Friday, February 2, 2007

Writer's rooms / Hilary Mantel

 Photograph by Eamonn McCabe

Writer's rooms: Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel
Friday 2 February 2007 17.50 GMT

I write in the main room of our flat, at the top of a former Victorian asylum in Surrey. My desk was made in Norfolk in serviceable pine. It is arranged in layers, as a working model of my mind. The surface is dull, plain and tidy. The only ornament is a tiny, chipped pottery cat in a basket, which I hold sometimes if I am feeling bleak. In the upper drawers are half-used notebooks, fossils, crystals, seashore pebbles, a pack of tarot cards, my five-year diary, a steel measure, a stop watch and a last letter from a dead friend. The lower ones contain nothing but solid slabs of blank paper, and office wet-wipes which boast they "remove dirt and grime".
Insights don't usually arrive at my desk, but go into notebooks when I'm on the move. Or half-asleep. If I feel travel would broaden the mind, I take my laptop up a spiral staircase, to a little room under the asylum clock. Some preliminaries happen at the huge notice board in the kitchen, where I am building my new novel about Thomas Cromwell. It helps me structure a book if I can see what I'm doing. The chronological line and the flashbacks get worked out on postcards. As I narrow the focus, each postcard comes to represent a scene, and behind it I pin everything that belongs to it - tiny observations, descriptions, statistics, lines of dialogue. Then I can take it to the computer and work it through.
Some books are like singing, but this one is like fight arranging. It has to look natural but it's tightly controlled. I never stop thinking about it. All the world's a desk.

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