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A look at the work of author Hilary Mantel, who has died at 70

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Dame Hilary Mantel died today. The British writer was 70. The cause was a stroke. Mantel's major work, the "Wolf Hall" trilogy, won her two Booker prizes and focused on King Henry VIII and his shrewd statesman, Thomas Cromwell. For readers, Mantel was the sort of author you either didn't know or you were completely obsessed with. NPR senior editor Barrie Hardymon falls firmly into the latter category. She also interviewed Mantel, and she's here with us now. Hey, Barrie.

BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: So I am firmly on team obsessed right there with you, I mean, 'cause good Lord, could she write...

HARDYMON: A sentence. Yes.

KELLY: Just peerless what she could do with a sentence...

HARDYMON: Absolutely exquisite.

KELLY: ...With a page.

HARDYMON: There's nothing else like it.

KELLY: In terms of what she did with all those sentences, she might also be responsible for single-handedly rehabilitating Thomas Cromwell, who was seen as one of the bad guys of English history...

HARDYMON: That's right. That's right - "Man For All Seasons."

KELLY: ...Until she took him on.

HARDYMON: It's true - really did him in. Thank you, Robert Bolt. But until - and then she sort of came along. And, you know, she did tell me that she knew that the Tudors were a crowded field. She didn't want to write another Anne Boleyn book. She had never really seen anything that placed Cromwell where he belonged at the center, where he really was, in the Reformation, at the center of everything. He was always sort of around the outskirts. So she decided to write this. And she did years of meticulous research, just bit by bit by bit. And as a result, the books are actually hugely complex, very intricate - you know, places, ideas, names. Everyone is named Thomas. And yet they're still utterly readable. It's like being in a cathedral where you are - it's utterly awe-inspiring but still a lovely place to be. But she did also tell me that all of that research was exhausting but also exhilarating to her.

HILARY MANTEL: It's not a task you can just perform, and it's done. It's something you fight through in every scene, I think, in every paragraph, almost that tension. It's almost like two parts of your brain, maybe. You've accessed all these facts, but then what you're going to make of those facts? What insight can you bring?

HARDYMON: And, Mary Louise, I should say she - the insight that she brought was so deep that a Cromwell historian once told her that she shed light on his own non-fiction biography of her. And I don't know that there's a better story about what truths fiction can tell.

KELLY: She also wrote all kinds of other stuff beyond the "Wolf Hall" trilogy. Tell us about it.

HARDYMON: That's right. She didn't achieve success until quite late in life. She began, in fact, with a law degree, but did not become a barrister. Instead, she got a job in a department store and began reading all about the French Revolution, which I'm sure we can all identify with. It led her to starting a piece of historical fiction. She did write a pair of contemporary novels early on that were very popular. They're very dark. They have a Muriel Spark quality to them. She wrote criticism. She wrote short stories and some very personal, very lovely memoirs about her struggles with chronic illness over the years. And I would really urge everyone to seek out her essay, which really places Kate Middleton, the Princess of Wales, in context with Princess Diana and Anne Boleyn. It is incredible. It's called "Royal Bodies."

KELLY: And just quickly, when you interviewed her, it was when she came out with the final chapter of "Wolf Hall." Did she say she was done with writing historical fiction?

HARDYMON: Well, I asked her that question, too.

MANTEL: The conclusion I've come to is there won't be another big historical novel because I won't live so long considering what I impose on myself by way of research. I think from the first pages of "Wolf Hall," from the first paragraph, I knew it was something special. I thought, this is the central project of my life.

HARDYMON: And it took a lot out of her to write. But I will say also, we still have the BBC adaptation of the last book to go, which they have said will go forward as a memorial.

KELLY: And is NPR's Barrie Hardymon remembering the great British writer Hilary Mantel. Thanks, Barrie.

HARDYMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Barrie Hardymon
Barrie Hardymon is the Senior Editor at NPR's Weekend Edition, and the lead editor for books. You can hear her on the radio talking everything from Middlemarch to middle grade novels, and she's also a frequent panelist on NPR's podcasts It's Been A Minute and Pop Culture Happy Hour. She went to Juilliard to study viola, ended up a cashier at the Strand, and finally got a degree from Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars which qualified her solely for work in public radio. She lives and reads in Washington, DC.