Philip Pullman waited 17 years before allowing readers back into the world of Lyra Belacqua, Joseph Heller took 33 to return to Catch-22, and George RR Martin is still keeping fans hanging for his version of the final struggle for the Iron Throne. The eight years readers have been waiting since the second volume of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy may not seem much in comparison. But for Mantel, they have been the most demanding years of her career.
The first part of Mantel’s tale of Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII, Wolf Hall, appeared in 2009, winning her the Booker prize and catapulting her to global bestseller status. Bring Up the Bodies followed in 2012, netting her a second Booker and taking worldwide sales for the series above 5m copies. The concluding volume, The Mirror and the Light, was originally expected in 2014. But the novel has been repeatedly delayed, and Mantel has spoken about the pressure she has felt to get it right. “The third book is particularly taxing, it needs all my ingenuity,” she told the FT in 2017. “If I think about the totality of it, it seems impossible. If I stick to the scene-by-scene, it does seem possible.”
Announcing this week that The Mirror and the Light would be published next March, Mantel called it “the greatest challenge of my writing life, and the most rewarding”, adding: “I hope and trust my readers will find it has been worth the wait.”
Pullman published the last volume of His Dark Materials in 2000, and waited 17 years before returning to his alternative vision of Oxford in La Belle Sauvage. With the second volume of his Book of Dust trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth, due in October, the author is unconcerned by his fans’ hunger for more.
“The only problem with pressure from readers is when you take any notice of it,” Pullman says. “Maybe I’m thick-skinned but I’ve always felt that what I do when I’m writing is none of the readers’ business. Or the critics’ business, or even the publishers’ business. Any pressure I’ve felt when coming towards the end of a trilogy or a novel is entirely self-generated, and it takes the form (as always) of wanting to discover what the story is and then tell it as clearly as I can.”
Until the book is published, there’s nothing readers can do but wait, he continues. “When it is out in the bookshops, they can say what they like, read it in any way they like, make any interpretations they like. If they’re interesting, I’m happy to talk about the matter, because I, too, have read the book. But from publication onwards my view of what it means, or says, has no more authority than the readers’. It’s a political difference, in a way: writing is despotic, reading is democratic.”
Fantasy author Martin has always been less sanguine about reader demand – or what he described in 2009 as a “rising tide of venom” about the wait for the fifth book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, on which Game of Thrones was based.
“As some of you like to point out in your emails, I am 60 years old and fat, and you don’t want me to ‘pull a Robert Jordan’ on you and deny you your book. OK, I’ve got the message. You don’t want me doing anything except A Song of Ice and Fire. Ever. (Well, maybe it’s OK if I take a leak once in a while?)” he wrote. Martin published A Dance with Dragons two years later, and appeared to hint to fans this week that the long-awaited Winds of Winter would be done by next summer.
Anne Rice is another author who understands the strain of reader expectation. After publishing a series of novels set in the world of Interview With the Vampire between 1976 and 2003, it was 11 years before she returned with the novel Prince Lestat. Rice admits that she had been under great pressure from fans to write about the character again – but she couldn’t do it until his story came alive.
“[It] was a matter of inviting that character to come back to me, to check in as if he were a real living being, and let me know what he’d been doing and how his existence had been going,” she says. “It was a pleasure, really, to know readers cared and wanted this – but I knew it simply couldn’t happen unless Lestat became real again, and started talking to me. There were a few false starts. I was trying to contact him and it wasn’t working. Then I heard his voice. Then I felt his presence. Then I slipped into the state of mind in which he could be fully real, fully vibrant and fully surprising, and he talked on and on and simply wouldn’t shut up. It was marvellous.”