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Archival Interview: Hilary Mantel

Hilary MantelI can’t say that Hilary Mantel is my favorite author, but that’s only because I can’t say that anyone is my favorite author. I can say that she has more books on my list of favorites than anyone else. I’ve been meaning to write an appreciation since reading her last novel, Beyond Black; it seems, however, that Joan Acocella beat me to it. So, instead, I’m posting an interview with Mantel conducted in May 2000, when three of her early works were released for the first time in the U.S.

May 2000

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 and Vacant 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 Possession came 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.

July 27, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Gerry Thomas: 1922-2005

TV DinnerI haven’t checked, but I imagine James “Scotty” Doohan tributes are multiplying like tribbles on the Internets. Myself, I would like to take a moment to honor another luminary who died yesterday, Gerry Thomas, the inventor of the TV Dinner.

The TV Dinner is a quintessential 20th-century artifact. It not only changed the way people ate, but it changed the way people thought about eating. Plenty of people, from Slow Food advocates to those who bemoan the demise of the family meal, will tell you that the TV dinner changed America for the worse, but it’s worth remembering that, before the invention of convenience foods, women were pretty much trapped in the kitchen for much of the day, every day. Also, I’m just wild about those weird, crusty-fluffy mashed potatoes. Mmmm.

The AP did a pretty nice job of analyzing the cultural impact of the TV Dinner in their obituary, but, if you want the full story, you can find it in Karal Ann Marling’s As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s, which is one of my very favorite books.

July 21, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

An Assessment of John G. Roberts, Jr., President Bush’s Nominee for the Supreme Court, Written in the Style of an Us Weekly Movie Review

THE STORY:President Bush nominated John G. Roberts, a federal appeals court judge with a distinguished résumé and a conservative but enigmatic record, as his first appointment to the Supreme Court on Tuesday night, moving to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor with a candidate he hopes will be hailed by the right and accepted by the left.” (Todd S. Purdum writing for the New York Times)

WHAT’S GOOD: “We’re not going to get a Ginsburg, but I’d be happy with an O’Connor-style moderate conservative. For all we know (and for all the religious-right knows), Roberts might be that sort of guy.” (Markos Moulitsas Zúniga writing for Daily Kos)

WHAT’S BAD: “Last night George Bush kept his campaign promise that he would name a justice in the mold of Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas. And I for one am ashamed that I ever doubted him. I should have understood the president better. In John Roberts, the president got what he wanted, and we conservatives did too.” (Manuel Miranda writing for the Wall Street Journal)

“Roberts’ record is a disturbing one. Among other things, Roberts is hostile to women’s reproductive freedom, and he has taken positions in religious liberty and free speech cases that were detrimental to those fundamental rights.” (People for the American Way in a preliminary report on Roberts)

FINAL SAY: Be informed and involved. While the President has the power to nominate justices, his nominees must be approved by Congress. You can have a say in that process by letting your representatives know how you feel. People for the American Way has streamlined the process of emailing your senators and other legislative leaders on this webpage.

July 20, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

An Assessment of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, Written in the Style of an Us Weekly Movie Review

The Historian
THE STORY: An American teen living with her father in Amsterdam finds a strange book—obviously very old, and blank except for the image of a dragon unfurled across the center pages—in her father’s library. This discovery leads her to investigate her father’s hidden past and her family’s connection to one of literature’s most enduring fiends, Dracula.

WHAT’S GOOD: Few monsters are as compelling as the vampire, and Elizabeth Kostova gives hers an original twist by investigating his origins. She situates Dracula—Vlad the Impaler—squarely in his actual historical context: the conflict between Islam and Christianity that raged through the eastern reaches of medieval Europe. Rather than send her villain west, she sends her vampire-hunters—and the reader—to Turkey, to Romania, to Transylvania. The result is fresh and fascinating.

Kostova says that she spent more than a decade researching this book, and it was clearly a labor of love. The main characters are all people who know their way around a bibliography. In The Da Vinci Code, the hero’s ostensibly arcane quest is the intellectual equivalent of doing the Jumble©, or one of those puzzles where you have to figure out the seven ways in which two apparently identical cartoons are actually different. The Historian, though, depicts real scholarly pursuit, and Kostova deftly dramatizes the thrill of digging through old books for buried secrets.

Finally, this is an elegantly paced mystery, suspenseful but meditative, and much of the writing is absolutely lovely.

WHAT’S BAD: While much of the writing is absolutely lovely, some of the writing is a tad repetitive. The first time Kostova describes someone’s eyes as “hugely blue,” it’s lyrically descriptive and rather nice. As it turns out, though, several characters have eyes that are “hugely blue,” and this turn of a phrase gets less charming with each appearance. And then there’s Paul (the narrator’s father), who is overcome by the sublime delight of witnessing a medieval way of life surviving, unchanged, into the twentieth century each and every time he enters a monastery—and there are a lot of monasteries in this book. Not only does all this wonder wear a little thin, but it gives the reader many opportunities to consider that Paul’s belief that monastic life has, in fact, been in perfect stasis since the middle ages is historiographically suspect.

The real problem, though, is Dracula. He’s prodigiously inadequate: creepy, yes; menacing, a bit; but hardly horrifying, and mostly just pathetic and inexplicable. Even his creator seems a little embarrassed when he finally appears, and rather at a loss as to what to do with him. The novel doesn’t end so much as it quickly dissipates into nothingness.

FINAL SAY: Prepare to be lavishly, intelligently entertained, and then prepare to be thoroughly disappointed. Or, skip it altogether and read Lev Grossman’s Codex—no vampires, but a brilliant intellectual mystery.

July 19, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

“There is an unusual number of planets in Scorpio.”

I just got my horoscope done. I used the services of Ophira Edut. Ms Edut is one half of the Astro Twins, the foxy ladies who provide astrological forecasts for Teen People. By having them do my chart, I join such celebrity clients as Paris Hilton (Aquarius), Beyonce (Virgo), and Outkast (André 3000 is a Gemini).

My work-up was not full of surprises. Like a Tarot-card reading or a typical session of the talking cure, I generally find astrological information to be more stimulating than revelatory; that is, it gives me a fresh way of looking at stuff I already know rather than telling me anything new. I’m a Scorpio—my birthday is November 12, should you like to send a gift—so my chart is full of commentary on my charisma, imagination, and intellectual curiosity. However, words like “powerful” and “loyal” are modified by the recurrence of “obnoxious” and “obsessive”. More than once, I am warned that my intensity can make others “uneasy (and even fearful)”.

Hello ScorpioOf course, while I appreciate these not-so-gentle reminders to play nice, being a Scorpio my inclination is to shrug and say, “Love it or shove it.” Indeed, reading my astrological report, I was gratified to discover how truly Scorpionic I am. In the wheel of my star chart, almost all the planets are clustered around my sun sign. Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Neptune, Mercury, Sagittarius: They’re all there, like adoring hangers-on surrounding the most sparkly guest at the celestial cocktail party.

So, now that I think about it, I guess I didn’t employ my chart so much as an aid to fresh self-examination as I used it to revel in the things I like about myself and extend yet another in a long line of middle fingers at the suggestion that I tone it down a bit. Toning it down a bit is for Capricorns. Viva la Scorpio!

July 14, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The Worst Presidential Speech in History

On the op-ed page of today’s New York Times, Sarah Vowell fantasizes about the speech that George W. Bush will never, ever give. Towards the end of her reverie, she suggests a reappraisal of the televised address oft cited as “the worst speech in presidential history”: Jimmy Carter’s “malaise speech” of 1979.

It truly is a remarkable speech. Yes, it’s a downer, but only superficially. Anyone inspired by the truth will find Carter’s candid self-assessment and his refusal to offer easy answers both cleansing and energizing. While this speech may lack the epic poetry of, say, the Gettysburg Address, Carter’s assertion that the American way of life requires commitment to freedom, fairness, and, sometimes, sacrifice—and that it should not be defined by cheap access to limited global resources—is powerful in its humility and rigor, and Carter’s warning of a divisive future ruled by self-interest seems tragically prescient.

July 13, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Truth, Consequences, and Bratz Babyz: The Summer Issue of Bitch

Bratz Babyz: Worst Dolls EverI think it’s fair to say that I’m not easily shocked. Nevertheless, I can honestly report that my jaw did drop when first I beheld Bratz Babyz. The dolls were featured in the toy section of a Target ad, and sexy toddlers were something I had not expected to see in a family-friendly Sunday circular. You can get the full dose of my righteous wrath in the Summer number of Bitch. Contributors besides me include Jessa Crispin, Trina Robbins, Paula Kamen, and Wendy McClure. And, being that this is the “Truth & Consequences” issue, you’ll also find articles on such topics as the modern memoir and the other woman. Buy it now!

July 11, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Author Interview: Tilly Bagshawe on Adored

Adored by Tilly BagshaweUnlike many women of my generation, I did not grow up reading Danielle Steel and Jackie Collins. Tilly Bagshawe did, though, and the quotidian comedy of chick lit made her long for the outré thrills of the glitz-and-glamour tradition. Thus, Adored.

I enjoyed this big, fat, juicy novel, and I think Bagshawe shows considerable promise as a writer. It’s hard—I think—in this day and age, to do melodrama straight, but Bagshawe manages quite nicely. Neither ironic nor totally humorless, she presents over-the-top characters and a consistently outrageous plot in a pleasingly unadorned, straightforward style. Bagshawe’s goal is entertainment, and—as far as I’m concerned—she succeeds.

There was one element of the novel that disturbed me a little: Siena, the main character, is subjected to rather graphic brutality, and she emerges from her near-death experience a better person. I just wasn’t sure that redemptive violence really belongs in a trashy novel. I wanted to ask Bagshawe about it when I interviewed her, but it’s not really my job, when I’m working for a major bookstore chain, to ask the incisive questions. Ted, my brilliant husband, came up with a delicate way to perhaps get close to the issue—“There are some dark moments in this novel, and some violent scenes. Was it difficult to write these passages?”—but she didn’t quite answer the question I didn’t quite ask. Her response, though, was interesting: She suggested that fiction is a place where authors and readers can explore the “dark side” of the imagination.

I realized that I tend to regard fictional events as real—or virtually real-when they offend me; that is, I wonder if authors should allow terrible things to happen. (I get especially touchy when these terrible things are violence against women, children, or animals.) Obviously, the intersection of ethics, entertainment, and aesthetics is highly contested territory, so I’m still thinking about the implications of Bagshawe’s sadistic scenes and her comments about them. You can think about them, too, or you can stop thinking—it is summertime, after all—and read Adored.

July 5, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Your Good Deed for the Day: Save the Supreme Court

So, here I was, just sitting here waiting for Rehnquist to resign and for O’Connor to become the next Chief Justice, when the lady up and quits herself. Given that her boss is, indeed, expected to drop any day now, that means that young Master Bush will be placing two—yes, two—new judges on the Supreme Court.

I would like to take a moment to point out that, when I was trying to dissuade friends from voting for Nader—remember him?—I predicted that this would almost certainly come to pass.

Even though justices are appointed, not elected, we can all play a role in determining the new shape of the Supreme Court. Luckily, with the Interweb, taking an active role in your government is easier than ever! Get informed: With just one click over to Planned Parenthood’s Court Watch page, you can get the lowdown on potential nominees and learn how to make your voice heard. If you’re particularly worried about what W’s appointees might do to reproductive choice, you can join the Save Roe team right now.

July 1, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Pretty Baby, Public Intellectual

So, my husband just walked into the kitchen—which is also my office—and said, “Brooke Shields has an op-ed piece in the New York Times today… Huh, never thought I’d say that.”

July 1, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack