Section: Arts

Hilary Mantel tackles “the writing life” in keynote speech

Hilary Mantel tackles “the writing life” in keynote speech

Hilary Mantel speaks in Rosse Hall. | Courtesy of Mara Bower-Leo

Dame Hilary Mantel took center stage and the sound of applause flooded Rosse Hall last Saturday. Her printed speech tucked under her hands, the two-time Man Booker Prize-winning author leaned into the microphone and began a speech on the process of writing, tightly woven with crisp language and lush musicality.

Mantel gave the Denham Sutcliffe Memorial Lecture, the concluding event for the annual Kenyon Review Literary Festival, which included readings, workshops and performances that weekend.

She is best known for her novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, the first two books in a trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s chief minister. Both were adapted into a mini-series by the BBC and a two-part play by the Royal Shakespeare company. She is also the first british woman to have won the Man Booker prize twice.

Mantel began by indicating she had nothing interesting to say on the subject of writing. “But I can offer you a report from the front line,” she said, with a smile.

Particularly memorable was Mantel’s reading of poet Wendy Cope’s “Reflections on a Royalty Statement,” a poem Cope wrote upon learning that her publishers had reduced her identity to a serial number. “They’ve given me a number/ So they will know it’s me./ And not some other Wendy Cope/ (they publish two or three.),” Mantel read to a laughing crowd.

She subsequently revealed that, upon the success of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, her publisher proudly proclaimed that “Hilary Mantel was a brand.” She lifted her face to the audience to give a wry smile. “Am I complaining? No,” she said.

Mantel was frank and honest, speaking openly of her dissatisfaction with interviews, as she feels she can never get the full “Hilary Mantel” in print. She also shared that her love of writing began with grandiose historical romance novels she found in a rabbit hutch when she was nine. “I only recently found out what happened to the rabbit,” she added, drawing soft laughter from the audience. Her lilting voice and sly, sharp language filled the room slowly, but allowed her to be every bit as commanding.

Mantel also held an informal discussion with a group of students — mostly Kenyon Review Associates — Saturday morning, in which students could freely ask the author questions.

She clearly articulated the burdens of writing historical fiction, how she engaged with writing about a living figure and how to fictionalize Henry VIII’s court in a world of facts. “You have to know where your freedom lies,” she said. “I’m reconstructing what could never possibly be known … ‘why not just make it up?’ Well sure, but then why bother?”

Despite the difficulty of historical fiction, she told students that she saw justice in talking about the dead. “The burden becomes something you love to carry.” In this discussion, she spoke about the care with which she approaches documenting Cromwell’s life. Even the reverent voice she used to talk about him sounded like she was defending an old friend.

Mantel addressed tips for writers at both the student panel and the Rosse Hall event. At Saturday’s lecture, she warned that writing takes time. “The hardest thing I find is trusting the process,” she said.

Mantel ended her successful speech in Rosse with final words of wisdom for the captive audience: “The brink is where you belong,” and applause filled the room once more.

Her advice and wisdom had a moving effect on the crowd. “I think everyone in here is going to want to write a novel now,” Amelia Yeager ’20 said after the show.

Ariela Papp ’20 agreed. “I don’t even know what to say, it was so moving,” Papp said. “I’m not an English major whatsoever. I’m in the sciences and I thought it was really cool just to hear …[ writing] is something that can be practiced. People say they can’t write, that they don’t know how, and really, you can.”

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