Hilary Mantel at the Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival

I went to hear Hilary Mantel speak last week as part of the Southbank’s Literature Festival, and it was a brilliant night. I may be the only person left in London who hasn’t read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (though I did love Mantel’s book An Experiment in Love), but I can guarantee you that after this lecture they’re next on my list to download!

Mantel read a short story from her new book, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, that was absolutely stunning in its ability to bring to life a brief and vital moment in a struggling marriage, and she spoke quite freely about her writing process and how her books emerge into daylight. After an audience Q&A, she read a passage from her final book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. It promises to be just as amazing as the first two.

I found Mantel to be charming and effortlessly natural, inspiring in her humour and candid descriptions of a writer’s life. As she spoke, she moved her right hand through the air like a conductor, punctuating her sentences with gestures of a precise nature. She was easy to listen to, warm and engaging, and I would have liked to stay for hours talking to her over a glass of wine.

Here are a few of my favourite excerpts from the lecture:

“Complexity flows out from the middle of the project. You begin to realise what it’s about. You may have your plot, your characters, your timeline, everything sorted out but sometimes you have to step into that stream and only then do you know where it’s going to carry you.”

“I’ve always got several books or projects on in different stages, because often you get an idea for something and you’re just not ready to execute it. And you just have to put it away and then…it breeds in the dark.”

“(On tense in Wolf Hall) I think (present tense) has to be used selectively. Sometimes you find writers reaching for it unthinkingly and it adds a difficulty to the text. But I think with historical fiction you need all the time to be pinning your reader to the moment and reminding them that what you call the past is what the (characters) call the present. They are living it. They do not have the wisdom of hindsight. They cannot read their own story. In other words, they have not read your book! For them everything is open. These critical decisions are often made in a fraction of a second. When I first began Wolf Hall, it began with Thomas Cromwell lying on the ground and his father is kicking him. And he thinks he is going to die at any second. You can’t get more present than that. And I wanted to bring the reader into that moment. It’s a close up and you feel, when is this? And the only possible answer is, it is now.”

“(On research) I don’t have a period of research and a period of writing. It’s driven by the need to know. The two are intermingled. It’s the case of looking for one thing and finding something that takes the narrative in a different direction. But I like the security of working within the facts as they happened. People think it’s restricting, but what you have to do is make your fiction very sinuous so that it bends around the established facts. If you can’t deal with that, you have no business writing historical fiction at all. But most people who do write historical fiction do have a freer hand because they’re using imaginary characters against a real, and perhaps well-researched, background. But to me, writing about real people is the best of it.”

(On process) I write in scenes, non-chronologically, when I get information, and I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. An idea comes and I build a scene around it. I used to do it on postcards and pin them up on a wall. You could see the scenes building up and at some point you would go in and start moving these scenes around to what might be a workable order, then putting them into a ring binder and then onto a screen…It makes it sound like it’s a matter of what stationary you use. But for me it’s a matter of keeping things open till the last minute. Don’t make decisions before you have to. Don’t close any possibilities in your narrative. Because the first time you may not hit on the best order of presenting a scene.”

“Before I write a scene I go back to my research and read all my notes and get it all in my head, and then something like stage fright sets in, and I have a moment’s hesitation, and then I rush on and do it. And at that stage it will come out probably about 70% right, and the next stage will get it quickly to 95% right, and then the bulk of your time goes on the 5%, the long hesitation, comma or semicolon. I press on and come back and come back till I get it right.”

“(On the use of doors) Sometimes what appears to be a solid wall is actually full of doors and I’m very interested in the possibility not chosen, the life un-lived, these turning points. What is the role of chance in history? The doors sometimes are different aspects of one’s own personality. Or maybe it’s that great swinging door between the living and dead. There is never a secure bolt on that door. It may not seem like a ghost story, but in some way it is always a ghost story.”

“(On being a writer) The fact that you turned a beautiful phrase or wrote a beautiful book yesterday is no guarantee of what you might do in the future. You might wake up and find it’s deserted you, whatever it is. Except I don’t believe in writer’s block, I think that’s a terrible superstition, but I do think there is something intangible, the thing that people call inspiration, you can never be sure that will come again. But you can be sure that if you put the hours in you will get a book out of it. In that way, confidence is built on an hour-by-hour basis. ‘Today it’s working for me beautifully’; ‘today I’m stupid, but I’ll just keep at it’.”

This was another excellent festival delivered by the Southbank Centre and it was a pleasure to attend Hilary Mantel’s lecture. I’ve become a huge fan, even more so than before, and my Kindle will be in need of extra memory soon!


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