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.
How to conduct yourself as winner or loser is something the modern writer must work out without help from the writers of the past. As a stylist, you may pick up a trick or two from Proust, but on prize night he'd just have stayed in bed. As prizes have proliferated and increased, advances and royalties have fallen, and the freakish income that a prize brings is more and more important. Prizes bring media attention, especially if the judges can arrange to fall out in public. They bring in-store displays, and press advertising, and all the marketing goodies denied the non-winner; they bring sales, a stimulus to trade at a time when bookselling is in trouble. By the time I won the Man Booker I had scrabbled my way to half a dozen lesser awards, but in the 1980s and 1990s marketing was less sharp, and the whole prize business looked less like a blood sport. I had been publishing for over 20 years, and although the reviewers had been consistently kind, I had never sold in great numbers. But moments after I took my cheque from the hands of the Man Booker judges, an ally approached me, stabbing at an electronic device in her hand: “I've just checked Amazon—you're number one—you're outselling Dan Brown.”
Amazon itself—with its rating system, its sales charts, its reader reviews—feels like part of the prize industry, part of the process of constantly ranking and categorising authors, and ranking and categorising them in the most public way. To survive the scrutiny you must understand that (much as you love winning them) prizes are not, or not necessarily, a judgment on the literary merit of your work. Winners emerge by negotiation and compromise. Awards have their political aspects, and juries like to demonstrate independence of mind; sometimes a book which has taken one major award is covertly excluded from consideration for others. Sometimes the judges are actors or politicians, who harbour a wish to write fiction themselves—if, of course, they had the time. I have sat on juries where the clashing of celebrity egos drowned out the whispers from the pages surveyed, and the experience has been so unfair and miserable that I have said to myself "never again". But you do learn from being a judge that, in a literary sense, some verdicts matter and some don't.
Sometimes the pressure on judges seems intolerable. When I was a Booker judge myself, back in 1990, we read about 105 books. Last year there were 132. I was lucky enough to serve under a businesslike chairman, Sir Denis Forman, a man who knew how to run a meeting from his time at Granada Television. All the same, I remember the final judging session as one of the great ordeals of my life. So much depended on it, for the winners and the losers. I was already nettled by the leaking of tittle-tattle and misinformation to journalists. It came from the administration, I think, not the judges. "Just mischief," someone suggested, smiling. I was taking it too seriously, I suppose: as if it were a capital trial, and we were going to hang five authors and let one escape. But we were, it seemed to me, giving one author a life—a different life. There was an element of bathos when the winner, A.S. Byatt, said that she would use the money to build a swimming pool at her second home. At times of crisis—and winning this prize is a crisis—people say the most extraordinary things. I seem to recall one novelist saying more humbly that his winner's cheque would pay for an extra bathroom. For years I dreamt of pursuing the watery theme: of flourishing my £50,000 with a cry of, "At last, I see my way to an indoor lavatory."
I didn't say it, of course. Jokes are wasted at prize time. I had never been shortlisted for the Booker till the year of my win, but I looked at those who were already winners with a narrow eye; I read their books, and also searched their faces. But whether it has changed their lives as it has changed mine is a mystery to me. The smiling repression—so many years of congratulating others, so many trudges home, so many taxis, guinea pigs; the sheer hypocrisy of pretending you don't mind losing. These take their toll. You become a worse person, though not necessarily a worse writer, while you're waiting for your luck to turn. When finally last year at the Guildhall in London, after an evening of dining and of speeches that, it seemed to me, were excruciatingly prolonged, when finally the moment came and I heard the name of a book and that book was mine, I jumped out of my chair as if I had been shot out of a catapult, and what I felt was primitive, savage glee. You have to win the Man Booker at the right time, pious folk tell you. You have to win it for the right book, runs the received wisdom. Balderdash, said my heart; but it used a stronger, shorter word. You just have to win it, right now. Hand it over. It's been long enough.
The writer inside you feels no sense of entitlement. She—or it—judges a work by internal standards that are hard to communicate or define. The "author", the professional who is in the prose business, has worldly concerns. You know the first question from the press will be, "What will you do with the money?" The truth was that I would use it to reduce my mortgage. But that reply would by no means do, and I felt obliged to say "Sex, drugs and rock'n'roll." The public don't like to think of authors as citizens who pay their debts. They like to think of them living lives of fabulous dissipation in warm climates, at someone else's expense. The public want to regard you as a being set apart, with some quirk of brain function or some inbuilt moral freakishness that would explain everything, if only you would acknowledge it. They want to know, what is the stimulus to your creativity? What makes you write?
Sometimes you want to shrug and say, it's my job. You don't ask a plumber, what makes you plumb? You understand he does it to get his living. You don't draw him aside and say, "Actually I plumb a bit myself, would you take a look at this loo I fitted? All my friends say it's rather good." But it's little use insisting that writing is an ordinary job; you'd be lying. Readers understand that something strange is going on when a successful work of fiction is created—something that, annoyingly, defies being cast into words. If we poke the author with a stick for long enough, hard enough, he'll crack and show us the secret, which perhaps he doesn't know himself. We have to catch him when he's vulnerable—and he is never more vulnerable than when someone has caught him on a public platform and given him a big cheque. He may be grinning from ear to ear, but he's swarming with existential doubts.
"You are currently the top writer in the world," an interviewer said to me on Booker night.
"It's not the Olympics," I said, aghast. 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. On a particular night in October, you've got your nose ahead of J.M. Coetzee.
I have found I can live with the contradictions. I think there is one kind of writer who might be scalped and skinned by the demands the prize imposes, and that is the writer who finds public performance difficult, who has failed to create a persona he can send out to do the show. As people often observe, there is no reason why skill in writing and skill in platform performance would go together; I have witnessed some horrible scenes in the back rooms of bookshops, as writers sweat and stutter and suffer a mini-breakdown before going out to face 20 people, some of whom have wandered in because they saw a light, some of whom have manuscript-shaped parcels under their seats, some of whom have never heard of you before tonight, and have come on purpose to tell you so. Generally, it seems to me, authors are better at presenting themselves than they were ten years ago. Festivals flourish, we get more practice; you could give a reading somewhere every week of the year if you liked. For me the transition between desk and platform seems natural enough. I think of writing fiction as a sort of condensed version of acting and each book as a vast overblown play. You impersonate your characters intensively, you live inside their skins, wear their clothes and stamp or mince through life in their shoes; you breathe in their air. "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." Of course she is. Who else could she be?
Some nine months on, I can report that the Man Booker has done me nothing but good. Because I am in the middle of a project—my next book is the sequel to the prize-winner—it has not destabilised me, just delayed me. The delay is worthwhile, because the prize has helped me find publishers in 30 countries. It has made my sales soar and hugely boosted my royalties. In doing these things it has cut me free. For the next few years at least, I can write what I like, just as I could before I was ever in print. I wrote for 12 years before I published anything, and in those years I felt a recklessness, a hungry desire, a gnawing expectation, that I lost when I became a jobbing professional who would tap you out a quick 800 words, to a deadline, on almost anything you liked. It is hard to make a good income from fiction alone, but now perhaps I can do it. I haven't lived in a glamorous whirl since I won the prize. I could have taken up any number of invitations to festivals abroad, but only if I ditched the commitments at home that were already in my diary. I am, anyway, a bit world-weary and more than a bit ill, and intensely interested in the next thing I will write. Even when you are taking your bow, lapping up applause, you do know this brute fact: that you are only as good as your next sentence. You might wake up tomorrow and not be able to do it. The process itself will not fail you. But your nerve might fail.
On the evening of the Man Booker, if you are a shortlisted candidate, you are told that if you win you will be speaking live on air within a moment or two, and that after a long and late night you must be up early for breakfast TV, and that you will be talk-talk-talking into the middle of next week, to an overlapping series of interviewers. You must be ready, poised; so everyone is given a copy of the winner's schedule to tuck away in their pocket or bag. So, for some hours, no one is the winner and you are all the winner. I already had plans for my week should I lose, and as I waited, watching the TV cameras manoeuvre in the run-up to the chairman's speech, I split neatly into two component parts: one for schedule A, one for schedule B. All such decisions are narrow ones. You win by a squeak or you lose. Your life changes or it doesn't. There is really no cause for self-congratulation: no time, either. You do not know till the moment you know; or at least, no wash of rumour reached me, lapping towards the stage from the back of the hall. So I wonder, what happened to the woman on schedule B, the one with the sinking heart and the sad loser's smile? I can't help worrying she's escaped and she's out there by night, in the chill of last autumn, wandering the city streets in a most inappropriate gold dress.
"Wolf Hall" is published by (Fourth Estate)
Hilary Mantel is the author of ten novels, including "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies", which is shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize
Photographs Diver Aguilar