Hilary Mantel said she was left “weak at the knees” after becoming the first British writer to win the Man Booker Prize for Fiction twice after her novel Bring up the Bodies was named the best book of the year.
The 60-year-old writer, who won in 2009 for the first part of her historical trilogy, Wolf Hall, said she had been caught by surprise when she was named the winner at a ceremony in central London.
She said: “Do you know I was completely astonished, not least by the chairman’s brevity. I have heard chairmen who spend a lot more time in the limelight and go through each book and enumerate the merits of the judges and prolong the agony to the last minute so I was lolling in my chair and I feel a bit week at the knees to be honest.”
Sir Peter Stothard, who chaired the judging panel, said the book which forms the second part of Mantel’s trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell “utterly surpassed” the first volume.
He said: “She uses her art, her power of prose, to create moral ambiguity and the real uncertainty of political life, political life then and the pale imitation of political life now.”
Mantel laughed off the praise, saying: “It is not the Olympics, it is not a competition, you are only as good as your last paragraph and I haven’t written one of those today.
“This process can make you feel very much like an ex-writer or even when the praise becomes fulsome a dead writer.”
Mantel, who has become a critical and commercial hit late on in her career, said she had “no expectations” of completing a historic hat-trick with the final volume of the trilogy which she is currently writing.
She said: “My publishers were always announcing my breakthrough book and it never really happened, it happened in terms of critical esteem, it didn’t happen in terms of sales or impact on the general public, my fortunes began to turn when I met Thomas Cromwell.”
Speaking earlier while accepting the prize, she said: “Well I don’t know, you wait 20 years for a Booker Prize and two come along at once.”
She added she regarded the award as an “act of faith and a vote of confidence”.
The first two books are currently being filmed by the BBC as a six episode series and Mantel revealed a stage version was also being prepared.
She said she would not “issue a wishlist” for the casting of the series and said the theatrical version, which could include two plays shown on consecutive evenings, could be staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company who were “interested” but “not committed” to the project.
Bring up the Bodies concentrates on the end of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and Sir Peter said it had made “one of the best-known pieces of English history” come alive again “as though for the first time”.
The judges, who included Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens, spent just over two hours making their decision in what Sir Peter described as a “rigorous process of literary criticism”.
Mantel received a cheque for £50,000 at the event at Guildhall after seeing off competition from five other contenders including journalist and novelist Will Self’s book Umbrella which had been among the favourites to win.
Also in the running was Swimming Home by Deborah Levy, a novel which was originally rejected by traditional publishers.
Two of the books on the list were debut novels – 53-year-old Indian performance poet, songwriter and guitarist Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis and Manchester-born Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse.
The sixth book was The Garden Of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, about the survivor of a Second World War Japanese prison camp.
Jonathan Ruppin, Web Editor at Foyles bookshops, said the win confirmed Mantel as “essential reading”.
He said: “Mantel has been writing superb fiction for much longer than she has been winning major awards, so many readers will soon discover that she is their new favourite author.
“There is every possibility she might pull off a unique treble when she completes the trilogy.”
The win will certainly boost her sales. Last year’s winner, The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes, has sold more than 300,000 print editions in the UK.
Only Peter Carey, an Australian, and the South African J.M. Coetzee have won the prestigious prize twice before.
Both books in the projected trilogy are being televised by the BBC.