When your first two books in a trilogy win the Booker Prize, there’s no escaping the mounting anticipation for your third. That’s certainly the case for author Hilary Mantel who is busy crafting a conclusion to Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, her best-selling novels published in 2009 and 2012.
Her historical trilogy is a fictional account of the career of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son who enjoyed a meteoric rise to become Henry VIII’s right hand man. Mantel’s second instalment saw Cromwell bring about the demise of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, leaving her audience waiting on tenterhooks for the concluding chapter.
So, just when can we expect it? That was the question put to the writer at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Sunday where she was promoting her collection of short stories, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.
“It’s been variously reported,” she replied. “At one point people were saying it’s going to take ten years. It’s not. People were saying it’s going to be out next year – I can pretty well guarantee that won’t happen. I’m thinking I’ve probably got 18 months of work left to do.”
Mantel explained she doesn’t write consecutively making it hard to quantify just how close she is to finishing: “if someone really presses me I can say, ‘well, I could weigh the manuscript?’
“There comes a stage where you do have to sit at your desk with all your research materials about you and start stitching it together in a systematic way and that really is the work that I hope to start next month and continue in the months ahead and I think 2016, I hope.”
The delay between books two and three is, in part, due to the novels’ adaptation for the stage, a process Mantel was heavily involved in, working alongside adaptor Mike Poulton. “I have spent a significant amount of time with the production and certainly it’s delayed the writing but I think it’s a good delay and the book will be the better for it.
“The last year has been completely transformative for me because it’s shaped the way I think of my future as a writer. I’ve become so much a part of the theatre now that it’s not something I want to give up.”
The critically acclaimed stage production starred Ben Miles and Nathaniel Parker and transferred from Stratford to London’s Aldwych Theatre, playing 259 performances before closing last week ahead of a move to Broadway. Mantel is already entrenched in preparations for the transfer, but admitted her work on the play was informing her concluding novel and vice versa.
“It’s a rather bizarre thing because normally when an adaptation is in progress, the book’s finished and closed. In this case, the third Cromwell is running on in the background and it has informed the stage production in all sorts of ways. In turn, the stage production has informed the novel, so nothing is quite as it would have been and this is a very exciting way to work.”
The author, 62, confirmed audiences could expect a third play to follow the third novel, but also spoke of a desire to branch into different mediums to tell the conclusion to Cromwell’s ill-fated story. “My thinking has become more flexible – there are episodes I would like to put in the novel but I can’t give them a full treatment without making the book even longer than Wolf Hall.
“I’m thinking if it doesn’t work for the page, and maybe doesn’t work for the stage, maybe it’s a radio play? There are all sorts of possibilities. The story I wish to tell in its richness and complexity – I don’t care very much which form I do it in.”