Hilary Mantel by Murdo Macleod for the Guardian
Hilary Mantel reveals she fantasised about killing Margaret Thatcher
Author tells of day she spotted unguarded prime minister, who she describes as anti-feminist, 'psychological transvestite'
Friday 19 September 2014 15.01 BST
Hilary Mantel has recalled the day in 1983 when she spotted an unguarded Margaret Thatcher from the window of her Windsor flat and fantasised about killing her.
"Immediately your eye measures the distance," she told the Guardian, her finger and thumb forming a gun. "I thought, if I wasn't me, if I was someone else, she'd be dead."
The surreal experience is the inspiration for The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 6th 1983, published exclusively on Friday.
The story has already proved controversial, with the Daily Telegraph this week pulling out of a deal to publish the story first, despite reportedly paying tens of thousands of pounds – a figure denied by the Telegraph – to secure exclusive rights.
One journalist said Ian MacGregor, the newspaper's weekend editor, read the story this week and "went ballistic", with the paper believing its readers would be upset by the title alone, let alone the sentiments behind it.
Mantel is candid about her low opinion of the former prime minister. In an interview with the writer of Maggie and Me, Damian Barr, commissioned but spiked by the Telegraph and published on Friday by the Guardian, she talks about the "boiling detestation" she feels for the woman she believes set back the cause of women.
Thatcher was anti-feminist and a "psychological transvestite", Mantel said.
The two-time Man Booker prizewinner's short story tells of a well-off woman waiting in her Windsor flat for a plumber.
The man she lets in turns out to be an assassin, probably IRA, who wants to use her bedroom to shoot Thatcher as she leaves the private hospital opposite after an eye operation.
Mantel, who was made a dame in this year's birthday honours, said Thatcher was a "fantastic character" for a writer, "the very stuff of drama".
"When I think of her, I can still feel that boiling detestation. She did longstanding damage in many areas of national life, but I am not either of [the two characters] in that room.
"I am standing by the window with the notebook. I never voted for her, but I can stand back and appreciate her as a phenomenon. As a citizen, I suffered from her but, as a writer, I benefited."
Mantel said there were parallels between Thatcher and Thomas Cromwell, her main writing obsession, in that both were self made. Thatcher, though, hated the end result.
"She couldn't turn herself into a posh girl with the right vowels. If you're that dissatisfied with yourself you try to fix other people, and if they won't be fixed you become punitive."
She added: "She imitated masculine qualities to the extent that she had to get herself a good war. The Falklands was great stuff – limited casualties, little impact on the home front and great visual propaganda. I am not suggesting this was conscious.
"I suspect Thatcher was the last person in the world to be able to examine her inner life, but she could sell a myth. The idea that women must imitate men to succeed is anti-feminist. She was not of woman born. She was a psychological transvestite."
Despite its subject, the short story is funny and thought-provoking, based on the real event when Mantel actually spotted Thatcher "toddling" around the hospital gardens of the Windsor flat she lived in.
Mantel said it had taken 30 years to write – "I just couldn't see how to get [the characters] to work together" – but she had not been waiting for Thatcher's death to write it.
"I am concerned with respect, I'm not concerned with taste. I would have happily concluded the story in her lifetime but couldn't – it was my technical difficulty, not any delicacy. I believe in walking that line. You mustn't be too timid to risk getting it wrong."
Mantel is no stranger to controversy, having hit the headlines last year when a London Review of Books lecture she gave called "Royal Bodies" was misinterpreted by some sections of the press.
When she described the Duchess of Cambridge as "a plastic princess born to breed", the Daily Mail reported it as a "bitter", "astonishing and venomous" attack.
Mantel is unfazed at the prospect of further fuss over the Thatcher story. "As a writer you have a choice to make – are you going to accept censorship or not? In the case of the duchess, the great outraged weren't at the lecture and didn't read the article.
"I was saying: 'Please back off and treat this young woman as human'. I was speaking in her favour. I wouldn't be so petty as to criticise someone for their appearance," Mantel said.
"Look at me and [classics professor] Mary Beard, and all the other women whose arguments are not engaged with or are dismissed because of fixations with appearance."
Writing short stories has provided Mantel with a break from Cromwell, although she said she expected to complete The Mirror and the Light, the third instalment of her trilogy, next year. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies won the Man Booker prize in 2009 and 2012 respectively.
The Thatcher story has been keenly anticipated since its title was revealed in January – one reason the Telegraph paid so much money for the exclusive rights.
MacGregor, a former Mail executive and seven-year veteran of the Telegraph titles, would not comment on the matter on Friday. Telegraph Media Group (TMG) said: "Stories and features get spiked all the time, it is called editing. When the editors read the full story, it was decided that it was not something that Telegraph readers would appreciate."
TMG denied rumours that it paid tens of thousands of pounds for the extract and suggested it was a figure in the thousands.
Thatcher is a firm favourite of Telegraph readers. The Barclay brothers, who own TMG, were friends and supporters, and Thatcher spent most of her final years in the Ritz, their flagship London hotel.
The publication deal is understood to have been signed off by Dan Hickey, the TMG's general manager of lifestyle, who was brought in last year by fellow American Jason Seiken, TMG's chief content officer and editor in chief. The latter was unavailable for comment.
Journalists at the titles suggested the episode was likely to reveal a lack of understanding of the paper's readers, many of whom revere Thatcher.
One employee said: "It's a cultural distance and failure to understand a) Britain and b) the Telegraph."
The Thatcher story is part of Mantel's first short story collection for 11 years, which will be published on 30 September. It will be her first complete piece of fiction since Bring Up the Bodies.