Hilary Mantel was born in Derbyshire, in 1952, growing up in a mill town, Hadfield, largely populated by Irish textile workers and their descendants. Mantel’s own grandparents were Irish. She was educated first at a local Roman Catholic primary school, later, a convent in Romiley, Cheshire. In 1970, she moved to London to study law at the London School of Economics. Her experiences there later formed the basis of her 1995 novel, An Experiment In Love. She transferred to the University of Sheffield, graduating in 1973. Briefly, she trained as a social worker. In 1974, she began to write her novel, a tale of the French Revolution told from the viewpoint of its leading revolutionaries, A Place Of Greater Safety. During her twenties, Mantel suffered illness which was misdiagnosed. At one point, she was hospitalised and treated with anti-psychotic drugs. In fact, she was suffering from endometriosis; after reading a medical textbook, she figured out what was wrong with her herself, a subsequent medical test confirming her diagnosis. In 1977, she moved to Botswana with her husband, whose job as a geologist had taken him there. Here, she finished writing A Place Of Greater Safety. Publishers rejected the book, with one losing a portion of the manuscript. Later, Mantel and her husband moved again, to Saudi Arabia, where she lived for four years, her experiences in Jeddah forming the basis for her 1988 novel, Eight Months On Gazzah Street. While in Saudi Arabia, Mantel wrote and succeeded in publishing her first novel, Every Day Is Mother’s Day (1985), which drew on her experience of social work in the 1970s. Since then, Mantel has published another eleven books, including, finally, her Revolution epic, A Place Of Greater Safety (1992), a memoir of the early part of her life, Giving Up The Ghost (2003), and most recently, the Man Booker Prize-winning chronicle of Thomas Cromwell’s life, Wolf Hall. Mantel took time out from her busy schedule to talk to the Scottish Review of Books towards the end of October. Over the phone, Mantel told Colin Waters about Catholicism, child abuse and clairvoyance.
Scottish Review Of Books: I thought we might begin by comparing the heroes of your latest and first (chronologically-speaking) novels, Cromwell and Robsepierre. Both were self-made men; neither were averse to violence if necessary to ensure their plans. Do you see them as historical brothers?
Hilary Mantel: The only comparison I saw between them was that they both had an extremely bad press over the years. Both of them are a study in reputation. And it takes a lot of effort to get behind all the accretions of prejudice and start again from first principles. But I think that in Robespierre’s case, he came from a class that could succeed moderately on the eve of the Revolution. That petit bourgeois lawyer class. His family were obscure but not poor. Because he won a scholarship to an excellent school in Paris, he had a superb education. That poised him at a point at the beginning of his career that is rather different from Cromwell’s beginnings. We don’t know really where Thomas Cromwell got his education. I don’t think, again, his family were very poor, but they were a disorderly family. We know nothing of his mother at all. Walter, his father, a blacksmith and brewer, was always in the local courts for offences of drunkeness and violence. If it wasn’t for his court record we wouldn’t know anything about the Cromwell family. I see Cromwell as a much more self-made man. Robespierre took the usual path for someone of his background: a good education, then the law. Whereas with Cromwell, there wasn’t an obvious path. Usually people from poor backgrounds, in the England of that time, they needed to go into the Church to find patrons and advance in the world. Cromwell didn’t choose that path and I don’t think it was even open to him. If you take Wolsey as an example, although he was, as they always say, a butcher’s son, his father was reasonably affluent – he kept an inn as well as his business – so he sent his boy to Oxford at 14. Wolsey was taking the regular path. Cromwell didn’t, and his career was more – how would you say? – it had to be hewn out of circumstances. Whereas Robespierre was pursuing the obvious career for his type and class – then came the Revolution and changed everything. The other difference is a vast difference in personality. Robespierre was actually an introverted person who shrunk from violence. One of his campaigns in the National Assembly when he was first elected was a campaign for the abolition of capital punishment. Then circumstances changed; and then violence must be countenanced; then violence becomes a tool. I do think there was a progression, that doing violence wasn’t basic to his nature. Thomas Cromwell was a much more extroverted, go-getting character, and I think violence was part of the circumstances of his early life; with a father like Walter, it would be. And he had been a soldier, a mercenary. It was a weapon within his armoury. I think it was something he took for granted. Robespierre was more utopian. Cromwell, I imagine, saw violence as being more inextricably knitted into the world.
SRB: Another world in which violence, or at least a degree of unpleasantness, is knitted into it is Every Day Is Mother’s Day, your first published novel. As an Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark fan, I couldn’t help notice that the central mother and daughter characters are called Evelyn and Muriel. Reviewers have detected a trace of Waugh and Spark in your novels. Was this, as young writers often do, you nodding towards your influences?
HM: [Laughs] You know, I never thought of that. I think the discussion of Muriel Spark’s influence on me was started off by Auberon Waugh in the first review of my first book. By the time I wrote An Experiment In Love I thought I’d have some fun with the Spark comparison [The novel riffs on Spark’s The Girls Of Slender Means]. But it never occurred to me that I was influenced by Muriel Spark. Even to this day I haven’t read many of her books. We work in the same territory but she wasn’t a particular influence. With Waugh, he was one of the writers I discovered when I was a young adult. I don’t come from a bookish background, so my problem was access to books. When I was fourteen and allowed the huge favour of a ticket to the adult library, the first book I took out was Brideshead Revisited, followed by Decline And Fall. I remember pressing Decline And Fall on a classmate. She wasn’t sure whether it was funny or not. She said, “Are we allowed to laugh?” And I somehow knew that we were. Far more than with Brideshead Revisited, I recognised with that book something the novel could do that hadn’t been plain to me before.
SRB: I remember reading a piece by Mark Lawson, who was also brought up a Catholic, about how when he was growing up, Spark, Waugh, and Graham Greene were flourished in his house as examples of the superiority of the Catholic religion. I was going to ask whether something similar held in your household, but as you just said, it wasn’t a bookish one.
HM: Books would never have been mentioned in that way in our family. It’s interesting, isn’t it? They’re all converts, aren’t they, the writers you mention? When I read them, I didn’t think Catholicism was morally glamorous, because I was brought up with the grubby, superstitious version of Catholicism. The business of life was bending its rules. The adults around me bent their efforts to evading the strictures of their religion, whereas certain writers used Catholicism to blow up and enhance their characters’ moral dilemmas, which they agonised over for page after page. I thought it faintly ridiculous. I remember first reading Brighton Rock when I was sixteen and being drawn into its world. Then I re-read it a few years later and thought it preposterous – I didn’t buy it, though I still saw its virtues as a novel. But its moral dimension seemed to be overblown. A good percentage of the village I grew up in was Catholic, because of the number of Irish immigrants who had come over to work in the textile factories. When I was a little girl, the first thing you ever found out about a person was whether he or she was a Catholic or a Protestant. To me, it seemed to me more of a biological fact than an ethical or spiritual choice. You were just born one or another. In my mother’s time, the village was more sectarian. There was a feeling: ‘Catholics can’t get jobs’, ‘Catholics can’t get council houses’. It was a bit like the North of Ireland in miniature. It had softened by the time I was growing up, but you were conscious of which of your friends went to the ‘other’ school. And by the age of six it put a barrier between you. I used to wonder if there was a Protestant way of adding and subtracting that was different from the one we were taught.
SRB: I don’t think there is such a thing as a Catholic novelist anymore. While doing research for this interview, I don’t think I once came across an interview or review in which you were described as a Catholic novelist.
HM: I suppose there’s Paul Piers Read. I guess, what it is is, we’re hearing from different voices nowadays. The three writers you named, they came from relatively privileged and educated backgrounds. The Catholicism I grew up in was knitted in with being working class, and from an Irish background. There was a time people of that background, in this country, didn’t get much of a hearing. And of course I’m far from the church now. An apostate.
SRB: Is it fair to describe Fludd as a Catholic novel though? Were you, perhaps, trying to write your version of a Catholic novel?
HM: The events recounted in Fludd did, in a sense, happen in real life [in the novel, a mysterious curate appears in an obscure northern town in the 1950s; is he the devil or is he an angel?]. When I was four years old, the bishop decreed that all the statues in our local church must be removed. I remember listening to a conversation that my elders were having. And there was widespread horror at this. Someone said, What are they going to do with the statues? And someone else said, They’re going to bury them. And it sent shivers down my spine. Ever afterwards I ruminated upon this, and upon what really did happen to the statues. As I write in the book, some of the parishioners had proposed to adopt a statue. My mother said she was going to bring home the statue of St Gerard Majella, to whom she had a particular devotion. Can you imagine in our terraced houses, these statues standing on their plinths? Nobody actually did adopt any statue and no one knows what actually happened to them. Before I wrote Fludd, I had a conversation with my mother about this, and she said to me that there had been another strange incident in the parish, a little earlier, before I was born. There had been a young priest come to the parish, and he was really popular, everyone liked him. And then he disappeared. They thought there was a girl involved in it somewhere. So these two things collided in my mind very quickly and formed the book. I think what it was, I was going back to the time when I was four years old, and I think Fludd is told from a child’s-eye point of view. Very ordinary things look bizarre to a child, thing adults take for granted, things they don’t see any more because they’re used to them. And miraculous things can look quite ordinary. I can remember going through a stage of asking people, Is Jesus magic? And they said, No, no, you must not say that. What I wanted to know was, what was the difference between a miracle and a magic trick? And I think that when I was writing, I was trying to get back there, to put magic a nd miracles side by side, where they become inextricable, really. And then of course there was a real life Fludd, an alchemist. I borrowed his name, I suppose, to introduce into the book the question of transformation. The notion of transformation is explored in a lot of my books, whether it’s transformation through political revolution, or making yourself over on a personal level, or the central miracle of the mass. Fludd features a dreamworld notion of Catholicism. Catholicism, as I was brought up to know it, it was bound up with myth and miracles. Sometimes it sounded very like the fairy tales I was reading. Did you see the relics of Saint Therese of Lisieux in the news last week? They were on tour. Queues around the block to file past her bones. I was told as a fact when I was a child, by the nuns who taught me and my relatives, that Therese forecast that when she died a shower of roses would fall from heaven. And this, they told me, actually came to pass. Some roses tumbled down from the ceiling. Even then I was able to think, there is something odd going on here. Because even I could see that what Therese really meant was that blessings would follow her death. But people were failing to see the metaphor. And that was typical of the Catholicism in which I grew up. It required one to believe, literally believe, in impossible things, and left no scope for the metaphorical. I feel I was quick to see the metaphorical. To see layers of meaning. I was preparing to be a writer, I just didn’t know it.
SRB: The language of the Catholic Church, is not only wonderful in its way but a ready made source of comedy. There’s a great moment in Fludd (1989) when the housekeeper. Agnes Dempsey, is asked by her priest what she’s been up to: “I have been praying for the suppression of heresy, the exaltation of the Church and concord among Christian princes”.
HM: [Laughs] Yes, wonderful. Because, despite their workaday problems and speech, people were exposed to this whole other lexicon, if only they picked up their prayer books. She wouldn’t have a clue what it meant, but she knew it was what she was meant to do.
SRB: The theme of transformation in your work – what draws you back to it?
HM: I’m fascinated by the question of whether people can really change. I’m optimistic. I maintain that they can change at any point and make themselves over. Sounds a bit Californian. I don’t mean it in that way. I just have a very strong sense of how resilient the spirit is, and of the ability of people to haul themselves back from the brink of existential disaster and remake themselves as personalities.
SRB: The epigraph of Every Day Is Mother’s Day is about how adulterers never prosper, something you return to many times in your novels. Witness the fate of Ralph Eldred (A Change Of Climate), Anne Boelyn, and Isabel Field (Every Day). But then being in a couple rarely looks like a healthy way to spend your life either.
HM: Actually, the other epigraph is more important. The Pascal one, about how there are two errors. One: to take everything literally. And two: to take everything spritiually. I think that could be the epigraph for everything I’ve ever written. I just want to say to people, look, these books of mine are always going to be moving between the literal and the metaphorical, so you must decide where to position yourself, because the author’s position is shifting. But I think the other epigraph – “do not adultery commit/advantage rarely comes off it” – it’s this tongue in cheek decalogue [by Arthur Hugh Clough]; I’m sure advantage does come of it sometimes.
SRB: As I read Every Day and Beyond Black, I couldn’t help but think of the Baby P case and the poor Pilkingtons. Then I read your piece on what it was like to work as a social worker in the 1970s, and I had to conclude perhaps not much, certainly not enough, had changed in the intervening decades.
HM: That time in my life, although quite short in duration, is very vivid in my mind. The placement I did with the probation service when I was a student, over a summer, and the time I spent working in a geriatric hospital….I was based in the hospital but I did go out and I saw patients and their families in their homes, and I saw people in all kinds of desperate circumstances. It made a huge impression on me. You see, I felt people weren’t getting the right kind of help. When I began I intended to train as a social worker, but I was severely disillusioned. And I didn’t want to do it anymore. It was a time of huge changes in the social services, in their organisation. If I had been able to train as a medical social worker, staying within the NHS, perhaps I would have done it, but I did think, when I came into contact with the generic, local authority social workers, What are these people doing? What are they for? All they were doing was running around in a panic. I couldn’t for the life of me see how they were making people’s lives better. No doubt that was unkind of me. I couldn’t speak their jargon. I think when you were a medical social worker, in those days, you were doing some practical things. I used to think the people who were brilliant were the home helps who visited the elderly and did the shopping and cleaning, and I used to think some of the social services budget should be diverted to them. Because a lot of the time, when you were in people’s homes, you saw what they really needed was someone to clean the floor. They were old and they couldn’t do it and it made them ashamed. They didn’t need to be cross-questioned as to what was in their file, they needed practical help. I got exasperated. A lot of the decisions were political, because they had to do with the allocation of resources. I couldn’t understand why doctors, whose position then was so respected, didn’t campaign for more resources for the elderly.
SRB: Child abuse recurs in your novels. Every Day features the drowning of a baby, while another young child is murdered in A Change Of Climate. The first scene of Wolf Hall is one in which the young Thomas Cromwell is being horribly battered by his father. Is your imagination haunted by such scenes?
HM: With Every Day, this is the intrusion of magic into the suburbs. That was what I was writing about. The baby itself was almost an abstraction. The baby has no life on the page. I do feel my own childhood, if one were to recite the bare facts of it, they are not so very terrible at all compared to some people’s, but I did experience a great deal of fear in childhood, and a feeling of powerlessness, and that is at the root of my personality. It’s something I can never forget. You’re right about the persistence of my feeling, not only with reference to actual children, but to underdogs in general and oppressed peoples. And all kind of people may be oppressed, as in my novel set in Saudi Arabia, Eight Months On Ghazzah Street [a young woman who has travelled to Saudi Arabia with her husband for work becomes suspicious about a supposedly abandoned flat above her own]. The wielders of power, be they adults or the state, they set up rules and don’t tell you what they are, so that you are transgressing every time you breathe. I have a strong sense of the Orwellian nightmare – something that is not purely abstract, but occasionally impacts on people’s flesh. The state of being a child is something I carry with me in a compartment or special room, somewhere I can go into when I want to. One of the efforts of my adult life has been to keep that door shut and to only open it when I choose.
SRB: Every Day is set in the 1970s, as is An Experiment In Love. Given the way in which the economy has collapsed today, and the resurgence of industrial action, fears over energy supplies, and a troubled Labour government, the comparison is there to be made between the 1970s and the present, and several non-fiction books of late have made that comparison. But if you read Every Day and An Experiment In Love, you see the 1970s were infinitely grimmer than the present. If nothing else the food and clothes are better in the present. Having spent so much of your time re-experiencing that period in your imagination, what do you think of that comparison, and does fiction show one of its uses in the way it can reject easy historical comparisions?
HM: I’m much more interested in understanding different eras than in condemning them. To me, a lot of people, historians and others, begin by condemning. I’m more interested in imagining how the era felt from the inside. What are the processes that form a person’s life, that interests me – rather than imposing hindsight on them, and saying they should have done X and they should have done Y. If you move forward with a character – and it’s a trick, because you always employing hindsight – but if you move forward with your characters, you then see something of the circumstances that hemmed them in, and also you see that at the time they didn’t have complete information about their situations. I have a sense of most people muddling through life, trying to do the best that they can under the circumstances which they find themselves. I don’t see any of the people I have written about as wicked men per se, because I don’t think there are many such people. I’m more interested in why they made the choices they did. When historians make judgements about people they are doing it in a void, but unfortunately in comparisons people lose a sense of scale. I have had a lot of people tell me Robespierre, or Thomas Cromwell or Henry VIII, for that matter, were equivalent to Stalin. Such unhistorical comparisons don’t do us any favours, they don’t help us to think. They’re glib and a product of moral panic. The whole notion of Henry VIII as a despot has been exaggerated. He may have wanted to be a despot, but in a country of such fragmentation, with such limited means of communication, there was limit to how far a monarch could impose his will. And Henry had a parliament to deal with too, often a hostile parliament. In general, I think, it’s not the job of the novelist to think in black and white terms or to pin labels on people or indulge in wild comparisons across the eras.
SRB: Towards the end of Eight Months On Ghazzah Street, which is set in Saudi Arabia, your heroine Frances declares, “I would like to stride up to the next veiled woman I see and tear the black cloth from her face, and rip it up before her eyes”. Did you think you’d ever see the day when liberal women defended the right to wear the veil?
HM: It’s wonderful, isn’t it? I can’t tell you how high my eyebrows rise when I come across that. It’s deeply wrong-headed. But Eight Months On Ghazzah Street isn’t just about the position of women. It’s really about how a society like that functions. Because there is no guide to the truth, it functions on disinformation and rumour. In the late 1980s when I wrote the book, I was trying to say to people, look, look here, look at Islam, look at what’s coming. And of course the critics took no note of that strand of the book at all. They were more interested in it as a psychological novel. It did tell you, in a novelist’s way, quite a lot about Islam that people have struggled to understand. One thing it tells you about is the way that Islam perceives the West, which is often extremely distorted. The picture of Britain held in the minds of the women of Saudi Arabia was not one I recognised. For them, the law of the land and the moral law had to be the same, and they could not understand a state that was not theocratic. They didn’t think democracy was an ideal worth pursuing, in fact, they thought it a bad thing. In many African countries, lip service is paid to democracy, even if in practice the country is run by a dictatorship. But in Saudi, democracy was not an ideal worth pursuing, it was in fact ungodly. I found all that very interesting. The gap in perceptions was a chasm. To go back to your question, it does amaze me that there are people who defend the veil. As it seems to me the first right a person has is the right to be seen. And that is denied to women by the veil. But you really have to have lived there to know it, to know what a group of women under the veil look like when they move through a public space. It’s as if they are not there.
SRB: That reminds me of what you wrote about middle class social workers not wanting to judge, which in turn reminds me of something Ralph says in A Change Of Climate: “I want, he thought, to put into practice a different kind of Christianity from my father’s: one in which I don’t pass judgement on people”. As you’ve said, it’s not the writer’s job to pin labels on his or her characters. But equally, it seems to me, the trajectory of your books would suggest that Ralph’s idea is neither possible or even desirable.
HM: I think so. You see that when a man breaks into Ralph’s home – he forgets his liberal piety and clobbers him. Sometimes you put your characters into extreme situations and they might have their beliefs stripped away, and that is a moment of transformation, if you like.
SRB: Ralph won’t admit the existence of evil – do you believe in evil? In our post-theological age, sometimes we feel almost embarrassed to use the word evil.
HM: Yes, I do think there is evil. I think it on two counts. One is that as a child I felt it was something I could sense. And I know I’ve seen it in practice, in everyday life, in actions, in the brutal world of words that will destroy a person’s perception of themselves and strip away their defences, and yet it brings no advantage to the person who speaks those words, so that they act as they do purely out of malice and a love of destruction. In that sense, I think it’s quite common. I worked in a bar once where one of my co-workers was upset because her husband, who didn’t go away often, had been sent by his work to Glasgow, and she couldn’t get in touch with him. He wasn’t where he was supposed to be, and didn’t call when he should have. She was an anxious, harmless young woman with a lot of self-doubt and insecurities. As the night went on, she kept trying and failing to get through to him on the phone. One of the other barmaids said to her, ‘Well, it’s quite simple. He’s picked up another woman, hasn’t he?’ I thought, I’ve hardly ever in my life heard anything so wicked. She was speaking the woman’s unspoken thoughts, thoughts she was trying her best to suppress. And it brought the woman who said it no advantage, except a momentary glee in seeing the young woman’s face crumble. It’s a small thing, it’s not a war, it’s not the Holocaust – but there was an impulse of pure wickedness at the moment she spoke, it seems to me. I’ll write about that one day. It’s been kicking around in my brain for twenty-five years waiting to fit into a story. I’ve never seen anyone so abjectly destroyed. Her face just fell apart.
SRB: I’m interested in the way in which you depict how people fall into malicious behaviour. Because, as you say, you think of your characters as people merely trying to muddle their way through life.
HM: I lived in Botswana previously, on the South African border, so we were in South Africa quite often during the apartheid years. It was interesting to compare what was going on in South Africa and in Saudi Arabia. With both places, you saw the system in operation on the street every day. The ideological underpinnings, they weren’t a remote political philosophy. They affected evey body’s lives. Can I go in through that doorway? No, I can’t because I’m black, or because I’m a woman. You entered a strange world where you knew you were being set apart, on the basis of your physical characteristics. And the rules were shifting all the time. When you saw these systems in practice for the first time, then you understood all about them, far more than you did through reading about what it would be like. Before I went to Saudi Arabia, I read everything I could, but I had to see it to understand. With South Africa, I remember the first time we visited a town over the border from Botswana. We went to a bank, and there was a long, long queue of black people, and much shorter queue for white people. I thought, What do I do? Then comes the moment you knew if you didn’t join the white queue, you were going to upset and infuriate everyone in sight. You couldn’t join the long queue because you knew it would upset the people in the long queue; it wouldn’t be me who’d have felt the cost of the gesture, it would have been the people I imagined I was defending. I thought, I suppose, corruption has come upon me, taken hold of me all in a moment. I suddenly saw how useless a gesture could be. That’s what I meant when I was talking about how circumstances come along which challenge everything you hold dear, and in an instant of transformation, you’re corrupted. Corruption is basic to that kind of system. Everybody is invested in it, even the victims. They dare not rock the boat. They collude. Sometimes, as with the women of Saudi Arabia, they praise and justify the very ideals that oppress them.
SRB: Eight Months On Gazzah Street was published in 1988, a year before the fatwa was put on Rushdie. Did readers’ response to the book change after that?
HM: Not really. In the eyes of the critics, I think, it was a book about a woman by a woman. And it could therefore only be domestic in scope. The world has changed a lot since then. The way in which women authors are read has changed. But with all my writing, some critics have had difficulty in seeing them as novels that went beyond the domestic in their concerns. I had a feeling I was being ‘little-womaned’, even though the book got a lot of good reviews. Only a few people saw that my second novel, Vacant Possession, was an attempt at a ‘condition of England’ novel, although it was set pointedly in the year of 1984. To me it has always been a natural thing to do, to use the family as a stand-in for the state or wider society. But it was like being back with St Therese and her shower of roses: people were only reading me literally. I guess I was too oblique. I didn’t signpost my themes. Should I have been more obvious? Or more serious?
SRB: A Change Of Climate and Eight Months touch on your experience of living abroad. Did exile, as it has for other writers, galvanise something in you, some writerly instinct?
HM: I started writing A Place Of Greater Safety the year after I left university, so I began writing in England. I worked on it for two and half years before I went to Africa. I didn’t think of myself then as a career writer. I thought of myself as someone who was going to write that one book, and I couldn’t look beyond it. So a lot of the time when I was in Botswana, in my head I was in revolutionary Paris. Later, I thought why didn’t I keep a diary, why didn’t I record every experience? But I took something from it, as I have written about Africa and I will again. My reality, however, was elsewhere. By the time I went to Saudi Arabia something else had happened. I had finished A Place Of Greater Safety. I failed to sell it. I began another novel, Every Day Is Mother’s Day, which was my sneaky plan to get a foot in the door. I had only published one short story by that point, but in my mind I was a writer. I had learned so much by writing A Place Of Greater Safety and I thought I had more tricks up my sleeve than I had first suspected. So when I went to Saudi, as soon as I landed at the airport in the early hours, just as I describe it in Eight Months, I knew that I better get my notebook out. I should say that I’m not Frances Shore, the main character. I made her a blunter character than I am in order to draw forth the other characters and draw out the potential of the situations. On the other hand, I did stand in her shoes. What she witnessed, I witnessed. As soon as I got there, I thought, this place is so bizarre. It’ll give me a novel. Really, it was the only thing that made it bearable to me. It was an artificial life, and a lonely one. It was conducted mostly under artificial light, with windows you couldn’t see out of. I did come back home every summer, which saved my sanity. If it hadn’t been for the fact I knew there was a novel in it, I would have had to come back to England, and then my husband would have had to decide what to do. In a sense, the worse it got, the better it was for my book.
SRB: That must be one of the saving graces of being a writer. Knowing that no matter how bad life has become, you can always use it as material.
HM: Absolutely. You get quite cold blooded about observing your reactions. Last year my husband was very ill, he had emergency surgery and he was in intensive care for three days. He came out of it okay in the end. Before he got home from the hospital, I had my piece into the LRB. And people said, I don’t believe you wrote that at the time, but I did – not at the height of the crisis, but in the long hours of waiting, I was already stitching the piece together in my mind. It’s something you just learn to do, to step aside from your immediate feelings and circumstances, to ask what the use of this is, and what the shape of it is, this amorphous situation.
SRB: It’s a way of taking control then?
HM: Yes, you’ve put your finger on it. When I was in Saudi Arabia, the only control I had was over the thoughts in my own head. It gave me a secret. The fact that I had this writing building up, that I was keeping a journal, that I was turning it into a novel, the secret life I had on the page was the only control I could exert, it meant I was shaping my reality – otherwise everything would have been out of my hands and I would have felt at the mercy of that place.
SRB: I’ve read that eating disorders can be a way of taking control.
HM: When your identity is stripped back and back, all you hold is that little castle of yourself, and that is the only ground on which you can operate, but operate you certainly can. I’ve never been anorexic myself. Some people think I must have been because I’ve written about it a lot. But it’s just that I understand it, just as I understand why one would become an Islamic fundamentalist, or why one would embrace violence, become a suicide bomber. I understand extremes. I’ve been in places where you feel you must violently assert yourself against the world, and in the case of eating disorders and women it is easy for the violence to turn inwards and express itself within the body. With Carmel [the anorexic heroine of An Experiment In Love], the seed of her eating disorder is that she is poor. Her decision to cut back on food is logical, but then she comes to the stage where eating becomes difficult. First one chooses not to eat, and then it is no longer a choice, one simply does not eat. It is very easy to slip past that point without noticing it. Carmel starts off simply poor, as I say, and then her condition becomes something else. She exerts tight control over her budget and her body. But then she no longer wills what will happen, a physiological process takes over. As a student I had less money that most of my peers. What you eat is one of the things you can control. You can cut back on that, so you do. You get used to being hungry. In the novel I just pushed the situation further than it really did go. Carmel is seeking self-definition, and at a certain point, her chief distinction lies in being thin. That is so often the fictional process – carrying a situation forward to an extreme, and exploring its possible outcome.
SRB: I suppose the modern patron saint of eating disorders is Princess Diana, who has a cameo in Beyond Black [Diana appears in spectral form to clairvoyant Alison Hart, the survivor of terrible childhood abuse, and who is privy to the knowledge that the afterlife is as sad and shabby as ‘real’ life].
HM: Well, she’s also the patron saint of psychics.
SRB: I wanted to ask too about Margaret Thatcher’s cameo appearance in An Experiment In Love.
HM: She really did come to my hall of residence, wearing a most unsuitable frock. As one of the girls says in the novel, a cocktail dress. She got it terribly wrong, but I don’t think she noticed. She was minister of education then.
SRB: Although dead or long out of office, both Di and Thatcher are ghosts who continue to haunt the British psyche, aren’t they?
HM: They still dominate our imagination because of the mythic force they have. Because people would say about Diana, She was a real old slapper, but she was a good mother, whatever else you might say about her. And I think we made her a kind of Madonna figure. The Holy Mother, I mean. Whereas Margaret Thatcher is the bad mother with iron teeth, the milk snatcher. Imagine a nation that puts the milk snatcher in charge of our welfare!
SRB: All the rules and regulations governing female behaviour in Eight Months reminds me of Tudor society as depicted in Wolf Hall, only the Tudors come out of the comparison better. Still, both Saudi Arabia and Tudor court were societies where no one can speak freely.
HM: Not many people have the – I was going to call it luck – but not many people get to live in an absolute monarchy these days, but I have lived in one. I was able to bring over my insights, especially into the life of the court. It becomes a more pronounced theme in the sequel to Wolf Hall, the way in which the court is policed by rumour and gossip.
SRB: To change the subject, I’ve read your favourite book is Kidnapped, and your favourite character is Alan Breck. I take it Kidnapped was an important book in your childhood?
HM: I remember everything about reading it. I identified so much with David. Then, it acted as a model for me of how a novel should be, although I didn’t know I was taking it in that way. It is a very fast moving and cinematic narrative. It’s acted as a model story for me. Also, it’s a story about male friendship. I’ve written about this a good deal. I said to an audience the other day that Wolf Hall, if you take away the immediate circumstances, the fact that the story is affixed to a certain time and set of political circumstances, it is the archetypal story of the boy who leaves home and can’t go back. And someone said, so it’s just like Kidnapped, with which you’re obssessed. I had to admit, yes, it is. We don’t always know what we’re doing, but we’re executing these patterns over and over again.
SRB: Stevenson was famously someone who suffered from illness, whose work was shaped by it. You too have suffered illness; in fact I’m sure I read that you said you wouldn’t have written if you had not become ill first. Do you see affinities on this front with RLS or indeed any other writer who it is said began to write because of illness?
HM: Illness makes ordinary things difficult, in that you don’t have enough energy. From a career point of view, I wouldn’t recommend it. You know what writers’ lives are like nowadays. You’re a public person, and you can’t simply sit in a room and pursue your trade. So illness makes that part of your professional life difficult. But in a way the kind of solitude that illness forces on you, it compresses your imagination, makes it more powerful. I was ill a lot as a child. I seemed to spend long hours being bored, too headachey to read and too sick to concentrate, but nevertheless bored. I used to look at the wall, and imagine a door in the wall, and then walking through the door and seeing what I might find there. That habit was one sickness formed in me, and carried on into adult life. The solitude that sickness forces on you is an unusual one because it is a solitude that you still experience even if you are surrounded by a boisterous family, because it’s your pain, yours alone, and there is something incommunicable about the way you feel. And if you are ill as a child, it makes you resourceful, because there are a lot of things you don’t get to do in fact that you do instead in your imagination. People think that writers are daydreamers. I’ve often been asked if I daydream a lot. And I can’t associate what I do with this word daydreaming, because my imaginary world involves really furious and concentrated energy, and it is purposive. I make a scene, I make characters, I make them talk, and I’ll go over and over it to make it right. I have done that since I was a small child and the idea of ‘dreaminess’ just doesn’t cover it.
SRB: The Giant O’Brien was published in 1998 and it seems to predict the nature of modern fame, which is a throwback to the sort of freak show the giant made his money from. When I think of the stone-eaters, the sapient pig, and Sham Sam the conjuror that feature in The Giant O’Brien, I could easily see them on Britain’s Got Talent.
HM: Yes, true, though I haven’t thought about it, because it was written slightly before all that started. I was thinking just as much about the situation of the writer. As much as I appreciate my lovely public, much as I’m both obliged and interested to go out and meet them, there are times when you feel a freak. I know the moment when The Giant O’Brien started, because I know when I came across the facts of the case. It was a paragraph, a footnote, in a book I was reading, just a mention of the surgeon John Hunter [real-life eighteenth-century Scots surgeon who dissected the remains of the giant O’Brien over his dying wish for his cadaver to be left intact] and the case of the giant Charles Byrne. I read it and I thought, that’s for me, that’s my novel. But there’s a point when a book begins emotionally too. And that happened later, with The Giant O’Brien. I was coming along the road one day and was hailed by a woman I knew, who was with a friend. She introduced me to the friend, saying, Hilary is a writer. And the woman stared at me. I suppose it was only for a moment but it seemed to go on forever. There was scepticism in her gaze, a hostility, a wariness. I really felt for a moment as if I were in a glass case, and in one sense, that’s where the book started. The giant exhibited twice a day, but he was a freak all the time, and it seemed to me that was rather like a writer’s life. You’re a freak all the time but sometimes the public show up and poke you.
SRB: There are analogies made between mediums and writers in Beyond Black. Mediums and historical novelist both try to make the dead speak, do they not?
HM: They’re both respectable trades too. They both have an economic pay-off. Where if you wonder around claiming you talk to the dead and you’re not getting any money out of it, then you’re simply mad. The economic motive sanctifies it, so that it’s quite okay for writers and mediums to resurrect the dead. The parallels between writers and mediums struck me very forcibly. There’s also the element of public performance, at being goggled at because you’re another kind of freak.
SRB: The south of England you depict in Beyond Black is brutal, rude and suspicious of difference. It’s filled with mock communities and a sort of mock heritage. Ironically, given where your imagination took you next, the characters are all living in mock Tudor houses.
HM: I was engaged by this parodying of the past by the nostalgia industry. I’m interested in people’s relationships with their past. I was interested in it because the area of the country where I live. I live between Woking and Guildford. And it’s a place where no one comes from. The immediate townscape wasn’t even here ten years ago. It was just fields. It’s covered by houses and people now, but it is by no means a community. The little village it’s centred around consists almost entirely of estate agents, so that people can sell their houses in these non-places to each other. What I noticed was, what you notice a lot about these dormitory towns, when they sell the houses, one of the merits forever emphasised is how easy it is to get out of the place. “Very handy for Heathrow, very handy for the M4 and M3”.
SRB: Are mediums a heavily distorted bid to discover one’s roots in an era strikingly free of any sense of continuity with the past?
HM: Yes, I got a strong sense when watching clairvoyant and mediums at work on stage that the audience were avid to connect with their past. It was their deracination that frightened me. In the book, there is a girl in an audience who confesses she doesn’t know who her grandmother was, and I really came across that incident while researching the book. I went to see a medium, a man, six miles out of Slough, who worked very hard with an audience but nothing was going right. He came to this seventeen-year-old girl and said he had a message from her grandmother. He was fishing around for the name – “Is it Marjorie, is it Mary”? – and she said she didn’t know. Subsequent questioning revealed she wasn’t adopted, there was no story behind it, no reason why she shouldn’t know who her grandmother was. She was just amazed anyone should expect her to know. I was terrified by that, the thought there are people out there who are so without roots, they don’t know their grandparent’s name. I felt I’d been tipped into godless universe with no meaning at all, when I saw this girl whose knowledge of her family didn’t go back two generations. Perhaps my feeling was exaggerated. But it chilled me. It made the girl seem less than human.
SRB: Are you working now on a sequel to Wolf Hall?
HM: I am. I also have a long-term project I’m working on which is a non-fiction book, just a little non-fiction book, called The Woman Who Died Of Robespierre. It’s about a Polish playwright whose obsession with the French Revolution more or less killed her. It’s a true story. But I don’t want to write a biography. I want to use her life as the centre of a case study about writers’ obsessions and how writers work. Also, I think it’ll be about historical fiction and historical drama. By the time I’ve written Wolf Hall’s sequel, I’ll have more experience and I’ll know more, enough to be qualified to write the non-fiction book. I also have another novel in hand which is set in Botswana at the time I was there. When I’ve written about Botswana before, A Change Of Climate, it was set in the 1950s and 1960s, I’d actually like to write about the late 1970s and late 1980s, when I was there. Botswana when it was pre-AIDS.
Fourth Estate, £18.99
pp672, ISBN 9780007230181