I am very pleased to announce Hilary Mantel as the fifth interview in the Top Historical Fiction Author Series. In a recent survey of 805 individuals, readers ranked Ms. Mantel in the top twenty favourite authors.
As part of my book club list in 2011, I read Wolf Hall. Discussion amongst our group was wide ranging and enthusiastic as we debated the merits of Ms Mantel’s work, the intricacies of plot, the vividness of language and how Cromwell’s time, place and persona came to life. Next up for me is Bring Up The Bodies, her recently released sequel.
I can see that you have written several books of a more contemporary nature as well as a book of short stories. Why are you currently focused on historical fiction? I started out with historical fiction. I wrote my French Revolution novel, A Place of Greater Safety, in my twenties, though it wasn’t published till much later. The impetus for that book was simple: I thought ‘I want to read it,’ and as it didn’t exist, I set about creating it. I was fascinated by the Revolution but all the stories I read about it were highly romantic and focused on the royalists. I thought the revolutionaries had the better stories: more unlikely, more human. Later I came across the story of the eighteenth century Irish giant, Charles O’Brien, and the surgeon John Hunter. Its quality — the quality of a gruesome fairytale — seemed to cry out for an imaginative treatment: so I wrote the book simply called The Giant, O’Brien. I’d been thinking about Thomas Cromwell for many years, as the focus of a great untold story. I half-expected someone else to write it. But as the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession approached, I decided to have a go. I didn’t know then it would be a trilogy; I thought in terms of one book, which became Wolf Hall and came out in time for the commemorations in 2009.
You are clearly very skilled at writing historical fiction. What do you think attracts readers to your books? I try to bring to historical fiction just the same qualities I would bring to a contemporary literary novel. In other words, it’s the best writing I can do. I hope readers are interested by the quality and scope of my research, which I take seriously; and by the fact that I don’t twist the truth to fit the story, but try to find the dramatic shape in real events. I also want my readers to know, to appreciate, that all historical accounts, whether fact or fiction, are compromised to some degree, and that we can never arrive at the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I regard the enterprise as a joint effort between writer and reader. If one of my books leaves the reader with questions, and a desire to know more, then I’m happy.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? To work from general accounts of an era to biographies of major figures, then of minor figures, then to the specifics of what I need to know, culled from the evidence that is closest to source. And at the same time, to cast the net across a whole culture, listen to their music, read what they would have read, look at the pictures they might have seen: who makes their world-view? To visit places if it’s feasible. To learn about food, furniture, clothes, all the small material things, and also to learn about the prejudices, assumptions, value judgments of a particular era. To leave most of this on file; but to select, for the reader, the telling detail.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? I like Anthony Burgess, Gore Vidal, Thomas Keneally, JG Farrell, Barry Unsworth: all these writers have at one time or another given me heart, and encouraged me to be both playful and serious. And ambitious.
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing? Integrity, so that you’re true to your material. A strong and flexible imagination. An ability to live with the ambiguous. And a facility to suspend judgment, and work with alien world-views; it’s false to project 21st century western values back into the past. These are the qualities I’ve tried to cultivate generally as a writer. I may not always be able to live up to my ideals but I try to infuse them into everything I write.
How do you select new stories to tell? I look for the ones I think I can tell better than anyone else: stories that resonate with my interests and seem to play to my abilities. You have to have a driving desire to tell the story; historical fiction is hard work, and commitment is everything.
What techniques do you employ to write productively? I spend a great deal of time on background research and fact-gathering, so I have a good overall picture of where my story is going. Then, just before I write a particular scene, I gather all my notes and sources and reread them, so that all the different versions, the different voices are fighting in my head, all the characters are urging me to listen and pulling at my elbow. Then I write a scene very quickly, in something between a rage and a trance.
With a cooler head, I then go back an unpick it, to see if it does the job I need it to do and if there’s a neater, shorter way of putting over the points.
Do you think of yourself as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how do you reinforce it? All my books are different, whether contemporary or historical. So I’m the opposite of a brand. I have never allowed myself to be pushed by a perceived drift or shift in the market, but have always gone my own way and presented my publisher with the result. This is perhaps why I wrote for 12 years before finding a publisher; I was unwilling to compromise. This is also why it has taken me so long to sell books in large quantities. I didn’t build up a core readership because I could give my publisher and my readers no idea what would come next. Artistically, I think this is a good thing. Financially, not so good.
What do you do to connect with readers? Just write as well as I can. My primary responsibility is to the next book, not to a marketing effort. That said, I do all my publishers could reasonably require of me by way of media interviews and public events, and I put my heart into them.
What do you know about your readers? Since Wolf Hall was published, my readers are in 32 countries. So it’s hard to know or guess anything. But the main assumption I make is that my readers are highly intelligent and don’t appreciate being spoon-fed. My books will never be for everyone, because they demand an effort of attention. They’re not quick reads. But I hope they stand up to being read twice, maybe more, and that the reader will find different things each time.
What data do you collect about your readers? Their opinion is important to me, and I hear it online and at festivals and events. But analysis of the market I leave to my publisher.
What strategies guide your writing career? It’s a long game. You may incubate a project for twenty years. Never despair and never throw anything away. Ideas transmute in the darkness of a drawer, and what doesn’t work now may find its application in the far future.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? I probably wouldn’t have chosen to enter the market with a long and difficult historical novel during the late 1970s, which weren’t a great time for historical fiction. I found it almost impossible even to get anyone to read my manuscript; they expected romance, and it was a political novel. I would have been published quicker if I had written contemporary fiction first. But I can’t really regret it. A Place of Greater Safety was a young woman’s novel. I couldn’t possibly write it now, any more than I could have written my Thomas Cromwell novels when I was young.
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? To find a story that you are really committed to, and a cast of characters that enthralls you, whether they are real people or fictional people set in an era that attracts you. And then to read and research as widely and diligently as you can, but be prepared to let that research simmer as background knowledge; only a little of it will ever emerge onto the page. Don’t be tempted to bend the facts, because one lie trips another, and before you know it you’re in fantasy land. Shape your drama around history; be flexible, be supple, be ingenious.
Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked? You’ve covered it, I think, Mary. Except I’d just like to mention what comes next: after Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, the final part of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, at present entitled The Mirror & The Light.
Many thanks for such an insightful interview, Hilary. Your advice such as “find the dramatic shape in real events”, “work with alien world-views” and the notion that all historical accounts are compromised to some extent will resonate for many readers and writers. As someone who has a cabinet stuffed with research materials, I particularly like the thought that “ideas transmute in the darkness of a drawer”.