharpe). How did you feel about the BBC series? To what extent were you involved with it? Will we ever see any of your other characters on screen? If so, would you want to write the screenplays yourself? What do you think makes for a good adaptation? And will we ever see Sean Bean as Sharpe again?
BC: I thought the Sharpe TV series was great! Of course they changed the books, they had no choice. You and I can wheel on 100,000 men and it costs us nothing, but every extra is a drain on a TV budget, but they dealt very well with that constraint and Sean, of course, was a marvelous Sharpe and a great Ned Stark (who should have lived, damn you). So far as I know there aren't any plans for another series. There's talk of making Agincourt into a film (I'm not holding my breath) and a TV series about Uhtred (which would be nice, but again I'm still breathing). I want nothing to do with any such production, other than being a cheerleader. I worked in television for eleven year and learned enough to know I know nothing about producing TV drama, so I'm happy to leave it to the experts. And I doubt I could write a script - I've never tried and would rather write a novel.
GRRM: Last question. What's next for Bernard Cornwell? You've done the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, the Hundred Years War, King Arthur, the Saxons and Danes. Will you be returning to any of those eras, revisiting any of your great series characters? Or are there other eras of history that you mean to explore?
BC: There's one period I'm desperate to write about (forgive me if I don't say which because I don't want someone else muscling in on it first!). But next is another novel about Thomas of Hookton in the Hundred Years War, then it's back to Uhtred and the Saxons.