Hilary Mary Mantel CBE, née Thompson, is an English novelist, short story writer and critic. Her work,
ranging in subject from personal memoir to historical fiction, has been short-listed for major literary awards. In 2009, she won the Man Booker Prize for her novel Wolf Hall.
Hilary Mantel interview: 'My problem is never ideas. My problem is time'
How easy has the RSC's recent theatre adaptation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies been for you?
I am a very deliberate and cautious person and I am used to turning things over in the silence and privacy of my mind for hours and hours. In the theatre it is not like that. When you are in rehearsal and asked a question the answer has to come back immediately. I have made a profession of doubting myself, so it is something very new to be instinctive.
Have you felt a kindred spirit with the actors in the risk of bringing your characters – Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII and the rest – to life?
Surprisingly I have. I always write in terms of scenes, and for a big scene in one of the Cromwell novels I will prepare for several days by going through all my notes and all my sources before diving into the writing. At that moment where I commit to the writing it is exactly like walking on stage. All your senses are alive and it is as if you are straining your ears for the sound of a response.
When were you first enthralled by theatre?
I wasn't from a theatre-going background at all. I first went to Stratford-on-Avon the summer of my 16th birthday with two friends from school. We organized ourselves and saw four plays in three days. After that it became a very big thing in our lives. So to have been arriving in Stratford-on-Avon these last months and thinking "I am going to work" has been a really wonderful feeling.
Did you find yourself going back to Shakespeare's history plays when the idea of this production came about?
I discovered Shakespeare for myself when I was about 10. No one told me it was difficult so I didn't think it was. Reading Shakespeare was always pure pleasure. But the way that the history plays were presented is not how we do history today.
People sometimes say to me: "Why do you make a fetish of historical accuracy? Shakespeare didn't". My answer is always simply "I am not Shakespeare". He could get away with anything.
You are writing the third novel in your trilogy – The Mirror and the Light – while Ben Miles has been inhabiting the role of Cromwell on stage. Has watching him changed your idea of your character?
No, in my head Cromwell is a blur of energy; he is moving all the time. In my mind's eye I think of him as I would think of friends and family. Their presence is in their energies rather than a set of physical features.
While you were working on the first two books you were often in a great deal of pain from the health issues related to severe endometriosis that led to a long period in hospital in 2010. How did that affect your writing?
The spell in hospital occurred between the writing of the two books. I have had a lifetime of illness, but I wouldn't like to say how that feeds into what I have written. It was certainly a very strange time in 2010 though.
I had won the Booker with Wolf Hall, and then there was a year in which I had two bouts of major surgery and it was sort of a hole bitten out of time. When I came to write Bring up the Bodies I did so in a storm: really, very, very fast. I suppose I had been mentally preparing all that year.
In a diary piece you wrote about your time in hospital, you mentioned the hallucinatory episodes you experienced. It sounds like some of those hallucinations led directly to the stories in the collection you have coming out later this year called The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Is that right?
Yes it is. That title story I started years and years ago and I could not get it right. The first night I was in hospital full of morphine I simply stayed up all night making up stories. And one of the things that happened was that I saw the assassin. I knew exactly who he was.
So the missing piece of that story dropped into place. And I made up some other stories too. It wasn't me going temporarily mad; it was a drug-induced thing. But as a writer you try and use everything.
Given that morphine experience, have you been tempted to use drugs to aid imagination before or since?
No, it was a one-off. For every profitable idea, I think, 10 are going to be garbage. My problem is never ideas. My problem is time.
Are you haunted by work you have not completed?
I think as you get older you realize you will die with projects unfinished. I have long been conscious about the fact that when you have the idea for a story that does not mean you are ready to write it. I wanted to write the Thomas Cromwell books right at the beginning of my career as a writer. He was not ready to come out into the light, and I wasn't ready for him.
The success, late-is in your career, has been phenomenal. Are you pinching yourself still?
I never expected it but it gives me great pleasure though, because I saw it as a continuation of what I had been doing.
Right from the first page, the first paragraph, it was like: "Ah! Now you see everything you have done was aiming at this!" I think this project is the thing I could have done that nobody else could have done, if that doesn't sound boastful.
The books are rooted in a different time and place and in very different voices from your own. Do you still think of them as expressions of yourself?
Yes, however good your bag of tricks is, you are always in there somewhere. But the transaction is not one way. It is not character becomes author, but also author becomes character. You cannot stop that intermingling, for better and worse.
Now that the end is almost in sight for your Cromwell, can you imagine life without him?
The thing is, the end is not almost in sight. I don't write sequentially, so I can never say where I am up to. I know I have at least another year to go, though this morning I have written part of the last chapter.
And then I expect the book will also have several lives. I thought I was giving five years to Thomas Cromwell, then 10, now I can't really see an end. I am very energised about the whole thing though. To me it is still like the first day of writing, the excitement of it.
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