Dame Hilary Mantel – 1952-2022
‘If you go into your creative work trying to make something happen, the work may not cooperate with you,’ explains Dame Hilary Mantel, first woman to win the Man Booker prize consecutively for her novels, ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’. Mantel talks about her craft in a way that gives it a very tangible spirit – as alive almost as one of her extraordinarily imagined characters.
In 2018, First Women invited her to share her thoughts on the art of writing the novel, choosing a good mentor and pushing yourself past your creative boundaries.
A great deal of what’s required in writing is patience
When people ask my advice about writing it’s an unglamorous response but I say: ‘learn to wait’. As a novelist you will not get instant rewards. I haven’t had good health and therefore I haven’t been able to rush at life. I have had to be indirect. Tenacity and patience are a great part of it because publishing is a long game. The work that you do in your 20’s that doesn’t seem to pay off may in fact realise itself as much as 30 years later.
If you go into your creative work trying to make something happen, the work may not cooperate with you
But if you just let it be – if you can wait and restrain yourself – then you will find your process does bear fruit. You have to be willing to live in uncertainty and doubt every day you write because it will seldom walk a straight line between two points.
Once you think you’ve seen the boundaries of your talent, work out a way to continue beyond those boundaries
Make yourself new all the time. Never rest with what you have already established. I certainly do not stop to celebrate my achievements. I celebrate by trying to get better at what I do. I never come to rest as far as the work is concerned. I m always after whatever’s next.
There’s something slightly repulsive to me in the idea of celebrating success
What exactly do I mean here…? It’s not tempting fate…it’s…there’s something dangerous about it. It’s dangerous for an artist. And it feels slightly wrong to make your work all about personal credit. Writers owe a lot to luck. To right place and right time. So there is something a little absurd about overmuch celebration for your successes. I’d like other people to have the party. I want to be at home getting on with the next book.
Talent doesn’t desert you – it’s just a question of keeping your nerve
I don’t think you can ever feel secure in writing. Writers know that just because you could do something yesterday it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it ever again. I truly believe it to be as fragile as that. It’s a question of keeping your nerve. When you are writing well, profound things are moving you. It’s simply your psyche that you have to do battle with. And where you go in that little boat, you go alone.
Choose your mentor mindfully
You need someone who will keep their promises. If they say they will read your work or comment on it – they have to do it. It’s tempting, but never choose a family member or friend because you need to get their opinion of the work, not of you. They simply cannot come to the work fresh – however well meaning they wish to be. A mentor must also possess wide sympathies. I’ve talked with writers who will say, ‘well if it’s by a man I’m not interested.’ Or, ‘I can’t read fantasy.’ So you need someone with broad sympathies because your work may go in unexpected directions and you do not want them to simply herd you back into the flock. I think it might also be wrong to choose a mentor whose style you wish to emulate – you end up getting together and making a cosy little club.
For mentors: if you’re going to help a new writer you must receive something from the process. Even if it’s simply an infusion of hope…but often it’s an infusion of wisdom.
What can the genders learn from each other?
Men could learn from women to step back in order to lead better. To set down the ego somewhat, to allow their work to flourish. Only then can ego find itself on firmer ground. The difficulty for women in their capacity to do this is that they also keep stepping back and back! Women could learn to value themselves, their abilities and their time more, as men do. To say ‘yes’ and believe they can do it. They could also learn not to say, ‘oh no, you don’t need to pay me…’
Dame Hilary Mantel CBE, Author
First woman to win the Man Booker Prize twice with consecutive novels
Interview by Deborah Willimott