I left December's Man Booker at Birkbeck event with my head swimming - listening to Hilary Mantel talk about her approach to writing was both hugely inspiring and terrifying. It was a privilege to get a first-hand glimpse of just what it takes to be a Booker prize winner.
The following is my attempt to decode the discussion and to extract useful nuggets through paraphrased quotes to aid the writing process.
On starting out to write:
'Start with a small piece of triviality or overheard dialogue, not with the thought that you have something to say. Avoid grand thoughts, schematic thoughts, grand structure or big messages. Pay your reader the compliment of their intelligence - they don't need to be told something twice. Stay humble and you may end up with a novel.'
On working on your novel:
'You should feel haunted by the book by the end of the process, not at the start as you haven't processed it properly yet. While writing it though, you must feel overwhelmed, or there is no sense of risk. Always be open to a better idea or even a really bad idea that you commit to the page and review later.'
On viewpoint and tense:
'When I set out to write Wolf Hall it began by working out: Who am I looking out through the eyes of? Cromwell. And when is it happening? It is happening now. Once this is settled, there are two things to take care of, the narrative and direction of the speech. Then, it is chiefly about the rhythm, the musicality of the writing.'
On staying in character:
'Oxygenise the characters. Live in the moment, not the past. Stay with your characters always; be right there in the scene… Climb into their heads and describe everything about their universe, the physical and the metaphysical.'
On finishing a novel:
'The hard stage is finding the form in the material you have produced. The task is to cut the shape out for the reader to best comprehend. The novel's ending itself is about revisiting it a number of times and ratcheting the power up a notch each time. To me, the end is the beginning of something else; it is the moment when you are just leaving the springboard.'
On the correspondence between writing and life:
'You get to explore lives you haven't lived. When the midwife says “it's a girl”, I think where does the boy go? Psychically, when you write, you don't need to be gendered. When I go to my desk, I recognise myself.'
Hilary Mantel was interviewed by Russell Celyn Jones on December 15, 2014 as part of the collaboration between The Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck. You can watch a video of the interview online here.