The novelist’s life changed when she won the Man Booker prize.
But success is no substitute for the children she never had, she tells Hannah Stephenson
Bring Up The Bodies
Fourth Estate, €20.99;
HILARY MANTEL is like a killer Mastermind contestant, seemingly ordinary but displaying razor-sharp intellect and confidence. In her girlish voice, she talks in measured tones about her latest book, Bring Up The Bodies — the sequel to Wolf Hall and the second in her trilogy on the life and times of Thomas Cromwell, chief adviser to Henry VIII.
Wolf Hall was the biggest-selling Booker winner and Mantel, who was a moderately successful author before the award in 2009, says it changed her life. “Until then, I’d been an author who had always had a very good critical press, but hadn’t sold many books. The resulting income enabled me to re-order my life. I felt in command of my time,” she says.
The success enabled her to focus on her trilogy of Thomas Cromwell rather than supplement her income with newspaper articles, and to move to a lovely sea-view apartment in Budleigh Salterton, Devon, where she and her husband, Gerald, a geologist and IT consultant, live. He gave up his job to be her manager.
“He’s very calm, organised and easy to live with. The fact that we have more time together is just a bonus of the arrangement,” she says of the man she married twice: they were apart for two years.
Mantel, 59, could have basked in the glory of Wolf Hall, but she’s not one for resting on her laurels. “I never feel a sense of achievement for long. Every success lasts me about 10 minutes,” she says. “I just wanted to feel the freedom of it and mark a new phase of life.”
Ill-health reduced her publicity work after the novel’s success: long-term complications arose from severe endometriosis, which she self-diagnosed in her 20s. She had a hysterectomy and her ovaries removed at 27, and thyroid failure.
In 2010, she had surgery to remove the scar tissue caused by the disease and she convalesced for six months. There were considerable complications from the surgery, which should have taken two hours but lasted eight, and the recovery took twice as long as anticipated. She was in hospital for five weeks and had a subsequent operation.
“I’m still living with the consequences. I’m keeping low-key and not doing any long-distance travel, but I’m not in routine pain now and I don’t have this feeling of ‘Where’s the nearest A&E in case I need it?’ wherever I go,” she says.
The book’s success created a welcome distraction from her illness, but her shining literary career hasn’t replaced being able to have children, she says.
“I think of them as two completely separate issues. Books aren’t substitutes for children, whatever people say. You have to keep your regrets in one compartment and your aspirations in another.”
She has said: “You go through the pain of seeing your friends have children, and you come to terms with it. Then, they start having grandchildren and you feel it all over again.”
In Bring Up The Bodies, the story picks up with Katherine of Aragon in exile and Anne Boleyn, for whose sake Henry has broken with Rome and created his own church, painted as the power-hungry, vengeful queen desperate to give the increasingly irascible king the son and heir she has promised him. Lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour is already in the wings.
Cromwell is forever moving and fixing, securing his own position and protecting that of his king.
Some have noted that in Wolf Hall, Mantel didn’t paint Cromwell as the ruthless, hard-hearted character he was likely to have been.
“He tends to appear in the narratives of other people as a kind of pantomime villain. Actually, when you look from behind his eyes, the very familiar story of Henry’s court defamiliarises itself and you see light and shade where you didn’t before. It’s just a matter of changing the angle.
“I wanted to write about this man who came from such a humble background and rose so high in a society where there wasn’t really a mechanism for doing that. He wasn’t a churchman. He had to make his own path,” Mantel says.
She’s already working on the last book in the trilogy, The Mirror And The Light, and has struck deals for a TV series and a stage version, but she won’t be writing any screenplays because she needs to crack on with the third book.
“My job is to get the primary product out there, without which nobody can do anything,” she says.
Brought up in a working-class family in Derbyshire, Mantel had an unusual childhood in that her father, Henry, was gradually supplanted by another man, Jack, in the family home. Jack later became her stepfather.
“The man who was to become my stepfather came into my life when I was about seven. Then, the year I was 11, my mother and father finally parted and we went off to another town and changed our names. But there was a period for a few years when it wasn’t clear what was happening,” she says.
One day, the furniture van arrived and the family left, but the young Hilary didn’t realise she’d never see her father again.
“I remember the process of moving — I knew that I was moving to a new school and that my father wasn’t going to be around, but what I didn’t know was that once he was gone, I was never going to see him again.
“It left me stranded without a father, because although my stepfather took responsibility for me as far as feeding and clothing me were concerned, he never really played a father’s role in my life,” she says.
She never questioned her mother, who had long railed about her father’s shortcomings.
“You just had to listen and take it in. I had come to believe that he really wanted nothing to do with us. It was later that I began to realise that there was probably a different version of this story, but by then it was too late.”
She never tried to find him.
“It wouldn’t have been worth the upset that would have ensued and the scene my mother would have made. She would not have any mention of him, so I was not able to ask any questions.
“But, after I became reasonably well-known, I thought, ‘If he likes, he can find me’. He didn’t. But after I wrote my memoir, Giving Up The Ghost, I was contacted by one of his stepdaughters, who told me he’d died some years previously and she explained to me that he had seen me on television and knew that things had come good for me.
“I suppose he thought that I barely remembered him and he didn’t want to trample into a situation that I might not understand. Looking back, I think my mother was wrong to do what she did, but, at the time, she had her reasons.”
For now, Mantel will continue with her trilogy, which she calls her 10-year project, and then move on to other writing.
“I have more books planned than I will live to write, but in what order they’ll come, I don’t know yet,” she says.
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