HOW WE MET HILARY MANTEL AND LESLEY GLAISTER

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The Independent Culture
Hilary Mantel, 42, has lived and worked in Africa and the Middle East. Formerly a film critic of the Spectator, she has published seven novels, among them the award- winning A Place of Greater Safety and, most recently, An Experiment in Love. She is married and lives in Berkshire.

Lesley Glaister, 38, was born in Wellingborough. Her first novel, Honour Thy Father, was published in 1990. It won both the Somerset Maugham Prize and the Betty Trask. Her fifth novel, Partial Eclipse, is out in paperback in June. She lives with her second husband and three sons in Sheffield.

HILARY MANTEL: In August 1989 I was a tutor for the Arvon Foundation writing school in Yorkshire. Lesley Glaister was one of 16 students on the fiction course. It was my first time as a tutor, so I didn't know what to expect and was very apprehensive.

Clare Boylan was teaching with me. I arrived to find her sitting on a sofa, holding court with the students who were enraptured with her stories. My only thought was, how on earth am I ever going to get to know everyone?

Unlike most of the students, Lesley was totally undemanding. So much so that I barely noticed her. She seemed to spend all her time quietly working away on her own, never asking for anything. Students had brought masses of manuscripts for us to read. In planning the course, Clare and I hadn't thought about scheduling time for reading so we didn't get much sleep.

Halfway through the course, emotionally, I was at a very low point. Also, after three days of vegetarian food, I was starving. Students were at that early stage when they didn't know how to take their own experience and internalise it in order to use it creatively.

Plodding through the manuscripts at 3am, I started on Lesley's work. As I read the first paragraph of a short story, I almost leapt out of bed. It was about a woman who sets fire to her house. I wanted to shout "This is it!", but thought I'd better not knock on Clare's bedroom door at that hour of the morning.

As you might when watching a horse-race, I was praying that Lesley wasn't going to stumble and fall near the end. Three-quarters of the way through a story, it's so easy to go wrong, but Lesley didn't stumble. Her writing had absolute authority, the right words in the right place. The rhythm was perfect. Afterwards, I read a page of her novel Honour Thy Father. This wasn't just publishable - it was something special. Lesley Glaister was going to be a star.

When she came to us for a tutorial, Clare and I said she was ready to publish. There didn't seem any point in delaying. It was obvious she'd been writing for a long time and knew what she was doing. Lesley told us that she'd sent things to publishers and was getting discouraged, but it seemed to me that it was just a matter of time before someone recognised her talent.

When I got home, I wrote to her asking if she'd like me to give her the name of my agent. I thought he'd go for Lesley's writing, which he did. It was exciting to discover a writer who had her own voice. Women writers often don't have the confidence to think their own voice is acceptable, so they try and imitate a voice which has worked for someone else.

Lesley Glaister didn't really need me or Clare to teach her about writing fiction. As a writer, she's the least complacent of people. Her work is infinitely painstaking and she's continually pushing herself forward. Lesley is poetic and precise - something which demands enormous effort. She's very modest about herself but serious about her work. There's an intimacy in Les-ley's writing which is different from mine. Although we talk about work in progress, neither of us ever feels we're looking over each other's shoulder.

Since Arvon, we've taught courses together and become close friends, although, living far apart, we don't see a great deal of each other. Lesley's been to stay with me but neither of us is part of the Oxbridge mafia and we keep away from literary London. Working time for us is precious, but as Lesley also has a busy family life with her children, her writing time is much more limited than mine.

We share a similar sense of humour. Sometimes we've screamed with laughter when we're teaching. Courses are so exhausting - laughter is a way of letting go. Lesley's one of the very few people with whom I feel completely relaxed. When we decided to run courses together, we felt it was important to include time for students to do exercises which allowed them to get into the right frame of mind for writing. Lesley does yoga and I use autogenic training, so we've learnt from each other.

If you read all someone's work, you know an enormous amount about that person, so our relationship has overleaped the various important stages necessary to most friendships.

LESLEY GLAISTER: As far as the food was concerned, I definitely contributed to Hilary's misery during the Arvon course. Lentil stew was the low point of the week and that night I was the culprit, in charge of cooking.

Going on the Arvon course was my one last bash at becoming a writer. At the time I was quite despondent because I'd been writing for a while - I'd completed two novels before Honour Thy Father but wasn't getting anywhere with publishers. I started to question my own judgement. I felt that what I'd written was as good as some of the books I'd read, but because no one else had been positive, I just didn't know any more.

I didn't know Hilary's work but I'd heard Eight Months on Ghazzah Street when it was serialised for Woman's Hour. I was impressed, and found one of her other novels, Every Day is Mother's Day, which I also enjoyed.

My plan was to spend the entire time at Hebden Bridge concentrating on my work. I just wanted to write and decided I wasn't going to get chummy with other students. I was nervous, but going on the course was liberating. I lost all sense of time. One day I was locked into the writing room and had to climb out through the window.

The first time I saw Hilary she was sitting in a corner talking with great authority to some of the students. My first impression was of a quite intimidating woman looking school- mistressy. Hilary's not at all like that - but, of course, I didn't know anything about her then.

A couple of days later I was in the kitchen and she came up to me, very quietly, and told me that she'd read something of mine and that she'd really loved it. I'd given her a short story and five pages of my novel and although part of me was desperate for someone to read it, the minute I handed it over I was terrified, tense, and felt terribly exposed.

That night, I sat next to her at dinner and she talked to me about what she was writing. She was quite different from how she'd appeared with the group of students.

Hilary had said that she would be in touch, and a few days later she wrote and asked if she could mention my name to her agent. I was amazed. After that things happened quickly. Bill Hamilton, her agent, responded and a few weeks later he sold my book to Secker & Warburg. Until then, my life had been like a slow film. Suddenly I couldn't keep up with what was happening to me.

After that, our friendship just developed. Hilary is one of the most generous, kind people I know. If I have to come to London, I sometimes stay with her and she's very hospitable. I wasn't at all surprised to see her study. Hilary's way of working is very different to mine. She has little cards pin-ned up on notice boards and plans everything down to the last detail. She always knows exactly what's going to happen. I don't - which is much more dangerous and risky. I envy Hilary's ability to plan and organise. I've only recently got my own little room in the attic and we're living with builders. Hilary would hate it.

During the day, Hilary doesn't answer the phone if she's working. She's very strict about using the answering machine and won't allow herself to be disturbed. I'm much too curious to know who's calling. I often dream of having more time to myself for writing but I suspect that, if I had the amount of time she has, I wouldn't do any more work than I do now.

Our lives have been very different. Hilary's been married to the same man for so many years. Although a lot's happened to her and she's lived in other countries, I've had more life changes than she has. In many ways, Hilary is a very surprising friend for me to have. Put us in a room together and apart from us both being women and both being writers, you couldn't find two more different people.

We've enjoyed teaching together although we've given it up for the time being because we wanted to concentrate on our own writing. We'll go back to it some time. The courses are intensive, so it's tremendously hard work. When the pressure gets to us, we've howled with laughter at the end of a long day. It's a way of letting off steam.

Hilary has an absolutely wicked sense of humour, but she's much better at keeping a straight face than I am. Once, in front of a student, I had to make a quick exit from the room, faking a terrible coughing fit, because I was laughing so much. Hilary just sat there and carried on teaching. 8

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