Wolf Hall: author Hilary Mantel talks Tudors, historical accuracy and winning the Man Booker Prize

Hilary Mantel, author of the Thomas Cromwell novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, talks to Rob Attar about the process of writing historical fiction and shares some of the secrets of her tremendous literary success.

This article was first published in the Malmesbury History Weekend souvenir guide

Hilary Mantel © epa european pressphoto agency b.v. / Alamy

When did you first think of writing about Thomas Cromwell?

The idea first came to me about 40 years ago but I put it away on a shelf, if you like, tabulated under ‘good idea – might do it sometime’. I swung into action in around 2005 when I realised that the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession was coming up soon [in 2009]. I thought to myself that if there is a time to do it, this is the time.

The idea had been lying at the back of my mind but I hadn’t really been thinking about it or studying it. I was very much an 18th-century person: that was what deterred me and made me hold off. I felt so comfortably situated in the 18th century that I wondered if I had it in me to go and live in another era. But eventually I took courage, spurred on by knowing about that big anniversary.

How important do you think it is to be historically accurate when writing a novel set in the past?

I can’t see the point of doing it otherwise. Of course nobody can guarantee 100 per cent accuracy – you are never going to be completely free of mistakes. But I think you have to take your research seriously, otherwise there is no point in it at all. You can’t speculate emptily about the personal reality of people’s lives. It has to be grounded in time, place and context. If you don’t like research and don’t consider it important then it’s better, in my view, to leave the historical novel alone.

I am not trying to prescribe for other people, but that is the way that I do things. I’m not really interested in writing about imaginary people against a historical backdrop, which is of course what many historical novelists do. I’m interested in real people against a historical backdrop and there I think you have to respect the complexity of their stories. You have to know that history isn’t tidy and that it doesn’t do what you as a novelist want it to. It doesn’t conform to your dramatic instincts. It often has a really awkward shape and so you have to make your fiction flexible to bend around it.

I don’t knowingly ever falsify a date or a place or any item of information, but where I do operate is in the vast area of interpretation.

How do you fill the gaps where sources don’t exist?

This is the whole business of a historical novelist: the world of intention and motivation. We know what people did but often we don’t know why they did it and as a biographer or a historian you can only explore that to a certain degree.

I think that as a novelist you are freer, in a way, to move closer to the reality of a human being. You can offer some glimpse of this moment-by-moment complexity: the incredibly rich texture of life. How you do that, in my view, is by applying yourself intensely to the study of what is there, what is on the record. You look at the words so hard that eventually they begin to jump off the page. It’s the trick of animating what seems dead, reading the lines and intuiting what lies between them. This is a fundamental of the novelist’s craft.

All you do as a novelist is apply yourself to imagining what it is like to be someone else and as a historical novelist you do that for a person who is dead. What aids you is understanding their cultural context: the reasons why they may have thought as they did – what might have actuated them. You discover that by understanding their system of thought: the way they express emotion; the language they use; their whole context.

Of course you can’t do this simply by studying documents. You also need to listen to music, look at pictures and learn about everyday things. You need to explore the texture of everyday life: food, gardening, tastes and morals and the whole panorama of human existence, as far as you can. You try to put yourself inside their century, inside their era.

It’s a question of really burrowing down into the detail – as far as research is concerned – but it’s also a matter of seeing the big picture, standing back and getting a feel of the age.

When writing your historical novels, how did you decide the level to pitch the dialogue at? How closely did you want to reflect how people actually spoke at the time?

When writing the Cromwell novels and my book about the French Revolution [A Place of Greater Safety, published in 1992], if I could get hold of contemporary sources that quoted people’s words, I would use them. It’s fascinating when you have, say, a contemporary quoting Wolsey or Cromwell, even though you know he may be paraphrasing.

I think, for example, of the things Anne Boleyn said when she was under observation in the Tower of London. These were written down by the ladies around her and sent through the constable of the Tower straight to Cromwell. There you can hear Anne talking herself to her doom.

If you have these real words you can take them as your starting point and then the challenge is to make your invented dialogue smooth in and out of that unnoticeably. One thing you have to do is privilege the clarity of communication because you don’t want to be driving your readers to footnotes or dictionaries.

Everything must be clear from the context, and so what you are after is a suggestion of the language of the time. You don’t want pastiche, which can be grim, false and very often embarrassing. You want what you write to be accessible, and while I do pay a lot of attention to individual words and when they were first used, I’m not as much concerned with every single word as I am with thoughts and with habits of thought. The basic question is not ‘Did they say this?’ but ‘Could they have thought this?’, and I think that’s what you use as a guide.

So many words have changed their meaning or taken on different nuances, that it’s impossible to be authentic. That is why I favour an idiom that has a suggestion of the era rather than trying to imitate it slavishly.

Do you believe that what you are writing are still traditional historical novels, or have you have moved beyond that in some way?

Today any historical novel is also a historiographical novel because we can’t write in the unselfconscious way that people perhaps did in the 19th century. We have to be self-questioning, always holding our own fiction up for examination. You put layers into your book. On the top layer you create a story that you hope is fast moving, dramatic and immediately accessible. Then you dig another layer where the narrative questions itself.

My third Cromwell novel is going to be called The Mirror & the Light because it holds up a mirror to its own workings and to what has gone before. It casts a searching light and is very consciously examining its own processes. We don’t have the bold 19th-century confidence when we try to write a novel these days and while I wouldn’t like to go back to that place, it is important not to get too tricksy if you want to give your readers the satisfactions of narrative. So you do question your own workings but not always overtly and on the page.

How did it feel to win the Man Booker Prize (twice)?

It was an astonishing thing, because as far as I was concerned I had just gone on doing what I did. I wasn’t conscious of having adopted a new persona as an author or trying to make myself over in any way.

When I wrote the first few pages of Wolf Hall, I thought it was the best thing I had ever done – but on the other hand I’ve had that feeling before. I’ve always had critical success but I’ve never had much of a readership until these books came along, and it just seemed that somehow my time had come.

It was extraordinary because everything about my life has changed. Perhaps the biggest change has been my recent involvement in the theatre [both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies were recently dramatised by the Royal Shakespeare Company] because this is possibly taking things in a new direction for the future. I have a lot more novels to write but I might have some plays to write as well, and it’s possible that some of the things I’ve been thinking about in terms of historical fiction might well become drama. I won’t get ahead of myself though because the main thing is to finish The Mirror & the Light.

Will you continue to write about the Tudors in future books?

I don’t think so. I might be inclined to go a little backwards through the Wars of the Roses though. There is an after-Cromwell story to be told but I can’t quite find the shape of it at the moment. And then I’m not really interested in Elizabeth. I don’t know why but I haven’t ever quite found a story there that engages me – but on the other hand these things can happen in an instance. The material lies about you and suddenly you see a shape in it. So I don’t want to tie myself down for the future.

You can read more from this interview with Hilary in the September 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine, still available as a back issue.

Hilary Mantel is a novelist, best known for her acclaimed Thomas Cromwell trilogy. Her latest book, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, has just been published by Fourth Estate.

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