On Writing from the Queen of Historical Fiction

Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel

Why did you become a writer?

When I was little I didn’t want to be a writer, but I did want to be a something. I never fitted in at school: I was old for my age and read voraciously – when I was 10 my mother bought me a Complete Works of Shakespeare and I absolutely fell on it. Then everything changed: my mother left my father and moved us to a new town and changed our names. I started behaving like an anthropologist, studying these strange middle-class town people and developing theories about them. I got into the habit, on long solitary walks to school, of describing things to myself, trying to find exactly the right words.

How did you start?

In my twenties I was in constant pain from undiagnosed endometriosis. With no prospect of a cure, I decided I needed a career – writing – that could accommodate being ill. So I gave up social work and started selling clothes in a department store, and worked evenings and weekends on my long historical novel about the French Revolution (A Place Of Greater Safety, eventually published 15 years later).

When my husband got a job in Botswana, I took the book with me. I remember racing to produce a clean copy in time for our home leave, typing out the manuscript on my little portable. It was a race with the illness – when we got back to England I had major surgery.

What was your darkest hour?

As I was recovering from the surgery, my novel was rejected. I felt I had walked through an open door and slammed straight into a brick wall.

But I was determined to get the novel out there one day, so I wrote a short funny contemporary novel – to get onto the publishing ladder really – and I got an agent, and it’s all gone pretty smoothly in career terms ever since.

How do you go about writing a novel?

A good part of the business of fiction is performed half-consciously, even sub-consciously.

I try to let things like plot or structure sort themselves out. A good part of the business of fiction is performed half-consciously, even sub-consciously. So I’ll do a little scene and then another little scene and try not to think of the extent of the task ahead.

I carry small notebooks, or blank postcards, and jot down phrases, names, ideas that might go into the book. When I’ve accumulated a few, I pin them in any order onto a huge cork noticeboard. Ideas then build around these fragments and I might write a paragraph, a back-story, a character, a snatch of dialogue, which I then pin behind the card they relate to. Eventually a sequence emerges, at which point I unpin all the cards and repin them in the order the narrative suggests.

A few weeks later, everything goes into a ring binder and becomes effectively the first very (very) rough draft of the book.

Can you talk us through a typical writing day?

For two years I’ve been doing ‘morning writing,’ as prescribed in The Artists’ Way and in Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I wake and reach for my notebook, then write down my dreams, and what happened yesterday, then go straight into my real writing, with ideas or scenes for the novel or for my current journalism. The thing is to keep the pen moving, and not hesitate or judge.

Then I’ll get up and do my admin, and maybe get back to writing later in the day. Weekends are more intensive, because that’s when I marshal what I’ve been working on. I don’t really do days off.

Is writing a joy or a torment?

For me it’s a blend of love and hate, so you’re in a permanent state of unresolved tension. With Wolf Hall I’d start every weekend with a scene in mind to write. I’d read through all my notes and documents, and by Saturday tea-time I’d be in complete despair, overwhelmed by complexity. Then by Sunday tea-time this big grin would spread over my face because I’d have cracked it. But every Saturday the torment would start again.

I think writing is like acting and a book is a vast performance in which you are all the characters. So it’s not surprising that you’re a limp rag when the curtain falls.

Looking back, what would you have done differently?

I would have liked to have written plays too – and I still might. I think I’m a dramatist at heart because I stay quite external to my characters and direct them as if they were actors. And I would have started this ‘morning writing’ habit much sooner, which might have helped keep my internal critic at bay. Looking back, I’ve been inhibited by perfectionism. I would have taken more risks, and moved on faster.

What are your three top tips for first-time novelists?

Write the book you’d like to read. There’s no point following a trend – it will be over by the time you submit your manuscript.

While writing your first novel, start cultivating the seeds of your second, so that you have a plan to put to agents and publishers.

Your early work is vulnerable, so protect it. You’re not obliged to explain or excuse your new trade as writer. Show it to people who can help you professionally, and to trusted friends if you want a confidence boost, but don’t confuse a confidence boost with a literary analysis.

From Wikipedia:

Hilary Mary Mantel, CBE (/mænˈtɛl/ man-TEL; born 6 July 1952), née Thompson, is an English novelist, short story writer, essayist and critic. Her work, ranging in subject from personal memoir to historical fiction, has been short-listed for major literary awards. In 2009, she won the Man Booker Prize for her novel Wolf Hall. Her latest book, Bring Up the Bodies, the second instalment of the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, won the 2012 Man Booker Prize. She is the first woman to receive the award twice, following in the footsteps of J. M. Coetzee, Peter Carey and J. G. Farrell (who posthumously won the Lost Man Booker Prize).

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