Hilary Mantel: Whenever she hit a roadblock, she would write another section of the story.

From a New York Times story by Alexandra Alter titled “An Excavated Voice Never Leaves Her”:

BUDLEIGH SALTERTON, England—Hilary Mantel has a recurring anxiety dream that takes place in a library. She finds a book with some scrap of historical information she’s been seeking, but when she tries to read it, the words disintegrate before her eyes.

“And then when you wake up,” she said, “you’ve got the rhythm of a sentence in your head, but you don’t know what the sentence was.”

As deflated as she feels upon waking, the dreams have been instructive, Mantel said.

“There’s always going to be something slightly beyond your comprehension, but you must go reaching for it,” she told me last month. “If you thought the record was the whole story, the dream is teaching you how fragile the record is.”

To an unusual degree for a novelist, Mantel feels bound by facts. That approach has made her latest project—a nearly 1,800-page trilogy about the 16th-century lawyer and fixer Thomas Cromwell—more complicated than anything she’s undertaken in her four decades of writing. . . .

Mantel had been fascinated by Cromwell for decades, ever since she learned, while she was attending a convent-run high school in Cheshire, about Cromwell’s role in dissolving the country’s monasteries. In her research, she found he was often reduced to a thuggish caricature. “I realized that some imaginative work is due on this man,” she said.

She deployed the same methods she used for “A Place of Greater Safety,” gathering as much historical evidence as she could find, then using the facts to stitch together a narrative. Whenever she hit a roadblock, she would write another section of the story.

In her office, in an apartment up the hill from her home, Mantel showed me the card catalog she used to keep track of Cromwell’s whereabouts, so that she didn’t mistakenly put him in the wrong place at the wrong time. A card I pulled out at random read, “31 July 1536, TC could be at Cookham or Sunninghill.”

Even though as a novelist, she has license to invent, Mantel dreads the thought of contradicting an available historical fact. “If you started out with the attitude that the truth is optional, I couldn’t take any pleasure in it at all,” she said. “I know that the real story is better than anything I can come up with.”

By bringing a historian’s rigor to her fiction, Mantel has had a profound impact on history itself. Before “Wolf Hall,” Cromwell was often cast as a cartoonish villain who persecuted the pious and helped a lustful king dispatch of unwanted wives. Mantel rehabilitated Cromwell, depicting him as a strategist and visionary, and convincing some scholars to re-evaluate his place in history.

“Hilary has reset the historical patterns through the way in which she’s reimagined the man,” said Diarmaid MacCulloch, an Oxford theology professor who published a new Cromwell biography in 2018. “It’s fiction which is extraordinarily probable, and it’s remarkably like the Cromwell I’d been excavating myself.”. . .

As Mantel spoke about Cromwell and how he endures for her, it reminded me of a moment in “The Mirror and the Light” when Cromwell realizes that he’s losing the king’s confidence, and thinks of his beloved master, Cardinal Wolsey, who still speaks to him from the grave.

“The dead are more faithful than the living,” Cromwell thinks. “For better or worse, they do not leave you. They last out the longest night.”

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