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Photograph by Alwan Ezzidin

Hilary Mantel was born Hilary Thompson in Hadfield, Derbyshire, a mill town fifteen miles east of Manchester. Her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, chronicles a grim childhood in a working-class Irish Catholic family: “From about the age of four I had begun to believe I had done something wrong.” When she was seven, her mother’s lover, Jack Mantel, moved in with the Thompsons. “The children at school question me about our living ­arrangements, who sleeps in what bed. I don’t ­understand why they want to know but I don’t tell them anything. I hate going to school. Often I am ill.” Four years later, Jack Mantel and Hilary’s mother moved the family to Cheshire, after which Hilary never saw her father again. To quote once more from Giving Up the Ghost: “The story of my own childhood is a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish, to finish and put behind me.”  

Mantel graduated from the University of Sheffield, with a B.A. in ­jurisprudence. During her university years, she was a socialist. She worked in a geriatric hospital and in a department store. In 1972, she married Gerald McEwen, a geologist, and soon after, the couple moved to Botswana for five years, where Mantel wrote the book that became A Place of Greater Safety. The couple divorced in 1980, but in 1982 they married again, in front of a registrar, who wished them better luck this time.

All her life, Mantel has suffered from a painful, debilitating illness, which was first misdiagnosed and treated with antipsychotic drugs. In Botswana, through reading medical textbooks, she identified and diagnosed her own disease, a severe form of endometriosis. Since then, Mantel has written a great deal about the female body, her own and ­others’. An essay that begins with a consideration of Kate Middleton’s wardrobe and moves on to a discussion of the royal body generated so much controversy that (as she told the New Statesman) “if the pressmen saw any fat woman of a certain age walking along the street, they ran after her shouting, ‘Are you Hilary?’ ”  

Mantel’s early novels—Wolf Hall was her tenth novel, her twelfth book—reflect the grimness she describes from her childhood and share a bleak, dark humor. The two completed books of the projected Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, are not without darkness, but considering their subject­—the bloody rise and fall of Henry VIII’s chief minister—they are remarkably vivid on the pleasures of work, home, and ­ordinary happiness. Both were awarded the Man Booker Prize, making Mantel the first woman to win the prize twice. This winter, a stage adaptation, Wolf Hall, Parts One & Two, enjoyed a sell-out run in London; a Wolf Hall ­miniseries aired at the same time on the BBC. In February, Mantel was made a dame. 

Over the three days we spent together, she was working like an impassioned college student, until three or four a.m., and even after a day in the theater seeing both plays back to back, followed by a late supper, she was ready to meet and talk in the morning at nine. 

 

INTERVIEWER

You started with historical fiction and then you returned to it. How did that happen? 

MANTEL

I only became a novelist because I thought I had missed my chance to ­become a historian. So it began as second best. I had to tell myself a story about the French Revolution—the story of the revolution by some of the people who made it, rather than by the revolution’s enemies.

INTERVIEWER

Why that story? 

MANTEL

I’d read all the history books and novels I could lay my hands on, and I wasn’t satisfied with what I found. All the novels were about the aristocracy and their sufferings. And I thought those writers were missing a far more interesting group—the idealistic revolutionaries, whose stories are amazing. There was no novel about them. I set about writing it—at least, a story about some of them—so I could read it. And of course, for a long time it seemed as if I were the only person who ever would. My idea was to write a sort of documentary fiction, guided entirely by the facts. Then, not many months in, I came to a point where the facts about a certain episode ran out, and I spent a whole day making things up. At the end of it, I thought, I quite liked that. It sounds naive, not knowing that I would have to make things up, but I had a great belief that all the material was out there, somewhere, and if I couldn’t find it, that would be my fault. 

INTERVIEWER

But the majority of human history is lost, isn’t it?

MANTEL

Yes, and when you realize that, then you can say, I don’t know exactly how this episode occurred, but, for example, I do know where and when it took place. 

INTERVIEWER

Would you ever change a fact to heighten the drama?

MANTEL

I would never do that. I aim to make the fiction flexible so that it bends itself around the facts as we have them. Otherwise I don’t see the point. Nobody seems to understand that. Nobody seems to share my approach to historical fiction. I suppose if I have a maxim, it is that there isn’t any necessary conflict between good history and good drama. I know that history is not shapely, and I know the truth is often inconvenient and incoherent. It contains all sorts of superfluities. You could cut a much better shape if you were God, but as it is, I think the whole fascination and the skill is in working with those incoherencies.

INTERVIEWER

In containing the contradictions?

MANTEL

Exactly. The contradictions and the awkwardness—that’s what gives historical fiction its value. Finding a shape, rather than imposing a shape. And ­allowing the reader to live with the ambiguities. Thomas Cromwell is the character with whom that’s most essential. He’s almost a case study in ­ambiguity. There’s the Cromwell in popular history and the one in academic history, and they don’t make any contact really. What I have managed to do is bring the two camps together, so now there’s a new crop of Cromwell biographies, and they will range from the popular to the very authoritative and academic. So we will have a coherent Cromwell—perhaps. 

INTERVIEWER

When Raymond Carver wrote a story about Chekhov’s death, he invented details and a character. Janet Malcolm traced how subsequent biographies now include the character from his fiction. History grabbed him up. 

MANTEL

Yes, and once you know that you are working with historians in that way, then you have to raise your game. You have a responsibility to make your research good. Of course, you don’t mean for these things to happen. In A Place of Greater Safety, Camille Desmoulins wonders why he was always running into Antoine Saint-Just. We must be some sort of cousins because I used to see him at christenings, he says. It’s now become a “fact” that they were cousins. Things get passed around so easily on the Internet. And fact becomes fiction and fiction becomes fact, without anyone stepping in to ­arbitrate and say, What are your sources? 

INTERVIEWER

You worked on A Place of Greater Safety, your first novel about the French Revolution, decades before it was published. 

MANTEL

I started it when I was twenty-two, a year after university. That would be 1974. I wrote it in the evenings and on weekends. I did more of the research up front than I would have done at a later stage—luckily for me, because in spring of ’77, we went to live in Botswana, where there were no sources to speak of, as you can imagine. I had an intense few weeks before we went, when I said to myself, Get everything you haven’t got, because this is your only chance. 

It was a strange life. I was living partly in Botswana and partly in the 1790s. I was intensely engaged with my French Revolution book. But I ­became a teacher by accident. I was roped in by local ladies to work on a volunteer project doing a few hours a week at a little informal school set up for teenage girls. From there, I went to teach at the local secondary school. I was twenty-five and my oldest pupils were older than I was. Their ages ranged from twelve to twenty-six. We tended to have twelve-year-old girls and eighteen-year-old boys in the same classroom, which is an explosive mixture. The institution was a highly unpleasant place. Frantz Fanon would have loved it—the extent of cultural alienation, the horrific forms that colonialism takes that one doesn’t detect at the time, the tensions. We had a number of teachers from Zimbabwe, who divided themselves by language—so the teachers who were Ndebele people simply didn’t talk to the Shona people. There was a teacher from West Africa who was treated like a leper by all the teachers from southern Africa. The only way they made common cause was by hating the Nigerian. The Indian staff didn’t bother with the African staff, and the African staff gave the Indians as hard a time as possible. Botswana is the size of France, so it was a boarding school with day pupils, but many of the children came from hundreds of miles away. And to them our little bush town was New York. There was the culture shock the children lived with, the distance from their families. And then there was the horrible, sexually predatory behavior, which, to my shame, I didn’t entirely see at the time. I only dimly perceived it. Both masters and boys preying on the girls. This was Botswana just pre-AIDS. I had only very limited means of detecting what was going on, and, if I did detect it, what on earth was I going to do about it? You know, those layers of corruption permeated every aspect of life. Yet one went along day to day, teaching George Eliot. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you a have a prescribed curriculum? 

MANTEL

Yes, these children were sitting exams set, moderated, and marked in England. It’s very hard to teach Eliot when you have some pupils in your class whose vocabulary is around six hundred words, basic English. On the other hand, there were some children who were from a background where their English was more fluent, who were very capable of appreciating it on the linguistic level, though not on the cultural level. Imagine trying to explain, This is George Eliot, she’s writing in the nineteenth century. She’s writing about the eighteenth century and she’s not doing it very well. Try to explain fox hunting to a child who has never seen a fox, never seen a horse, never seen a hedge, never seen a green field, never seen snow. Yet in some ways they responded to the fierce morality. They cast it in terms of their own morality. We didn’t have television, and obviously we didn’t have theater. So you were teaching literature to people who had none of the familiar means of forming a picture of the outside world. Teaching Shakespeare in Botswana was difficult, you’d think, but again they loved it. I never told them it was supposed to be difficult. I got good results, I have to say. I suppose I threw myself into it—you know, I didn’t have the world weariness of the other teachers. Then some unpleasant incidents drove me out of the school.

INTERVIEWER

What happened?

MANTEL

I was on evening duty, and somebody jumped on me. It wasn’t a sexual thing. There were a group of pupils, with one person hitting me. Compared to what could have happened, it was trivial. It was dark, they were not my ­pupils, I couldn’t identify them, the school wasn’t interested in finding out. It was a shambles. I felt unsupported by the headmaster, and so I left, but I didn’t want to go, because I liked my pupils. 

After I left the school, I just wrote. 

INTERVIEWER

Had you always wanted to be a writer?

MANTEL

Never. I didn’t think in terms of becoming a writer until I actually picked up my pen to become one. And that was born out of a feeling that my health was causing me problems. By the time I was nineteen, I knew there was something wrong but I didn’t have a diagnosis, I didn’t have any help, and I realized that doors were closing. I wasn’t going to be some of the things I thought I might be. The best thing I could do was to get a trade that was under my control. But then, when I looked back, I realized that even though I hadn’t said to myself as a child, I want to be a writer, I’d actually instituted a training course. I always wonder if other people’s lives have been like that, when they turn into writers. From the age of about eight, I was hyperconscious about what I read, and my reading was always analytical. I was never simply absorbing stories but always asking myself, How is this done? When I walked to school every morning, from the age of eleven to eighteen, I “did” the weather and I didn’t stop until I had one perfect paragraph. So I had a huge mental file of weather. When I wrote Every Day Is Mother’s Day, I picked a sentence from my mental file and dropped it into the book—it gave me great pleasure to do so. I didn’t worry about the ten thousand sentences that didn’t get used because they were all a means to an end. The point of the exercise was not to stop until I’d pinned it down precisely and had exactly the right word. It was all about style, not story. By the time I got into my teens, I had nothing to say, but I had a very good style in which to say it. When I studied law, it completely broke my style, because you have to write in a very prescribed and tight way. When I started writing my novel, I had to rebuild my style. As for my subject, the French Revolution was beyond anything I had to say about my own life. It was so much bigger than me. Bigger than anybody. But there wasn’t the possibility of writing any other book because I had none.

By December of ’79, I had finished A Place of Greater Safety, but I couldn’t sell it, I couldn’t get anywhere with it at all. I had twelve weeks leave in England before I was due to return to Botswana. I’d made initial contact with a publisher, who seemed interested, so that was my first port of call. And they turned the book down. Then I found myself in hospital. I was very ill, I had major surgery. As I emerged, something in me said, I don’t think you will sell this book. It wasn’t that I had lost faith in the book—­because I never did—I just knew the impossibility of maneuvering from where I was. It was not a good time for historical fiction, and I knew from writing to agents and the dusty answers I got that even getting the book read was going to be impossible.

So I formed a cunning plan. I thought, I’ll write another novel. I’ll write a contemporary novel. That was Every Day Is Mother’s Day. I started it in Africa. I finished it in Saudi Arabia. At times I had very little sense of where I was going with it or whether there would be any profit or success at the end of it. It was written in the teeth of everything. It was an act of defiance—I thought, I’m not going to be beaten. I got an agent, I got a publisher, then I wrote the sequel. It wasn’t planned as two books. It was, for me, a way of getting a foot in the door. But once I had secured a contract, I just rolled up my sleeves and I set about Vacant Possession in a way that I’ve never worked before. I would write through the morning, Gerald would come home midafternoon, would have his siesta, and when he woke up, I would read him what I had written in the morning. I’ve never written like that since. 

INTERVIEWER

Gerald’s a geologist—did you train him to be a literary reader?

MANTEL

That wasn’t what I needed. It sounds horrible, but I needed a listening ear. I needed someone to write for, someone who wanted to know what would happen next. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you prefer historical fiction, even then? Or were they equal but different enterprises?

MANTEL

I have to be frank. Writing a contemporary novel was just a way to get a publisher. My heart lay with historical fiction, and I think it still does. 

INTERVIEWER

Though you went on to write quite a few contemporary novels.

MANTEL

Well, things changed. I realized that writing a contemporary novel wasn’t just a way in, it was a trade in itself. We returned to England from Saudi Arabia just as Vacant Possession was published. By then I had my mass of material from Saudi Arabia, which I knew I must use, because I had a unique opportunity. So again, that book, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, demanded to be written. And by then I had the idea for Fludd, which had long been simmering in my mind.

INTERVIEWER

During all that time you didn’t give your publisher A Place of Greater Safety. Why not? 

MANTEL

Because I was absorbed in what I was doing. I thought, Just push on while the going’s good. Fludd was one of those books that came in an instant. You know, you’ve got the first sentence, you’ve got the last sentence. A thing like that can go off the boil. So again, I had a sense of urgency. 

INTERVIEWER

A lot of your subsequent themes emerged in those first two books—­anorexia, diets, a drowned baby, an obsession with “the royals.” 

MANTEL

The epigraph to Every Day Is Mother’s Day is Pascal—“Two errors; one, to take everything literally; two, to take everything spiritually.” And it’s the epigraph for the lot, isn’t it? 

INTERVIEWER

How did you go about writing Eight Months on Ghazzah Street?

MANTEL

I kept diaries all the time, and I kept my notes. But there are a lot of problems with that novel. I think it’s too fuzzy. I don’t think I really crunched down on it. That was inexperience, and the distressing business of having to make things up. I always see that book through a dust haze, but I do remember the moment when, if it were another book, I’d say it crystallized, but being Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, it didn’t crystallize at all. We lived in the city center and one day I went up onto the roof of our apartment block, which was the only outside space available. I craned my neck and saw a crate on the neighbor’s balcony. I thought, My novel’s in that box. There was something incredibly sinister about it. And yet, what was it? It was a box. In my experience, those are the moments that set a novel. You just have to wait. Supposing I hadn’t gone up to the roof, what would the novel have been? I have no idea. 

The odd thing about Ghazzah Street was that a lot of what I said proved to be pretty accurate when terrorist activity was exposed in Saudi Arabia. People were doing just what I said—they were stockpiling arms in little flats around the city. 

I wrote Ghazzah Street, then I wrote Fludd, not very quickly actually, over a couple of years. By this stage, you see, I’d earned two thousand pounds from my first novel, and four thousand pounds from my second novel. For Ghazzah Street and Fludd, I got a two-book contract for £17,500—not enough to live on. It was at that point that I became a film critic. Then I became a book reviewer as well. I did one film review a week, several books reviews a month. I was an industry. 

INTERVIEWER

How could you do it? Did you become a fast reader?

MANTEL

Long hours. I don’t think I changed my reading speed. I take lots of notes. I might not have been the world’s most insightful reviewer, but I was an ­extremely conscientious one. Once I got the film column, I was highly visible, and I had more work coming in than I could handle. But I was making a living. I was solvent. And I felt I was building something. There’s something very seductive about opening a newspaper if your name is almost always in it. Every weekend, two papers, three papers. If you’re an un-networked person from nowhere, which is exactly what I was, then you realize that you’re drilling away into the heart of the cultural establishment. 

INTERVIEWER

Did the book reviewing make you see your own work within a context? Did you feel your novels were related to other schools of fiction? 

MANTEL

No, to be honest, I never have. I think I’ve had a curve of development that was just mine. This is why, for so long, I made no money. Though I had a good reputation critically, I had very few readers because I wouldn’t find a formula and stick to it. Until the Cromwell novels, I had no identity in the mind of the reading public. It’s very hard for a publisher to market an author who doesn’t display any consistency in what she’s interested in or how she writes. 

INTERVIEWER

Ian McEwan jumps all over the map, doesn’t he? 

MANTEL

I think he is more consistent in his preoccupations. You and I will know that my books are intimately connected, that there is coherence, but from a commercial point of view, they’ve not been an attractive package. And then there is the divide between contemporary fiction and historical fiction. When I began work on the French Revolution, it seemed to me the most interesting thing that had ever happened in the history of the world, and it still does in many ways. I had no idea how little the British public knew or cared or wished to know about the French Revolution. And that’s still the case. They want to know about Henry VIII. 

INTERVIEWER

So you feel readers’ interests are predominantly subject based.

MANTEL

Yes, the imagination is parochial. I couldn’t have picked anything less promising, from a commercial point of view, than the French Revolution. 

INTERVIEWER

How did A Place of Greater Safety get published, in the end?

MANTEL

It was because of a newspaper article. This was in 1992. I had four books out. I had my reviewing career. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was getting somewhere. And there was this monster book on the shelf. I hadn’t looked into it for years. I thought, What if it’s no good? Because if it is no good, then that’s my twenties written off. And it also means that I commenced my career with a gigantic mistake. But inside me there was still a belief that it would be published one day. And a friend of mine, the Irish writer Clare Boylan, rang me up and said she was doing an article for the Guardian about people’s unpublished first novels, and had I got one? I could have lied, but it was as if the devil jumped out of my mouth, and I said, Yes, I have! And of course she rang around a number of authors, and they were saying things like, Yes, I wrote my first novel at the age of eight, and I’ve still got it in a shoe box. I was the only person who actually wanted to see her first novel published. On my way to deliver it to my agent, I had lunch with another novelist. The manuscript was a huge parcel under my chair—­unwelcome, like a surprise guest. We should have given it a chair to itself. He said, Don’t do it.

INTERVIEWER

You were twenty-seven when you’d written it and now you were forty.

MANTEL

Something like that. A lot of things had happened in French Revolution scholarship since then. The bicentenary had come and gone, and there had been a revolution in feminist history. When I read my draft, I saw that the women were wallpaper. There had been no material. Today you would think, Well, I must invent some, then. At the time I hadn’t seen the need—I hadn’t thought the women were interesting. My life was more like the life of an eighteenth-century man than like the life of an eighteenth-century woman. And I suppose I didn’t really ask myself the questions. Now I thought, I’ve got to work this harder.

INTERVIEWER

How long did you take to revise? 

MANTEL

I did it in the course of one summer. The publication process was horrendous. Basically, the novel was written in the present tense. Someone in the publishing house didn’t want that, so changed it, and I changed it back, and so on, through proofs. The result was that, if you look at the book now, there are paragraphs where two tenses are employed. One day I’m ­going to straighten it out. But the work I had to do in those weeks was brutal, because I had to revise on a schedule. I worked immensely long hours. Something in me was never quite the same after that. It would be romantic to say that summer was the making of me, but it actually wasn’t like that. It brutalized me. I’m not sure if I can really express it, but it was after that, I shut down. I shut down such a lot of my life in order to do it, and never opened up again. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you mean you entered a level of isolation for the work, or restriction? A deeper commitment?

MANTEL

Restriction, yes. I think it’s good for me as a writer. I don’t think it’s very good for me as a human being. A sort of grimness entered into me, I think, which is still there. I suppose that book always was more important to me than anything else. 

INTERVIEWER

It was the book, until the Cromwell books.

MANTEL

Yes. It was me doing what I do. And I think, for better or worse, it’s me ­doing what only I could do. Nobody else works by this method, with my ideal of fidelity to history. Regardless of whether that’s a good thing, or gets good results, it is a thing I do.

INTERVIEWER

You said you withdrew from life. What did you eliminate?

MANTEL

Friends. Personal relationships. Fun. Everything just went. I don’t think I had many close friends before, but it seems to me that after that summer I never relaxed again. And the only people who could be my friends were ­people who were enormously tolerant of my really not being there for months at a time. Because of my health, my energy has always had to be harvested, preserved, and directed at work. And then if there was any left over, fine, but usually there wasn’t. I never lived in London, so I didn’t hang out with literary people in my off-duty hours. I was not isolated, though, from other writers. Instead of going to literary parties, I went to committees. I sat on the Council of the Royal Society of Literature, on the management committee of the Society of Authors. For six years I sat on the Advisory Committee  for Public Lending Right, which advised the government on giving authors an income from books borrowed from libraries. That was my involvement in the literary world. It was technical, if you like. It was useful work, but most people would have regarded it as extremely dull. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you have friends who were helpful with the work itself? 

MANTEL

I’m going to say no, on the whole. Gerald is my first reader, but I don’t ­expect literary criticism from him. He’s not going to say, Oh, that reminds me of something in Muriel Spark. He’s going to react as a human being to it. And isn’t that what we want? 

I have other people I hold in mind as I write, to whom I might show something at an early stage. A fan who became a friend, Jan Rogers—she was a BBC producer, and it was she who got me writing for radio. She is knowledgeable about revolutionary history, she got me more deeply into Irish history, and she woke me up to literary theory. I have a friend called Jane Haynes, a psychotherapist—that’s another strand of interest. 

I don’t really talk about writing very much to other writers. There’s one writer—Adam Thorpe. Adam lives in France and I never see him, but if he were to walk in, we’d have a proper conversation. It would be about writing. And I think he’s the only person I have that kind of relationship with, and I haven’t heard from him for months. 

I keep a big correspondence going with Mary Robertson, whom my Cromwell books are dedicated to. I write to Mary almost every week, sometimes far more often. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you become friends?

MANTEL

Some years ago, probably fifteen years ago, I was invited to the Huntington Library, to a conference along with Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens—the lads, you know. I casually mentioned to a woman there that I was thinking of writing something down the line about Thomas Cromwell. And she said, When you do, we have a woman here you need to meet. I thought no more of it until the time came, then I said, You have a woman, I believe. And therein we fell into correspondence—very tentatively at first. Mary had long ago written a Ph.D. thesis on Thomas Cromwell’s ministerial household. She’d also written a couple of papers on his property holdings. But she had not really asked herself what this man was like, because that was not her job. 

INTERVIEWER

What was your correspondence like?

MANTEL

Luminous. I didn’t really ask her questions. I’d bounce suggestions off her. I’d say, I’ve come across this and my thought about it is that. What if I were to speculate? Would you see anything against it? Is this really a gap in the record? Or is it just something that I personally don’t know? Her interest and knowledge were there, ready to be revived.