The competition for the Booker Prize was extremely tough this year, with A.S. Byatt, Sarah Waters and previous winner J.M. Coetzee making the short list. However, after much speculation and debate, Hilary Mantel was awarded the 2009 Booker Prize for her novel Wolf Hall. Set in the court of Henry VIII in the 1520s, Wolf Hall is an extraordinary read. Find out more about the author and her novel in this interview.
Sarah O’Reily: What made you a writer, and when did you realize that writing was where your future lay?
Hilary Mantel: I realized quite late in life, as these things go. A lot of people know they’re going to be writers when they’re children, but I made a conscious decision to become one when I was 22, when, because of my poor health, I saw other career prospects slipping away from me. I knew I could write – you couldn’t take the decision otherwise – but what I didn’t know was whether I could write fiction. I didn’t seem to be what people call a ‘natural storyteller’. I had to learn that bit.
SO: How did you first come across Cromwell, and when did you decide to write about him?
HM: I first came across him when I was a child learning history in a Catholic school. I grew up with the sainted Thomas More looking down from stained-glass windows. As I am a contrarian, it made me ask whether there was more to Cromwell’s story than just his opposition to More, and I carried that question with me. When I began writing, I registered him in my mind as a potential subject. This would have been in the 1970s, before I’d finished my first novel. 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.
SO: When you eventually came to write about Cromwell, was there a discovery that helped you to unlock his character?
HM: When I began writing Wolf Hall, it was the arc of Cromwell’s story, the transformation from blacksmith’s son to Earl of Essex, that fascinated me. I wondered, ‘How is that done?’ You’ve got to try to answer that question – it’s the very kind of question that novels are for. But what made me sure that I could work with him, so to speak, was a letter he wrote to a friend in the 1520s, when he was an MP. It is a huge rhetorical description of the course of Parliament and all the business it dealt with, which finishes with a simple, and totally deflationary, line. I paraphrase: ‘And at the end of it, absolutely nothing changed.’ The wry humour in that letter showed me there was a personality that I could write about.
Another thing that drew me was Cromwell’s will, which he wrote towards the end of the 1520s. When you’ve seen somebody’s life so minutely taken apart, when you know who’s going to get his books and who’s going to get his second-best gelding, and you know the names of the people in his household, you become part of that life. You see his daily existence and routine and his whole system of orienting to the world. Seeing the will was like being able to go into Cromwell’s house and take photographs.
SO: How did you find a title?
HM: I liked the idea of a book that was always in progress, right up until its last words. Wolf Hall, the Seymour house in Wiltshire, is where we’re going at the end of the book. But, of course, I chose it primarily for its metaphorical resonance: who could resist it? The whole of Henry’s court is Wolf Hall.
SO: ‘Alistair Campbell with an axe’ is one of the less flattering descriptions given to Cromwell by the historian David Starkey. What persuaded you that this unlikely hero not only required, but actually deserved an advocate?
HM: I think Cromwell’s been given a very hard time by writers. In fiction and drama he’s been caricatured as an evil figure in a black cloak, lurking in the wings with dishonourable intentions. In biography he’s missing, because his private life is almost entirely off the record.
David Starkey’s phrase works wonderfully to alert you to Cromwell’s role as a propagandist for Henry, but Cromwell was a lot more subtle than Alistair Campbell – or at least, more subtle than the popular picture of Alistair Campbell suggests. Cromwell didn’t deploy his heavy artillery unless he needed to. He was a persuader and a negotiator and, to a degree, a compromiser.
I think the picture darkened with the Victorians. Cromwell’s image hasn’t always been bad: in Elizabethan legend and literature he was a hero, but to the Victorians he presented a problem. He wasn’t a varsity man. Historians couldn’t get their heads around the idea of a member of the lower orders rising so high in the hierarchy. There was also a sentimentality about the medieval world, with Cromwell seen as one of its destroyers. This idea persists today.
SO: How did you tackle the challenge of writing about a period of history that is so familiar to modern readers? And why did you choose to do so in the present tense?
HM: The Tudors are the great national soap opera; their story has been worked over so extensively that we see it as having a kind of inevitable, predetermined quality about it, so I needed to find a way of telling the story that would create an immediacy of viewpoint and cancel out the preconceptions we were brought up with. In writing the opening scene, of the boy being beaten up by his father, I was simply launched into the present tense. And I stayed with it because it was a way for me to capture the soundtrack inside Cromwell’s head – the immediacy of his experience. Also, though we may know how it all ends, Henry and his court didn’t. They didn’t know that the War of the Roses had ended; because the Tudor claim was weak, they dreaded that civil war might break out again. Henry didn’t know he would have six wives – even when he married number five, he couldn’t have known it. The present tense forbids hindsight and propels us forward through this world, making it new, just as it was, in every unfolding moment, for the players.
SO: How did you go about finding a voice for Cromwell and getting under his skin?
HM: Because they were so often dictated, letters, personal or impersonal, can give you a sense of the rhythm and vocabulary of the character’s spoken voice, and hence their mode of thought. So you look at those, and you look at what other people have said about your character.
The main person who tells us about Cromwell is the Spanish Imperial Ambassador, Chapuys, who was his enemy, but he was also his neighbour in the city and someone whom Cromwell saw a great deal of. Chapuys was a very astute observer. He tells us about how, when you were talking to Cromwell, he would fasten his eyes on your face, to calculate minutely the effect his words were having on you. He also paints a portrait of Cromwell as a very open-handed, generous, affable host, a man with whom it was wonderful to have a conversation.
SO: Can you talk a little about what it’s been like to live with a character like Cromwell during the writing of this book?
HM: There’s huge exhilaration in following a career like this, charting someone’s rise and rise. I do think without doubt that you become completely involved: someone of Cromwell’s strength and optimism can’t help but get into you. But the downside of it is that sooner or later your character will fall from the heights. Living with Cromwell has been a good experience so far, but you’ll have to ask me again when I’ve executed him.
SO: Near the end of the novel you write: ‘It’s the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust in their rattling mouths. We edit their writings, we rewrite their lives.’ How much of a responsibility do you feel towards your historical characters, who have had an existence independent of your imagination, when you pin them to the page?
HM: In the lines you’ve just quoted, I am holding up my hands and saying to readers, you might think that what I’m doing in this book is dubious – it might even be thought reprehensible – yet we can’t help but reimagine the past; we have no choice. It is part of us, and we must acknowledge that it is we who reimagine it, we in the present moment, who can’t help but project our own insights and preoccupations backwards.
I think this creates a responsibility for the writer. I feel research must be as good as I can possibly make it, and guesses should be made only where there are no facts to be had. They must be plausible. Where gaps occur, the way you fill them must offer a possible version. I owe these characters as much scholarship as I can contrive, and all my care to try to get them right.
I should also say that it’s immensely rewarding to feel that you have, perhaps, succeeded in reanimating someone. There is a kind of magic moment where you feel your characters are really speaking, and you don’t have to think about their dialogue any more. I found that very early in this book, particularly with Thomas Wolsey. As soon as he began to speak, I felt that my job was simply to take down what he said, like a secretary. There is a peculiar pleasure to be had in feeling that you’ve brought someone back to life in that way.
SO: You’ve written in a number of forms – short story, memoir, the contemporary and historical novel. Have any of these had a bearing on the composition of Wolf Hall?
HM: Looking back, I think that writing my memoir was a kind of 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.
What I also found when writing Giving Up the Ghost was that whilst I could capture the entirety of my childhood experiences, I often couldn’t tell the reader why things happened, or how the event I was describing linked to another, and I think I carried this discovery into Wolf Hall. When Cromwell remembers an incident from his childhood – for example, he recalls plunging the head of another boy into a butt of water – he has no idea why he did it, and I knew from my own experience that these gaps and holes are part of the texture of memory. In this book I was determined to reproduce a life from the inside. I thought, ‘Let us try to see a man in his full complexity. Even if there are bits that he himself doesn’t understand and can’t add up, let me still include them, because that’s the experience of being alive.’
SO: Can you describe your mood on launching into the Tudor period once more, for the follow-up to Wolf Hall?
HM: Exhilaration. 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. So I am looking forward to getting back to those puzzles in the new book.
Also, I’ve been so heartened by the way in which Wolf Hall has been received. There’s always the danger with historical fiction that it may fall short as both literature and history. I knew when I took on this project that it was going to be a very difficult thing to do. But, ha! Who’s interested in what’s easy?