EYES ON THE PRIZE

Hilary Mantel is the first woman to win the Man Booker prize twice and the first British author to win twice. But, as she reveals in this memoir, behind her success lies a complicated relationship with awards

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2010

In 1994 I brought out a novel called "A Change of Climate", which was shortlisted for a small prize given to books with a religious theme. It was the first time a novel had got so far with the judges, and I was surprised to be in contention. The main characters in my book were Christian missionaries, but after their God had watched unblinking while they endured trials that would shake any faith, their religion became to them no more than a habit, a set of behavioural tics, and in the absence of a belief in a benign universe they carried on grimly trying to be good because they hardly knew how to do anything else.

The winner was to be announced at a low-key gathering at an old-fashioned publishing house near the British Museum. I had never been to a literary party that was anything like this. Some of the invitees seemed to be taking, with shy simpers, their first alcoholic drink of the year. Conversation was a struggle; all we had in common was God. After I didn't win, I came out into the fine light evening and hailed a cab. What I felt was the usual flatness after a wasted journey; I told myself I hadn't really expected to win this one. But as we inched through the traffic, a reaction set in. I was swept, I was possessed, by an urge to do something wicked: something truly odious, something that would reveal me as a mistress of moral turpitude and utterly disqualify me from ever being shortlisted for that prize again. But what can you do, by yourself, in the back of a taxi on the way to Waterloo? Wishing to drain the chalice of evil to the dregs, I found myself out of ideas. I could possibly lean out of the window and make hideous faces at pedestrians; but how would they know that it was my hideous face? They might think I was always like that.

For a week or so, after I won the 2009 Man Booker prize for fiction with "Wolf Hall", people in the streets did recognise me. They'd seen my triumph face, my unpretending grin of delight stretched as wide as a carved pumpkin. Sometimes they would burble happily at me and squeeze my hand, and sometimes they would just smile warmly as they passed, not quite sure who I was but knowing that they'd seen me in the paper, and in a happy context. On the train home one evening, a pale glowing woman with a Vermeer complexion, alighting prosaically at Woking, followed me through a carriage and whispered to me, leaving on my shoulder a ghost-touch of congratulation. All this was new to me. Before the Man Booker, I had trouble being recognised by a bookseller when I was standing next to a stack of my own books. 

I am a veteran of shortlists. I have served my time in the enclosures where the also-rans cool down after the race, every back turned, the hot crowds sucked away as if by a giant magnet to where the winner basks in the camera-flash. I have sat through a five-hour presentation ceremony in Manchester, where the prize was carried off by Anthony Burgess, then a spindly, elderly figure, who looked down at me from his great height, a cheque between thumb and finger, and said, "I expect you need this more than me," and there again I experienced a wicked but ungratified impulse, to snatch the cheque away and stuff it into my bra. After such an evening, it's hard to sleep; your failure turns into a queasy mess that churns inside you, mixed in with fragments from the sponsors' speeches, and the traitorous whispers of dissatisfied judges. Lunchtime ceremonies are easier; but then, what do you do with the rest of the day? Once, when I was trudging home from my second failure to win the £20,000 Sunday Express Book of the Year award, a small boy I knew bobbed out on to the balcony of his flat.

"Did you win?" 

I shook my head.

"Never mind," he said, just like everyone else. And then, quite unlike everyone else: "If you like, you can come up and play with my guinea pig."

That's what friends are for. You need distraction; or you need to go home (as I do these days when I lose) and defiantly knock together a paragraph or two of your next effort. At my third shortlisting, I did win the Sunday Express prize. This time it was an evening event, and as the announcement approached I found myself pushing and shoving through a dense crowd of invitees, trying to get somewhere near the front just in case; and getting dirty looks, and elbows in the ribs. At the moment of the announcement I thought that a vast tray of ice-cubes had been broken over my head; the crackling noise was applause, the splintered light was from flashbulbs. The organisers made me hold up, for the cameras, one of those giant cheques they used to give to winners of the football pools. I did it without demur. Did I feel a fool? No. I felt rich.

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