It’s an unseasonably warm evening as I make my way across Manchester to listen to Hilary Mantel talk about and read from her latest short story collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. The church is packed (as you might expect) and latecomers are sneaking in the door as Mantel arrives onstage to a lengthy round of applause.
The evening begins with Mantel reading from ‘Offences Against the Person’. She stands at a small lectern and takes the opportunity, both before and after reading her chosen extract, to tell us her thoughts on the short story form.
She says the joys of the short story are that you can inhabit a voice instantly and it’s like going to call on someone rather than move in with them, as she has done with Thomas Cromwell. She likes the way the short story can leave something to the reader’s imagination. With regards to this particular short story, she likes the narrator, Vicky, her capacity for mayhem and destruction, and she’d like to work with her again.
She goes on to say that short stories are ‘diverse in intention, mode and execution’. She likes that they can hint at other stories outside of the page but she doesn’t find it an easy form. Some short stories just don’t gel. Others, however, are done in the time it takes to write and then Mantel says she tinkers with maybe five per cent of it. Sometimes, they take decades because she can’t find the shape and connections; she doesn’t know what the story’s about. ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ was begun in 1983. She refers to them as ‘an epic in the imagination’.
Then she gives a tactic she uses if she’s struggling. She says she pretends it’s true, a slice of memoir. This lifts the self-consciousness and she doesn’t need to worry about whether or not it’s literature.
She likes the way in which the specifics of a story, the details that are true, skewer the action/time/place. Although she notes that these details also distance the reader. She finds the small particulars of one particular life an attractive paradox.
The themes of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher are transgression, the breaking of boundaries, crossing. She says there’s a shadowy area of overlap between herself and the ‘I’ of the stories.
She’s then interviewed by academic, Jerome de Groot.
He begins by asking about writing historical fiction and ‘respecting the record’ even though the true record is problematic in itself. Is Mantel aware of it when she’s writing?
She responds that she’s self-aware when she’s finished writing. While she’s in the process, she’s fighting to take herself out of the story. Later she’s aware and she becomes aware of the gaze of others upon her writing and that they’ll try to catagorise what she’s written. So, she says, she begins to do it herself. All historical fiction is now historiographical now though, she says.
de Groot asks how she finds that defamiliarisation?
She tells him that when the stage shows of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies began, people asked her “How does it feel to see your characters come to life?” ‘They were never dead!’ she responds. She says she writes as though she is in the room with the characters. She writes scenes and fits them together towards the end of the process. When she has a big scene to write, she gathers her notes, preparation, research and historical materials and re-reads them all. Then she gets stage fright and jitters for a day or two before stepping on to the stage and writing it. She knows it’s an illusion but she tries to give the reader the impression that they’re in the room.
He asks if that was the problem with ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’.
Mantel talks about the things she saw from her flat window that day in Windsor when Thatcher emerged having had an eye operation. She said it looked as though she was inspecting the troops. At that moment, Mantel realised, ‘I’m a security breach!’ She then talked about removing herself and putting someone else in the room. The problems were how do you keep the reader in suspense for an event they know didn’t occur and she didn’t know what the story was about. She tried to cram things in year after year – Ireland. Memory. Then she decided she wanted to publish a short story collection called ‘Ten Transgressive Tales’ but she only had nine stories so she made herself stay in the house for two weeks until she’d finished it! She wrote false endings and combed through it. The difference, she said, came when she realised she was exploring self and the writing life through it.
de Groot asks how would you catagorise the story in terms of your career?
She says it’s a commentary. The crucial moment is when the narrator goes onto the staircase and to the fire door where the house on the other side is a mirror image of the one she is in. It passes into another reality. This is where Mantel says the story asks the reader to remember that history could always be otherwise.
She says she’s interested in turning points in every event/scene she writes. What if someone had been a minute earlier/later/in a better mood? She describes it as ‘a word to the wise’.
What would historians say about Hilary Mantel’s approach to fiction?
She says people aren’t simple-minded. We don’t talk about cause and effect in the same way we used to. She describes her O Level history lessons on the French Revolution: lesson one – the causes of the French Revolution; lesson two – the French Revolution; lesson three – the effects of the French Revolution.
However, she says novelists aren’t obliged to coherence. She moves in an area of ambiguity, of the missing and the lost. She says she’s fixated by documentary evidence but asks how was the document produced? In what language is it written? What’s its purpose? How does it restrict? What’s not on the record? What’s interesting about Henry VIII’s court is that so much happened face-to-face. There never was a record. Everything’s deniable. That allows a writer to work around events.
Mantel mentions de Groot’s book on Anne Boleyn in which he talks about how attracted historical novelists are to her and that period. She says she sets herself to finding a plausible context for those words that glitter. She finds that there’s still an area of mystery after having written and written and written. She’s come to the conclusion that mystery is intrinsic to the story of Anne Boleyn, it’s in the realm of what will never be explained. It means the novelist can move in that space.
She goes on to talk about a form of historical fiction that she thinks is becoming comfort reading in which the past is prettified or the past is horrible and scary as that’s also comforting as we believe it can’t happen to us. ‘We patronise the past.’
She says there is a genre of historical fiction, those novels that were categorised as ‘women’s fiction’ in the past, which were a way of writing about sex in an era before ours. ‘I have to tell it the way it is,’ being a reason to do so. Now, she says misogyny is pornographic. But she’s not going to soften the edges. She’s not pretending that the women in Henry VIII’s day are like ours. She says she’s surprised how many historical fiction writers do that because they can’t bear the reality of it.
She describes historical fiction as a ‘violation of innocence’. The reader knows the character’s fate but the character doesn’t. That puts the reader in two places, alongside the character but also above them where they can see the sword hanging down. It means the suspense comes from us wondering what the character will feel when the sword is cut. She likens it to a horror film. The innocent person walks towards the ghastly cupboard/Bluebeard’s room. The viewer can hear the music and knows from experience there’s a zombie in the cupboard. She says she wants to pin the reader to the moment before the knowledge dawns on the character.
Questions are then welcome from the audience.
Did she realise that images, such as shattered glass, reoccur in her latest story collection?
The stories were written over a number of years. She describes it as gruesome and fascinating to see what you’ve done when they’re placed side-by-side. But it was her copy editor who chose the sequence of the stories to prevent similar images in sequential pieces. When you’re writing the work, you’re deep in writing life, you’re the last person to spot what you’ve done, she says.
The questioner mentions Mantel’s earlier comments on the sword hanging above the character and asks in light of that, was she concerned about Thomas Cromwell’s fall being less well known?
At the beginning, she imagined what her publisher would say to her setting a novel at the court of Henry VIII. Thomas Cromwell changed everything. He’s portrayed as ‘an attack dog’ but he’s actually ‘incredibly complex and interesting’. She says he gives her a certain advantage but goes on to say that when she’s in the process of writing, her self-consciousness lifts so it doesn’t matter if it had been written fifty times before because it hadn’t been experienced by her. By the time the self-consciousness comes back, you’ve done your work, hopefully, she says. Because the work is a trilogy, however, she’s in two places: able to think about it as a whole but still embedded within it.
Because ‘Offences Against the Person’ is set in Manchester and we are in Manchester, someone asks her what her familiarity with the city is.
She says she was born in Hadfield. Her father’s from Manchester. She lived in Stalybridge until she went to Africa when she was 24. Her husband’s from Ashton and she researched and wrote her first novel ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ in Manchester Central Library.
Which other short story writers do you admire?
Annie Proulx. Her best are 7-8000 words long and Mantel thinks she’s better at those than novels. She mentions Close Range: Wyoming Stories in particular and says that ‘Half Skinned Steer’ is one of the best. (You can read it here, in The Atlantic.)
Alice Munroe. She says the thing is her stories seem easy but when she sits down to try to write like her, she can’t do it. The lyrical, lifting movement is beyond her. ‘I’m too much of a control freak,’ she says.
Jane Gardam. ‘Just masterly.’ It’s light and bubbly and ‘she brings it home beautifully,’ Mantel says.
Why do you think the Tudor period resonates with ours?
She says she’s not sure it does and that the fascination with it began before it was over. The Tudors were very good at making things about themselves. Plays about key characters were on stage before the blood was dry.
Henry was a fascination by Elizabeth I’s reign but a peculiar form of tact was in operation so Henry wasn’t portrayed on stage while Elizabeth was alive.
They’ve endured because we loath but are proud of Henry. He’s a world-beater. He’s Bluebeard. ‘They step straight out of fairy tales and straight back into them.’
The story of Henry’s wives is the story of some women you know/have been/have been married to. ‘You would not dare invent it,’ she says.
They are vivid, colourful and vivacious. ‘Contemporary life fades to the grey of newsprint, pixilates itself and vanishes.’ The distance makes them stand out so vividly.
Where did she get the ideas for Beyond Black?
‘It began, simply, with me.’ Mantel tells us that she was in Windsor and she passed the Star and Garter where they were advertising a clairvoyant. She went in and in the entrance was a portrait of the clairvoyant set up on an easel. There was some drapery over the top and a woman twitching and re-draping it. She realised that was the psychic’s assistant and it made her wonder what you’d put on your CV. She saw the performance.
What she didn’t realise, she says, was that the book was a rehearsal. It’s about talking to the dead.
With that she returns to the lectern to read from ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’.