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Hilary Mantel: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Hilary Mantel is the author of eleven novels, including Wolf Hall, for which she won the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, was published earlier this month by Henry Holt.

Originally, you've said, you planned just "one enormous book" on Thomas Cromwell, but now we're looking at a trilogy. When did you realize first that his story needed two books, and now three?

I think that fiction, even historical fiction, is inherently unpredictable. You know what the story is, but you don't know until you tell it where its power is located, where you will place the focus and how you need to shape it. I did originally imagine there would be just one book, but as I began to tell the story of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, I realized that it needed to be played out properly, that it couldn’t be hurried: that it was, in fact, the climax of a book, not an episode in a book. At that point, I decided that Wolf Hall would end with More's death, and the royal party heading for the house named in the title. With Bring up the Bodies, the process of discovery was virtually the same, though it still caught me unawares. I came to write the end of the Boleyns, and realized that I already had a book; the buildup to that tragedy is so stealthy, the climax so horrifying, that I thought the reader would want to pause, close the book, take a breath.

So the whole project reshaped itself for a second time, and very swiftly; in each case, the process of realization took a split second; and the second after that, it seemed obvious. To some readers it might sound as if my method of work is very disorganized. I'd prefer to think of it as an organic, evolving process: sudden discoveries and sudden demands breeding changes of tactics. I like to gather my material, think for a long time, but make the business of writing itself as spontaneous and flexible as possible. If I can I like to take myself by surprise.

What was it about Thomas Cromwell that initially drew you to him as a way to write about the Tudor period?

It appealed to me because his character had never been explored properly in fiction or drama. Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith and brewer, and this stratified, hierarchical society, he rose to become the king's right-hand man and eventually Earl of Essex; you have to ask, how did he do it? Luck? Calculation? Both, surely, but what combination of the two? And what drove him? When you worked for Henry VIII, the stakes were so high. One slip and you were dead. I wanted to try to work out what combination of ambition and idealism motivated Cromwell. In what ways was he typical of his time, and in what ways unique? And as I was asking myself, as I always do when I write I historical fiction, how did this man's life feel, from the inside?

When you stand in Cromwell's shoes, familiar events are defamiliarised. The story, which is irresistible in itself, comes up fresh and new.

Has your view of Cromwell changed as you've researched and written Wolf Hall and now Bring Up the Bodies? How about your view of Henry VIII, or of any of the other major players?

My view of all the players changes constantly, scene to scene. They're not fixed constructs in my mind. They're evolving as they interact with each other.

As you point out in your Author's Note to Bring Up the Bodies, you've taken some artistic liberties in order to form your narrative. Can you talk a bit about how, when you write historical fiction, you try to balance the use of historical detail with the dramatic requirements of a novel?

I explain in my note how I've omitted some minor characters to spare the reader too many names. But I want to nod to the fact that they did exist, that the real story is always more complicated than any narrative that I (or any historian) can devise. In general, I wrap my narrative around the facts, rather than the facts around my narrative, and I trust the reader to stick with me when it gets complicated. So you could say I take minimal liberties. And yet, in another way, the whole project is a giant exercise in liberty-taking. Readers ask me, "How can I tell the fact from the fiction?" The answer is that every time I say, "He thought ..." I'm making it up. That's the essence of what a novelist does: try to access the inner life. You do that on the basis of the best information you can get about the outer life.

It's hard to answer the question in general terms; it's easier to look at a specific page and analyze what choices have been made. It is a matter of multiplying endless small choices, constantly making judgments about what to employ and what to elide. You are looking always for the telling detail, the one that will open up the reader's picture of the world you are creating, or guide the reader towards an insight that perhaps surprises them. I do believe the facts have priority, and the skill lies in respecting them and yet producing a narrative that is dramatic, shapely, plausible and coherent. The skills the writer is using are the ones she uses in any form of fiction, but she has certain constraints, guidelines to work within, problems to solve; within the framework of the documented facts, she has to find her imaginative freedom. I enjoy that challenge: trying to solve the puzzles, to cut through very complex events in a way that simplifies without distorting. I read as widely as I can, all the sources I can lay my hands on. I look for the contradictions. I consider various interpretations of the material, reading as many historians as I can. Then I try to work out what I myself believe, to thrash out a version that respects history but is also lively and persuasive and human.

As you've researched Cromwell's life and the time period in general, what sources have you found most useful? Any that you'd recommend to interested readers?

The basic source for Henry's reign is the vast compendium known as Letters & Papers Foreign and Domestic, which is accessed through specialist libraries and can be consulted online; like everyone who studies the reign, I have spent what seems like years of my life culling my own notes from this mighty digest. There is no biography of Cromwell I can really recommend, though John Schofield's recent biography The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, which came out just as Wolf Hall was going to press, presents a new and welcome take on a man who has been routinely and mechanically vilified. The great Tudor historian G.R. Elton was Cromwell's closest student, establishing his status and importance as a politician, but he didn't leave us a biography; the personal material on Cromwell is thin.

I never append a book list to my novels, because it would be so very long and sound so very boastful; but I'm so interested that I'm happy to turn over a whole book for one fact or one idea. However: in 2009, the 500th anniversary of Henry's accession, the British Library mounted a magnificent exhibition called Henry VIII: Man and Monarch, and the richly illustrated catalogue is a wonderful introduction to the reign. In a way, looking is as important as reading. Holbein's portraits of Henry and his courtiers are books in themselves.

When do you do most of your writing? Do you compose longhand, or at the computer?

I work in my notebooks at any time an idea strikes: day or night, I'm afraid, and whether at home or away. I do extensive longhand preparation, which usually includes my notes on the facts behind each episode, my references and sources, and a few tentative drafts of each scene. Then I work from my files onto the screen.

Tell us a bit about your own library: what types of books would we find there? How do you organize your books?

I moved house a year ago and there was a drastic cull. Like most people I am short of space and I now do a lightning raid on the shelves on a monthly basis. I've had to realize that a standard issue paperback is replacable; unless I'm very sure I want to read it again, I pass it on rather than store it. I keep good quality hardbacks, separate fiction from the rest, and group novelists by nationality or by some strange idea of affinity I come up with on the spur of the moment. A good part of my shelf space is for Tudor-related books and there's a big section on the French Revolution. Then general history (quite a bit on Ireland) arranged by region. Psychology/sociology (at present all over the house, waiting the next reshuffle.) Cricket books, which I manage to keep together as a team, and popular science books, which again arrange themselves naturally enough. There's a couple of shelves of poetry, and a tall bookcase in the bedroom which acts as a source of guilt and recrimination, because it's where I shove all new books and proofs that come in; from time to time I realize something has been sitting unattended for six months, and I have to make a decision. So much paper and so little time; I'm sure it's a problem shared with all LibraryThing contributors. I've resisted ebooks but I've recently bought an e-Reader; I'm still at the stage where it seems an odd way to read, but I'm one of those people who frets about not having enough books when I'm on the move, and at least that problem is solved.

What have you read recently that you've enjoyed?

I'm deeply admiring of Charlotte Rogan's novel The Lifeboat, an outstanding debut which I think signals a great career.

Have you chosen a title yet for the third (and final?) volume of the Wolf Hall trilogy?

It will be called The Mirror & The Light.

Finally, do you have other projects in the works, or are you still focused on closing out Cromwell's story?

The Cromwell project is my priority, but I have more ideas for books than I have years left in which to complete them.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

Books by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall (9811 copies)
The Scarlet Pimpernel (6537 copies)
Bring Up the Bodies (4739 copies)
Beyond Black (1451 copies)
A Place of Greater Safety (1320 copies)
Fludd (710 copies)
Angel (684 copies)
Marking Time (601 copies)
Faces in the Water (441 copies)
The Giant, O'Brien (440 copies)
A Change of Climate (416 copies)
Vacant Possession (260 copies)
The Long View (176 copies)
Odd Girl Out (137 copies)
Learning to Talk (59 copies)
Vrijheid (42 copies)
Gelijkheid (28 copies)
Writers on writing (27 copies)
Broederschap (24 copies)

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