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Hilary Mantel

PUBLISHED: 12:33 17 January 2013 | UPDATED: 22:38 20 February 2013

Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel

Following the success of a historic second Booker Prize, Derbyshire-born Hilary Mantel talks to Nigel Powlson

When Hilary Mantel was in the planning stage of her Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall, she wrote to the current occupants of the historic property explaining about her book.


She told the owners of what is now a working farm in Wiltshire to have no fears of an influx of visitors as a result. Im just warning you that Im borrowing the name of your house for a historical novel but dont worry, I dont sell many copies so you wont be inundated with tourists, she wrote.


Wolf Hall became the fastest-selling Booker Prize-winner ever, with more than 200,000 copies sold in hardback alone. It has been translated into dozens of languages and is currently being adapted for both the stage and TV. By any standards it is a literary phenomenon and one that continues to grow after the publication of the second part of the trilogy.


Its not a trick that I expected to pull off. I was quite genuine when I said to the people at Wolf Hall that they probably wouldnt even hear a ripple about it, says Hilary. I did think that as the Tudors are a winner in historical terms these novels would resonate more with the public than my previous books but not on this scale. I made no effort to change my writing style or compromise by attempting to appeal to a wider public.


The books chart the life and times of Thomas Cromwell, who rose to be Henry VIIIs chief minister at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. It seems that Henry VIII worked his magic, says Hilary, reflecting on her success. I also think people are used to a romantic view of events seen through the eyes of the wives. I have done something less romantic and more political and seen from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell, someone who had never been at the centre of his own story.


In October, Derbyshire-born Hilary entered an elite group of double Booker winners after the sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies, also snatched the most coveted prize in the book world.


When Derbyshire Life caught up with her, she was still taking in just what that success means.


I was completely astonished, she says. Like everyone else, I assumed that because I had won it recently that would weigh heavily with the judges this time. But, as it turned out, they were determined to exclude everything but the books before them. Even so, on the night I was astonished. I had more or less told myself I wasnt going to win, so I relaxed a bit and suddenly the verdict was read out by the chairman of the judges and I was on stage and on TV quite a memorable evening.


Already the only woman to win the Booker twice, is it possible that Hilary might make it a triple success when she concludes her Thomas Cromwell trilogy with The Mirror and the Light?


I have been a judge for literary prizes, including the Booker, and I know it usually ends in horse trading, she says. So I cant think I would have the good fortune to come before such an open-minded panel again and Im trying not to think of the third book in terms of the Booker or any other prizes. But it would be a good story so you cant prevent people from speculating.


But Hilary does admit that these books are the best work I have ever done and that shes very ambitious for the third book. So lets not count out the possibility.


I do know that when I get down to writing it next year I wont be thinking about prizes. Every day is a fresh beginning and all thats present to you is the story and characters. But I do know I have a lot to live up to.


Hilary was born in Glossop in 1952, the eldest of three children, but was then brought up in the Derbyshire mill community of Hadfield.


From the age of six to 10, she lived at Brosscroft, where she recalls you walked up the hill and there was nothing, just blue air and the reservoirs and moors that stretched on for mile after mile. It was a place of fantasy in a way.


Her early years in Derbyshire werent always happy but proved to be a major influence on her early work.


Children were beaten in our village, sometimes grotesquely, she says in her memoirs, Giving Up the Ghost, published in 2003, adding later: There is little traffic, none of it fast, who would need to speed towards Hadfield?


She goes on to say: The story of my own childhood is a complicated sentence that Im always trying to finish and put behind me.


One of her abiding memories is when her father, Henry Thompson, gave way to step-dad Jack Mantel. We parted company with my father just about the time of my 11th birthday. In some of my fiction, theres a father that walks off but, for me, that wasnt really the case. In real life, it was more complicated.


Three years before, my mother had moved her lover into the house and Henry became more and more marginalised. He faded from our lives and then was gone. Over the years, I wasnt even allowed to mention him.


Hilary went on to write about Hadfield in a fictionalised way in her novel Fludd, published in 1989. When I wrote that book, I reflected on the fact that, in some ways, it was an odd little community pushed up there in the shadow of the moorlands, she says.


In 1970, Hilary moved south to the London School of Economics to read law before transferring to Sheffield University and marrying Gerald McEwen in 1972.


Her first major historical book success was the French Revolution novel A Place of Greater Safety, which was named the Sunday Express Book of the Year in 1992. But it was the publication of Wolf Hall in 2009 that made her a household name and which has captivated an army of readers.


Next year, she aims to bring the Thomas Cromwell trilogy to a conclusion. She has gathered lots of material for the third book but admits that its not yet stitched together as ever since Bring Up The Bodies was published, shes been in a constant round of publicity duties at home and abroad. It has to be done, its part of the job, she says, but it doesnt get you anywhere in writing terms.


What she needs now is solid thinking time. So next year she will be less in the public eye and will get down to some hard writing.


By the time the third book comes out, we should have seen stage and TV versions of Wolf Hall. The stage version is slightly ahead of the TV adaptation, she says. The plan is to get one play out of Wolf Hall and one from Bring Up The Bodies so that they could be staged on subsequent nights as well as being independent. We are talking to the RSC and National Theatre and hoping that one will collaborate.


The TV series is being written in six parts by Peter Straughan, who adapted Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for the screen.


Hilary says: Hes about half way through it and Im keeping at arms length. I dont want to be hanging over him as hes doing it. My advice is there if needed but my main task is to generate the new work. But Im intensely curious about what will emerge. Its a wonderful prospect and the people working on both the TV and stage versions are serious and committed.


When they do come out, they will throw even more attention on the books. As Wolf Hall has now sold more than 400,000 copies in the UK and Commonwealth alone, has that farm in Wiltshire started to see visitors scurrying up the drive?


Hilary says: No invasion has materialised so far as it is buried in the country and hard to find. I did have a postcard from the people when Bring Up the Bodies won the Booker so hopefully I havent spoiled their lives!


What Hilary likes best about Derbyshire:


Dry stone walls. Drowned villages: some of my family lived in Derwent. The wild scabious and wild daffodils I used to see as a child. Peveril Castle, the great hilltop ruin looming over Castleton. Fossils, there to be picked up by the lucky at Winnats Pass. Stalagmites and stalactites and the eerie world underground. Haddon Hall, one of the most beautiful and romantic houses in England.

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