Hilary Mantel at the Borders Book Festival

I was looking forward to Hilary Mantel’s talk last night at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose. I was not disappointed – far from it. It was a memorable evening as we sat in the packed Festival Marquee as Hilary Mantel and Kirsty Wark carried on their conversation. It was brilliant, or as Kirsty said at the end thanking Hilary – ‘it was absolutely fantastic’!

Here are some of my impressions:

Hilary Mantel is not only a fantastic writer she is also an articulate speaker – she is so enthusiastic about her subject and spoke with fluency, clarity, conviction and with power. She began by reading a short extract from Bring Up the Bodies, describing Thomas Cromwell, his appearance and his view of the portrait Hans Holbein had painted.The passage came to life as she spoke the words she had written.

After that the conversation between the two women flowed effortlessly. I’ve seen both on TV and read many of Hilary Mantel’s book but they both have so much more presence in person. It was magnetic and mesmerising as they talked about the process of writing – does Hilary Mantel write her historical novels sequentially moving forward through history? No, she doesn’t. She researches, surrounds herself with her notes, her ideas and jots down descriptions, sections of dialogue and scenes, so that at no point can she answer where she is up to in the book – she cannot tell you the year, how many pages she has written, only that she needs another eighteen months before it will be finished.

She lives in a parallel world – in the present and in the world of Cromwell and Henry VIII, plus all the characters, at one and the same time. It is always with her. When she started to write about Cromwell it was just going to be one book, but that soon changed and at present she is writing about the third book (The Mirror and the Light), leading up to Cromwell’s death. She tries as far as possible to be historically accurate, for the dialogue to be correct, but as a lot of what happened was not recorded – eg there is no transcript of Anne Boleyn’s trial – what she writes is her offering, her interpretation as it were.

I was pleased Kirsty Wark asked her about writing in the present tense (something I often have difficulty reading, but didn’t in either Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies). I can’t remember precisely but I think Hilary Mantel replied that she saw the people as though the scenes were being acted out before and wrote it as it happened. If that is not what she said that is the impression I came away with. I only know that for me in these books it all came to life as I read it with an immediacy that I don’t often find in novels – I was there, not just an observer.

What does Hilary Mantel do in her ‘down time’, what does she read when she is not writing. Well, she doesn’t really have ‘down time’ and she doesn’t read novels when she is writing, she is so immersed in the world she is writing about that she can’t enter anyone else’s world. She reads round the subject, history, sociology etc.

What will she write next – more historical fiction or a contemporary novel? She is not sure – she’s thinking about writing about writing historical fiction – I do hope she does. Maybe not historical fiction itself, as that’s a huge project taking several years to research and plan. When she was 22 she had dreamed of writing historical fiction and wrote her novel about the French Revolution. Then she hadn’t realised that most people this side of the Channel weren’t really interested in the Revolution. Well, actually, I was and I’ve read that novel – A Place of Greater Safety and that’s another epic novel that kept me intrigued, even though I knew the outcome before I read it.

Kirsty Wark even touched on the question of the criticism Hilary Mantel had had over her comments about Kate Middleton. Her reply was a master of diplomacy, but it had upset her that her words had been taken out of context and she expressed her amazement at being woken one morning to find the press camped outside her house two weeks after her speech.

There were a few questions from the audience – would she write a prequel about Thomas Cromwell’s life on the continent, before the events in Wolf Hall. She liked that question but answered that she probably wouldn’t – there was little documentary evidence about all the places he’d been to and what he did, but I’m guessing she would have liked to have attempted it.

There was so much more said  – but I’ll stop here. It was a grand night out – an event I’m delighted to have experienced.

9 thoughts on “Hilary Mantel at the Borders Book Festival

  1. Margaret – Oh, that does sound like you had a perfectly lovely time! Thanks for sharing it. So nice to know it when an author is a pleasant in person as s/he is talented.


  2. We spoke about the question of the present tense with Greg Doran, Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company when we were discussing why they have chosen to stage the first two novels this winter. He was very interesting on just how dramatic they are and how each scene, written in the present, comes off the page almost ready to be presented on stage. I’m hoping that at some point Mantel will come and talk about the books and the process of preparing them for the theatre in Stratford and that I shall be able to get to hear her.


    1. I’m glad you mentioned the RSC, Alex because Mantel did talk about the plays and the TV series too.She is heavily involved and enjoying it very much. There are things you can show on stage/screen that are so much easier than in a book and have more dramatic effect. She also talked a bit about the need to condense and the difficulties of production with 12 actors for the numerous characters in the book – inevitably some will not appear and there will be some doubling up for the actors. I do hope she gives a talk about it and I’d very much like to visit Stratford to see the play and hear what she has to say, not so easy now we live so far north though!


      1. I don’t know what the plans are for the productions after they finish at Stratford but they may well tour up to Newcastle. If I bump into anyone I can ask I’ll let you know.


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