Hilary Mantel on the secrets of successful historical fiction

"No novelist thinks historians have an easy job. If historians think fiction is easy, you wonder what novels they are reading": As the final novel of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy is announced, we revisit an interview in which the author tells Rob Attar about the challenges of fictionalising the past

British writer Hilary Mantel photographed at home. (Photo by Lionel Derimais/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images)

Why do you think historical fiction has become such a popular genre in recent years?

I think what’s happened is that it’s been lifted out of genre. Historical fiction used to be conflated with ‘historical romance’ and looked down on as cheap escapism, even though some of the greatest novelists have set their fictions firmly in the past. War and Peace is a historical novel, and no one ever suggested it was trivial.

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In recent years, the form has been incorporated into the literary mainstream. And why not? It employs all the techniques of other types of fiction and exists at all levels of ambition. You can judge any individual example as good or bad; what you can’t do, legitimately, is to place it in a separate category, or generalise about the type of reader it attracts.

It’s become an enticingly unpredictable way of describing human experience.

How can historical fiction add to our understanding of the past?

It makes us turn our attention to the 99.9 per cent of human activity that never made it on to the record – and which can only be recovered by the imagination. It can offer insight and new ways of thinking about some of the puzzles the past represents. It can also send readers to history texts, whetting their appetite to know more.

Does historical fiction need to be grounded in fact? If so, what room is there for the imagination?

Different types of historical novels require different kinds of preparatory work, all of them intensive. Even if you simply use the past as a backdrop, you need to be grounded in the culture; you need to know about everyday life, how people think, what is the story they tell about themselves and their world.

If you want to foreground real people as actors in your story, you must know as much about them as a biographer would, and then add value by taking the story where the historian and biographer can’t go: into the private aspect of the individual, the unshown and unshowable.

However much you learn, factually, there is plenty of scope for imagination. You are allowed to speculate, and to fill gaps, as long as you do it plausibly. If you don’t want to pay attention to plausibility, it is more honest to write some other kind of novel. The facts are not a constraint; they are your raw material and your source of inspiration.

Do authors of historical fiction have a responsibility to treat their subjects fairly, as their works often shape public understanding?

You must be fair – yes. Neutral – no. You can leave that to the historian. It’s permitted, if you’re dealing with real people, to pick your man or woman and get behind them. Essentially, you are making a case, it can be argued. You are offering a version; there will be other versions. If you find all historical persons and causes equally appealing, and can view them all with dispassion, then you lack the ferocity of imagination required to keep your reader entertained.

Can you understand why some historians dislike historical fiction, and how would you counter their views?

Perhaps they think we are parasites and that we steal their sales. To be fair, I think historians worry about the prospect of the public being misled. And if a novelist is giving factual information, I think she shares the historian’s obligation to be accurate, to be up to date with research and to be aware of variant versions.

But readers know what they’re doing when they pick up a novel. They don’t blunder into fiction by accident. They are able to work out, I think, what can be drawn from evidence, and what can’t. A novelist does not have access to private conversation whispered behind the hand, nor to letters burned on receipt, nor to the stream of consciousness of long-dead men and women. If she offers these things to the reader, clearly there’s an element of invention.

And if the reader wonders, “Is this true or made up?” and does a little investigation, isn’t that all to the good? One of the things a historical novel can do is to prompt a reader to think about what we know, and what we could know – given luck and diligence – and what kind of things we can never know.

In general, historians are more friendly to the form than they used to be. They recognise the need to engage the public and that our efforts are complementary, and that some aspects of our trade are the same. All narratives depend on shaping, selection and emphasis. They have to hold their audience by pace and style. These virtues are intrinsic to good communication – they are not optional extras. The narrative historian will wrestle with complexity: how to simplify without distorting and how to foreground what seems to him important, without slighting other factors. He wants to tell the truth, but it can’t be the whole truth; his book cannot be as long as life.

The novelist faces the same difficulties, the same tasks of organising her story, choosing what to show and what to tell, how to mediate competing versions to the reader. No novelist, I guess, thinks historians have an easy job. If historians think fiction is easy, you wonder what novels they are reading.

Does a historical novelist also have to be a historian?

Very few of us have the skills of a trained professional historian. We depend on their deep archival work. So in the narrow sense, no. In the broader sense, I don’t think you can write good historical fiction without a deep curiosity and engagement with the discipline.

What are the crucial elements for ensuring historical fiction works well in TV and film?

Time is the enemy. TV screen time is limited; only bloated American dramas drag themselves out until their audience is weary.

If we’re talking about adaptation, it’s necessary to pick strands from the master narrative, prune the number of characters and storylines, and concentrate on good storytelling for what’s left, finding a visual language to replace exposition. You need a team with a dedication to the source material and ingenuity in finding equivalents for what is lost. Readers may lament what’s missing – but after all, the original is not wiped out.

Feature films are notoriously inaccurate, sometimes to the point of distortion. I think writers and editors seldom set out to deceive. But a tiny change in a rewrite can lose or alter a vital point, without anyone noticing at the time. But how much can anyone do in 104 minutes? Better to slice history fine – concentrate on a small incident, let its implications ripple – than to try to digest mighty storylines.

The screen can do wonderful things. It can do in a split second what takes a novelist six pages. It can achieve effects with heart-stopping precision. But you can’t really adapt one medium to another – you have to reconceptualise. Throw down the book and dream it…

What advice would you give an aspiring historical novelist?

Take your time until you feel comfortable in your chosen era. And if you are writing about a real person, make sure it’s someone you don’t understand. You write to find out, to make sense, rather than to tell what you already know: to discover and explore. Your constant, puzzled engagement with the characters keeps the story nimble.  If the characters seem to be changing, as living persons change, you are on the right track.

If you had the time, which historical character or characters’ stories would you most like to tell?

Kind readers are not slow to make suggestions. But when they say “You should write about Elizabeth I”, or Oliver Cromwell, or Napoleon, I smile and say: “Maybe you should. Maybe it’s your book.”

There’s so much I want to do, ancient and modern. But with Thomas Cromwell’s story still to complete, I am fully occupied. Luckily for me, I know less every day; I am more enthralled and creatively baffled than when I began the trilogy 10 years ago.

Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (2009 and 2012, both Fourth Estate), the first female British author to win the award twice. She is working on the final part of her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, confirmed to be released in March 2020.

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This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine