Last night I went to the 92nd St. Y to see Hilary Mantel with Jeremy Herrin, who is the director of the upcoming Broadway production of Wolf Hall, in a conversation moderated by Candice Bergen, who wore bright red laces in her high-top sneakers. I was invited by my friend Leslie, who has invited me to at least a dozen things this quarter (she is quite the culture vulture) but due to my schedule of day job as a researcher, writing and grad school, I have always said no. Hilary Mantel was too good to pass up, however. And she did not disappoint.
I hadn’t planned to take notes, but she kept saying such interesting things. As a historical novelist myself (and yes, I realize what that sounds like, putting myself in the same paragraph with Dame Mantel), I have had a recent problem with two of my characters, Nick and Daisy, frisking around in the attic of my brain when I am meant to be doing homework. Where were they during winter break? (To be fair, during winter break, I was polishing the novel I am now trying to sell, Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me, and the characters barging into grad school studying are the fresher (in the sense that I haven’t been writing them for SEVEN YEARS), fiestier characters from Untitled Berlin Love Story.
“I had wanted to write about Thomas Cromwell for more than thirty years,” Dame Mantel said, which made me feel slightly better about my seven, and also prompted me to reach into my bag for a notebook and pen. We must remember when writing historical fiction, she said, that we are writing “characters who are ignorant of their own fate . . . [unaware that their choices] have cascades of consequences that go down through generations. They’re not people in history. They’re people in their lives.”
As a researcher, I was gratified to hear Dame Mantel state that the does her own research and has no assistants. “How do you know what you need to know until you come across it?” she asked, adding that research is “a devious process. I don’t see how you can delegate it. The research is just as creative as the writing itself.”
As for how she does what she does: “A novel is an inherently unpredictable thing.” and “I write in scenes and I put it together like a collage.” (She is currently writing the third volume in the Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.) When questioned about her “routine,” she said “I don’t really understand writing routines. I am writing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Nobody gives you a holiday. You take your sensibility with you everywhere.”
This was gratifying as well, since I remain bruised from an interrogation a couple of years back by a leader of a short-term workshop I was in, who demanded that I explain my “practice.” What room did I write in, did I write first thing in the morning, did I set aside a time every day? This same woman was initially delighted that I was going to start graduate school, but then horrified to learn that I did not intend to quit my job to do so. “When will you have time to write? You’re a WRITER!” How, um, I asked her, did she think I was going to pay for grad school without a job? “Can’t you get a grant? You’re a WRITER!”
She is a child of the 60’s but even so. In the 60’s, was there an abundance of grants which provided housing, food, medical insurance to women of an age more likely to have children in grad school than to be in grad school? But then, we were obviously of different mindsets. For one thing, the workshop was in “flash fiction,” which I don’t read, don’t understand and, as it became apparent, can’t write. For another, I don’t “practice” writing, as it is not law, medicine, or religion. I write novels. I take my sensibility with me everywhere.
And a novel is an inherently unpredictable thing.