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A look at the literary legacy of Hilary Mantel


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Hilary Mantel authored 17 books, but it was her trilogy of historical fiction based on the life of England's Thomas Cromwell and King Henry VIII that brought her worldwide fame and acclaim.

Mantel died yesterday at age 70 of a stroke at a hospital near her home in Exeter, England.

The "NewsHour"'s Jeffrey Brown sat down with Mantel in 2015. At the time, she had published the first two novels of the trilogy, "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies." The former was being adapted for both a PBS television series and for the Broadway stage.

Here's an excerpt of their conversation. It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Hilary Mantel and her historic characters are seemingly everywhere.

Hilary Mantel, Author, "Wolf Hall": The ever-expanding Henry VIII.

Jeffrey Brown: Literally.

Hilary Mantel: With his six wives. No one else has a ruler with six wives, who cuts the heads off two of them. So, you're off to a flying start there.

Jeffrey Brown: Mantel's novels "Wolf Hall" and its sequel, "Bring Up the Bodies," have been an international sensation, with more than four million books sold in 37 languages. She won the prestigious Man Booker Prize twice, a first for a woman.

It's a familiar story in many ways, the momentous reign in the 1500s of the Tudor King Henry, played on television by Damian Lewis, basking in power, but needing a male heir, cutting loose one wife in favor of the young Anne Boleyn, only to cut her head off when no son is produced.

But Hilary Mantel has told the story in a new way, giving the lead role to Thomas Cromwell, played by Mark Rylance. Cromwell has long been cast as the heavy, a shadowy cruel schemer, especially as compared to his great rival, Thomas More. Mantel's Cromwell is certainly clever and scheming, but he's also charming and urbane.

Hilary Mantel: Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith, who rose to be the king's right-hand man and eventually earl of Essex.

And my question is simple: How do you do that? What kind of a man in that hierarchical, structured society can break through all the social layers, all the factors stacked against him, and climb so high? And what is the price?

Jeffrey Brown: You looked at the history and you said, this is wrong, the way he's been portrayed?

Hilary Mantel: I thought it was a lot more complicated and nuanced than the popular picture of Cromwell. I wanted to put the spotlight on him. And I wanted to ask my reader, or our audience, well, what would you do if you were him? Just walk a mile in his shoes, and then see what you think.

Jeffrey Brown: Mantel says she grounded her fiction in years of research.

Hilary Mantel: I think that an imaginative writer for stage or novel has a — still has a responsibility to their reader, and that responsibility is to get the history right.

Jeffrey Brown: You want to do that?

Hilary Mantel: Absolutely. That's the absolute foundation of what I do.

I begin to imagine at the point where the facts run out. But, like a historian, I'm working on the great marshy ground of interpretation.

Jeffrey Brown: Which historians do, but also, you're saying, novelists?

Hilary Mantel: Exactly. We all share the same sources. We share the same facts. The question is, where do we stand to view them?

I sometimes think back, though, to the day when I began, because it's very vivid in my mind, writing the first paragraph, and having that feeling, by the time I was halfway down the first page, this is the best thing you have ever done. I was walking around with a big grin: Do you want to see my first page?

Judy Woodruff: From that first page to the very last one, Hilary Mantel completed her famed trilogy in 2020 with the novel "The Mirror and the Light."

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