Did you watch Normal People, Hilary?

hilary mantel

Today I should be basking in the afterglow of having met and introduced one of my literary heroines, Hilary Mantel, who was due to read at University College Cork on May 19, 2020. Like so many literary events, the show could not go on because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But when you’re preparing for a public event like this, and it doesn’t happen, the questions still remain.

Some of my queries relate to the time before – the pre-virus world, if you like – and even in the unlikely event of the reading having gone ahead, the pandemic would, of course, have featured in the discussion.

Any interviewer starts off with a list of prepared questions, things she’s curious about, but the nature of a live event means that the course of an interview can never be predicted, much less managed. Because at its best, an author interview is an exchange and the interviewee’s answers often dictate the next question.

But given all that, here are some of the things I might have asked on the night.


How long did it take you to master the history of Tudor England, its politics and its events, before you started to write, or did that happen in the process of writing?

Why so hard on Sir Thomas More?

In the public mind, the Wolf Hall trilogy has probably eclipsed your other work – do you mind that?

My favourite novels of yours are Eight Months on Ghazzah Street and Beyond Black. What’s your favourite from your pre-Wolf Hall work?

What marked your earlier novels out was the fact that no two were the same.  They explored very different worlds.  After 15 years writing the Wolf Hall trilogy – “working in the crypt” in your own words – do you crave a change from Tudor England?

The Wolf Hall success came after a lifetime of  writing to a loyal but limited readership.  Apart from the material rewards, are fame and acclaim welcome or intrusive, or both?


The Mirror and the Light came out just as the pandemic took hold.  It became for many readers the ultimate early lockdown read, for its totally immersive properties.  Apart from its size (over 800 pages, and as we know in pandemics size matters) and the fact that it’s the closure of a trilogy,  what else would give it resonance for readers now?

You have written very movingly about how chronic illness has shaped and distorted your life in your memoir, Giving up the Ghost.  How did your own relationship  with what Susan Sontag calls the “kingdom of the sick” affect your attitude to the COVID-19 crisis in which everyone has been touched by the spectre of disease?

Would you write plague any differently, post COVID-19?

In an interview you mentioned you’d discovered Irish author’s Eugene McCabe’s Death and Nightingales during lockdown. You describe it as “truly one of the best novels I have ever, ever read. . . I wish heartily that I could have written it myself.”  What makes it so good?

Did you watch “Normal People”?



Hilary Mantel and me

hilary mantel jpeg

When my novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, came out in late 2013, one of the authors approached to blurb it was Irish novelist and short story writer, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne.  She described me as “the Irish Hilary Mantel”.  I was pretty chuffed about being mentioned in the same breath as Mantel, since I’ve been a long-time admirer of her work – long before Wolf Hall sent her into the literary stratosphere.

It’s over 25 years ago since I came across Mantel’s third novel  Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.  I was immediately hooked.

The novel tells the story of  Frances Shore, whose husband Andrew, a civil engineer,  is posted to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia on a lucrative building contract. Frances is disturbed by the restrictions the Saudi way of life imposes on her.  She is not allowed to drive; she can’t walk alone in the city without being harassed.  Even in her own apartment there’s a constant reminder of the oppressive burden of the female life in the Middle East.  The front door of the the apartment where she and Andrew live, is walled up – the legacy of the last occupant, a Saudi woman who had to be protected from accidentally encountering a male neighbour on the corridor outside.

Nor is the company of her own kind – the ex-pat community – much comfort to Frances.  “They sat at the back of the plane and got sodden drunk within an hour of takeoff; they squirted each other with duty-free Nina Ricci, and laid hands on the stewardesses, and threw their dinners about, and vomited on the saris of dignified Indian ladies.”

The atmosphere of the novel is perilous, claustrophobic and haunted.  Frances constantly hears footsteps in the apartment overhead that’s supposed to be empty; the motif  has echoes of Bronte’s Mrs Rochester, the madwoman in the attic.  As with the best of novels it’s less about what happens externally as about what happens inside – and in Saudi it’s all inside, if you’re a woman.

ghazzah streetBut what makes Eight Months on Ghazzah Street truly memorable is that it’s as much  about the state of being female – beleaguered, prone to doubt, troubled by shadowy anxieties – as it is about living as a western woman in a Saudi city at a particular time.

I loved this novel  and felt I was the only one who knew about Mantel’s wry and bracing prose, her unflinching eye.  I went on to read many of her books – Beyond Black is one of my favourites, a darkly ambiguous novel about a flakey (or is she?) spiritualist. And there’s Mantel’s  affecting memoir, Giving up the Ghost, which had  particular resonance for me as a fellow sufferer of endometriosis.

When the rest of the world discovered Mantel with Wolf Hall, I have to admit to a tiny sliver of resentment that finally one of my reading secrets was out.

When it came time for my latest collection of linked short stories, Prosperity Drive,  to be promoted (publication date:  February 2016) the publishers asked if there was anyone I’d like to blurb the book. Well, I said, since I’ve been described as the Irish Hilary Mantel, what about the two-time Booker Prize winner?  It was a long shot, but  here’s what came back:

‘Mary Morrissy is a wonderful writer. These stories are entertaining and deft, so skilfully balanced and interwoven that when you begin to pick out the pattern it is a real moment of delight.’

So from one devoted fan of Hilary Mantel – a heartfelt thanks.