The two-time winner sat down with us on being longlisted for The Mirror & the Light.
How does it feel to be longlisted for The Booker Prize for the third time?
The Wolf Hall trilogy is the central project of my life, so it’s gratifying that all parts of it have been recognised.
Did you feel the pressure of Wolf Hall’s and Bring Up the Bodies’ success when writing the third instalment of the trilogy?
I just do the day-by-day and the line-by-line. I am totally immersed in the time and place of the story. I am always checking in with a notional reader to regulate the flow of information, and at a less conscious level I am aware of the shape of the narrative as it forms, but I am so absorbed in trying to make it work that I am protected from speculating about what will happen when the book is done. For me, it’s all about the process.
The Mirror & the Light charts the sharp decline of Cromwell’s fortunes. What was it like narrating the downfall of your most famous character?
Really it charts his rise and rise, to the heights of power, over four years to 1540. His fall is sudden: in April the king creates him Earl of Essex, in June he is arrested, and by the end of July he is dead. So for the greater part of the book we have a narrative that is expanding, breathing more deeply; then it begins to fold itself away into the space of a burial chamber. The closing stages were an intense experience, but I had partly protected myself by thinking about how to handle the close of the story when I was at the very beginning. We begin with a boy lying on the ground, witnessing his own blood flow, believing that in a few seconds he will be dead; we end 40 years later, with a man in exactly the same situation. So the end was contained in the beginning.
Was it hard saying goodbye to the world you have spent so long inhabiting? Do you think you’ll be back in the 16th century anytime soon?
I’ve not left it yet. I have been working on the stage version in collaboration with Ben Miles, the actor who played Cromwell in the two earlier plays. And the TV series is in preparation. And through the trilogy, I have become part of a network of scholars, performers, media folk - they are going to stay in my life. I expect I will be discovering new things about Thomas Cromwell and his times until I finally put down my pen.
What is your favourite Booker Prize-winning novel?
I go all the way back to 1973 to JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, which showed us that the historical novel need not be solemn.
I am so absorbed in trying to make it work that I am protected from speculating about what will happen when the book is done— Hilary Mantel