So immersed has she been in the 16th century that she once remarked brightly to a colleague of mine at dinner, “Your little head would look cute on a pike”.
In the eight years since Bring up the Bodies, Mantel’s fans fretted that the promised third volume would never appear, that she was giddy with fame after winning the Man Booker prize twice, or distracted by the glamour of working on the stage version of the books, or stymied by writer’s block.
On the contrary, she says, she had been working like “a factory”, mured up with her sources and card indexes; it took a long time because it was difficult.
“You feel history filling up; it becomes a complex story, international events are so fraught and because Cromwell is in charge of so much,” – Henry keeps loading him with new titles – “everything comes across his desk. In those months after Anne’s death were about 10 years’ worth of history; it was really hard to get out of 1536! Sorting all this out for the reader you have to be very clear in your own mind what you need and what you don’t. You’re working on one scene and your mind is racing ahead to the pay off of what you’re writing now. It is certainly the hardest thing I have ever had to do.”
But it was the thing she was always going to do, since she was a girl, before she began as a novelist. Starting it was, she has said, “like at last delivering what’s within you … an enormous shout from a mountaintop.”
Since her teenage years she had suffered a cascade of troubling and painful symptoms, eventually diagnosed as endometriosis. By this time she was 27 and in dire straits, requiring a hysterectomy; subsequent drug treatment left her overweight with a failed thyroid, arthritis, damaged kidneys and a legacy of pain and fatigue.
Unable to have children with her husband, Gerald McEwan, her career options limited by illness, she could at least write. Historical fiction was her intention but her first book, A Place of Greater Safety, about the French revolution, was roundly rejected (though later published to acclaim) and for 20 years she wrote contemporary novels, acquiring a clutch of devoted readers.
But she languished under the radar until, in 2009, Thomas Cromwell strode onto the scene, flushed from the shadows, rendered subtle, complex and humane, redeemed from the role of notorious villain to which previous writers had confined him.
Mantel says she didn’t know then that the story would become a trilogy: “There was a sense of having to get good enough to do it. This last book tested everything I’d learnt. If I hadn’t had so much previous experience there would have been times when I thought, this is impossible. But I know now how to pick myself up when discouraged and how to let problems unknot themselves. Also, I had put a lot of time into the stage plays and it paid off because I picked up tricks and techniques to strengthen my hand with the narrative.”
We learn a lot more about Cromwell’s earlier life in the new book – a grim, brutalised childhood, the opportunistic years in Europe, picking up language and culture.
“I hadn’t fully powered up my imagination before,” she explains, “he was supposed to have said, ‘I was a ruffian in my youth,’ and that’s all I had to go on, but actors want back story, they want to know more about their character and that spurred me on to probing, opening up a vista into Cromwell’s past.”
She has made him very attractive; I tell her that right from the beginning of Wolf Hall I wanted to marry him and live in his house at Austin Friars. This makes her chuckle; she has lived with him in her head for so many years, what are her feelings for him?
“It’s complicated,” she says, “because I occupy the same space as he does; I’m behind his eyes, I’m at the table with him. But I’ve come to value and admire him whilst at the same time he was a ruthless, practical politician and had to be in order to survive in that bear pit. Out of the men of his Age, with the possible exception of [Cardinal] Wolsey, he’s the one I’d most like to have dinner with. Though Wolsey would tell you the gossip; Cromwell wouldn’t tell you anything.”
In Mantel’s narrative, Cromwell is rarely wrong footed but when he is it is usually by a woman.
“He has women friends,” she says, “he takes women a lot more seriously than most of the men around him, but at the same time he is a Tudor male. It’s hard for him to imagine himself inside a woman’s head, they have enormous power to surprise him.”
He loves his boys, he loved his wife and daughters, carried off early by a fever, yet he says he has never been in love. Observing his ward, Rafe Sadler, besotted with his new wife, Cromwell wonders, wistfully, what it feels like. “It’s almost as if he runs too cool,” says Mantel, “he can only observe it from afar.”
She is a genius at evoking atmosphere with the tiniest of details – a garden tower at dusk, blue haze outside, a dish of strawberries – does she have a layer of skin missing so that she feels emanations and vibrations; she is in that room, seeing that light so that we do too? “Absolutely. It becomes more real than your everyday surroundings; I do have the sense of the world falling away.”
Does Cromwell have the same sort of sixth sense? “I think probably you are quite right,” she muses. “The Spanish ambassador mentions that his eyes don’t leave your face while you’re talking; he is reading you all the time as if you were a text.”
Quite an industry has grown up around Mantel’s magnum opus: there is another TV series in the offing, rehearsals for the stage play, written by her, are under way, the actor Ben Miles who plays Cromwell is making an audio book and his brother is producing a volume of photographs.
“Whenever I see Ben I think, ‘ah, here comes Cromwell’, so he is very much still alive,” Mantel says happily.
She would like to write more drama: “It depends on my health. You have to keep pace with people and they are usually 30 years younger.”
She scandalised the British establishment with her 2014 short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, and thinks of turning it into a play. Asked if she was not afraid of poking a sleeping bear, she laughed: “It will be offensive on a scale like they’ve never seen. I shall be absolutely revelling in my capacity to give offence.” (Mantel once remarked of Mrs Thatcher’s handbag: “She whirled it around like an outboard vagina.”)
This capacity to give offence – she famously described the Duchess of Cambridge as a jointed doll – did not stop Prince Charles making her a Dame in 2015. Her elevation would make little difference, she said at the time: “I think most writers think of themselves as being on the margins. They’re the ones leaning against the wall watching the party. That is always where I will be, even if they make me queen.”
The Mirror and the Light is published on March 5 by HarperCollins at $45.