Three Heroes

Pitter patter, pitter patter, rain is falling. The parched earth is soaking it up greedily, can't get enough. That's what encouragement feels like to the aspiring writer. When that encouragement comes from a practitioner you admire, then it becomes doubly, trebly valuable.

In the time since I began taking seriously the idea I might write historical fiction I've been fortunate enough to have contact with three of the genre's acknowledged 'greats.' All three writers have published contemporary work too but my interest was focused on their historical novels. I was grateful for their words, however few.
Here are my stories about the day I met...

Hilary Mantel

Where am I? In the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre, Stratford. And I've never felt anything like it: the warm flush of pleasure I get as I see her across the foyer. Hilary Mantel, it must be. (Well, perhaps I have, isn't this flirty recklessness that's taken me over reminiscent of that feeling you might get on a first date?) But this is not a date, it's the minutes before the matinee performance of Bring Up the Bodies, the play of Hilary Mantel's novel of the same name, (Fourth Estate, 2012, sequel to Wolf Hall, Fourth Estate, 2009.) And that is Hilary Mantel over there.

I'm not a 'fan' type, feel I have no worship in me for film or sports stars. If I adored any pop singers (pre-teen crushes on Cliff Richard, Adam Faith possibly) that was long ago.

This is now however, and I've started writing historical fiction and there she is: the tops, the inspiration, two time Booker prizewinner and all. And it's turned out that I can get excited about that.

I have to speak to her, immediately, want to barge in and elbow away the woman who's buttonholing her. Outside it's pelting black torrents of rain and gusting an icy wind that bangs the doors open and back. The foyer's awash, wild-haired, bedraggled people peel off macs, divest dripping umbrellas. A 'giant of literature' though she is, Hilary's physique does not make her a dominating figure. Yet she's emanating something: around her a respectful space seems to have cleared itself.

I brace myself and step into it. Somehow the woman there seems to melt away. I fear I may be showering Hilary with raindrops as I to bend in over her to open with, 'I've never done anything like this before - but may I ask you to sign my programme?' How gushing, I think, and feel a blush rising. Hilary's completely matter- of-fact, of course. She grasps my programme to emblazon it with a magnificently crisp signature, equally dramatic in its delivery as she's using the slanted edge of a thick black marker.

As she's doing this I clear my throat and hear myself saying, 'Hilary, I'm trying to emulate you.' It sounds horribly gauche to me but again, Hilary's unfazed. 'Writing, are you?' she says, 'What period?' 'Same as you - well almost, 1548,' I say, 'but set in Italy.'

She looks up and sees the people hovering at the fringe of the space. I find the programme's back in my hand. I'd give eye teeth to have more time and go beyond this stilted exchange. (Later in the theatre, we're seated quite close to each other and she, next to some of the principal actors - this afternoon is a run-through for understudies - is laughing and enviably relaxed with them.)

'Well, I wish you the very best of luck,' I hear as she turns away. I find my friends. Voice squeaky with excitement, I tell them what's happened. The show makes for a marvelously entertaining afternoon.

It rains through the interval while we eat our stem ginger ice creams and drink tea, it rains horribly as I dash for the station and it's still vile while I wait for the train. It's the same unspeakable weather for the entire two hour journey to London and for the evening and on into the night, as I recall. Just the sort of British weather that Hilary evokes so tellingly time and again in the Wolf Hall novels: ugh, those barge journeys up and down the Thames, the chill wind and fog, the sleet. I though, am clutching my encounter with Hilary close. Lifted by its energy, this night nothing can dampen my spirits.

Sarah Dunant

Where am I? In Bush House, home of BBC overseas broadcasting, that imposing building on the Strand, and it's buzzing, as it did in those days back then. I'm in a studio to be interviewed by Sarah Dunant. My first radio interview: I've self-rehearsed but will it help?

The room's dungeon-like, windowless and low-ceilinged, the light a dingy yellow, electric cables snaking across the floor. Sarah comes to the dim corner where I'm sitting, joins me on the little poky chairs. Her head comes close to mine. She's wearing a pair of her signature big specs even though this is before she's made them a familiar trademark on TV as host of The Late Show. She gives me headphones and starts to question me in that fabulous throaty voice.

I'm there to talk on her Kaleidoscope arts programme about Great Zimbabwe, a historical site I've just visited, south of Bulawayo. It's a mysterious place, the origins of its high towers, walls and rock formations, its striking eagle sculptures hotly debated. Photos of the location are to be featured in an exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute (as it was in those days back then. Nowadays the newly-opened - November 2016 - Design Museum occupies a revamped version of the iconic 60s building.)

Sarah questions, I clear my throat, hmm, hesitate - but somehow we get through. And afterwards we become friends.

Sarah's arts presenting goes big-time, she's writing novels as well, and I take off back to Africa. Her first daughter's born, then a second.

Not until both daughters are fully grown do we meet again. Coincidentally enough, we meet at an Aldwych brasserie that's in the newly re-vamped Bush House's shadow. We choose the chilled pea soup with mint. I've been at a Courtauld Institute summer school on the Venetian High Renaissance and Sarah's come from recording a broadcast for BBC Radio 4's A Point of View.

By now, 2014, Sarah's received huge acclaim for her Italian Renaissance novels, a trio of them, begun in 2000 and published by Virago. My Bath Spa University tutor, Celia Brayfield, subsequently refers to her as 'the dominant British writer in this field.'

That BSU experience is yet far ahead for me, though. My novel is at this point in its very earliest stages, barely formed in my mind. And so I'm keenly feeding on any crumb of wisdom about the genre Sarah may let drop.

She tells me - alarmingly - a book can put her into 'writing hell' for weeks at a time. Beforehand, she says, she researches and researches 'until I'm ready to burst.'
We discuss the way the perception of historical fiction has changed, how it's now a genre that's often hitting best-seller sales figures. Sarah tells me how as a child she read and re-read Mary Renault's Alexander the Great books, that she's written the introduction to titles within a new Virago edition of Renault's more contemporary works. Her early interest prompted her to read History at

Newnham College, Cambridge. Soon after she went into journalism. 'I loved all my years in journalism,' she says, 'all the excitement and tension of building to deadlines and meeting them, working for the World Service as an information-provider for people who otherwise had limited or no access to such reports.'

Now though? 'I've returned to my passion for history. I'm proud to be a historian.' She sees herself primarily as a historian? 'Yes,' she tells me. 'A historical novelist who does their job responsibly is serving to interpret the past to his/her audience just as meaningfully as a historian does.'

Sarah's latest novel carries on the tantalizing Borgia story begun in Blood and Beauty. Her publisher, Random House, is promoting In the Name of the Family as 'a thrilling exploration of the House of Borgia's doomed years, in the company of a young diplomat named Niccolo Machiavelli.' 'Bringing the past and its people alive to new readers doesn't have to be restricted to reading a text book, you see?' says Sarah.
The waiter's brought the bill and we have to part. Sarah's diminutive figure slips away into the warm evening. I sit chewing awhile on a bread roll. I also chew on all she's given me to think about.

Jim Crace

Where am I? West Yorkshire, an Arvon Foundation course Jim's tutoring for writers in mid draft.

For me the isolation and solid comfort of Lumb Bank's square granite house makes it an ideal choice for a concentrated burst of attention to a work in progress. And then there are the vistas. Arvon's brochure says, 'An 18th-century mill-owner's house, the views down into the millstream that crashes below and across the surrounding valleys are marvellous: a Pennine landscape of woods and rivers, weavers' cottages, packhorse trails and ruins of old mills.'

It's Ted Hughes country, Lumb Bank once his house. Before coming, I'd watched the DVD Sylvia re-telling one period of Hughes' life so I was ready for the dark drama of the nearby moors where he spent his childhood. And one evening we decided to let him give voice. (The Spoken Word: Ted Hughes: Poems and Short Stories - British Library Sound Archive. 2 CD edition.)

Fire lit and curtains drawn against the October dusk, about six of us, Jim among them, settle into squashy armchairs. Ted starts into The Harvester story, his voice as sonorous, guttural, commandingly austere as I would have expected. In Sue Arnold's review of the CD she calls it 'marvellous - angry, gritty, macho, like his writing, but sensitive, too, with the sort of Yorkshire accent that puts you in mind of tough, laconic miners.' All in all, a spine-tingling part of our stay.
An Arvon 'week' only allows for four full work days -

so Jim got right in there. With co-tutor Susan Elderkin, he made sure we concentrated. We started with 'pitches' for our manuscripts and peer-critiqued them.

My manuscript in hand, Jim said to me in a 1-on-1 session, 'This has the makings of a fine novel, one I'd certainly want to read.' Oh joy! But that was the beginning and end of any praise as he got down, gloves-off, to the detail of the writing's flaws.

I'd read several of Jim's books in preparation but his Booker Prize-nominated, IMPAC and James Tait Black prize-winning most recent, Harvest (Picador, 2013) the one set in an indeterminate era, in a pre-industrial English village, was the novel I rated most. It's the opening, the plot detail of the drifting whitey-grey smoke that alerts the villagers to the change that's threatening from beyond their boundaries, that I remember most. Along with the fate of the poor horse.

Detail was on Jim's mind as he worked with us. He's not known as 'the consummate wordsmith' for nothing. He's unsparing: it was a bit cringe-making when he quoted from other wannabes' writing efforts to warn us off clichés, repetitions and non-words. He made it plain that getting that detail right will not only determine the tone of our novels overall - but will also help the reader get close to our characters.

With me, he was adamant. 'Write an essay!' (ie not a novel.) 'Write an essay if you just want to tell us

what you know about the artists, their art. If it's a novel you're aiming at, give us please a story that starts with people. People we can engage with. Start with them. Otherwise, forget it.'

Course over, I went back south on a terrible, long, overcrowded Saturday pm train journey. I recall there was scenery beyond the window but despite the hours I stared at it, can't remember anything much about it. Too much occupying me. How'll I re-draft? Above all, it was a novel I wanted to write. No question about that. I'd gone to Lumb Bank with the cheek to think 'Jim'll fix it.' Had I come away with enough to be sure he had/I now could?


The Arvon Foundation runs an annual programme of residential creative writing courses and retreats for schools, groups and individuals. The five-day courses, tutored by leading authors, are held at three beautiful rural writers’ houses and include a mix of workshops and individual tutorials, with time and space to write, free from the distractions of everyday life. The courses are in a wide range of genres, including fiction, poetry, screenwriting and playwriting.