Hilary Mantel at the Bath Literature Festival

Two heavyweights of the book world were out in force at the Bath Literature Festival over the weekend with J K Rowling talking about her new adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, on Friday 8th March and Hilary Mantel discussing Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies  on Saturday evening. I have to admit that I’ve not yet read Mantel’s prizewinning books (they are on my ever-growing list of books to read) but my mum has recently finished Bring Up the Bodies after devouring Wolf Hall. So, as a Mother’s Day present I took my mum to Hilary Mantel’s talk at The Forum in Bath and, as my mum said, ‘it was a much better present than a bunch of flowers’. I couldn’t have agreed more. Flowers are of course lovely but Mantel’s talk with James Runcie was engaging, interesting, insightful, funny and, from a writers point of view, fascinating.

Prompted by Runcie, Mantel discussed her childhood and the fact that growing up she wanted to become a Knight of the Round Table. She talked about the influence Shakespeare has had on her writing and that like most writers her success has not happened overnight. (Aspiring authors take note, writing is something you have to work at, persevere with and hopefully get better at – I’ve been plugging away at it since I was seven.)

Written in the third person from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view, Bring Up the Bodies is told in the present tense to give immediacy to the story. That’s how I’ve written my novel, The Butterfly Storm, in the present tense but from a first person point of view (please note, I am by no means comparing it to Bring Up the Bodies!) I like the idea of the reader feeling like they’re a part of the action and that it’s unfolding before their eyes. It’s a clever technique that Mantel uses for historical fiction, writing it in a way that feels as if the story is taking place here and now.

The filmic quality to Mantel’s writing was beautifully illustrated in the scene she read out that involved Cromwell watching Henry VIII and Jane Seymour through a window at Wolf Hall. The attention to detail that she included in this scene, and the fact that the relationship between Henry and Jane was seen through Cromwell’s eyes from afar perfectly illustrated to me the importance of point of view and how it can affect and ultimately change the tone and style of a novel.

Mantel said that when writing she never really switches off from her characters, rather they live in parallel to her life. I found that to be an interesting idea and also true in many ways of how I inhabit my characters when writing, whether that’s a 28 year-old Sophie Keech in The Butterfly Storm or 12 year-old Maisie Brown in Time Shifters. I may leave them on the page about to head off to Greece or into a burning London in 1666, yet they most certainly remain in my thoughts as I go about my everyday life.

It’s a similar thing with acting, becoming a character throughout a month or so of rehearsals and then a run of performances. You take off the costume at the end of the night, wipe away the stage make-up and go and celebrate with a drink in the pub with the cast and crew, and yet until the play ends on the last night you never really shrug the character off, they remain with you on some level even when you’re not performing.

There is so much that writers such as myself can learn from other writers – not least from Booker and Costa prize-winning authors such as Hilary Mantel.

What valuable lessons have you learned from other writers and authors on your writing journey?

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4 Comments

  1. That sounds fascinating Kate. Hilary Mantel is a truly great author. I wish I could have heard her speak – you were lucky to get tickets! I suppose for myself and my writing, this may sound a little daft, but I feel as though Jane Austen has influenced my writing quite a lot. It’s partly because of the way that she tended to write about what she knew, what she’d seen of the world herself.

    She didn’t ever write a scene between two men where no women were present, for example. I have to say in my own writing I’ve branched out quite a bit in recent years, and sometimes I do write about things that I don’t have a direct experience of. But I try to bear in mind that I must be careful when writing about such things because it needs to be authentic. Another facet of Austen’s writing is that there is a lot of conversation in it. And that’s true of my writing too. I often find it easier to write dialogue than lots of descriptive passages.

    I look forward to your next blog entry – they’re always interesting and insightful!

    • Having lots of dialogue can also bring a scene to life as much as descriptive passages can – dialogue can also move plot along quite nicely too. I think it’s always good to write to your strengths.

      It was fascinating to hear Hilary Mantel talk about her writing process and also hear her read from her book. It’s a great thing to be inspired by other writers and learn from them, particularly such successful and timeless authors such as Mantel and Jane Austen.

  2. Oh what a wonderful experience and present for your Mum. I’m always so encouraged to listen to people who have persevered and mastered the craft. There is so much in this post that has really resonated – POVs are so important, and my characters have been living with me for so long, they really feel like part of my life now. A great post Kate, that will give me something to chew over too.

    PS I love Bath too. Visited when we were last in the UK and loved it!

    • In the lifewriting class I taught yesterday we were talking about POV and how it can really make such a difference to the tone and overall success of a piece of writing. I initially wrote the first chapter of my WIP, Time Shifters, in the third person but at my writing tutor’s suggestion switched it to the first person and realised it worked so much better.

      Bath is a wonderful place. I feel really lucky living just 30 minutes away. :-)

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