Hilary Mantel Revisited

From time to time I find myself interviewing someone so interesting that I can fit only a fraction of what they say into my article. This was the case with Hilary Mantel, whom I wrote about recently for ww.europe.org/culture. She has kindly given me permission to use some of her unused observations on this website, so here they are.

    She described her novel The Giant O’Brien as ‘a bookend’ to her French Revolution epic, A Place of Greater Safety, in that it examines what is it to be human and where the frontier lie of personhood lies – and for her the defining question in the French Revolution is: ‘What are human rights and who shouldhave them?’  She went on:

    ‘I’m hoping to write a little book about Stanislawska Przybyzewska [1901-1935], the Polish playwright, called The Woman Who Died of Robespierre. She locked herself away and starved herself to death and became a morphine addict in the quest to write the perfect play about
the French Revolution. This curious story I would like to use as a starting point for how we remember history, and then broaden it out into what we think we’re doing when we write historical fiction. That would be my other little bookend to A Place of Greater Safety. She seems to me like one of the widows left over from the Revolution…She’s out of time, and I’m interested in that in an occult sort of way – how people sometimes attach themselves to another time and say, “That’s really where I belong.” I thought I’d done that, till I started writing about the Tudors.’

    I asked her whether she had a favourite among her books. She replied:

    ‘In a way A Place of Greater Safety is the one which is closest to my heart, because it was the one written against the odds, as an act of faith. It was about something important. If I were to rate them I think Wolf Hall is a much better book, and my favourite is the one I’m writing now, because it’s always so – you think, “This is the one that’s going to pull things together.” ’

    Her present project is a sequel to Wolf Hall called The Mirror in the Light. When did she realise that the story demanded a second volume?

    ‘I realised quite late. I was about halfway through, and the plot and the sheer variety of characters and narratives began to look so overwhelming; then I saw that the great contest between Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell seemed to be something that in Cromwell’s life had enormous personal repercussions: it wasn’t just important politically. If I was writing from the point of view of his character, it was important at every level; and it seemed wrong to go on beyond that point [More’s execution], because that would make it just one incident on the way to many; and it seemed to me that that was a kind of high point in the narrative: after that you should break.

    ‘The new book takes up with the long run in to the destruction of Ann
Boleyn, and if I’d tried to put that in[to Wolf Hall] it would have made the More business seem negligible. I just came up against the problem of what one novel can contain, and I felt I’d pushed it to its limit. The Mirror in the Light takes up in the autumn of 1535 and goes on to the autumn of 1540 – Thomas Cromwell’s execution.’

    She is also planning an African novel:

    ‘I’ve written a book called A Change of Climate which is set back in the Apartheid era, but I would like to write something about Africa at the time that I lived in Botswana, which brings us to the beginning of the Eighties, just before AIDS. That was a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, becauseBotswana was devastated by AIDS.

    ‘It gives me a creepy feeling looking back: I worked in a secondary
school and you knew that syphilis was endemic. My children would say, “Sorry I’m late – I’ve been at the hospital.” They’d been for their penicillin – I soon stopped asking. I know that many of the people I taught will have died.

    ‘You felt on the borders of knowledge. It was a boarding school, and
many of the children were very miserable and I think clinically depressed. And you sort of knew that the little girls weren’t safe – that the boys and indeed the masters were predatory; and as the only white woman on the staff I had no place to stand and say anything about this. And of course I thought the African women on the staff should do something, but to them it was just, “I went through this system, I’m all right.” My experience of teaching there was interesting but quite miserable, because you felt so powerless.’

    Exactly when she will write ‘that little novel’ she isn’t sure, as the
publication of The Mirror in the Light is likely to be followed by a year spend promoting it. But overall she is very happy with her lot.

    ‘It’s lovely for me now, because over the years I’ve done a great deal
of literary journalism and I really had to do that to keep an income flow,
because I never earned much from fiction. But now I don’t have to do it, so I’ve got that freedom again to work every day on my book, and it’s like going back to being unpublished: you don’t have those constraints any more. No one expects you to win the Booker twice, so some of the pressure’s off. It’s all working well at the moment.’