The Creative Process is a traveling exhibition of interviews with over 100 writers and creative thinkers. Many of these interviews are being published across a network of university and international literary magazines. Tin House is proud to present the first segment of this online exhibition of an interview with Hilary Mantel.
The Creative Process: It’s fascinating in Wolf Hall the way you root us immediately in Cromwell’s POV right from the beginning. Can you speak a little about how this beginning came to you?
Hilary Mantel: The beginning came in a flash—it unfolded cinematically as I wrote it—and immediately, all the big choices were made. When is it happening? Now. What is the point of view? His.
We are looking through the boy’s eyes—Thomas Cromwell’s. He thinks he’s about to die. He’s living second by second. His angle of vision is narrowed. There’s blood in his eyes. It’s the beginning of his story – but also the end.
So in a sense, the whole project was done in ten minutes. But it will take ten years to unfold its potential.
‘So now get up.’
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.
Blood from the gash on his head – which was his father’s first effort – is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded; but if he squints sideways, with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father’s boot is unravelling. The twine has sprung clear of the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.
‘So now get up!’ Walter is roaring down at him, working out where to kick him next. He lifts his head an inch or two, and moves forward, on his belly, trying to do it without exposing his hands: on which Walter enjoys stamping. ‘What are you, an eel?’ his parent asks. He trots backwards, gathers pace, and aims another kick.
It knocks the last breath out of him; he thinks it may be his last. His forehead returns to the ground; he lies waiting, for Walter to jump on him. The dog, Bella, is barking, shut away in an outhouse. I’ll miss my dog, he thinks. The yard smells of beer and blood. Someone is shouting, down on the river bank. Nothing hurts, or perhaps it’s that everything hurts, because there is no separate pain that he can pick out. But the cold strikes him, just in one place: just through his cheekbone as it rests on the cobbles.
The opening paragraphs of Wolf Hall, by kind permission of the author. Copyright © Tertius Enterprises Ltd.
TCP: Your use of the present tense in Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, A Place of Greater Safety and elsewhere gives immense energy to the text. In your memoir Giving Up the Ghost for crucial scenes you transition from first to second person. I was wondering if you could speak about these authorial choices?
HM: The present tense is potent but I think you shouldn’t reach for it as a matter of course. You need a reason. I have come across a lot of novels recently where the use of the present tense is frustrating and limiting, and the better choice would have been the more reflective, distanced past tense—the calmer, more authoritative, classic storytelling voice.
I haven’t often employed the second person—but it is useful in a memoir, or any kind of personal writing where you are trying to speak directly to the reader and invite them in.
Such choices, I find, don’t usually require deliberation. You know automatically what the narrative requires. If you have made the wrong choice then the inherent falsity should strike you within a page, and you can think again. If you have any disquiet, I think it’s important to track it down. What gives a writer’s work distinction—makes it hers and hers alone—is a freedom in the early stages of writing, a process that allows the natural voice to come through; but then after that comes a period of intense work to clarify and polish—that’s the secret of style. The first five percent—the original inspiration and drive—and the last five percent—the close attention at the level of the syllable—these, to me, are what makes a piece of writing distinctive. In between, you depend on technical competence and hard work.
TCP: Although almost all of your early novels were set in contemporary periods, you are now widely celebrated as a historical novelist. Your research for the Thomas Cromwell trilogy must be immense. How do you know which account to trust, which is closest to the truth? What are some of the questions you’d have like to have asked Cromwell, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, or indeed any of the other historical figures you’ve written about?
HM: You would have to bear in mind that, unless they’d acquired perfect knowledge after their death, they might be as confused about some things as we are. No individual has perfect information, or the whole picture. With Thomas Cromwell, you would like to ask him about his early life—about the part that’s lost to history. And maybe about his religious beliefs. As for Henry—does he understand himself? He’s complex and full of contradictions and I doubt you’d get helpful answers. With all the characters, I think you’d just like ten minutes in their presence—it’s not so much specific items of information you want—you’d like to know how they present themselves. You’d like to see them in action.
As for “what really happened”—you try to get back to the documents closest to the source, but then you must evaluate that source – always asking, why does the source want me to believe this? For example: one of the best sources for the human detail of Henry’s court, as well as the political maneuvers, is Eustache Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador. He was a good writer, a fast thinker, a man you’d like to know—he was good company, and he was close to Thomas Cromwell. They were neighbors, and they were—almost—friends: for diplomats and politicians, friendship is always cautious and qualified by self-interest. The ambassador is well-informed, but sometimes, you feel, Cromwell is spinning him a line—and he knows not to trust him, but sometimes he has to. Apart from Cromwell, his contacts are mostly courtiers with a strong papist bent— the old aristocratic families, rather than the new men. They give him their own picture of what’s happening out there in the country at large—but they are not necessarily in the best place to know.. Again, he doesn’t speak much English—he talks to Cromwell in French—but does he understand more English than he admits? Another factor to consider: like any diplomat, he writes his dispatches to make himself look good in the eyes of his master—always pretending to know a bit more than he does. He has to present himself as an insider, a man who can cut through protocol and get straight to Henry—but in reality, he probably gets access only when it suits the king.
So this wonderfully entertaining source is only reliable up to a point. And you can run the same kind of analysis on any of the contemporary sources.
TCP: You dealt with time differently in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and your short story collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. And I imagine The Mirror and the Light, which spans yet another time frame, presents new challenges of momentum and resolution. Could you discuss the use of time in your books? Some writers I’ve spoken to have a structured, almost mathematical approach to their planning. Would you describe yourself as a planner or more instinctive?
HM: The three parts of the Cromwell trilogy are very different. Wolf Hall spans 20 years or so—it concentrates on a period of about six of those twenty—but it also reaches back into mythological time, pre-history. Bring Up The Bodies is more tightly constructed and spans only 9 months: and of that 9 months, I concentrate on three weeks, and the story pulls the attention inward, to the day, the hour, and to the very second that Anne Boleyn’s head falls. At that stage, we’re operating breath by breath. The unit of measurement is a heartbeat. The Mirror & The Light is different again. It will take in 4 years, but the narrative will breathe, as Cromwell takes us back into his childhood and earliest memories.
There’s historical time—the fixed chronology—and then there’s novel time—the way the chronology is handled. I try to find the structure of my book through writing individual scenes—I don’t write from A to B, from March to April—I can move anywhere in the narrative. In the initial stage of writing any book, my thinking is non-linear. But at a later stage, it all has to be skewered down. Again I will be thinking of the individual scene—how it is structured—then how it fits into the whole. I think if control is too tight in the early stages of a book, you can miss its potential.
TCP: Have the television and theatrical adaptations of your work—with their fixed time frames and economies of conveying meaning—influenced your editing process in any way?
HM: I have been very much involved with the stage version—the scripts have evolved greatly between the version that went into preview in Stratford-on-Avon and the version presented on Broadway last year. I have learned a lot through that process. But I think that in the books, it’s up to me to present the fuller version—and there are many storylines and characters I want to pursue, which didn’t get into either adaptation.
TCP: In your memoir Giving Up the Ghost, you begin with an arresting image, vividly but simply described—that of your stepfather’s ghost coming down the stairs. I’m working on your portrait at the moment and, for me, there seems to be an old soul there. And you have a real sense of drama.Of course in your books the past is very present. I was wondering if you feel these migraines, visions, connection to the past, relationship to your grandfather and other things you describe in your memoir, may have anything to do with the ease with which you move between worlds in your writing.
HM: It’s true that certain barriers don’t seem very solid to me. Sometimes, in the aura that precedes a migraine, there is a disturbance that is very subtle—you may have repeated instances of déjà vu, for example, where the past seems to be replaying, to be on a loop. Or you may have a sense of a presence: you can sense it rather than see it. I accept that these are neurological phenomena, but they also expand your imaginative powers. Again, dreams are very important to me. I have good recall of them and I record them, and I know I am in a good place to write when my dreams become big and transpersonal. I am very curious about the nature of time and the boundaries of our individual selves. Sadly, I think you lose some of your permeable, porous nature as you get into adulthood. You put on a protective layer. It’s good for you generally to be protected in that way—only it’s not so good for your art.
TCP: Power is a theme not traditionally at the heart of the literary novel. And yet power, ambition, the politics of strategy and influence are endlessly fascinating. Why do you think these themes haven’t been addressed more in literary fiction and do you feel this is changing? Do you think historical fiction and other genres are more suited for discussing power and those kind of conflicts? I know many who’ve enjoyed your works who’ve admitted they rarely read historical fiction. It could be said that your books have turned on a whole generation to a genre they had overlooked. What do you feel about genre labels in general and your place between historical and literary fiction?
HM: I think that every time a novelist writes about a love affair, they’re also writing about a power relationship. Every time they describe a family, they’re describing a mini-state. There is nowhere in human experience, where power politics isn’t.
I think the historical novel is plural and multiform and at the moment, in good creative shape. But the kind of historical novel I write—which features real people, rather than using historical events as a backdrop—is less favored. It imposes a burden of research, which can be difficult at a certain point in a novelist’s career—because to do it properly takes time. You can write that kind of fiction first—before you’re even published—or you can do it when you are established—but when you are in mid-career, your publishers don’t like it if you say, ‘My next book will take five years.’
I don’t see myself as confined within genre. The people I write about happen to be real and happen to be dead. That’s all. It’s interesting to think what expectations people bring to historical fiction. Particularly with the Tudors, it’s hard to avoid the expectation of romance, and of pre-digested narrative that conforms to the bits of history that people remember from school. And so some readers find it’s too challenging, and post abusive reviews. They don’t locate the deficiency in themselves, or like to have their prejudices disturbed. The form tends to conservatism. So you can find that you have, in fact, attracted the wrong reader. Correspondingly, if you manage to break down a prejudice against fiction set in the far past, that’s very positive.
I think it’s important not to confuse the role of the fiction writer with the role of the political journalist. You need distance to see the shape of events. So for me, near-contemporaries like Mrs. Thatcher can only have a walk-on part.
Continue reading at The Iowa Review >
Hilary Mantel is the two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize for her best-selling novels, Wolf Hall, and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies—an unprecedented achievement. The Royal Shakespeare Company recently adapted Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for the stage to colossal critical acclaim and a BBC/Masterpiece six-part adaption of the novels. The author of fourteen books, including A Place of Greater Safety, Beyond Black, and the memoir Giving up the Ghost, she is currently at work on the third installment of the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy. Mantel delivered this year’s Reith Lectures which will be broadcast this month on the BBC.
Mia Funk is an artist, interviewer, and founder of The Creative Process, an exhibition and international educational initiative traveling to leading universities. Over 100 esteemed writers and 40 universities are taking part in this project. She is currently painting the portraits for the American Writers Museum. Read on to see her thoughts on creating these portraits of Mantel.
“I am used to ‘seeing’ things that aren’t there. Or—to put it in a way more acceptable to me—I am used to seeing things that ‘aren’t there.’”
–HILARY MANTEL, Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir
The portrait of Hilary Mantel and Thomas Cromwell is the second I have done of her. [The first more straightforward one is pictured earlier on this page.] With the double portrait, I wanted to do something which touched on her imaginative world. Ghosts and the idea of past times leaving a trace on our current period are themes which recur in her work, and I was fascinated by her description of migraine auras in her memoir. I wished to capture that kind of visionary blindness I’ve seen in Mantel when she is looking for a word, the perfect phrase or even a joke–because she can be quite humorous. Sure, to deal with the subject matter she has, murderous royalty to the assassination of Margaret Thatcher, she’d pretty much have to be.
The stages a novel goes through are not always clear to the writer as she writes. You may x-ray a painting and in that way unravel the palimpsest–artworks so much easier to decode than novels–but what kind of machine would you need to piece together the chronology of Mantel’s writing process. “There’s historical time—the fixed chronology—and then there’s novel time—the way the chronology is handled. I try to find the structure of my book through writing individual scenes—I don’t write from A to B, from March to April—I can move anywhere in the narrative. In the initial stage of writing any book, my thinking is non-linear. But at a later stage, it all has to be skewered down. Again I will be thinking of the individual scene—how it is structured—then how it fits into the whole. I think if control is too tight in the early stages of a book, you can miss its potential.”
Hers is an interesting process–relying as much on instinct as it does on research–which is perhaps one of the reasons her work stands out from other historical novels. Acknowledging that “no individual has perfect information”, she gives herself space and time to dream her way into lives of Henry VIII, Cromwell, and the parts of their lives that are “lost to history.” It’s a strange question to ask, but I like writers who aren’t afraid to share their dreams. The stories we tell ourselves when we sleep are extremely private and leave us vulnerable–the same openness and vulnerability which Mantel says makes us better artists. “I have good recall of them and I record them, and I know I am in a good place to write when my dreams become big and transpersonal. I am very curious about the nature of time and the boundaries of our individual selves. Sadly, I think you lose some of your permeable, porous nature as you get into adulthood. You put on a protective layer. It’s good for you generally to be protected in that way – only it’s not so good for your art.”
So, alongside Mantel the dreamer, there is Mantel the trained lawyer. I wonder what kind of edge this gives her when analyzing historical documents and writing about structures of power and life at court. But she is quick to emphasize that “every time a novelist writes about a love affair, they’re also writing about a power relationship. Every time they describe a family, they’re describing a mini-state. There is nowhere in human experience, where power politics isn’t.”
And what kind of power did Cromwell wield? Through the subtlety of her writing, I’ve come to see a different version of him than previously portrayed by historians. Is he this incredibly powerful but almost invisible person watching and listening and looking for openings to quietly move events towards his desired aims? Or is he the perpetual outsider who rose up from the back streets of Putney as vulnerable as he was ruthless. In The Mirror & The Light, the last novel in her trilogy, she will show us yet another side of the man. “It will take in 4 years, but the narrative will breathe, as Cromwell takes us back into his childhood and earliest memories.”
It is a complicated, circular narrative and any painting I do can only scratch the surface. My very good friend Patrick Healy, who often sees layers of meaning and symbolism in my art which I had not set out to paint, told me that the figures in the green skirt in the garden are obviously The Green Man, the medieval nature deity symbolising rebirth and the cycle of growth each spring, and that this is an archetype which speaks directly to the English imagination.
I can’t say that was a conscious decision on my part, but if he sees it there, I’m happy to take credit for his cleverness. Sometimes an artist’s choices are more straightforward. I wanted to have Mantel in front of a window and that window should be looking out onto something. The figure in the distance, which is repeated in the third pane, is my attempt at a woman, so maybe it’s The Green Woman. I was thinking of Anne Boleyn and other female characters in Mantel’s work and by repeating the figure I was trying to capture a sense of time and looking back on the past. I put her in the background, but she is at the same time crucial, as Mantel told me: “I was fascinated by the fact that in the early modern era women had so little real power – even female rulers, queens in their own right, made a parade of obeying their husbands. But in Henry’s reign, for this historical moment, everything depends on a woman’s body. Not all the wit and experience and tenacity of Henry’s counselors can give him what he needs – a son. Only a woman can do it…”
But the figure isn’t pregnant, she is almost androgynous, so I may have also been thinking about this and Mantel’s discussion of the female body and her not having children. I have not had children, and this is something Mantel discussed in her memoir. And it is a decision made by a lot of artists, to forego one kind of creation for the other.
There are traces in the portrait which mean something to me but may not mean much to viewers looking at the picture. A hint of a veil–she lived for four years in Saudi Arabia and wrote about this experience in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. Mantel’s hands went through a few drafts and in one of them she is holding a rabbit–symbol of fertility and sensuality. Something about their quickness, large alert eyes and ears made me think of the novelist, but in the end this seemed too strange a juxtaposition and distracting.
All of this is preparation for a larger portrait of Mantel which I am doing and so I needed to work out some of these ideas on a smaller scale first. I have many ideas for the larger portrait at the moment, and I need to narrow it down. I am in two minds, as I would love to do something fresh with the palette and atmosphere of the sea, which would include echoes of Mantel’s seaside home in Devon and her novels and stories set in contemporary periods. But I am also very tempted do a contemporary portrait in the manner of Holbein’s paintings of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. Something with lots of embroidery and texture communicating the richness and power of Mantel’s singular imagination.
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