Hilary Mantel tells story of her double Booker triumph

The author made history this week when she became the first woman to win the Man Booker Prize twice with Bring Up the Bodies. She tells Boyd Tonkin how writing the book in a panic turned it into a gripping work

As its enthralled readers know, Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies buzzes with a hectic and febrile sense of urgency. It outpaces even the crackling static of Wolf Hall, her first novel about Thomas Cromwell and the subtle, savage court of Henry VIII in the 1530s.

On a sunny morning in the Leicester Square office of the Man Booker Prize's PR company, the day after her second victory, she calmly recalls the headlong ride that flung her towards this unprecedented triumph. "I was completely taken by surprise," she says about the verdict. "I obviously had the wrong idea of how this jury was going to work. I had supposed that if I was in the running when it came to the final choice, it would be human to prefer a new author."

Wolf Hall had taken the award in 2009 with the author of Beyond Black, The Giant, O'Brien and A Place of Greater Safety high in reputation but still low in formal honours. "There was a continuity in my writing life, and I was so fortunate to be in the middle of a project, never having to say to myself, 'how do I top that?'" Then 57, and a veteran of those "terrible afternoons" when the phone didn't ring and critical acclaim for a book failed to result in a Booker shortlisting, the Derbyshire-born novelist and former social worker would not easily be sidetracked. After the first win, and the vast extra sales it brought, "the externals were different, because the book became a phenomenon and I was suddenly being published in 30 countries. It made a huge difference of course financially, because I'd never really earned a living from fiction, and then I could. But you say to yourself, how long is this likely to last?"

Soon, however, illness stopped her in her tracks again. Mantel wrote in the extraordinary memoir Giving up the Ghost (2003) about the medical misadventures – false diagnoses, doctors' ineptitude, an almost Tudor-level experience of cruelty and contempt –that plagued her through gruelling decades of living with endometriosis. Now she was driven back into the lonely land of the sick. "Even at the time of the Booker, I was struggling, and I knew that things would have to change."

She had to write off most of 2010, although a first chapter of Bring Up the Bodies was ready by Christmas. Then in early 2011, in the new home on the Devon coast where she had moved (from Surrey) with her husband Gerald McEwen, Cromwell, Henry, Anne and the conspiratorial courtiers roared back into life. "Towards the end of April, I picked up the files and got going, and then it scooted along at a tremendous pace. The story just picked me up and pulled me with it." Writing she book so fast "was like a series of emergencies, with each scene leaving me feeling completely drained." Does this creative frenzy add to the sheer intensity of the mood, as through 1535 and 1536 Cromwell seizes on the king's infatuation with Jane Seymour as a vehicle for the downfall of Henry's second queen, Anne Boleyn, and her pushy clan? "I think it does. I was in a panic, almost. That infuses the narrative."

Rather than the unfolding Bildungsroman of Wolf Hall, with Cromwell's relentless – and resented – rise to power from the Putney blacksmith's shop, we have a full-blown, close-focus top-level state crisis. The minister sparks a palace revolution, and then struggles to harness it. "The whole thing is an exhibition of brinksmanship," Mantel says. "He knows what he's aiming at – the fall of the Boleyns – but he doesn't know how he's going to get there."

Does she, as the naive but inevitable question goes, like the arch-fixer more or less as time goes by? "In a way, it doesn't seem to matter, because I'm behind his eyes. So my job's to be him, rather than to take up an attitude to him. I struggle to preach or moralise to him… That doesn't mean I can't keep a distance between us." The consummate statesman, Henry's wily factotum has some very modern worries. It's the economy, stupid. "His first task is to keep England fed. We've got a run of bad harvests, grain shortages. The Emperor [Charles V] holds the key here: the Emperor can… blockade England." So Charles – the nephew of Catherine of Aragon – must be conciliated and the Reformation-minded Anne "is a stench in the nose of piety" for him. "There are all sorts of reasons she has to go which are nothing to do with whether Henry's fallen out of love with her or not. It's realpolitik at its most brutal."

The book shows us Cromwell as he tries – and fails – to introduce an income tax. Outraged, the grasping landowners of the Commons reject this ungodly exaction: "I'd love to know what rate… he was planning to levy. It's a blank in the record." As in Wolf Hall, Cromwell appears as a modern administrator far ahead of his time. "He was a revolutionary without any revolutionary tradition. If he had carried through some of his more radical measures, we would be feeling the difference to this day, particularly in respect of the legal system." Also, she detects "the glimmerings of the welfare state are back there in his radical poor law".

However, Mantel cautions against treating these novels as some dark mirror or allegory for our own times. "The parallels are not easy to draw," she says. "They were so different in the basics of their thinking… sometime complete strangers to us, sometimes surprisingly familiar. But you have to live with both the likenesses and the unlikenesses." Such as, above all, the belief in a divine judgment that awaits at the close of every human story: "the idea that you have to answer before God for what you did in this world."

"In some respects," she reflects, "they were more tender with each other than we would be, and in other respects – ferocious. Life was short, and almost everybody in the course of nature suffered great pain at some time." Moreover, Cromwell's spectacular ascent drew hatred and suspicion, not praise for a clever striver. "Today, his ambition would be seen as laudable. He would be slated for this ruthlessness but no one would fault him for trying to rise through the social layers. The Tudor world did fault him." These days, "if someone gets on in life we don't suspect them of a pact with the devil."

As for the queens (Catherine of Aragon, Anne, Jane) on whose reproductive potential the entire epic turns, they both shake thrones – and cower beneath them. To an extent, Anne - who goes to the block at the Tower after unfounded accusations of adultery - is "condemned by a misogynistic world-view. But if you think of it another way, at Henry's court, it's the women who have the power. Only a woman can give the king a son… The whole thing depends on the freakish operation of a woman's body. But the sad thing is that the women have no power there either." At least, "the wonderful thing about writing about Henry's reign, for a woman writer, is that you don't have to force the women into a prominence they don't have. They're big players. They really have power and influence, and they are well documented as Tudor women go."

For all her deep immersion in this written record, both novels depend on Mantel's uncanny and mesmeric command of a Tudor language that sidesteps both pastiche and anachronism. This idiom came swiftly, and has stayed. "Rightly or wrongly, I haven't perceived it as a problem since I first began to hear it." A key source – almost the DNA of her Tudor style – was the courtier George Cavendish's life of Cardinal Wolsey, written in the 1550s: "I picked up something of the rhythm and the locutions, and I grew everything from there." Bewitched by this voice, Cromwell's now-global army of followers will be keen to know how long they have to wait for the promised third volume of his trilogy, which has a title: The Mirror and the Light. "I've got lots of material but it's unsorted, in pieces," Mantel reports. "Next year is my big year for working on it… I'm so excited about it really. I'm more enthralled than I was even at the beginning." But does she fear the inevitable end of the all-consuming Cromwell years? Yes, but: "It sort of won't be finished, because I'll be talking about it for ever."

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'