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  • W: Hilary it is a huge pleasure to speak to you here in your home as we reach the

  • conclusion of the Wolf Hall trilogy, I want, if I can, to take you back to

  • the beginning because it's very easy to think of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

  • as being very established in their form and their success. I can see

  • two Booker Prizes up there and of course many years ago when you first started

  • writing them none of this was assured. And so I want to start with one of the

  • most obvious questions which is why Thomas Cromwell?

  • Why did you want to write about him?

  • HM: I think once you become an author, well, probably even before you

  • become an author, you have your antennae out for subjects that will keep

  • you interested, keep the reader intrigued, that will last. What everyone's

  • in search of is the inexhaustible subject really. And I thought of writing

  • about Thomas Cromwell a long, long time ago but wasn't ready to do it at that

  • stage because I knew it would be an enormous project. But I think what

  • engaged me was the untold story. That here you have a man who is central to

  • some of the most famous episodes in English history but when you look for

  • him in fiction, in drama, where is he? There's a kind of blank and why is this?

  • And also then turning to history, why he had such a bad press. And that in itself

  • intrigued me, the black reputation. Is it deserved, is there another way of looking

  • at those events. And those questions were all in my mind when I eventually began.

  • I didn't know at that stage I would be writing a trilogy.

  • It was a long process of exploration before I actually began to write.

  • W: That sort of historical research that you must have done before sort of

  • putting pen to paper if you like, it takes me actually to a question

  • I want to ask you which was about the man and about your portrait of him which

  • is notably, as people mentioned when the books were published, more

  • sympathetic than some previous biographies. And I suppose even his

  • portrait by Holbein. You sort of see that face and he has this, as is

  • remarked in the book, that he looks like a murderer and somebody says 'Did you not

  • know that?' And you sort of paint a portrait of this man and I wondered

  • whether that more sympathetic portrayal came from the historical research or was

  • it more to do with your instinct as a novelist in fleshing him out?

  • HM: It's a question of perspective really. Because the story is told

  • looking over Thomas Cromwell's shoulder and it's very much concerned with his

  • evolving perceptions of the world and it is his story. Not Thomas More's story or

  • Anne Boleyn's story. If it were told from their point of view the events would look very

  • different. I think that has proved a little bit hard, particularly for

  • historians to understand, that a novelist doesn't set out to be neutral. They're

  • telling a story from inside their character. But having said that, once I

  • engaged with a topic I found that most of the biographical work on Cromwell was

  • biased, it was inaccurate, it was perfunctory. And what had happened

  • is that mistakes had got in there and they've been rolled forward from one

  • historian to another, no one saying stop, let's go back to the record, let's

  • identify the gaps and let's see what we find with a fresh eye.

  • Now, last year Diarmaird MacCulloch brought out a wonderful biography of Thomas Cromwell

  • where he has gone back over all the material and though he remains a very

  • difficult subject for a biographer I think that is a triumph of history

  • writing. And a great pleasure for me to see some of those errors worked through,

  • worked out of the system, hopefully never to bounce back. But you can't be sure

  • of that. It takes a long, long time to change perceptions of a historical

  • figure. And I think the interesting thing is that the academic assessment of

  • Thomas Cromwell and the popular historian's assessment diverged a whole

  • generation ago. But academic historians, while seeing Cromwell's importance, are

  • not particularly concerned with what he was like as a person. Whereas the popular

  • historians, the dramatists and the novelists, insofar as they engage with

  • him at all, have been satisfied to keep rolling forward this portrait of a caricature villain.

  • W: You mentioned the fact that we are very much on his

  • shoulder and one of the other joys for the reader is the fact that you have

  • this present tense narration and that is so distinctive in these books but I

  • wonder whether that was always your intention. When you sat down to write did

  • you know that that was how you're going to write it or did it come through the process of writing?

  • HM: I can go back very vividly to the moment of beginning the

  • trilogy, to writing those first few paragraphs. And with any novel

  • what you want is to hear its note, its tone. And if you hear that truly from the

  • beginning in a sense you can't be knocked off course. There may be all

  • sorts of complications and difficulties but as long as you can keep hearing that

  • true note. So the question I was asking myself is what is this novel going to

  • sound like. But actually as soon as I began writing, from the first sentence, it

  • became visual. First of all I was hearing the voice of Cromwell's father shouting

  • 'So now get up!' at this fifteen year old boy who's been kicked, is bleeding, has fallen

  • on the cobbles. There's the voice in the air above him but also I could see as if

  • through his narrow vision his father's boot on the cobble, his own blood. And so

  • the question was then when is this happening? Now, in the present tense.

  • Because he thinks he's going to die. He thinks ten seconds and I'm out. And if

  • so, this is no case for leisurely retrospection. This is a case of are we

  • going to survive our next few breaths. And therefore it commanded the present

  • tense, there didn't seem to be any choice. Nor was there any choice of viewpoint

  • because who's looking at this? Young Cromwell is looking at it. We're right behind his eyes.

  • W: The question I think when you're reading is what is

  • motivating this man? And there's a point at which he says 'I'm just trying to

  • survive the week', it's a question of survival. When you're dealing with

  • that level of power at which he's at. Did you feel that you

  • were feeling he had different motivations at different times or is

  • there a single force that's sort of pushing him along. It feels very much

  • like it's escaping his father in the first book, maybe it's about

  • furthering himself in the second book and maybe something else entirely in the third book.

  • HM: I think when he says oh I'm just trying to get through the week, don't

  • take that too seriously. That's his disclaimer. Don't come at me with anything

  • more complex for the minute. But as another character says, 'Cromwell always

  • has a plan.' And as we know his plans come to fruition. So yes he always has

  • his eye on the long term but at the same time there is always a problem, a

  • challenge, adversity to be overcome in the next five minutes. He can see the

  • big picture but there are moments in all three books when survival is the

  • imperative and it's as narrow as that. Moments of terrible peril where he

  • realises everything is in equipoise and one breath can destroy him. And I

  • think his whole project and this is why he's such a fascinating subject: it's unlikely.

  • That a man from Cromwell's background could rise to such a position

  • of power, not just in England but in Europe.

  • He's a man with a vision but a man who has to sustain that in the face of the

  • teeth of opposition on an hourly basis.

  • W: It's a fascinating study of power and of

  • course power has provided the narrative drive for some incredibly successful TV

  • series, we think about The Sopranos or Succession, other plays and novels. Having

  • dealt with it so closely yourself through these three books what have you

  • learned about what motivates people to seek power or maybe those who don't seek

  • it as well. The way that the machinations of power work, what have you learnt?

  • HM: Well I'm just now working on a theatre version. I'm at the very

  • beginning of that process. And there's a moment in the script where the situation

  • concerns Henry's daughter, the Princess Mary. And people are saying to Cromwell

  • well you have to believe Mary when she says she doesn't want to become queen,

  • she has no ambition to rule. And Cromwell says 'We all want to rule.' And from his

  • point of view, his personality set up, that is absolutely true. But I suppose I

  • think it's true. If you take power in its widest sense. We all need our little

  • meed of power to survive and prosper, even within the ambit of our own families our

  • little world when we are children, none of us are strangers to the struggle for

  • advantage. But having said that although the challenges, if you look at

  • it in the narrow sense, I think you're talking about politics, then I think the

  • challenges are different these days. The Tudors didn't have to contend with media

  • scrutiny, they didn't have to account to the general public for their actions. But

  • at the same time the consequences of a mistake were calamitous. You played with

  • your life, not your job. And I think there may be a sort of politician's mentality

  • that is necessary for survival and success that not all of us share in

  • that. I think such people often have a character that may be quite deep and

  • complex but it's not in itself introspective because they can't dwell

  • on the consequences of their actions. It's always next thing, next thing. Being

  • ever ready to confront that is an interesting challenge for a writer

  • because you're concerned with the inner workings of someone who by definition is

  • turned to the outside world. So there's a limit to how much Cromwell knows himself.

  • And I hope that as the third book proceeds, the reader will be saying yes,

  • you tell me that, Cromwell, but I know better because I know you from the inside.

  • W: With the work that you've done adapting the books for the stage

  • with Mike Poulton and with the actor Ben Miles, I wondered whether any of that

  • had actually fed back into the writing of the third book. Have you found that

  • the Cromwell that you're writing in The Mirror and the Light has been influenced

  • by the work that you've seen on stage?Particularly with the work you've done

  • with Ben Miles embodying that character.

  • HM: I think the rehearsal process,

  • it was something that fascinated me. I've always thought of writing as

  • an inherently dramatic activity. In that before you write a scene, and I always do

  • think in scenes, you prepare and you prepare and there you stand nervously in

  • the wings of it for perhaps quite some time and then you step on into the light.

  • And it may not go the way you planned. I do find writing hard work

  • and hard on the nerves because for me it is such an involving activity. It's not

  • simply a cerebral activity, it uses up the whole of you. And you have to be

  • prepared to be surprised and to allow yourself to go with the process. So I

  • found a lot of congruence between what the actors were doing and the way I

  • think of my own work. And Ben Miles has evolved the character not simply through

  • the storyline but through different iterations in different theatres with a

  • script that was also evolving. And I found the insights that he would have, I

  • would think, yes, I will have that for book three. And there are moments

  • when the narrative loops back to tell us about things we already know from Wolf

  • Hall or Bring up the Bodies but with his spin on them. So we now see or recognise

  • some aspect of them that we didn't get first time around. The

  • viewpoint has just shifted a little and we're being told slightly more. As if

  • almost the camera angle shifted. So I found that a fascinating process because

  • it meant that all three books were in play at any one time. Rather than being a

  • continuation, the third book becomes a process of continual overlapping,

  • enwrapping, every thread being held in tension.

  • W: The Mirror and The Light is a hugely satisfying conclusion to this trilogy.

  • I wonder if we could look at the title first. It's a phrase that Cromwell uses

  • to describe the king and I wondered if you could tell us about the relevance of

  • that phrase and why it's the right title for this book.

  • HM: The Mirror and The Light is a phrase that Cromwell himself used to describe Henry's kingship

  • and it's in a letter he wrote to Thomas Wyatt when Wyatt was abroad as an ambassador.

  • And when I came across that phrase it seemed to me to sum up the project if you like

  • because what the third book does is to hold up a mirror to what's gone before

  • and cast new light on what's gone before. So whilst already a metaphor it became a

  • different order of metaphor and its weird beauty struck me. And the way it

  • came to me that it was the right title was I was in East Sussex which became

  • very much a Cromwell part of the country, on the Downs there at

  • sunset one day and saw the sun against a shimmering, silver, clear sky. And the phrase

  • came back to me. So not only did I take it for the book title but I also

  • described a scene of Cromwell and his son Gregory riding across the Downs on

  • the way to their new properties and thus wrapped it into the book.

  • W: The great thing about writing from history is that we don't have to worry about

  • spoilers because everyone knows what's going to happen. But what can readers

  • expect from this final book? It must be quite something for you to hand over, if

  • you like, to the reader the final part of this trilogy.

  • HM: What the third book does is to take us through the final four years of Thomas Cromwell's life,

  • taking up the story at the moment of Anne Boleyn's execution

  • and watching his triumphant rise and his successive overcoming of obstacles and

  • enemies to the point where the king creates him Earl of Essex and his son

  • Gregory has married into the royal family and he's reached a position of

  • unprecedented power. And I try to show how whilst in the earlier books the

  • narrative may work to a crisis, we now have a crisis every day. The pressure as

  • well as the glory is intensified in the third book and then Cromwell's fall is

  • very... it's quick, it's mysterious. None of the existing theories cover it.

  • It can't be covered. There are things that we will never understand.

  • The processes of government and administration are there on the record.

  • But the process of politics is a hidden process. And the reader will, I think, come

  • to their own conclusions. I'm not trying to point to a certain event in Conwell's

  • life and say that's where he went wrong. Or he could have done this or this

  • differently. I think that's far too simple a reading. But I'm hoping to open

  • up the story so that the reader can see the full complexity of what was going on.

  • And I am in certain respects cutting against the orthodox account, not because

  • I know better, I don't know better, but because I think

  • differently. And that is because I'm entering into a dramatic process with

  • the characters rather than sitting in judgment like God looking down on it all.

  • Or a historian looking with the advantage of hindsight.

  • W: Just to finish off we've spoken a bit about what the readers might get from reading the book I wonder

  • how you feel as the creator of these books now that you have reached the

  • conclusion of the trilogy. Is it relief, is it trepidation, worry? How

  • do you feel now that this book is complete and heading into readers' hands?

  • HM: To me the whole thing is still live because the stage version and the TV

  • version are still to come.

  • And I tend to think of it all as one enormous book. Obviously it's not

  • presented to the reader in that way, but for me it's been a 15-year project

  • during which life happens, you change; everything changes in 15 years. This has

  • been the one thread through my life but I imagine that thread always will be

  • there. Once you become engaged with a historical era or a particular set of

  • characters they don't just vanish from your head. I think that's probably more

  • true for a novelist than for a historian. You don't retire, you know, or

  • if you do your characters retire with you they always live in your head. So I

  • don't feel as if I'm done with Cromwell or that I'm bereaved or that the trilogy

  • is behind me. And I think as it goes out to the reader again it gets a new life.

  • A book isn't complete till it's read and there are as many interpretations as

  • there are readers out there.

W: Hilary it is a huge pleasure to speak to you here in your home as we reach the

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Hilary Mantel: The Waterstones Interview - Wolf Hall Trilogy

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    林宜悉 posted on 2020/03/04
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