George R.R. Martin Interviews Bernard Cornwell
George R.R. Martin sold his first story in 1971 and has been writing professionally since then. He spent ten years in Hollywood as a writer-producer, working on The Twilight Zone, Beauty and the Beast, and various feature films and television pilots that were never made. In the mid '90s he returned to prose, his first love, and began work on his epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. He has been in the Seven Kingdoms ever since.
George R.R. Martin: 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?
Bernard Cornwell: 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.
Martin: 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?
Cornwell: 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!
Martin: 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?
Cornwell: 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!