Devon author Dame Hilary Mantel shares a little about her love affair with Thomas Cromwell and her metamorphosis to playwright with Fran McElhone, ahead of the 2015 Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival where she spoke about the third instalment of her internationally acclaimed Cromwell trilogy…
Photo by Els Zweerink
“Hilary’s very sweet isn’t she?” So asks a highly regarded theatrical director from the author’s home town of Budleigh Salterton in East Devon, before telling me how he’d sent her an email, not expecting a response, asking the queen of literature if she’d mind becoming a patron of his theatrical society. Nevertheless, much to his delight, he got one and it was a yes. A testament to her love for Budleigh, and commitment to do what she can to inspire, no matter how thinly stretched she is.
Such is her acclaim, that Hilary, who has won the prestigious Man Booker Prize twice, was made a Dame in 2014 for her services to literature, and says she’s much more likely to be recognised in central London than here in the Westcountry, is oft followed around by people trying to take photos of her.
The 63-year-old’s work is diverse as it is copious, but it is her Thomas Cromwell trilogy which is causing the biggest stir, such which most other authors seldom experience. Taken on by the Royal Shakespeare Company about two years ago, the first two instalments of the trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, made their stage debut in Stratford-Upon-Avon and have since been to the Aldwych Theatre in the West End and across the Pond to Broadway. And in January, a huge and rightful fuss was made when Wolf Hall was televised in a four-part drama series starring Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damian Lewis as England’s infamous 16th century monarch.
Now, a world tour taking in the UK, America, the Middle East and Australia is in the offing and could commence before the third instalment, The Mirror and the Light, is finished.
When I arrive at her seafront apartment, Hilary is on the phone to her agent so I hear from her husband about how in demand his wife is – so far this year, she’s been back and forth to New York three times, the first a five week stint for the rehearsals, and when I leave I get to see quite how much the last two years has meant to her as she shows me framed photographs including of the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway, a portrait of Thomas Cromwell – Henry VIII’s right hand man – and one of her mimicking the same pose. I am looking at memorabilia reflecting her recent metamorphosis from novelist and literary journalist into playwright.
“It’s been exhilarating and terrifying,” a serene and non-sententious Hilary says of her new found profession. “I got to the point where I didn’t know the difference between those two things. With writing, I ask myself where will I be in a year’s time, but with live theatre, you are preoccupied with the next five minutes. So when I came back settled down and began to write again, I couldn’t get used to it. I was habituated to a crisis every day and I was used to asking, where’s the crisis? But there wasn’t one anymore, which felt quite sinister. Because even when you’re not with the production, you’re linked to it. It became routine not to go to bed until I’d had the show report. Sometimes I wonder, what haven’t I done? There’s a sort of nagging feeling of something missing in the day, but I’m sure that will soon evaporate!”
The events that have shaped her – her upbringing, the Convent and her loss of faith, and the debilitating, life changing, and life preventing, endometriosis are documented in her memoir, Giving up the Ghost. I am curious to know how they have influenced her ocean-wide range of writing subject matter but she is loathe to delve into the distant past. But I learn what is perhaps the most telling thing of all: That politics are at the heart of her writing.
“I don’t want to play party politics,” she says. “But politics is at the heart of everything I do. The fact I set some of my issues in the far past shouldn’t blind people to the fact that politics is at the heart of those stories.”
Light and the sea breeze stream into Hilary’s top floor home, her writing haven where much of the Thomas Cromwell series has been penned since she started on Wolf Hall “in earnest” in 2006.
Her home is filled with books, of course, “everything and anything”, history books, a whole wall on Henry VIII, the French Revolution, as well as science, psychology, “lots of poetry”, cricket and novels.
The 63-year-old somehow finds time to read three books a week, though she describes this as “part of the job” and says that most of the reading she’s doing now is in and around her new project. “For a break”, she tends to read poetry.
I wonder if Cromwell’s up there reeling from all the publicity he’s getting four centuries on from this softly spoken lady with the extraordinary mind. And after living and breathing him for the last 11 years, Hilary promises me she is far from falling out of love with him, rather, she remains transfixed by the political rise to power of the son a blacksmith. How did he become the right hand man of notorious monarch Henry VIII, she quizzes?
“I’m more fascinated by the era and by the man than when I began,” she admits. “It’s endlessly yielding up good material – the closer you get to the truth of a story, the more complex it becomes and the more you want to explore, there are no easy answers.
“I’m a long haul person. The time between starting it and now, a great deal has happened in my own life, but it is just a blink of an eye in writing terms. In terms of three really big novels, a decade isn’t a long time.
“I had Cromwell in my sights for 30 years, it wasn’t that I wanted to write about the Tudors – I wanted to write about him.
“Cromwell was a shaper of the nation, he was, I think, one of the cleverest operators in English politics ever, he’s been an enigma – how does one start out as the son of a blacksmith but become Earl of Wessex?”
Wolf Hall is an extraordinary feat. Anyone who is familiar with the 650-page epic will know how eloquently and originally she weaves storytelling, as if she was a fly on the wall, with fact and imagination.
“You have to look at it in two ways,” she tells. “There’s the day to day events, and as far as that’s concerned I follow historical record, but there are points when historical record runs out and at that point the historian has to say, we don’t know what happened but my conjecture is…A novelist just gives you a version, but that version has to be built on the best facts you can get. Where the record runs out, that’s where I start work.”
As to the Bishops who have dubbed the work as having an anti-Catholic bias, due to her portrayal of lawyer and chancellor Thomas More, she just says this is “ludicrous”, “whatever my feelings about Thomas More, they’re not motivated by anti Catholic bias,” she reveals.
Hilary describes being with the play as a “hugely energising” experience, having worked with Mike Poulton who adapted the novels for the stage from the off, ensuring a hefty amount of input from the author. When the productions moved to London, much editing was needed with a total rewrite necessary when it moved to New York, which Hilary took on.
Since the books were recreated for the stage, Hilary has also had a book of short stories published, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, and continued with “a lot” of literary journalism. So, The Mirror and the Light has thus been on hold, but ultimately, for the best.
“I’ve given two years to the theatre productions, but I think the end result will be better,” she concedes explaining the influence the actors’ questions and observations have had on her evolving masterpiece. “I never stop writing,” she continues. “In rehearsals in New York I would have two notebooks sitting side by side – one for the rehearsals, one for the book – something will just strike you, and you think, I’ve can use that.
“Being involved in the plays has been the most fun I’ve ever had in my life, even though it is terrifying! I found I could contribute more than I had imagined, so there’s been an element of pleasant surprise, and I’ve always wanted to work in theatre, but never had the opportunity.
“My part now is to get the third book out there and get the third play written, so if we do go on tour, my role will be confined to meeting the cast, going to some rehearsals.”
Hilary extols the brooding and compelling four-part TV drama series as “brilliant”. “I couldn’t imagine a better set-up,” she enthuses, singing the praises of director Peter Kosminsky and screenwriter Peter Straughan who she labels the “dream team”. “I had faith in them, and I knew I’d be confided in every turn, it wasn’t as if they confiscated it from me. I knew there were going to be compromises, but you know you can arrive at agreements, you have to recognise when a work changes form, it’s a new work, there’s no need to be possessive or precious.
“It’s as if they had got into my head, and that’s just wonderful thing to have that meeting of minds.
“The interesting thing is that Mark was completely different to the play actor, and yet you feel they’re both valid. The two Henrys and the two Cromwells were completely different, but their characters are both multifaceted, it’s so intriguing that they can both be right. And you have to remember that what you require from an actor on screen and on stage are both so different.”
For the next while, in order to get the final work, Hilary will be in Budleigh, a place I think is her sanctuary as much as it is her home, although this was intruded upon when a small squad of tabloid journalists camped outside after a remark she made about the Duchess was “instantly twisted”.
“Things are distorted as soon as they’re repeated,” says Hilary. “But this was deliberate distortion to make a story. The lecture I’d given ended by me asking the media not to do to Kate what they’d done to Diana, so it was pro Kate not anti Kate, but this was turned on its head. It concerns me that there are journalists who behave so perversely. You do feel at a time like that how important it is to know your neighbours, and to feel that they will take all of this with a pinch of salt. People in this town are very friendly and also very discreet,” she adds.
There appears to be mutual loyalty between Hilary and Budleigh townsfolk. When I first interviewed the author three years ago, soon after she’d taken over from broadcaster and former resident Sue Lawley as literary festival president, she told me about how she came to hear about the festival: During a visit to the town she noticed a flyer about the inaugural event on a lamppost, and promptly volunteered herself.
“The festival is my ideal of a festival should be – as an author I’ve seen all shapes and sizes of festivals,” says Hilary who has been a guest at all the major dos and describes Budleigh as being “efficient, cohesive and friendly” with an enthusiastic audience. “As an author at Budleigh, you feel part of the festival”, she continues. “And because of its intimacy and the fact it is kept to a long weekend, and to numerous venues within walking distance, it gives very busy writers the opportunity to meet up with old friends.
“The whole town is involved – we very much rely on town’s people and volunteers – we very much hope to keep a personal touch,” adds the author who has a slot taking about the Mirror and the Light at the event. “And Budleigh is a place of very distinct character, and a very pleasant place to visit for the weekend!
“It’s brought prestige to the town and really put it on the map – in the best possible way.”