An Evening with Hilary Mantel

Dame Hilary Mantel visited MMU on Friday 30th September for a reading, Q&A session, and book signing.

Hilary Mantel punched the air when asked how she responded to controversy.

Winner of two Man Booker Prizes in 2009 and 2012, and nominated for the BBC Short Story award 2015 for her new compilation of short stories The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, Dame Hilary Mantel is a writer who has only been becoming more prolific in recent years. This is much to do with the outstanding success of the ‘Wolf Hall’ series, bringing to life the historical story of Thomas Cromwell, which has been adapted for a BBC television series and for stage production.

At An Evening with Hilary Mantel run by MMU’s English department onWednesday 30th September, Mantel reflected upon the process of writing (“just pretend it’s true), constructing characters (“don’t create an alter-ego who’s doing better than you”), and writing dialogue (“this is where I lock my characters down”). She read from The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, answered questions from the audience, and signed the eager audience’s books.

Whilst some of her most successful works have been historical novels, Mantel’s relationship with characters from the fictional to those in history books is a more personal one, in which she asks “can I work with you?”, similar to the title of one of her short stories How Shall I Know You. The gaps in historical narrative become her playground, as she looks to “myth, folk meaning” and her own imagination in order to fill these spaces. She described her conquest of creative history writing as rather like “raising the dead”, and Professor Eileen Pollard, who led the evening’s question and answer session, referred to Hilary as a “necromancer”.

As the floor opened for a question and answer session, Mantel revealed her experience of writing the third book in the ‘Wolf Hall’ series, ‘The Mirror and The Light’, whilst she was contributing to the stage production. She described her role as an “accidental playwright”, explaining that translating her characters for the stage became a two-way writing process, in which the actors’ portrayal of her characters contributed towards her perception of them. Mantel was thrilled that her writing has had the potential to open a larger imaginative space that other people can move into.

Mantel was described as “exhilarating, entertaining and inspirational” by guests, particularly due to her words on feminism and controversy. In response to Pollard’s question on her views of feminism, which she is passionate about, Mantel encouraged her audience to consider “who has told the story? Who has held the pen?”. Mantel’s characters are often considered outsiders who are willing to speak about what others will not, for example psychic and medium Alison Hart in Beyond Black, who literally gives a voice to those “in the shadows”.

Mantel aims to depict unspeakable and dark elements in her novels, combined with dark humour and wit, as she is encouraged by controversy. Upon being asked how she responded to criticism surrounding her controversial title forThe Assassination of Margaret Thatcher Mantel punched the air, and was met with a roar of laughter from the audience. She revealed that she wouldn’t have chosen the title if she didn’t think it’d be controversial.

By pouring herself into her writing and constructing characters who are unique and challenging, Mantel’s massive talent has achieved both fame and success. However, she reflected that the question of a writer is always “how good am I?” and for that reason, “the process of fiction writing is a lifetime’s engagement”.

Buy ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ here.


This was also published on the Manchester Metropolitan University website.

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