Hilary Mantel: ‘If I’m suffering, I can make that pay’
‘Imagination only comes when you privilege the subconscious’ … Mantel. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
‘You do teeter on the edge all the time,” says Hilary Mantel, the morning after she became the first woman and the first Briton to win the Booker prize twice. “It’s the place of obsession – a dangerous obsession.” Mantel is talking about the risks to a writer’s mental health of indulging in historical fiction, of ventriloquising the dead. Or, as she puts it: “What if you visited the 18th century and never came back?”
This is what happened to the woman who will be the subject of Mantel’s next but one book. The Polish playwright Stanislawa Przybyszewska became so obsessed with the French revolution that she dated her letters by the Revolutionary calendar. She wrote a play about the French revolution that lasted five hours even after savage pruning. She was obsessed not just with the French revolution but with its leading monster, Robespierre. Mantel’s book is provisionally entitled The Woman Who Died of Robespierre and it’s hard not to think of it as Mantel looking into the abyss to see what could happen to her. Przybyszewska died a century ago aged 33 of malnutrition and morphine addiction, her short life lost to her obsessive interest in the French revolution.
“I understand what was going on for my Polish playwright,” she says. “You try to abandon your analytical self, your grounding in the everyday. I’m a very organised and rational and linear thinker and you have to stop all that to write a novel.” This is the Mantel paradox: a forbiddingly analytical woman with a vocation that involves stepping beyond those qualities into the uncontrolled and the unknown. “I used to think when I set out that doing the research was enough, but then the gaps would emerge that could only be filled by imagination. And imagination only comes when you privilege the subconscious, when you make delay and procrastination work for you. For me – I’m a now, now kind of person – that was hard.”
In the late 1970s, Mantel wrote her first book, an 800-page novel set during the French revolution called A Place of Greater Safety. “I became just as obsessed as Przybyszewska,” she says. Just as Przybyszewska dated her letters by the Revolutionary calendar, so Mantel inadvertently dated her cheques 1790. Mantel, then in her late 20s, wrote much of this novel in Botswana, where she was living with her husband, Gerald McEwan, a geologist. It was there that she discovered from reading that the pain she had been enduring for years had a medical name. It was endometriosis, a condition that means uterine cells move to other parts of the body. Those errant cells bleed and cause painful scar tissue.
Armed with a self-diagnosis and a draft of her first novel, she returned to England, hoping to publish the book and get treatment. “I came to a crisis in my life,” says Mantel matter of factly. Her book was rejected by a publisher. Worse, she emerged after 10 days in hospital minus, as she puts it, “ovaries, womb, bits of bowel”. “Knowing that I was not going to have children, with a body that I didn’t know what it was going to do next, and not even cured, and my book rejected, I just wanted to get back home, which was Africa.”
This, or so you would have thought, would have been the moment that Mantel would not so much teeter as fall over the edge. But she didn’t. “On the surface my life was completely in pieces. It was so awful, it was almost comic – it was like something I had arranged for a character in one of my novels.”
After the hospital operation, she was prescribed hormones that made her gain weight fast. She has never lost it. Even now she monitors grimly how interviewers describe her appearance. The booby prize for most misplaced adjective goes to whoever described her as “maternal”. Its not her appearance that strikes me today, but her voice: she sounds like Vivienne Westwood. No wonder: both hail from nearby villages. And, while the comparison shouldn’t be pressed too far, both are indomitable, creative women. Mere Derbyshire (no offence) couldn’t contain either of them.
“I was tremendously clear-sighted,” says Mantel of how she overcame that awful time. “I had a powerful sense that I had to draw a line under it. I realised I should go away and do something else. And so I wrote something short, a standard modern novel. I said to myself: ‘If that doesn’t work, I’ll seriously have to question what I’m doing.'” That “standard modern novel”, Every Day Is Mother’s Day, published in 1985, was billed for years as what it is not – her first novel.
It’s hard not to play counterfactual history with Mantel’s literary career. If that French revolutionary tome had been published in 1979 (rather than, as it was, in 1992), would she have remained a historical novelist rather than straying into other literary genres? “I think so. But had it been published when I first submitted it at the age of 28, I would have been regarded as a freak, that sort of child prodigy everybody is suspicious of.” Instead, she became something more problematic, a writer from whom one didn’t know what to expect from novel to novel. She wrote a fiction drawn from her experiences in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where she lived with Gerald; she wrote another about an 18th-century Irish giant; she mined her Derbyshire upbringing for the comic novel about troubled Catholic priests and nuns in a northern mill town; she wrote about a medium circuiting the M25 between seances. “I have a habit of promising one thing and delivering something else. Nobody knows where to place me. There is no Hilary Mantel reader.”
Mantel accepts the Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall, 2009. Photograph: Zak Hussein
What she means is that there was, until recently, no Mantel brand. That, she thinks, was not a problem for critics (she has always been well reviewed) but was for booksellers and, maybe, readers. That changed in 2009 when she published Wolf Hall, the first volume of her trilogy about Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell. Suddenly, she became the woman who made historical fiction respectable again, who had freed it from the (often immensely pleasurable) bodice-ripping romps of Philippa Gregory et al, making a derided genre safe again for those readers who consider themselves properly literary and serious.
But her fellow novelist Sarah Waters detects a more worrying narrative trajectory in Mantel’s literary evolution. “It’s tempting to be cynical about it,” Waters told the New Statesman earlier this month, “and note that, after a respectable but underappreciated career of writing mainly about women, she was finally recognised as a literary heavyweight once she produced a novel that was all about men …” Admittedly Waters added that there was another possibility, namely that with Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring up The Bodies, Mantel produced writing too good to ignore, but still. Mantel demurs when I put Waters’s theory to her. “I would say actually Sarah’s line doesn’t quite work – I’ve written more about men than many women novelists throughout my career.”
None of those men has been so compelling as Cromwell. What drew her to the man whom Margaret Atwood, reviewing Bring up The Bodies for the Guardian, called the Beria to Henry VIII’s Stalin, whom Dickens described as “a most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature, and a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England” and whom Robert Bolt in his play A Man for All Seasons made seem like a thug next to saintly Thomas More? Are you simply drawn to very bad men? “There is another tradition of representations of Cromwell,” says Mantel, demurring again. “The greatest Tudor historian, Geoffrey Elton, regarded Cromwell as the man who created a bureaucracy and parliamentary structure as bulwark against kingly incompetence.” It’s hard not to see modern parallels: in an age in which politicians seem incapable of changing anything, how appealing Cromwell the Efficacious looks. (Until you remember he used torture to achieve those ends.)
The very absences in Cromwell’s life story seduced Mantel. “Elton said he was unbiographable,” says Mantel. “The private man is hardly discoverable, which is not a problem for a novelist.” Rather, it gave her an opportunity: to imagine what this blacksmith’s son from Putney was like and how he made his way to the apex of Tudor England’s power pyramid proved an irresistible lure for her. She loves the person she’s substantially imagined on the page, making him – though nasty, brutish and short – utterly seductive, witty, multilingual and, two-thirds of the way into her version of his story at least, apparently indestructible. “Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,” she writes in Bring Up the Bodies. “and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the jailers will owe him money.”
Mantel has set aside 2013 to write the last volume of her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, in which her hero must fall and die. “Obviously I’ve got theories about why he fell. But large parts of it are left hazy. What fascinates me are the turning points where history could have been different. Of course we know the endings but as we read we’re on the same tracks as the people who don’t know how it turns out.” Thomas Hardy cried when he killed off Tess. It’s easy to imagine Mantel a year or so from now, sitting at her desk with its sea view on the top floor of her flat in a former hotel in Budleigh Salterton in Devon, mourning the execution of the man whom she substantially created. But there is a prosaic problem – the pressure of the hat-trick. She says she was “completely surprised” to win a second Booker; a third win for the unwritten last part of the trilogy seems inconceivable. “It’s hardly possible that it will go on to win the Booker and if it doesn’t, will it be considered a failure? It will in some quarters.”
Mantel once said that had she not been educated (as she was at convent, the LSE and Sheffield University), she might well have become a medium. The dead, for her, have always been near. When she was a child, her family home in Derbyshire was, she believes, haunted. Now she is a writer, she brings up the bodies and makes them speak. The historical novelist and the medium aren’t such radically different vocations. “You talk to the dead one way or another, and you make it pay,” she once said.
She is looking forward to getting away from the media hoopla and talking to the dead once more. In Budleigh Salterton, which she describes as “a congenial place”, she will be protected from the incursions of hacks and the rest of the intrusive world by her husband Gerald. Once, I say, you followed him around the world, and now he, in a nice inversion, is – what – your amanuensis? “He’s my minder,” she says. “When Wolf Hall came out he was very ill [with diverticulitis]. He spent four days in intensive care and when he came out he couldn’t find work. It was the most depressing time. The job market was flat. He’s the same age as me  and there were no jobs for him anywhere. I needed help after the success of Wolf Hall. We thought we could work together. It wouldn’t work for everyone but it does for us. I’m a very lucky woman. He’s very patient and kind. He’s always been my firmest supporter. He believed in me as a writer when no one else seemed to. It seems fitting we should share in the success.”
And what success. Wolf Hall reportedly made £5.4m after it won the Booker in 2009, and sales of Mantel’s back catalogue rose by 900%. Bring up the Bodies will further swell Mantel’s coffers. She laughs when I mention the £5.4m. “I’ve certainly not seen anything like that!” I learned recently that Philippa Gregory, Mantel’s rival for the queen of Tudor fiction, spent an advance on buying a circus. Mantel, disappointingly, has no such splashy aspirations. “When I was a child there was very little money so I’ve always been concerned for my financial security, which has meant that finding myself as a writer was a bad move. The practical difference the money has made is that I can support myself by fiction. That is what I have been trying to do throughout my life.”
Did she never think of undergoing psychoanalysis, given the risks of historical fiction to mental wellbeing? “I haven’t chosen that path because I think I work pretty well with my subconscious. I can channel it.” How? “If I’m suffering I can make that pay. If I’m feeling really bad, then I can make my characters feel really bad.”