Hilary Mantel at the Borders Book Festival

Festival Marquee P1080856I 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.

An Evening With Susan Hill

Last night D and I went to Abingdon for “An Evening With Susan Hill“, arranged by Mostly Books bookshop. Susan talked about her latest book Howards End is on the Landing, which I’m part way through. She read extracts from the book – one about Roald Dahl when they were both judges for literary competitions and the other about Iris Murdoch, who she knew when they both lived in Oxford. That extract was sad because her last meeting with Iris was when Iris was already suffering from Altzheimer’s and showed little recognition of Susan.

Susan’s favourite book by Iris Murdoch is my favourite too – The Bell. It was touching to hear her talk about Iris and the time she and John Bayley, her husband sang the Silver Swan madrigal in

… light wavering but not untuneful voices and everyone fell silent to listen. It could have been funny, a madrigal sung by these two small, oddly gnome-like figures, one of the country’s leading novelists and a distinguished don and man of letters. In fact it was rather moving. (page 117)

Howards End is on the Landing is an interesting little book which takes a look at some of the books in Susan’s three storey country house in Gloucestershire. She had decided to take a year off  from buying new books and to read or re-read books from her own collection. There are books in every room and although she says they’re not arranged it appears that they are in some sort of order with books grouped together in different rooms even though they may be in strange combinations such as Medieval Monastic history books together with 400 Ladybird Books in one small room. I was amused to hear her say she has a Richard Dawkins’ book on a shelf next to an commentary on the Old Testament. I had a look this morning to see who he is next to on our shelves (until the removal men pack all the books away) – he is between a cookery book High Fibre Meals: a delicious range of menus to increase fibre in your diet and Ian Rankin’s novel Set in Darkness – quite an odd combination really. My books all started out sorted into fiction and non fiction and soon found their own order. Like Susan I know where they all are but every now and then some of them go missing.

In the book she has a few sharp words about e-readers and last night expanded on why she thinks there is a place for both “real” books and e-books. I haven’t ventured into the e-world just yet, but no doubt I will at some point as I think an e-reader would be useful in some situations – I wouldn’t have to leave a box of books handy for instance during our house move as I could load a few on an e-reader. She also has little room for book bloggers who

… boast of getting through twenty plus books in a week, as if they were trying for a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Why has reading turned into a form of speed dating? And then there is fashion and the desire to have the very latest book – which doesn’t matter a scrap so long as the book is wanted for itself, not just because it is one everybody is talking about, and so long as plenty of other, unfashionable books are desired as well. (page 171)

Thankfully I don’t fall into those categories, but I do blog, which Susan hasn’t got time for thinking

The internet can also have a pernicious influence on reading because it is full of book-related gossip and chatter on which it is fatally easy to waste time that should be spent actually paying close, careful attention to the books themselves, whether writing them or reading them. (page 3)

Phew! Personally I find blogging helps me concentrate more on my reading and writing. I no longer read a book and put it down thinking that was good, or not. It makes me think more about the book, what I liked and didn’t and analyse the themes, the way it was written and so on. Of course you have to be discerning about what you read and how much time you spend on the internet – it is easy to pass several hours without noticing, but for me it certainly hasn’t stopped me from being able to concentrate on single topics or tackle difficult long books.

Having said that I like Howards End is on the Landing very much. It’s full of lots of references to books and authors, some known to me and others not and Susan’s personal anecdotes. I just wish it had an index. It’s a bit like the blog she used to write.

It was an enjoyable evening, sadly the last I’ll be able to go to as soon we won’t be living in the area. It was nice to meet up again with Abigail from Gaskella and to meet Simon from Stuck in a Book and Becca from Oxford Reader.