Booker Prizewinner Mantel Tells The Story Of Henry VIII

Liane Hansen talks with author Hilary Mantel, this year's winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Her novel, Wolf Hall, tells the story of the reign of England's King Henry VIII and the subsequent ushering in of the Reformation — all through the eyes Thomas Cromwell, the king's adviser for almost a decade.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Just when you thought that nothing more could be written about the reign of England's King Henry VIII, along comes a colossal new novel by Hilary Mantel. Not only that, "Wolf Hall," her hefty tome, just won the Booker Prize.

Although Mantel tackles the story of Henry's love for Anne Boleyn, his question to annul his marriage to Queen Catherine and the subsequent ushering in of the Reformation, her central figure is Thomas Cromwell, the king's advisor for almost a decade.

Hilary Mantel joins us from the BBC in Guilford. Welcome to the program, and congratulations.

Ms. HILARY MANTEL (Author, "Wolf Hall"): Thanks very much, Liane.

HANSEN: This is a book that is written from Thomas Cromwell's point of view. History does not favor him in everything that happened in Tudor England. What drew you to him?

Ms. MANTEL: I think it's the arc of his story. He starts off as disadvantaged as anyone can get in that society.

His father is a blacksmith. He cuts right through the social layers to become the king's right-hand man and ultimately, Earl of Essex, before abruptly falling from power, but what really stands out is he's head and shoulders smarter than most of his contemporaries. This is a man who understands economics, not just counting the cash. He also was astute in reading people's psychology. He really knew what make people tick.

HANSEN: More has definitely gotten the better of history. History favors Sir Thomas More. You actually portray him maybe not as really pious as he was, perhaps not as kind as he was, and in one review, it said you actually use his power of thought in writing against him. Thomas More, your take on him.

Ms. MANTEL: Well, I haven't discovered anything new about Thomas More. All his biographers, even though who are most on his side, have to admit that he was a fanatical hunter of people he thought of as heretics.

Now, you may say that in being a heretic hunter he was a simply a man of his time and a faithful child of the Roman Church. Now, I think More's story has been told over and over again from his point of view, and I think it's time to let Thomas Cromwell have a hearing.

HANSEN: There is a moment where Cromwell encounters More, and I think it says something about both men because of what happened earlier and then what happened later. Describe, first of all, the meeting between the two men, the early one and the later one. And my question is: Could Cromwell not have been motivated by revenge?

Ms. MANTEL: Well, what happens in my book is it's one of those lovely coincidences historical novelists delight in. You're always trying to work out where your character meet or where they could have met. And in my novel, the seven-year-old Thomas Cromwell encounters the 14-year-old Thomas More. More is reading, and Thomas Cromwell says to him: What is in that great book? And More says: It's words, words, just words. And Thomas Cromwell is left with a kind of nostalgia for a conversation that never took place.

And then, many years later, Thomas More is in the tower. Thomas Cromwell is his interrogator desperately trying to get him to take the oath to the king, and conform and so save his life.

And suddenly, he thinks back to this conversation, "Words, words, just words." But Thomas More doesn't remember the encounter at all. Cromwell has thought of it all these years.

Now, Thomas Cromwell had no interest in my novel or in life in seeing Thomas More dead. Victory for him would've been to get Thomas More to take the oath, conform, please the king and it would've been a great propaganda coup to hold up to Europe.

HANSEN: Given that this is a novel, how did you find a balance between, say, creative license you can take in writing fiction and telling what really happened behind the tapestries during the Tudor time, as well as making the novel accessible perhaps to Americans or those who are not as familiar with, you know, the history.

Ms. MANTEL: Yes. I draw the line pretty tightly around the facts - and I don't change the facts to enhance the drama - I think of it the other way around, the drama has got to fit around the facts. And it's your job as a writer to find a shape in real life. So if your detail just goes by you, it doesn't really matter. You will still know what's happening in the characters' personal stories. You will still be able to follow, I hope, the emotional line of the novel.

HANSEN: Was it difficult to create a certain amount of suspense when many people anecdotally know the outcome?

Ms. MANTEL: What we are doing here is unlike what a historian does. We're behind Thomas Cromwell's eyes and we are moving forward with him through history. He can't have hindsight. He doesn't know what's going to happen. He's just blundering on in the half dark, as we all are the way we all move through life with imperfect information, and he's only able to guess at what will happen next.

Of course, we all know what happened and we can't entirely forget that. But there were two questions: How did it happen, and also, most vitally for a novelist, how did it feel to the people concerned? How did history feel from the inside?

HANSEN: Are you attracted to historical characters that need some kind of rehabilitation? I mean in 1992, in your book "A Place of Greater Safety," you made Robespierre sympathetic.

Ms. MANTEL: I'm not so much attracted to rehabilitation as I'm attracted to justice. Then there is something in common with Robespierre and Thomas Cromwell in that they've both been given an extremely bad press.

And it's very difficult to get back beyond reputation, back to the real man, back to the sources, because a lot of the history we are taught is just packages of prejudice handed on from one generation to the next. And the package is never opened and examined. We just carry it unquestioningly and hand it on ourselves.

And I suppose I'm the kind of perverse person that if you tell me someone is saying Togo(ph), looking for his feet of clay. But if you tell me someone is a scoundrel and a villain and there's nothing to be said for him, I start asking, now, why would you want me to think that? So, it's not that I feel I have to redeem these people in any way, it's that I think the facts will redeem them if the facts are ever examine.

HANSEN: Hilary Mantel, author of "Wolf Hall." The winner of this year's Booker Prize. She joins us from the BBC in Guildford. Again, congratulations and thank you very much.

Ms. MANTEL: Thank you.

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