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"But one could do a degree course in those days without paying fees and with a state grant. This meant that I could go to university, which I probably wouldn't have been able to do if there had been a fee-paying system. So my generation were quite lucky in that respect. We people who were born in the '50s and '60s, we got our secondary education free.

"It made a big difference in my life because now we have a fee-paying university system. Children from the background I was born in just don't go."

"Does your family read your books?"

"My younger brother does. My husband does, of course. My mother pretends to read them, but I don't think she does."

"I notice in Beyond Black that you've taken us to a part of England where not many English novels take place. Could you talk a little bit about that part of England?"

"Alison, my character, spends a lot of time not in London, but circling London. There's this huge roadway that loops around London. It's called the M25. Off this road are all the small towns from which people commute to London by road or by rail. A few years ago all these towns had a distinct character, but now they all look exactly the same. So if you take the wrong turnoff, it's difficult to guess where you are.

"I myself live about 25 miles outside London, in a place that five years ago was the country and is now cramped into houses, very like the ones on the housing that Alison buys into."

"Your description of these houses, both in Giving Up the Ghost and the new novel, makes them seem ectopian and terrifying."

"Well, yes, it is strange because they're all modeled on some housing style from the past, but then they have these atrocious decorations stuck on them that don't come from any period at all. So it's a sort of visual nightmare and distressing if you care about the purity of form or if you care about the vernacular architecture that a house is modeled on.

"They can't just make a plain house. They're conscious that everyone wants their houses to be a little bit different from the next one. Or that's what they think. So they're often a paradox, which is a sort of mass-produced individualism. It would look much more harmonious if they were all the same.

"But these communities, as we say, not that long ago were country towns. But now you get the feeling that they're all joined together, and the green spaces between are diminishing. This is, of course, the most heavily populated part of England. But it is small towns, places that no one comes from. No one has an ancestral link or a memory link to these places. Everyone has forgotten their roots, and it's tough for any sort of collective life. These are places where you never see anyone walking."

"Like Los Angeles."

"Yes, yes, exactly. But it's fairly new to this country. The result is no one knows his neighbors. I'm conscious of this because I don't drive. And so often drivers passing through stop to ask me for directions because I'm the only person they've seen for miles. Anyone you do see walking tends to be very old or very young. And then there's me."

I asked about Morris, Alison's "ghost."

"Alison, when she describes him to her audience, sanitizes everything to make things acceptable and pleasant. So she tells them that Morris is a circus clown. But really we see that he's a gangster and a fraud. And, of course, when he was alive and Alison was a young girl, he was one of the men who victimized and abused her.

"So I leave it to the reader to decide whether Morris is inside Alison or whether he is an outside force; whether he's an evil that she's internalized and she can't actually escape or whether he is in another reality and has got himself a job as a devil. So I really leave it to the reader to decide where to place Morris inside or outside my character."

"He feels sewn into her skin."

"Yes, they're so intimately connected, but of course she's always trying to escape the Morris part of her."

"Alison's a wonderful character and immediately you're on her side. I am never quite on Colette's side."

"She's a horror, isn't she? She has a generic quality about her. She's one of the generation that are Thatcher's children, and they live entirely by consuming. Alison is attached to an older world where Colette couldn't ever go. To use jargon, 'Alison is an old soul,' but Colette was just invented yesterday."

Alison attends many psychic fairs. I asked about these.

"Over the last ten years, they've been flourishing. There are the individual psychics doing an evening of entertainment. And then there are the psychic fairs where all of the readers set up tables, as I describe in the novel, and hundreds of people pour in and mill around, and they have their palm read or their cards read or whatever in this room that's absolutely roaring with noise. They're usually held in church halls or something like that. So all these voices are banging around above your head. Disconnected from the people who are making the noise. Which is quite spooky in itself."

Had Ms. Mantel attended many of these fairs?

"Yes, just out of curiosity, not out of any particular will to believe or with any particular question in mind. I have been for palm readings. I haven't particularly got anything out of the places. I don't have a story of something that came wonderfully true or some wonderful insight or anything like that, but little bits of knowledge that seem to drift around and you think, 'I mean, that's not absolutely true, but of course a lot of it is true of a whole lot of people.'

"So I don't have any startling story myself to tell. But, you see, I was interested in the audience, in love with the psychics and why people might so much want to believe. And what they need in their own lives that was bringing them -- you know, it's quite a lot of money, really. It's quite a good business. I was struck by the business side of it."

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