Hilary Mantel … All the world’s a desk
Hilary Mantel, born , 6 July 1952, is an award-winnng English writer whose work includes personal memoirs, short stories, and historical fiction. She has twice been awarded the Booker Prize, the first for the 2009 novel Wolf Hall, a fictional account of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in the court of Henry VIII, and the second for the 2012 novel Bring Up the Bodies, the second instalment of the Cromwell trilogy. The third instalment to the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, is in progress.
She spoke about where she worked in a Guardian Writer’s Rooms article back in 2007:
I write in the main room of our flat, at the top of a former Victorian asylum in Surrey. My desk was made in Norfolk in serviceable pine. It is arranged in layers, as a working model of my mind. The surface is dull, plain and tidy. The only ornament is a tiny, chipped pottery cat in a basket, which I hold sometimes if I am feeling bleak. In the upper drawers are half-used notebooks, fossils, crystals, seashore pebbles, a pack of tarot cards, my five-year diary, a steel measure, a stop watch and a last letter from a dead friend. The lower ones contain nothing but solid slabs of blank paper, and office wet-wipes which boast they “remove dirt and grime”.
Insights don’t usually arrive at my desk, but go into notebooks when I’m on the move. Or half-asleep. If I feel travel would broaden the mind, I take my laptop up a spiral staircase, to a little room under the asylum cldock. Some preliminaries happen at the huge notice board in the kitchen, where I am building my new novel about Thomas Cromwell. It helps me structure a book if I can see what I’m doing. The chronological line and the flashbacks get worked out on postcards. As I narrow the focus, each postcard comes to represent a scene, and behind it I pin everything that belongs to it – tiny observations, descriptions, statistics, lines of dialogue. Then I can take it to the computer and work it through.
Some books are like singing, but this one is like fight arranging. It has to look natural but it’s tightly controlled. I never stop thinking about it. All the world’s a desk.
In a further Guardian article in 2016 she described her writing day:
Some writers claim to extrude a book at an even rate like toothpaste from a tube, or to build a story like a wall, so many feet per day. They sit at their desk and knock off their word quota, then frisk into their leisured evening, preening themselves. This is so alien to me that it might be another trade entirely. Writing lectures or reviews – any kind of non-fiction – seems to me a job like any job: allocate your time, marshall your resources, just get on with it. But fiction makes me the servant of a process that has no clear beginning and end or method of measuring achievement. I don’t write in sequence. I may have a dozen versions of a single scene. I might spend a week threading an image through a story, but moving the narrative not an inch. A book grows according to a subtle and deep-laid plan. At the end, I see what the plan was.
I used to be a late starter, but now I get up in the dark like a medieval monk, commit unmediated scribble to a notebook, and go back to bed about six, hoping to sleep for another two hours and to wake slowly and in silence. Random noise, voices in other rooms, get me off to a savage, disorderly start, but if I am left in peace to reach for a pen, I feel through my fingertips what sort of day it is. Days of easy flow generate thousands of words across half a dozen projects – and perhaps new projects. Flow is like a mad party – it goes on till all hours and somebody must clear up afterwards. Stop-start days are not always shorter, are self-conscious and anxiety-ridden, and later turn out to have been productive and useful. I judge in retrospect. On flow days, I have no idea what I’ve written till I read it back. It’s a life with shocks built in.
I don’t mind whether I write by hand or on a keyboard. I don’t mind anything, as long as I’ve woken up calmly in my own time. I’m a long thinker and a fast writer, so most days I don’t spend much time at my desk. I concentrate well. I’m not tempted by the internet. If I’m redrafting, fine-tuning, I print the text and take it away to read it on paper. But if I’m writing straight on to the screen, I tense up till my body locks into a struggling knot. I have to go and stand in a hot shower to unfreeze. I also stand in the shower if I get stuck. I am the cleanest person I know.
I am fuelled by tea. I don’t want to break to eat. But after an intense bout of work I might fall asleep, which gets me fit for the next bout. I stop for the day when some inner falling-away says, that’s all there is. It feels like a page turning inside – the next page is empty. Nothing is left then but to go to bed and wait for dreams and for the next day.
About half my working year is like this. The rest involves talking, travelling, producing a public persona – but still with odd hours, and a constant output of ideas. The most frequent question writers are asked is some variant on, “Do you write every day, or do you just wait for inspiration to strike?” I want to snarl, “Of course I write every day, what do you think I am, some kind of hobbyist?” But I understand the question is really about the central mystery – what is inspiration? Eternal vigilance, in my opinion. Being on the watch for your material, day or night, asleep or awake.
She has also come up with a list of rules for writers:
1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.
2. Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don’t really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, “how to” books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.
3. Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.
4. If you have a good story idea, don’t assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.
5. Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.
6. First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?
7. Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don’t notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they’re trying too hard to instruct the reader.
8. Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.
9. If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.
10. Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules. Except number one: you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.