On Tuesday night, Hilary Mantel became the first woman to win the Man Booker prize twice, as well as the first British author, for her novel Bring Up The Bodies. Such a feat sees her join Peter Carey and J. M. Coetzee, mirroring the ratio of one female prizewinner to two male throughout the prize's 43 year history.
While she's "astonished" at her success, Mantel is more than aware of the significance of this. She says, "I do think there has been a difficulty for women to get their fiction taken as seriously as men’s fiction, although I think things are beginning to equalise."
"But it’s not a perfect world. If you look at what is reviewed, by whom it is reviewed, on the major websites, in the broadsheets, it does seem that there are many more male writers out there than there are women writers. Which is not the case."
Mantel is gracious. Her husky voice quiet at the end of the "long night" she had told me earlier she was anticipating. Women, she says, are "essential" to her novels, the strong, artful narratives of which revolve around the sex and fury of Henry VIII's reign.
"The wonderful thing about writing this story of Henry and his court", she enthuses, "is that women are not only important, women are essential. Henry’s whole desire in life, the driving force of his reign, was to have a son to succeed him. So the whole thing constellates around the female body."
That books about one of the most famous men in history revolve around women is not forced, however. Mantel says she doesn't "struggle to bring women to the fore."
"I am working with some of the best documented women in English history, and they’re also women of very strong character - well educated and highly intelligent women. Of course they’re superb material. You don’t have to take a feminist angle, that’s neither advisable nor required. But the material in itself foregrounds women's place in the scheme of things."
Bring Up The Bodies' predecessor, Wolf Hall, claimed Mantel's first Booker. So there is a natural pressure to make the final part of the trilogy. Or is there? She speaks humbly of her writing experience. "I don't think it's changed me as a writer."
"You see, each day is a new day, and each paragraph is a new paragraph, and you feel so remote when it’s you and your material and your ideas and your blank screen."
That's not to say Mantel is ambivalent towards the gongs. The 2009 prize, she says, completely changed her career, not least for giving her "confidence". For many critics, managing two Bookers through historical fiction is impressive in itself. Referred to as a "gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness" in the New Yorker's profile of Mantel earlier this year, historical fiction is usually associated with hammy, factually dubious yarns.
Mantel doesn't deny this, "The historical fiction tag, well, it has been associated for many years with historical romance. That’s unfair because there have been brilliant historical novels in the last 20 years. And I would dispute that I have, in any way, reinvented it."
Instead, she believes that "what you have to do is transcend genre", landing her success with her choice of historical period, rather than letting it define where the novel sits in Waterstones.
"What I have done is zero in on a period of history that is very rewarding both for writer and reader, and I would say that it’s a period in English history that people tend to be most familiar with, and yet they have the most questions about it. And so I think making that decision was important."
Now the night of Booker has finished for another year, Mantel will hang up her party hat and return to her Devon coastal home, which is "very quiet, by choice". Back to the blank screen and her ideas, which more people than ever will now be curious about.
No doubt the final book of her record-breaking trilogy will feature more fierce, quietly determined female characters from the past. But for now, we'll just have to make do with Mantel herself, and the history she's made for women in literature.
More:Hilary Mantel Booker Prize 2012 Hilary Mantel Booker Bring Up The Bodies Hilary Mantel Man Booker Prize 2012
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