In the late 1970s, Hilary Mantel traveled to Botswana with her husband, a geologist employed by the government geological survey. On a card table on a verandah covered with bougainvillea, using a portable typewriter frequently choked with dust from the Kalahari desert, she turned out two drafts of a first novel, a 350,000-word account of the French Revolution.

Mantel has been using a word processor since the mid-1980s, but she still works from notes written in unlikely places, at bus stops and on station platforms and trains. "I always work outside, if I can," she says. "It's important to grab the instant thought."

It's a technique very much in keeping with the peripatetic imagination that fuels her sharply observed novels. Mantel is an especially difficult writer to categorize, for, as Michael Upchurch pointed out in the San Francisco Chronicle, she "reinvents herself from scratch from book to book," and her eight novels span a remarkable range, from black comedy to historical fiction and social realism. Taxed with what must be a publicist's nightmare, Mantel explains that however different her subject matter, the style and the idea of each book always come to her as one package. The one constant is that all the books are driven by ideas and passionately concerned with politics.

Although her novels have been widely acclaimed in Britain, they initially received less attention in the U.S. But due to the indefatigable efforts of Mantel's editor, Marion Wood, who has issued four of her books in trade paperback under her own imprint at Henry Holt, Mantel's name has become more familiar to American readers. This month, thanks, in part, to the sterling reviews of Mantel's previous books, Wood will release her new novel, The Giant, O'Brien (Forecasts, July 13), as a hardcover original.

Set in the 18th century, "the period where I feel myself to be located," Mantel says, The Giant, O'Brien describes the lives of two historical figures, the Irish giant Charles Byrnes and the Scottish anatomist John Hunter, who vied for his corpse. It was inspired by a footnote in a book on neurology that Mantel happened to be reviewing about eight years ago. "I knew immediately it was something for me, that this was my book," she says. She discovered that there was a lot of material on Hunter, who she thought would be her main character, but that little was known about the giant himself -- though his bones can be seen today in the Royal College of Surgeons' Hunterian Museum in London.

Mantel thought it would be another big historical novel, but her ideas often change in the writing, and she's ended up with quite a slim volume, succinct and intensely lyrical. She makes no concessions to the reader, who is asked to accompany the giant -- a metaphor for the Irish body politic -- on a journey through the squalor of Georgian London. He is a storyteller, a touching, childlike freak who finds that his immense height is only a five-minute wonder, and that he is worth more dead than alive. Underlying the story is the conflict between England and Ireland, between p try and materialism.

PW meets Mantel at her immaculate home on a new housing estate on the outskirts of the small town of Woking, about 30 miles from London. She d s most of her creative writing here in the early evening, and her study is a neat, simply furnished little room with a view over the rest of the housing estate. She acknowledges that it d sn't offer either distractions or inspiration. Pinned up on the wall are a series of cards on which she is planning a screenplay for her French Revolution novel, published in 1992 as A Place of Greater Safety. Her voice is soft, with only a faint trace of a north country accent. Her mind may be intimidating, but outwardly she has an appealing gentleness and a delightfully mischievous smile.

Mantel was born in a small town in the High Peak region of Derbyshire in the north of England in 1952. She was the oldest of three children of Irish Catholic immigrant parents. When she was 11, the family moved to the neighboring county of Cheshire. Like Carmel McBain, the heroine of her novel An Experiment in Love, Mantel attended a convent school and, at age 18, went to study law at the London School of Economics.

She had no plans to become a writer. "I was the first person in my family to go to university," she says. "And in my teens I believed I could do anything." Mantel entertained the idea of becoming a barrister and entering politics but finally took a job as a social worker in a geriatric hospital in the northwest of England. "Then," she recalls, "after about a year, I began to see what I really wanted to do, and I started writing."

Her choice of a subject was dauntingly ambitious: a novel that centered on the French Revolutionary leaders Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins, but which also included a cast of thousands. "I was 22," she says, "and I knew it was an enormous research project, but at that age, life seems to stretch before you. It was impossible to combine writing with a job that I had to bring home and think about at night, so I decided to quit the professional world and instead took jobs selling clothes in department stores. Although it was very tiring physically, it left my mind free. My favorite thing was to get into the sheepskin department in August. I was left alone for hours and hours and I could form up my sentences and marshal my thoughts."

Mantel married her high-school sweetheart, Gerald McEwan, against considerable opposition from her parents who thought the couple were too young. "You have to cut your moorings," she remarks. McEwan, who was very supportive of her research, became the long-suffering recipient of a monologue about the French Revolution that flowed on from day-to-day. Then, in 1977, his work took them to Botswana, which brought an end to her research.

In Imagined Places

They stayed in Botswana for five years, living in a small border town where she taught in a secondary school. It was a quiet, dreamy, cut-off life in which much of the real world seemed shadowy in contrast to the world inside her head, the world of the left bank in the 1790s.

Then, in 1982, they moved to Saudi Arabia, and Mantel decided that she must put aside her book-in-progress and try to write something contemporary with more commercial potential. "I really only wanted to write one book, and I saw myself as a documentary writer rather than a novelist, but gradually I came to realize that it might be possible to write something else."

The "something else" turned out to be the black comedy Every Day Is Mother's Day, based on her experiences as a social worker in 1974. It was followed by a sequel, Vacant Possession. Agented by Bill Hamilton at A.M. Heath, the books were published by Chatto &Windus in 1985 and 1986, respectively.

Both were well received. "Hilary Mantel's wit is wonderfully and startlingly nasty," wrote the Sunday Times, while the left-leaning New Statesman described her writing as "filled with fiendish glee."

She returned from Saudi Arabia in 1986 with a stack of notes about her life there that was to become Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. The story of a young woman who accompanies her engineer husband to Jidda and, like Mantel herself, lives in a city center block apart from the expatriate community, it re-creates with menacing brilliance the chilling isolation of life in a drab flat where the mysterious goings-on of the neighbors hint at adultery and ultimately murder. It is, perhaps inevitably since it is written from the point of view of a Western woman, critical of Saudi culture, especially its obsessive secrecy. Although the book didn't bring a fatwa down on Mantel's head, neither she nor her husband are likely ever to return to Saudi Arabia.

The realization that she could earn a living, though a rather precarious one, by her writing was reinforced by the award of the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing in 1987. The prize was sponsored by the Spectator magazine, an influential right-wing weekly, the magazine's film critic. Thanks to Auberon Waugh she also began reviewing for the Literary Review and found herself with a respectable income, a widening readership and a degree of visibility invaluable to an aspiring writer.

Her next book, Fludd, mined a more gentle, happier vein and led the Guardian to hail her as being "in the front rank of novelists writing in English today." Set in a fictitious village in the north of England, it draws on childhood memories in its account of life in a bleak Catholic community that is transformed by the arrival of Fludd, a curate who is part angel but also perhaps part devil. Her experiences in Botswana were to surface in A Change of Climate, the disquieting story of two former missionaries who return to Norfolk after their infant son has been murdered in Africa.

Despite her growing success, Mantel's French Revolution novel remained unpublished. "I'd put it away in a cupboard," she says, "and I was afraid to take it off the shelf in case it wasn't any good." But she mentioned the manuscript to a friend who was writing an article about the fate of first novels, and once word of its existence got out, there were offers to publish it. After an initial feeling of panic, she set about revising the novel. "I didn't need to make any great changes, apart from building up the characters of the women, who were rather shadowy. I think this reflected the change of attitude towards women that had taken place between the 1970s and 1990s, and made it a funnier, more balanced book."

A Place of Greater Safety (published in the U.S. by Atheneum) won the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award and raised her profile on these shores. "Riveting.... The book overflows with a natural storyteller's energy," said the New Yorker, while the Chicago Tribune called it "Brilliant, edgy historical fiction that catches the jittery, violent flux of the French Revolution."

In 1988, with the publication of Eight Months, Mantel left Chatto &Windus for Viking (all of her books had already appeared in paperback from Penguin). The Giant, O'Brien, was published by Fourth Estate, a small house with a formidable fiction list that Mantel discovered when she was one of the judges of the Booker Prize in 1990. "Over the past two years, the team I'd always worked with has broken apart," she says of her decision to leave Viking. "I also had a feeling that it was time for a fresh start. My perception of myself as a writer had changed, and changing my publisher reflected this."

Pressed to explain how her view of her craft has changed, Mantel describes the experience of writing the short story, "Terminus" -- published in the London Review of Books in 1997 -- while traveling to London by train. Told in the first person, it's a disturbing ghost story in which the writer thinks she has seen her dead father in an adjoining train and then searches for him at Waterloo, only to realize that perhaps he was traveling incognito and didn't want, on this occasion, to meet her. The combination of practical details -- might her father want a coffee, a paperback, something from Boots the Chemist? -- and her reflective insights gives the story a haunting dreamlike quality.

Mantel says the opening sentences came to her while en route to "an interminable meeting about Arts Council awards, and all the time I was thinking" -- she laughs at the memory -- "I wonder if they'd mind if I got out my pen and started writing, and then they could actually see a writer in action. When I got back to Waterloo, I bought myself a new pen and started writing on the train. I finished the story when I got home, and when it was done I knew that I didn't need to change a word. And I'd never written like that before.

"I've never found writing very easy," she says. "But this story seemed to arrive by extraordinary means, and when I'd finished it I thought, now I'm a writer. It was as though I'd achieved a kind of breakthrough."That was phase one before," Mantel reflects. "And now it's phase two."