Fiction at its finest

Man Booker Prize 2009 winner: Hilary Mantel

11 November 2009

MBP: Wolf Hall is the retelling of Thomas Cromwell's life - the blacksmith boy who became Henry VIII's right-hand man.  Was he someone you had wanted to base a novel around for some time?

HM: I've wanted to write this novel for many years. It was one of my earliest projects, but I never got beyond thinking about it. As a result of my novel A Place of Greater Safety, about the French Revolution, and my novel The Giant, O'Brien, set in London during the 1780s, my imagination became embedded in the eighteenth century. I had to wait until I thought I had the mental freedom and energy to tackle a new era, and learn it from scratch. I'm not a historian by background, so it was a challenge, and needed time. I had to clear a space for it.

MBP: The Tudors seem to offer novelists and scriptwriters a never-ending source of material. What is it about this era that makes it so alluring to writers?

HM: Almost all the stories you might want to tell are lurking behind the arras. You have to nerve yourself to tackle it, because so many have gone before - not just on the page, but in the theatre and and on film. My particular focus, Thomas Cromwell, was vital to me. There's no one else at Henry's court I'd have wanted to write about, no one else's eyes I was tempted to look through. And if you look through Cromwell's eyes, you see these frequently-rehearsed events rather differently. The story becomes new.

MBP: When you started writing the novel did you already know at which point of his life you would end the book?  Will you write a concluding novel about Cromwell's life?

HM: When I began, about 5 years ago, I imagined a novel encompassing the whole of Cromwell's story. But a lot of the emotional energy of the book began to constellate around Cromwell's relationship with Thomas More - which is not as simple as often supposed. I then felt that I should play out the Thomas More story for its full value, and chose to end the book on the evening of his execution. Wolf Hall stands on its own, as a complete story - it is the end of one vital chapter in Thomas Cromwell's life, and perhaps when we meet him again he will be slightly different. Five years are before him, his rise and rise - the destruction of Anne Boleyn, the battle for the soul of Henry's daughter Mary, a revolt which is almost a civil war, the shaking and remaking of England...I can't wait.   

MBP: You've written short stories, a memoir, contemporary and historical novels. Do you prefer not to be pinned down as a writer? And is there a genre in which you feel most at home?

HM: It takes years to bring a novel from its early stages to fruition, and surely the writer changes, undergoes inner transformations? Your relation to the world alters, and so does your mental landscape, the things that interest you, the things you know. This being so, I can't see how people manage to produce a homogenous body of work. I have no ambitions in that direction. There are themes that keep re-emerging, but they are in themselves themes of rebirth, revolution, transformation. As far as the imagination's concerned, it's a question of ‘change or die.'

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