Mantel back for the Booker – Exeposé

In October my co-editor Emily Lunn and I interviewed Hilary Mantel on the brink of her record-breaking double Booker win. Here is our full article discussing the consequences of success and the experience of writing Bring Up The Bodies.

For someone so focused on the twists and turns of history it is somehow fitting that Hilary Mantel is on the brink of making it herself. A winner of the Man Booker prize for her 2009 novel Wolf Hall, tomorrow she will find out if she has become the first woman and first Briton to win the award twice.

Last week she visited Exeter to talk about her acclaimed trilogy, following the life of Henry VIII’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell. Writing historical fiction, especially about an era as gossip-laden as this, takes a certain leap of the imagination. Hilary Mantel is a writer who takes this responsibility seriously, choosing to start her trilogy at the point when Thomas Cromwell’s public life emerged, “as the first 35 years of his life are virtually off the record.” Cromwell seems to have been a private man, leaving little information about his personal life, “which some writers of historical fiction would love, because it’s an open invitation.”

Mantel doesn’t choose to take such liberties. She explained that “what I prefer to do is to have a lot of facts, and negotiate in the spaces between, filling the gaps with educated guesses.” This is a particular challenge when it comes to her female characters, as “women and women’s bodies are really the essence of the story,” yet women barely made the records in the Tudor era.

In Bring Up The Bodies, Mantel said that she felt “morally contaminated” by recreating the political intrigue surrounding Anne Boleyn’s downfall. Political scheming and manoeuvring are still with us today, and she agrees that, “because these people are laying the foundations for the modern world, there are bound to be some parallels.” Such parallels aren’t deliberate, but a modern reader would definitely be able to identify with elements of Tudor society, as “sometimes you get the feeling that history’s going round in circles.” Mantel is wary of forcing comparisons though, suggesting that “I don’t think the past was a rehearsal for the present, they have to be respected for their difference from us.”

To fictionalise historical events can create problems for a writer, as it inevitably entails a fairly large cast, and complex narrative. Mantel skilfully handles such difficulties with a strong omniscient narrator to guide the reader. She aims to “find clever ways of narrating coolly and camly, while creating the illusion that mayhem is breaking out in the background.”

Other writers may have felt pressure after the success of Wolf Hall, the biggest-selling Booker winner ever, but Mantel calmly continued with her next book, taking it as “a huge boost to my confidence.” She was even relaxed enough to joke about spending her winnings on “sex, drugs and rock and roll”, a challenge since she “moved to Budleigh Salterton.” However, if she does the double and Bring Up The Bodies wins the Booker, she admits that “it would heap tremendous expectation onto the last book.” If it isn’t shortlisted, “some people would see it as a failure, but I’m judging by my own standards.” Critics and prizes don’t affect her when she’s writing, as “every day with writing is like the first day you did it.”

Mantel during her visit to Exeter University. Photo: Joshua Irwandi
Mantel during her visit to Exeter University. Photo: Joshua Irwandi

When Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy concludes she will have spent a daunting decade of her life in the company of the Tudor court and its memorable characters. She has fully immersed herself in the series, saying that “the only way to do it was to live it,” so the reader can empathise when she says “you never let go. You put the full stop, but then it goes out and becomes the property of other people.”

At the risk of sounding like a one-trick pony, Mantel astutely acknowledges that “from the career point of view, a big historical novel would be a very good idea”, but her talents aren’t restricted to this genre. She has written a memoir and novels about Saudia Arabia and 70s University life, with possible future projects including a modern novel and a work of non-fiction. As Mantel herself says, she is more than just a “Priory clinic for dead Tudors.”

The last book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, will be released in 2014, with both BBC and RSC adaptations of the first two books in the works. The title comes from “a phrase Cromwell used himself, saying that Henry’s kingship was the mirror, and the light to other Kings. The more you think about that phrase, the more mysterious it becomes, because what is reflected in the mirror, and where is the light? What I hope is that the light will be cast in the third book on events in the first two books.” Somewhat ominously, after that Mantel says “it might be time to stand back and make an assessment – on all sorts of things.” Let’s hope that after all the adaptations and awards she can keep the modern classics coming.

Tom Bond and Emily Lunn

Originally published in Exeposé


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