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Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall won both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, won this year's Man Booker Prize. ( )

Mantel Takes Up Betrayal, Beheadings In 'Bodies'

Nov 26, 2012 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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This year, Hilary Mantel made history when she won a Man Booker Prize for her novel Bring Up the Bodies. She had previously been awarded the prize — England's highest literary honor — for her 2009 novel, Wolf Hall, and is now the first woman to receive the award twice.

Wolf Hall was the first in Mantel's historical fiction trilogy about Tudor England. It ended with the beheading of Lord Chancellor Thomas More, King Henry VIII's counselor, after he opposed the king's decision to break away from the Roman Catholic Church. Among the king's reasons for breaking away from the church was his desire to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn.

In Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel traces the downfall and beheading of Boleyn, as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, an influential minister in King Henry's court. Mantel tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that she was interested in dramatizing Cromwell because, despite being the king's right-hand man, he is marginal and sometimes even missing in fictional reimaginings of Henry VIII's reign.

In reality, Mantel says Cromwell was the "minister of everything": "He is powerful for almost 10 years, so he's the man who knows how everything works. But strangely, because he has been left out of the popular narrative, when you look through Cromwell's eyes, this material which seems so very familiar to us becomes unfamiliar."

According to Mantel, one of the attractions of writing a novel about Tudor England is that she didn't have to exaggerate the role of women. Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were superbly educated, strong-minded women who were actors in the political process. "The title of Queen of England could bring a lot of unofficial power with it," she says.

The last volume in the trilogy will end with Cromwell's execution.

Interview Highlights

On the different forms of execution

"Beheading, believe it or not, was a privilege reserved usually for the aristocracy, for gentlemen and gentlewomen. Now, I don't want you to get the idea that these were weekly events in Henry's England; it's because beheadings were rare that they made such a terrible impact on the imagination of the close circle around Henry; his ministers, the aristocracy. Ordinary people who might be convicted of theft or a crime of violence were hanged. I think there were two deaths that were more feared. One was to be hanged, drawn and quartered, which was the penalty for high treason. And the people in the book, when they were given a sentence of beheading — the men who were convicted with Anne Boleyn would have regarded that as a mercy rather than the terribly painful, long, drawn-out death of being hanged, drawn and quartered. The other thing, if a woman was convicted of treason, is she could be burned."

On the translation of the Bible from Latin to English in 1538

"Thomas Cromwell actually gets Henry's blessing for the English Bible to be placed in every parish church — this is for the first time. There had been English Bibles a few years before, but they were not licensed by the king; their status was unofficial. But Cromwell actually managed to get, eventually, Henry's commitment to the scriptures in English, and the decree was that anyone who could read could come up and read that Bible. So it's a great turning point because it's giving what people thought of as the word of God to the people in their own language. ... You don't have to ask the priest what it means. If you can read, you can read it in your own language, and if you can't read, someone else can read it out to you. It puts the responsibility for your salvation in your hands; your relationship with God changes. You don't have to go through an intermediary, as it were; you've got a direct line."

On writing historical fiction

"I make up as little as possible. I spend a great deal of time on research, on finding all the available accounts of a scene or incident, finding out all the background details and the biographies of the people involved there, and I try to run up all the accounts side by side to see where the contradictions are, and to look where things have gone missing. And it's really in the gaps, the erasures, that I think the novelist can best go to work, because inevitably in history, in any period, we know a lot about what happened, but we may be far hazier on why it happened. And there's always the question: Why did it happen the way it did? Where was the turning point? Every scene I go into, I'm looking for these contradictions, antagonisms, turning points, and I'm trying to find out the dramatic structure of history, if you like."

On the connection Mantel has to history

"Since I was a very small child, I've had a kind of reverence for the past, and I felt a very intimate connection with it. When I began, it was just being enthralled by the lives of the members of my family who really didn't seem to make any difference in day-to-day talk whether people were alive or dead. I'm one of these children who grew up at the knee of my grandmother and her elder sister, listening to very old people talk about their memories. And as I say, in their conversation, everything was as if it happened yesterday. And the dead were discussed along with the living, and the difference didn't really seem to matter. And I suppose this seeped into my viewpoint. Instead of thinking there was a wall between the living and the dead, I thought there was a very thin veil. It was almost as if they'd just gone into the next room."

On having endometriosis

"Endometriosis is a condition in which the special cells that line the womb — they are the endometrium — they should be in your womb, but in endometriosis these special cells are found in other parts of the body, typically through the pelvis, but they can be anywhere in the body. And the problem there is, they bleed each month, just as the lining of the womb does, then they scar over, and depending on how much space there is around the scar tissue, you can have terrific pain, disability. It's a disease that throws up a variety of symptoms, including nausea. It's not easy to diagnose because depending where the endometrial deposits are, the symptoms can be quite different. It's an unrecognized problem among teenage girls, and it's something that every young woman who has painful menstruation should be aware of ... it's a condition that is curable if it's caught early. If not, if it's allowed to run on, it can cause infertility, and it can really mess up your life.

"I suffered from it, I think since I was 11 years old. It wasn't diagnosed; I kept getting sent away and told that it was all in my mind. When I was 27, the whole thing came to a crisis, and I had surgery, big surgery. I lost my fertility. I didn't have any children; I don't know whether I would have been able to have children. Unfortunately, that surgery didn't cure the condition. It came back, and I lived with it for the next 20 years. It's now died back, it's quiescent, but it's done a lot of damage to my body."

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Detail: Wolf Hall ()

New In Paperback, Sept. 6-12

by Charlotte Abbott
Sep 9, 2010

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Wolf Hall Bright-sided Healing America The Case for God Traveling With Pomegranates Too Big To Fail

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Wolf Hall

A Novel

by Hilary Mantel

Just when you think nothing more could be written about the reign of England's King Henry VIII, along comes British author Hilary Mantel's colossal novel, a critics' darling that won the 2009 Booker Prize. This time, the story is told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith's son who became the king's right-hand man and, ultimately, Earl of Essex, before abruptly falling from power. "What really stands out is he's head and shoulders smarter than most of his contemporaries," said Mantel in an interview with Liane Hansen on Weekend Edition Sunday. "This is a man who understands economics, not just counting the cash. He also was astute in reading people's psychology. He really knew what makes people tick."

640 pages, $16, Picador


How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America

by Barbara Ehrenreich

When is it delusional to remain cheerfully optimistic? Veteran journalist Ehrenreich offers plenty of examples — such as when officials overestimated the strength of New Orleans' levees in the face of Hurricane Katrina or ignored the peril of lending to unqualified home buyers. Challenging false science and conventional wisdom, she correlates our cultural emphasis on reflexive positivity with American capitalism, which casts poverty, obesity and unemployment not as significant social problems but as obstacles that individuals can overcome with a simple attitude adjustment.

256 pages, $15, Picador

The Healing Of America

A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care

by T.R. Reid

Many Americans feel we have the best health care in the world, although the U.S. is ranked 37th globally, according to a broad variety of measurements by the United Nations. In hopes of understanding how other industrialized nations provide affordable, effective universal health care, journalist and author T.R. Reid toured hospitals and doctors' offices in France, Germany, Japan, Canada, the U.K. and India — with a sore shoulder. Though The Healing of America could have been policy heavy, Reid manages to keep it "crisply paced, and seriously incisive," according to BusinessWeek.

288 pages, $16, Penguin Books

The Case For God

by Karen Armstrong

A former nun, Karen Armstrong left her convent in the late 1960s and distanced herself from organized religion. While working in television, on an assignment in Jerusalem, she had an epiphany about the similarities among the major world religions that led her to study them and revisit her own faith. Twenty books later, Armstrong's latest, The Case for God, challenges the idea that faith and reason are mutually exclusive. Armstrong argues that religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to find transcendence through work, failure, anxiety and redoubled effort and to discover new capacities of the mind and heart.

432 pages, $16.95, Anchor

Traveling With Pomegranates

A Mother and Daughter Journey to the Sacred Places of Greece, Turkey and France

by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor

Before Sue Monk Kidd wrote her best-selling novels, The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, she traveled with her 20-something daughter to sacred sites throughout Greece and France. Grappling with turning 50 and her impulse to write, Kidd also longed to reconnect with her daughter Ann, just graduated from college and overwhelmed by the question of what to do with her life. Reviewers were more skeptical than readers, who made this book a New York Times best-seller. But on, reader opinion is divided: Twenty people gave it a 5 out of 5 stars, and 20 gave it only 1 or 2 stars.

304 pages, $15, Penguin Books

Too Big To Fail

The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System — and Themselves

by Andrew Ross Sorkin

What do the financial collapse and bailout say about the nature of capitalism? It's a question New York Times star financial reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin explores in this nearly minute-by-minute account of the period when each of big five investment companies failed, was sold or was converted to a bank holding company. Centering on the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the financial services giant that the government decided not to bail out in 2008, the story is told through the eyes of clashing Wall Street CEOs, whose confidence Sorkin (then 31 years old) won via his influential Deal Book blog.

624 pages, $18, Penguin Books
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This week marks the debut of this new weekly feature. Going forward, look for "New In Paperback" on Wednesday mornings.

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