Hilary Mantel’s two best-selling novels on King Henry VIII’s adviser Thomas Cromwell — “Wolf Hall” (2009) and “Bring Up the Bodies” (2012) — have won her two Booker prizes. A new Masterpiece series, “Wolf Hall,” begins tonight on PBS, and a two-part Royal Shakespeare Company play based on the novels oficially opens April 9 on Broadway. Mantel spoke about her books — and their spin-offs — from New York, where she is working on the plays.
Q. How did you become fascinated by Thomas Cromwell?
A. It was the very singular arc of his story: blacksmith’s son to Earl of Essex, poor boy to king’s right-hand man. It has a strong archetypal quality to it. You want to know: What kind of man could achieve that and stay at the top of Henry’s court of predators, be close to the king for some eight years before disaster struck? And during those eight years, he helped reshape the nation.
Your depiction goes against the prevalent image of Cromwell as a ruthless despot. Is he your fictional character or a reinterpretation of history?
Well, it’s not simply my reinterpretation. There is a divide between academic history and popular history. Cromwell’s role was explored intensively by academic historians, but people’s imaginations are not shaped by scholars; they’re shaped by popular historians and fiction writers. And of course, Thomas Cromwell had really fallen victim to Robert Bolt and “A Man for All Seasons,” and we see him emerge in a very bad light. Even though I would say there can be other ways of thinking, my interpretations are valid; they’re not plucked out of the air. It’s not that I was looking for a hero. I was looking to explore a very complex man who was flawed and equivocal and ambiguous, and I’m not big on judging my characters. I want to understand them.
Do you think you ended up with a hero?
One could say he’s an equivocal hero. Perhaps he’s a hero for our times, because I think we’re very aware now that judgments are not a simple matter, and that one’s sense of right and wrong often gives way under the pressure of events. He was a ruthless man, but no more so than other politicians of his era. And he had a number of good qualities that I think tended to be buried under a weight of prejudice.
Another idea your books explore is how dangerous it is to be so close to power.
For politicians, one misstep could be fatal. You didn’t get to resign. You might well find yourself in the Tower [of London]. In the case of the women in his life, he began by putting them on a pedestal, and they ended up in the dust. Obviously, what he needed was a son and heir. It’s in some ways a problem peculiar to kings, but in other ways, it’s a very common problem. I don’t mean simply the lack of a child, but, who is the partner who will give you what you desire? To come into the king’s sight, to be identified by him as his next true love, was a very dangerous business.
Are today’s politicians as ruthless as Cromwell?
Yes, but the difference is that their ruthlessness results in mass deaths at a distance. With Cromwell, the victims, if you can call them that, are named, and they die on Tower Hill. But they die singly. I think our age has no business looking back and judging the Tudors. Cromwell and his contemporaries weren’t there to act as a kind of rehearsal for us. They have to be seen in their own light. So although there are all sorts of contemporary resonances, my stories aren’t a disguised way of writing about the present. They really are about the past.
How would you compare your role in the BBC’s Masterpiece production with your role in the Broadway play — and how have these experiences affected your third novel, ‘The mirror in the Light’?
My involvement with the two projects is very different. With the BBC, I visited the set, but the script writer, Peter Straughan, needed very little help. It was miraculous how quickly he grasped what was at stake and how to make the characters talk. The plays were a very different story: I worked with the adaptor for 10 drafts. I’ve been in the rehearsal room, so my conversations with the actors do change the third book — but the third book also changes the plays. I’m just this morning writing a passage that explains why Thomas Wyatt, at the end of “Bring Up the Bodies,” gives Cromwell the evidence he needs to convict Anne Boleyn. About 5:00 tonight I’ll have it dropped off at the stage door when the actors arrive who play Cromwell and Tom Wyatt. It won’t change the words they’re speaking, but it will change what they know.
Carole Burns’s short story collection, “The Missing Woman,” is being published this month. She is head of creative writing at the University of Southampton in England.