Hilary Mantel, the Wall Street Journal and Me

Hilary Mantel, the Wall Street Journal & Me

My brush with literary greatness

A few months ago, my writing collaborator noticed something interesting about the author Hilary Mantel. He sent an email, basically saying…

she connects with her characters much the same way you do.

Apparently, Ms. Mantel understands the characters she writes about via an almost supernatural connection. Imagine my surprise when the following showed up in the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy last week. For the new WSJ Book Club, Hilary Mantel chose my question as one of the questions from readers.

My brush with literary greatness, and I could not be any more delighted!

Could you share more insight as to how she finds the ‘voice’ of each character?

Also, your interest in the supernatural is intriguing & I want to know more. — Hunter Jones (my pseudonym, once upon a time.)

To find the voice, I listen! Tudor officials often dictated their letters; it gives us some insight into how they spoke and thought, though most of the preserved letters are on public and not private topics. Mostly you have to work out, from actions, the habits of thought that precede them. Then from the thoughts to the actual words, the quirks of expression, the distinctive tone of each character…. I think what you do is open a space for your guest. You learn to wait. They show up when they’re ready: That is to say, when you know enough, when you’ve learned all you can, when you are mentally prepared. The effort is in the preparation. You cook the feast and lay the table. You hope they’ll stay talking till the small hours.

I think you can’t understand the past unless you can enter, imaginatively, into a mindset which is alien to that of most present-day secular rationalists. The world, to me, appears a very complicated place. I believe that what we can see is only a part of what there is to be seen: that our senses benefit from a bit of stretching: that minds should be exercised, and that reductionism is no fun at all. I try not to judge the people I write about; I just try to be at their disposal, for the while. So if they are Roman Catholics, incense wafts about me. If they are Calvinists, I hope to be one of the Elect. If they believe in ghosts, I am haunted. You must be flexible in this way, it seems to me. If you are fixated on your own experience and judgment, you are not going to be happy as a novelist. The whole point is to become “other,” on a temporary basis, of course. And if you are too absorbed in listening to yourself, your characters will not speak.

It’s like acting. Except that the play may go on for a decade.

Thank you Hilary Mantel for taking the time to explain your writing process. And thank you WSJ for making it easy for readers to connect with our favorite authors. This is better than taking a picture because it is immortalized in print. Here’s the entire article. Please take a look.


Rest in Peace to a literary master.

Originally published in my Medium magazine in 2014.

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