Novellas in November: Short Nonfiction

Novellas in November is hosted by Cathy and Rebecca. This week the theme is short nonfiction and these are some I’ve read in previous years.
  1. Alive, Alive Oh and Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill (21 December 1917 – 23 January 2019). She was a British literary editor, novelist and memoirist who worked with some of the greatest writers of the 20th century at the London-based publishing company Andre Deutsch Ltd. This book contains her memories, thoughts and reflections on her life as she approached her 100th year, covering events from her childhood in the 1920s and 1930s, her post-war life, visits to Florence, and in the Club Mediterranee in Corfu in the 1950s, and the friends and lovers she has known upto 2009 when she moved into a home. The chapters follow on chronologically but are unconnected except for the fact that they demonstrate her love of life. And it is this love of life that is evident in her writing that makes it such a remarkable book. I loved it.
  2. Ink in the Blood: A Hospital Diary by Hilary Mantel, another short memoir. I read this in 2011 after Hilary Mantel’s talk at the Borders Book Festival at Melrose had been cancelled in the previous summer.  She had to cancel that because she wasn’t well – I didn’t know just how ill she was. Ink in the Blood reveals all – how she had surgery to remove an intestinal obstruction that ended up in a marathon operation, followed by intense pain, nightmares and hallucinations. Illness she found knocks down our defences, revealing things we should never see, needing moment by moment concentration on breathing, on not being sick and being dependent on others for your well-being. Writing was Hilary Mantel’s lifeline – it was the ink, as she wrote in her diary, that reassured her she was alive.
  3. James Herriot’s Cat Stories is a collection of ten stories clearly demonstrating his love of cats. In the introduction James writes that cats were one of the main reasons he chose a career as a vet. They have always played a large part in his life and and when he retired they were still there ‘lightening’ his days. This is a short book of 158 pages with illustrations by by Lesley Holmes.

I’ve recently read Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke and I’ll post a review later.

Contemporary Novellas: Fludd by Hilary Mantel

A dark fable of lost faith and awakening love amidst the moors

5*

Novellas in November began this week, hosted by Cathy and Rebecca. Each week they will take it in turns to host a “buddy read” of a featured book they hope you will join in reading – see their blogs for details.

The definition of a novella is loose – it’s based on word count rather than number of pages – but they suggest aiming for 150 pages or under, with a firm upper limit of 200 pages. The prompt for this week is contemporary fiction, defined as post 1980 and hosted by Cathy,

My choice this week is Fludd by Hilary Mantel, first published in 1989 by Viking. My copy, published in 2010 by Fourth Estate, has 181 pages followed by additional features at the end, including an About the Author section, and an interview with Hilary Mantel.

Description:

Fetherhoughton is a drab, dreary town somewhere in a magical, half-real 1950s north England, a preserve of ignorance and superstition protected against the advance of reason by its impenetrable moor-fogs. Father Angwin, the town’s cynical priest, has lost his faith, and wants nothing more than to be left alone. Sister Philomena strains against the monotony of convent life and the pettiness of her fellow nuns. The rest of the town goes about their lives in a haze, a never-ending procession of grim, grey days stretching ahead of them.

Yet all of that is about to change. A strange visitor appears one stormy night, bringing with him the hint, the taste of something entirely new, something unknown. But who is Fludd? An angel come to shake the Fetherhoughtonians from their stupor, to reawaken Father Angwin’s faith, to show Philomena the nature of love? Or is he the devil himself, a shadowy wanderer of the darkest places in the human heart?

Full of dry wit, compassionate characterisations and cutting insight, Fludd is a brilliant gem of a book, and one of Hilary Mantel’s most original works.

My thoughts:

It is 1956, set in the north of England in the fictional village of Fetherhoughton, which is loosely based on the village where Mantel grew up. She was brought up as a Catholic and the idea for the story came from a conversation with her mother about her childhood. When she was around four the Bishop decreed that all the statues in the church were to be removed which annoyed the parishioners and she heard the adults talking about what to do with the statues. One suggestion was to bury them. Her mother also told her about a young priest, who everyone liked, and who disappeared. It was assumed that there was a girl involved. The two events combined in her mind and came out as this novel.

Mantel clarifies in a Note before the story begins that the church in Fludd bears some resemblance, but not much to the Roman Catholic Church in the real world. Fludd was a real person (1574 – 1637), a physician, scholar and alchemist and she adds that

In alchemy, everything has a literal and factual description, and in addition a description that is symbolic and fantastical.

This sets the scene for what follows – there is a mystery that lies beyond the visible world, miraculous things appear to happen and very ordinary things appear miraculous. There is a hint of the supernatural.

The story centres on Fludd, a young priest who comes to the Church of St Thomas Aquinas to help Father Angwin, a cynical priest who has lost his faith. The Bishop, a modern man, is concerned about Father Angwin and wants to bring him and the Catholic community up to date – so the statues in the church have to go. This has a most disturbing effect on all concerned – not just the church and Father Angwin, but also the the nuns in the convent, and the school, both under the stern eye of Mother Perpetua.

Fludd, himself is something of a mystery. When he eats the food disappears, but he is not seen eating. When he pours out whisky for Father Anwin the bottle always remains full. Strange things happen, a wart disappears from one character’s face and finds its way to another’s, one character apparently spontaneously combusts, another disappears and there’s a tobacconist who may or may not be the devil. The real question is just who is Fludd?

I enjoyed it all immensely – partly about religion and superstition, but also a fantasy, a fairy tale, told with wit and humour with brilliant characterisation.

Book Beginnings & The Friday 56: Fludd by Hilary Mantel

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week I’m featuring Fludd by Hilary Mantel, described as’ a dark fable of lost faith and awakening love amidst the moors.’ It’s very different from the other books by her that I’ve read. For one thing it’s short!

The Book Begins:

On Wednesday the bishop came in person. He was a modern prelate, brisk and plump in his rimless glasses, and he liked nothing better than to tear around the diocese in his big black car.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice. *Grab a book, any book. *Turn to Page 56 or 56% on your  ereader . If you have to improvise, that is okay. *Find a snippet, short and sweet, but no spoilers!

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

That afternoon, Father Fludd undertook a parish tour. Father Angwin accompanied the curate to the front door. ‘They may ask you into their houses’, he said. ‘For God’s sake don’t eat anything. Be back before dark.’ He hovered, anxious. ‘Perhaps you shouldn’t go alone?’

‘Don’t fuss, man’, Fludd said.

Summary (from Amazon)::

Fetherhoughton is a drab, dreary town somewhere in a magical, half-real 1950s north England, a preserve of ignorance and superstition protected against the advance of reason by its impenetrable moor-fogs. Father Angwin, the town’s cynical priest, has lost his faith, and wants nothing more than to be left alone. Sister Philomena strains against the monotony of convent life and the pettiness of her fellow nuns. The rest of the town goes about their lives in a haze, a never-ending procession of grim, grey days stretching ahead of them.

Yet all of that is about to change. A strange visitor appears one stormy night, bringing with him the hint, the taste of something entirely new, something unknown. But who is Fludd? An angel come to shake the Fetherhoughtonians from their stupor, to reawaken Father Angwin’s faith, to show Philomena the nature of love? Or is he the devil himself, a shadowy wanderer of the darkest places in the human heart?

Full of dry wit, compassionate characterisations and cutting insight, Fludd is a brilliant gem of a book, and one of Hilary Mantel’s most original works.

~~~

What do you think – does this book appeal to you too?

Throwback Thursday: 1 April 2021

I’m linking up today with Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog for Throwback Thursday. It takes place on the Thursday before the first Saturday of every month (i.e., the Thursday before the monthly #6Degrees post). The idea is to highlight one of your previously published book reviews and then link back to Davida’s blog.

This month I’m looking back at Giving Up the Ghost: a memoir by Hilary Mantel, which I first posted in April 2008.

This is the first paragraph:

In the first chapter of Hilary Mantel’s memoir she writes, ”I hardly know how to write about myself. Any style you pick seems to unpick itself before a paragraph is done.”  She then advises herself to trust the reader, to stop spoon-feeding and patronising and write in ‘the most direct and vigorous way that you can.’ She worries that her writing isn’t clear, or that it is ‘deceptively clear’. It comes across to me as being clear, honest and very moving. She’s not looking for sympathy but has written this memoir to take charge of her memories, her childhood and childlessness, feeling that it is necessary to write herself into being.

Click here to read my full review

The next Throwback Thursday post is scheduled for April 29, 2021.

My Friday Post: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Mirror and Light

I began reading The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel as soon as it arrived in the post on 6 March – and I’m still reading it, very slowly, as it is a very long and detailed book.

It begins:

Wreckage (1)

London, May 1536

Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away.

He is Thomas Cromwell, Secretary to Henry VIII, and the Queen was Anne Boleyn.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

30879-friday2b56These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56: Chapuys, the  ambassador of the Emperor Charles V is talking to Cromwell about the dangers to Henry’s life:

A dagger thrust, it is easily done. It may be, even, it needs no human hand to strike. There is plague that kills in a day. There is the sweating sickness that kills in an hour.

How true!

Blurb

With The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion and courage.

~~~

Does this book appeal to you too? Have you read/are you reading this book

Six Degrees of Separation from The Poisonwood Bible to …

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favourite books. I’ve read it several times.

The Poisonwood Bible

Told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959, The Poisonwood Bible is the story of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

I bought The Poisonwood Bible in Gatwick airport bookshop just before boarding a plane to go on holiday. So my first link in the chain is to another book I bought in an another airport bookshop waiting to board another plane:

Fortune's Rocks

It’s Fortune’s Rocks by Anita Shreve. I had never heard of Anita Shreve, but I liked the look of this book – and the fact that it’s a chunky book of nearly 600 pages, good to read on holiday. It’s set in the summer of 1899 when Olympia Biddeford and her parents are on holiday at the family’s vacation home in Fortune’s Rocks, a coastal resort in New Hampshire. She is fifteen years old and this is the story of her love affair with an older man.

When I looked at it today, I saw that it’s written in the present tense. Recently I’ve been writing about my dislike of the present tense – but I obviously haven’t always disliked it, because I remember really enjoying this book.

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)

Another book written in the present tense that I loved is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the story of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, and his political rise, set against the background of Henry VIII’s England and his struggle with the Pope over his desire to marry Anne Boleyn. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, which takes me to my next link, another book set in the reign of Henry VIII –

Lamentation (Matthew Shardlake, #6)

Lamentation by C J Sansom set in 1546, the last year of Henry VIII’s life. Shardlake, a lawyer is asked by Queen Catherine (Parr) for help in discovering who has stolen her confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner. It evokes the people, the sights, smells and atmosphere of Henry’s last year and at the same time it’s an ingenious crime mystery, full of suspense and tension.

Barnaby Rudge

The next book also combines historical and crime fiction – Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens, set in 1780 at the time of the Gordon Riots.  It’s a story of mystery and suspense which begins with an unsolved double murder and goes on to involve conspiracy, blackmail, abduction and retribution.

Barnaby Rudge is a simple young man, living with his mother. His pet raven, Grip goes everywhere with him. He’s a most amazing bird who can mimic voices and seems to have more wits about him than Barnaby. Grip is based on Dickens’s own ravens, one of whom was also called Grip.

Ravens form the next link-

The Raven's Head

to The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland, set in 1224 in France and England about Vincent, an apprentice librarian who stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master. He attempts blackmail but when this fails Vincent goes on the run in possession of an intricately carved silver raven’s head. The plot revolves around the practice of alchemy – the search for a way to transform the base soul of man into pure incorruptible spirit, as well as the way to find the stone, elixir or tincture to turn base metals into precious metals.

And finally to the last link in this chain another book featuring alchemy –

Crucible (Alexander Seaton, #3)

Crucible by S G MacLean, the third of her Alexander Seaton books. Set in 1631 in Aberdeen Robert Sim, a librarian is killed. Alexander investigates his murder and finds, amongst the library books, works on alchemy and hermetics – the pursuit of ancient knowledge and the quest for ‘a secret, unifying knowledge, known to the ancients’ since lost to us. S G MacLean’s books are full of atmosphere. I think her style of writing suits me perfectly, the characters are just right, credible well-rounded people, and the plot moves along swiftly with no unnecessary digressions.

My chain this month has travelled from Africa to Scotland via America and England, and spans the years from the 13th century to the mid 20th century. It has followed a missionary and his family, a teenager in love with an older man, and looked in on power struggles in Tudor England, and the pursuit of the secret to turn metal into gold.

Links are: books I bought to read on holiday, books in the present tense, crime fiction and historical fiction (and a combination of these genres), ravens and alchemy.

Next month  (June 2, 2018), we’ll begin with  Malcolm Gladwell’s debut (and best seller), The Tipping Point, a book and author I’ve never come across before.

A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

A Change of Climate is one of Hilary Mantel’s early books, first published in 1994 and  described on the back cover as ‘˜a literary family saga’ and ‘˜a first rate thriller’.

I quoted from the beginning of this book in this post. I noted that at the end of the book there is an About the Author section, which I’d just glanced over. In answer to one of the interviewer’s questions about the theme of the book, Hilary Mantel replied that there is a central secret, an enormous destructive secret. I didn’t want to spoil the book for myself so I didn’t read any more of her answers. And I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else so I’m not saying what that secret is in this post.

The ‘enormous destructive secret‘ Hilary Mantel referred to is revealed just over halfway into the book. But the book abounds in secrets and it’s also about family, trust, disillusionment and tragedy, about bereavement and loss of faith, as one character observes, ‘faith is something people chase after, simply to give life meaning‘.

Hilary Mantel writes a compelling story, subtly mixing the past and the present, moving seamlessly between the Eldred family’s current life (in the 1980s) in Norfolk, with their earlier life in Africa in the 1950s. I like her writing very much, never drawing attention to its style and drawing me in effortlessly into both time frames and places.

It’s a family saga (most definitely not an Aga Saga) about Ralph and Anna Eldred, their four children and Ralph’s sister Emma. Ralph and Anna devote their lives to charity, filling their house with ‘Visitors’, described as either ‘Good Souls’ or ‘ Sad Cases’. Just after they were married Ralph and Anna went to South Africa as missionaries and under the system of apartheid there they ran up against the authorities, then moved to Beuchuanaland (Botswana) where a terrible and horrific event occurred and they returned to England.  However, their memories of these traumatic events refused to remain buried, eventually bringing their lives and those of their children into terrible turmoil.

There are many issues raised in this book – chief among them the struggle between good and evil. Ralph thinks:

If we are not to be mere animals, or babies, we must always choose, and choose to do good. In choosing evil we collude with the principal of decay, we become mere vehicles of chaos, we become subject to the laws of a universe which tends back towards dissolution, the universe the devil owns. In choosing to do good we show we have free will, that we are God-designed creatures who stand against all such laws.

So I will be good, Ralph thought. That is all I have to do. (page 235)

But he discovered that it’s not that simple, as the rest of the book goes on to relate. Ralph and Anna can’t escape their past, Anna in particular cannot come to terms with what happened. The book explores questions about forgiveness and tragedy, as well as how to cope with grief.

Hilary Mantel states in the About the Author section that she found it the most difficult of her books to write – the secret just resisted being told:

I found that I was going round and round the point, yet I couldn’t put it on the page. I remember really struggling with it; it was like a wild animal that had to be civilised somehow, and in the end I just wrestled it on to the page by saying to myself, ‘Look, you’ve done this before and you can do it again’. Writing this book stands out as one of the most difficult times of my writing life.

A great book on all counts, characters and locations beautifully described and a well constructed and convincing plot, powerful and challenging on several levels.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories by Hilary Mantel

When I first saw The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it – not because of the controversy over the title story, but because I’m not especially keen on short stories. But Hilary Mantel is one of my favourite authors and after seeing her talk with James Runcie on The Culture Show I decided I definitely wanted to get the book.

I enjoyed this collection of stories,  which are brooding, somewhat melancholic, dark, disturbing and full of sharp and penetrating observations – brilliant! The title story is the last one in the book and is the only new story, the others having first appeared in other publications. I don’t find it easy writing about short stories, especially the very short ones, and so I’m not going to attempt to write about each of the ten stories in this book.

The first one, Sorry to Disturb, describes the dilemma of a British woman living in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia when she finds herself befriended by a young Pakistani businessman – a situation that was ‘ripe for misunderstanding‘. This is one of my favourites in the collection. It has a claustrophobic atmosphere, as feeling trapped in her flat, yet ‘always observed: overlooked, without being precisely seen, recognised’ she was unable to refuse a friendship, wondering if Jeddah had left her ‘for ever off-kilter in some way‘.

This view of life from a slightly different, skewed perspective and of being trapped is there in all these stories. The children in Comma, for example, spend their days during a long hot summer, ‘each day a sun like a child’s painted sun burned in a sky made white with heat’, drawn to watch what was happening at the Hathaways’ house, the house of the rich, built of stone, with a lofty round tower. In both this and Sorry to Disturb, there is an element of distinct class/cultural difference, of being outsiders.

Winter Break is one of the shorter stories, but complete in itself, unlike so many short stories I’ve read. A childless couple are taking a winter break, the husband trying to convince his wife she wants a child – she’s reluctant as she ‘had reached that stage in her fertile life when genetic strings got knotted and chromosomes went whizzing around and re-attaching themselves.’ A moment of anxiety on the journey to their hotel ends in horror.

How Shall I Know You is a much longer story. I often wonder what it’s like for authors going to venues and talking about their books and this story gives an insight into how it can be a dispiriting experience, staying in obscure and dingy places, feeling forlorn, exposed and generally insufficient. It has a grimly humorous side and underneath there is a darkness and bleakness. As with the other stories in this collection it is superbly written – you are there with the narrator, seeing the scenes, meeting the people and understanding their feelings and emotions.

And then the last story – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Mantel sets the scene – of the ‘place where she breathed her last‘ – a ‘quiet street, sedate, shaded by old trees: a street of tall houses, their façades smooth as white icing, their brickwork the colour of honey.’  Waiting for the plumber to arrive, a woman lets a man into her flat, only to find out he has a gun and wants to shoot Margaret Thatcher from the flat window, as she leaves the hospital behind the flats. Far from being horrified or scared the woman sympathises with the gunman – her first reaction is that she should get a fee for the use of her premises. This too is a dark tale told with a dark sense of humour, and with depth of feeling.

Overall then this is a compelling book, brilliantly written, keenly observed, with the power to chill and shock me. It is one that I will re-visit.

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate (25 Sep 2014)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 0007580975
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007580972
  • Source: I bought it

First Chapter First Paragraph: A Change of Climate

Every Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

Today’s choice is A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel, a book I’ve borrowed from my local library. It begins:

1970

SAD CASES, GOOD SOULS

One day when Kit was ten years old, a visitor cut her wrists in the kitchen. She was just beginning on this cold, difficult form of death when Kit came in to get a glass of milk.

The woman Joan was sixty years old, and wore a polyester dress from a charity shop. A housewifely type, she had chosen to drip her blood into the kitchen sink. When Kit touched her on the elbow, she threw the knife on to the draining board and attempted with her good hand to cover Kit’s eyes.

By this stage in her life Kit was not much surprised by anything. As she ducked under the woman’s arm she thought that’s our bread-knife, if you don’t mind; but she said, ‘You shouldn’t be doing that Joan, why don’t you come away from the sink, why don’t you sit down on this chair and I’ll get a first-aid kit?’

I haven’t read much more than this but these opening paragraphs have made me want to know more about the ‘Good Souls‘ and the ‘Sad Cases‘.

Hilary Mantel’s work is so diverse with books ranging from  personal memoir and short stories to historical fiction and essays. A Change of Climate is one of her early books, first published in 1994, described on the back cover as ‘a literary family saga’ and ‘a first rate thriller’

At the end of the book there is an About the Author section, which I’ve just glanced over. In answer to one of the interviewer’s questions about the theme of the book, Hilary Mantel replied that there is a central secret, an enormous destructive secret. I didn’t want to spoil the book for myself so I didn’t read any more of her answers. I’ll read the book to find out what that secret is.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

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.