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Remembering Hilary Mantel, Booker Prize-winning author of the 'Wolf Hall' saga

SAM BRIGER, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today we remember writer Hilary Mantel, who died last week at the age of 70. Mantel was best known for her trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell, the political fixer for Henry VIII. She was the first woman to win the Booker Prize twice for the first two of her Cromwell books, "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies." The third novel, "The Mirror And The Light," was published in 2020 and was longlisted for the same prize. Mantel wrote 14 other books, including the memoir "Giving Up The Ghost," in which she describes her long struggle with a debilitating form of endometriosis.

Mantel's trilogy chronicles Thomas Cromwell's improbable rise as the son of a blacksmith to become one of the most powerful men of his time in 16th-century England. But Cromwell, like many others around Henry VIII, fell into disfavor with the king and was beheaded. Cromwell helped bring about the English Reformation. That's when the Church of England broke away from the Catholic Church, allowing Henry VIII to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and mary Anne Boleyn. But if you remember your history, you'll recall that things didn't go so well for Anne Boleyn. In fact, her beheading ends Mantel's novel, "Bring Up the Bodies."

Terry spoke with Hilary Mantel in 2012, after "Bring Up The Bodies" had won the Booker Prize.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Hilary Mantel, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your second Man Booker Prize. It's quite an accomplishment.

HILARY MANTEL: Thank you.

GROSS: So I'd love to start from a reading - with a reading from the new book, "Bring Up The Bodies." And this is toward the very end of the book when Anne Boleyn is getting executed. And there are many executions in your books (laughter). The first book ends with an execution and so does the second. So before you read this passage, I'd like you to just explain what's happening and who is speaking in this passage that you're going to read.

MANTEL: Well, we, first of all, have Thomas Cromwell, who is Henry's chief minister and the organizer of the plot to bring down Anne Boleyn. We are almost at the last moment now. Henry has sent for the executioner from Calais to behead his wife with the sword, rather than the customary axe, in the hope it will give her a quicker death. So we have Cromwell, we have the French executioner, and we have Christophe, a young ruffian who is a servant to Cromwell.

(Reading) The weapon is heavy, needing a two-handed grip. It's almost 4 foot in length, 2 inches broad, round at the tip, a double edge. Once practices like this, the executioner says. He whirls like a dancer on the spot, his arms held high, his fists together as if he were gripping the sword every day. One must handle the weapon, if only to go through the motions. One may be called at any time. We do not kill so many in Calais, but one goes to other towns. It is a good trade, Christophe says. He wants to handle the sword, but he, Cromwell, does not want to let go of it yet. The man says, they tell me I may speak French to her, and she will understand me. Yes, do so, Cromwell says. But she will kneel. She must be informed of this. There is no block, as you see. She must kneel upright and not move. If she is steady, it will be done in a moment, if not, she will be cut to pieces. He hands back the weapon. I can answer for her. The executioner says, between one beat of the heart and the next, it is done. She knows nothing. She is in eternity. They walk away. Christophe says, Master, that man has said to me, tell the women that she should wrap her skirt about her feet when she kneels in case she falls bad and shows off to the world what so many fine gentlemen have already seen. He does not reprove the boy for his coarseness. He is crude but correct. When the moment comes, it will prove, the women do it anyway. They must have discussed it among themselves.

GROSS: Thank you for reading that. And that's Hilary Mantel reading from the end - not the very end, but near the end of her latest novel, "Bring Up The Bodies," which won the Man Booker Award, Britain's highest literary prize. You know, it's such a - you just kind of shiver hearing that passage. And it just made me think, you know, about executions like that. It makes the guillotine seem very humane by comparison. You know, where you're describing that if she moves, if Anne Boleyn moves while the sword's coming down, that, you know, she'll be cut to pieces, it won't be a swift death.

MANTEL: Yes. So we're asking her to do something very difficult, which was to remain absolutely still in the knowledge of what was coming. But the executioner was a man who obviously knew his trade. And what he did was to approach Anne from an angle that she wasn't expecting. She was blindfolded. And she couldn't hear him because he was wearing soft slippers. And it happened before she knew. And she did remain kneeling upright. Usually, executions were with the axe, and the sufferer put their head on the block. But Henry thought that this was a more skillful, humane way of doing it. It's strange that he should have such a scruple at the last moment.

GROSS: It's very thoughtful, if you're executing your wife, to do it so humanely.

MANTEL: Yes. It seems strange to us, doesn't it? But for a while, they - the people at the tower of London didn't know whether Anne was to be beheaded or burned. And, you know, typical bureaucrats, they're sending frantic notes saying, what kind of scaffold have we to build? When you look at it through the bureaucratic language, it all becomes even more chilling because, to them, it's just an administrative problem. They just want to get things done efficiently. After all, it's not every day that one executes a queen of England.

GROSS: So I'm not sure if this is something you've thought about before or not, but I know that you wrote - I think it was your very first book - about the French Revolution. And now you've written about Henry VIII. You know, there are several beheadings in these books. So excuse me for asking this, but if you had to be beheaded centuries ago, would you have preferred the guillotine or the axe or sword customarily used in England?

MANTEL: Well, it's a strange question.

GROSS: I thought so (laughter).

MANTEL: But no, I'm quite prepared to answer that. I think the guillotine never failed, you know, whereas the headsman occasionally has, in fact, in the case of the execution of Thomas Cromwell himself, was either not enough for maybe having a bad day. And the whole thing could take a long time. At least the guillotine was over in seconds.

GROSS: And...

MANTEL: However...

GROSS: Yeah.

MANTEL: ...You know, I am hoping this fate will not befall me.

GROSS: (Laughter) No, I suspect it won't. And Cromwell will be executed in the final book in your trilogy, which you're writing now.

MANTEL: Yes, 1540 - the final book covers his rise and rise - he's a long way to go yet - and then his sudden fall and execution in the summer of 1540.

GROSS: One of the things I find so interesting about, you know, reading historical fiction in a period of beheadings in England is that we're now in a period where Islamist extremists are beheading people. And it is so shocking that now people would be beheaded. But when you think of the part it played in Western history, that's shocking, too.

MANTEL: Yes. And I have lived in Saudi Arabia and, indeed, written a book about Saudi Arabia. So whilst I am happy to say that I never witnessed anything of that kind, you knew that it went on, that beheading and public beheading was the normal form of execution.

GROSS: I'm sorry for dwelling so much on executions. But historically, it's so interesting in your book. I mean, there were other forms of execution. What were some of those forms? And which was considered the worst, the most horrible of all deaths?

MANTEL: Well, beheading, believe it or not, was a privilege reserved usually for the aristocracy, for gentlemen and gentlewomen. Now, I don't want you to get the idea that these were a weekly event in Henry's England. It's because beheadings were rare that they made such a terrible impact on the imagination of the close circle around Henry - his ministers, the aristocracy. Ordinary people who might be convicted of theft or a crime of violence were hanged.

I think there were two deaths that were more feared. One was to be hanged, drawn and quartered, which was the penalty for high treason. And the people in the book when they were given a sentence of beheading, the men who were convicted with Anne Boleyn, would have regarded that as a mercy rather than the terribly painful and long, drawn-out death of being hanged, drawn and quartered. The other thing, if a woman was convicted of treason, is she could be burned.

GROSS: You know, I was thinking, if anyone ever needs an antidote to princess fantasies, they might want to read your books (laughter).

MANTEL: Yes.

GROSS: Women who were chosen as queen - that sounds really great, right? But if they don't give birth to a male heir for Henry VIII, bam, they're executed. Would you...

MANTEL: Well, no. I don't think it's as simple as that, in all fairness.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

MANTEL: He didn't execute Anne - he didn't execute his first wife for failing to give birth to a male heir. He divorced her. He didn't execute Anne for that reason. But Anne had become a political liability, a diplomatic liability. And Henry did believe, rightly or wrongly, that there was a plot against him, a plot to kill him, and that Anne was implicated. It sounds unlikely. It sounds farfetched. But the court was - I won't say happy, but they were able to go along with it. It wouldn't be - let's be fair even to Henry. There was no crime of failing to bear the king's son. There was a crime of treason. Anne was convicted of treason.

BRIGER: We're listening back to Terry's interview with author Hilary Mantel, recorded in 2012. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOACIR SANTOS' "EXCERPT NO.1")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's interview with Hilary Mantel from 2012. Mantel died last week at the age of 70. She's best known for a trilogy of books about Thomas Cromwell, one of the main advisers to Henry VIII.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: In doing so much research for your books about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, what are some of the things you learned about what it meant to be a woman then, even a woman who becomes queen?

MANTEL: I think it's a great mistake to regard these women as victims - certainly Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife, and Anne Boleyn. They were superbly educated women. They were strong-minded, strong characters, strong wills, and they were clever. And they were political players. The title of queen of England could bring a lot of unofficial power with it. I think that when you move away from the figure of the queen, then women are able to exercise much less real power. But one of the attractions of writing about this period is that you don't have to exaggerate the role of the women in your book. You don't have to give them an artificial, unhistorical boost in order to make them agents of their own fate. They really are strong. They really are involved. They're deeply drawn into the political process. And they're actors in it.

GROSS: Of all the historical stories that you could tell in historical fiction, why did you choose the stories of Cromwell, Henry VIII and Henry VIII's wives?

MANTEL: The three books really are about Cromwell. They center on him. They're seen through his eyes. What Cromwell doesn't know, by and large, the reader doesn't know, that is, at least when you're within the framework of the narrative. Obviously, you bring your historical knowledge to it. But Cromwell is the primary figure here, and this is a great, untold story. Or at least it wasn't told until now 'cause all the fiction and all the drama we have about Henry VIII's reign. And the figure of Cromwell is somehow marginal or missing. And yet, he was central. And historians know that, but it just hadn't percolated through to a fictionalized narrative.

He's the minister of everything. He's Henry's right hand. And he's powerful for almost 10 years. So he's the man who knows how everything works. But strangely, because he has been left out of the popular narrative, when you look through Cromwell's eyes, this material, which seems so very familiar to us, becomes unfamiliar. You have a different angle. But everything in the book and Queen Catherine, Henry, they're all seen from Cromwell's point of view. So this is not a neutral portrayal. It's not an overview. It's very angled.

GROSS: Why do you write historical fiction? And I know you haven't exclusively written that, but you're certainly best known for that.

MANTEL: Since I was a very small child, I've had a kind of reverence for the past, and I felt a very intimate connection with it. When I began, it was just being enthralled by the lives of the members of my family, who - really, it didn't seem to make any difference in day-to-day talk whether people were alive or dead. I'm one of these children who grew up at the knee of my grandmother and her elder sister, listening to very old people talk about their memories. And as I say, in their conversation, everything was as if it happened yesterday, and the dead were discussed along with the living. And the difference really didn't seem to matter. And I suppose this seeped into my viewpoint. Instead of thinking there was a wall between the living and the dead, I thought there was a very thin veil. It was almost as if they'd just gone into the next room.

GROSS: Now, there are certain, like, inherent problems with historic fiction, which is - like, for the reader, unless you really know your history, you never know if what you're reading is the novelist taking liberty or, you know, the best interpretation of history that we have. So, you know, that line between fact and fiction is often blurred in historic fiction. What guides you about that line between fact and fiction when you're writing?

MANTEL: It's quite simple, really. I make up as little as possible. I spend a great deal of time on research, on finding all the available accounts of a scene or incident, finding out all the background details and the biographies of the people involved there. And I try to run up all the accounts side by side to see where the contradictions are and to look where things have gone missing. And it's really in the gap. It's in the erasures that I think the novelist can best go to work. Because inevitably, in history, in any period, we know a lot about what happened, but we may be far hazier on why it happened. And there's always the question, why did it happen the way it did? Where was the turning point? Every scene I go into, I'm looking for these contradictions, antagonisms, turning points. And I'm trying to find out the dramatic structure of history, if you like.

BRIGER: We're listening back to Terry's 2012 interview with author Hilary Mantel, who died last week at the age of 70. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISRAEL GOLANI PERFORMANCE OF PIERRE ATTAINGNANT'S "GAILLARDE DONT VIENT CELA")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, we remember author Hilary Mantel, who died last week at the age of 70. Mantel is best known for her three novels about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister. Terry spoke with Hilary Mantel after the second book, "Bring Up The Bodies," won Britain's top literary award, the Booker Prize, in 2012. "Wolf Hall" also won that prize. In that novel, Mantel describes how Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic Church so he could leave his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn.

GROSS: So Henry VIII breaks off from the Roman Catholic Church, starts the Church of England. Parliament makes Henry the head of the church. But Cromwell's really running the church. So outside - you know, Henry breaks away from the Roman Catholic Church in order to divorce his wife. Outside of changing, you know, the rule about divorce, are there other changes that Henry and Cromwell make in the Church of England?

MANTEL: Well, I think Henry's divorce is really only one part of it if you think of the enormous advantages that the break from Rome brought to England, because it meant, basically, for Henry, that he could lay his hands on the church's assets. So it wasn't simply a question of getting rid of his first wife. It was a question, as he saw it, of taking ownership of what really should be his anyway. You see, what you had in England before the Reformation was, essentially, two jurisdictions running side by side, the English jurisdiction and the Roman jurisdiction. Now, this is a time of the formation of a nation. Cromwell certainly is intent on an independent England, a country that runs her own affairs and runs them in the English language, by and large, not in Latin, and has the Bible in English. That was his great crusade.

The law on divorce didn't change. There was actually no such thing as a divorce. There was only an annulment, a declaration that a marriage had never been lawful in the first place. This is what Henry sought. We call it the divorce. We use the words interchangeably. But when he wanted to be rid of Catherine and marry again, he sought from Rome a declaration that that marriage had been invalid at the outset. So 20 years were wiped away. Now, when Rome wouldn't give him that annulment, then there was a big rethink. And it was the precipitating cause, but not the sole cause, of the break with Rome. Henry then had his new archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. And the decision had been taken back from Rome to England. So Henry was granted his divorce, his annulment under the new English jurisdiction.

GROSS: So is the Bible translated from Latin into English during the period of Henry VIII and in part as a result of Henry VIII?

MANTEL: Yes, it is. And this is a great turning point. In 1538, a time which will be covered in my third book, Cromwell actually gets Henry's blessing for the English Bible to be placed in every parish church. This is for the first time. There have been English Bibles a few years before, but they were not licensed by the king. Their status was unofficial. But Cromwell actually managed to get, eventually, Henry's commitment to the Scriptures in English. And the decree was that anyone who could read could come up and read that Bible. So it's a great turning point because it's giving what people thought of as the word of God to the people in their own language.

GROSS: And without having to go through a priest. You could...

MANTEL: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: It was accessible to you directly.

MANTEL: You don't have to ask the priest what it means. If you can read, you can read it in your own language. And if you can't read, someone else can read it out to you. Puts it - it puts the responsibility for your salvation in your hands. Your relationship with God changes. You don't have to go through an intermediary. It's - as it were, you've got a direct line.

GROSS: You grew up Roman Catholic in England. Did it make a difference to be Roman Catholic as opposed to Anglican?

MANTEL: It does make a difference to me because the way I was brought up was with a very superstitious Catholicism. The faith was taught to me very badly, so I was pretty much in the position of a medieval peasant, I think. So it's not very difficult for me to understand pre-Reformation religion because, essentially, it's what I was taught. And there is some advantage in knowing that old world. You know, when I was a little kid, we still attended the Latin Mass every week.

BRIGER: We're listening back to Terry's 2012 interview with author Hilary Mantel. More after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE FENTON'S "THE NEW VAN")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Hilary Mantel, the author best known for her three historical novels about Thomas Cromwell. She also wrote a memoir called "Giving Up The Ghost" that describes her long struggle with endometriosis. Mantel died last week at the age of 70.

GROSS: So I just want to ask you a little bit about your health. I know you've had a debilitating condition for a few decades now, endometriosis, which has been a pretty systemic problem for you. Would you just explain a little bit what the condition is?

MANTEL: Yes, endometriosis is a condition in which the special cells that line the womb - they are the endometrium. They should be in your womb. But in endometriosis, these special cells are found in other parts of the body, typically through the pelvis, but they can be anywhere in the body. And the problem there is they bleed each month just as the lining of the womb does. Then they scar over. And depending how much space there is around the scar tissue, you can have terrific pain, disability. It's not easy to diagnose because depending where the endometrial deposits are, the symptoms can be quite different.

It's an unrecognized problem among teenage girls, and it's something that every young woman who has painful menstruation should be aware of because it's a condition that is curable if it's caught early, if not, if it's allowed to run on, it can cause infertility. And it can really, really mess up your life. I've suffered from it, I think, since I was 11 years old. It wasn't diagnosed. I kept getting sent away and told that it was all in my mind. When I was 27, the whole thing came to a crisis. And I had surgery, big surgery. I lost my fertility. I didn't have any children. I don't know whether I would have been able to have children. Unfortunately, that surgery didn't cure the condition. It came back, and I live with it for the next 20 years.

GROSS: So correct me if I'm wrong here, but because of the steroids that you were on to help with your condition, and I think because of a thyroid condition as well, your weight just about doubled. And you ended up with a completely different body...

MANTEL: That's right.

GROSS: ...Than the one that you used to have. How did that change the sense of who you are?

MANTEL: Well, I lived my life as a skinny little thing, and that's the body type in my family. And, you know, I thought I'd get old, but I never thought I'd get fat. And I was given a particular drug - and I'm going back 20 years now - where my weight just went crazy. And I had to - my size changed every week. So I didn't recognize myself. And I still have trouble. When I see myself in dreams, now I'm a fat woman. But for the first 20 years, I should say, I saw myself as I used to be. And then I'd wake up and I think, who is this? What is all this flesh?

GROSS: Well, it must have created a strange relationship to your body because your body was already in pain from the endometriosis, but then it was like physically transformed. You didn't even recognize it. And to be - to have a body, to be in a body - however you want to see your body - and not feel like it's really yours must be a very, you know, estranging position to be in. You want to feel united with your body, not like it's this alien thing that you ended up in.

MANTEL: Yes, that's right. And the pity of it was that the drug in question didn't do anything for me at all. It didn't do anything to help the pain or cure the endometriosis or even stop it in its tracks. It was a complete misfire, medically speaking. And yeah, it was a strange process. It's very difficult for me not to regard my body as my enemy, but it's the only one I've got.

GROSS: So I'm thinking there was a period of a few years when you lived in Saudi Arabia.

MANTEL: Yes.

GROSS: Your husband is a geologist, and he was working there. And, of course, there was so many restrictions on your life. You couldn't drive. You could barely leave your house unless you were escorted by your husband or another man. And I'm thinking you probably already had gained the weight. So you were in a new body in a country that basically granted you no rights. That must have been such a really strange and alienating period for you.

MANTEL: Yes, it was. I went out to Saudi Arabia when I was still taking this drug and partway through this strange weight gain. And as you say, out there, you dress in drapery rather than clothes. So perhaps if it was going to happen, that was the best time for it to happen. But I take your point. It is very strange. I lived in a block of four flats. My neighbors were - they were not all Saudis, but they were Muslims.

Upstairs from me was a young Saudi couple. The wife was about 19. She had a baby. We saw each other most days. We'd have coffee and a chat. And she was a student at the women's university, and I'd help her with her work. But, of course, I was never introduced to her husband. And if we happened to pass in the common hallway, then his reaction was to look straight through me and at the wall, as if I was invisible for all my newly gained flesh. And by doing this, he was showing his respect for me. Now, you have to work hard to get your head around that, that making someone invisible is a form of respect. I wasn't wearing a black veil, but he was dropping one over me. Then you go to the shops, you go, let's say, into the drug store, you'd ask for a packet of aspirin, and the man wouldn't talk to you. And he'd look over your shoulder. And your husband would say, can she have a packet of aspirin, please? And he'd say, yes, sir.

GROSS: Was it hard after getting back to England from your years in Saudi Arabia to be an empowered person again?

MANTEL: Well, you know, I used to come back every summer, so my life fell into two parts - a woman who ran her own life in Britain and a woman who, in Saudi Arabia, simply didn't have a life to run. And sometimes, when I was in Saudi Arabia, I used to take out the evidence of my other life. I used to read the stubs on my checkbook, thinking, yes, there was a time when I could pay for my own aspirin or whatever. And I think it would have been very difficult to live there the year-round without relief.

But it was while we were living in Saudi Arabia that my first book was accepted. And so I need to pay back the following summer for quite a while to steer that through the publication process. Then, we returned to England just at the point where my second book was about to come out.

GROSS: So here you were in a very, like, religious country, a religion that doesn't grant many rights to women. You had left your religion by the time you were 12. You basically gave up the church at that age.

MANTEL: Yes.

GROSS: Why?

MANTEL: I no longer have faith. I lost my belief in a deity, not just in Catholicism, but in the whole thing.

GROSS: Did you miss that presence?

MANTEL: No, I don't think I missed it, not at that time in my life. Other things came in to fill the gap.

GROSS: And do you still feel the same way, that...

MANTEL: No, I don't feel the same way now. I now - I envy people who have faith. And I think it's possible I may regain it although I would not go back to the Catholic Church.

GROSS: Where would you go, do you think?

MANTEL: To the Church of England, as founded by Henry VIII.

GROSS: Really?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, it's a very broad church.

GROSS: Don't you almost feel like you created it? Do you know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Because, like, in writing all these books, like, these figures are, like, in some way, your creation. It is part fiction. So don't you...

MANTEL: I...

GROSS: Yeah.

MANTEL: I think that it's true in the sense that I have come to have great admiration for men, like Thomas Cranmer, who were among the founders of the Church of England. And there is a certain amount of personal inspiration there.

GROSS: Well, Hilary Mantel, congratulations on your books and the Man Booker Prizes. And thank you so very much for talking with us.

MANTEL: Thank you very much.

BRIGER: Hilary Mantel speaking with Terry Gross in 2012. She died last week at the age of 70.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new collection of unreleased demos by Lou Reed, recorded when he was a fledgling singer-songwriter before he would lead the Velvet Underground. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATTI SMITH SONG, "WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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