Man Booker at Birkbeck: Colm Tóibín

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard

man-booker_colm-toibin-9722

On 17 October, in a genial, expansive conversation, Colm Tóibín discussed his Man Booker Prize nominated novel The Testament of Mary (2012) with Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing, Russell Celyn Jones. All of the novels discussed at the Man Booker at Birkbeck event, since its inauguration in 2011, have been set in, or concerned with, the past: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (discussed in 2011), The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (discussed in 2013), Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (discussed in 2014) and How To Be Both by Ali Smith (discussed in 2015). Although not set in the past, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (discussed in 2012) proffers a dystopian, alternative present, so it too is concerned with reimagining time. If the other novels covered diverse periods, moving from the rollicking Renaissance to the deadly Reformation and on to the austere 1920s, the bling and clamour of the 1980s and the contemporary digital moment, The Testament of Mary takes us back to the moment at which Christianity was born, an historical event heavily obscured by accreted layers of myth, competing proofs and intervening centuries of weighty theological debate, doctrine and practice. All of these novels are concerned with testimony, authority and history; in particular, who has the authority to speak and which stories become legitimate and enter the official record as ‘History’ – and which are forgotten or even derided, suppressed and erased.

For Tóibín, the task is no less than recovering, or reimagining, the full voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus and the Mother of God or Theotokos, the ‘Birth Giver of God’, in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, among others. Tóibín imagines her less-than-exalted, oblique responses to the life and death of her son and the foundational moments that articulated and established a radical, world-changing new theology and movement. Tóibín’s Mary is not the benign, silent icon we might know from Renaissance paintings or alabaster icons in hushed churches, with her sympathetic half-smile, commiserating upraised eyes and benevolently-inclined head. This is a human – perhaps all too-human – Mary, who wrestles with grief, incomprehension, anger, disappointment and guilt. Mary is deeply ambivalent about her adult son, who, in one of the novel’s most visceral moments, publically rejects her, while she is insultingly dismissive of his followers, describing them as maladjusted miscreants and dropouts – men ‘unable to look a woman in the face’. The two disciples – possibly St Paul and St Thomas, although Tóibín is ambiguous – who hover over and guard her in Ephesus, after the crucifixion, earn her particular opprobrium; she even threatens to stab them if they dare to sit in the chair of her dead husband (and Mary’s refusal to understand herself in divine terms is Tóibín’s quietly devastating challenge to Roman Catholic theology – there is no Annunciation or Nativity in this story).

Tóibín discussed the influence of Greek tragedy on the work, particularly as he was teaching the subject during the novel’s genesis. He wanted to present Mary as a Medea or Elektra figure: a woman who only has power when she speaks. Tóibín readily conceded that the anger of Mary, which constitutes a powerful undercurrent in the story, is representative of the historical anger of women marginalised in, and excluded from, the Church. In the novel, the truth of Mary’s experience is modified by the disciples, who continually interrogate her while using her testimony selectively to build a theology, kindle a movement and accrue personal power. They are uneasy about her stubborn refusal to adhere to the world-altering version of events they are promulgating, although they are painfully cognisant of their need for her as a foundation of their faith and power. ‘Their enormous ambition’, Tóibín observed, ‘is to make these words [of the Gospel] matter’, while Mary is lucid in her understanding that her experience – her testimony – will be discounted and unrecorded. Tóibín was wry about literary-critical focus on unreliable narrators, describing Mary as ‘the most reliable narrator you’ll get’. Mary is clear-eyed about her reaction to key events and the novel’s seminal moment is her fleeing the scene of the Crucifixion, in fear for her life, yet full of shame. To readers who demur at this apparently inhuman act of maternal abandonment – which also muddies the veracity of Christianity’s foundational moment of universal redemption – Tóibín observed that he is uninterested in writing about ‘most people’ or ‘normal people’ – ‘I only write the exception.’

He also confessed that Mary bolting from Christ’s death solved the technical problem of how to present the Crucifixion. For Tóibín, the novel is ‘a secular form […] filled with things […]. It’s really, really bad at divine intervention.’ He joked that it’s hard to imagine a Jane Austen novel in which the action of the plot is suddenly rerouted by God’s intercession. The two other Biblical miracles in the novel – the turning of water into wine at Cana and the resurrection of Lazarus – are shadowy and problematic: at the wedding in Cana, the miracle is made somewhat absurd and undermined by Mary’s sceptical first-hand witnessing; while the raising of Lazarus presents a melancholy spectacle, as Lazarus is unable to convey what he has witnessed in death – another example of silenced or discarded testimony in the novel – and those around him are too frightened to ask. Furthermore, Lazarus ‘will have to die twice’, Tóibín pointed out, making his resurrection feel, in some respects, akin to a curse or punishment.

Tóibín was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and he described his youthful recitation of the Rosary as his ‘introduction to beauty in language’. For Irish Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century, as for many Christians in different places and different periods, the Virgin mattered a great deal, as she had suffered human pain and so would listen and respond kind-heartedly to the prayers of ordinary sinners. ‘Nobody prayed to God the Father’, Tóibín wryly observed. Tóibín thus felt a keen understanding of the need of early Christians to worship a mother figure. In the novel, Mary flees across the Mediterranean to Ephesus (now in Turkey), the site in ancient times of the Temple of Artemis – one of the Wonders of the World – and the locus of goddess worship. Mary secretly keeps a likeness of Artemis, finding comfort in the iconic mother figure she will herself become. Indeed, it was at Ephesus in 431, at one of the Ecumenical Councils of the early Church, that Mary was declared Theotokos and the way was cleared for her veneration and worship. For Tóibín, then, Ephesus is the place in which one form of instinctive, almost primordial, goddess worship was institutionally and theologically elided by another, with the object of adoration remaining, in its essential features, unchanged.

Tóibín discussed his own experiences of all-male religious confraternities, including his Jesuit education at a single-sex boarding school, where students were taught to avert their eyes from women. This experience gave Tóibín his sense of what he called ‘men grouped together, being misfits’ – as Mary contemptuously sees her son’s followers. Tóibín was gently satirical about the absurdity of all-male fraternities such as the Roman Catholic priesthood, recalling a visit to St. Peter’s in Rome, when he secretly observed a flock of male prelates silently divested of their gorgeous arraignment by a company of alacritous nuns. Celyn Jones was interested in other biographical and Irish elements of this apparently historical novel, jovially espying traces of Ireland in Tóibín’s description of the ‘dampness’ of a home in first-century Palestine. Tóibín gamely acknowledged this and other near anachronisms that have been pointed out to him, but firmly asserted that there is ‘no such thing as a historical novel’, as ‘the past is a bit abstract’ and ‘contemporary concerns enter in’. In particular, Tóibín discussed how the novel was informed by his interest in the emotional aftermath of terrorist violence during the Troubles and other conflicts between governments and armed resistance groups, particularly the grief of the families of suicide bombers. Tóibín suggested that there may be some interesting historical parallels between Christ’s fanatical early followers – one need only think of the grisly deaths that Christian martyrs willingly embraced – and self-immolating terrorists active now.

Inevitably, there was interest from the interviewer and the audience about public reactions to such a controversial novel. Although affable and droll throughout, Tóibín was steely when asked about his right to pen such a story, absolutely asserting his liberty to write about religious subjects. He joked that there was no outcry ‘in pagan England’ and that the reception ‘wasn’t really troublesome in Ireland’, where a more avowedly liberal cultural environment has been fostered. He remarked that the greatest outrage came in the United States, where people picketed the theatre where the story – which began life as a one-woman play – was first performed. Tóibín sympathetically observed that the emphasis on identity in American society means people ‘take enormous exception’ to anything they feel is undermining their individuality. Although the outcry was relatively muted – ‘there was no fatwa’, Tóibín jested – he seemed entirely uninterested in becoming a poster boy for vociferous debates about religion and freedom of speech: ‘It wasn’t brave’, writing the novel he said – ‘it was opportunistic’. If his models were Antigone and Medea – women ‘strung out with fear – and bravery’ who are obligated to speak the truth to power – Tóibín evidently doesn’t see his work in the same heroic vein. He demurred at the idea of deliberately seeking to offend readers – he found it particularly difficult to depict the brutality and violence of the Crucifixion – but he found himself compelled to tell such a ‘dramatic’ story. ‘Where there is faith, there must be doubt’ and the literary imagination thrives in the spaces of silence and ambiguity that inevitably accompany any official historical retelling of events.

For would-be writers in the audience, including students on Birkbeck’s creative writing programmes, Tóibín joked that a recent root canal treatment had felt akin to the writing process (although he admitted that this simile may have been born of the Valium he was given by his dentist). He emphasised that writing involves ‘all the dull, dull, dull drilling of detail’ and that pattern, form and structure may only become apparent at the end of the writing process. He admitted that ‘technique is not enough’ and, although he was willing to describe writing as ‘mystery’, it is ‘not transcendentally’ so, he insisted. For Tóibín, the mystery is how ‘An idea, an image, a memory or a thing becomes, of its own accord, a rhythm’ and he urged students to write what they feel compelled to write. Writing thus emerges as a process of accretion and problem-solving: ‘Every sentence becomes a way of solving the problem the previous sentence gave you’.

This was the sixth Man Booker at Birkbeck event and this sprightly exchange confirmed yet again the success of this ongoing, rewarding partnership. As Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, observed in her opening remarks, the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck both share an ongoing, deep commitment to broadening knowledge and bringing the best of contemporary culture to the widest possible audience.

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True Crime Fictions

This post was contributed by Dr Joseph Brooker, from Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. Read the original blog post on the Centre for Contemporary Literature’s website. Here, Dr Brooker reports from True Crime Fictions a one-day, interdisciplinary conference held at Birkbeck investigating the growing corpus of hybrid fictions working with accounts of true crimes and their increasing interest to literary, legal and criminological scholars.

In Absolute Power (1997) Clint Eastwood plays a burglar who laconically states: ‘I love true crime’. I always found it entertaining that Eastwood’s next film as an actor was called True Crime (1999). These were fictions referring to a genre of non-fictional narrative, which capitalises on a public appetite for details of crimes that have really taken place. The critic Mark Seltzer has written a major work on the genre, describing it as ‘crime fact that looks like crime fiction’. But what about ‘true crime fiction’? What does that look like?

Northern Crimes: the Moors Murderers and the Yorkshire Ripper

Birkbeck creative writing lecturer Mark Blacklock's true crime fiction novel, "I'm Jack"

Birkbeck creative writing lecturer Mark Blacklock’s true crime fiction novel, “I’m Jack”

Het Phillips (Birmingham) started the conference with a discussion of materiality in true crime, drawing in a wide range of references, mentioning crime writing from the Moors Murders to David Peace. What most struck me was her emphasis on detail as a textual feature of crime writing. Detail might be a literary relative of the detective’s ‘evidence’; reading could be forensic attitude. Phillips referred not just to Roland Barthes’ account of detail in ‘The Reality Effect’, but even, strikingly, to Hugh Kenner’s discussion of material details in Joyce’s Ulysses.

Martin King’s (Manchester Metropolitan) approach was oriented to social science and media studies. His focus was particularly on David Peace’s Nineteen Seventy-Four and the TV dramatization Red Riding, and on the versions of masculinity explored in both. King suggested that Peace cannot be wholly separated from a more prurient representation of gruesome crime. What Mark Blacklock called ‘culture industry questions’ – where is a fiction situated, who is the audience, whom does it benefit, is there profit to be made? – come into play.

Helen Pleasance (York St John) closed this panel with a paper given from a creative writing background, in which creative non-fiction and memoir were key genres. She revealed a personal connection to the investigation of the Moors Murders, via her father who was a probation officer in Greater Manchester at the time. This had deterred her from engaging with the history of that crime – yet she has ultimately been unable to avoid it, and spoke of ‘what it means to know too much about Myra Hindley’. Pleasance criticized Jean Rafferty’s award-winning novel Myra, Beyond Saddleworth (2012) but found much more virtue in David Constantine’s story ‘Ashton and Elaine’ which she described at length. Constantine’s story, it emerged, addresses the murders obliquely and looks to find a way beyond them for the region.

The panel not only highlighted the particular role of the North in crime writing, but also suggested that two cases in particular have dominated the modern history of ‘Northern crime’: the Moors Murderers and the Yorkshire Ripper. Of the two, it seems to me that the former has had the deepest hold over public imagination and has been more prone to mythologization – as was indicated, for instance, by the connections that various quotations drew between the Moors Murders and Wuthering Heights.

True Crime in the United States

The second panel shifted our attention over the Atlantic. David McWilliam (Keele) described the ‘activist ethics’ of author Sarah Burns’ work on the ‘central park five’, a case of wrongful conviction. McWilliam’s presentation opened issues of race, representation and incarceration in the United States. These were also pertinent to the presentation by historian Roger Panetta (Fordham University, New York), who is undertaking a history of Sing Sing Prison. His work took us back to the nineteenth century, as he outlined his aim to better describe the prison’s inmates, ‘retracing the lifelines knotted in one cell’. Adam Gearey (Birkbeck) discussed a work by the former Weatherman activist Bill Ayres, taking ‘true crime’ into the realm of what could be called ‘domestic terrorism’ or home-grown revolutionary activity in the counterculture era. Gearey’s emphasis was not so much literary, legal or political as philosophical, drawing on Aristotle to emphasize ideas of virtue and self-fulfilment, and suggesting that bad rhetoric indicates bad ethical action.

Graphic Art and True Crime

Harriet Earle (Birkbeck) could not be present on the day but her paper was read out. Earle’s discussion of comic book art offered tools for formal analysis, with the comics My Friend Dahmer (2012) and Green River Killer (2011) her particular examples. David Platten’s (Leeds) presentation was on the fiction (written and graphic) of French communist author Didier Daeninckx. Platten showed how Daeninckx had returned repeatedly to the incident of state brutality on 17 October 1961, when Algerian protesters were murdered by police.

Ethical Issues in True Crime Writing

In the final two sessions we moved from criticism towards creative practice. Professor Martin Eve chaired a panel of authors who had written about true crime. Mark Blacklock spoke of his novel I’m Jack (2015), which fictionalizes the Wearside hoax that diverted police attention from the Yorkshire Ripper investigation. Andrew Hankinson is the author of You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] (2016), a narrative based on extensive study of the Geordie killer’s statements and actions. And Daragh Carville spoke of his authorship of a forthcoming BBC drama about the Shankill Butchers of Belfast. The intensity of the material struck me. Author events and interviews often stay at a genial, genteel level; but here, I gradually realized that all three authors had engaged with deeply disturbing and violent material, sometimes in forensic detail. This in turn raised ethical issues – who has the right to write true crime? What about the feelings of the victims’ families? Can you be sued for libel? – which were aired in discussion.

Another point that connected the three was an emphasis on place. Hankinson’s Geordie background connected him to the Moat case. Blacklock talked of his Sunderland background as his crucial motivation, even of his novel as an ‘exorcism’ for his home town. And Daragh Carville spoke of his love for ‘that weird city’, Belfast: a little like Helen Pleasance in her initial avoidance of the Moors Murders, he had avoided the Troubles all his writing life, but here at last he found himself confronting it directly. This intense concern with place – specifically with towns and cities – in turn made me wonder how large a city would need to be to transcend the effects of a particular crime. Sunderland, for instance, is a city of 175,000. Would London, at nearer 8 million, be too large to be haunted by one individual’s actions? True, Jack the Ripper and the Krays are notorious London criminals, but they are also very closely associated with the specific area of the East End. Perhaps the last crime to feel ‘London-wide’ in its effects was the 7/7 bombings: a murder case belonging to that special category called terrorism.

True Crime and Memoir

©Line Kallmayer

©Line Kallmayer

The day closed with a presentation from Line Kallmayer, a visual artist from Denmark who is currently resident in Italy after several artistic residencies in different countries, notably the United States. She described the case of the serial killer Dennis Lynn Rader, who was caught in Wichita, Kansas in 2005. Kallmeyer gave us a narrative of Rader’s life and crimes, but it was intertwined with an account of her own travels in Kansas investigating the case. True crime was mixed with memoir. But it was also a profoundly visual presentation, as Kallmayer’s text was accompanied by a sequence of many photographs that she had taken on her travels. The effect was extraordinary. The academic format of the day was now incorporating a work of art, which accordingly asked for a different response. The quality of Kallmayer’s writing was matched by her immaculate reading and the intriguingly uncertain, Sebaldian status of her images. I already thought that we had witnessed a day of high quality work, but Kallmayer closed it by taking it to a different place, and making us listen and watch differently.

What could the future hold for the study of true crime? Is there more discussion or publication ahead? I hope that this conference has started the conversation in a way that delegates will find helpful as they continue their research on true crime fictions.

This conference was generously supported by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities

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Meet the Kit de Waal scholar: Stephen Morrison-Burke

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer in Birkbeck External Relations.

During Arts Week, former Birmingham poet laureate Stephen Morrison-Burke, was announced as the inaugural recipient of the Kit de Waal scholarship – a creative writing scholarship specially designed for budding writers who would not otherwise be able to afford a Master’s degree.

Stephen Morrison-Burke

Stephen Morrison-Burke

A few years ago, Stephen’s motivation to write poetry began to give way to a new writing urge: to write prose. The result is his debut novel, The Purple Sun – a semi-biographical tale inspired by his father’s experiences leaving his Jamaican homeland in the 1970s to begin a new life in the UK. This month, Stephen finished the final draft, an 90,000-word manuscript, which follows two-and-a-half years of writing, primarily in the very early mornings. (For the full story, read the news article here)

At the Arts Week event – the Creative Writing Alumni showcase – Stephen offered his thanks for the opportunity to undertake the MA Creative Writing (part-time) programme over the next two years, then delivered a rousing rendition of a poem of his, called Wishlist.

Here, Stephen talks about the scholarship opportunity, and his relationship with writing.

Hi Stephen. Why did you decide to apply for the Kit de Waal scholarship?

“When you are essentially teaching yourself, there’s a lot you don’t learn about the theoretical elements, such as structure, plot, pace and character development, so I thought the opportunity to go through that with professionals in their fields was something I didn’t want to pass up.”

How did you feel when you were interviewed to interview for the scholarship?

“Instantly I was overjoyed. It was a very tough time for me, and it can be pretty lonely writing by yourself. So when I got that through I can’t remember feeling as relieved as that in a long time. It wasn’t necessarily that I thought I could win, it was just more that I saw an opportunity to showcase what I had been working on for so long.

Why did you decide to write a novel?

“I had no intention of writing a novel, that’s the honest truth. It sounds mad, but I just had these gut feelings that wouldn’t go. And when I started to write, I just felt better, like I was finally doing what I was supposed to be doing. I felt relieved. But it’s strange that at the exact same time as I got these feelings, the poetry stopped.

“I had had my busiest month ever in poetry – I had met the Queen, I had travelled round the country, I’d written and performed a poem for Prince William – but come New Years Eve 2013, everything just stopped, and this novel took priority. Since then, I’ve done bits and pieces with poetry, but really I’ve just focused on this novel.”

Stephen Morrison-Burke performing poetry

Stephen Morrison-Burke performing poetry

Poetry vs prose

“Although they are similar, I have to treat them very different. I have to respect the art form of writing novels. Strangely enough, my poetry is mostly storytelling anyway.”

Why do you choose to write at 4am?

“I’m a nightmare. If the sun’s out, I always end up procrastinating looking at my phone or on the internet. If it’s dark, there’s nothing else I can do, so there’s no other choice but to write.”

Do you get writer’s block?

 “I don’t believe in writer’s block. I always believe I can write something, even if it’s nonsense, or just a short poem or something to plug the gap. But the writing is a slog, it’s hard work. There are no two ways about it. I thought it would be easier than it’s been, but I chip away at it one day at a time, one sentence at a time, one word at a time. I just turn up and make sure I’m writing something.”

Why does writing make you feel better?

“I felt like there was a lot I had to say that I wasn’t saying. There was a lot to get off my chest. I’m quite quiet and introverted, so by not getting it out it felt like it was building up. So when I was writing it was cathartic.

“From the things I had learned and experienced living in a tough part of Birmingham, to then boxing for 10 years of my life, to then all this poetry, there was a lot I wanted to say. I just wasn’t saying anything about that, so it was a relief to write it down. I thought I would only write one book and it would all come out in one go, but now that I’ve written one, I feel I could write another ten.”

How has your style developed over time?

“It’s certainly developed. It’s been a mirror of who I am as a person. I started off a little pretentious maybe, trying to impress. And certainly the poetic influence can make you embellish the writing. But the more I went along, and the more I read the likes of Hemingway, Steinbeck and Amy Hempel, the more I realised it can be straight to the point and not too airy fairy. It’s about trying to see things different to how everybody else does, which is why I’m so fascinated with the perspectives of children.”

What can you say about the background to your novel?

“It’s loosely based on a true story – my dad’s. My dad and I have been working on this together since Day One. He’s the one that said ‘you can do something with this, it’s going to be special’. He would always gee me up and gave me the motivation to see it through. It was just me on my computer, and he gave me the motivation to do something.”

(l-r) Kit de Waal, Stephen Morrison-Burke, MA Creative Writing director Julia Bell

(l-r) Kit de Waal, Stephen Morrison-Burke, MA Creative Writing director Julia Bell

The latter half of the book deals with violence. What can you say about that?

“That topic is not something my Dad would go into. That’s where I had to go into my own feelings. This is where I related back to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and started to be creative. It’s not just violence for violence’s sake. I wanted to understand the mind behind violence, and what would drive someone who’s intelligent to turn to that life.”

Does your poetry background influence your prose writing?

“I feel I’m able to draw on it. I focus on the form of novels and sometimes the poetry will come through. For instance sometimes words come out in rhyme. I have to stop myself, but then at times I find it creates a good rhythm to the sentence when two words rhyme. So I would be very careful and selective about how I use poetry. But there is a very thin line between the two, if a line at all. So I let them wrestle between themselves.”

How does it feel when you are in the writing flow?

“Being in the flow is very rare for me, to be honest. I’d compare writing to how I imagine riding rodeo would feel like. You have to hold on as tight as you can until it throws you off, and that’s the end of your day, when you run out of juice. It could be three hours, or one or seven. You just hold on as tight as you can and afterwards you wait for the next day to come round.”

How did you find the interview for the scholarship with Julia Bell and Kit de Waal

“They gave me a lot of encouragement, the fact that I had got that far. On the day I said to them it was great to hear that I was on the right track with my writing. They said it was brilliant, which was actually the first feedback I had had on the writing. I was so happy to hear that.”

What do you want to get out of the MA Creative Writing programme?

“If I’m honest, I came into this wanting to make some kind of living through writing books. But I don’t put any pressure on the course to deliver that for me. My goal is to make a living out of writing and I know the course will help me, to say the least.”

“I really want to contextualise books. When I read them, there’s no context beyond reading the introduction, so for the lecturers to paint a picture of the times the books were written, and to talk about what was going on at social and political levels, will be really useful. As it is right now, I read a book from first chapter to the last, but with little understanding outside of the words I’ve read. So it will be great to sit down with a professional to discuss the whys and hows.”

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Booker at Birkbeck 2014: Hilary Mantel

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus Dr Ben Winyard.

Hilary-and-RussellOn 15 December, in a lively and wide-ranging conversation, Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing Russell Celyn Jones and novelist Hilary Mantel discussed her Booker Prize winning novel, Bring up the Bodies (2012). This is the second book in an unfinished trilogy about Henry VIII’s shadowy chief minister Thomas Cromwell, who clambered from obscure origins to become one of the most powerful men in Tudor England, before his swift, unexpected and spectacular downfall and execution.

Wolf Hall (2009), the first book and also the recipient of the Booker Prize, memorably opens with the young Cromwell reeling from an assault by his brutal father. From this startling opening onwards, the world of the Tudors is mediated through Cromwell’s consciousness. Mantel discussed how the novels gestated for about thirty years, but it was during a visit to Putney, Cromwell’s place of birth, that she accessed his voice and interiority and composed the novel’s opening line, spat at Cromwell by his belligerent father – ‘“So now get up.”’ Mantel also delighted the audience by tantalisingly revealing that the keenly awaited third and final novel, The Mirror and the Light, will close with Cromwell similarly felled, awaiting the executioner’s axe. The extinguishing of Cromwell’s consciousness will categorically terminate the reader’s access to Mantel’s fictionalised Tudor world.

Wolf Hall covers Cromwell’s pupillage and rise under Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, his orchestration of Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533. Bring up the Bodies opens with Cromwell ascendant and charts the collapse of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, her usurpation by Jane Seymour, and Cromwell’s coolly legalistic and ultimately brutal machinations to oust Boleyn at the king’s behest, which culminated in her beheading in 1536. Mantel discussed how Boleyn and Cromwell warily recognise their similarly precarious positions as social climbers in a world delineated by inherited wealth and power, although Boleyn is hungry for status while Cromwell focuses on the acquisition of power. Ironically for the queen, her ascent to the throne reduces her to ‘just a womb’, as Mantel put it, and her failure to provide a male heir and bolster a union considered illegitimate by many of the European powers makes her ‘a political liability’. Ultimately, Boleyn and Cromwell’s entwined rise to prominence unravels to be replaced by a fierce, and bloody, enmity.

Mantel was unwilling to concede to the commonplace that the historical novel, long a critically disdained genre, reflects the present more than the past. Historical fiction is not, she energetically expounded, a trivial, escapist mode. Although accepting that ‘every novel is written out of the sensibility of its time’, she also keenly emphasised her efforts to enter and engage with the consciousness of people who lived 500 years ago. Mantel sees the Tudors as inhabiting a peculiar, mythic landscape, in which short lifespans and a lack of documentary evidence meant that a sense of history was limited and personal identity a mystery. She cited legal cases of marriages under strain when consanguinity was discovered, particularly between cousins who married in ignorance of their shared kinship. Indeed, it was Cromwell who, in 1538, instigated the keeping of parish registers. The author was also impatient with comparisons between Henry VIII’s rule and that of tyrannical or totalitarian regimes in our own times. Although the novels cover contemporary themes of surveillance, information gathering, torture, religious extremism and political ‘spin’, Henry VIII, Mantel insisted, lacked the bureaucratic governing structures necessary for absolute rule and such comparisons are ahistorical and ‘lazy’. She also stressed that these historical figures were ‘whole and entire’ and not ‘pallid rehearsals’ of our modern selves; for Mantel, history is not simply a Whiggish teleology from backwardness, ignorance and incompleteness to progress, knowledge and civilised wholeness.

AudienceThe audience, which included students on Birkbeck’s successful Creative Writing programmes, enjoyed Mantel’s frankness about her working process, which involves the creation of ‘scenes’ built on meticulous research and a less mechanical process whereby the voice, consciousness and worldview of a character is accessed, putting Mantel ‘right there in the scene’. Mantel was particularly enthusiastic about the experience of seeing Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies adapted for the stage by the RSC, observing that the actors strenuously avoid ‘the heavy hand of determinism’ and play each scene as if in the present moment. This, she argued, further encourages her to be there in the scene with her characters when writing. With twenty one actors taking on many of the 159 characters in the novels, Mantel humorously observed, ‘It’s wonderful what you can do with beards.’

James Wood, writing in the New Yorker in 2012, praised Mantel for knowing that ‘what gives fiction its vitality is not the accurate detail but the animate one.’ Mantel’s extraordinary talent for historical ventriloquism also creates suspense and the thrilling sense that history is still unfolding, making historical ‘fragile again, with everything at suspenseful risk’, in Wood’s words. Mantel described herself as ‘a good spiritual ventriloquist’, easily accessing the conflicting religious worldviews and passions that rent Tudor Britain, despite having lost her Catholic faith around the age of twelve. Although keen to refute any element of the ‘mystical’ in her efforts to access and channel past voices, it is perhaps fitting that an author who has written so engagingly on spiritualism in Beyond Black (2005) should present her writing practices as employing her body, memory, consciousness and life experiences to access something beyond perception. A novel, Mantel stressed, must cohere on a deep level, below consciousness – writing is not simply a mechanised process. When asked where she can be found in the novels, Mantel replied ‘Living lives vicariously’, exploring the paths she wasn’t able or willing to take in life. Mantel relishes that writing is not gendered and enables the author to become another, particularly as the gender ambiguity of her name encouraged a childhood ambition to pursue a ‘masculine’ career as a knight of the round table or as a railway guard.

In a 2012 interview in the New Statesman, Mantel described her writing as more sinewy, tough and uncompromising than her everyday self. However, citing the recent controversy surrounding her short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (2014), Jones observed that, like Cromwell, Mantel is good with her fists when she needs to be – ‘you fight back’. Mantel expressed exasperation at the ‘trivial’ and ‘bullying’ nature of contemporary public debate, but she was obviously thrilled by the frothing, manufactured outrage of Tory grandees and some corners of the tabloid press, chuckling at demands for a criminal investigation into her fictional account of a fictional assassination. Like last year’s Man Booker speaker, Alan Hollinghurst, Mantel also seems keen to use fiction to explore and interrogate the cultural, political and socio-economic legacies of the Thatcherite 80s.

This was the fourth Man Booker event at Birkbeck – previous speakers include Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro and Alan Hollinghurst – and follows Mantel’s Orwell lecture at Birkbeck in 2009. Both the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck share a commitment to bringing the highest intellectual and cultural achievements to the widest possible audience and this enlivening exchange further cemented this successful and rewarding partnership.

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