Archival Interview: Hilary Mantel
A lot of Americans got their introduction to Hilary Mantel when Wolf Hall earned the Man Booker Prize in 2009, and the debut of the Masterpiece Theater series based on the book is earning Dame Hilary a whole new audience. I first read Mantel in 2000, when much of her early work was released in the United States. I was smitten immediately, and she’s become my very favorite author. Interviewing her was a privilege.
British journalist Auberon Waugh described Hilary Mantel’s first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, as “Strange… rather mad… extremely funny.” There really are few adjectives too sharp for Mantel’s work: Waugh’s keen summation could apply to any of her more prodigious stories. The Giant, O’Brien introduced American readers to Mantel’s body of phantasmagoria; now three of her earlier works are being released in the States for the first time. Every Day is Mother’s Day recounts a disastrous collision between the crazy, reclusive Axon family and the equally crazy machinations of a modern social worker. Vacant Possession tells the rest of the tale, following Muriel Axon as she embarks on a fantastically destructive quest for revenge. In Fludd, a Renaissance alchemist assumes the form of a Catholic curate and transforms a small English town. In this interview, Hilary Mantel and Jessica Jernigan discuss the author’s use of childhood memories, her experiences as a social worker, and the narrative power of Mantel’s almost superhuman empathy.
How did a Renaissance alchemist arrive in an obscure English town in the middle of the 20th century?
Hilary Mantel: Ah now, why swallow a camel and strain at a gnat? If Fludd can be reincarnated, (“it is no more surprising to be born twice than to be born once”) why not in Fetherhoughton, as well as any other place? Maybe he’s been in many places before, but as they were places where no novelist grew up, no one has noticed him. Maybe he’ll be in many places after. If I detect his hand again, I will report in a further novel. I am always on the lookout for transformations and their authors.
So you are, yourself, a Fetherhoughtonian?
HM: As I say in my author’s note, Fetherhoughton is not to be found on a map, but there is a close geographical match in a village called Hadfield, in the Peak District of Derbyshire, where I was born in 1952. Hadfield has a twin village called Padfield, smaller still and nearer the moors. When I was 4 years old, the bishop of the diocese ordered the statues removed from the church, thus becoming a local hate figure. Earlier than this (my mother tells me) there had been a very popular young priest who disappeared overnight. So you might say I’ve amalgamated two parish legends. I remember that my mother was planning to offer a home to St. Gerard Majella, who stood six foot and was black all over, and is credited with offering special aid to women in childbirth. I heard adults talking, in the air above my head. One said “What are they going to do with the statues?” The other said “Bury them.” A horrible shudder went through my infant frame. I know what I heard, but don’t think they did bury them, and St. Gerard never did come to live with us. It’s a mystery really.
It must have been gratifying, as a novelist, to raise your childhood saints from their Paracelsian dirt nap.
HM: What was most satisfying was to combust my former headmistress, in the guise of Mother Purpit.
Hmmm… a different kind of transformation. Was Padfield as dark and uncanny as Netherhoughton?
HM: Padfield… who knows what went on there? A straggle of low stone houses running out into mist. No church (but a chapel I think) or school of their own, or more than one or two shops, and yet it didn’t seem to me, when I was a child, that it was just an extension of Hadfield, because people would say “She comes from Padfield” as if they were saying “She comes from the dark side of the moon.” It did seem, in some way, the nether region. The hind-brain. Not many people have the luck to grow up in territory where geography so neatly illustrates the precepts of more abstract and less verifiable disciplines.
In all your books, you seem to understand your subjects quite intimately. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered another author who could describe, with absolute certainty, a character’s underclothes. How do you know the people in your stories so well?
HM: Well, I’ve been asked a similar question before, and I’m not sure I have a good answer. In my own mind — and quite apart from any distinction critics may make — I think I have written two types of novels, with two different requirements for how the characters work. I would say one group is Every Day is Mother’s Day, Vacant Possession, Fludd and The Giant, O’Brien. In these the characters are emblematic — or you might say, they are vehicles for ideas or for jokes. I could paint them, if I had the skill. To create them, I feel it’s necessary to hold a microphone and point a camera, which is in the corner of the room. In my other books I feel the characters are more “real” and three-dimensional and that I have to try get inside them in a way that is more like acting. I suppose in the former case it is people’s underclothes I would know about — their props, their underpinnings. In the latter case, it would be a strain to climb outside the character’s body and describe them. When I am teaching writing I usually say, regarding characters, “you have to be able to feel the clothes on their backs.”
When I read descriptions of Every Day is Mother’s Day andVacant Possession, I was somewhat squeamish — I didn’t think I would much enjoy a novel in which a primary character is described as a “half-wit.” As it turns out, I enjoyed both novels immensely, but I have to ask: What made you take Muriel and Evelyn on? They are a rather grim pair.
HM: If I want to say where Muriel and Evelyn came from, I can look at the top layer of the happenstances that led me towards the story, and then I can look at what the dreadful duo might mean in my own experience.
After I left university I was briefly a member of the social work department in a geriatric hospital in a town in the north of England. The description of it in Vacant Possession is fairly close to life — it was a former workhouse, and had been “the workhouse” within the memory of many of the patients. Naturally, my time there made me ask questions about social workers and their protocols, and how social efforts are directed; on a less banal level, though I wasn’t writing then, the whole experience darkened my already twilit imagination. The horrors of the medical records — the multiple humiliations of old age. The enraging callousness of experienced doctors, the sheer ineptitude of the less-experienced: I once saw one of them staring earnestly at X-ray photos that he was holding upside down. Also I saw people in physically extreme states — with the curious unborn look of people who are a long time dying. Then on one of my home visits, I muddled an address, and ended up on the doorstep of a sweet, frail elderly couple, who had a Muriel-like daughter hovering in the background: and when I did find the right address — I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this before — all I could see, when I peered in at the downstairs window, was a shriveled bare arm, which rose out of nowhere and waved behind the glass. So, that was quite a day; and I suppose I turned over the possibilities of it in my mind.
The kind of neighbourhood where Evelyn and Muriel live fascinates me for another reason. The summer I was 11 I was transplanted from a working-class village, treeless and gossipy, to a lush small town, where the people spoke differently and were different, and I noticed and relished every scrap of difference — the genteelisms of their speech, for instance, and the way they guarded their privacy — and I spent whole days just walking about the avenues and looking at their bay windows and at what kind of curtains they had and how the flowers grew in their gardens. And when you see that kind of carefully controlled manicured environment, you wonder what will happen if the control slips and weeds blow over the fences and the pavements crack — as Evelyn says, or thinks, you can drive nature out with a pitchfork but… Coming to that town was every bit as strange to me as, later, going to Saudi Arabia would be… so perhaps it’s natural that I should use it as a setting.
Then, of course, I am interested in people in psychologically extreme states, and in worms that turn. What you have with Evelyn and Muriel is a situation in which Evelyn exerts extreme power — which Muriel doesn’t understand the source of — and Muriel can only resort to the guerilla/terrorist tactics of the near-powerless. This has been so, we may infer, since Muriel was a small child; and of course both of them live in a state of fear, both the prisoner and the guard. One way and another, I keep writing this story, about despotism and arbitrary force and rebellion and bottled hatred in small rooms. I think that from about 4 years old this was my experience of the world — the world of Mother Purpit, you know. So you may ask how it is that it comes out funny — to which I can only say, laughter in the dark.
Finally, are you excited about the American debut of these books? Is there anything you would like to say to readers in the Colonies?
HM: You ask how I feel about these books getting American readers — very pleased, of course, because it’s been a long time coming, and also I’m curious to see what people will make of them. When Every Day is Mother’s Day and Vacant Possessioncame out in England — as my first and second novels — they had a lot of reviews, and they were the kind of reviews that make one very grateful — but a lot of the critics treated the books as exceptionally nasty, if fluent, black comedy, with a purely domestic agenda — that last because I’m a gal, you know. Maybe I could have prevented this if I’d left in Every Day is Mother’s Day some of the passages I cut, which were more directly about the social worker, Isabel, and her disquiets — but then I like to cut, and I almost hold to the dictum “never explain.” There were a few people who saw that my range might be a bit wider than domestic hell, and of course that gave me confidence, but I can see that the books startled people and they didn’t know what to think. Whereas, if there are any U.S. readers who know my other books, then come to read these, they would know that I deal with strong material.
Also, as my entire backlist is now published in the U.S., I feel that I have broken down some sort of barrier: or rather, as if I’d hatched, and I’m glad of a bigger yard to run around in. I’ve never felt that I was a particularly English writer; I observe Englishness, rather than take part in it, and often in fact concentrate on it very hard, without participating in it. And, though it’s good to get the nod of recognition from your reader, that’s not the only response you want. To sum up, what I feel about having U.S. readers is simply — I want to know them, I want to write for them, I’d just like to know they’re there.