Hilary Mantel: 'I am sympathetic to politicians'

Man Booker winner Hilary Mantel has injected new life into Tudor turmoils but, as Boyd Tonkin discovers, she has first-hand experience of living in the shadow of arbitrary power

When Hilary Mantel lived for four years in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s, reading between the lines became an everyday art. Official media told no sort of truth. "The Jeddah papers were just wonderful. They were fiction," she remembers. On television, two high-status gentlemen would be shown "shaking hands and then sitting down for a parley. 'Prince So-and-So lauds Prince So-and-So.' They loved this word 'lauds'. And you would see them in dumb-show, lauding each other."

Long before Mantel pleased pundits and punters alike by taking the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday evening, readers had sought parallels between the intrigues and manoeuvres of the 1530s Tudor court in her novel Wolf Hall and the ruses of contemporary politics. But perhaps her own experience of a secretive despotism – commorated in her stingingly satirical 1988 novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street – lies somewhere near the roots of her fascination with the shadow side of power.

"Living in a society where no one can speak freely is a powerful lesson," she says as we talk on the morning after a long-predicted but still widely hailed victory. "Because what happens is that, if no one can speak freely, then rumour and innuendo become the currency. I think it must have been like that at Henry VIII's court. You'd always be checking out the person you were talking to. Could you trust them? Probably not. Living in the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] gave people that feeling."

As its legion of admirers know, Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate, £18.99) both inhabits and reinvents a familiar tranche of English history. Its zest and velocity combines a profound inwardness with the period and people and an outsider's, or newcomer's eye. Born in Derbyshire (in 1952), a law student at Sheffield and the LSE and a social worker for a while, Mantel has in her fiction given a subversive shake to deeply English themes and motifs. They range from the mill village threatened by a mysterious incomer in Fludd (1989) to the 18th-century London tavern life turned upside down by an Irish freak-show celebrity in The Giant, O'Brien (1998). Meanwhile, the searing memoir Giving up the Ghost (2003) casts Mantel herself as the disruptive outsider. It transforms into ravishing prose the heartbreak of long suffering in her twenties at the hands of patronising doctors as they tried – and dismally, despotically failed - to understand and treat her severe endometriosis.

As in the case of Thomas Cromwell, the Putney blacksmith's boy, her charismatic interlopers enter a tired old world from a transforming angle. For almost a decade – she spent five years in Botswana before the Saudi stint – Mantel herself parachuted back into Britian as a keen-eyed expat rather than a native. "You got a kind of snapshop about what was going on": a perspective that helped to shape her 1986 novel Vacant Possession. "Being an exile makes you so much sharper," she says. "You come back and you're dipping into the flow of the national narrative - and it can suddenly seem quite bizarre."

Her Cromwell, no longer a bloodless fixer but a gifted, victimised child in search of new freedoms for himself and others, makes the iconic tussles and tantrums of the Tudor "national narrative" feel fresh, and even strange. As her chancers and careerists tiptoe on thin ice over the abyss of royal disfavour, he emerges not merely as the great winner in this deadly game but – in his pragmatic tolerance – something of a hero too. It may portray, with near-hallucinatory clarity, a time when cynics flourished – but readers have found that Wolf Hall is far from a cynical book.

With the Protestant reformer Cromwell, as with his great Catholic rival and competitor Thomas More, self-interest and genuine idealism always intersect. Mantel, who in the early 1990s published her first feverish historical epic in the French Revoluion novel A Place of Greater Safety, looks without rancour on "the accommodations and compromises forced on people operating in the political sphere. I am in a way sympathetic to politicians," she admits. "It's too easy in hindsight to write people off as ruthless opportunists. What I'm trying to do is to get my reader to walk forward with them. They didn't know the end of their story. They couldn't draw the moral. They didn't know the consequences."

Mantel takes Cromwell's reformist zeal seriously, but accepts that "there's always a flavour of the practical" with him. "He wouldn't be caught with an idea whose time was over. What he is is nimble. He's quick to shift his ground when he needs to, but with a long-term aim in view. I think what Cromwell is really committed to is the Bible in English in every church". He won that war.

Famously, Wolf Hall restores the moral and artistic balance between the great rivals that Robert Bolt tilted so far towards Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons. Mantel first came across the play when her brother studied it for 'O' level: "I always seemed to be doing other people's homework. It's wonderful drama, and that's why it has taken such a hold on people's imaginations. I completely bought into that at the time. But what I came to see was that this notion of More as a Sixties liberal – he would have been absolutely outraged by it. But it was of its time – just as my novel's of its time."

Mantel disputes the charge that her portrait of More, for whom the heresies that undermine a community's cohesion merit not just the rod and the cell but the stake, is "unsympathetic". With both Catholics and reformers, she works hard to make us grasp the mind-set of characters living "in two worlds... on the scale of time and of eternity. Almost everyone believes that there's a reckoning to come and most people believe, literally, in hell fire." She emphasises that when her Tudor people "took an action, they had to calculate the consequences in this world and the next. What we do find difficult now is how deeply they cared about theological ideas – at what a deep and primal level this battle between the Catholics and Evangelicals was fought."

Mantel shows Cromwell forging a route into the individualistic future where – for good or ill – we all now live and breathe. "More was hanging on grimly to an idea that had had its time – for which I respect him. But I'm not on his side." She acknowledges that "You have to be aware of the power of the fictionalised version. Nothing illustrates that better than A Man For All Seasons. You have to use that responsibly." All the same, "a novelist doesn't have to be impartial. There is a sense in which you're trying to redress a peerceived injustice, because I think Cromwell has had a really bad press."

That Mantel makes him live so bracingly owes much to the firepower of her pithy, pacey, present-tense narration. Her modern style, dusted with the "light spice of period language" that she found in sources such as George Cavendish's life of Cromwell's patron Cardinal Wolsey, grabs us from the off. Here, the brutal blacksmith's son is thrashed not into submission but rebellion. "That first scene just came onto the page fully armed," she recalls. "I had no idea the book was going to sound like that... All the decisions you have to take were taken in a moment, because once I saw this boy lying on the ground I was looking through this eyes - and it was unfolding like a film."

Mantel mentions of these keynote pages that "I gave them to my husband to read, and he said, 'God – they sound as if they're on a sink estate'. That's exactly what I want." I wonder how far the former social worker still thinks of the early patterns of opportunity and deprivation that make or mar our lives.

That period "really made a mark", she says. "There's a point where you decide to be a victim or not. You see that again and again. And, actually, I think that most people do go under, subject to that kind of repression." Cromwell, like several of her protagonists, opts to swim rather than drown. "I suppose a novelist is in the business of turning your characters loose and making them appear to have free will," she reflects. "Maybe it's more like being God than being a social worker."