Delving into literary past
You have lived in various places from London, Sheffield and Derbyshire to Botswana and Saudi Arabia. What compelled you to move to Budleigh Salterton?
I first came to Budleigh as a teenager, walking across the cliffs from Exmouth on a hot summer's day, and saw below me what looked like the kind of landscape and seascape that you might see in a dream. I kept it in mind ever since, and when we had the chance to move away from the South East, where we'd lived for 25 years, I thought it was time to reclaim that vision. The town has really changed very little, and the view from the cliffs is as I remember it, and as I hope it always will be.
You have been president of Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival since 2012. How does the festival differ from other literary festivals you have visited?
It is unusual for a small community to play host to such big names. That we do so is thanks to the ambitions of our founder, Susan Ward, who wanted the best for our audiences. We mean to continue her work by inviting writers who are the best in their field and who are making the news.
We are thrilled to hear you are currently working on your third novel about the Tudors. Why do you keep writing about this period of history?
My novels are very specifically about one man, Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII, whose unusual and largely untold story has captured my imagination. It began as one novel, and then the richness of the material unfolded and I began to see the project was much bigger than I had imagined.
You did extensive research into Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn and other historical figures before writing Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Did you uncover anything surprising while preparing for The Mirror and the Light?
Every day is surprising. The past always is stranger than we think. But research is a process that flows through the writing of a book. You cannot snap shut your folders and say, "Right, now I have everything I need to know." You often don't know what material you need, until you face the demands of a scene.
The Royal Shakespeare Company is presenting Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies at Stratford upon Avon from December to March 2014. How involved have you been in the stage adaptations?
I have just finished working on the fifth draft with the adaptor, Mike Poulton. We have worked together productively and it is difficult to differentiate our roles, but roughly speaking he is in charge of the shape of each story and its staging, and I am there to give him permission to pull away from the books, to suggest different angles of approach, to tell him everything he needs to know about the characters and to act as the history police. We share a belief that good drama can also be good history, and an ambition to free the spirit of the books in a new medium.
How do you feel about the idea of seeing your award-winning novels brought to life on stage and screen?
It is a deeply interesting process, and I shall be interested to see how it comes out. I am less involved with the TV version, but I believe it is in very good hands. I do not want to hang over either project, or I shall never get any new writing done. An author must take on board that when a book goes into a different medium, it is, in effect, a new work. So it is important to be flexible in your expectations. No-one will ever be able to fish out the contents of your head, and you must accept that. Of course, if they could it would be deeply alarming.
We understand you visited Stratford as a teenager. What did you see, and did this experience shape or influence your writing in any way?
I have loved Shakespeare since I first discovered him as a child, and my first visit to Stratford upon Avon, the summer I was 16, was a highlight in my life. My friends and I saw four plays in three days and, though we did not know it, we were watching productions and actors who would be talked about for years to come. It is impossible to be precise about the influence Shakespeare has had on my life and ambitions as a writer; it is a pervasive influence. When you write about English history you cannot shake free from the big bold pictures he made, nor would you want to.
You have produced a wealth of acclaimed and award-winning novels on a variety of subjects. How do you think your writing style has changed and developed over the years?
It changes to suit each book. The subject matter brings its own demands. You become more assured, technically, more confident in solving problems and knowing what will work, but there is no room for complacency, as it is always possible a new story will pose a challenge you have never met before.
As well as your event with Erica Wagner, you are chairing a Rising Stars event with Katie Ward and Ed Hogan. What made you choose these two particular authors?
They are both highly original and startlingly ambitious. Neither of them writes like anyone else currently at work. If there is any justice, they will both win the Man Booker one of these years, or some other big prize that will bring them readers by the thousand.
Do you have any advice for aspiring and emerging authors?
I would say tenacity is almost as important as talent, so write your way through failure and the indifference of the publishing industry until you come out on the other side. There are lots of ways to be published these days, so be resourceful, and back your own talent. Take risks on the page. Do not ask your best friend to read your work (unless she is a publisher).
The Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival is September 19-22. Full programme at budlitfest.org.uk.