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The Interview | With Hilary Mantel

Living with Cromwell

Hilary Mantel’s new book won the Man Booker prize. Hilary Mantel’s new book won the Man Booker prize. (John Haynes)
By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / October 18, 2009

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In “Wolf Hall,’’ the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, Hilary Mantel, with consummate skill and wit, brings to life the court of King Henry VIII and the person of Thomas Cromwell, adviser to the king and architect of the Protestant Reformation. Spanning the years 1500 to 1535, the novel can convey details such as the texture of a sleeve, the weight of a sword, the meaning of a glance, even as it encompasses tumultuous political events and court intrigues, all perceived through the lens of Cromwell’s restless consciousness.

Mantel is the author of nine other novels and of the memoir “Giving up the Ghost.’’ She spoke from her home in Surrey, England.

Q. What leads you to a particular subject?

A. Back in my 20s, when I wrote “A Place of Greater Safety,” the French Revolution novel, I thought, “I’ll always have to write historical novels because I can’t do plots.’’ But in the six years of writing that novel I actually learned to write, to invent things. When I couldn’t get “A Place of Greater Safety’’ published I wrote its opposite: short, contemporary novels. But even then I wanted to write about Thomas Cromwell. I had to wait until I felt sufficiently confident to say to my publishers “I want to try a new period and it’s going to take me five years.’’ Because I only had a schoolgirl’s knowledge of the period. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to write about the Tudors but that this particular figure captured me.

Q. What quality in Thomas Cromwell attracted you?

A. I started out more or less accepting the estimate of him as a villain, but I thought he must be an interesting one. His astonishing rise in the world fascinated me. As I read his letters and better understood his mind, I saw that he had a radical vision of English society and yet he was also somebody who hammered every detail into place. In his adroitness of mind and the completeness of imagination he stands head and shoulders above his contemporaries.

Q. How do you balance historical accuracy and dramatic truth?

A. It’s always a tension. When historians read your book they think, “Why did she leave out such and such?’’ and when literary critics read it they think, “Why did she bother to put it in?’’ You just keep your eye on the general reader, who is you by proxy. The novelist has a responsibility to adhere to the facts as closely as possible, and if they are inconvenient, that’s where the art comes in. You must work with intractable facts and find the dramatic shape inside them.

Q. Yet you use modern speech in this novel?

A. I dislike pastiche; it attracts attention to the language only. I tried to make this language robust modern English but with a slight twist; it’s not entirely modern. It is difficult to know how the Tudors actually spoke because we’re going back before Shakespeare; much of the drama from that period is courtly, allegorical. Fortunately we have many of Cromwell’s letters, and from them, you pick up something of the rhythm and tone of his language because many were dictated.

Q. Why are details - of textiles, for example - so important here?

A. The sensual world in a historical novel has to fit the person through whose eyes you are looking. Cromwell, having been in northern Italy and having been a wool trader, would view the world, it seems to me, in texture and in color. When he sees a certain shade of red he would think of the fixative for the dye.

Q. Did dwelling so intensely in that time alter your perception of the present?

A. I think it did. When I went somewhere I used to see only the 18th century and now I see only the 16th. It’s a long immersion because I have the next book to write, the further adventures of Cromwell. But it’s odd at the moment because I’m not getting on with the new book. So what I feel is homesick. I really want to be back there with the rhythm of that language.

Q. Did you always plan a second volume?

A. Initially it was going to be one enormous book but I gradually realized that the confrontation with Thomas More wasn’t just a political crisis for Cromwell, it must have been an emotional crisis as well. We know a lot about this because More wrote long letters after his interrogations. Had I continued to the fall of Anne Boleyn that earlier drama would have gone for nothing. I also liked the idea of a novel that’s always in motion, because we never actually get to Wolf Hall.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at ama1668@hotmail .com.

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