Talking with Hilary Mantel about "The Mirror & the Light"

Al Woodworth on March 10, 2020

An interview with Hilary Mantel about the last book in the Wolf Hall trilogy,

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel is one of the most anticipated - if not the most anticipated - novel of 2020. Since the publication of Wolf Hall in 2009, the first in what was to become a trilogy, readers came under the spell of Thomas Cromwell - the schemer, dreamer, henchman, and political mastermind/pawn of Henry VIII. In Wolf Hall readers met the young Cromwell fighting his way from the streets to the ranks of Henry VIII's court, where he smoothed the way for the King's second marriage (blasphemy!) to Anne Boleyn. In Bring Up the Bodies, the second book, the King wishes to end his marriage, and so he turns to Cromwell to broker the deal - no matter the cost. Both of these books became huge bestsellers and both won the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

Eleven years later, Mantel brings us to the conclusion of Thomas Cromwell's reign, and it is a glorious one at that. The novel opens with the decapitation of Anne Boleyn as Henry VIII settles in with his new bride, Jane Seymour, but rebellion lurks in the shadows both home and abroad. Mantel brilliantly and deviously unfurls the vision that spurs Cromwell to assert his power and the eventual ruin that it brings him.

Named a Best Book of the Month, The Mirror & the Light is breathtaking and immersive: rich in detail and wide-ranging in characters, and brings the historical fiction genre to dizzying new heights. It is a stunning ending to an award-winning series, and we were lucky enough to interview Hilary Mantel, the mastermind behind it all.

Al Woodworth, Amazon Book Review: What do you think makes readers so enamored with your portrait of Thomas Cromwell? Is it the same reason you were initially drawn to him?

Hilary Mantel: I think readers were surprised that you could escape the genre trap, and write historical fiction that works in the same way as contemporary fiction. What drew me was the arc of his story – everything’s against him, but he battles his way to significance. That’s a story everybody understands.

Your novel is one of the most anticipated and most talked about books of the year – what are you most excited about for publication? Do you think those that haven’t read Wolf Hall can jump straight into The Mirror and the Light?

I have had so much encouragement from readers, and what most excites me is to be able to put the book into their hands. The third in the trilogy stands alone, but is more satisfying if you read the first two.

What does the title mean?

It’s a phrase Cromwell himself used in a letter to Thomas Wyatt, the poet. He said that Henry’s kingship was a ‘the mirror and the light’ to other princes. My book acts as a mirror to Cromwell also. He catches glimpses, sometimes unwanted, of his own nature and of his early life.

Both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies won the Man Booker Prize, and they’ve since gone on to be successful plays, TV shows – did that change the way you thought about writing the last in the series?

When I was actually writing, scene by scene, I didn’t think about anything except the opportunities of that writing day. But of course it was a privilege to be involved with taking the story into different media. With the TV show, my involvement was light – but with the plays, I was in the rehearsal room most days, and I learned a lot from seeing the characters embodied and watching them interact physically. Remembering the terseness and concision of the scripts helped me cut through some knots in the next novel.

In The Mirror and the Light, Thomas Cromwell’s fortunes turn, his power slips away and memory misleads him. Those familiar with Henry VIII and Cromwell, know that he is eventually executed. How do you create the feeling of suspense when you write historical fiction?

The book is about his rise and fall – his fall is sudden and rapid. It’s true the reader sees it coming – but Cromwell doesn’t. The feeling of dread and suspense builds in the gap between what the reader knows and what he doesn’t.

I read in an interview that as a writer ‘you’re trying to give people a book that they can read twice’ – can you elaborate on this?

It’s about creating value. One of the great things about Cromwell is that you can never give a complete account of him. There are always puzzles and ambiguities, and the books are rich in them. In general, throughout my fiction, I tend to privilege images and ideas that give pleasure to the reader at first glance, but have enough content and energy to sustain attention.

The life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, and the rest of the cast of characters – naive, sordid, you name it – feel so fully conceived and it is such an immersive reading experience. You cover so much ground and so many historical figures – how did you keep it all organized?

Old-fashioned methods. Card indexes, subject files. Time and patience.

Do you have a favorite scene, exchange, or character that you found to be the most satisfying to write about?

In general what I enjoy most is swift and cutting dialogue, but I liked writing the king in this book – because when the king speaks, the other characters have to give him time to finish his thought. I felt this book was spacious enough to allow some slower passages, that don’t necessarily push the plot along but allow the reader to enter the Tudor world on a sensuous level. So I liked being able to quote poems and songs of the time – to give the reader another way in, other voices apart from my own.

It has been about 15 years that you’ve been writing about Thomas Cromwell – that’s such a long time! And such an intense history to be ensconced in – was it ever system overload? What will life be like without him?

There were times when I felt the history was so complex that I would never be able to smooth it into narrative. But I remembered feeling just the same with an earlier historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety. I have learned that sometimes, you have to stop trying so hard; there is always a way, but you need to step back to see it. As for life without Cromwell, I don’t think that’s on the horizon. The stage play and the TV series will keep him in play.

What have you read and enjoyed lately?

I’m immersed in Marlon James’s novel The Book of Night Women, set on a Jamaican slave plantation. It is powerful and frightening and I can’t wait to get back to turning the pages.

Photo by Els Zweerink.

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