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Hilary Mantell, On Writing

This week’s episode of The Culture Show (BBC2), dedicated to Hilary Mantel, did not disappoint.  If ever you wondered how an author should look, how she should dress, how otherworldly her replies should be, how piercingly blue her eyes should be, where an author should live (since you’re asking, either in a building that used to be a Victorian lunatic asylum or in a cottage overlooking the sea) the answers were all there…

Her advice on writing was this:

“Trust your reader. Stop spoon-feeding your reader. Give your reader credit for being as smart as you at least. Concentrate on sharpening your memory, peeling your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one-third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours. Work out what it is you want to say then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can. Eat meat. Drink blood. Give up your social life and don’t think you can have friends. Write in the quiet hours of the night. Prick your fingertips and use the blood for ink. But do I take my own advice? Not a bit.”

I was late to discover Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall, winner of the 2009 Man Booker award was my favourite read of last year. But more fascinating than talk of her writing was what she had to say about herself.

On how she views the world: I don’t trust it. I always feel that, if I put my hand on a wall, my hand might go through it.

On the imprint religion left on her life: You have a destination: heaven or hell, a sense of the invisible.

On the childhood art of listening at keyholes: You really need to know for your own self-preservation whether the devil is behind the door.

On the breakdown of her parents’ marriage: The past was erased. We were not allowed to talk about the past. As a child I didn’t know if things were tragic or hilarious, and so I balanced on a tightrope.

On her father: He taught me that you could be a companion to someone just sitting in a room reading a book.

On historical fiction: What is to be done with the lost or the dead but to write them into being?

These few sentences, and more besides, are why my next book purchase will be Hilary’s 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost.

You can still see Hilary on BBC i-player for the next two days. Do.