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Surprised by a trilogy: Hilary Mantel on her Tudor saga

May 18, 2012 | 12:51 pm

Anne-boleynSo much of today’s publishing industry, especially in the categories of young adult fiction and fantasy, is interested in the three-book deal. Trilogies reign; trilogies are the norm.

But when you hear that a novelist like Hilary Mantel, winner of 2009's Man Booker Prize for the novel "Wolf Hall," is extending that novel’s subject matter — the world of Henry VIII as seen by his counselor Thomas Cromwell — to three books, you may wonder, has she been bitten by the trilogy bug too?

Not exactly.

"The development of the trilogy wasn’t driven by fashion and wasn’t a marketing ploy," Mantel says in a recent email exchange. She has just published the second book of the series, "Bring Up the Bodies," which Martin Rubin reviews for The Times. "It was more a series of shocks."

Mantel says the first shock was that her publisher was even interested in the topic — "a Tudor politician with an evil reputation and no discernible glamour" — and then by their encouragement to explore this world. She found herself delving into Cromwell’s thoughts and being confronted by the forceful presence of Cardinal Wolsey, a character she says she "intended to sweep … out of the narrative quickly. But then he began to talk and I sat listening."

As "Wolf Hall" took shape, Mantel realized her material was so rich and complicated that a single novel couldn’t contain it. And then, as she worked on "Bring Up the Bodies," which follows Cromwell in the years of Anne Boleyn’s dismal plunge from throne to chopping-block, it happened again. She says she realized the story would require a third book.

"I didn’t know what I was dealing with till I was actually in the process of writing," she recalls. "You can research all you like, but the material doesn’t come to life till you try to reimagine it for the reader."

Writing historical fiction, she adds, poses challenges that are different from writing contemporary fiction.

"It is so different from writing a contemporary novel," says Mantel, whose novels fall into both categories. "There, you are totally in control of your inventions, even though some of the control may be exerted subconsciously. But with a historical novel, the knowledge you acquire sets the agenda, and you must be open to surprises."

Does being open to surprises include being open to … a fourth book? Not in this case.

"So, one more, (really only one more), ‘The Mirror & The Light,’ " she says. "I already know enough about it to say that I will be able to bring the story home in one book, which will end with Cromwell’s abrupt fall and his execution in the summer of 1540."


Review: "Gilt" by Katherine Longshore

Paperback writers: Vintage early Mantel

Review: "Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England" by Thomas Penn

-- Nick Owchar

Photo: A portrait of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII. Credit: Getty images