Hilary Mantel jokes that writer’s block is the last thing that afflicts her. “I’m only afflicted by so many ideas,” the award-laden British author told The Daily Beast. “I don’t know what to do first.”
Every day, Mantel comes armed with two notebooks to New York’s Winter Garden Theater. She uses one to make notes about the Broadway adaptations of the first two books in her blockbuster Tudor-era trilogy, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up The Bodies (2012), both of which won Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, the Man Booker; she’s the first female author to win the award twice.
The other notebook is devoted to plans and thoughts for The Mirror and The Light, the final book in the trilogy, which she is working on at the same time as the Royal Shakespeare Company mounts productions of the preceding two in New York.
The critically acclaimed BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall has also just begun its run on PBS on Sunday nights.
But, Mantel revealed to The Daily Beast, her gaze is already traveling beyond Wolf Hall to plans for a new set of works set in the 15th century, and a novel set in southern Africa, where she lived in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
On Saturday for six intense, compelling hours, I watched one Thomas Cromwell, played by a steely Ben Miles, scheme, plot, and maneuver for position in the court of Henry VIII, where Henry (Nathaniel Parks) is desperate to father a son (but dammit, daughters keep appearing), and where wife No. 1, Catherine of Aragon, refuses to go quietly in favor of No. 2, Anne Boleyn.
Cromwell’s enemies try to dispatch him, but he outwits them as his own ruthlessness matures. Cromwell’s dead wife and then his one-time master Thomas Wolsey appear, wraith-like, as guiding ghosts.
Fires spring prettily out of unseen grates. Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, jockeys determinedly for position and influence—even if history has taught us that leads to naught but the executioner’s chopping block. The play is both ribald and considered, dense and deep, but also lightly comic.
On Sunday, another Thomas Cromwell, played with less swagger and more haunting self-containment by Mark Rylance, presented himself in the first episode of the critically acclaimed BBC adaptation.
Both stage (Lydia Leonard) and TV (Claire Foy) Boleyns are played commandingly, while the BBC Henry is played by Homeland’s Damian Lewis. The set of interconnecting relationships and rivalries in Henry’s court are so serpentine Vanity Fair helpfully produced this visual guide.
“I’m really pleased with how they are going,” Mantel said of the plays, originally adapted by Mike Poulton. “I haven’t seen much of New York since beginning here. I’ve been pretty preoccupied and closely involved with this theater production, and have become more involved as time goes on. We’ve been together as a company for a couple of years.”
She sounds less involved with the TV version. There were initial meetings with the screenwriter, Peter Straughan, and she saw some rushes, but it was “a wonderful surprise” to see a finished episode. “I’m very pleased with it. I’m pleased that they are so very different. They both take advantage of their mediums.”
Rylance’s interiority allows the viewer’s imagination to “dwell” with him, she says. “On stage the opposite is true. Ben Miles is on stage almost continuously, and has to emit huge amounts of energy to power the thing along. There is no rewind. Everything has to be clear the first time.”
When she first started writing 30 years ago, Mantel says, laughing softly, “I kept waiting for someone else to do Cromwell’s story. It’s such a good story. They didn’t. In a sense, it waited for me, and I waited for it.”
In the stage productions, directed by Jeremy Herrin, the audience is immediately in the dark, shadowed, cloistered royal court, designed (as are the production’s costumes) by Christopher Oram. On TV, you can have locations, says Mantel, “and the lovely sense of being in London, as well as England functioning behind that, showing the lives of merchants, businessmen, and lawyers.
"These are people who often go missing from historical drama, which is usually split between the ruling class with lovely clothes, and sordid people with no teeth. Often the only thing you see of ‘the populus’ is someone kicking over a market-trader’s stall of apples.”
There was a strong lobby to get a flashback scene from Cromwell’s childhood into the play, but it was not technically possible to do convincingly, she says, whereas on TV, a violent confrontation with his father is one of the opening episode’s most shocking moments.
Similarly, the death of Cromwell’s daughters is only alluded to on stage, whereas on TV it is heartbreakingly played out.
While Mantel concedes the electrifying Boleyns were “reasonably wise casting decisions,” she adds, emphatically, “The books and plays are not about Anne Boleyn. She is a supporting character. People thought that as a woman writer, I should have written a book about Anne Boleyn. People are very prescriptive about that, but she must be seen as her own character within a 16th-century framework, and strict gender hierarchy. She was not a feminist, she was a very powerful woman.”
The last 10 minutes of the final episode of the TV version features Boleyn’s death (hopefully not a spoiler), and was widely hailed as gripping drama when it was shown in the UK.
“Everyone knows what is about to occur, but we experience it moment by moment, and it is terrifying,” says Mantel. “On stage we stylize it. There’s no mileage in actually chopping off a head on stage, unless there’s a fresh batch of actors to behead every night! It cannot be a literal performance.”
Mantel herself has an intriguing public relationship to contemporary royalty. In February, as Prince Charles made Mantel a Dame Commander of the British Empire at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace, he told her he was enjoying the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall, even if a recent tell-all book said his own rivalry-pocked household was known by the same name.
This occurred after Mantel had faced a storm of utterly unwarranted criticism in 2013 for saying, and writing, about Kate Middleton that she was “selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture.”
The tabloids went mad, but to me it seemed an utter misreading of Mantel’s comments, which were part of a reasoned-out argument about the objectification of “Royal Bodies.”
“Yes, it was synthetic, willful distortion,” Mantel says. “At the end of the talk, I actually said, ‘Please remember this young woman is human. Don’t do what you did to Diana.’ It was amazingly silly.”
Some historians, like the controversy magnet David Starkey, have criticized Mantel in her work for glorifying Cromwell, and misrepresenting other characters like Cromwell’s chief enemy, Henry VIII’s other leading adviser, Sir Thomas More.
Mantel dismisses the brickbats, briskly. “I ask people to be specific and exact,” she says. “I have closely and assiduously worked on the records we have, just as every historian can do. The difference possibly is, I have a few critics among Cromwell scholars, and historians who are vaguely and unspecifically in the field who pass on packages of prejudice and error from one generation to the next.”
Mantel didn’t write Wolf Hall with an agenda, she says. “I went to see what I could find. I didn’t go into it saying, ‘I like Thomas Cromwell,’ but if you follow one character from behind their eyes that character will be of interest to the audience. I’m not trying to make Cromwell a hero, but to think of him afresh, and be of independent mind.
“The beautiful thing is that it stirs up debate, and takes people back beyond misconceived cliché back to the record. I’m not in the business of flattering people’s pieties. This is a novel, it is not impartial. My research has to be as good as I can possibly make it. A novel that is impartial is a very watery experience. It’s got to have some fire in it. My research is sound. My stance is not neutral.”
The Mirror and The Light, which will focus on the last four years of Cromwell’s life up to his execution, is “in process,” Mantel says cautiously. “I never give a final finish date, novels are such unpredictable beasts. I spend a lot of time in the plays during rehearsals, with one notebook open, and another notebook open. It’s like writing with two hands, really.”
The title of the third book comes from the idea of holding up a mirror to events and casting new light on them, even if “there will be corners of the past which will not be well illuminated.”
“A writer cannot do the research for a historical novel in a block and say it’s done,” says Mantel. “It’s a long, long process. I try and leave things a little loose, so it’s a living thing. I find it difficult when the evidence runs out, the field of darkness is more difficult.”
Anything good she might think as an insight, garnered watching the New York rehearsals of the play, “I scribble and put under Ben Miles’s door," she says. “There’s a free interplay between working on the novel and the plays. The actors have been very tolerant of me: There’s a sense we are all members of something together.”
It was Miles who helped Mantel find a way of writing why Cromwell might have run away from home. “Actors rivet you to the present moment. Every day in the rehearsal room I learn something different.”
As immersive as Wolf Hall has been, and remains, Mantel is beginning to consider a writing life beyond it. After the New York run gets into its stride, she’ll return to Britain “and do some work. I have lots of ideas and half-formed projects. I’m thinking of the novels becoming plays. I would like to work in theater in the future, and do more historical drama.”
She reveals to The Daily Beast that she is working on a novel set in southern Africa in the late 1970s and 1980s. “I lived in Botswana for five years at that time, just before the AIDS epidemic striking. That will shadow the book. I also want to write something about the production process of writing historical drama.”
And, good news for Wolf Hall’s fans, Mantel is planning more historical fiction, too. “I am writing three stories, set in the previous century. They might get written as plays.”
The first thing, after completing The Mirror and The Light, will be a TV series and play based on that.
“Everyone has to wait on me,” Mantel says. “The pressure is only with yourself. This trilogy is a decade of work. It is central to my creative life. It has to be right. I cannot be chivvied and hurried. To be fair, everyone around me understands that.”
Did Mantel think the books would be so big?
She laughs. “I thought it would be a sentence, then a paragraph, that’s the way it goes. If you are to succeed as a writer, you can’t be thinking about fame and honors—you should only be thinking about the rhythm of a sentence. You do your best for the reader by pinning the moment to the page. The imagination works in these little increments. Much later you begin to add it all up. I’m in the room, writing, with Cromwell and his company, not my publisher and a prize jury.”
Fame makes a “huge difference” to one’s external life, she says. “I almost have to battle for quiet writing time. Wolf Hall has become an industry. People ask you to do half a dozen delightful things every hour. I must stay undistracted.”
If it isn’t tempting invitations, controversy—like the Middleton brouhaha—is another common distraction. There was more tabloid frothing upon the publication of Mantel’s short story, ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,’ last year.
“I knew the Mrs. Thatcher story would upset people,” Mantel says. “But I don’t pursue a career as a writer to be a people-pleaser. I’m not there to cozy up to the establishment, or their pieties. I’m not afraid of taking on a bishop. It can get wearing and distract you from what you’re trying to do, things that have substance. I have to accept that certain sections of the media have their knives out for me. Fortunately I have body armor.”
Mantel is refreshingly defiant and unbowed when it comes to hostile media treatment. She herself wrote an unsparing 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, which covered a life that has included a difficult, quite literally haunted childhood, and suffering as an adult from endometriosis, which radically altered her health and appearance.
“I hope I’m cautious, and the press can be unscrupulous,” Mantel says. “But I can’t agree to never speak or write again. I can’t agree to be censored, whether that is being respectful to the memory of Margaret Thatcher, or those who think as a woman I should be writing about Anne Boleyn. I will always kick out against those constraints.”
That innate resistance—to convention, easy answers, and what is expected—is perhaps Mantel’s most powerful gift as a writer. Her sense of history is rightly and richly complex. At every turn she interrogates power and its mechanics. So, don’t worry if your mind strays as mine did--as you watch the machinations of a Tudor court--to the White House, Buckingham Palace, and Downing Street. Corruption, as Mantel winks to us, is fascinatingly eternal.