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Devon Life talks to double Man Booker Prize winning novelist Hilary Mantel

PUBLISHED: 22:34 17 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:05 20 February 2013

Looking out over the beach at Budleigh. Photo: Guy Newman

Looking out over the beach at Budleigh. Photo: Guy Newman

Hilary Mantel has always been drawn to Budleigh... <br/>and now she has made it her home and is President of its Literary Festival writes Harriet Mellor

Devon Life talks to double Man Booker Prize winning novelist Hilary Mantel

Award-winning novelist Hilary Mantel has always been drawn to Budleigh

and now she has made it her home and is President of its Literary Festival writes Harriet Mellor

Hilary Mantel has always been drawn to Budleighand now she has made it her home and is President of its Literary Festival writes Harriet Mellor

In early 2010, author Hilary Mantel was riding high. The previous autumn shed won the prestigious Man Booker prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall, her brain was abuzz with creativity and research ready to start on the sequel, and she and husband Gerald were about to move to Budleigh Salterton, the Devon town shed dreamed of moving to since she was a teenager. Then fate intervened and dealt her a cruel hand.
I had a very complicated year after the Booker. I knew I was dreadfully ill and just kept going on willpower through to spring, then one day a very bad attack of pain. When I got round to seeing the consultant, they scheduled immediate surgery. I went into hospital early in July, had surgery twice, and it took me out virtually for the rest of the year.
What happened was very frustrating because the flat was ours by August, but I was housebound and facing another operation, so I didnt actually see it till almost Christmas. Gerald put the view out of the window as the screensaver on my computer so that Id believe in it all through that awful summer and autumn. Actually Ive still got it on there, but now I can raise my eyes and see the real thing.
Two years on and Hilary has achieved all that was put on hold.
We are sitting in their flat on the top floor of a seafront building that was once the chi-chi Southlands Hotel and still exudes a retro-glamour. The expansive view takes in the beach, sea, cliffs and the sky, which means Im the first to see the weather coming up, says Hilary.
I came here first as a 16-year-old. My parents brought us on holiday to Exmouth and I came walking by myself over the cliffs on a hot day and saw the town from above and it just touched my imagination because on that baking-hot day it looked like a Mediterranean town, which I had never seen but knew what it should be like.
As I walked down the length of the beach I could hardly take a step because I was so enchanted by the pebbles. Id already decided that Id like to live in Windsor, and now that Id like to live in Budleigh too. I never changed my mind. I did live in Windsor, and its taken a long time but Ive finally made it to Budleigh.

My view takes in the beach, sea, cliffs and the sky, which means Im the first to see the weather coming up!

We moved in on the first day of spring last year and the weather was beautiful in April sitting out on the balcony. I will forever associate that book with long evenings last summer and the Budleigh Music Festival. I remember coming home and I hadnt actually heard the concert because my head was so full of loud dialogue from the book and at that stage it didnt exist, it was in pieces and I was just beginning to draw it together then it went very fast because I was well prepared.
Bring up the Bodies came out in May to equal acclaim as Wolf Hall, and has also been long-listed for the Man Booker 2012. Both books, part of a trilogy, are set between 1500 and 1535, providing a fictional account through Henry VIIIs minister Thomas Cromwell. Polling people before interviewing her, it seemed the most common factor was one of awe at the sort of pressure Hilary might feel under re-writing such a pivotal point in British history. She says there were opposing reactions from those who felt their learnt British history was tampered with.
Some people were inclined to pick a fight with Wolf Hall because it didnt give them the familiar version. They can be very conservative in their view of history and cling to what they learned at school. My version runs slightly against the grain because its coming from Cromwells viewpoint with the stress falling differently.
But its not historians Im challenging, its the public who consume popular history. I realise that some of the time some readers will probably be lost but Id rather push my reader than spoon-feed them. I think if you treat the reader as very intelligent they respond to that.
Now Hilarys headspace is into the third and final instalment. When The Mirror and the Light is completed the year after next, shell have spent 10 years with Thomas Cromwells narrative running through her head.
Yes its like an underground stream always there. Most of the time Im not conscious of it, but when everything is quiet I can hear it bubbling away.
Hilary has been writing since her early twenties, with a long list of commendable books long before the success of the Wolf Hall trilogy. Fiercely intelligent, she has a remarkable literary ability to flit between historical and contemporary fiction, and autobiographical. Notable among them was Giving up the Ghost, a memoir of her childhood and the undiagnosed endometriosis that meant the couple could not have children, which won the MIND Book of the Year. Beyond Black, about a medium and her psychic show, was short-listed for the Orange Prize for fiction in 2006, which was also the same year she was awarded a CBE.
Despite professional recognition, in their previous home in a converted Victorian asylum in Surrey, Hilary and Gerald lived pretty much incognito as Mr and Mrs McEwen. Nobody knew what I did and wouldnt have associated me by my married name even if they knew I was a writer. We didnt know our neighbours; many of them had second homes or were early retirees. It was as different from Budleigh as you can imagine.
Budleigh is the sort of place where there are a lot of cultured people and academics and retired academics, and nobody would dream of coming up to you and saying Hows it going? They understand that is just about the most painful question for a writer, and I think people here are very discreet. Everyone is friendly but no one is intrusive, and its a lovely welcoming atmosphere.
Budleigh really has heralded a new start for the couple and their marriage, and also the way theyve finally put down roots within a community. Hilary is President of the annual Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival and Gerald has joined its artistic committee, so perhaps its fitting that the couples 40th anniversary falls on festival weekend.

I walked acrosss the cliffs from Exmouth on a hot day and saw Budleigh from above, and it just touched my imagination

As Wolf Hall propelled Hilary to a different sphere in the publishing world, Gerald, who was in IT and a former geologist, now works with his wife.
I got to the stage where I badly needed help with the business side of things, and it seemed logical that Gerald should be the one to do it.
At first its not easy, but you get to know each other in a different way. Over a few months it shook down and Gerald understands better than anyone when I need to be left alone, and doesnt take offence or feel slighted like many partners would.
Hes a very relaxed person and this life really suits him, but his time is also very pressured. People say Have you retired, Gerald? and hes anything but.
Its also lovely to have someone to travel with. If you do a public event and get back to your hotel at 10pm youre so energised that youre bouncing off the walls and want someone to talk it through with. When Im by myself its really hard to wind down, and the number of times Ive confronted the room-service sandwich and had a sleepless night, I cant tell you. So now I have someone to talk it over with and share that room-service sandwich with!

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is published by Harper Collins. Hilary has also written an e-book about her experiences in hospital, Ink in the Blood: A Hospital Diary.


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