Interviews

Hilary Mantel, Art of Fiction No. 226

Interviewed by Mona Simpson


Photograph by Alwan Ezzidin

Hilary Mantel was born Hilary Thompson in Hadfield, Derbyshire, a mill town fifteen miles east of Manchester. Her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, chronicles a grim childhood in a working-class Irish Catholic family: “From about the age of four I had begun to believe I had done something wrong.” When she was seven, her mother’s lover, Jack Mantel, moved in with the Thompsons. “The children at school question me about our living ­arrangements, who sleeps in what bed. I don’t ­understand why they want to know but I don’t tell them anything. I hate going to school. Often I am ill.” Four years later, Jack Mantel and Hilary’s mother moved the family to Cheshire, after which Hilary never saw her father again. To quote once more from Giving Up the Ghost: “The story of my own childhood is a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish, to finish and put behind me.”  

Mantel graduated from the University of Sheffield, with a B.A. in ­jurisprudence. During her university years, she was a socialist. She worked in a geriatric hospital and in a department store. In 1972, she married Gerald McEwen, a geologist, and soon after, the couple moved to Botswana for five years, where Mantel wrote the book that became A Place of Greater Safety. The couple divorced in 1980, but in 1982 they married again, in front of a registrar, who wished them better luck this time.

All her life, Mantel has suffered from a painful, debilitating illness, which was first misdiagnosed and treated with antipsychotic drugs. In Botswana, through reading medical textbooks, she identified and diagnosed her own disease, a severe form of endometriosis. Since then, Mantel has written a great deal about the female body, her own and ­others’. An essay that begins with a consideration of Kate Middleton’s wardrobe and moves on to a discussion of the royal body generated so much controversy that (as she told the New Statesman) “if the pressmen saw any fat woman of a certain age walking along the street, they ran after her shouting, ‘Are you Hilary?’”  

Mantel early novels—Wolf Hall was her tenth novel, her twelfth book—reflect the grimness she describes from her childhood and share a bleak, dark humor. The two completed books of the projected Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, are not without darkness, but considering their subject­—the bloody rise and fall of Henry VIII’s chief minister—they are remarkably vivid on the pleasures of work, home, and ­ordinary happiness. Both were awarded the Man Booker International Prize, making Mantel the first woman to win the prize twice. This winter, a stage adaptation, Wolf Hall, Parts One & Two, enjoyed a sell-out run in London; a Wolf Hall ­miniseries aired at the same time on the BBC. In February, Mantel was made a dame. 

Over the three days we spent together, she was working like an impassioned college student, until three or four a.m., and even after a day in the theater seeing both plays back to back, followed by a late supper, she was ready to meet and talk in the morning at nine. 

Mona Simpson

INTERVIEWER

You started with historical fiction and then you returned to it. How did that happen? 

MANTEL

I only became a novelist because I thought I had missed my chance to ­become a historian. So it began as second best. I had to tell myself a story about the French Revolution—the story of the revolution by some of the people who made it, rather than by the revolution’s enemies.

INTERVIEWER

Why that story? 

MANTEL

I’d read all the history books and novels I could lay my hands on, and I wasn’t satisfied with what I found. All the novels were about the aristocracy and their sufferings. And I thought those writers were missing a far more interesting group—the idealistic revolutionaries, whose stories are amazing. There was no novel about them. I set about writing it—at least, a story about some of them—so I could read it. And of course, for a long time it seemed as if I were the only person who ever would. My idea was to write a sort of documentary fiction, guided entirely by the facts. Then, not many months in, I came to a point where the facts about a certain episode ran out, and I spent a whole day making things up. At the end of it, I thought, I quite liked that. It sounds naive, not knowing that I would have to make things up, but I had a great belief that all the material was out there, somewhere, and if I couldn’t find it, that would be my fault. 

INTERVIEWER

But the majority of human history is lost, isn’t it?

MANTEL

Yes, and when you realize that, then you can say, I don’t know exactly how this episode occurred, but, for example, I do know where and when it took place. 

 

INTERVIEWER

Would you ever change a fact to heighten the drama?

MANTEL

I would never do that. I aim to make the fiction flexible so that it bends itself around the facts as we have them. Otherwise I don’t see the point. Nobody seems to understand that. Nobody seems to share my approach to historical fiction. I suppose if I have a maxim, it is that there isn’t any necessary conflict between good history and good drama. I know that history is not shapely, and I know the truth is often inconvenient and incoherent. It contains all sorts of superfluities. You could cut a much better shape if you were God, but as it is, I think the whole fascination and the skill is in working with those incoherencies.

INTERVIEWER

In containing the contradictions?

MANTEL

Exactly. The contradictions and the awkwardness—that’s what gives historical fiction its value. Finding a shape, rather than imposing a shape. And ­allowing the reader to live with the ambiguities. Thomas Cromwell is the character with whom that’s most essential. He’s almost a case study in ­ambiguity. There’s the Cromwell in popular history and the one in academic history, and they don’t make any contact really. What I have managed to do is bring the two camps together, so now there’s a new crop of Cromwell biographies, and they will range from the popular to the very authoritative and academic. So we will have a coherent Cromwell—perhaps. 

INTERVIEWER

When Raymond Carver wrote a story about Chekhov’s death, he invented details and a character. Janet Malcolm traced how subsequent biographies now include the character from his fiction. History grabbed him up. 

MANTEL

Yes, and once you know that you are working with historians in that way, then you have to raise your game. You have a responsibility to make your research good. Of course, you don’t mean for these things to happen. In A Place of Greater Safety, Camille Desmoulins wonders why he was always running into Antoine Saint-Just. We must be some sort of cousins because I used to see him at christenings, he says. It’s now become a “fact” that they were cousins. Things get passed around so easily on the Internet. And fact becomes fiction and fiction becomes fact, without anyone stepping in to ­arbitrate and say, What are your sources? 

INTERVIEWER

You worked on A Place of Greater Safety, your first novel about the French Revolution, decades before it was published. 

MANTEL

I started it when I was twenty-two, a year after university. That would be 1974. I wrote it in the evenings and on weekends. I did more of the research up front than I would have done at a later stage—luckily for me, because in spring of ’77, we went to live in Botswana, where there were no sources to speak of, as you can imagine. I had an intense few weeks before we went, when I said to myself, Get everything you haven’t got, because this is your only chance. 

It was a strange life. I was living partly in Botswana and partly in the 1790s. I was intensely engaged with my French Revolution book. But I ­became a teacher by accident. I was roped in by local ladies to work on a volunteer project doing a few hours a week at a little informal school set up for teenage girls. From there, I went to teach at the local secondary school. I was twenty-five and my oldest pupils were older than I was. Their ages ranged from twelve to twenty-six. We tended to have twelve-year-old girls and eighteen-year-old boys in the same classroom, which is an explosive mixture. The institution was a highly unpleasant place. Frantz Fanon would have loved it—the extent of cultural alienation, the horrific forms that colonialism takes that one doesn’t detect at the time, the tensions. We had a number of teachers from Zimbabwe, who divided themselves by language—so the teachers who were Ndebele people simply didn’t talk to the Shona people. There was a teacher from West Africa who was treated like a leper by all the teachers from southern Africa. The only way they made common cause was by hating the Nigerian. The Indian staff didn’t bother with the African staff, and the African staff gave the Indians as hard a time as possible. Botswana is the size of France, so it was a boarding school with day pupils, but many of the children came from hundreds of miles away. And to them our little bush town was New York. There was the culture shock the children lived with, the distance from their families. And then there was the horrible, sexually predatory behavior, which, to my shame, I didn’t entirely see at the time. I only dimly perceived it. Both masters and boys preying on the girls. This was Botswana just pre-aids. I had only very limited means of detecting what was going on, and, if I did detect it, what on earth was I going to do about it? You know, those layers of corruption permeated every aspect of life. Yet one went along day to day, teaching George Eliot. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you a have a prescribed curriculum? 

MANTEL

Yes, these children were sitting exams set, moderated, and marked in England. It’s very hard to teach Eliot when you have some pupils in your class whose vocabulary is around six hundred words, basic English. On the other hand, there were some children who were from a background where their English was more fluent, who were very capable of appreciating it on the linguistic level, though not on the cultural level. Imagine trying to explain, This is George Eliot, she’s writing in the nineteenth century. She’s writing about the eighteenth century and she’s not doing it very well. Try to explain fox hunting to a child who has never seen a fox, never seen a horse, never seen a hedge, never seen a green field, never seen snow. Yet in some ways they responded to the fierce morality. They cast it in terms of their own morality. We didn’t have television, and obviously we didn’t have theater. So you were teaching literature to people who had none of the familiar means of forming a picture of the outside world. Teaching Shakespeare in Botswana was difficult, you’d think, but again they loved it. I never told them it was supposed to be difficult. I got good results, I have to say. I suppose I threw myself into it—you know, I didn’t have the world weariness of the other teachers. Then some unpleasant incidents drove me out of the school.

INTERVIEWER

What happened?

MANTEL

I was on evening duty, and somebody jumped on me. It wasn’t a sexual thing. There were a group of pupils, with one person hitting me. Compared to what could have happened, it was trivial. It was dark, they were not my ­pupils, I couldn’t identify them, the school wasn’t interested in finding out. It was a shambles. I felt unsupported by the headmaster, and so I left, but I didn’t want to go, because I liked my pupils. 

After I left the school, I just wrote. 

INTERVIEWER

Had you always wanted to be a writer?

MANTEL

Never. I didn’t think in terms of becoming a writer until I actually picked up my pen to become one. And that was born out of a feeling that my health was causing me problems. By the time I was nineteen, I knew there was something wrong but I didn’t have a diagnosis, I didn’t have any help, and I realized that doors were closing. I wasn’t going to be some of the things I thought I might be. The best thing I could do was to get a trade that was under my control. But then, when I looked back, I realized that even though I hadn’t said to myself as a child, I want to be a writer, I’d actually instituted a training course. I always wonder if other people’s lives have been like that, when they turn into writers. From the age of about eight, I was hyperconscious about what I read, and my reading was always analytical. I was never simply absorbing stories but always asking myself, How is this done? When I walked to school every morning, from the age of eleven to eighteen, I “did” the weather and I didn’t stop until I had one perfect paragraph. So I had a huge mental file of weather. When I wrote Every Day Is Mother’s Day, I picked a sentence from my mental file and dropped it into the book—it gave me great pleasure to do so. I didn’t worry about the ten thousand sentences that didn’t get used because they were all a means to an end. The point of the exercise was not to stop until I’d pinned it down precisely and had exactly the right word. It was all about style, not story. By the time I got into my teens, I had nothing to say, but I had a very good style in which to say it. When I studied law, it completely broke my style, because you have to write in a very prescribed and tight way. When I started writing my novel, I had to rebuild my style. As for my subject, the French Revolution was beyond anything I had to say about my own life. It was so much bigger than me. Bigger than anybody. But there wasn’t the possibility of writing any other book because I had none.

By December of ’79, I had finished A Place of Greater Safety, but I couldn’t sell it, I couldn’t get anywhere with it at all. I had twelve weeks leave in England before I was due to return to Botswana. I’d made initial contact with a publisher, who seemed interested, so that was my first port of call. And they turned the book down. Then I found myself in hospital. I was very ill, I had major surgery. As I emerged, something in me said, I don’t think you will sell this book. It wasn’t that I had lost faith in the book—­because I never did—I just knew the impossibility of maneuvering from where I was. It was not a good time for historical fiction, and I knew from writing to agents and the dusty answers I got that even getting the book read was going to be impossible.

So I formed a cunning plan. I thought, I’ll write another novel. I’ll write a contemporary novel. That was Every Day Is Mother’s Day. I started it in Africa. I finished it in Saudi Arabia. At times I had very little sense of where I was going with it or whether there would be any profit or success at the end of it. It was written in the teeth of everything. It was an act of defiance—I thought, I’m not going to be beaten. I got an agent, I got a publisher, then I wrote the sequel. It wasn’t planned as two books. It was, for me, a way of getting a foot in the door. But once I had secured a contract, I just rolled up my sleeves and I set about Vacant Possession in a way that I’ve never worked before. I would write through the morning, Gerald would come home midafternoon, would have his siesta, and when he woke up, I would read him what I had written in the morning. I’ve never written like that since. 

INTERVIEWER

Gerald’s a geologist—did you train him to be a literary reader?

MANTEL

That wasn’t what I needed. It sounds horrible, but I needed a listening ear. I needed someone to write for, someone who wanted to know what would happen next. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you prefer historical fiction, even then? Or were they equal but different enterprises?

MANTEL

I have to be frank. Writing a contemporary novel was just a way to get a publisher. My heart lay with historical fiction, and I think it still does. 

INTERVIEWER

Though you went on to write quite a few contemporary novels.

MANTEL

Well, things changed. I realized that writing a contemporary novel wasn’t just a way in, it was a trade in itself. We returned to England from Saudi Arabia just as Vacant Possession was published. By then I had my mass of material from Saudi Arabia, which I knew I must use, because I had a unique opportunity. So again, that book, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, demanded to be written. And by then I had the idea for Fludd, which had long been simmering in my mind.

INTERVIEWER

During all that time you didn’t give your publisher A Place of Greater Safety. Why not? 

MANTEL

Because I was absorbed in what I was doing. I thought, Just push on while the going’s good. Fludd was one of those books that came in an instant. You know, you’ve got the first sentence, you’ve got the last sentence. A thing like that can go off the boil. So again, I had a sense of urgency. 

INTERVIEWER

A lot of your subsequent themes emerged in those first two books—­anorexia, diets, a drowned baby, an obsession with “the royals.” 

MANTEL

The epigraph to Every Day Is Mother’s Day is Pascal—“Two errors; one, to take everything literally; two, to take everything spiritually.” And it’s the epigraph for the lot, isn’t it? 

INTERVIEWER

How did you go about writing Eight Months on Ghazzah Street?

MANTEL

I kept diaries all the time, and I kept my notes. But there are a lot of problems with that novel. I think it’s too fuzzy. I don’t think I really crunched down on it. That was inexperience, and the distressing business of having to make things up. I always see that book through a dust haze, but I do remember the moment when, if it were another book, I’d say it crystallized, but being Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, it didn’t crystallize at all. We lived in the city center and one day I went up onto the roof of our apartment block, which was the only outside space available. I craned my neck and saw a crate on the neighbor’s balcony. I thought, My novel’s in that box. There was something incredibly sinister about it. And yet, what was it? It was a box. In my experience, those are the moments that set a novel. You just have to wait. Supposing I hadn’t gone up to the roof, what would the novel have been? I have no idea. 

The odd thing about Ghazzah Street was that a lot of what I said proved to be pretty accurate when terrorist activity was exposed in Saudi Arabia. People were doing just what I said—they were stockpiling arms in little flats around the city. 

I wrote Ghazzah Street, then I wrote Fludd, not very quickly actually, over a couple of years. By this stage, you see, I’d earned two thousand pounds from my first novel, and four thousand pounds from my second novel. For Ghazzah Street and Fludd, I got a two-book contract for £17,500—not enough to live on. It was at that point that I became a film critic. Then I became a book reviewer as well. I did one film review a week, several books reviews a month. I was an industry. 

INTERVIEWER

How could you do it? Did you become a fast reader?

MANTEL

Long hours. I don’t think I changed my reading speed. I take lots of notes. I might not have been the world’s most insightful reviewer, but I was an ­extremely conscientious one. Once I got the film column, I was highly visible, and I had more work coming in than I could handle. But I was making a living. I was solvent. And I felt I was building something. There’s something very seductive about opening a newspaper if your name is almost always in it. Every weekend, two papers, three papers. If you’re an un-networked person from nowhere, which is exactly what I was, then you realize that you’re drilling away into the heart of the cultural establishment. 

INTERVIEWER

Did the book reviewing make you see your own work within a context? Did you feel your novels were related to other schools of fiction? 

MANTEL

No, to be honest, I never have. I think I’ve had a curve of development that was just mine. This is why, for so long, I made no money. Though I had a good reputation critically, I had very few readers because I wouldn’t find a formula and stick to it. Until the Cromwell novels, I had no identity in the mind of the reading public. It’s very hard for a publisher to market an author who doesn’t display any consistency in what she’s interested in or how she writes. 

INTERVIEWER

Ian McEwan jumps all over the map, doesn’t he? 

MANTEL

I think he is more consistent in his preoccupations. You and I will know that my books are intimately connected, that there is coherence, but from a commercial point of view, they’ve not been an attractive package. And then there is the divide between contemporary fiction and historical fiction. When I began work on the French Revolution, it seemed to me the most interesting thing that had ever happened in the history of the world, and it still does in many ways. I had no idea how little the British public knew or cared or wished to know about the French Revolution. And that’s still the case. They want to know about Henry VIII. 

INTERVIEWER

So you feel readers’ interests are predominantly subject based.

MANTEL

Yes, the imagination is parochial. I couldn’t have picked anything less promising, from a commercial point of view, than the French Revolution. 

INTERVIEWER

How did A Place of Greater Safety get published, in the end?

MANTEL

It was because of a newspaper article. This was in 1992. I had four books out. I had my reviewing career. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was getting somewhere. And there was this monster book on the shelf. I hadn’t looked into it for years. I thought, What if it’s no good? Because if it is no good, then that’s my twenties written off. And it also means that I commenced my career with a gigantic mistake. But inside me there was still a belief that it would be published one day. And a friend of mine, the Irish writer Clare Boylan, rang me up and said she was doing an article for the Guardian about people’s unpublished first novels, and had I got one? I could have lied, but it was as if the devil jumped out of my mouth, and I said, Yes, I have! And of course she rang around a number of authors, and they were saying things like, Yes, I wrote my first novel at the age of eight, and I’ve still got it in a shoe box. I was the only person who actually wanted to see her first novel published. On my way to deliver it to my agent, I had lunch with another novelist. The manuscript was a huge parcel under my chair—­unwelcome, like a surprise guest. We should have given it a chair to itself. He said, Don’t do it.

INTERVIEWER

You were twenty-seven when you’d written it and now you were forty.

MANTEL

Something like that. A lot of things had happened in French Revolution scholarship since then. The bicentenary had come and gone, and there had been a revolution in feminist history. When I read my draft, I saw that the women were wallpaper. There had been no material. Today you would think, Well, I must invent some, then. At the time I hadn’t seen the need—I hadn’t thought the women were interesting. My life was more like the life of an eighteenth-century man than like the life of an eighteenth-century woman. And I suppose I didn’t really ask myself the questions. Now I thought, I’ve got to work this harder.

INTERVIEWER

How long did you take to revise? 

MANTEL

I did it in the course of one summer. The publication process was horrendous. Basically, the novel was written in the present tense. Someone in the publishing house didn’t want that, so changed it, and I changed it back, and so on, through proofs. The result was that, if you look at the book now, there are paragraphs where two tenses are employed. One day I’m ­going to straighten it out. But the work I had to do in those weeks was brutal, because I had to revise on a schedule. I worked immensely long hours. Something in me was never quite the same after that. It would be romantic to say that summer was the making of me, but it actually wasn’t like that. It brutalized me. I’m not sure if I can really express it, but it was after that, I shut down. I shut down such a lot of my life in order to do it, and never opened up again. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you mean you entered a level of isolation for the work, or restriction? A deeper commitment?

MANTEL

Restriction, yes. I think it’s good for me as a writer. I don’t think it’s very good for me as a human being. A sort of grimness entered into me, I think, which is still there. I suppose that book always was more important to me than anything else. 

INTERVIEWER

It was the book, until the Cromwell books.

MANTEL

Yes. It was me doing what I do. And I think, for better or worse, it’s me ­doing what only I could do. Nobody else works by this method, with my ideal of fidelity to history. Regardless of whether that’s a good thing, or gets good results, it is a thing I do.

INTERVIEWER

You said you withdrew from life. What did you eliminate?

MANTEL

Friends. Personal relationships. Fun. Everything just went. I don’t think I had many close friends before, but it seems to me that after that summer I never relaxed again. And the only people who could be my friends were ­people who were enormously tolerant of my really not being there for months at a time. Because of my health, my energy has always had to be harvested, preserved, and directed at work. And then if there was any left over, fine, but usually there wasn’t. I never lived in London, so I didn’t hang out with literary people in my off-duty hours. I was not isolated, though, from other writers. Instead of going to literary parties, I went to committees. I sat on the Council of the Royal Society of Literature, on the management committee of the Society of Authors. For six years I sat on the Advisory Committee  for Public Lending Right, which advised the government on giving authors an income from books borrowed from libraries. That was my involvement in the literary world. It was technical, if you like. It was useful work, but most people would have regarded it as extremely dull. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you have friends who were helpful with the work itself? 

MANTEL

I’m going to say no, on the whole. Gerald is my first reader, but I don’t ­expect literary criticism from him. He’s not going to say, Oh, that reminds me of something in Muriel Spark. He’s going to react as a human being to it. And isn’t that what we want? 

I have other people I hold in mind as I write, to whom I might show something at an early stage. A fan who became a friend, Jan Rogers—she was a BBC producer, and it was she who got me writing for radio. She is knowledgeable about revolutionary history, she got me more deeply into Irish history, and she woke me up to literary theory. I have a friend called Jane Haynes, a psychotherapist—that’s another strand of interest. 

I don’t really talk about writing very much to other writers. There’s one writer—Adam Thorpe. Adam lives in France and I never see him, but if he were to walk in, we’d have a proper conversation. It would be about writing. And I think he’s the only person I have that kind of relationship with, and I haven’t heard from him for months. 

I keep a big correspondence going with Mary Robertson, whom my Cromwell books are dedicated to. I write to Mary almost every week, sometimes far more often. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you become friends?

MANTEL

Some years ago, probably fifteen years ago, I was invited to the Huntington Library, to a conference along with Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens—the lads, you know. I casually mentioned to a woman there that I was thinking of writing something down the line about Thomas Cromwell. And she said, When you do, we have a woman here you need to meet. I thought no more of it until the time came, then I said, You have a woman, I believe. And therein we fell into correspondence—very tentatively at first. Mary had long ago written a Ph.D. thesis on Thomas Cromwell’s ministerial household. She’d also written a couple of papers on his property holdings. But she had not really asked herself what this man was like, because that was not her job. 

INTERVIEWER

What was your correspondence like?

MANTEL

Luminous. I didn’t really ask her questions. I’d bounce suggestions off her. I’d say, I’ve come across this and my thought about it is that. What if I were to speculate? Would you see anything against it? Is this really a gap in the record? Or is it just something that I personally don’t know? Her interest and knowledge were there, ready to be revived. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you find other people who specialized in More and Wolsey?

MANTEL

No, no. I didn’t know any historians. I do now, but when I began I only knew Mary. She’s a fountain of information. But she was also a muse, and I needed a muse. I needed someone to write for. I needed someone to say, I’m holding up a torch for you, even when it’s so dark you can’t see your way to the next paragraph. I needed someone to say, Do it, I care, it’s important. Someone who was enthralled—just like Gerald was when I used to read him Vacant Possession. The wonderful thing was that Mary became so engaged. I didn’t feed the text to her bit by bit, but I would tell her how it was shaping, what I was thinking, what I was contemplating. It was a wonderful thing. 

I remember, for instance, one particular Saturday morning, when I was writing. There’s an episode when there’s a tournament, Gregory Cromwell is in it, and someone rushes in to tell Cromwell that the king has fallen from his horse and is dead. But when he comes in, Cromwell’s first thought is, My son is dead. He stands up, and then he grasps the situation. He dries the ink on the document he is writing, then he picks up an ornamental dagger from his desk and goes out to face what is to come. Now, when I came to the point where he dries the document, I couldn’t see what he did, and I needed to see. Until I could see, I could not continue. So I e-mailed Mary and said, Documents, ink, methods of drying. She dropped everything. We spent a whole weekend e-mailing—to discuss how you might dry ink. That’s not really an archivist’s concern. But it was the action of a very good friend. We’ve met about three times now. She came over to Stratford for the plays. It was magic. Because I never imagined them turning into plays. Or Mary sitting beside me, in the audience.

INTERVIEWER

How long were you thinking of the Cromwell novels before you started?

MANTEL

Thirty years. But I didn’t start work until 2005. I don’t do a block of research and then write. It’s a fluid movement between one thing and another. I have masses and masses of material for the third Cromwell novel. I’m generating it all the time, every day. At the moment, it arrives in a completely random order. There has to be a stage where I stay at home, sit down at my desk, and begin stitching it together, and I hardly have stayed at home for a year. 

INTERVIEWER

Why not?

MANTEL

I’ve been working on the plays. First with Mike Poulton, the adaptor, on the scripts. Then with the actors in rehearsal. I became a professional audience member. That’s how I have learned—tracing the process and how it pays off. Working with Ben Miles, the actor who’s playing Thomas Cromwell, is a creative process different from anything I have tried before. He asked me, for example, if I could provide him with some memories of Cromwell’s daughters as children. This is not, obviously, something you can find in the book. These little girls barely exist in history. They’re names. So we’re moving into territory that is difficult for me because I like to have facts to steer by, but I found once I began that I could unspool thousands of words. It’s exhilarating, and it’s unnerving at times. What has happened is that the projects have begun to play off each other—the two books that are adapted into plays and the third book still in process. An insight will produce a new bit of script, which will generate some prose, which I then write into the third book as a flashback. Or perhaps Ben will describe something that comes to him in performance, a crosscurrent of emotion, let’s say—you’re saying one thing but the picture in your mind is something else. I can use that. Or he will give me an image. Literally, sometimes—a photograph. And I can use that, too. 

INTERVIEWER

Had you ever thought of working in the theater before?

MANTEL

Long ago I seriously thought about applying to drama school instead of university. But I already knew my health wouldn’t hold up. I could act, to a degree, it’s what I do as a writer, it’s how I build characters—I act them from the inside.

INTERVIEWER

Has your health improved?

MANTEL

I couldn’t have sustained this collaboration even a year ago. I couldn’t have worked on other people’s schedules. I always had to work on my own, so that I was in control. But now I’ve been able to attend rehearsals and be at the shows at night and then come home and go to bed at three o’clock and then get up the next day and do it over again. I’m not sure that it’s wise. But what has wisdom got to do with it? I’ve had to live in such a cautious way, in such a constrained way for many years. In the last six months I’ve started to enjoy myself, and it’s given me a lot of optimism. I hope The Mirror and the Light will be a play, once the novel is done. The other possibility is that I simply go off and write an original play, which I think is quite likely to happen.

I’m sixty-two next month. About four months ago, I noticed that I’m no longer in pain every day. I find myself feeling better than I have since I was twenty, and therefore, I think I can do things. There are a lot of novels I want to write, but there are also plays I want to write. It’s a bit unusual to start at this age, but why not?

INTERVIEWER

Is Gerald your first reader as you work on The Mirror and the Light?

MANTEL

I can talk to him or not. He never says, Tell me what you’re writing. He gives me space. And he’s completely accepting that, at a certain point, my writing might be going out to another person, and my emotional energy with it. He doesn’t say, Where’s my share? He’ll listen to me if I need to be listened to, and I hope that nowadays I don’t try his patience too much. I think I used to, particularly when we were in Botswana, where I was so intensely engaged with my material and there was nobody I could talk to about writing. It was me, my secret revolution, and Gerald. Oh, I think it must have been very boring at times. The writer is going round and round, and they insist they’ve got a problem, but you can’t see what it is. Now our relationship’s changed a lot because we’re business partners.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of business partners?

MANTEL

From two years or so ago, three years now, Gerald doesn’t work on his own account, he just works with me. He hasn’t been a geologist for many years. When we came back to England in the mideighties, he went into IT—he worked for IBM for nine years and traveled a great deal. We both traveled a great deal. And we existed in fairly separate spheres. Then we had sort of overlapping crises. Gerald had a serious illness in 2008, just as I was in the closing stages of Wolf Hall, and it made a disjunction in our lives. By the time he recovered, life had changed for me because I’d won my first Booker. And it was at that point that I began to need serious help with, you know, office support, just somebody to run my life. Then I had this real horror year. I had complicated surgery, and the aftermath went badly. My lifelong problem was endometriosis, and it has now burnt itself out, but it left a lot of damage internally. I was very ill, housebound for six months. I lost 2010. This was between the two novels. When I did get back to work, I completed Bring Up the Bodies very quickly. We went through a year where it wasn’t certain what we would do, and whether Gerald would actually pick up and resume his career.

So then we decided he would come and work with me and we would move to Devon and just change everything. And now here we are. 

It means a great deal of unselfishness on Gerald’s part. I worry about that. Somebody said to him last week, Isn’t it like being Mrs. Thatcher’s husband? Which I thought was unflattering to us both. The other thing I worry about is if he’s lonely, because I’m preoccupied with my work and I don’t expect to have people around me, whereas Gerald had colleagues all those years. However, with these theater productions, we’re plunged into a world of sociability. And he’s become part of the group. 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve described your work for the plays as paying attention to the audience. This is unusual for novelists, who write a long time and receive a response only much later. 

MANTEL

A live audience is such an intricate and fascinating thing. It needs permission to relax and to laugh. Also, it needs a reason to listen. We’re asking people to listen very closely to these plays. We also want them to be amused. You can feel the mood of an audience change second by second, and it’s fascinating to watch experienced actors—their instincts alive—shape and respond to an audience, control it. Writing would be a very different game if that kind of feedback were available to you. Instead, your reader feels very distant. With historical fiction, the big thing is the constant check you keep on information. What have I told my readers? Of what I’ve told them, how much do I think they hang on to, at first reading? Have I told them too much, have I spoon-fed them? Or have I told them too little, mystified them? It’s not just historical fiction, of course, all fiction is like that. And if it’s a choice between spoon-feeding and mystification, I think I choose mystification, because you always have to assume that your reader is at least as intelligent as you are, if not more so.

INTERVIEWER

You want to survive rereading, of course.

MANTEL

That’s a big and ambitious thing to say to yourself as a young writer—I want to write books that can be reread. At first you get a little exasperated with yourself when you can’t convey everything in one go, but then you realize that there are things in your fiction that you didn’t get until later, so you begin to see that not as a failure but as an intrinsic part of the process. Not everything will be available at first reading.

INTERVIEWER

What gave you that confidence? 

MANTEL

When I began writing, I launched into A Place of Greater Safety, a vast novel involving mountains of research, for which there was no discernible public demand. And knowing that it would take me years, without any contacts, not knowing any historians, not knowing any writers or publishers, so when I look back, it seems like a very strange decision. I suppose that, because I was twenty-two, I knew I had time on my side. Still, it’s lucky that I couldn’t see just exactly how long it would take.

When I began writing I had a perfect belief that, although I might not know how to do many things, I did know how to write a novel. Other ­people might have disputed that, looking at my efforts, and no one was in a hurry to endorse my confidence, but I did know within myself that I could write a novel. The reason was I’d read so many that the pattern was internalized. I’ve always been an intensely ambitious individual and whatever I was going to do, I was not going to let go until I got where I thought I ought to be. It’s a question of, What will you sacrifice? What other things will you let go, to clear the space for your book? What develops later is something rather different, as you proceed from book to book, every book throwing up different demands, needing different techniques.

INTERVIEWER

You’re always a beginner. 

MANTEL

You absolutely are—every day. You have no right to assume that you’ll be able to write because you could write yesterday. On the other hand, when there are dark times, you can say, I’ve faced this before. You learn that you will always have to mark time, that you shouldn’t rush, that if you wait, the book will come to you. But you only build up this knowledge through long experience. Your daily work is very much about the line, the paragraph. It’s not about the grand design of your career.

INTERVIEWER

Have other contemporary writers been important to your development? Sebald? Munro? McEwan?

MANTEL

I was set very early. There was Shakespeare, there was Robert Louis Stevenson, and then there was reading Jane Eyre—specifically Jane Eyre, none of the other Brontë books. I was nine or ten. That was my first experience of realizing that there was another head in the world that felt like mine—the passage right at the beginning, when Jane’s relatives accuse her of being unchildlike. For a young reader that’s an important moment, when you recognize that your self exists in the world and that your self exists in literature. I totally identified with Jane as an unchildlike child. I never was very much interested in her love story. 

Kidnapped I read probably every couple of years at least. It never loses its magic for me. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you reread Jane Eyre, too?

MANTEL

When I reread Jane Eyre, I just think, Jesus, why don’t you leave that bit out, and that bit out, and that bit out. I start working on it, as if I could fix it, but Kidnapped is perfect. There’s nothing in it that shouldn’t be there, nor is it lacking anything. I know Stevenson modestly said it was just a story for boys, but it’s actually a perfect novel.

I always find it difficult to talk about this business of influences ­because I’ve never consciously said, I want to be like that author, or looked at someone’s book and thought, That’s a good trick, I’ll try it. I’ve never tried to imitate a style. I don’t think that’s really what influence is about. Still, when I read Stevenson, I thought, This is how a story should be. And when I readJane Eyre, I found that I existed in fiction. Kidnapped came first and remains the book to which I’m most attached, perhaps precisely because it’s about a boy, it’s about male friendship and the construction of masculinity, and it’s about the boy who leaves home and can’t go back because there’s nothing to go back to. That’s a story I’ve been telling all my life. It has evolved with various novels, but it’s a basic narrative to me. Last summer, Gerald planned a week in Scotland for us. He chose a beautiful hotel two miles down the road from where the central incident in Kidnapped takes place, which is a real-life incident. I did what Stevenson says you should do­—Get yourself a map, you’ll understand what follows much better. For the first time, I traced the route of the flight in the heather, went to see the site of the murder, went over all the territory and then started avidly reading, fitting ­together the picture. There was not a night during our holiday when I went to sleep ­before four a.m. And by the end of the six days, I understood a whole swathe of Scottish history. Well, it was a very happy thing, but it wasn’t great for Gerald, because all we’d both wanted to do was drive around and look at scenery, but the itinerary was steered by my obsession. 

It’s interesting to think what would have been the outcome if I’d read Jane Eyre first. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you read Middlemarch?

MANTEL

Not until I was grown up. I’m not fond of Eliot. And I’ve never made my way through a Virginia Woolf book. I can’t. I can read her essays, and I can read about her, and I can read all around her. I can’t read her novels. You know, it sounds terribly disrespectful to Virginia, but I like books in which things happen. I think it’s Faulkner who says, Write down what they say and write down what they do. To a large extent I do that, more than people imagine. I don’t have pages and pages in which I say, Cromwell thought. I tell you what he says, I tell you what he does, and you read between the lines. I would prefer to read case histories than to read a novelist’s take on the psychology of an imagined person. My favorite person, my hero, is Oliver Sacks. I’ve exchanged letters with him, and there’s one that I haven’t stuck in my file for the Huntington archive. I’ve kept it in my own files. It’s really precious.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have other favorites?

MANTEL

Ivy Compton-Burnett is the love of my life. If I can’t write—and it happens, your spring gets broken—all I need is a couple of hours with Ivy, and I’m back. There’s a sort of click there. It’s not that you imitate her, it’s an almost mechanical restoration of rhythm and sensibility. I’m reset. It’s almost all dialogue, you know, and there is very little by way of “he said” and “she said,” so you have to count back, and the characters have only quite a small register, so they say what they have to say almost in formulaic terms, but then you think, Did she really say that? The harshness, the ruthlessness of the narratives and the appalling things that happen between the lines, almost incidentally—well, she’s just like nobody else. For me she’s magic. We are a very small fan club. Twenty years or more I’ve been hammering away, trying to get people to read her. 

But what I was starting to say earlier, about influences, is that, in my case at least, they are not especially “literary.” Your worldview is acquired not just from novels, but from all sorts of books. The big event in my life was getting an adult library card when I was fourteen, because that meant I was free. But while I was reading my way earnestly, with great dedication, through the French and the Russians, I was also reading Marx. That was just as ­important, probably more important. Among writers themselves, the question is not who influences you, but which people give you courage. When I began, the female writer who gave me courage, among our contemporaries, was Beryl Bainbridge. I don’t write like Beryl, and never have, but when I began to read her, her books were so off the wall, they were so screamingly funny in a black way, and so oblique, that I thought, If she can get away with this, so can I. 

I think R.D. Laing was more responsible than any novelist was for the fact of my becoming the kind of writer I am. The spring when we were graduating, Gerald’s next move, he thought, was to go to train as a teacher. So he went off to a college for an interview, and I went with him. And the couple of hours he was being shown around and interviewed and so on, I spent in the college library, and I picked up a book by Laing and Esterson, called Sanity, Madness and the Family. I read it cover to cover, and I felt as if my head had been blown off. It was what they call the shock of recognition. I thought, I know this. I’m glad they’ve told me, but I know it already. I ­understand this, about the corruption that can lie at the heart of human communications, the way in which people within a power structure line up, the way that a victim is selected, the way that manipulation is performed using language. When I read this, I thought, So I do know something then. And it gave me a sort of inner authority when, twelve months or so later, I started writing. Because I felt that I knew something that, for a change, wasn’t about the French Revolution. 

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk more about how you create your historical characters?

MANTEL

When I’m writing a novel about historical figures, I have to be everybody. It’s strenuous. I know what it’s like to inhabit Cromwell, but it never occurred to me that I needed to get inside the bodies of characters like Julianne or Karina, in An Experiment in Love. It was enough to observe them. You know the concept of the good-enough parent—well, sometimes you have to settle for the good-enough character. When the people are real, though dead, I have a different feeling toward them. I consider them my responsibility.

INTERVIEWER

E.M. Forster talked about round and flat characters.

MANTEL

My books are full of flat characters. That’s absolutely fine, because you have to know what function the character has in the book. On the other hand, when you make those characters, you do feel that it’s a bit like playing. You don’t have the same engagement. When you’re working with the main characters and the medium-size characters, and they’re real people, there is an enormous drive to understand not just what really happened, but how it really felt. To arrive at the truth of them. 

There are a lot of historical characters in the Cromwell books who are just names. I mean, history just leaves us their names, and I’ve done the rest. But there is only one completely invented character. It’s the servant, Christophe, and even he has an antecedent in real life. When Cardinal Wolsey was on a diplomatic mission to France, he was being systematically robbed by a servant, a little boy, who was going up and down the stairs and each time taking out a piece of his silver or gold plate—because of course people traveled with everything in order to put on a show. He has no name, what happened to him we do not know. But his story was somewhere in the back of my mind when I invented Christophe. He is a potboy in a backstreet tavern in Calais who attaches himself to Cromwell. I thought, This boy will be useful because, in the end, when Cromwell is in the Tower, I need him to have someone to talk to. It’s going to be this boy. Later I thought, I know who you are—earlier in life, you robbed Wolsey. So he is and is not a fictional character.

People say to me—and with good reason—why don’t you just make things up? It’s just not in my nature, if the facts are to be found. It’s very perverse of me to be a novelist because I really don’t like making things up. I wonder if anyone in my books is completely fictional. I think, Why invent, really? 

INTERVIEWER

With the historical characters, whose internal lives have to be inhabited, do you know them well before you begin the first scene? Or do you get to know them by writing the scenes?

MANTEL

I start from a small core, a glimpse of someone or a little sound bite, and work from there. When I come to write what I call a big scene, especially in the Cromwell novels or any historical material, I prepare for it. Whatever I’ve done before on that scene, I put aside. I read all my notes, all my drafts, and all the source material it’s derived from, then I take a deep breath, and I do it. It’s like walking onstage—with the accompanying stage fright.

INTERVIEWER

At what point did you feel you’d found an entry to the internal life of Cromwell?

MANTEL

I think there were two points, really. When I began to read material he himself generated, that is to say, his letters. There is one particular letter, written long before he entered the history books, as it were, when he sat as a member of Parliament in the early 1520s—so a clear six, seven years before he becomes a player at court. Now, parliaments in those days were called for a matter of weeks, and usually only when the king wanted to raise a tax. It wasn’t until Cromwell that Parliament was kept in session almost constantly and used to reshape the country. But this session was meant to raise taxes for a war in France. And Cromwell made a very remarkable speech in it. 

INTERVIEWER

It was recorded in the letter?

MANTEL

No, but among his papers. Parliamentary proceedings were not recorded, so one cannot be one hundred percent sure that the speech was delivered, but it probably was. There’s no reason for thinking it wasn’t. He told the king, Don’t have this war, you can’t afford it. It was couched in the most sycophantic language, in which one must address a Tudor monarch, but basically it said, If you do this, we’ll go bankrupt. What’s obvious is that he’s unafraid to say it and also that he’s got a grip on economics as opposed to finance. He can see a wider context. He can see that there are no circumstances in which England can afford to go on these European adventures. And then there’s a little letter, afterward, to a friend, which says, I’ve just endured a parliament for the space of seventeen whole weeks, and he gives a big, big list, going down the page, of what they discussed, and he says, at the end, “We have done as our predecessors have been wont to do, that is, as well as we might, and left where we began.” This letter is always quoted by historians, and what they usually make of it is, Would you look at this, the bitter cynicism of the man before he’s even started. This is Cromwell in embryo. So it’s taken with deadly seriousness. And I thought it was funny. I caught on to him. I could hear his voice. 

But that’s the public man. The private man is a different thing, and he began when the book began, when I picked up my pen and wrote the first pages about the boy being beaten up by his father. When I’d written two paragraphs, I thought, Where am I? And obviously I was behind his eyes, and at that point all the decisions about the book were made, about how to tell the story.

INTERVIEWER

Though you’re extremely hesitant to tamper with history, and though of 159 characters in the books there’s only one created out of whole cloth, you must have invented most of Cromwell’s private life. 

MANTEL

That’s part of the bargain. Otherwise you’re just a pseudo historian.

INTERVIEWER

Did his letters speak about his marriage?

MANTEL

No. There’s one letter to his wife that’s about six lines long. 

INTERVIEWER

So we know nothing. 

MANTEL

We have the household books. We have names. We have inventories, so we know the things they had. We have the names of the people who live there, we’ve got what they spend their money on, the possessions that lie about them. That’s as good as it’s going to get. 

What I think is a crucial passage in Wolf Hall is also the most interesting, as an example of what a novelist does, as opposed to a historian. When Cardinal Wolsey fell from power, he was thrown out of his London palace. He and his household had to go find somewhere to live, and they went to his house at Esher. There they walked into an unoccupied house, which he didn’t use much, it was not ready, they had nothing, and they had to start housekeeping. All of this is documented. A couple of days after Wolsey’s arrival at Esher, Cromwell was seen to be standing in a window holding a prayer book and crying. When approached, he said that he was crying over his misfortunes—with the cardinal down, he was going to be destroyed, and he had lost everything that he’d worked for. “All the days of my life,” he said. Every historian and every biographer who touches on Cromwell reports this episode, and what they usually make of it, rather strangely, is that it’s some kind of cynical display put on for the benefit of the onlookers. Why he would be doing this no one ever explains, but that’s the usual take on it. Or, even if they don’t put such a dire construction on it, what they say is, Well, he tells us himself what’s happening. He’s crying because of the destruction of his career.

But the account of that incident begins quite clearly on All Hallows’ Day. Rather, it begins the evening before, on All Hallows’ Eve. It seems I’m the only writer who has ever noticed that it’s the day of the dead. This is a man who, in the last three years, has lost his wife and two daughters. He’s now lost his patron and his career is about to be destroyed. Once you realize what day it is, everything changes. A man may cry for more than one thing at once, and when you ask him why, he may not tell you. This appears to me to be the kind of thing that a novelist notices and that historians manage to ­ignore, generation after generation. Their minds don’t make the jump because to them it’s just another dateline—it could be May the twenty-fifth. That strikes me as a really powerful example of how evidence is lying all around us and we just don’t see it.

INTERVIEWER

How did you decide to put the dialogue in contemporary English?

MANTEL

Well, it’s contemporary English inflected with Tudor English. Just as with A Place of Greater Safety, if I could get contemporary dialogue, I wanted to use it, and blend it into my own dialogue. Only there the contemporary source would be in French, so the questions weren’t quite the same. I needed to write so that I could quote a passage of early Tudor English intact and smooth my invented dialogue in and out of it, so that one tapers into the other and no one can see the join. The decisions about language are taken around that necessity. I spend time working on individual words, but I spend more time making sure that the thought processes are congruent with the era, so that the metaphors are ones by which sixteenth-century people could live. They can’t talk about evolution, they can’t talk about their egos. The metaphors they build must be drawn from, say, their religious worldview. 

That’s more important than worrying about every word. Sometimes there just isn’t a Tudor word for what you want, and then you have to think hard—if no word, could they have had the thought? Boredom, for example, that doesn’t seem right. Were they never bored? But tedium, they know. And somehow ennui seems fine. Sometimes words play tricks, change their meaning. Let doesn’t mean “allow,” it means “forbid.” They call a doll a “baby,” often as not. They call a clever man “witty.” It doesn’t mean he makes jokes. So you can’t be slavishly literal. You can try to be authentic. 

Of course, I’m very concerned about not pretending they’re like us. That’s the whole fascination—they’re just not. It’s the gap that’s so interesting. And then there are other ways in which they are like us. 

INTERVIEWER

The marriage fascinates me especially.

MANTEL

The marriage...?

INTERVIEWER

It strikes me as daringly modern. You’ve given Cromwell a fond companionate marriage that resonates with contemporary readers. 

MANTEL

I think it would have been a very typical one, though. That’s what I set it up to be—typical rather than special. Here was a man who was good with women. His relationships with women at court were possibly extremely self-serving, but he kept them on his side. And he had women friends, which is possibly a bit unusual for the time. 

INTERVIEWER

You don’t see many male-female friendships in Shakespeare.

MANTEL

Why would you? Friendship on the whole is not the stuff of drama, is it? 

INTERVIEWER

Male friendship is certainly all over drama. And prose fiction. 

MANTEL

The thing you’ve got to understand about sixteenth-century life is that male friendship is much more important than your marriage. My take on this Cromwell marriage is that it’s not a love match, it’s a business arrangement. Though they come to love each other, it’s not a great romance. They’re not together very much. He’s virtually a stranger to his younger daughter. So far, so typical. I think the reason I decided to make it a good marriage, rather than a bad marriage, is that after her death, he remained within her family network. Her family continued to live with him. We know a lot more about the marriage of Ralph Sadler, Cromwell’s ... uh, PA. That was an unlikely marriage because it was a love match. This is something that’s possible in this era. Look at poor Henry himself—he’s the one who’s really ahead of his time, he’s such a romantic. 

INTERVIEWER

Some romantic. 

MANTEL

He wants a wife he can talk to. A lot of the courtiers, they simply don’t ­understand this, so when his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, comes along, ­nobody understands why it’s such a disaster. They think, He’s a king, after all. He has to breed. Why does he need to talk to her? Why does it matter that she doesn’t share his cultural pursuits, and so on? The fact that there was such general incomprehension shows that these people are living in changing times. Some haven’t changed yet. The Duke of Norfolk’s marriage was a debacle, but there’s a letter of 1537 in which he says to Cromwell that he’s just had a conversation with his daughter, who’s about twenty. She has a very good wit, he writes. I never commoned with her before in any matter. I paraphrase. He’s saying he’s never had a conversation with his own daughter. He sounds startled. He’s not entirely pleased that she’s got a very good wit because he wants to boss her around, and she’s not having it. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you find yourself judging your characters?

MANTEL

I try not to. For me the question is, Can I live with you, or can I not? I’m fascinated by really clever people, and I think Cromwell had a brilliant mind—I know he did—and a rare kind of mind in that he saw the big picture and all the details as well. It was through his grasp of detail that he managed to achieve the things he did. When he said, We’re going to survey the Church property, we’re going to find out where the money is, he did it in six months, and that’s with sixteenth-century communications. It should have taken ten years. But he knew how to mobilize others to work for him, how to give precise instructions, how to plan. He had a big-scale vision of a different sort of country from the one he started off in, and he had the practical sense to start bringing it about. 

INTERVIEWER

What sort of characters can’t you live with?

MANTEL

I’m not really interested in people who start off possessing power—royal people, for example. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever write about them, but I find all that less intrinsically interesting than the climb. People ask, Are you not going to write about Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I? I have such an ­antipathy to her, I know it’s a no-go. You have to select your subjects with the same care as a biographer, because you’re going to spend a long time with them. There has to be a spark of liking.