An Interview with Hilary Mantel by Carole Burns

hilary-mantelIn the Washington Post on Friday, Author  of The Missing Woman, Carole Burns interviewed Hilary Mantel.  With the debate over whether the screen adaptation of her novel threatens to distort history, a debate which is lighting up literary message boards all over the internet and causing definite ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps on the sides of both the book and the Author, I thought it would be pleasant reading to share this interview with you.

Hilary Mantel’s two best-selling novels on King Henry VIII’s adviser Thomas Cromwell — “Wolf Hall” (2009) and “Bring Up the Bodies” (2012) — have won her two Booker prizes. A new Masterpiece series, “Wolf Hall,” begins tonight on PBS, and a two-part Royal Shakespeare Company play based on the novels officially opens April 9 on Broadway. Mantel spoke about her books — and their spin-offs — from New York, where she is working on the plays.

How did you become fascinated by Thomas Cromwell?

It was the very singular arc of his story: blacksmith’s son to Earl of Essex, poor boy to king’s right-hand man. It has a strong archetypal quality to it. You want to know: What kind of man could achieve that and stay at the top of Henry’s court of predators, be close to the king for some eight years before disaster struck? And during those eight years, he helped reshape the nation.

Your depiction goes against the prevalent image of Cromwell as a ruthless despot. Is he your fictional character or a reinterpretation of history?

Well, it’s not simply my reinterpretation. There is a divide between academic history and popular history. Cromwell’s role was explored intensively by academic historians, but people’s imaginations are not shaped by scholars; they’re shaped by popular historians and fiction writers. And of course, Thomas Cromwell had really fallen victim to Robert Bolt and “A Man for All Seasons,” and we see him emerge in a very bad light. Even though I would say there can be other ways of thinking, my interpretations are valid; they’re not plucked out of the air. It’s not that I was looking for a hero. I was looking to explore a very complex man who was flawed and equivocal and ambiguous, and I’m not big on judging my characters. I want to understand them.

Do you think you ended up with a hero?

One could say he’s an equivocal hero. Perhaps he’s a hero for our times, because I think we’re very aware now that judgments are not a simple matter, and that one’s sense of right and wrong often gives way under the pressure of events. He was a ruthless man, but no more so than other politicians of his era. And he had a number of good qualities that I think tended to be buried under a weight of prejudice.

Another idea your books explore is how dangerous it is to be so close to power.

For politicians, one misstep could be fatal. You didn’t get to resign. You might well find yourself in the Tower [of London]. In the case of the women in his life, he began by putting them on a pedestal, and they ended up in the dust. Obviously, what he needed was a son and heir. It’s in some ways a problem peculiar to kings, but in other ways, it’s a very common problem. I don’t mean simply the lack of a child, but, who is the partner who will give you what you desire? To come into the king’s sight, to be identified by him as his next true love, was a very dangerous business.

Are today’s politicians as ruthless as Cromwell?

Yes, but the difference is that their ruthlessness results in mass deaths at a distance. With Cromwell, the victims, if you can call them that, are named, and they die on Tower Hill. But they die singly. I think our age has no business looking back and judging the Tudors. Cromwell and his contemporaries weren’t there to act as a kind of rehearsal for us. They have to be seen in their own light. So although there are all sorts of contemporary resonances, my stories aren’t a disguised way of writing about the present. They really are about the past.

How would you compare your role in the BBC’s Masterpiece production with your role in the Broadway play — and how have these experiences affected your third novel, ‘The Mirror in the Light’?

My involvement with the two projects is very different. With the BBC, I visited the set, but the script writer, Peter Straughan, needed very little help. It was miraculous how quickly he grasped what was at stake and how to make the characters talk. The plays were a very different story: I worked with the adaptor for 10 drafts. I’ve been in the rehearsal room, so my conversations with the actors do change the third book — but the third book also changes the plays. I’m just this morning writing a passage that explains why Thomas Wyatt, at the end of “Bring Up the Bodies,” gives Cromwell the evidence he needs to convict Anne Boleyn. About 5:00 tonight I’ll have it dropped off at the stage door when the actors arrive who play Cromwell and Tom Wyatt. It won’t change the words they’re speaking, but it will change what they know.”

Carole Burns B&W (Jason Parnell-Brookes) use this oneCarole Burns’s short story collection, “The Missing Woman,” is being published this month. She is head of creative writing at the University of Southampton in England.

Review: The King’s Grave: The Discovery of Richard III’s Lost Burial Place and the Clues It Holds ~ Philippa Langley, Michael Jones

The Kings graveThe first full-length book about the discover of Richard III’s remains by the person who led the archeology team and the historian whose book spurred her on

The mystery of who Richard III really was has fascinated historians, readers and audiences familiar with Shakespeare’s dastardly portrait of a hunchback monster of royalty for centuries. Earlier this year, the remains of a man with a curving spine, who possible was killed in battle, were discovered underneath the paving of a parking lot in Leicester, England. Phillipa Langley, head of The Richard III Society, spurred on by the work of the historian Michael Jones, led the team of who uncovered the remains, certain that she had found the bones of the monarch. When DNA verification later confirmed that the skeleton was, indeed, that of King Richard III, the discovery ranks among the great stories of passionate intuition and perseverance against the odds. The news of the discovery of Richard’s remains has been widely reported by the British as well as worldwide and was front page news for both theNew York Times and The Washington Post. Many believe that now, with King Richard III’s skeleton in hand, historians will finally begin to understand what happened to him following the Battle of Bosworth Field (twenty miles or so from Leicester) and, ultimately, to know whether he was the hateful, unscrupulous monarch of Shakespeare’s drama or a much more benevolent king interested in the common man. Written in alternating chapters, with Richard’s 15th century life told by historian Michael Jones (author of the critically acclaimed Bosworth – 1485) contrasting with the 21st century eyewitness account of the search and discovery of the body by Philippa Langley, The King’s Grave will be both an extraordinary portrait of the last Plantagenet monarch and the inspiring story of the archaeological dig that finally brings the real King Richard III into the light of day.

5 Thumbs-UpThis is definitely not a dry history book, and for those who know next to nothing about Richard III they will receive an almost personal history lesson about this Monarch as they progress through the book.  This is an extraordinarily user friendly book.

The chapters in the book alternate between the story of searching for, and eventually finding the grave of Richard III and his factual history, and it is not the one everyone is familiar with  and painted by Shakespeare and the victor of Bosworth Field.  However, in reading this book it soon becomes apparent that this is more than a simple recounting of an archaeological dig; it is very personal to the Author and that comes through in their writing.  The book is loaded with an impressive amount of information, both about the search itself and, as I’ve already noted, the history of this King, but it s the delivery of this information that really impressed me.  There is not a point in this book where the delivery becomes stale and dusty, the Authors managed to make every part of it enjoyable to the reader.

The sections of the book that cover the identification of the remains, and the scientific techniques used are equally as interesting as the descriptive scenes of the battle that took the Kings life.  They covered disputes and grievances between the House of York and the House of Tudor with great tact and never once came out in favour of one House or the other.  This book will also serve to dispel some of the images people have that Richard III was just an all-round evil man; it informs the reader of all the good he did for the country and shows him in the context of the world he lived in.  Through the Authors writing skills the reader is introduced to a man of deep convictions and courage whilst at the same time showing he was definitely not a saint.

The great strength of this book is that it captivates like a well-written historical novel while at the same time informing and educating the reader.  This strength kept me up late into the night to finish this book and once again stoke the flames of my love of history.  Richard III, the last King of England to come from the House of York and the last Plantagenet King found his champions in these hard working people, and will finally have the burial a Monarch deserves, particularly one of such fame.

I highly recommend this book to lovers of all forms of history, plus those who want to learn a little more about this period of time in England.