a long talk

Hilary Mantel Thinks the Last Book Is Her Best

“I’ve always been very ambitious. But it’s more in my own terms than in other people’s terms.”

Photo: David Levene/Guardian/eyevine/Redux
Photo: David Levene/Guardian/eyevine/Redux

Note: This interview was originally published on March 20, 2020. We have republished it following the news of Mantel’s death on September 22, 2022.

Hilary Mantel is so polite and cheery that, in the brief 20-minute interlude in which I thought our entire hour-long interview didn’t record, she tells me it’s no problem at all, to ring her up in 15 minutes at her home on the Devon coast, and we’ll just do the whole thing again. That would be a relief but also impossible — Mantel, who has now spent 15 years writing her wildly best-selling, genre-defining Thomas Cromwell series, offered up so much potent information about Henry VIII’s court and his many unmerry wives (divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived), I can’t imagine how we’d replicate the conversation.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which tell Cromwell’s story up through the chilling, delicious beheading of Anne Boleyn, vaulted Mantel from relative obscurity to double Man Booker winner, a feat unmatched by any woman. She “had the idea for such a long time that I kept thinking that someone else would do it,” Mantel says, but when nobody did, she charted an ambitious course: combined, the novels are nearly 1,800 pages.

The final installment, The Mirror & The Light, is as much a phenomenon as the series’ first two books  it sold 95,000 copies in its first three days and became an instant New York Times No. 1 bestseller. In it, Mantel finally must kill Cromwell, the right-hand man to Henry for nearly a decade; in 1540 the king lost patience with his loyal servant after a disastrous marriage match to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, and lopped off his head.

We were meant to talk over tea at her Washington, D.C., hotel, but when her tour was canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we connected by phone. Her lively nature bubbled through the speaker.

This was supposed to be your first big American book tour and it has been canceled. What are you doing at home in England? How does this feel to you?
Well, it feels very odd. I should have been in Washington today, and ended up for ten days in Canada. And all I’ve done is just go straight back to work doing stage direction [for The Mirror & The Light at the Royal Shakespeare Company]. I’m working on it with the actor Ben Miles, who played Thomas Cromwell in the first two plays. He’s in London and I’m at home in Devon, so we can pick up our emails and writing partnership. And he’s recorded the audio book for The Mirror & The Light, too.

You’ve sort of restricted your life in a lot of ways to do this work. Was the thought of going on tour anxious for you?
Well, it’s been a year since I finished the novel and during that time we’ve been working on the marketing effort. I filled my diary right through next December and my hope was to dash home and write some of the play. But already most of my April diary is dismantling itself. And of course none of us know how long this will go on. I’m never sure of what to do. I just push on.

I did attend the Festival Hall in London the Friday before last, which meant that we had 2,000 people. It feels like it was another year, because the idea of 2,000 people in a hall had just suddenly become outrageous.

It seems like it’s not having a bad effect on your book sales. You practically set a record in the U.K. The Mirror & The Light sold over 95,000 copies in three days. Is that something you’re worried about — a sudden drop-off because people aren’t going to bookshops?
I think people do much of their book buying online. And also I think the word has got out that what we’re needing is books. Just in case you get stuck inside.

I was reading your autobiography Giving Up the Ghost, and I was thinking about your life in Saudi Arabia and how difficult it was to leave the house as a woman. Do you feel oddly prepared for a quarantine situation, maybe more than other people are?
Well, I’m probably better at being on my own than most people are. But actually, this feels much different than Saudi Arabia because I’m in my sitting room right now looking out and I can see miles and miles and miles of sea and sky. I live in a small town of 5,000 people and people live a long time here. Huge percentage of the town are elderly people, and I mean in their 80s and 90s. Obviously I’m very much afraid for my neighbors. And my husband was coming in earlier with big news of community initiatives that are going forward. But the thing is that here, it’s the people in their 70s shopping for all the people in their 90s.

In Saudi Arabia, what I remember of that time is always living under artificial light. Very small, high windows, and not being able to see out into the street. And yes, that feeling that you had really turned your back on the world.

I’ve been reading about the “sweating sickness” that moved through England and killed Thomas Cromwell’s wife and children. It’s so strange how it emerged from nowhere and then disappeared a few decades later.
And then when it came back in the end of 1550, it killed his son, Gregory. And we don’t really know what the sickness was. It may have been a kind of flu that was an intense headache, and caused meningitis. The peak mortality seemed to be the young and healthy. It kills late teens, 20s, and 30s, young adults. It seems like a different kind of thing. But we don’t have any real figures, so it might be that that’s just our impression because it was the young people who were missed more keenly.

A puzzling thing about it really, is that people didn’t seem to build immunity. Cardinal Wolsey was supposed to have had it six times, so it suggests it was coming in waves. And each time slightly different.

Each of the books in the Cromwell trilogy ends with a beheading. Thomas More is beheaded in Wolf Hall and Anne Boleyn in Bring Up the Bodies. What was different about writing Cromwell’s beheading at the end of The Mirror & The Light from writing Anne’s or Thomas More’s, or any of the many people who end up on the block?
Well, the difference is I have to inhabit his consciousness until he lost it. So I have to find a way of staying inside his head until he ceases to see or hear.

It seems like he feels the blade go through his neck.
Yes, he’s still conscious. There is a sort of tradition that Cromwell’s beheading took a rather long time. And there’s no contemporary evidence of that. But it was about a generation later that Tom Fox in The Book of Martyrs said it was a beheading carried out by someone who was incompetent. I decided to go with this tradition because it allowed me to take his death in stages. He felt something; though he no longer knows what it was, he knows he’s dying. And so it takes him right back to the beginning of Wolf Hall where he’s a young boy and his father is beating in his head. He can see his own blood and he thinks, “I’m going to die.”

How did you prepare yourself to be inside the mind of a person who knows the exact moment and method of their death?
I worked on it very early. Within, I would say, four weeks of beginning Wolf Hall I had begun to draft the final scenes. I wanted to know where we were going and so when I actually came to write it last year, I didn’t have to undergo the emotional process. I was protected from the shock of it.

It’s quite seldom that as a writer I’ve found you know when you’re going to finish your book. But in this instance, I knew I had the last section to write, “Mirror and Light.” And once I’d written “Mirror,” I knew that “Light” would be less than one day’s work. So I woke up that morning knowing I was going to finish my book and kill my character, and I set off with a great sense of purpose to the place where I write.

I thought, How long is this going to take? I’ll be finished midafternoon, and I was finished by half past two, but then I thought, What kind of time is this to finish work, you can’t finish work at half past two? [Laughs.] So I immediately started to play the tidying-up exercise, and started filing, and putting my drafts into place, and packing papers away and so on. It was about two hours after that, I thought, Actually I think you could have the rest of the day off, if you wanted to!

I want to ask you about sex. We really don’t see any sexual act take place in the book, but sex is everywhere.
Yes, but the whole book is all about sex.

What did you learn about Tudor sex? We always expect previous generations to be more prudish than us, but that’s not the case. Right?
Not necessarily, no. One thing is how theory and practice diverge, because in theory you were so strictly governed by what the church committed, and there were whole swaths of the calendar and days of the week when you were supposed not to have sex, and you can only think that people dealt with this by ignoring it. Then again, if you look at the medieval church virtually anything except sex with your wife in the missionary position was a sin. Weirdly, it was less of a sin to commit incest, as long as the position was okay, than it was for the woman to go on top, for example.

You can imagine what the business of going to confession was like, and how much fun priests got handing out penances for minute variations on the usual. You had all these theories, but in practice there were some things with surprises, like the emphasis on female orgasm: It was widely believed that without an orgasm a woman wouldn’t conceive. So it was up to a husband who wanted children to make sure his wife had a good time.

Good for them. I mean good for the women.
The only problem with that was in cases of rape. Because if a woman became pregnant after an act of rape, of course it was easy to say well, after all, she enjoyed it, so she was complicit.

What did it feel like to be writing about a very ambitious woman like Anne Boleyn just as your own ambition was becoming very fruitful for you? Wolf Hall brought you fame and notoriety — writing about Cromwell, who’s a real upstart, and Anne Boleyn, whose ambition gets her into the king’s bed.
Yes, it’s true, but I identify far more with his story than hers. I believe she’s a really interesting personality, but if my primary identification was with her, then I’d be writing another Anne Boleyn novel.

Did you think of yourself as ambitious?
Oh, I’ve always been very ambitious. But it’s more in my own terms than in other people’s terms. With each book, I’ve tried to push out what I can do, or tried something different. When I began this, I didn’t actually realize it was 15 years of work, because I was thinking in terms of one book when I began. Had I known it would be 15 years, I wouldn’t have been deterred because it took me such a long time to break through in the first place. I was writing for about 12 years before I got a novel accepted, and I’ve always believed you’re in it for the long haul, and it’s not the trade if you want quick gratification.

Having won the Man Booker for both the first two Cromwell books, does that give you any anxiety about the last one?
Not when I was writing it. I was always just concentrated on that day’s work. Then when I got towards the end, I thought to myself, This is the best of the trilogy, but that doesn’t mean other people would agree, and it doesn’t mean also it will win any prizes, because having been a Booker judge myself I’m very aware that individual taste and the panel’s dynamic play such a part.

Are you going to be involved in the next season of the BBC production?
I’ll be rather more involved than I was last time. Last time, I had an initial discussion with the director, I saw the episodes as they evolved, and I was able to make suggestions. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, but Peter Straughan is a very clever screenwriter, and his first draft was very, very sound. There was never much for me to do.

Of course, by now I’ve got to know Peter Kosminsky, the director, much better, and the same team and production company have optioned my novel about the French Revolution [A Place of Greater Safety]. What we have now is possibly a really enduring working relationship.

Do you know if the original cast is going to be able to come back and film a new season after a five-year hiatus?
No, because the screenplay isn’t finished yet. Everything about the timing is up in the air, at the moment. It won’t go on air until 2022, at the earliest.

In your memoir Giving Up the Ghost, you wrote so eloquently about what it’s like to be inside a body that is out of your control due to your endometriosis and the hormone treatment that dramatically changed it. Did you feel any kinship with Henry VIII? Or do you think you’ll feel some kinship if Damian Lewis takes up the role again, and has to play a Henry who has gained so much weight and has so many mobility problems?
I did set myself to try to understand him. In my view, he does monster things, but he’s not a monster. I don’t think there’s any point in writing about a character with whom you have zero empathy. So I try to understand how Henry’s life might have been at the point where he was a super self-confident human being. He was warm. He was talented, and he was a musician, an athlete. It isn’t a case of, Oh, this is the king, we’ll let him win, because in jousting you can’t do that. You’d die, you know? [Laughs.]

And so you imagine when illness begins to strike him, he sees day by day the power of his body ebbing away and he’s losing his beauty and it’s going fast — from 1536 there’s a rapid deterioration. And as he loses that beauty and ability, he’s losing his self-confidence. Plus, he’s in chronic pain. The man who could trust his body can no longer trust it. And, he had always been, curiously, a hypochondriac. He was excessively interested in the whole business of medicine, so if you were a courtier and you happened to sneeze near the king, he’d whisk you off and make you up some evil remedy.

Now, the Henry in my book isn’t the Henry that you see sometimes, when you’ve got a man who’s morbidly obese and looks very ill. He deteriorated a lot in the last seven years of his life. But by 1540, by the time of Cromwell’s death, he was a travesty of the man he had been. Having been someone who has had a lot of illness, I have seen my own body undergo transitions. I’m perhaps in a better position to think about Henry from the inside, and to understand that there’s a huge psychological component to pain and deterioration. So I’ve tried to bring, I suppose, a bit of my experience to understanding that.

You’re often asked which bits of the books are fact and which are invention.  What do you think makes people so desirous to know the difference?
People tend to believe that there is a box of facts and only historians have the key. That each fact in there is verifiable and reliable. Actually that’s not the case at all. We all have access to the facts, because they’re there in the record, but we’re not all qualified to interpret them. People, perhaps, don’t understand how much historical scholarship consists of interpretation or reinterpretation. I’m very into reinterpretation.

For example, Cromwell may have had an illegitimate daughter in life, not in fiction. But we have absolutely no idea who her mother was, and we don’t even know that this little baby who appears in the household records was his daughter. It’s pretty fundamental to a human life whether you have a child of yours around your household, and yet, frustratingly, we don’t know this about him. So, even in such a documented life, there is a great deal of space for interpretation and filling in the gaps. What I tried to do was fill in the gaps on the basis of plausibility and the best facts I can get to lead me to that space. I try to be as transparent as possible, but you can’t get over the fact that unless someone had been shackled to me for 15 years, they wouldn’t know.

You’ve spent, like you said, the past 15 years living through your work in this time of insane chaos, with the schism and the Reformation and all the uncertainty about Henry’s lack of an heir. Does every generation believe that they are living through the most chaotic world possible, or right now are we really and truly are living in unprecedented times?
Most of us, certainly people of my generation born after the last World War, in Europe and the United States as well, we’ve been very blessed to be born in an unprecedented era of transparency and security. And, sure, as we turned the corner and passed the millennium, that began to wobble.

When I write about the 16th century, I’m writing about really raw power, inequality, poverty, exploitation, battles over scarce resources, overt misogyny. A backwards society, a superstitious society. And actually, I think most of the world still works like that. And so nobody can really convince me that historical fiction isn’t relevant.

Hilary Mantel Thinks the Last Book Is Her Best