Before Hilary Mantel turned the court of Henry VIII into a spellbinding novel that would win her 2009’s Booker Prize, she’d written memoirs, criticism, short stories and other historical novels. She invented a flood for Fludd and mined personal experiences to write Eight Months on Ghazzah Street and Giving Up the Ghost. History inspired A Place of Greater Safety, set in 18th century France, and The Giant, O’Brien, is based on a man who came to London to exhibit himself as a freak and whose bones still hang in the Royal College of Surgeons. With Wolf Hall, a biography of Thomas Cromwell, Mantel brought the genre of historical fiction back into the limelight. Sales following its win have made it the most popular Booker winner since records began. She tells Time Out that she’s already working on a sequel.
What made you decide to tackle historical fiction?
Looking back, I think that writing my memoir was a training ground for future novels, and something that was good for me as a writer. There are people who insist that almost all your memories of childhood are later reconstructions, but what I found when writing my memoir was that my childhood rose before me as an utter sensory wraparound, so that I was able to inhabit my past, and my work was to simply describe it. When you write fiction, the object is to achieve that on behalf of a character that you’ve invented or a person who is dead. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to do it as successfully, in fiction, as I have in Wolf Hall.
Of all the characters in Henry VIII’s England, why Thomas Cromwell?
I first came across him when I was a child learning history in Catholic school. I grew up with the sainted Thomas More looking down from stained-glass windows. It made me ask whether there was more to Cromwell’s story than just his opposition to More. There seemed to be a lot of blanks in his story, and it wasn’t easy to find out anything about him, but it’s in those gaps that the novelist goes to work. He’s a man at the centre of everything, and yet in most fiction and drama he’s pushed into the wings: he stands there, wrapped in his black cloak, hissing and plotting. I wanted to put the spotlight on him.
The Tudors have inspired many works of fiction, including films such as The Other Boleyn Girl and TV series The Tudors. Did you feel there was a lot to live up to?
The Tudors are the great national soap opera. Their story has been worked over so extensively that I needed to find a way of telling the story that would cancel out the preconceptions we were brought
up with. These stories have an archetypal force. A lot of retellings of Tudor history aren’t really about Tudor history at all. They’re about sex and violence and the war between men and women. The story of the Tudors is just a veneer and they’ve been used as an excuse for a lot of cheap popular romantic fiction. It used to be a way of writing about sex when you weren’t allowed to, and now it’s a way of writing about the destructiveness of families and rivalry between women.
Is the boundary between history and fiction problematic?
It’s always a tension. The novelist has a responsibility to adhere to the facts as closely as possible, and if they are inconvenient, that’s where the art comes in.
We hear you’re working on a sequel to Wolf Hall.
I’m longing to be back in the thick of the action; partly it’s because I want to know what’s going to happen next. When I write, there are often times when I go into a scene not quite sure what I think, knowing that the problem I have to solve revolves around one question, ‘How did this happen?’ And by the end of the scene I have an answer, because it’s happened on the page. I’m looking forward to getting back to those puzzles in the new book.
Wolf Hall is published by Harper Collins.