A fantasist hidden in suburbia

Her life seems careful, conventional, commuter-belt drab. But Hilary Mantel, having triumphed over illness and rejection, has become a novelist of dizzying imagination interview
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You can't tell a book by its cover, though publishers try hard to offer clues. Can you tell a novelist from her novels?

Consider Hilary Mantel. Her seventh novel, An Experiment in Love, out this week, is a comedy, a light nostalgic study of three girls together at London University in 1972. So she sounds fun. On the other hand, her previous novel, A Change of Climate, set half in Africa, which last Christmas was voted by 11 critics as their novel of the year, was a sombre morality tale. That made her sound pretty serious. Then there was that whopping novel set in the French Revolution, which won a £20,000 prize, but was, well, hardly easy going. And made her sound no fun at all. So which novel, if any, gives her away?

She lives in a boring suburban street in Sunningdale, Berks, miles out in commuter country, full of people pass- ing through, lives lived else- where. Red-brick institutional-looking building, split into four flats. In her kitchen, there is a fire extinguisher blanket on the wall, the first I'd seen in a normal kitchen, lived in by two adults only, sans children. Had she had a fire? No. Just a precaution. Did it mean she was a careful, cautious person? Probably. Very neat shelves, little boxes for VAT and Research, beautifully marked. In her writing room she has her computer, photo copier, fax, answer phone, laser printer. The modem is due next week. Yes, a very modern novelist.

She sits erect on her cosy couch, huge blue eyes, delicate chin, matronly body, her two cats beside her, Tertius and Bella. She speaks slowly, carefully, academically, no jokes, no fun, at times self-important. My eyes wander to the bookshelves, a whole row of cricket books, a complete collection of Biggles. Who can they belong to? Then the self-importance evaporates and she is being seeringly self-aware, unusual images slipping out.

She was born in a Derbyshire mill village in 1952, oldest of three, father an engineer, Catholic family, originally from Ireland. When she was 11, they moved over the border to Cheshire. Your dad's job? "No, to be nearer the convent school I'd got into. I wasn't a robust child and they didn't want me to have a long journey to school."

They hoped she would become a lawyer and, at 18, she went to LSE, studying law, then left after two years to get married. Goodness, that must have shocked them. In one sense yes, but not because of Gerald, the man she married. He was a local boy she'd been going out with for years. Were you sleeping with him? "Of course." So why get married? "I couldn't face the weight of disapproval. Where we lived, the Sixties had still not arrived in 1972. It was the only way we could live together."

She resumed her legal studies at Sheffield, where Gerald was studying geology, but was too ill to take her finals. By then she was disillusioned by the law anyway. "I hadn't realised how hard it was for a woman, and from the North, and with no family money, to become a barrister." So she did social work in a geriatric hospital, unqualified, till she became disillusioned with that as well. For the next three years she was a shop assistant in Manchester, feeling pretty ill much of the time.

"I thought, I must do something with my life to make me independent. It sounds logical planning, but it was more a gut feeling. I deliberately worked in those shops to leave my mind free. Serving on the counter of Kendal Milne gave me hours and hours to think about the French Revolution."

That had become her new passion in life, though she didn't quite know why. Un- like most successful novelists, she had never dreamt while young of writing books. "That world was so removed from everything I knew. I thought I didn't have the imagination. I was never a natural story-teller, making up yarns to amuse others. I was too reserved.

"But I had always been one of God's little note-takers. After three years studying the French Revolution, I decided to write a novel about it. That seemed to be the reason I'd been doing it."

In 1977, Gerald was offered a geology job in Botswana, so off they went. "Sometimes you have to take a flying leap in life. My first memory is of the sun shining straight through me and thinking it will never go away. I'd never been abroad before." They were five years in Botswana, during which she finished her novel, but became very ill again.

"At first the climate made me feel better, then the pains started again. In England, I'd had endless blood tests, but they found nothing wrong. When a young woman says she feels ill all the time, and it's not anaemia, they suggest tranquillisers, believing it's all in the mind. I decided to analyse the symptoms myself so I sat in the university library in Gaberone, the capital of Botswana, read all the medical books - and came to the conclusion it was endometriosis which was causing internal bleeding."

On leave in England, she dropped her novel off, with a thump, as it was 1,080 pages, at a publisher who had expressed an interest in reading it. At the same time, she saw a doctor. Her own diagnosis was confirmed. She was rushed into hospital and had major surgery, one result of which is that she can never have children.

"I haven't really talked about having endometriosis before, certainly not to a man, feeling ashamed and embarrassed I suppose. I now know there are 3,000 women suffering from it. I feel it needs publicity, in order to help others.

"I came out of hospital, feeling absolutely appalling, to hear that the publisher had rejected the novel. It was the lowest period in my life." She later found that 40 pages of her manuscript were missing. Had the publisher not even noticed, or had they gone missing afterwards? No one knows, but she wrote letters of complaint.

Back in Botswana, she dusted herself down, got back to writing. She sent a short story to Punch which was accepted. Encouraged by this she started another novel - a modern novel this time, set among social workers, called Every Day Is Mother's Day. It was accepted by Chatto and came out in 1985. Gerald was then posted to Saudi Arabia, where they spent four years, finally returning to the UK in 1987.

"Nine years as an expat was enough. We'd loved Botswana, but life in Jeddah was not very pleasant for a woman. I feared if we stayed any longer, we would develop the mind-set of the expat - complaining about welfare state scroungers and singing `God Save the Queen' at every opportunity. It's like rabies. You must move before the signs appear, because when they do, you're lost."

Gerald was out of work for a year after they came back, and times were pretty tough. Her first novel had made her only £2,000. A second got an advance of £4,000, but she knew nobody in publishing or the writing business. "Then I had a stroke of luck. I saw a competition for travel writing in the Spectator, and won it with a piece on Jeddah and got £1,000. They invited me for lunch, to receive the cheque, and it so happened that Peter Ackroyd was about to resign as their film critic. They offered me the job. I did it for the next four years, along with some book reviewing." Meanwhile Gerald decided to change profession, to become a computer scientist.

Today, after just 10 years of being published, she can command around £50,000 for a novel. The French novel, A Place of Greater Safety, eventually came out in 1992, 18 years after she'd first started it. It won the Sunday Express book prize and she put the £20,000 towards a country cottage in Norfolk.

Her fantasy is to move to Norfolk, live there full-time. So Gerald might end up as the kept man, reversing their earlier roles? "I don't see any problems. Gerald was a new man before new men were invented. He's never seen me as the little woman, doing the housework. I have cleaning ladies for this flat, and one of them does the ironing. I have never had guilt pangs about paying a woman to clean my dirty bath.

"I think Gerald would quite like to be a retired country gentleman. I am very happy in my marriage and would enjoy living our lives even more together, deep in the country."

Yes, but you're only 42, with years of novel-writing ahead. Wouldn't you miss a great deal of creative stimulation? After all, you have no children.

"I did resent that at the age of 27 I lost my capacity to choose whether to have children or not, although up till then I'm not sure I wanted any. It is hard to decide if children are a plus or minus for a writer. If I'd had any, I might have put enormous energy into them, and never finished one book. I have come to terms with it, but it upsets me when I hear of couples, hopelessly infertile, who spend years having treatment. I want to shake them - and say, `There is a life for you'.

"But it does bother me that by becoming a professional writer, working at home, having the life you always wanted, you have lost a world. I hope I'll never write a novel about writers writing. Take me out and shoot me if I ever do that." Meanwhile, she is working on a new novel, set in London in the 1780s, which is a bit medical and a bit fantastical.

The Biggles books are her husband's, but she bought all the cricket books. She reads them in the close season, when there are no games to follow. Her passion for cricket will doubtless one day seep into a novel, and she already has one scene in her head. We'll take it slowly. The mind- sets of novelists are not always easy to follow.

"It began with a story my mother told me, about being taken as a child to see a relation who had left her husband and was living in poor circumstances. Quite recently, when thinking idly I'd like to write a novel about cricket, into my head came this scene of a 1930s cricketer. He's climbing the stairs to this awful flat, to visit the wife he'd left some years before. I can smell the linoleum, see the furniture ... He'd married her young, as a struggling working-class man, but through cricket he'd mixed with different social strata, and had travelled a lot. But now he is in his last season, beaten down, a defeated man, come to see the wife he had abandoned. An air of tragedy hangs in the room."

I take back the boring street reference. Behind every suburban hedge, who knows what unusual fantasies are lurking.