Storying Sheffield

“No words count, except those on the page”: Interview with Hilary Mantel

For the Sheffield Alumni magazine, Brendan Stone, Director of the Storying Sheffield project, interviewed Hilary Mantel CBE: double winer of the Man Booker Prize twice and a University of Sheffield alumna.



Hilary, please could you reflect on your time at the University of Sheffield? Do you have striking memories or anecdotes you would share? I note that you read Law. Did you ever consider reading for an English degree?

In 1971 I transferred to Sheffield University for family reasons, after a year of studying law at LSE. I am grateful to the university for taking me in, but it was a difficult time, and I never quite found my feet. Partly it was because the law courses fitted together better on paper than in life, and partly because I didn’t have a student lifestyle. My husband-to-be was a geology undergraduate in Sheffield, and during those months his father was dying, and our lives were changing rapidly and not for the better. I was estranged from my own stepfather, who wouldn’t complete the requisite forms for the local education authority. So I couldn’t get my student grant. Gerald and I were the poorest students around, with one grant between us. We got married at the end of our second year. Our reasons weren’t entirely romantic. We needed to live together to save money and in those days no one would rent a room or flat to two unmarried lovers.


After our marriage, we lived in a room over the garage of an alcoholic antiques dealer, our walls tastefully decorated with an array of moulds. This palace was too expensive, so we moved to a one-up one-down house, of which the rent was £1.78p per week (and it really wasn’t worth any more).Our whole situation was a period piece, an indication of how far social mores have developed and we have all raised our expectations. Eventually, an enlightened bureaucrat bent the rules for me, and I got my grant after all. And my student husband and I are still together.


I studied law because I hoped it would give me a good career, and because I was passionate about politics, and law seemed a way in. There were also aspects of law I was passionate about; I still keep an interest in planning law tucked away, like a private vice. And we had an inspiring teacher for criminal law, Professor Wood, who had a dry sense of humour and who was kind to me. I couldn’t know, when I chose law, that my health problems would escalate and that I wouldn’t be able to have a career of that kind. I go freelancing, spending a lot of time in the libraries of other faculties, and I learned some sociology and a lot of psychology, some anthropology too. My interest in fiction and poetry went on hold for a bit. My only non-academic activity was Labour Club meetings. I can’t say that student politics was in a healthy phase. Our sad little meetings often consisted of half a dozen people. We never talked about political issues. We just made posters, to try to recruit one or two more comrades to help make more posters.


Sheffield was an easy place to be poor in; I mean that as a compliment. There wasn’t the apartheid between residents and students than you experience in some places. I have the warmest memories of the place and people, and when I’ve been back in recent years I‘ve felt people have been just as friendly. The university looked after me when my health broke down. I scrambled my way to a degree; it wasn’t ideal, and I still dream about those days. Part of my psyche is still back there, taking an exam I’m never going to pass.



Staying with education, this is an important theme in your novel An Experiment in Love. Could you say something about how that novel engages with the importance of education, perhaps particularly for women? And what are your thoughts on the educational scene today?


An Experiment in Love is set in 1970 in London, in a hall of residence for women, and the action takes place over one autumn and winter. It’s the closest I’ve come to fictionalising my own life — aspects of it, anyway. (The more dramatic incidents aren’t true, and the main character isn’t me, though we do have a lot in common.)


It was a time of huge stresses and strains for ambitious young women. Opportunities were equal, on paper, but I remember one of the past-time tutors at Sheffield saying that there was no point in teaching women because ‘they’d get married.’ As if when you put on a wedding ring they confiscated your brain and your initiative. It seems incredible now that anyone could think that, let alone say it out loud (and keep his job.) In those days we were dully indifferent to attitudes that would make young women today consider an armed response. Casual sexism and low-level harassment was part of everyday life, so pervasive that you thought it was just the way the world had always been and always would be. But I see, with hindsight, how it undermined the confidence of young women, damaged their value in their own eyes.


The novel is about finding a way to be a woman; as Simone de Beauvoir said, you’re not born a woman, you become one. It voices the conflicts young women felt (and I suspect still do feel) about fertility and family life, and the prolonged adolescence that a person embraces when they stay in the education system after they’re quite grown up. It’s also about social class, and the post-war meritocracy. Carmel, like me, is the daughter of a family where the parents have no education and no money, but because she’s bright she goes to a selective, academic school, and the state pays for her to go to university. Like Carmel, I benefitted personally from the system we had then, but it was very hard on the children who were effectively relegated to a second-class education at the age of eleven. No one would want to go back to those days. But in some ways, I’m amazed at how little, not how much, the education system has altered. There’s continual tinkering but little radical change or fresh thinking. We still set up too many children for failure.



An Experiment in Love deals with complex and profound themes, and yet is also a very strong and compelling story. I would say that this is true for all of your work which I have read. Could you reflect on the importance of story-telling in your work, and perhaps more generally – in life?


When authors are described as good storytellers they often see it a dubious compliment; as Colm Toibin says, ‘it sounds as if you got it from your granny.’ On the other hand, I myself do like cinematic novels with a strong storyline, and I can’t stand pages and pages of introspection, however fine the prose. So I try to write what I’d like to read. I imagine my stories in dramatic form, scene by scene rather than chapter by chapter. It’s a very noisy place, the inside of my head.


I wanted to ask you about your wonderful memoir, Giving up The Ghost, in which you reflect on the nature of memory, identity, and the way in which to be human is to be haunted by ‘ghosts’ – of others, and of aspects of ourselves. One review concludes with the assertion that in this book “Mantel has finally booted out all those shadowy presences that have jostled her all her life, and written the one character whom she feared she never could – herself.” I doubt this is true – but am I wrong? Could writing a memoir have a cathartic effect akin to exorcism? And was your memoir in some sense an act of self-authoring?


Giving Up The Ghost is a title that really should have a question mark at the end. And the truth is that no, I didn’t give them up. I brought into the light, briefly, the places and people that haunt me, then they slid back into their place in my psyche: not quite where they were before I wrote the memoir, but still shadowy backdrops, shadowy witnesses to my present life. Nothing goes away, I think. It just changes its form, or the light falls differently. The book didn’t work as an exorcism, but you’re right in saying that it was an act of self-authoring. I was writing, as I said in the book, ‘to seize the copyright in my own life.’ I partly succeeded. I fear the past is still speaking through me and censoring me, and that when I feel I’m free, I’m not free: not free from Catholic guilt, or from how I grew up, or from the limits of my own nature. For each novel you write, you need to become someone new, and each book changes you. So I see the act of making fiction as a continual struggle for a more authentic self. But that struggle, I hope, isn’t what shows on the page: except in the memoir, of course.



Your 1988 novel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, explores tensions between the West and the Islamic world, through the prisms of domesticity, everyday life, and women’s experience. Given what has transpired since you wrote this book, have you considered revisiting this theme? and do you now consider that any kind of understanding or rapprochement is closer than when you wrote the novel?


Eight Months on Ghazzah Street was written out of my direct experience of living in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, a time when I learned a great deal. I can never go back there (I wouldn’t be given a visa) and I haven’t felt a need to revisit the topic of Islam and the west in any major way, because I felt I’d said what I needed to say, at a time when I was able to speak out of fresh and direct experience. When the book was published, many people in the west were unaware of the tensions between fundamentalist Islam and a more liberal and progressive version of the faith, and to be frank they didn’t know much about Islam at all; it was remote from them. I can’t say the book made people sit up and take notice, either. It was well-reviewed, but as if it were simply a psychological thriller about a trapped woman. It is that — it’s a contemporary gothic novel — but it’s also a political novel, about power relations and a huge clash of values. That clash would soon resound throughout the world. Maybe if the novel had come from a male author it would have been read differently. But then a novel from a male author might not have had the same intensity, because it wouldn’t proceed from somebody who was completely disempowered. There isn’t much individual freedom in the Kingdom, but men have a much larger share of it than women.


But one of the hard things I had to demonstrate to my reader was that individual freedom, and democracy, are not universally held to be good and desirable. There are other ways of thinking, shared by millions. The west persists in believing everybody would opt for western values, given the chance. I think it’s hard for thoroughly secularised societies to understand those where religion is still a basic organising principle. It’s no good simply amassing information about such a society. You need to deploy imagination and empathy to translate the information into useful knowledge. It’s only at that point that dialogue becomes a profitable exchange, rather than a shouting match and a prelude to fighting.


I was in Saudi Arabia for about four years, always ill-at-ease and often unhappy, but I was grateful for the opportunity to observe and write; journalists, who always have their exit planned, are never able to convey the texture of daily life. I suppose that would be true of all countries to an extent, but you really only start to understand a society when it’s got to work on you and changed you, and for that you have to stick around; living in Saudi makes you ask yourself hard questions. Also, not many Westerners born half way through the twentieth century have had the opportunity to live in an absolute monarchy. For a historical novelist, it was a gift.



You grew up in Hadfield, a North Derbyshire town at the western end of Longdendale. For some strange reason I have always loved and been intrigued by that scarred Pennine valley. I have never lived there though… Was the Derbyshire landscape important to you as a child? Do you miss the North of England?


Just yesterday my husband and I were driving across Dartmoor, and I said to him, ‘I can never quite grasp that this is moorland. I think moorland is miles and miles of wet black nothing.’ When I look back, I grew up in the most extraordinary place, at what I thought of as ‘the end of everything’: the end of the railway line, certainly, but also the end in the sense that if you went to the top of our street you could walk for miles through the reservoirs and forestry commission plantations. I didn’t think of it as beautiful when I was a child, and I don’t crave it (I live only yards from the sea, in mild and smiling Devon) but objectively I can see that it haunts my imagination. My background is mostly Irish but some of my Derbyshire ancestors, my grandfather’s people, lived in Derwent, in the ‘drowned village,’ and I used to think a lot about that when I was a child. I lived in the south-east for 25 years, always knowing that I would eventually go somewhere else, not quite sure where. To southerners I sound like a northerner, and to northerners like a southerner. I feel more ‘like myself’ in Ireland, but is that desirable for a writer? There’s some point in being a little at odds with the place you call home. It means you’re continually noticing it.



In April, you appeared on Time magazine’s list of the ‘100 most influential people in the world’. Do you think writers have real influence today?


I thought the Time magazine list was farcical, plain silly. I think writers can have influence, but they must be very careful in assessing whether they want it and how they use it. As a writer you have an audience, and a place from which to speak. People assume you have thought deeply about the world. And I think many writers have. But I am not one of those people ready with a soundbite on every topic, and I rarely sign petitions, and I try never to take sides on questions where I haven’t enough information or experience. I’m not a journalist (not any more) and I feel little need to foist my instant responses on people. Novelists and historians are able to take longer views, and I think they should consider doing so.



I lecture in English Literature, and quite a few of our students have ambitions to make a living from writing. What advice would you give to a young aspiring novelist?


I would advise an aspiring writer to follow his heart, not a marketing plan; in other words, don’t let others tell you what to write, don’t follow fashion (because it soon changes) but make your own searching assessment of your material’s potential and then keep faith with it. Have a project in hand for if your first efforts fail, but don’t regard any writing as a waste; its use and potential may take years to emerge. Be protective of your work and don’t give your friends and family the chance to voice their opinions on it; if the opinion is favourable, you’ll suspect (or should suspect) it’s because they want to be nice to you, and if it’s unfavourable, an inexpert verdict will break your confidence. Know that writing is a long game, and don’t expect quick results either from your own talent or the publication process. You need self-belief, patience and stamina. You need to read widely and think about what you read. I wish, when I look back, that in my early days I had let myself experiment more, play on the page. I wish too that I’d explored different forms, particularly drama. I let myself be forced into fierce solitude. The climate now is friendlier to would-be writers; so take advantage of all the help you can get, and all the expertise on offer, but know that your own judgment is ultimately what you must satisfy. And don’t talk about writing more than you do it. All your efforts will just vanish into the air. No words count, except those on the page.