‘The ultimate prize to win in the English speaking world’. That’s now JM Coetzee described the Booker Prize. That was in 1999, when the South African won the award for a second time with Disgrace. Only two other authors have matched Coetzee’s achievement since; one is Peter Carey – picking up the award for a second time in 2001 with True History of the Kelly Gang – the other, is Hilary Mantel.
Wolf Hall (2009), and Bring Up the Bodies (2012) ensured Mantel was not only the first woman, and first British author, to win the Booker Prize twice, but also the first person to win the prize for two novels in a trilogy. This year sees the release of the third book in Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and The Light, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s already being tipped to earn Mantel the Booker prize for a third time.
On Friday 6 March, Mantel joined us here at Southbank Centre to reveal The Mirror and The Light in a special Royal Festival Hall event. Ahead of her appearance here we managed to grab a few minutes with the author to discuss late-blooming, prize-winning and trilogy-writing.
There will be people who know you only as the writer of your Cromwell trilogy, but you had a long career prior to that, indeed you wrote for 12 years before publishing anything. What drove you to keep writing at that time in particular?
I think I can say that the first twelve years were the toughest. During most of that time I was living abroad and had no contacts and no way in. But I did have faith in my product, and I never expected rapid rewards. Once I broke through, I built steadily on the good reviews for my first book. Through the years I won a number of prizes, and different titles became brief best-sellers – not, of course, on the scale of the trilogy. I had a sense of making a steady but stealthy advance, and I was encouraged by the support of a select and lively group of readers. And I always had Thomas Cromwell on the horizon.
You’d written historical novels before this trilogy of course, so what was it that drew you to Thomas Cromwell? What led you to think his was a story suited to a novel?
There are shelves full of novels about the Tudors, but Thomas Cromwell, a player of critical significance, was a central absence. I looked at the difficulties that had undone his biographers over the years – principally his tendency to vanish behind the vast documentation he generated. I wondered if a novelist could do better, by applying an informed imagination to the more ambiguous aspects of his life and personality. Novelists love uncertainty.
Do you approach the final part of a trilogy differently to a stand alone novel, or indeed the prior books of the series? Are you aware of a need to tie up loose ends when writing?
The final book of a trilogy is usually going to be the most demanding – it has to carry the flavour of everything that went before, as well as a weight of information. I would hate to be thought of as someone who ties up loose ends – that might be required for detective fiction, but when your main character is a real person, suddenly dismissed from life by the axe, you want to leave your reader with a sense that something is now missing, and will always be missing – something of value has escaped.
What I have tried to do is not to wrap up storylines – because they don’t end - but to carry forward the images and symbols from the early books, and let them lie, so to speak, between the lines. I do this because they are what constitutes Cromwell’s consciousness, his way of being – and they are what ends with him.
Winning the Booker Prize not once, but twice. How did and does that feel? Did you ever envisage that happening during your early career?
I think every ambitious novelist imagines winning once. But having been a Booker judge, I know that complex, unruly calculations are involved in the final choice – it’s not a scientific process, and you can’t predict what the judges will like. And I always kept in mind that Beryl Bainbridge, one of my most admired writers, was repeatedly shortlisted but never won.
And, does being a two-time Booker Prize winner place an additional pressure at all on what you next write?
Not in my case – because I knew my task was to finish the trilogy.
And following The Mirror and The Light and the conclusion of this trilogy, what’s next for you?
I’m moving on immediately to work on the stage adaptation – and also collaborating on a photographic project, relating to the trilogy, with Ben and George Miles. The story can be told in pictures, as well as words.
Hilary Mantel joined journalist Alex Clark on Friday 6 March to reveal The Mirror and the Light here at our Royal Festival Hall.
The show must go on(line)
Sadly, for everyone’s safety, our venues are currently closed. But you can still get your Southbank Centre fix online. We will continue to share inspiring and thought-provoking arts stories through our website and social media.
As a charity, we rely on ticket sales for a huge chunk of our income. But now they’ve stopped. And it's a huge worry to us, and the people we work with. In difficult times, we all need the escape of art and culture; it can inspire and unite us. So please – if you can afford to – consider a donation to the Southbank Centre today, to help us be there for you in the future.