~ Posted by Maggie Fergusson, June 27th 2012
Eyes sparkling, swinging between infectious laughter and brow-knitted concentration, and talking in a girlish, flute-like voice, Hilary Mantel electrified her audience. It was Monday night at the Royal Society of Literature, and Mantel responded to questions about her work—including the Man Booker-winner "Wolf Hall" and its sequel "Bring up the Bodies"—in fully fledged, perfectly formed and frequently unexpected sentences. In the dark, I scribbled down some notes:
• Mantel’s very earliest ambition was to be, not a writer, but a "Knight of the Round Table". As she embarked on "Wolf Hall", and entered the Tudor world, she "realised that this is where I’d been trying to get all these years—to Camelot, of course. I shook hands with my pre-literate self."
• She believes that the qualities necessary in a good jouster—courage, sang froid—are identical to those required in a writer: "At the last moment, don’t blink."
• She describes the relief she felt when, aged ten, she first read "Jane Eyre", and discovered that the young Jane was very like herself—"watchful" and "unchildlike". "At last I had found a home in a book."
• She reflects on the advantage to a writer of a Catholic upbringing—of learning, early, "that the unseen world is more important than the visible world”. "In one heartbeat, everything can change"—the bread can become the body, “and a crowd can become a mob."
• Asked whether she feels empathy for Anne Boleyn, she replies, "Empathy to the novelist is as hindsight to the historian—necessary, but potentially corrupting."
• How does she know when to stop researching and start writing? “Once you can hear the dead talking, that’s the time to begin”. And how much of writing "Wolf Hall” and "Bring up the Bodies" has been a question of "wrestling with the dead”? “I prefer to persuade the dead than to fight them."
Her expression darkened only once, when she contemplated finishing the sequel to “Bring up the Bodies”, and killing off her companion of ten years, Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s Tudor trilogy will "snuff out with Cromwell’s consciousness", and she has no idea at all what might come next. She anticipates "a period of desolation”.
Maggie Fergusson is literary editor of Intelligent Life and director of the Royal Society of Literature
Hilary Mantel will be speaking at the Dartington Hall Way With Words Festival on July 7th and at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 14th