Hilary Mantel has revealed it is “increasingly unlikely” that the final novel in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy will be published by next summer, although she hopes to finish writing the book next year.
In her latest Reith lecture for BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service, "Can These Bones Live?" which aired on Tuesday (4th July), the Wolf Hall author also said that Thomas Cromwell would have “eaten Alastair Campbell for breakfast”.
The two-time Man Booker Prize winner, published by Fourth Estate, discussed historical fiction in the session at the University of Exeter recorded on 6th June, including how she tries to call her characters “people” in an effort to “take the past out of the archive and relocate it in a body”. She also warned against intellectual snobbery in literature and said: “I’ve never believed that fiction set in the past – or the future – is an inferior style of fiction.”
When asked by a member of the public about her third book in the Thomas Cromwell series, The Mirror and the Light, she avoided giving a definite time for publication.
“To be honest, it simply depends when it comes in…you know publishing goes in seasons. If I can get it out early in the new year, it might very well come out in later summer but I have to say that this is looking increasingly unlikely,” she said.
Mantel, who received a damehood in 2015, said one reason for the delay, as well as the stage and TV adaptations, was meeting her readers’ considerable expectations. She said: “It is 10 years worth of effort and it is lovely to have the encouragement of people who are waiting for it but that’s why I want to deliver them something that is the very best.”
Her next book is expected to cover the last four years of Cromwell’s life from Anne Boleyn’s execution in 1536 to Cromwell’s execution. The author denied feeling sentimental over “killing off” her protagonist, Cromwell, often seen as Henry VIII’s right-hand man.
She said the expected adaptations will extend her character's life beyond his demise in the book: “I hope to finish next year but whether early or late next year I can’t say. People ask me if I’m having trouble killing off Thomas Cromwell. No, why would I?
"As soon as he’s dead he will get up, put on his head again and charge onto the TV screen with – we hope, Mark Rylance – and quite possibly there will be another stage play. So it’s simply a waystation on his road to triumph.” Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies (both published by Fourth Estate) were adapted by the BBC for a series starring Rylance and broadcast in 2015. Both novels won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and 2012 respectively.
Responding to a question about whether Cromwell could be likened to figures such as Jonathan Powell (Tony Blair’s chief of staff) and Campbell (Blair’s spin doctor), she appeared unimpressed with the modern-day comparisons and said: “Well, let me tell you about Jonathan Powell and Alistair Campbell: Thomas Cromwell would have eaten them for breakfast.”
Mantel said Cromwell was an unusual character but also shared her fears over the “narrow” leaders in power today. She said: “I think he was a rare creative spirit in government, I think he was much more than the king’s enforcer and this is what I seek to show through my novels... The fact that the range of reference of our leaders is so narrow is something that makes us very vulnerable and exposes us to other ideologies which we do not understand.”
In the penultimate lecture for the "Resurrection: The Art and Craft" series, the author revealed she enjoys questioning the accepted version of history and said: “My tendency is to approach the received version with great scepticism and try to get the reader to challenge what they think they know."
The author revealed she looks for the most well-buried elements of the past in her fiction. She said: "You’re always looking for the untold story, you’re looking for what has been repressed politically or repressed psychologically. You are working in the crypt.”
Writers such as Amy Liptrot, of Orkney-based memoir, The Outrun (Canongate) praised Mantel’s lectures. Liptrot tweeted to her 7,000 followers from her @amy_may account: “H. Mantel's Reith Lecture today: wise, practical, funny. A must listen for writers (not just of historical fiction).”
Mantel has sold 1.91 million books for £16.5m according to Nielsen BookScan with Wolf Hall being the biggest seller at 679,515 copies sold. She is the first Man Booker winner since 1998 to take the overall number one.
The next lecture, "Adaptation", will be broadcast on Tuesday (11th July).
For more information, visit bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00729d9.