Double Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel visits Birkbeck

Students and alumni heard about her novel Bring Up the Bodies

A video of this event is now available online.

On Monday 15 December 2015, acclaimed author Hilary Mantel spoke to an audience of Birkbeck students and alumni about her Booker Prize-winning novel Bring up the Bodies. The event was organised as part of the collaboration between the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck, which aims to make the highest quality contemporary literature available to students and is now in its fourth year. During November 2000 copies of Mantel’s novels were distributed to Birkbeck students.

Mantel, who is the first British author and the first woman to win the Booker Prize twice, revealed that she had the idea for her Tudor trilogy - Wolf Hall (2009), Bring up the Bodies (2012) and The Mirror and the Light (forthcoming in 2015) – 30 years ago, but that the idea of moving away from her 18th-century specialism was difficult. In conversation with Birkbeck creative writing lecturer and former Booker Prize judge Russell Celyn Jones, Mantel explained that following the critical success and modest commercial success of her novel Beyond Black (2005) she felt the time was right to approach her publisher about writing a book about Thomas Cromwell.

Discussing her writing process with Celyn Jones, Mantel explained that she writes in scenes, rather than chapters or thinking about the overall structure of the novel. She then moves the material around to create the final order of the novel. She said that when writing she feels that she is taking dictation from “something inside”, saying “The work of a novel is done not from the head, but with the whole body, the whole life experience and the whole memory”.

The lively audience took the opportunity to question Mantel on the challenge of writing female characters whose lives were far less documented than those of men; comparisons between how we understand the actions of modern day politicians compared to those of historical leaders; how she decides which historical threads to develop and which to leave out; and about the experience of working on stage and film adaptations of her work.

For those who are eagerly awaiting the final instalment of the trilogy there was good news, as Mantel confirmed that she feels more absorbed in the story of Thomas Cromwell than ever and there will be no question of her running out of energy. She affirmed that she is as driven now as she was on the first day she started working on the series.

This was the fourth year that Birkbeck has participated in the Booker Prize Foundation’s Universities Initiative, following visits by Sarah Walters (2011), Kazuo Ishiguro (2012) and Alan Hollinghurst (2013).

Watch the video of the event.

View photos of the event on our Facebook page.

Man Booker reception

Nearly 50 alumni and supporters of the College continued the discussion about Hilary Mantel’s brilliant novels and shared their own experiences at Birkbeck at a reception. The event took place in the historic Keynes Library in Birkbeck’s School of Arts in Gordon Square. The room, which was once used by the influential British economist John Maynard Keynes, has been refurbished thanks to a generous donation from Patsy Hickman.

Professor Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of the School of Arts, highlighted the significance of the Library and the adjoining Gordon Square premises in intellectual life. She said: “This is where the Bloomsbury Group lived and had their famous meetings. Working in this building in this terrace at the School of Arts, we like to think that some of our glorious heritage has rubbed off on us. It is interesting reading what Virginia Woolf had to say about old Bloomsbury when she wrote about it some years after living here. She said: “At 46 Gordon Square one could say anything, do anything. It was a great advance of civilization.” I would like to think that we are still pushing civilization forward here.”

Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck, said: “This is an opportunity to give the College’s thanks for all the help and support you have given us over a number of years. We do now move forward towards our third century as it is nine years until we reach our 200th birthday. We still need tremendous support for studentships. We do still need your support, both in financial terms and as advocates of the College. Thank you for being here.”