Susie Wilde: The gift of getting specific

Feb. 09, 2013 @ 03:33 PM

An author’s choice of specifics is crucial to success. I listen for them in the work of my children’s book students, relentlessly pursue and root out generalities in the memoir I’m writing, and am aware of their power in the children’s books I read and the audios I hear. Specifics anchor and animate and can make even the most tired subject new and fresh again.
I noticed and admired this gift in Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Booker Award winning novel “Wolf Hall” (Macmillan, 18 CDs, 23 hours). The subject of this historical fiction has been gone over many times, there’s fiction and nonfiction aplenty about the Tudors, much of it, as Mantel focuses, on Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. There are so many books that even fans of the period and particulars are reticent to read “yet another” version.
It’s largely the specifics Mantel chooses that make her material fresh and engaging. Wisely, she began with an intriguing protagonist, Thomas Cromwell. It’s a fact that he was one of Henry VIII’s most trusted advisers. Another fact? He’s been frequently vilified and shown as unfeeling and shrewd. Not so with Mantel’s vision, though she paints the typically sainted Thomas Moore that way.
Her historical fiction reinvents Cromwell as a complex man. He’s trapped between problem-solving for an egocentric monarch; being intelligent and studious enough to discover how to twist the law without breaking it; and looking to improve his own circumstances while watching his back in an era where murder, burning at the stake and torture seem to lurk for all men and women of power. He’s haunted by the death of his wife and two young daughters taken away by the plague without him present and also by the specter of his bullying father who “mashed his face into cobblestones.” He’s loyal to all those who command him and yet readers are not always sure where his heart lies, that unknown adding depth to his character.
Mantel also makes a specific choice that may, at least at first, confuse readers. She often refers to Thomas in the third person singular, and sometimes even in the second person. Mantel has explained, “He (Cromwell) seemed to be occupying the same physical space as me, with a slight ghostly overlap. It didn’t make sense to call him ‘Cromwell,’ as if he were somewhere across the room. I called him ‘he’ ... Most readers caught on quickly. Those who didn’t complained.”
Those I’ve heard complaining are readers, though they are all quick to declare they won’t stop reading though the material is dense, the book upward of 900 pages. Their comments made me wonder if the material was made to be read aloud and feel grateful for the gifted performance of Simon Slater. Mantel’s specifics and Slater’s many tones combine to give each character, at every moment, a convincing portrait. Cardinal Woolsey bears the blend of a shaky voiced old, ill man, deepened because Slater also brings forth thoughtful intelligence and remnants of his former power.
One of the strengths of both author and reader are the many private imagined conversations between the characters. Mantel’s title Wolf Hall is taken not only because it’s the home of the Seymour family, but because it “seemed an apt name for wherever Henry’s court resided.” You feel privileged enough to have the fly-on-the-wall perspective many of the era wished for, but there lurks a tension of being caught by someone unexpectedly entering the room, spying or overhearing.
Mantel put years of research into this book, reviewing and comparing different historical accounts and researching and, I imagine, steeping herself in the period to paint an authentic picture. As a group of monks face a full traitor’s penalty with courage, for example, Cromwell knows their grisly fate – “a short spin in the wind and the conscious public disembowling, the brazier alight for human entrails. Pain and rage and humiliation swallowing you to the end.” At other times, Mantel brings poetry that feels right for the period. Cromwell, for example, envisions Sir Thomas Moore’s best chance of life and yet he’ll be left “till your beard grows down to your knees and the spiders weave webs across your eyes.”
The book is aided by the auditory version. The wealth of specific details washed over me and pulled me further into the world she wanted me to inhabit. I was captured by her pacing – plenty of lively dialogue, internal monologues and descriptions. Slater’s timing accents Mantel’s intent. The combination sent me finding excuses to devote time to the lengthy listen, longing to be in Cromwell’s world rather than my own.
Wolf Hall ends with Thomas Moore’s death. I’m eager to rejoin Cromwell for “Bringing Up the Bodies” (Macmillan, 12 CDs, 14+ hours, read by Simon Vance), the second in Mantel’s planned trilogy.
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website, ignitingwriting.com.