W: Hilary it is a huge pleasure to speak to you here in your home as we reach the conclusion of the Wolf Hall trilogy, I want, if I can, to take you back to the beginning because it's very easy to think of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies as being very established in their form and their success. I can see two Booker Prizes up there and of course many years ago when you first started writing them none of this was assured. And so I want to start with one of the most obvious questions which is why Thomas Cromwell? Why did you want to write about him?
HM: I think once you become an author, well, probably even before you become an author, you have your antennae out for subjects that will keep you interested, keep the reader intrigued, that will last. What everyone's in search of is the inexhaustible subject really. And I thought of writing about Thomas Cromwell a long, long time ago but wasn't ready to do it at that stage because I knew it would be an enormous project. But I think what engaged me was the untold story. That here you have a man who is central to some of the most famous episodes in English history but when you look for him in fiction, in drama, where is he? There's a kind of blank and why is this? And also then turning to history, why he had such a bad press. And that in itself intrigued me, the black reputation. Is it deserved, is there another way of looking at those events. And those questions were all in my mind when I eventually began. I didn't know at that stage I would be writing a trilogy. It was a long process of exploration before I actually began to write.
W: That sort of historical research that you must have done before sort of putting pen to paper if you like, it takes me actually to a question I want to ask you which was about the man and about your portrait of him which is notably, as people mentioned when the books were published, more sympathetic than some previous biographies. And I suppose even his portrait by Holbein. You sort of see that face and he has this, as is remarked in the book, that he looks like a murderer and somebody says 'Did you not know that?' And you sort of paint a portrait of this man and I wondered whether that more sympathetic portrayal came from the historical research or was it more to do with your instinct as a novelist in fleshing him out?
HM: It's a question of perspective really. Because the story is told looking over Thomas Cromwell's shoulder and it's very much concerned with his evolving perceptions of the world and it is his story. Not Thomas More's story or Anne Boleyn's story. If it were told from their point of view the events would look very different. I think that has proved a little bit hard, particularly for historians to understand, that a novelist doesn't set out to be neutral. They're telling a story from inside their character. But having said that, once I engaged with a topic I found that most of the biographical work on Cromwell was biased, it was inaccurate, it was perfunctory. And what had happened is that mistakes had got in there and they've been rolled forward from one historian to another, no one saying stop, let's go back to the record, let's identify the gaps and let's see what we find with a fresh eye. Now, last year Diarmaird MacCulloch brought out a wonderful biography of Thomas Cromwell where he has gone back over all the material and though he remains a very difficult subject for a biographer I think that is a triumph of history writing. And a great pleasure for me to see some of those errors worked through, worked out of the system, hopefully never to bounce back. But you can't be sure of that. It takes a long, long time to change perceptions of a historical figure. And I think the interesting thing is that the academic assessment of Thomas Cromwell and the popular historian's assessment diverged a whole generation ago. But academic historians, while seeing Cromwell's importance, are not particularly concerned with what he was like as a person. Whereas the popular historians, the dramatists and the novelists, insofar as they engage with him at all, have been satisfied to keep rolling forward this portrait of a caricature villain.
W: You mentioned the fact that we are very much on his shoulder and one of the other joys for the reader is the fact that you have this present tense narration and that is so distinctive in these books but I wonder whether that was always your intention. When you sat down to write did you know that that was how you're going to write it or did it come through the process of writing?
HM: I can go back very vividly to the moment of beginning the trilogy, to writing those first few paragraphs. And with any novel what you want is to hear its note, its tone. And if you hear that truly from the beginning in a sense you can't be knocked off course. There may be all sorts of complications and difficulties but as long as you can keep hearing that true note. So the question I was asking myself is what is this novel going to sound like. But actually as soon as I began writing, from the first sentence, it became visual. First of all I was hearing the voice of Cromwell's father shouting 'So now get up!' at this fifteen year old boy who's been kicked, is bleeding, has fallen on the cobbles. There's the voice in the air above him but also I could see as if through his narrow vision his father's boot on the cobble, his own blood. And so the question was then when is this happening? Now, in the present tense. Because he thinks he's going to die. He thinks ten seconds and I'm out. And if so, this is no case for leisurely retrospection. This is a case of are we going to survive our next few breaths. And therefore it commanded the present tense, there didn't seem to be any choice. Nor was there any choice of viewpoint because who's looking at this? Young Cromwell is looking at it. We're right behind his eyes.
W: The question I think when you're reading is what is motivating this man? And there's a point at which he says 'I'm just trying to survive the week', it's a question of survival. When you're dealing with that level of power at which he's at. Did you feel that you were feeling he had different motivations at different times or is there a single force that's sort of pushing him along. It feels very much like it's escaping his father in the first book, maybe it's about furthering himself in the second book and maybe something else entirely in the third book.
HM: I think when he says oh I'm just trying to get through the week, don't take that too seriously. That's his disclaimer. Don't come at me with anything more complex for the minute. But as another character says, 'Cromwell always has a plan.' And as we know his plans come to fruition. So yes he always has his eye on the long term but at the same time there is always a problem, a challenge, adversity to be overcome in the next five minutes. He can see the big picture but there are moments in all three books when survival is the imperative and it's as narrow as that. Moments of terrible peril where he realises everything is in equipoise and one breath can destroy him. And I think his whole project and this is why he's such a fascinating subject: it's unlikely. That a man from Cromwell's background could rise to such a position of power, not just in England but in Europe. He's a man with a vision but a man who has to sustain that in the face of the teeth of opposition on an hourly basis.
W: It's a fascinating study of power and of course power has provided the narrative drive for some incredibly successful TV series, we think about The Sopranos or Succession, other plays and novels. Having dealt with it so closely yourself through these three books what have you learned about what motivates people to seek power or maybe those who don't seek it as well. The way that the machinations of power work, what have you learnt?
HM: Well I'm just now working on a theatre version. I'm at the very beginning of that process. And there's a moment in the script where the situation concerns Henry's daughter, the Princess Mary. And people are saying to Cromwell well you have to believe Mary when she says she doesn't want to become queen, she has no ambition to rule. And Cromwell says 'We all want to rule.' And from his point of view, his personality set up, that is absolutely true. But I suppose I think it's true. If you take power in its widest sense. We all need our little meed of power to survive and prosper, even within the ambit of our own families our little world when we are children, none of us are strangers to the struggle for advantage. But having said that although the challenges, if you look at it in the narrow sense, I think you're talking about politics, then I think the challenges are different these days. The Tudors didn't have to contend with media scrutiny, they didn't have to account to the general public for their actions. But at the same time the consequences of a mistake were calamitous. You played with your life, not your job. And I think there may be a sort of politician's mentality that is necessary for survival and success that not all of us share in that. I think such people often have a character that may be quite deep and complex but it's not in itself introspective because they can't dwell on the consequences of their actions. It's always next thing, next thing. Being ever ready to confront that is an interesting challenge for a writer because you're concerned with the inner workings of someone who by definition is turned to the outside world. So there's a limit to how much Cromwell knows himself. And I hope that as the third book proceeds, the reader will be saying yes, you tell me that, Cromwell, but I know better because I know you from the inside.
W: With the work that you've done adapting the books for the stage with Mike Poulton and with the actor Ben Miles, I wondered whether any of that had actually fed back into the writing of the third book. Have you found that the Cromwell that you're writing in The Mirror and the Light has been influenced by the work that you've seen on stage?Particularly with the work you've done with Ben Miles embodying that character.
HM: I think the rehearsal process, it was something that fascinated me. I've always thought of writing as an inherently dramatic activity. In that before you write a scene, and I always do think in scenes, you prepare and you prepare and there you stand nervously in the wings of it for perhaps quite some time and then you step on into the light. And it may not go the way you planned. I do find writing hard work and hard on the nerves because for me it is such an involving activity. It's not simply a cerebral activity, it uses up the whole of you. And you have to be prepared to be surprised and to allow yourself to go with the process. So I found a lot of congruence between what the actors were doing and the way I think of my own work. And Ben Miles has evolved the character not simply through the storyline but through different iterations in different theatres with a script that was also evolving. And I found the insights that he would have, I would think, yes, I will have that for book three. And there are moments when the narrative loops back to tell us about things we already know from Wolf Hall or Bring up the Bodies but with his spin on them. So we now see or recognise some aspect of them that we didn't get first time around. The viewpoint has just shifted a little and we're being told slightly more. As if almost the camera angle shifted. So I found that a fascinating process because it meant that all three books were in play at any one time. Rather than being a continuation, the third book becomes a process of continual overlapping, enwrapping, every thread being held in tension.
W: The Mirror and The Light is a hugely satisfying conclusion to this trilogy. I wonder if we could look at the title first. It's a phrase that Cromwell uses to describe the king and I wondered if you could tell us about the relevance of that phrase and why it's the right title for this book.
HM: The Mirror and The Light is a phrase that Cromwell himself used to describe Henry's kingship and it's in a letter he wrote to Thomas Wyatt when Wyatt was abroad as an ambassador. And when I came across that phrase it seemed to me to sum up the project if you like because what the third book does is to hold up a mirror to what's gone before and cast new light on what's gone before. So whilst already a metaphor it became a different order of metaphor and its weird beauty struck me. And the way it came to me that it was the right title was I was in East Sussex which became very much a Cromwell part of the country, on the Downs there at sunset one day and saw the sun against a shimmering, silver, clear sky. And the phrase came back to me. So not only did I take it for the book title but I also described a scene of Cromwell and his son Gregory riding across the Downs on the way to their new properties and thus wrapped it into the book.
W: The great thing about writing from history is that we don't have to worry about spoilers because everyone knows what's going to happen. But what can readers expect from this final book? It must be quite something for you to hand over, if you like, to the reader the final part of this trilogy.
HM: What the third book does is to take us through the final four years of Thomas Cromwell's life, taking up the story at the moment of Anne Boleyn's execution and watching his triumphant rise and his successive overcoming of obstacles and enemies to the point where the king creates him Earl of Essex and his son Gregory has married into the royal family and he's reached a position of unprecedented power. And I try to show how whilst in the earlier books the narrative may work to a crisis, we now have a crisis every day. The pressure as well as the glory is intensified in the third book and then Cromwell's fall is very... it's quick, it's mysterious. None of the existing theories cover it. It can't be covered. There are things that we will never understand. The processes of government and administration are there on the record. But the process of politics is a hidden process. And the reader will, I think, come to their own conclusions. I'm not trying to point to a certain event in Conwell's life and say that's where he went wrong. Or he could have done this or this differently. I think that's far too simple a reading. But I'm hoping to open up the story so that the reader can see the full complexity of what was going on. And I am in certain respects cutting against the orthodox account, not because I know better, I don't know better, but because I think differently. And that is because I'm entering into a dramatic process with the characters rather than sitting in judgment like God looking down on it all. Or a historian looking with the advantage of hindsight.
W: Just to finish off we've spoken a bit about what the readers might get from reading the book I wonder how you feel as the creator of these books now that you have reached the conclusion of the trilogy. Is it relief, is it trepidation, worry? How do you feel now that this book is complete and heading into readers' hands?
HM: To me the whole thing is still live because the stage version and the TV version are still to come. And I tend to think of it all as one enormous book. Obviously it's not presented to the reader in that way, but for me it's been a 15-year project during which life happens, you change; everything changes in 15 years. This has been the one thread through my life but I imagine that thread always will be there. Once you become engaged with a historical era or a particular set of characters they don't just vanish from your head. I think that's probably more true for a novelist than for a historian. You don't retire, you know, or if you do your characters retire with you they always live in your head. So I don't feel as if I'm done with Cromwell or that I'm bereaved or that the trilogy is behind me. And I think as it goes out to the reader again it gets a new life. A book isn't complete till it's read and there are as many interpretations as there are readers out there.