Sex, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll

Posted on June 5, 2013 by Helga — What would you do if you were nominated for a prestigious literary prize?

Don’t laugh. It’s happened before. Many times in fact. Here is the story of one such author who muses about her long road to recognition and her thoughts about her profession. Her story is surprisingly humble and down to earth considering her international acclaim. It shows that even bestselling authors are plagued by self-doubt while climbing the ladder of success. Much of what she shares in this story rings true for all of us aspiring or published authors.

You can read the full story in ‘Intelligent Life’, a bi-monthly cultural magazine from the publishers of The Economist. In addition to contributions from Economist journalists, it features articles from writers around the world. It’s well worth checking out.

The article is by Hilary Mantel, the first woman to win the Man Booker prize twice and the first British author to win twice. But, as she reveals in her memoir, behind her success lies a complicated relationship with awards… You can read in her own words how her road to success was never easy. She shares some candid and quite funny anecdotes with her readers. One that stuck with me how she felt when receiving the coveted Man Booker prize:

“Even when you are taking your bow, lapping up applause, you do know this brute fact: that you are only as good as your next sentence.”

She is brutally honest when she admits “The writer inside you feels no sense of entitlement. She—or it—judges a work by internal standards that are hard to communicate or define. The “author”, the professional who is in the prose business, has worldly concerns. You know the first question from the press will be, “What will you do with the money?” The truth was that I would use it to reduce my mortgage. But that reply would by no means do, and I felt obliged to say “Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.” The public don’t like to think of authors as citizens who pay their debts. They like to think of them living lives of fabulous dissipation in warm climates, at someone else’s expense. The public want to regard you as a being set apart, with some quirk of brain function or some inbuilt moral freakishness that would explain everything, if only you would acknowledge it. They want to know, what is the stimulus to your creativity? What makes you write?”

She shrugs when someone ask that question and says, ‘it’s my job. You don’t ask a plumber, what makes you plumb? You understand he does it to get his living. You don’t draw him aside and say, “Actually I plumb a bit myself, would you take a look at this loo I fitted? All my friends say it’s rather good.”

What does Hilary think about writing fiction as such? She thinks of of it as a sort of condensed version of acting and each book as a vast overblown play. “You impersonate your characters intensively, you live inside their skins, wear their clothes and stamp or mince through life in their shoes; you breathe in their air. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Of course she is. Who else could she be?”BringUpTheBodies

She loves her hard won success, and  even gloats a little when she tells us winning a prize has catapulted her to international fame. It has helped her find publishers in 30 countries. It has made her sales soar and hugely boosted her royalties. In doing these things, she reveals, it has cut her free. “For the next few years at least, I can write what I like, just as I could before I was ever in print. I wrote for 12 years before I published anything, and in those years I felt a recklessness, a hungry desire, a gnawing expectation, that I lost when I became a jobbing professional.”

There is much more. She also talks about Dan Brown, J.M. Coetzee and Anthony Burgess. Yes, she has rubbed shoulders with the big guys. Not just rubbed. Competed. And won. Do take the time to read the full article.

Hilary Mantel is the author of ten novels, including Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize.


6 thoughts on “Sex, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll

  1. I saw Hilary Mantel last night at the Southbank Centre in London at the Women’s Prize for Fiction readings event. Although perhaps not completely at ease in the spotlight, she came across as very down-to-earth and was genuinely engaging. I like her honesty in this article!

    • I read your blog post about the event at the Southbank Centre. It must have been incredible seeing all these talented writers in one spot. Thanks for your comment.

  2. I suspect that for at least some award-winning authors, the acclaim would increase the pressure to make the next book even better than would otherwise be expected. And given that self-doubt is a common character trait of writers, the pressure could be more than many want to bear. I think I’d be happier flying under the radar with a small, but loyal fan base. 😉

    • No limelight for me either. Too much pressure that comes with it. However, since success breeds more success, newly discovered authors may not have a choice to do all these things expected of them. Let’s cross that bridge when (not if) we get there. Thanks for commenting.

  3. I’d like the success without the acclaim (having neither at present), but I wonder if that’s possible. My natural inclination would be to deflect the nosiness that acclaim brings with dark humor and sarcasm, things I’m naturally good at.

  4. Those two things, dark humor and sarcasm, are great attributes for fiction writers. Keep at it, and acclaim will arrive whether you seek it or not.

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