Bloomin’ Heck! Hilary Mantel has my head spinning.
Last night The Bath Literature Festival brought us JK Rowling and tonight’s feast is Hilary. James Runcie, artistic director, is back interviewing her.
Hilary Mantel is one of England’s greatest writers. 13 novels, a couple of Booker Prize wins in the last five years, as well as the Orange Prize for Fiction, The Costa and Man Booker Prizes etc etc.
And I find myself loving her. Then, just as I connect and feel a shared moment of awareness or amusement, she leaves me intellectually for dust.
An incredible woman. Super smart, funny and wonderfully bonkers spending so much of her life hanging out in the parallel world of the 16th century with Thomas Cromwell, which is apparently just a shuffle to the left of the world we live in.
You see to Hilary “Reality is egg shell thin. Maybe it is because I was brought up catholic, or maybe I am just weird, but the world is not solid. There are portals to the past. The past and present exist alongside each other and sometimes you can accidentally access these portals.” I totally love her.
She became a writer at 22 but her first choice of occupation was to be a Knight of the Round Table, that or a railway guard. “I didn’t realise the limitations of female power then,” she explains as if that was the only thing in her way.
Looking back, which is her forte, she realises that her footsteps towards becoming a writer began even before she could read. She would ask adults to read the story of Camelot to her, which she memorised. And by the time she started school her language was peppered with baroque.
She discovered Shakespeare at 8 and by 10 was immersed in his complete works. “Shakespeare is more a demigod, the principle of existence to me,” she says holding her head as if in overwhelm at his imagined presence.
She brings her passion for knights and jousting to her novel Bring up the Bodies. “Is jousting a metaphor for writing?” asks James. “Yes it is a metaphor,” she laughs. Cromwell uses jousting as a metaphor for politics in the book. In jousting at the moment of impact self preservation kicks in and makes you want to close your eyes. If you do, it is game over. It is the same with writing. “Self-preservation makes you want to swerve and do the easy thing but the victory is in going full pelt ahead with your eyes open.”
When asked about the line between inspiration and madness she explains that it is simply a question of economics. If you go around saying you talk to dead people you get sectioned. If you write it and get paid for it then that is absolutely fine. Isn’t she brilliant.
Hilary talks to dead people for a living and describes the process to us through one of her characters who is a medium (sorry wasn’t quick enough to note which one). Her character likens it to climbing a tall ladder and at the top rung if you listen hard enough on a good night the dead talk. Hilary chips in that it doesn’t happen unless you make yourself available to it, open to it, passive but intensively aware at the same time. I’ll take that as a pretty good description of listening to your intuition too.