I’ve been struck by the number of tributes to Hilary by writers, journalists and others who have posted their recollections of her. There is a common acknowledgement of her genius as a writer, but more importantly perhaps there is frequent mention of her generosity and kindness to those lucky enough to meet her.
I can vouch for that too, although not so much from the point of view of an established writer. I became associated with her initially as a researcher for my PhD, and then as a novice writer, and then as someone who was fortunate to develop an unusual relationship with her, primarily by e-mail, over a period of seven years or so.
I first saw her at the Costa Awards in 2012 – I was up for the Short Story award, she was up for the Costa Book of the Year – I didn’t win, she did, and gave a wonderful acceptance speech. I didn’t have the nerve to speak to her then, she was surrounded by the great and the good. But to hear her there was so inspiring. Then in 2014, I was shortlisted for the Kingston Short Story prize. Hilary was the judge. I didn’t win that one either, but I came in the top six, and Hilary wrote encouraging comments about all our work in the subsequent anthology.
I was in the middle of my PhD at the Seamus Heaney Centre by that time, investigating the aesthetic and ethical issues facing a novelist in the use of historical primary sources. The short story I’d submitted was based on a chapter of the novel which went alongside the research. I contacted Hilary to thank her for her comments and told her a little about the research and that I’d read her articles about similar themes and found them useful for the PhD. She got back to me with an invaluable two pages of further comments which I incorporated into the PhD. I told her I’d also contacted Sebastian Barry for his comments on how he’d approached the idea of historical fiction in ‘A Long Long Way’ and that he’d got back to me too. I shared his thoughts with Hilary. ‘SB is so eloquent,’ she said, and went on to say how much she agreed with him.
She expressed interest in the novel and suggested I send her a one-page extract and an overview, which she sent on to her agent. He liked it, suggested some revisions, and eventually took the novel on. I was in Oxford in November 2016, visiting my brother who was ill with cancer, when I learned the book had been accepted for publication. I spent the afternoon in turmoil, elated one minute, then full of anxiety for my brother. Hilary got back to me about book offer – ‘excellent news… I think it’s time for some cautious rejoicing…’.
I’m sure I wouldn’t have found a publisher so quickly, if Hilary hadn’t taken an interest in my work – I was 64, it was my first novel, who was I kidding? But it happened. And that led to a seven-year email correspondence between us, mainly about writing, but widening to certain aspects of our personal lives. I found it amazing that I would contact her about something, and she’d reply quickly, from wherever she was, and whatever great event she was involved in, with no attempt at pretention, just as an explanation for not replying immediately - for instance - ‘I’m in New York at the moment, but will get back to you later’, she wrote once, and she did. I didn’t realise she was there because ‘Wolf Hall’ was up for a Tony award.
It transpired we had a lot in common – I’d travelled a lot, both as a child and an adult, but I spent two years in the UK as a schoolgirl, living about two miles from Romiley, in Cheshire, where Hilary, four years younger than me, was living at the same time. We both went to Sheffield University within roughly the same time frame, although I transferred to Manchester after a year. We’d both lived in African countries, me in Zambia, Hilary in Botswana, and in Moslem countries, Hilary in Saudi Arabia, me in Iran, plus a short visit to Saudi, when my husband was working there. Most unusual of all, perhaps, on a personal level, we both shared the experience of marrying, then divorcing, then re-marrying our respective husbands. We both hadn’t had children. And we both had strong Irish connections. I was so pleased when she told me she and her husband were thinking seriously about moving to Ireland.
I never mentioned these shared experiences directly to Hilary, they just surfaced during our discussions about writing, or related issues. For example, I asked her once how to respond to publicity requests – how much should I share of my chaotic childhood? She gave me sound advice on that - ‘put a fence around what you don’t want to be included. Be polite but firm.’ She felt it was a right to set parameters. And she always encouraged me when I struggled through my many ‘I can’t do this’ phases. ‘Cut yourself some slack,’ she wrote to me once. I’m sure I wasn’t the only writer she was there for in this respect.
And here I am now, feeling the loss. She was not just my literary lode star. She was unique and it was my privilege to get to know her in some small way. I’ll miss her wisdom, her warmth, and her generosity.
Sheila Llewellyn is author of Winter in Tabriz (Sceptre)
Extract from article in Irish Times, Culture Book, 28th September 2022: ‘Hilary Mantel: A storyteller in the classic tradition, who breathed life into old bones’