Saturday, December 12, 2009

Preparing a writer's visit - Hilary Mantel

Doing an interview for The Journal (an East Riding glossy), I realized something about the writers’ events we’re holding at The Philip Larkin Centre (which take an ‘in conversation’ format). They’re theatre. The characters are costumed. We enter and exit the stage, which has been set and lit. We interact with each other, and with the audience. And the events are both scripted and improvised.
Hilary Mantel crowned this first season last Wednesday night. When I took the job at Hull she was my first ‘pick’, the writer I would like to come to know whose writing I most wanted to share with others. My invitation went out way before Booker Prize season. It was a fair guess that she might win, and I felt joy for her alongside trepidation for us when she did. Booker Prize winners are tempted around the world by glitzy offers. Wolf Hall was published in America the week after winning and zipped straight into the top ten bestseller lists, so the demand for Stateside interviews was also intense. Hilary was a trouper, is honouring her diary, and turned up on the East coast in cold December.

I began my preparation last summer, reading her saga of the French revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, 800+ small print pages, one of the most ambitious first novels in history. Wolf Hall stayed on my shelf for a while. I wanted it fairly fresh in my head for our talk, as I set out on a chronological approach through the Hilary Mantel oeuvre.
Questions lurk in my head through those months of reading, and then I start to write down my side of the conversation some days before the ‘show’. These questions move from scrawl to computer screen and are whittled down into my ‘script’. I refine the questions, shift them around, until the talk begins to gather some shape. It’s possibly not apparent to an audience, but I see each of these conversations as having a beginning, middle and end. Themes are broached and then explored, the ‘end’ more of an emotional note, a point when some line of enquiry reaches a high point and we can pause, passing the questioning role over to the audience.
Readings stud the evening, giving us the writer’s voice, her book, and some variety of content. I like selecting the readings because I think this freshens things for the writer—there’s a curiosity of someone having engaged with your work, and the writer is moved out of tried and trusted territory. For Hilary I selected four passages, from different books. From the narrative voice in Wolf Hall, told in the present tense with some use of ‘you’, the reader addressed directly, I had a sense of Hilary Mantel in a Tudor gown, seated and telling us a story, and indeed she is a natural and marvellous storyteller.
I have my ‘script’ to hand, all coloured up with marker pens, sectioned into themes with titles in bold letters. I glance at it, but it’s there for comfort rather than reading. We’ve now entered the improvised nature of the show. I’ve scripted it, but the writer hasn’t. They’re working on trust, and their own vast knowledge of their subject area—their own writing and way of working. I ask a question, and then the writer’s up and flying. There’s no telling where their answer will land them, and so I can’t tell what the best follow-through question will be. I tend to work through my script for content but not order, improvising segues to get us back on my course, while following interesting lines of thought the writer is pursuing.
We’re recording all of these events for the library archives—in sound, but also on film for Hilary Mantel. These recordings will be linked from the Larkin Centre website sometime in the New Year. One of my main hopes for our writers’ events is that my questions, stemming from my own life of writing, trigger unusual responses. I want these talks to be a valuable resource to researchers of the future.
And, of course, for readers now. I’ll leave you to watch / listen to the event yourself when it comes online. Those who were there were astonished by Hilary’s articulate flow. One of the booksales team playfully termed Hilary Mantel her new ‘goddess’ in honour of the encounter, had embarked on reading all her work, and was building an altar in the backroom of the bookstore. One element I particularly enjoyed was Hilary’s sense that bad writing or banal conversation would throw you off your writing stride completely. I like the sensitivity of that. For Hilary, the solution is to read anything by Ivy Compton-Burnett—and only by her, no-one else works in the same way. The way she writes her dialogue has the same ‘tick’ as Hilary’s own, so reading Ivy Compton-Burnett before bed resets her clock, and her writing rediscovers its appropriate speed when she resumes work the next day.
Now my focus shifts. I’m reading my way into Francis King’s writing world for our conversation in London in January. For an occasional evening’s break I may watch a film or two scripted by Christopher Hampton for our February gig (as part of the staging, we’re shifting that to Hull Truck Theatre’s studio space). The lucky part for me, that raises this work far above any sense of chore, is that I get to choose the writers. There’s quite a list of starry names I’ve no interest in meeting. When the writing speaks to me, I have a chance to speak with the writer. Mine’s not a bad job at all.



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home