Hilary Mantel: Books of My Life
The novelist shares her favorite reads
Name Hilary Mantel
Number of Man Booker Prize Wins 2
Previous Novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
Considered One of the best historical novelists writing today
New Book The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
My favorite childhood book
Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson, the adventures of 17-year-old David Balfour as he grows to manhood and seeks his inheritance in 18th-century Scotland. It compelled me from the first words and has not let go to this day. Stevenson spoke dismissively of it as a little adventure story for boys, but I imagine he knew it was a perfect novel.
The book I enjoyed most in school
If it was for school, I hated it. On principle. I had fierce ideas about what I wanted to read and I didn’t like my teachers with their juvenile lists cutting into my time.
A classic I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read
Quite a lot of Dickens. To me, reading this author is like being trapped in a box with a peppering of holes for air and sharing the space with a man who keeps shouting out bad jokes at top volume.
The book that cemented me as a writer
Kidnapped, as above. It implanted an image of how a novel should work. I think a lot of my ambitions as a writer, and many of my own persisting themes, originate there: friendship, courage, the need to go out into the world and make your fate. I reread it every couple of years, and get more interested in it, not less.
My favorite movie versions of great novels
Never Let Me Go, a chilling version of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel. And the latest True Grit, the Coen brothers version, which I think is a note-perfect adaptation, the distinctive voice of Charles Portis resonating in every frame.
A book I’ve pretended to have read
I always say I’ve read War and Peace, but the parts that stick in my mind are Tolstoy’s essay sections at the back. So it may be I began the story, then enjoyed a thousand-year sleep in the middle.
The book I read over and over
Good Behavior, by Molly Keane, an exquisitely structured black comedy set in Ireland. I try to work out how she did it: such style, such venom.
The last book that made me laugh — and the last one that made me cry
I don’t think I laugh or cry much when I read, but I do experience the goose-pimple reaction that comes when a phrase is just right. It’s an odd but well-known physiological reaction among writers and readers; I wish someone would explain it to me. Why does it feel so like fear?
A book I consider to be grossly overrated
I have a bit of a block about Hemingway; I can’t tell the parodies from the real thing.
The books I wish I’d written
I’d like to have written any of Annie Proulx’s short stories, or Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.
The books people might be surprised to learn I love
I often mention my enthusiasm for the caustic novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett, so it’s no surprise to people. The surface gentility of her novels, usually set in the late 19th century in large moneyed households, conceals shocking stories of murder and incest. But her idiom is so clipped that you can fail to realize that some sensational event has taken place and sail straight past it. That sort of nonchalance appeals to me; it takes for granted a reader who is highly intelligent and alert.
What I’m reading now
Nothing but poems. I’ve been obsessed for months with the work of the 16th-century poet Thomas Wyatt, friend of Henry VIII and supposed lover of Anne Boleyn. I’m trying to perfect some magic trick so Wyatt’s images shine beneath the surface of the novel I’m writing, The Mirror & the Light; I need to gauge those tricky rhythms and find a way to echo them in prose.