Author of ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ analyses his writing habits and literary success

by Sean Hillen

Louis de Bernieres, author of ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,’ the ‘publishing sensation of the ’90s’ which sold three million copies, described himself  as a ‘happy pessimist’ and arts as a form of ‘cynical manipulation’ at the annual ‘Jersey Festival of Words’ this weekend in a 90-minute interview with the island’s Culture Minister Murray Norton.

Bernieres, who is also a poet and singer-musician who has penned hundreds of songs, described himself as a “traditional old-fashioned writer who also likes post-modern twists and tricks.”
“If a shopping list helps move a story forward, it’s good writing,” he said.

Bernieres said while he has two places in which he likes to write – the library of his house “full of open guitar cases” and a shed at the end of his garden – he has no real writing routine or discipline, though he does prefer mornings.

Speaking about his life, Bernieres said he considers himself among “the first punk musicians” having played in a band called ‘Irreparable Brain Damage.’ He said he also established a center for truants in Wandsworth, London and was was what he described as “a cowboy” in Colombia during a year he spent there.

His move into novel-writing, he added, was “accidental,” saying that an agent-friend to whom he had sent poetry told him he didn’t like poetry, it didn’t sell well and to send him some prose instead.

Asked by this journalist how much money he had made from ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ and how much he had been paid by the makers of the film he said “From the book, I’m not sure how much, as the money came in dribs and drabs over a long period of time.”

Having sold three million copies, it would be fair to say, however, that Bernieres became a millionaire through the success of that one single novel, which he said was once described as the ‘publishing sensation of the 90s.’ As for the movie deal, he said a notional payment was usually made for movies and gave the example of one with a profit of 22 million pounds paying the author 10 per cent, or 220,000 pounds.

He said the idea for ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ arose out of a holiday he had taken in Greece. Bernieres said he wrote it “pyramid style. It started off with many characters, then came to a point with just three or four.” He described its success as “slow, by word of mouth.” As an aside, he also said one of the final scenes in which several women are on a motor bike is based on what he actually saw while on holiday in Corfu, though many critics and readers often ask him if the women represent the Fates.

Louis de Bernieres, Jersey Festival of Words

Admitting he suffers from depression, the affable author then corrected himself and said he preferred to use the “more popular 18th century term ‘melancholy.’ ”

In terms of most favorite books he has written, he cited ‘Birds Without Wings,’ which he described as “more grandeur” in scope than ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,’ and which, he said, was termed the Turkish ‘War and Peace’ by many people in that country who spoke to him. Of books by other authors he admired, he mentioned ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ describing the last chapter as “one of the best ever written.”

The title for one of his novels ‘The Dust That Falls From Dreams’ he related, was taken from the line of a song by his musician friend, Ralph McTell, for which he bought him a pint of ale in a bar. It is to be one of a trilogy, he added.

Offering advice to writers, the multi-book author warned about allowing propaganda into their work. “Readers have little patience for it,” he said, adding, “I hate even been told to believe what I already believe in.” He also said he always carries a notebook in his pocket to capture ideas and showed the audience one he had in his coat on stage. He added, “We writers don’t retire. We can’t. We’d go mad.”

Of his poetry, Bernieres said he learned to write them in Latin, French and English and even memorised one in his beloved 40-year-old Morris Minor. Bernieres also performed some of his songs during the evening.

What made the literary evening at the Jersey Arts Centre both informative as well as entertaining was the open, relaxed and, at times light-hearted, approach taken by congenial host, Jersey Island Culture Minister Murray Norton.

Bernieres’ literary output includes – aside from ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ published in 1994 – ‘Birds Without Wings’ (2004, his sixth novel), ‘A Partisan’s Daughter (2008) and a new collection of poetry, ‘Of Love and Desire,’ which was published this year.


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