I spent a fair bit of yesterday watching the Making of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (posted below) a conversation between Hilary Mantel and Fay Weldon (also posted below), a short interview with Hilary Mantel and the Guardian newspaper on Wolf Hall, and writing some text for my forthcoming work site. As I watched the various videos, I transcribed portions of conversation that struck me as immediately relevant to my current writing, or how to think about it, for myself but perhaps when talking with other writers as well. Of everything I listened to, the three things that stay with me most strongly are Hilary Mantel’s comment on painting a writer’s portrait, her goal to capture Cromwell’s thought flow in every scene of Wolf Hall, and Paul McCartney’s desire for Sgt. Pepper’s to represent the very best of their [the Beatles’] thinking at that time.
Hilary Mantel in conversation with Fay Weldon.
On the difficulty of capturing the essence of a writer in a portrait painting.
I was saying to him [the painter], being commissioned to paint a writer was the hardest thing of all. Because, to state the obvious, nothing of what we do shows on the surface. Nothing of what we are is there to be seen. And you know this because, in films where writers are part of the story, you always see the excruciating difficulty of portraying them. And writers are always shown despairing, tearing their hair, ripping up their work, and, in extremity, throwing their typewriter out of the window. And so they’re shown not writing. But the act of writing itself: what’s to see? You know, someone with a grim expression, scratching away. And I said to the painter, photographers come, and sometimes they are there all day, and they take scores of photographs, and you think–I think–“What do you want? Tell me what you want and I’ll try to give it to you.” But there is a real paradox here. You’re constantly being looked at, but unable to show anything, except on the page. … You can only show people on the page what you are.
I am not a writer who begins at the beginning. Whether I’m writing contemporary fiction or historical fiction, I write scenes, and I amass material, and build up some parts of the book quite intensively, while others remain quite sketchy. And then at quite a late stage I have to stitch it all together. This means that I can never say to my publisher, ‘Well, I am two hundred thousand words in.’—I could offer to weigh it if you like—all I can say is, ‘It needs eighteen months.’ But I could never say, ‘I’m up to this point,’ because I’m always up to six different points, simultaneously. That’s really the only way I know how to do it.
To me, there are two great problems with historical dramas: an old one and a new one. The old one is exposition, characters telling each other what they already know. And it hangs so heavy on historical fiction. And on historical fiction it’s just more obvious when it’s on the screen. And you have to be clever, you have to find indirect and cunning ways of giving the reader, the viewer, indirectly what they need to know as background. But I did say to Peter Kosminsky [director of the forthcoming BBC adaption of Wolf Hall], ‘If you have to have an audience spoon-fed or baffled, which will you take?’ And he said, ‘Baffled,’ which I always vote for. Give people the credit for being able to work things out. If not immediately, then, when they think about it later.
I hope [referring to the BBC production] that we will have no period flummery. And, I hope, none of the second vice, which is something that’s overtaken historical drama very recently, which is empty gorgeousness. … I don’t know if anyone has seen the Borgias. Would anyone admit to having seen the Borgias? Well, you know, I sit before the screen open-mouthed at the effects they make, the beautiful, beautiful pictures, and then you realize that what you are watching is, at best, the equivalent of a comic strip. It is complete nonsense. It looks so beautiful, but it’s too easy.
What I’ve been trying to do is catch the flow of thought, and you see him [Cromwell] manoeuvering for advantage in every situation, every conversation, and you are right there as it happens, moment by moment. This often seems to be missing from the historical novel: the story stays on the surface; it doesn’t try to construct a rounded human being. It’s quite an ambitious agenda when you think you also have to keep the reader very informed of the political world, the world of fact, the world of macro-history.
The Making of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
I remember, we walked into an antique shop in Seven Oakes in Kent, and we were looking at what they had there, and John pulled out this thing that he found which was said, ‘The Benefit of Mr. Kite,’ and it was virtually all the lyrics to that song. …. That’s how you do it, you know, you get ideas, you hear people say stuff, or you hear a phrase that sounds good and you write it down and you remember it. – George Harrison (on how John Lennon wrote For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.)
We were changing our method of working at that time. Instead of now looking for catchy singles, catchy singles, catchy singles, it was more like writing your novel. Sgt. Pepper, for me, definitely, it was much more an overall concept, “Wow,” you know? And you can see that in the packaging [the cover art]. Paul McCartney
Cover art in the middle sixties hadn’t really been exploited, up to Pepper. And when the boys decided what they wanted—they wanted, really, to put all of their heroes on the album, in some form or another—and by recruiting Peter Blake, who was an avant-garde artist, again to assemble their ideas and realize them in the same way I was realizing the music, they did, I think, a pretty smart thing. George Martin
I think we thought, ‘We’ll do the very best we can,’ in this very far out new way that we had of thinking. Get it to be something … I still think that is the best philosophy: to really try and please yourself. Paul McCartney