Hilary Mantel on re-reading

Hilary Mantel
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Hilary Mantel’s new novel, “The Mirror and the Light,” brings to a close the impossible story of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from relative obscurity to profoundly shape his times as chief counselor to Henry VIII. Mantel won the Man Booker Prize for both of the previous books in the hugely best-selling trilogy, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies.” The English writer was the first woman to win that award twice.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

MANTEL: Marlon James’s 2009 novel, “The Book of Night Women,” which is set on a Jamaican plantation towards the close of the 18th century. It’s a tough, brilliant read that will haunt my imagination for a long time. It may be a mistake to read it in the evenings because it’s working its way into my dreams.


BOOKS: What is your favorite kind of book?

MANTEL: If I’m writing a novel, I read mostly nonfiction. Fiction requires a lot of giving on the reader’s part and when I’m writing myself, I’m only available to my text. But I do read poetry. I enjoy the young poet Helen Mort, who reminds me of my childhood terrain in the north, and Michael McCarthy, the poet-priest who had a sharp but compassionate eye on human folly. I also read plays.

BOOKS: Which plays?

MANTEL: I read Shakespeare on a loop. With contemporary writers, I set myself a project. I’m currently reading Martin McDonagh’s black, shocking, and funny plays. Next up, I mean to read Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” trilogy. I saw all three plays in one day in 2002. I am partly deaf so I get more out of a play if I read it too.

BOOKS: Do you read memoirs?

MANTEL: Memoirs are the one case where I’ll persist despite a poor style if the writer has something interesting to say. I am interested in medicine and medical memoirs, such as Christie Watson’s “The Language of Kindness.” She is a novelist but was a nurse. She writes exquisitely about her former profession. “Do No Harm” by the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh is a frank, fierce memoir.


BOOKS: When you read fiction what do you like?

MANTEL: Literary fiction of all kinds. I read a lot of first novels, hoping to strike gold. Look out for Naoise Dolan’s forthcoming “Exciting Times,” a witty contemporary tale about a young Irishwoman at large in Hong Kong.

BOOKS: Do you read historical fiction yourself?

MANTEL: I like writers who have the confidence to show our forebears as alien. I enjoyed James Meek’s ambitious novel, “To Calais, in Ordinary Time,” which has a thoroughly imagined fourteenth-century setting. I recently discovered Eugene McCabe’s twisty, terrifying novel, “Death and Nightingales,” which is set in the Irish countryside in 1885. I like to learn from historical novels so I am an enthusiast for the Kingmaker series by Toby Clements, which is set in the fifteenth century during the Wars of the Roses.

BOOKS: What are the best nonfiction books you’ve read about the Tudors or Thomas Cromwell?

MANTEL: The best Cromwell biography is by Diarmaid MacCulloch. I was instructed and deeply moved by Susan Brigden’s biography of Cromwell’s friend, the poet Thomas Wyatt. Eric Ives wrote the classic biography of Anne Boleyn.

BOOKS: Has your taste changed as a reader?

MANTEL: I’ve entered a re-reading phase, so I’m as likely to curl up with a Jane Austen as to read a new novel. I’ve also entered a completist phase. I’ve read almost everything written by Anita Brookner, who has become undervalued. She is elegant and polished as well as an acute observer. I’m seeking out less well-known books by favorites like Elizabeth Bowen. I’m re-visiting Edna O’Brien’s early novels, and the crisp novellas of Jean Rhys.


BOOKS: Are there writers or types of books you’ve cooled on?

MANTEL: It’s a good thing I read a lot of Russian fiction in my teens, when I was very serious and very patient. I don’t know if I would take to Dostoevsky now. I would be asking myself what the translator was doing, and if I was really enjoying reading it. That was less of a question when I had all my life before me.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane’’ and she can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com