CRF Blog

Interview of Hilary Mantel

by Bill Hayes

Hilary Mantel is best known for her historical fiction, particularly her two completed books of her projected Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. In 2015, Mantel was interviewed by the Paris Review. From that long interview:

INTERVIEWER: You started with historical fiction and then you returned to it. How did that happen?

MANTEL: I only became a novelist because I thought I had missed my chance to become a historian. So it began as second best. I had to tell myself a story about the French Revolution — the story of the revolution by some of the people who made it, rather than by the revolution’s enemies.

INTERVIEWER: Why that story?

MANTEL: I’d read all the history books and novels I could lay my hands on, and I wasn’t satisfied with what I found. All the novels were about the aristocracy and their sufferings. And I thought those writers were missing a far more interesting group — the idealistic revolutionaries, whose stories are amazing. There was no novel about them. I set about writing it — at least, a story about some of them — so I could read it. And of course, for a long time it seemed as if I were the only person who ever would. My idea was to write a sort of documentary fiction, guided entirely by the facts. Then, not many months in, I came to a point where the facts about a certain episode ran out, and I spent a whole day making things up. At the end of it, I thought, I quite liked that. It sounds naive, not knowing that I would have to make things up, but I had a great belief that all the material was out there, somewhere, and if I couldn’t find it, that would be my fault.

INTERVIEWER: But the majority of human history is lost, isn’t it?

MANTEL: Yes, and when you realize that, then you can say, I don’t know exactly how this episode occurred, but, for example, I do know where and when it took place.

INTERVIEWER: Would you ever change a fact to heighten the drama?

MANTEL: I would never do that. I aim to make the fiction flexible so that it bends itself around the facts as we have them. Otherwise I don’t see the point. Nobody seems to understand that. Nobody seems to share my approach to historical fiction. I suppose if I have a maxim, it is that there isn’t any necessary conflict between good history and good drama. I know that history is not shapely, and I know the truth is often inconvenient and incoherent. It contains all sorts of superfluities. You could cut a much better shape if you were God, but as it is, I think the whole fascination and the skill is in working with those incoherencies.

INTERVIEWER: In containing the contradictions?

MANTEL: Exactly. The contradictions and the awkwardness — that’s what gives historical fiction its value. Finding a shape, rather than imposing a shape. And allowing the reader to live with the ambiguities. Thomas Cromwell is the character with whom that’s most essential. He’s almost a case study in ambiguity. There’s the Cromwell in popular history and the one in academic history, and they don’t make any contact really. What I have managed to do is bring the two camps together, so now there’s a new crop of Cromwell biographies, and they will range from the popular to the very authoritative and academic. So we will have a coherent Cromwell — perhaps. [more]