THE FILING CLERK AND THE SHAMAN

 ~ Posted by Simon Willis, October 11th 2012

The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced next Tuesday evening and Hilary Mantel, whose "Wolf Hall" won in 2009, is in the running again. Her sequel to "Wolf Hall", "Bring Up the Bodies", currently has odds of 9/4.

Shortly after winning in 2009, Mantel wrote a memoir for Intelligent Life (republished on our homepage today) about her complicated relationship with awards. She described herself as a "veteran of shortlists" who had spent many evenings "in the enclosures where the also-rans cool down after the race, every back turned". When she finally won, she leapt up from her chair with a feeling of "savage glee". This wasn't only because her art had won over the judges; it was also because the Man Booker prize carries more mundane rewards. The Booker, Mantel wrote, "has helped me find publishers in 30 countries. It has made my sales soar and hugely boosted my royalties." Her victory satisfied two sides of her character, the artist and the pragmatist.

In the run-up to this year's prize, several profiles of Mantel have appeared, and they've shed more light on her combination of art and practicality. In a 10,000-word profile in this week's New Yorker by Larissa MacFarquhar, Mantel says that she's someone "who feels that there's immense security in a good card index". She writes at a desk surrounded by filing cabinets. According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal, she has a seven-foot bulletin board on her kitchen wall. But "the whole process of writing novels," Mantel says, "is the opposite of that—it's do not label, do not define, do not decide, leave everything loose." When she begins to conceive a character, she clears her mind and imagines a chair. Then she imagines her character coming in and sitting down. When she began her book "The Giant, O'Brien", she felt like she'd got the character when "he bent down and tested [the chair], to see if it would take his weight". A profile in this week's New Statesman quotes a passage from her novel "Beyond Black" to describe Mantel's writing process: "She takes a breath, she smiles, and she starts a peculiar form of listening. It is a silent sensory ascent." Mantel, it seems, is part filing clerk, part shaman.

And, on Booker night, part race-horse. In her piece for Intelligent Life, she wrote of the Booker prize that "The progress of the heart—which is what your writing is—cannot be measured like the progress of your feet on a race track. And yet, you can't deny, it has been." And if she wins again this year, she will join J.M. Coetzee and Peter Carey in a special winners' enclosure as a double winner of the prize. She'll be the first British writer and the first woman there.

Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life. His recent posts for the Editors' Blog include The lost art of handwriting and Lucian Freud's wish