Hilary Mantel: The Waterstones Interview – Wolf Hall Trilogy

Hilary Mantel: The Waterstones Interview – Wolf Hall Trilogy


W: Hilary it is a huge pleasure to speak to
you here in your home as we reach the conclusion of the Wolf Hall trilogy, I
want, if I can, to take you back to the beginning because it’s very easy to
think of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies as being very established in
their form and their success. I can see two Booker Prizes up there and of course
many years ago when you first started writing them none of this was assured.
And so I want to start with one of the most obvious questions which is why
Thomas Cromwell? Why did you want to write about him? HM: I think once you become
an author, well, probably even before you become an author, you have your antennae
out for subjects that will keep you interested, keep the reader
intrigued, that will last. What everyone’s in search of is the inexhaustible
subject really. And I thought of writing about Thomas Cromwell a long, long time
ago but wasn’t ready to do it at that stage because I knew it would be an
enormous project. But I think what engaged me was the untold story. That
here you have a man who is central to some of the most famous episodes in
English history but when you look for him in fiction, in drama, where is he?
There’s a kind of blank and why is this? And also then turning to history, why he
had such a bad press. And that in itself intrigued me, the black reputation. Is it
deserved, is there another way of looking at those events. And those questions were
all in my mind when I eventually began. I didn’t know at that stage I would be
writing a trilogy. It was a long process of
exploration before I actually began to write. W: That sort of historical research
that you must have done before sort of putting pen to paper if you like, it takes me actually to a question I want to ask you which was about the
man and about your portrait of him which is notably, as people mentioned
when the books were published, more sympathetic than some previous
biographies. And I suppose even his portrait by Holbein. You sort of see that
face and he has this, as is remarked in the book, that he looks like a
murderer and somebody says ‘Did you not know that?’ And you sort of paint
a portrait of this man and I wondered whether that more sympathetic portrayal
came from the historical research or was it more to do with your instinct as a
novelist in fleshing him out? HM: It’s a question of perspective really. Because
the story is told looking over Thomas Cromwell’s shoulder
and it’s very much concerned with his evolving perceptions of the world and it
is his story. Not Thomas More’s story or Anne Boleyn’s story. If it were told from their
point of view the events would look very different. I think that has proved a
little bit hard, particularly for historians to understand, that a novelist
doesn’t set out to be neutral. They’re telling a story from inside their
character. But having said that, once I engaged with a topic I found that most
of the biographical work on Cromwell was biased, it was inaccurate,
it was perfunctory. And what had happened is that mistakes had got in there and
they’ve been rolled forward from one historian to another, no one saying stop,
let’s go back to the record, let’s identify the gaps and let’s see what we
find with a fresh eye. Now, last year Diarmaird MacCulloch brought out a
wonderful biography of Thomas Cromwell where he has gone back over all the
material and though he remains a very difficult subject for a biographer I
think that is a triumph of history writing. And a great pleasure for me to
see some of those errors worked through, worked out of the system, hopefully never
to bounce back. But you can’t be sure of that. It takes a long, long time to
change perceptions of a historical figure. And I think the interesting thing
is that the academic assessment of Thomas Cromwell and the popular
historian’s assessment diverged a whole generation ago. But academic historians,
while seeing Cromwell’s importance, are not particularly concerned with what he
was like as a person. Whereas the popular historians, the dramatists and the
novelists, insofar as they engage with him at all, have been satisfied to keep
rolling forward this portrait of a caricature villain. W: You mentioned the
fact that we are very much on his shoulder and one of the other joys
for the reader is the fact that you have this present tense narration and that is
so distinctive in these books but I wonder whether that was always your
intention. When you sat down to write did you know that that was how you’re going
to write it or did it come through the process of writing? HM: I can go back very
vividly to the moment of beginning the trilogy, to writing those first few
paragraphs. And with any novel what you want is to hear its note, its
tone. And if you hear that truly from the beginning in a sense you can’t be
knocked off course. There may be all sorts of complications and difficulties
but as long as you can keep hearing that true note. So the question I was asking
myself is what is this novel going to sound like. But actually as soon as I
began writing, from the first sentence, it became visual. First of all I was hearing
the voice of Cromwell’s father shouting ‘So now get up!’ at this fifteen year old boy
who’s been kicked, is bleeding, has fallen on the cobbles. There’s the voice in the
air above him but also I could see as if through his narrow vision his father’s
boot on the cobble, his own blood. And so the question was then when is this
happening? Now, in the present tense. Because he thinks he’s going to die. He
thinks ten seconds and I’m out. And if so, this is no case for leisurely
retrospection. This is a case of are we going to survive our next few breaths.
And therefore it commanded the present tense, there didn’t seem to be any choice.
Nor was there any choice of viewpoint because who’s looking at this? Young
Cromwell is looking at it. We’re right behind his eyes. W: The question I think
when you’re reading is what is motivating this man? And there’s a point
at which he says ‘I’m just trying to survive the week’, it’s a question of
survival. When you’re dealing with that level of power at
which he’s at. Did you feel that you were feeling he had different
motivations at different times or is there a single force that’s sort of
pushing him along. It feels very much like it’s escaping his father
in the first book, maybe it’s about furthering himself in the second book
and maybe something else entirely in the third book. HM: I think when he says oh I’m
just trying to get through the week, don’t take that too seriously. That’s his
disclaimer. Don’t come at me with anything more complex for the minute. But as
another character says, ‘Cromwell always has a plan.’ And as we know his plans
come to fruition. So yes he always has his eye on the long term but at the same
time there is always a problem, a challenge, adversity to be overcome in
the next five minutes. He can see the big picture but there are moments in all
three books when survival is the imperative and it’s as narrow as that.
Moments of terrible peril where he realises everything is in equipoise
and one breath can destroy him. And I think his whole project and this is why
he’s such a fascinating subject: it’s unlikely. That a man from Cromwell’s
background could rise to such a position of power, not just in England but in Europe. He’s a man with a vision but a man who
has to sustain that in the face of the teeth of opposition on an hourly basis. W: It’s a fascinating study of power and of course power has provided the narrative
drive for some incredibly successful TV series, we think about The Sopranos or
Succession, other plays and novels. Having dealt with it so closely yourself
through these three books what have you learned about what motivates people to
seek power or maybe those who don’t seek it as well. The way that the machinations of power work, what have you learnt? HM: Well I’m just now
working on a theatre version. I’m at the very beginning of that process. And there’s a
moment in the script where the situation concerns Henry’s daughter, the Princess
Mary. And people are saying to Cromwell well you have to believe Mary when she
says she doesn’t want to become queen, she has no ambition to rule. And Cromwell
says ‘We all want to rule.’ And from his point of view, his personality set up,
that is absolutely true. But I suppose I think it’s true. If you take power in its
widest sense. We all need our little meed of power to survive and prosper, even
within the ambit of our own families our little world when we are children, none
of us are strangers to the struggle for advantage. But having said that
although the challenges, if you look at it in the narrow sense, I think you’re
talking about politics, then I think the challenges are different these days. The
Tudors didn’t have to contend with media scrutiny, they didn’t have to account to
the general public for their actions. But at the same time the consequences of a
mistake were calamitous. You played with your life, not your job. And I think there
may be a sort of politician’s mentality that is necessary for survival and
success that not all of us share in that. I think such people often have a
character that may be quite deep and complex but it’s not in itself
introspective because they can’t dwell on the consequences of their actions.
It’s always next thing, next thing. Being ever ready to confront that is an
interesting challenge for a writer because you’re concerned with the inner
workings of someone who by definition is turned to the outside world. So there’s a
limit to how much Cromwell knows himself. And I hope that as the third book
proceeds, the reader will be saying yes, you tell me that, Cromwell, but I know
better because I know you from the inside. W: With the work that you’ve
done adapting the books for the stage with Mike Poulton and with the actor
Ben Miles, I wondered whether any of that had actually fed back into the writing
of the third book. Have you found that the Cromwell that you’re writing in The
Mirror and the Light has been influenced by the work that you’ve seen on stage?Particularly with the work you’ve done with Ben Miles embodying that
character. HM: I think the rehearsal process, it was something that fascinated me.
I’ve always thought of writing as an inherently dramatic activity. In that
before you write a scene, and I always do think in scenes, you prepare and you
prepare and there you stand nervously in the wings of it for perhaps quite some
time and then you step on into the light. And it may not go the way you planned.
I do find writing hard work and hard on the nerves because for me it
is such an involving activity. It’s not simply a cerebral activity, it uses up
the whole of you. And you have to be prepared to be surprised and to allow
yourself to go with the process. So I found a lot of congruence between what
the actors were doing and the way I think of my own work. And Ben Miles has
evolved the character not simply through the storyline but through different
iterations in different theatres with a script that was also evolving. And I
found the insights that he would have, I would think, yes, I will have
that for book three. And there are moments when the narrative loops back to tell us
about things we already know from Wolf Hall or Bring up the Bodies but with his
spin on them. So we now see or recognise some aspect of them that we
didn’t get first time around. The viewpoint has just shifted a little and
we’re being told slightly more. As if almost the camera angle shifted. So I
found that a fascinating process because it meant that all three books were in
play at any one time. Rather than being a continuation, the third book becomes a
process of continual overlapping, enwrapping, every thread being held in
tension. W: The Mirror and The Light is a hugely satisfying conclusion to this trilogy. I wonder if we could look at the title
first. It’s a phrase that Cromwell uses to describe the king and I wondered if
you could tell us about the relevance of that phrase and why it’s the right title
for this book. HM: The Mirror and The Light is a phrase that Cromwell himself used to describe Henry’s kingship and it’s in a letter he wrote to Thomas Wyatt when Wyatt was abroad as an ambassador. And when I came across that phrase it seemed to me to sum up the project if you like because what the third book does is to
hold up a mirror to what’s gone before and cast new light on what’s gone before.
So whilst already a metaphor it became a different order of metaphor and its
weird beauty struck me. And the way it came to me that it was the right title
was I was in East Sussex which became very much a Cromwell part of
the country, on the Downs there at sunset one day and saw the sun against a
shimmering, silver, clear sky. And the phrase came back to me. So not only did I take
it for the book title but I also described a scene of Cromwell and his
son Gregory riding across the Downs on the way to their new properties and
thus wrapped it into the book. W: The great thing about writing from history
is that we don’t have to worry about spoilers because everyone knows what’s
going to happen. But what can readers expect from this final book? It must be
quite something for you to hand over, if you like, to the reader the final
part of this trilogy. HM: What the third book does is to take us through the final four years of Thomas Cromwell’s life, taking up the story at the moment of
Anne Boleyn’s execution and watching his triumphant rise and his
successive overcoming of obstacles and enemies to the point where the king
creates him Earl of Essex and his son Gregory has married into the royal
family and he’s reached a position of unprecedented power. And I try to show
how whilst in the earlier books the narrative may work to a crisis, we now
have a crisis every day. The pressure as well as the glory is intensified in the
third book and then Cromwell’s fall is very… it’s quick, it’s mysterious. None of
the existing theories cover it. It can’t be covered. There are things
that we will never understand. The processes of government and
administration are there on the record. But the process of politics is a hidden
process. And the reader will, I think, come to their own conclusions. I’m not trying
to point to a certain event in Conwell’s life and say that’s where he went wrong.
Or he could have done this or this differently. I think that’s far too
simple a reading. But I’m hoping to open up the story so that the reader can see
the full complexity of what was going on. And I am in certain respects cutting
against the orthodox account, not because I know better,
I don’t know better, but because I think differently. And that is because I’m
entering into a dramatic process with the characters rather than sitting in
judgment like God looking down on it all. Or a historian looking with the advantage
of hindsight. W: Just to finish off we’ve spoken a bit about what the readers might get from reading the book I wonder how you feel as the creator of these
books now that you have reached the conclusion of the trilogy.
Is it relief, is it trepidation, worry? How do you feel now that this book is
complete and heading into readers’ hands? HM: To me the whole thing is still live
because the stage version and the TV version are still to come. And I tend to think of it all as one
enormous book. Obviously it’s not presented to the reader in that way, but
for me it’s been a 15-year project during which life happens, you change;
everything changes in 15 years. This has been the one thread through my life but
I imagine that thread always will be there. Once you become engaged with a
historical era or a particular set of characters they don’t just vanish from
your head. I think that’s probably more true for a novelist than for a
historian. You don’t retire, you know, or if you do your characters retire with
you they always live in your head. So I don’t feel as if I’m done with Cromwell
or that I’m bereaved or that the trilogy is behind me. And I think as it goes out
to the reader again it gets a new life. A book isn’t complete till it’s read and
there are as many interpretations as there are readers out there.

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