My Home: Novelist Hilary Mantel

Not everyone would feel at home in a former lunatic asylum, but for this novelist, it's the perfect refuge, as she tells Rosanna Greenstreet
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The Independent Online

Hilary Mantel, 53, was born in Derbyshire. The author of 11 books, her new novel, Beyond Black, has just been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives with her husband in the top-floor flat of a converted lunatic asylum near Woking

have this urge to live in places that have a history. The number of church conversions we've looked at over the years! The builders kept fairly quiet about the history of this place. They represented it as a hospital. In fact it was an asylum - Spike Milligan was here, and the other famous inmate was Ruth Ellis's mother. It doesn't bother me. I used to be a social worker and worked in a psychogeriatric hospital, so if anybody has seen the sights and smelled the smells, it's me.

The asylum was built in the mid-1860s. It was self-sufficient, with its own laundry, gasworks and farm. The old staff club, which I suspect was also a theatre at some time, is now the Leapfrog Nursery, and I can see it from my balcony. When they started these asylums, they were very idealistic. The idea was to let people rest, get cured, then go home, so they had theatres and entertainments - things that would be thought too ambitious now. But gradually, the asylums became dumping grounds, especially for the elderly who couldn't care for themselves.

Our two-bedroom, two- bathroom flat covers about 2,000 square feet. It was £410,000 five years ago - the most expensive in the development. We just missed a three-bedroom flat for £375,000, a couple of floors down, and were aggrieved at the time. Then we saw this flat and thought it worth compromising on the number of bedrooms because, up a spiral staircase, there is a tiny room. It's under the clock tower with its gargoyles, and probably once afforded access to the clock. The builders said that when they arrived, the room was full of pigeons, and for ages birds would come and peer in through the windows.

There are windows on three sides of the room and I've hung them with gold curtains. If the sun's shining, you are in a golden tent and, in winter, you turn the lights on behind the curtains and it's quite magical. I'd like to fit the room out with low benches so that it is a sort of Arabian Nights room, but there wouldn't be much space to work. If I'm timing a radio play and mustn't be interrupted, I come up here and put my laptop on the gate-legged table on which I used to do my homework as a secondary schoolgirl. I wrote enormous history essays.

The rest of the flat is not super special, but there is a huge main room with a south-facing balcony. From it you can see Guildford Cathedral through the trees on the horizon, and the stars at night. The flat has all these windows with different outlooks, so wherever you are you can see the sky and the weather coming up. It's important when you work from home not to feel claustrophobic. I need to spend long hours in silence and I would hate to go back to street level and feel hemmed in by other houses.

The best thing about the flat is the privacy, and the long warning you get when visitors arrive. I don't particularly like the idea of living behind electronic gates, but I like it as a writer - I can almost finish a paragraph by the time someone gets up here. If I can't have a moat with crocodiles, it's the next best thing.

When we moved in, the builders had painted everything magnolia and we are now getting round to choosing other colours. Everything's a variant on cream, but there are better colours than builders' beige! We painted our north-facing bedroom a pale gold, which is warm in winter and looks nice with the sunlight on it.

We've furnished with bits and pieces accumulated over the years. I've just had two little chairs re-upholstered. They are one of the first things I remember from my childhood. There were four - I don't know what happened to the other two - in my grandmother's kitchen, upholstered in a faded chintz. I suppose I clung on to them as I learnt to walk.

My desk is in a corner of the main room. In this flat, I wrote the memoir Giving Up the Ghost, and Beyond Black, and I'm now 50,000 words into a new book. On the wall is a picture of Robespierre, one of the main characters in my book about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. I did have a copy of the Holbein drawing of Thomas More, but I decided that I could no longer stand to look at his evil face. I've put him in a wardrobe. A picture of Thomas Cromwell, whom my new novel is about, is the latest addition. It's going to be a big book and will take about three years to do; it's called Wolf Hall.

Two bookcases hold my French Revolution books and, in another, the research for my new novel is double-filed. I need more bookcases urgently. I keep books to a minimum because if I kept everything, the flat would be full. I've just shipped a huge box to the charity shop this morning, and I'll be back again next week.

When the neighbours get together at Christmas, the favourite thing is to get into a corner and whisper about your ghosts. I swear there are none up here. When I was a child, I lived in a haunted house, so I would know. Our flat is under the eaves, so maybe it was used for storage rather than patients. There are some creepy tales. An arm comes through one neighbour's wall. It is possibly a dividing wall put in by the architects and, if you went to the other side, you'd probably find the rest of the body. A few people have had appearances and disappearances of objects; and some have had things going wrong with their electrics - but that could just be the builders!

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