“Over the years,” novelist Kazuo Ishiguro remarked at the Booker Prize ceremony last month, “what I’ve come to appreciate about the prize is when it shines a light on a career of a writer who has been writing very brilliantly but far from the limelight.”
In 2009, that light fell on Hilary Mantel. She was in her late fifties, Wolf Hall her 12th book, far from a household name. But then her Thomas Cromwell trilogy changed everything. Three years later, the next book, Bring up the Bodies, won her a second Booker. When the concluding title, The Mirror and the Light, was published in March, fans queued in the rain at midnight to get their copy.
Now 68, she is a star. The trilogy alone has sold 1.9 million copies in the UK, according to Nielsen BookScan. The first two books have been made into BBC TV adaptations, while the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version reached Broadway. The trilogy sets history charging at a pace. Mantel maps the rise of Cromwell from blacksmith’s son to one of the most powerful men in the court of Henry VIII. Weaving research and staggering imagination, her pacy present tense fashions the past anew.
When I speak to Mantel via Zoom from her home in Budleigh Salterton, Devon, I congratulate her. It has been quite the year — quite the decade. Was it easy, I ask, to shut out expectation when writing?
“I don’t think overmuch about reception,” she says, dismissing the idea with a soft matter-of-factness. “I go for weeks without thinking about it at all . . . My time was busily taken up with invention . . . There’s your writing life and there’s your career — and to me they’re completely separate.”
Mantel’s delivery is measured. Her eyes open wide, eyebrows curving over in slim half moons. Her expression is expansive: ready for new considerations. She smiles often, cheekbones distinct. “Every working day is like your first day,” she continues, “confidence is not actually conferred by the prize, it’s conferred by practice.”
Now the author of 16 books, including her novels, short stories and a memoir, Mantel has explored, among many other things, the Roman Catholic Church, an Irish giant and the imagined assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Her 2005 novel Beyond Black follows a psychic, Alison, who is haunted by childhood abusers who crowd her life as spirits. It was a “great limbering up exercise for the trilogy, although I didn’t know that at the time”, Mantel says. “It was all about, how can the dead speak?”
I was struck, I tell her, by the overlap between how she describes clairvoyance in Beyond Black and the experience of writing. I quote her words back at her, from when Alison is describing how she reads tarot cards: “You don’t know what you’re going to say. You don’t even know your way to the end of the sentence. You don’t know anything. Then suddenly you do know. You have to walk blind. And you walk slap into the truth.”
“I think you’ve said it, really,” Mantel says. A picture of Shakespeare hangs on the wall behind her, slightly askew. “You have to trust what you don’t understand, and you have to be prepared to do that whilst walking in the dark. It might be to the end of one sentence, or it might be walking in the dark for 15 years.”
Mantel’s fluency surrounding her craft and career is impressive, but it’s not surprising. She has practice but she has also, historically, been clear-sighted. The first book she wrote was a novel set during the French revolution. It was rejected by publishers so she stored it away, writing contemporary fiction as a means to get her foot through the door. Eventually, it became her fifth published book — A Place of Greater Safety.
Her intuition seems unbelievable until you hear her speak. She is convincing, wise, thoughtful. Her voice sounds as if it arrives shallow from her throat but her speech unspools at length, like a magician pulling material from their sleeve.
As well as The Mirror and the Light, this year Fourth Estate published Mantel Pieces, a selection of items she has written for the London Review of Books since 1987. Among wide-ranging articles are diary pieces that candidly discuss her life. Her diaries, like her 2003 memoir Giving up the Ghost, are explorative, frank and playful — interested in teasing out experience. Does she think it is possible to pin down life? Can memories ever make it wholly on to the page?
“Part of the point of memoir, I think, is to say, I have now set this down to the best of my ability,” she says. “But a certain puzzlement remains. If it didn’t remain . . . it would hardly be worth telling. Anything you can explain, you can explain away, and it loses its significance.”
She articulates as if she is recounting a ghost story, enjoying the relish of ambiguity. “You want to say to the reader: yes, it was this, it was that, but that was not quite all it was.”
The unexplained works its way into her memoir in different guises — there is a “childhood episode of a contact with evil” where, fleetingly, she sees a sinister presence. (She is asked to relate this often, she tells me, but still she cannot say what it was.) Over a more prolonged span, there is her struggle with endometriosis, a debilitating womb condition. It is crucial sufferers are diagnosed early, but her symptoms, which began with her period, were persistently ignored and disbelieved, made worse by mistreatment and side effects from drugs she didn’t need.
She discovered her condition herself after searching through a textbook in her late twenties. When she brought it up with a medical professional, they agreed, and asked her, sincerely: sorry, should I be addressing you as doctor?
In an LRB diary from 2010, Mantel writes: “I am fascinated by the line between writing and physical survival.” In hospital, after routine surgery that turned serious, pills just out of reach felt like too much effort to fetch, but she could always pick up her pen and write.
“I really felt as long as I could keep writing I wasn’t going to die,” she says. Her tone is remarkably understated. “And I sort of lay on my notebook, as it were, to prevent it being taken away from me,” she laughs. “The idea of writing and ink and blood became very fused in my mind.”
The protectiveness — keeping a notepad close, ensuring no one takes it — strikes me as connected to a particular moment in Giving up the Ghost. Her university doctor, convinced she is imagining her symptoms, sends her to a mental health clinic. Catching her writing, he becomes fearful and demands she stop. Mantel writes that “he put more energy into this statement than any I had heard him make”.
Does she think that is related to why writing feels so connected to survival? Is it a defiance? “When I was told that as a girl,” Mantel replies, “I immediately diagnosed it as romantic nonsense [said by] someone who had absolutely no chance of understanding creativity.”
I begin to speak but she interrupts, sentences arriving fast. “It’s only just occurred to me, talking to you today, for the first time: he probably thought I was writing about him! ‘I bet you think this song is about you, don’t you!’” She laughs, freely. The realisation is there in her voice: quick, clear, loud. “It’s just clicked with me!” she exclaims. “He probably thought he loomed far larger in my life than he actually did. Really he was a fly I was brushing off my sleeve.”
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I remember something she said earlier. If a memory is significant, then there is always more to uncover. Here it is, live in action, the past appearing in a different shape.
That doctor has been proved a fool, but she beats me to saying so. “When I look back to that prohibition, I just think, success is the best revenge. If anyone has got the process under rational control . . . and made it into a career path, well I am that person.”
She smiles. I have the feeling often as we talk that she is genuinely nice. Niceness can be underrated, but with Mantel it is clear in her awareness of her craft, her groundedness, her statements about writing that often loop me in as a far less experienced novelist (she punctuates writing wisdom with “You know this!”). She is considered and considerate.
You might think, with her writing so connected to living, that it would be a source of comfort or reassurance. She insists the opposite. “I think of it as a place where one takes risks every day,” she says. “I think of it as the arena of peril rather than a place one withdraws to. There are days where there’s a big scene coming up and it’s like walking into the Roman circus. You’ve got your little net and your trident and they’re all out there roaring.”
The big question now is, when she next walks into the arena, what will she be facing? Mantel has a lot of combatants awaiting her sharp prongs. One hundred and thirty-eight notebooks, to be precise, sitting in a box. “They’re journals, really, workbooks, but that’s a fraction of the paper I have. There are two whole big boxes, like sea-chests, full of stuff. And actually I’m not even sure what’s in them. There are the fragments of a novel I was writing before I embarked on Wolf Hall, which I set aside.”
For now, though, she doesn’t want to commit, even to herself. “After the trilogy I was really exhausted . . . This present year I’ve been trying to creep out from under my boulder. I can just about see the daylight, but I’m not there yet.”
“The Mirror and the Light”, by Hilary Mantel, is published by Fourth Estate. Rebecca Watson is the FT’s assistant arts editor. Her novel, “little scratch”, is published by Faber & Faber on January 14
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