Charlotte Square Gardens has once more opened its gates to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and a highlight of this year's event - and a major draw - was Hilary Mantel in conversation with James Runcie, for which I was in the audience this evening.
It was James Runcie who last autumn produced and directed the fine Culture Show profile of Hilary Mantel; follow that link to see clips from it, or click here to read what the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist had to say, during that interview, about the act of writing, especially on a bad day. Having greatly enjoyed that documentary I was very keen to attend tonight's event to hear more, and I wasn't disappointed.
James Runcie began by introducing Hilary Mantel as someone who until recently had been known as 'the writers' writer', 'a well kept secret', and this relative anonymity carried on to her Booker shortlisting when she was referred to as " 'Hilary Mantel, 57, from Glossop in Derbyshire', almost as if she were a housewife who did a bit of writing in her kitchen while waiting for the marmalade to set." Happily, that win for Wolf Hall brought a new readership to all her books, and with the recent publication of Bring up the Bodies, the second volume in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, those fans are hungry for more.
The young Hilary did not set out to be a writer, rather she wanted to be a Knight of the Round Table, taken with jousting and justice, ideas of glory and avenging the weak. When she realised (aged 4) that she wasn't going to turn into a boy, it became clear that knight errantry was not an option. However, in writing about the court of Henry VIII, she lives - on the page - in a virtual Camelot, she says, and can act out her early fantasies through her characters.
She compared advice on writing to counsel given in jousting: resist the ever-present temptation to swerve at the last minute, don't settle for what's easily within your capabilities but work instead at the edge of your confidence and take on something you think is too big for you, and she commented that the self-scrutiny inherent in her early catholicism and the acceptance of an abstracted world of ethereal beings as the ultimate reality were the origins of her career as a novelist.
As to Thomas Cromwell as the focus of her current writing, it was the trajectory of his story which drew her to him. The blacksmith's son who became Earl of Essex and Henry's right-hand man - how did he do that? What was it like to be so close to the king and to "put one's head in the lion's mouth every day"? His skills and mindset were far removed from those of the other courtiers, the "chivalrous idiots", as she called them; he was a man of exceptional talents. She pointed out that archive material on Cromwell as a public servant is extensive, while as a private man he is so ill-documented that the novelist can go to work, "building on the best information available."
Hilary then read a passage from Bring up the Bodies (pages 26 to 29, should you wish to look it up - and I must say here that unlike some other members of her profession she is an excellent reader) and she went on to discuss her use of detail gleaned from Cromwell's correspondence and how careful selection for that scene alone allowed her to present both the big Tudor picture and the minute one, the grand and the trivial. From there she talked about the importance to a novel of point of view (and viewpoint), explaining how her positioning of Cromwell in the excerpt she read - she has him watching from a window as Henry and Jane Seymour take a stroll in the garden - means that the readers' sightlines are similarly shifting and what they take from the passage realistically ambiguous.
As to the craft of writing historical fiction, characters must be three-dimensional and have a vibrancy and an immediacy to them, she thinks, and although we as readers know their fates, it's the tortuous process they go through to get to their ends which allows suspense to operate - the turning points, the moments of transformation where we see the die is cast will draw the reader on, and that is the seat of her dramatic power.
Hilary Mantel has such a sharp intelligence, a deep-thinking knowledge of her craft and art, and an engaging warmth and wit, all of which make her a delight to listen to, and the rest of the appreciative Edinburgh audience enjoyed hearing her as much as I did. If you want to try her books, I think my favourite so far is Fludd - post on it here - a brilliant, funny novel about the far-reaching change effected in a small community by a very unusual man, but really, everything of hers I've read has impressed me greatly.
Edited to add: re. Adèle's comment below, Hilary will be appearing at Ely Cathedral on Tuesday, September 11th., details and tickets here.