ABOVE: HILARY MANTEL. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN HAYNES/HENRY HOLT & CO.
Winning the Man Booker prize is a feat unto itself—an accomplishment not unlike the attainment of a gold medal in the Olympics of modern literature. Winning it twice is extraordinary, and certainly grounds for a writer to kick up her heels and go on a long vacation. The indefatigable Hilary Mantel, however, shows no sign of putting down her golden quill. After her two Booker victories—first in 2009 for Wolf Hall, her historical novel on Tudor insider Thomas Cromwell, and then in 2012 for Bring Up the Bodies, the second installment of the same Cromwell trilogy—Mantel’s oeuvre has only continued to grow.
In 2013, she set her sights on theater, overseeing The Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage adaptations of her award-winning Cromwell books. 2015 will see the London productions arrive stateside to Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre, as well as to the BBC screen, as part of a six-part series. While all this unfolds out of her first two Cromwell books, Mantel is busy working on the final installment of her trilogy-in-progress, and if that wasn’t enough, Mantel has now released a book of short stories—a combination of memoir and contemporary fiction, including the title story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.
We chatted with the charming Hilary Mantel at her seaside home in Devon, England about chasing ghosts, learning new skills, and lending a voice to inner characters.
SEYMOUR GLASS: How are you enjoying your summer in Devon?
HILARY MANTEL: It’s a gorgeous view over the bay. I haven’t been spending much time here this summer—spent a great deal of it in London, but it’s nice to be home for a few days.
GLASS: Have you been writing a lot?
MANTEL: I have, but I’ve been spending a quite a lot of time as well with the two shows which are on at the West End at the moment—the adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. We hope we’re going to Broadway in spring—not confirmed yet, but the negotiation is being done.
GLASS: What was your first impression when the Royal Shakespeare Company proposed the adaptations to you? Were you surprised at all that people wanted to see your stories on the stage?
MANTEL: It wasn’t a surprise at all, actually. Even as I was writing the first book, I was seeing the potential to make a history play—with the Shakespeare model, but not in the Shakespeare manner. What happened was the producer approached me for the rights of the first book, and he introduced me to Mike Poulton, who was an experienced adapter. Then my second book in the Cromwell trilogy was ready quicker than I thought, and the producer thought, “This is the time to get the Royal Shakespeare Company on board.” But I’ve been involved from the beginning, working alongside the adaptor then in the rehearsal rooms—with the shows, I’m in there very frequently. And if we transfer to Broadway next spring, I’ll come along with them.
GLASS: Were you nervous about your work coming into life in that way, or was there at any point you thought your story had been compromised?
MANTEL: It was more of the other way, actually; I’ve been astonished at what could come out of it. I think you have to think of the stage productions as new works, essentially. And the TV production, it’s already being scripted and filmed as a six-part series coming out next year. The two ventures are completely separate—different writing teams, different characters, different storylines, and obviously different Thomas Cromwells, but they’re all faithfully off of my books.
GLASS: What was the adaptation process like?
MANTEL: I always felt very confident in the adapter because he really shared my view that you can make good drama and good history—there is not necessarily a contradiction. You don’t just throw in historical facts; you work your drama around the history. So we agreed on that as the bedrock of the production, but for instance, I think someone counted that there are 160 characters in the books, and on stage, we have 20 actors, and even though many of them play several parts, you’ve still got to begin by cutting down the number of storylines and choosing your themes very carefully. It was a very intricate process. We went through nine drafts and any number of sub-drafts, I’ve completely lost a hold of that. I think the whole thing has been really positive for me—discovery and exhilaration all the way. It changed my ambitions for the future completely.
GLASS: Wow, that’s refreshing. You usually hear about adaptations being less than satisfying—writers always want a truer, more faithful interpretation than what they usually get.
MANTEL: Yes, I have a whole new set of skills now that I didn’t have a year ago. It seems to me that although I’ve got quite a few novels I want to explore after I finish the Cromwell trilogy, I’m going to write for the theater now as well, because I don’t think I could give up this world. I’ve never had so much fun in my life.
GLASS: That’s exciting! I imagine you’re interacting with people a lot more that when you’re just writing a novel.
MANTEL: Well, that’s true. A thing I’d not done for years and years was to work as any part of a team, and I found that—it took me a little while, I probably didn’t speak up for two weeks, but once I got some kind of handle on the etiquette and the protocol and the who-does-what, then I began to contribute more. And at first I was just a walking encyclopedia, to be consulted about the Tudors. But then we actually moved into rehearsals at Stratford-upon-Avon, I started to take a more creative part, once we came to the stage of, “That doesn’t quite work, how can we fix it?” and doing rewrites, and just injecting fresh material, then I found that I could contribute in that way. That was very exciting, you know, going into the rehearsal studio with something in the morning and talking it through.
GLASS: Now you’re writing the third book in the Cromwell trilogy. Has your writing process changed now that you’ve been involved with the theatrical adaptations?
MANTEL: I don’t think my process has changed, but I think the content will change. My process has always been writing when I’m on the move, I’m doing lots of scribbling, you know, and that stage takes involves months, years. Then I’ll sit at my desk and put things together quite quickly. I think because you’ve got such a complex material with a historical novel, there does come a stage where you’ve got all your books around you, and all your files, and you’ve just got to tie yourself at the desk. The content for the third book will change, though, because I’ve got such a lot of insight from working with the actors. It’s a work in progress —it’s open and it’s flexible, and there are all sorts of things I haven’t made my mind up about, and I’ve been looking for insight, looking for input, and I’ve got that from working with the actors—sometimes from asking them outright but sometimes just from observing. They don’t know how much material they’re giving me, but they are. It’s a real privilege to be able to work this way and no one has been able to do this before—it’s an unusual setup.
GLASS: Are you writing with the intention of having the third one made into a production as well?
MANTEL: Yes, it’s optioned by the people who have the rights to the first two books. The aim I think eventually is to have this big trilogy. It’s a wonderful prospect. I started writing one novel which I thought would cover the whole of Thomas Cromwell’s career, and that was back in 2005, and the one novel became three, and it’s going to be three plays, and we’ve got the six-part series on BBC, so it’s a very much bigger enterprise than I ever imagined.
GLASS: So you must think an awful lot about Cromwell? Is it Cromwell overload?
MANTEL: I’m more fascinated than I was the day I started. When I’m not writing a book, I just want to be writing a book. I think the complexity of the material, the fact that there are just no easy answers, and sometimes no answers at all, keeps the whole thing in play. I now feel very familiar with the characters, so I have no trouble getting them to talk; my only problem is getting them to keep quiet. [laughs]
GLASS: If it wasn’t Cromwell, do you think another figure or historical period would have stimulated you as much?
MANTEL: I’d written a novel set in the French Revolution and a smaller novel also set in the 18th century called the The Giant, O’Brien and I really saw myself as an 18th-century person. It was very hard to break off and learn a new era. And I had the Cromwell idea for a long, long time—it was there right at the beginning of my writing life—but I found it difficult to break off once my career had started to move along. It’s quite hard to tell your publisher, “I’m going away now to write a historical novel, don’t expect me for four years.” I had to wait until I got into a position to be able to do that. With the 18th century, I felt at home, but the Tudors were a strange world to me and I had to start cold. It wasn’t that I wanted to write about the Tudors, but I was gripped by the character of Thomas Cromwell. To get it right, I had to take a step back and get to grips with the whole era.
GLASS: Let’s talk about your new book of short stories. I found there to be a good range there—what was your intention with it? Were you trying for a “Best of Hilary Mantel,” and if not, what tied these stories together for you?
MANTEL: They were grouped around theme. I thought it would be neat to write a collection called Ten Transgressive Tales, with a lot of crossing of borders and frontiers, and then I got together my nine and the Mrs. Thatcher story—well, once that arrived on the page, then it was obvious that the title of that story should be the title of the collection. It’s interesting because the full title of the story was “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 1983″—so it’s very specific day, a specific moment. It’s a story I’ve been trying to write since that date, and it had eluded me. I’ve had any number of ghosts, but I couldn’t find the right form for it. There’s a moment when you witness something, or it comes into your mind, and you say, “That’s the story,” but you can’t find it. It’s always ahead of you somewhere in the dark. And finally a few months ago I managed to chase it down.
GLASS: That’s a delightful way to put it!
MANTEL: Well, it was a really deliberate effort. I thought, “I need my 10th story, and obviously this has got to be it—and I’m just not leaving this house until I’ve done it, until I’ve made it work.” And about three days later, it was finally on the page.
GLASS: So of course the Margaret Thatcher story has its place in history—when I read the first story, which involves your own personal history, it got me wondering how much of the stories you included were meant to feel historical, or as though they might have truly happened? In choosing these stories, was there some notion of confusing history with fiction?
MANTEL: I think that my short fiction does involve my having witnessed something, so it tends to involve more events from my own life. I often write in the first person in my short fiction. Not invariably, but often. I quite enjoy doing that, because there are all these little sub-selves that spring into life for the duration of the story, and then you wonder if any of them have got any potential—if they’ve got legs, if you might meet them again in another story. They always seem more real to me than people you might invent in the third person. I suppose you’re just giving someone a voice for a very short time.
GLASS: Do you take very long, comparatively, to write your short fiction?
MANTEL: I have a lot of trouble with short fiction. It’s not the easiest thing for me; in fact, I think it’s the hardest. I think I was meant for the marathon and not the sprint. Recently I’ve found that it is easier for me to write if I just pretend it’s true. In that way, I stop worrying about the form of it. It finds its own form itself. I never found with a novel that I needed to do that at all. But I found it could be one of these things that helps you for a short time—as a writer, you’re always thinking, “Oh, I’ve found the secret,” and then a couple of years down the line you might not need the secret at all. But just for now it’s a good thing for me to do, and it means that a story might not be memoir, but it might sound like memoir.
GLASS: That’s what I found so interesting, wondering how much of them was grounded in some reality.
MANTEL: Well, the story “Sorry to Disturb” is actually a memoir, and originally published as a memoir.
GLASS: And “How Shall I Know You?”—it makes a reader wonder if it’s based on you, because the main character is a writer.
MANTEL: There were a couple of incidents in that story which I think any writer—well, certainly any British writer—will recognize. That journey, that town, that literary society—that particular hotel I’m describing with its strange staff—yes, this is real life. But of course, there’s a sort of mischievous pleasure in inventing another writer—her own career, her own book titles— you could more or less write her CV, and she she’s obviously a different writer from me, because she’s in a different place.
GLASS: There’s this part in that story where the character is carrying around her half-finished work because she’s afraid someone could find them if she died. As a writer of history, are you concerned at all with the idea that when you die, there will be unfinished work? Do you think about your legacy at all?
MANTEL: Well, the other week I formulated a 10-year plan for myself. When I worked it out, it was more like a 20-year plan, and I reconciled dying in the middle of a sentence [laughs], but I think the narrator of “How Shall I Know You?” is in a very different position from me. Her domestic background is only suggested but she doesn’t seem to have anything very stable. She’s carrying these things around with her because she doesn’t feel safe. I think it’s different from my own situation because I do have a very settled domestic arrangement, so that I can be very unsettled inside my head. I have my papers safe in California and eventually I’ll die with something unfinished—I’ve reconciled with that—but I’m not a rootless person like the writer in the story. But I think you have times of inner restlessness, and you move on from topic to topic, and a book changes in your mind. You think you’re writing one historical novel and it turns into three, and I’m quite used to a short story turning into a novel—that’s happened through my whole career. I’ve always worked on projects in an overlapping pattern, so the interesting question is— which of them will come to the fore?
HILARY MANTEL’S NEW COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES, THE ASSASSINATION OF MARGARET THATCHER, IS OUT TODAY, SEPTEMBER 30.