Me and him and Hilary Mantel

A writer rang me today to ask why I was giving away all these free critiques. Didn’t I know I was undermining the work of professional editors and writing teachers? Wasn’t I creating a culture of dependency on myself? And who was I, anyway, to think my comments any better than anybody else’s?

Why is it always men who say things like that? And men who write non-fiction to boot? Anyway, I told him to go and boil his head.

What I could have said is that Hilary Mantel once dreamed a whole short story (read about it here) and, amazing as that is, there is something even more amazing about Hilary which (in the qualia sense of things) is a thing that only I can know. It’s how bloody decent she is to other writers.

I met her a few years ago at a reading and acted like a complete arse: I talked rubbish, I dropped her bag, I generally pratted about like a second-rate clown with an anxiety disorder and she, sensibly, largely ignored me. She did sign a book for me, and I wrote to her, via her agent, to say how nice she’d been to the complete idiot who so utterly failed to help her through that particular reading.

She wrote back. She remembered me (and much more nicely than I deserved). I pinned her card to my cork board and didn’t contact her for a year. A year. Then I contacted her again. She remembered me – I know she did because she mentioned something I’d told her at our first meeting.

She didn’t have to be nice. She didn’t have to write back. She certainly doesn’t have to remember the things we discuss on the rare occasions I contact her (only when she’s been in the public eye, as in the Guardian article above), but she does. And she takes me seriously. Hilary is insightful, witty, formidable and just … fantastic. Gushy and imprecise I know, but that’s how she is. I am in awe and half in love with her, and in awe and fully in love with her novels.

Compared to that, a critique or two is nothing. But if it helps to make another writer feel they are being taken seriously in this rather backstabby writing world, then I do it with pleasure. What goes around, comes around. What came around, for me, was one of the greatest writers of our generation. I limit my contact so as not to annoy her, I treasure it more than almost anything else, and I can never give back enough critiques to thank the universe for introducing me to Hilary.

So boil your head, Michael!

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