What Would Hilary Mantel Do?


Hilary Mantel last night after winning the Costa Prize for Bring Up The Bodies. Congratulations to her, it was a well deserved win.

In the dark and distant hedonistic days of my youth, I lived and nearly died by the mantra ‘What Would Courtney Love Do?’ My more simpering peers may have tried to channel Madonna in their everyday lives but that clearly wasn’t hardcore enough for me so I opted to take Courtney Love as my role model instead – with very mixed results. Perhaps it might have been a good idea to ditch the whole thing while doing my Finals at university or while going for job interviews or starting new relationships but I’ve never been one to do things by halves.

Living life as Courtney Love’s imaginary protegée was certainly interesting and pretty much always fun but as we all know, eventually all good things must come to an end. Right now I’m forging a pretty decent career for myself as a self published author and although ‘What Would Courtney Love Do’ was just great when I was in my mid twenties and trying to decide between getting the night bus home, sleeping on a random stranger’s sofa or going to a grubby after party, it wouldn’t really work with my life now.

Imagine it – someone gives one of your books a really REALLY awful review on Amazon. What WOULDN’T Courtney Love do? As a writer channelling Ms Love, you’d probably find yourself spending so much time fighting with reviewers that you’d never actually have any time to write anything new and when you did, it would be kind of all mad and sweary, perhaps in a good way but even so.

You see, the sort of Bad Behaviour that was really REALLY fun in your twenties just isn’t appropriate at all when you’re trying to be taken seriously as a writer. Reading author/reviewer spats on Amazon is hilarious, granted, but on a more serious level when I see a writer picking fights with reviewers, I mentally add them to a big fat mental list entitled NEVER READ THIS PERSON’S BOOKS EVER.

All of which is why I needed a new role model, someone full of intelligence, grace and charm who could steer me, as their imaginary protegée through a choppy and rather iniquitous sea of scary reviewers, writer’s block, interviews and the ever present spectre of failure. I never have to actually MEET said role model and they don’t need to know that I exist – just knowing they are out there, doing their thing and behaving perfectly is enough for me, just so long as they always serve as a reminder of How It Should Be Done.

Hilary Mantel, prize winner, all round charmer and fabulous writer, was a shoo in for the role – especially as she has been my Writing Hero for decades now, ever since I first picked up A Place of Greater Safety and fell madly in love with her writing. Critics may carp and complain but she rarely if ever responds; her interview responses are never anything less than thoughtful, measured, intelligent and insightful; she lives quietly by the sea with her husband and devotes herself to her writing and a gentle, peaceful life; she is by all accounts kind, friendly and considerate in her dealings with everyone that she encounters although she’s no push over and lovely though she may be, she isn’t demurring about her prodigious talent or the often draining hard work that has gone into honing and perfecting it.

Would Hilary Mantel stalk her Amazon reviews in search of dissent and then pounce with a torrent of invective on someone who doesn’t like Wolf Hall? No, of course she wouldn’t. She probably doesn’t even READ her reviews; she’s far too busy being AWESOME.

Does Hilary Mantel give up when things don’t go her way? Of course she bloody doesn’t. When A Place of Greater Safety was rejected, she licked her wounds and wrote ANOTHER BOOK in a completely different style, which was accepted.

Does Hilary Mantel plan her books or does she sit down and cry because she doesn’t know what’s going to happen next? Of course she plans! She carries notebooks around with her all the time and writes down snippets of scenes as they come to her. She arranges everything on a pinboard and swaps it around until it’s just right. She even writes down her dreams and thoughts first thing in the morning because as she puts it: ‘The thing is to keep the pen moving, and not hesitate or judge.

Would Hilary Mantel envy the frankly unaccountable success of Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight and completely change her writing style and subject just to get a book deal? Not on your nelly – ‘Write the book you’d like to read. There’s no point following a trend – it will be over by the time you submit your manuscript.’

From now on, whenever I feel like falling into the doldrums, beating myself up, getting upset about a rubbish review or just giving up altogether I will ask myself just one thing ‘What Would Hilary Mantel Do?’ and trust in her to show me the right way. Although, as Mantel herself joked that she’d spend the prize money from her first Booker Prize win on ‘sex and drugs and rock and roll‘ and the prize from her second Booker Prize on ‘rehab‘, I’m wondering if she’s asking herself ‘What Would Courtney Love Do?’

The Hilary Mantel Rules That I will Now Abide By:

1. Don’t respond to reviews.
2. Be gracious and kind to EVERYONE you encounter professionally.
3. DON’T STOP WRITING.
4. Plan, write notes, plan again, write more notes.
5. Don’t be afraid to rearrange.
6. If everything seems to be going pear shaped, WRITE ANOTHER BOOK.
7. Don’t be all coy about your talent and the hard work you do. YOU DESERVE SUCCESS.
8. Writing can be draining – surround yourself with people and things you love.
9. WRITE THE BOOKS THAT YOU WANT TO READ.
10. It may take time BUT YOU WILL GET THERE IN THE END.

ps. The quotes above are from a Mslexia interview with Hilary Mantel, in which she talks about her career and gives some tips for new writers. It’s definitely well worth a read!

pps. Many thanks to Katy Evans-Bush for inspiring this post.


5 thoughts on “What Would Hilary Mantel Do?

  • Little Me

    What an excellent post. Te whole what would ‘role model’ do forms part of the coaching I used to do. I’s a really interesting way of looking at yourself and moving towards becoming the person you want to be. Obviously you don’t want to BE Hilary Mantel but you have picked out which aspects of her you would like to be more like.

    And that’s great.

    My what would x do is another Hilary, but Hilary Clinton. I don’t ask the imaginary Hilary in my head for relationship advice though, but she’s quite good on lots of other things :)

    • Melanie Post author

      Thank you! I don’t think I could ever in a million years be as successful as Hilary Mantel but really what I actually want is the RESPECT that she gets for her writing. I know that we have taken completely different paths – I love self publishing and she was obviously very determined to be trade published but that doesn’t mean that I can’t model my behaviour and way that I approach my writing on her.

      I suppose that what I don’t like is this idea that self published writers can ‘get away’ with being less professional when actually we need to be MORE professional. :)

      I really like Hilary Clinton – I don’t think I could model myself on her when it comes to relationships though. I’d have gone all Courtney Love for sure! ;)

  • Claire Maycock

    Great post and I wholeheartedly agree with your choice of writing hero!

    I saw a wonderful interview where Hilary talked about the process of researching and planning Wolf Hall and it has really inspired the way I am about to approach my first novel. I also loved the interviews with her that the Open University uses as part of its creative writing courses.

    You’re so right about not responding to reviews, and about the need for professionalism regardless of which publishing journey you are on. The key thing for me is being passionate about your subject (which you certainly are)and about giving people a sense of your personality (which you also do).

    Keep doing what you’re doing and it will all work out fine!

    I, however, might need to stop asking myself ‘What would Jason Statham do’ when dealing with poor customer service etc – it cannot lead anywhere good although it does make me smile every time ;)

  • Katharine

    Just to add to your stash of Mantel-wisdom, here is my favourite Mantel-quote, from a Times interview she did a few months ago. She said that she didn’t spend time worrying about whether she was a great writer – ‘To me you just tried to solve that day’s problems…..you just try to make it work for ten minutes and then build on that.’

    I love it. Just love it.

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