For Hilary Mantel, There’s No Time Like the Past

Here is a brief excerpt from an article by for The New York Times that focuses on one of the world’s most highly renowned authors of novels. I envy anyone who has not read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the first books in Hilary Mantel‘s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, “They have sold millions of dollars thus far. Now the two-time Booker Prize winner is finishing the job with The Mirror and the Light.”

Credfit:  Ellie Smith for The New York Times

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BUDLEIGH SALTERTON, England — Hilary Mantel has a recurring anxiety dream that takes place in a library. She finds a book with some scrap of historical information she’s been seeking, but when she tries to read it, the words disintegrate before her eyes.

“And then when you wake up,” she said, “you’ve got the rhythm of a sentence in your head, but you don’t know what the sentence was.”

As deflated as she feels upon waking, the dreams have been instructive, Mantel said.

“There’s always going to be something slightly beyond your comprehension, but you must go reaching for it,” she told me last month. “If you thought the record was the whole story, the dream is teaching you how fragile the record is.”

To an unusual degree for a novelist, Mantel feels bound by facts. That approach has made her latest project — a nearly 1,800-page trilogy about the 16th-century lawyer and fixer Thomas Cromwell — more complicated than anything she’s undertaken in her four decades of writing.

The trilogy, which began in 2009 with Wolf Hall, traces Cromwell’s unlikely rise, from his origins as a blacksmith’s son to the court of King Henry VIII. It concludes with Mantel’s next book, The Mirror and the Light, an account of the last four years of Cromwell’s life, as he amasses more wealth, influence and power but loses the king’s favor and later, his head.

The Cromwell series has turned Mantel into a literary celebrity and something of a national icon. The first two books collectively sold more than five million copies and have been translated into more than 30 languages. Both Wolf Hall and its 2012 sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, won the Booker Prize, making Mantel the first woman to win twice, and the first author ever to win for a sequel. The books were adapted into an award-winning pair of plays by the Royal Shakespeare Company and a BBC mini-series. In 2015, Prince Charles anointed Mantel with the title of Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire, the equivalent of knighthood, prompting some in the press to sneeringly draw comparisons between the modern-day royals and the louche, back-stabbing behavior of the Tudors.

Throughout her rise to prominence, Mantel has remained aloof. She’s never been part of the London literary establishment and seems to prefer the company of her long-dead characters to the demands of being a public figure. For the past decade, she and her husband Gerald McEwen, a retired geologist, have lived in Budleigh Salterton, an idyllic village on the coast of Devon.

She’s far from shy, though. A staunch iconoclast, Mantel has occasionally stirred controversy with her heterodox attitudes about British royalty and politics. In 2013, the tabloids pounced on comments she made during a lecture in which she called the Duchess of Cambridge “a shop-window mannequin” with no personality. A year later, she angered conservative British politicians and set off another media maelstrom when she published a short story that imagined the planned assassination of Margaret Thatcher by an I.R.A. sniper.

“She was imprisoned in her own home for a week while the press went absolutely bonkers,” said her literary agent Bill Hamilton, who called the episode “incredibly funny, if inconvenient for her.”

More recently, Mantel has been hounded by the British press over the delayed publication of The Mirror and the Light, which is due out next month but was originally planned for release in 2018. The lag set off speculation that Mantel suffered from writer’s block, or was distracted by the stage and television adaptations, or was procrastinating because she couldn’t bear to kill Cromwell. Expectations for the novel, which were high to begin with, are now stratospheric, and Mantel felt pressure to deliver a worthy ending.

“The reason it took so long is that it’s difficult, and that is a totally sufficient explanation,” Mantel said, sounding bewildered and slightly irritated. “But that’s not an explanation that has any news value, so people are looking

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Alexandra Alter writes about publishing and the literary world for The New York Times. Before joining The Times in 2014, she covered books and culture for The Wall Street Journal, where she was a reporter for seven years. Prior to that, she reported on religion, and the occasional hurricane, for The Miami Herald. She holds a bachelor’s degree in religion from Columbia University, and received master’s degrees in religion and journalism from Columbia.

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