Twenty Questions with Hilary Mantel

Is  there any book, written by someone else, that you wish you’d written?
There are books that I hugely admire and know I could never write, but to write someone else’s story means being them – heart as well as head, life history too. I can’t make the jump into someone else’s imagination, to know what fresh hell it might be.
What will your field look like twenty-five years from now?
Despite all the technological and cultural changes of the last twenty-five years, most narrative still originates with one person sitting in a room, thinking hard, looking at the unseen, listening to silence, performing invisible work. It’s at the next stage – when what’s imagined gets outside the head – that new inventions and new expectations transform the product. I’d bet that 25 years from now the basic work will be the same, with novels and short stories feeding films, plays and games.
Which of your contemporaries will be read 100 years from now?
Poets stand the best chance. Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney.
What author or book do you think is most underrated? And why?
Among contemporaries, Ann Wroe (PilatePerkinOrpheusSix Facets of Light and others.) She is a stylist with a wide-ranging and subtle mind. She a genius, I believe, because she lights up every subject she touches. Why underrated? She is personally modest, and her work doesn’t fit into a category. She is too original for the market.
What author or book do you think is most overrated? And why?
Dickens. The sentimentality, the self-indulgence, the vast oozing self-satisfaction, the playing to the gallery.
If you could be a writer in any time and place, when and where would it be?
Now is as good a time as any for women writers.
If you could make a change to anything you’ve written over the years, what would it be?
You are never proof against rethinks, and often after a book has been finished for years you think you see superfluities. Certain images resonated with you at the time you wrote, and now you’ve forgotten why. If I pick up any of my books and read a page at random, I almost always say to myself, ‘That could have been tightened.’ But when you do that you are reading without picking up on the rhythm of the whole chapter, and without a check on the likely speed of the reader’s assimilation. Presumably you had a reason for doing it the way you did at the time. I think you have to learn to trust your earlier self – especially if, like me, you are enmeshed in a long project involving writing you did ten years ago. My real regret is not being more reckless – getting more books out.
Which is your least favourite fictional character?
In the part of my brain where I file alternative Jane Austen novels, I have devised a nasty fate for Mr Knightley, in order to liberate Emma into widowhood.
Let’s play Humiliation (see David Lodge’s Changing Places):what’s the most famous book you haven’t read?/play you haven’t seen?/album you haven’t listened to?/film you haven’t watched?
I’ve never read The Great Gatsby, though for no particular reason; I have a pocket edition I carry, in the hope. I’ve never seen The Cherry OrchardThe Seagull or Three Sisters – though I would like to, I’m not avoiding them on purpose.
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