More thanks are due to the Happy Campers for their splendid tour reports, which couldn't have come at a better time last week, and herewith the final one which had me transfixed much as if I was there.
I do it a great deal in order to write up events for here, so I know that taking notes at a talk is done with an element of personal sacrifice. It involves some very active listening and concentration rather than just indulging in the moment, so I am very grateful to Linda for her reports last week, and Angela who must have been scribbling nineteen to the dozen to give us this much coherent and fascinating detail about our 'ilary's talk ... please do enjoy.
‘Do you think she will have her own light show?’ whispered Linda as we entered the largest and most stylish venue of the weekend. The Forum is a restored Art Deco cinema, with beautiful painted decoration and period fittings. We had been rather surprised by the appearance of bouncers on the door, although they were rather small and apologetic looking. We concluded that this was because large numbers of people were expected, and we weren’t wrong! The auditorium was almost full, and it seats 1500. It may have been that the security guards were there to eject any members of the Mad Royalists Society who had come along to heckle, but the evening progressed without one person mentioning the recent press feeding frenzy. This audience was here with only one intention, to hear one of our most respected contemporary novelists speak about her craft.
In the minutes before the start, we were asked to remain in our seats at the end if we wanted to stay for the book signing, (supposedly to prevent fans being crushed to death) and informed that any form of photography and recording was not allowed. I looked down dubiously at my low tech notebook. Surely it would be ok to scribble a few things down? I don’t think that was the sort of recording they had in mind. Hilary Mantel must be big now if she is a victim of pirate downloads on You Tube , I thought.
The interview was being conducted by James Runcie, the festival artistic director, a successful author in his own right. The two figures on the stage seemed small and a bit far away, but as the conversation progressed it seemed like we were being spoken to on a very personal level. Partly this was due to James Runcie’s skilful questioning- which provided the framework for weaving around Hilary’s thoughts on her 16th century world and how her long and varied career as a writer has been instrumental in bringing her to this point. She was amused at how some have described hers as an overnight success, and that she has been rewarded with too many accolades all at once. It has been a long apprenticeship, she reminded us, and she has been her own critic and judge before any literary awards were bestowed.
She allowed us a glimpse of the child Hilary, imaginative, a lover of told stories before she could read. An influential book was one about King Arthur - she had early ambitions to be a Knight of the Round Table, a railway guard and a priest! That’s why the jousting scenes in Bring Up The Bodies ring so true. They are a metaphor for Cromwell’s political career. Jousting is also a metaphor for writing. Self preservation urges you to swerve away, but you need to run full tilt, with your eyes open, fixed on the prize.
She has a strong sense of an ‘otherworld’, which might be termed an afterlife, which is not always benign. Reality to her is ‘eggshell thin’, she feels that the world is not a particularly solid place, and that there are portals into the past. Past and present lie alongside each other and they cannot be accessed systematically. Like one of her heroines, Alice, in Beyond Black, she talks to the dead for a living. Being a writer is like being a professional psychic, she believes, and research and facts, although necessary, need to be put in their place. You can’t be pushed around by the facts. Later she goes on to say that she likes the way she can contrast her own invention with what is inside the actual historical records. Reading these helps you identify the authentic Tudor voice, and find the idiom, smoothing your dialogue with theirs.
Some may think writing historical fiction is easier because you have a factual framework, a ready made story . But there are so many gaps, and you have to know, as a writer how to fill these. To get inside the bodies of your characters, you must re arrange your own senses. For example, the clothes the characters wear have to be real, not costumes. The writer has to learn to feel the clothes as everyday garments, so the reader can feel this too. Dialogue and language have to be carefully constructed, the characters cannot be given thoughts they couldn’t have had at the time, and to know what would have been said and thought at the time you have to immerse yourself in that world. The power of this way of writing allows the reader to be ‘behind the screen’ a watcher who is fully complicit in everything that happens.
Now I was leaning forward slightly in my seat, open mouthed at all these gems coming so generously from Hilary Mantel. For anyone even remotely interested in writing and story and her books, this was compelling. Then Linda and I had to giggle – I nudged her as the old boy next to me was fast asleep, obviously dragged along by his female companion sitting alongside and finding it all a bit tiring!
James Runcie then did something interesting, he read out a passage from Shakespeare and followed it with an extract from one of Hilary’s books. He pointed out that there was a similarity in the rhythm of both texts, but although I agreed with the comparison he was making, to my shame I can’t remember where either bit was from…. Then Hilary herself prepared herself to read a passage out to the audience which described a scene where Henry and Jane Seymour meet, and said how it showed ‘the incalculable consequences of that little moment.’ Would Hilary be able to read her own work as well as Ned Boulting?! We needn’t have worried and settled dreamily into the world of Tudor courtship. Partway through Linda muttered ‘I want to kill the coughers’ with thinly disguised irritation. I glanced to my right. Mr and Mrs were both snoring well by now.
Questions from the audience followed. People wanted to know which Anne Boleyn she thought was the genuine one, saint or sinner, I presumed, and Hilary Mantel’ s answer was this- her Anne Boleyn is Thomas Cromwell’s Anne Boleyn. Some questioners wanted to persist in finding modern day parallels and references, and wanted to know if the Tudor politicians were based on any current Westminster personalities…. A gentle but firm rebuff. Cromwell and his contemporaries have sprung fully formed from her imagination, from the parallel world, not from this one. ‘Take a tiny sideways shuffle and you have to listen really hard- open your mind, and make yourself almost a passive object, yet intensely aware. It comes from your gut and your heart’.
The talk ended with a tantalising glimpse into the final book of the trilogy. Holbein of course can show us the outside appearance of some of the characters, but he cannot show the human soul. Hilary has recently had her own portrait painted and apparently the process startles you with its intimacy. She will draw on this experience in the next book.
All too soon it was over. Those who didn’t want to wait half an hour in the signing queue filed slowly out. Linda and I chatted to fellow festival goers as we took our place in the long line snaking round the auditorium. ‘Better than JK Rowling’, someone said. ‘Wasn’t it brilliant?’ was the general opinion. Eventually we approached the small table on the stage. With so many waiting we couldn’t have a long chat but we were delighted by the beautiful fountain pen which was produced to sign our books in a flowing, stylish hand. Bravo!