Jeremy Swan quizzes Dame Hilary Mantel, author of the Man Booker Prize-Winning bestsellers Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which were recently adapted for television and broadcast on BBC Two. Mantel was born in Derbyshire and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Derby in 2014.
When did you first decide to be an author?
A year after I graduated, in 1974. Conventionally, one begins with a slender volume of semi-autobiography. I began with an 800 page novel about the French Revolution. It took me years to write and many more years to get published. Luckily I wasn’t looking for quick results. My first published book was Every Day is Mother’s Day, a contemporary novel. I was writing for roughly 12 years before there were any results in career terms.
What was it about Thomas Cromwell that made you want to write about him?
He was a rare example of creativity in politics. He was clever, deep, audacious and a game-changer; he altered the face of the nation. He was also suitably ambivalent and puzzling. Enough to keep me, and the reader I hope, entertained through a trilogy.
How did you go about bringing Cromwell’s character to life in Wolf Hall?
I read his letters until I could talk like him, looked at the pictures I thought he might have seen, visited the places he went (what remains of them) and generally tried to worm my way into his world picture by any means available.
"It is unusual to perform an adaptation of a work while that work is unfinished, and we all feel the ripples that energise the emerging text and the plays in performance."
Last year you published a collection of short stories under the title The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Do you see any parallels between Cromwell and Thatcher?
Only that they both lived in the present moment, I think. Neither was introspective. It is a challenge to write from the inside of the head of someone who is not introspective.
What was it like working with the Royal Shakespeare Company to bring Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies to the stage? Has this changed your approach to writing at all?
It has opened up a new trade for me, in potential. It doesn’t change the third book of my Cromwell trilogy in any obvious way – it doesn’t, for example, change the style – but having a sort of experimental Cromwell in the shape of actor Ben Miles has been a weird privilege, and produced much insight. The plays have evolved through various versions and are now on Broadway; we have been together as a cast for two years, and the whole company has shown flexibility and commitment to the shifts involved. It is unusual to perform an adaptation of a work while that work is unfinished, and we all feel the ripples that energise the emerging text and the plays in performance.
Would you like to write plays in the future?
I have several books projected, but yes, it may be that some of the stories I thought should be novels should be plays.
"I am aware that young women now are a different breed. They don’t put up with the nonsense their mothers had to endure."
What are the biggest challenges faced by women in the public eye?
For my generation, it was to sustain self-belief, and to learn that you can’t always be liked. Some women thrive on antagonism, of course, but I think we were brought up to resolve conflicts rather than ride to power on them. That should be a good thing, but it’s not useful to be an appeaser, or to evade conflict if the evasion keeps you out of office. The whole business is fraught with paradox, and when you try to generalise, you find you are only talking about yourself. I am aware that young women now are a different breed. They don’t put up with the nonsense their mothers had to endure. They are different and men are different. Negotiations in private life seem to be fairer and more honest than ever before. I am very hopeful about the future.
There was some controversy a couple of years ago when your comments about the Duchess of Cambridge were misinterpreted. What do you think this incident revealed about the level of public debate in Britain?
People enjoy cheap outrage and are happy to find a new source. Certain papers are willing to feed them. Politicians are more afraid of not making an instant response than they are of looking foolish in the medium term. Indeed the medium term barely exists.
Would you say writers have a duty to challenge their readers as well as entertain?
I don’t know about duty. I don’t seem able to help it.
Where do you find inspiration?
I read a great deal, on all subjects. I think about what I read. I try to look at what’s before me without rushing to interpretation. I listen to people. I listen to myself. That’s it really.
Which of your own books is your favourite and why?
Always the next one.
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