Hilary Mantel: A Reminder About the Joys of Writing

Being a young writer is a disheartening and daunting undertaking. Weeks will go by where the only pieces you create are depressed love poems that rip off Pablo Neruda and uninspired short fiction from the perspective of inanimate objects (or maybe that’s just me). It can be easy to fall into despair and decide to rid yourself of writing forever. That is, until the next great author enters your life and reminds you why you love putting pen to paper. Hilary Mantel was that author for me, and I was able to meet her during the Kenyon Review Literary Festival this past weekend.

Hilary Mantel is a British author who has written fourteen novels that range from historical fiction to personal memoir. She won the Man Booker prize for Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, making her the first woman to receive the award twice. If that fact alone didn’t make her one of my new female literary icons, hearing her speak at the student panel and the public talk certainly did.

Mantel spoke mainly about her book Wolf Hall, which takes place in 16th century England in the court of Henry VIII as Thomas Cromwell climbs his way to power. Contrary to popular history, Mantel portrays Cromwell in a sympathetic light and reveals the genius behind such a highly motivated man in a complex political world. Mantel said that the idea for the book stemmed from a childhood fascination with history. She views her relationship with the past as “fluid,” meaning that our history and present time are intimately interwoven in a way that continues to affect us. I greatly admired Mantel’s willingness to challenge accepted ideas about history and the light-hearted manner in which she dealt with historical fiction.

To me, historical fiction is a terrifying genre that involves lots of research and moral dilemmas. To Hilary Mantel, however, it seemed like the easiest kind of novel to write. She explained that she thought plots were the hardest part of writing and using history made it simpler because the events of the book are already laid out. As she said regarding the strain of writing historical fiction, “you pick up the burden and then it becomes light.”

Her public talk was even more insightful as she talked about why writing is a joyful and exciting process. With a fire in her eyes and an intellectual joy in her voice, Mantel spoke about the risky and childish practice of writing. She spoke about how writers find the small anomalies in life and use those to create art. She also expounded the value of daydreaming, something that many people discourage children from doing. Daydreaming is another form of thinking that allows people to exist in an alternate reality and expand their mind. As an active daydreamer often scolded for being oblivious, I was greatly relieved to hear this from an award-winning writer. Mantel made writing seem accessible and joyful. She reminded me that while writing does involve taking a lot of risks for potentially zero payoff, it’s an important job to do. Writing reveals to us the past and present, minuscule and colossal, and it allows us to dream.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what Hilary Mantel dreams up next.


Image credits: The Kenyon Review, Rose Paulson, openlettersmonthly, telegraph.co.uk