An Interview with Clive Mantle: Part 2
The writing career
Aside from acting, Clive Mantle has developed a career as an award-winning author. In this interview, he discusses his writing journey, from drafting manuscripts to final publication.
Clive Mantle has enjoyed a successful acting career, but in more recent years he has turned his hand to fiction writing. He explains that while he was always interested in writing, acting quickly became his primary ambition.
“I wrote a lot in school and wanted to be a sports journalist until I discovered acting. I wrote sketches on sketch shows that I'd done. I’d written with Nick Wilton, a comedy partner of mine and I’d enjoyed it, but acting had always been the main thrust.”
Mantle first came up with the idea for his debut novel, Treasure at the Top of the World, while on a charity trek to Everest Base Camp in 2001.
“On the way out of Everest Base Camp, I suddenly realised that my shoulders were back. I was looking around me; I was living absolutely every single second. This idea came to me: a world map on a wall, a boy disappears through a map, anywhere in history, in any place in the world. Over the years that idea gestated in my head.”
"Life in the Himalayas is about keeping warm, fed and watered."
The wonder of existing in such a free place, even for a short while, had a lasting impact on Mantle. He describes the base camp as like another world, completely separate from everyday life.
“Your mind has room to think about all the things that you haven't had time for in everyday life. There's absolutely no point worrying about car insurance – life in the Himalayas is about keeping warm, fed and watered, and looking after the people around you. Life is terribly simple on that level.”
Mantle explains that his connection with Everest began in childhood. He remembers his early fascination with the mountain and how this interest came about.
“I was born in 1957 and Everest was climbed in 1953, so it was still very fresh in the nation's consciousness. My dad used to tell me a story every night and Everest was a huge part of what we talked about when I was young. I knew I had to go there and touch it and hug it and make friends with it sometime.”
Treasure at the Top of the World wasn't fully developed until Mantle was working on a job in South Africa. Unable to fly back and forth between filming, he suddenly had the time to write.
“I was sitting in this luxury apartment in Cape Town overlooking Table Mountain and just having a whale of a time. That's when I first started writing Freddy Malone. It took years to hone it down and I got a literary agent very quickly on the strength of it. She then taught me to write.”
"It's like making a thick, tasty sauce."
Mantle admits that the first completed manuscript was approximately 125,000 words long. He explains that it was thanks to his agent, Penny Luithlen, that the book became what it is now.
“Penny gave me the most wonderful advice early on. She pointed out the passages which showed promise and pace and said that the average paragraph is eight sentences. She then said, ‘I want you to strip that down to five sentences but contain all the information.’ So I did that and she said: ‘now take those five sentences and turn them into three.’ It's like making a thick, tasty sauce as opposed to a lot of bland gravy. I love that.”
“You don’t start out with a style."
Mantle points out that first drafts aren’t usually written in a particular style. This skill comes with time and experience, as he describes.
“You don’t start out with a style, do you. You start out with a story and characters and you get them down on paper as best you can. Maybe by the second or third time you do it, you realise there is some sort of continuity. My characters are based in a historical setting so have to be scrupulously accurate. They can't change history on a grand scale but they can change it on a human scale. They can change individual lives and be present as history is made.”
Having worked hard to refine his craft, Mantle has established himself in the literary world. He has now written a number of books and is planning more behind the scenes.
“I’ve been told that I can write books four and five so at least I will be able to keep busy in these strange times. I have found Lockdown a bit cramping creatively and have found more solace in music than in writing and reading. I have read books, but a page or two at a time, whereas before I could read for half a day.
“I've got my head down in my research and I'm really loving it. I think book five will round off the series and I then have to think of something else to write. But of course I've got great big boxes and files of ideas.”
"Publishers want to know the historical diligence of my research."
Historical fiction requires a high level of accuracy. Mantle speaks about his own experience of writing in this genre and the type of research involved.
“I immerse myself for the best part of the year in the period I'm going to be writing about. There's a gestation period of a year before it goes down on paper but then it goes down quickly. Publishers want to know the historical diligence of my research, so I have to back it up with references.”
While Treasure at the Top of the World was written from a position of great strength and knowledge, Mantle suggests that research for his other books was a little more challenging.
“I was going to tackle the great plague/great fire of London and I did my research but the publisher said they wanted me to go to ancient Egypt next. I didn’t have time to go there to soak it up, but I had the power of my brother and my wife having been there. There are also cameras now that go over all the sites. I wondered if it would be obvious that I hadn’t been there, but when I read back over the book it wasn’t.”
“You can't go up cul de sacs with children's literature."
Having read many scripts during his career, Mantle is no stranger to fast-paced plots. His ability to get a plot moving is reflected throughout his novels.
“You can't go up cul de sacs with children's literature. If you're desperate to get across a piece of information, you have to find a reason for it. My style would hopefully be historically accurate and exciting. I have to move it on and spark the reader's imagination in terms of world travel, history and the power to seek their own adventure in life.”
As our interview draws towards the finish line, mantle speaks of the wider challenges presented by his writing. He suggests that like acting, writing presents both ups and downs.
“Writing books is difficult enough. Getting through to the end is difficult enough. Being able to take the kernel of an idea and put it down on paper is difficult enough. What I find even more difficult is the marketing. I've got an agent and it's still really really hard work. It's a mystery which is yet to have the veil removed and hopefully it will one day.”
Alongside the challenging moments, there have also been many surprises. Mantle speaks about self-belief and the wonderful sense of achievement he experienced after finishing his first manuscript.
“You hope and pray that you can do it. I think a lot of people start and don't finish. I've still got chapters that my mum wrote. She never wrote a book but she had little bits and pieces because she enjoyed the process. I can still remember that sense of wow that I’d done it. Then it's a whole process of making it readable for someone else.”
"You never stop improving until the end.”
Writing advice is invaluable, not just to hopeful writers but to published authors as well. While Mantle still takes on the advice of others in his industry, he shares some of his own tips as well.
“I’ve always listened to authors. There were a couple on the telly the other day saying, ‘just get through to the end’ and ‘never go back over what you’ve written the day before'. I do go back over what I've written because my chapters are around 2,000 words. They have to be bitesize for younger readers so it's pretty easy to go back over.
“I get rid of anything that’s unnecessary from the day before in the first few hours of the morning. If I know that sentence isn’t good enough and that I will come up with an alternative, I leave a gap knowing that’s what I've got to improve. A solution always comes and it might be a month or six weeks later. You never stop improving until the end.”
With many thanks to Clive Mantle for this interview
Author: Francesca Tyer